“Ziss is mine shtory, ja? Zo, bleeze, vill you be stumm and let me finish,” Tante Ilse burst out in her inimitable take on the English language. When she got that way, she’d assault her adopted tongue like an ill-tempered schnauzer tears at a bunch of newly arrived letters. If you were quick enough, you could just gather the pieces and make out the message intended. Tante Ilse was becoming a little impatient with me. Okay, so I was the impatient one. My finger kept hovering over the red button, and I was anxious to get the tape rolling again. Recording her story was a project that had been going on for several weeks already, ever since I found out that Ilse Hiss, my dear old, bratwurst and sauerkraut-loving great-aunt had a past in show business. Strictly speaking, it was the no-show business. Yes, Tante Ilse had once been a voice on the radio, even though hers wasn’t much of a speaking part. She had been a professional baby crier. A baby crier! Who among those of us not old enough to remember tuning in to the Barbours of One Man’s Family had ever heard of such a bewildering offspring of the dramatic arts!
I just had to ask; and even though I didn’t have to twist her arm to get the whole story, Tante Ilse refused to reminisce about her radio days in any way straightforward or logical; least of all, chronological. I still didn’t quite understand how she had gotten into radio in the first place. “And by crying!” I marveled, “How did you even know there was a market for it?”
“Ach, der market. Dat vas just a little Hungarian delicatessen, a block away. Right over there, where zey built zat, zat shkyshcratcher. Pfui! I did most of my grocery shopping zere. When it vas a market, of course. You would have loffed dat shtore!” As exasperating as such detours could be, attempting to get Tante Ilse back on track by explaining just what I meant by “market” would have been the worst thing to do at that moment. Besides, in a roundabout fashion, Tante Ilse appeared to have gotten to the beginning at last, when, to my great surprise and still greater relief, she added: “And dat’s where it all shtarted.”
It was back in the mid-1940s, shortly after the end of the war. Tante Ilse had long found out that the sidewalks of Manhattan were not paved with precious metal; she had been pounding them long enough. Her brother Heini (my grandfather) had disappeared somewhere, leaving her to fend for herself, sowing, cleaning, taking whatever job she could find. Yorkville was a German enclave then; but Tante Ilse did not want to be reminded of the Heimat and was suspicious of those among her neighbors still proud to be the sprout of a Kraut. Her pride and her principles kept her from borrowing as much as a cup of sugar.
Things might have been worse if it hadn’t been for the housing shortage and the My-Sister-Eileen deal she had going on with a typist who moved into the room vacated by Opa Heini; except that this particular Eileen was no relation and paid handsomely for her share of Tante Ilse’s place. Incidentally, that share eventually became my room when I arrived in New York in the 1980s, when I followed the “Auswanderer,” the expatriates in my family.
Unfortunately, the typist also took work home; and the noise she made on that old Adler of hers often drove Tante Ilse to distraction—and straight out of her quarters. Now, before you say I’m getting to be even worse than my periphrastic relative, let me point out that, on that fateful evening, the noises produced on the old Adler precipitated my great-aunt right to the spot where it all began. The Hungarian market, where Tante Ilse had come to splurge on a bunch of grapes. “Craips. And zour ones, too!” she chuckled. So I pressed the red button and off she went.
She must have been pretty cranky when she got down to Németh’s deli, what with the crowded walk-up, the summer heat, and the noisy typewriter. A bawling tyke was all she needed as she waited in line to pay for her purchase (and to hear whether there was any news about Mrs. Németh’s boy, a Private First Class not yet returned from Europe). Sure enough, there was just such a noisemaker in store for her. It was Mrs. Webber’s youngest, rather too young, some whispered, to make recently discharged Mr. Webber a proud father. Apparently, even the issue was beginning to cry foul.
Matters weren’t helped any when Tante Ilse tried to restore serenity by offering Webber (or not) Junior one of those sour berries. “You never heard zuch bawling,” she insisted, covering her ears as if, nearly half a century on, there still lingered the threat of a reverb in the old neighborhood.
So, what did Tante Ilse do? She leaned over the baby carriage, grinned none too endearingly, and hollered right back. To the surprise of everyone in the store, including her own, she aped the little imp so perfectly that even the mocked one shut up and listened in awe. “Den, der whole shtore was shtill. Nobody could belieff it. Vair vas dat zound coming vrom? Den, dey all looked at me. Vas I a freak or a hero? Dat I don’t know.”
“Move over Baby Snooks,” I added, “The world’s oldest toddler was born.” I had hoped that the radio reference would encourage her to tell me just how that audition led to a career in broadcasting. “I had a talent, alleright; but vat vas I going to do viz it?” I knew my cue and stopped the recording. I had to wait for the next installment; and Tante Ilse, unlike network radio, followed a most erratic schedule . . .