For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Ruth, A Brooklyn Woman

by Ken Thompson


hy does Mrs. Saltzman hate Ruth?"

"Mrs. Saltzman doesn't hate her. She's just…she's just getting old and she's not well. Just stay away from her."

"But why is she so mean and always yelling at Ruth and calling her names? Ruth doesn't say anything to her. I think Mrs. Saltzman peeks out her door to see if she's coming down the stairs. If she sees her, she comes out yelling at her. She yells till Ruth is out in the courtyard and then she yells out the landing window. I think she's crazy. Yeah, and why does her apartment smell so strange?"

"Mrs. Saltzman is a little different. Take down the garbage on your way out. Stay away from her or she'll be calling you names."

I didn't get a straight answer from my Mom. She just stood there drying dishes and never looked over at me during the conversation. I knew she knew more but she wouldn't tell me. The discussion was finished as far as she was concerned.

Ruth was about seventeen and three years older than me and we lived on the same apartment house floor. I first remember her jumping rope with the other girls in the alley-way. She wasn't particularly pretty and she always looked a bit plain, but if she smiled, she lit up and her eyes danced. She just didn't smile much anymore.

I think her parents' apartment was a little bigger than ours but they had the parents, Ruth, her older brother Stanley, and her younger brother Lance living there.

Stanley was about twenty and Lance was about eight. My Mom said Lance was a "surprise" and that Mrs. Miller had a tough time having him. My Mom had told me that ever since Lance was born, Mrs. Miller just got sicker and sicker and didn't do much in the house…or anywhere. Ruth did the cooking and cleaning and was essentially raising Lance alone. She also had a weekend job at N. E. Tell's Bakery on Church Avenue to earn money for books for Lance and to contribute to the house. She worked hard, usually on the closing shift, and sometimes brought home cookies and pastries that were about to go stale. Sometimes she would give my Mom some.

Over time, Mrs. Miller seemed to both yell more and cry more. Mr. Miller was a nice man who worked as a chemist assistant at Pfizer. He moved slowly and never got excited. He just wanted everyone to get along and be happy but neither Mrs. Miller nor any of the other Millers seemed to be happy. He wouldn't fight or get into any of the arguments about the meals or the cleaning or anything else. If things got bad he would just go out for a walk and not come back till it was time to watch Mr. Weatherbee, with the sound way down, on an old Philco to see what tomorrow's weather would be like.

Mrs. Miller always seemed to be yelling and crying. If it didn't stop after a while, my Mom would make a pot of tea and take it and some lady finger cookies over to the Miller's and visit. Usually, by this time, Mr. Miller would be gone for a walk, Stanley would be gone somewhere, with a big slam of their apartment door, and Lance would be in the back bedroom he shared with Ruth, reading or listening to the radio. Ruth would be just sitting with her Mom trying to calm her down.

My Mom would give Ruth, with her reddened eyes and tear-stained face, fifty cents and would whisper to her to take Lance for a walk, have an egg cream, buy a comic book, and not to come back till it was quiet.

She would then sit by Mrs. Miller's bed and pour her some tea. All the time listening to her about the Miller illnesses, her family and their faults and failings, money, her kids, the life God forced her to live, and the meshugana Mrs. Saltzman. Usually my Mom was able to get Mrs. Miller to take her medicines. She'd hold her hand and hum to her and she would finally go to sleep. My Mom would stay there till Ruth and Lance came home. Ruth would always give back any change.

Ruth was graduating from Erasmus that year where she was a very good student, particularly in French. She was accepted into Brooklyn College, NYU with a partial scholarship, and to Pratt Institute. She wound up going nowhere, explaining that her mother and Lance needed her and that she didn't have money for school. She said she could always go to school later.

She got a job at the New York Stock Exchange where she posted stock trades into the ticker system. The job was good because with the Exchange closing at 3:30, she could get to P.S. 179 to pick up Lance from the teachers who had kept an eye on him. The timing allowed her to then get home, do housework and make dinner. The rule was for her and Lance to be as quiet as possible so as to not wake up or disturb their Mom.

If Mrs. Miller woke up before the cleaning had been done and dinner made, the crying and yelling would start. It all seemed one-sided. I felt bad for Ruth. It got so that my Mom always seemed to have misjudged when cooking and had pots and pans of dinner to bring over to the Miller's.

On good nights, after Mrs. Miller fell asleep and Ruth had helped Lance with his homework, she would go up and sit on the roof. She'd learned that while she was "welcome" on the front stoop, the conversation always changed to some aspect of the Miller family. It was easier for Ruth to sit on the roof and just gaze at the stars and think of a million things that should be different for her and her family.

Sometimes when I took our dog to the roof to "walk" it, she would be there, sometimes quietly sobbing. She wasn't overly chatty and would never openly complain but you could see that she was pretty unhappy. I would just listen. She had no close friend; there were no boyfriends or dates, no fashionable clothes, no 45RPM records or song lyrics magazines, no dinners out or visits with relatives… she just felt alone. Her life was her family and raising Lance. She was so concerned that he would be okay as he got older.

Over the next two years there was less yelling at the Miller's. My Mom said it was because Mrs. Miller's medicines had increased and she was now taking a very strong sedative. The key was that everyone, primarily Ruth, had to make sure Mrs. Miller took her pills.

In 1960, Ruth helped get me a job at the NYSE as a Page on the floor. We would often ride to work together but tended not to come home together. It was on one of these trips that I found out that Mrs. Saltzman was Mr. Miller's older sister and all the yelling centered around her being angry and upset with how her brother's life had wound up. Mrs. Saltzman never came up to visit, wouldn't take it out on her brother, was a bit afraid of Stanley for his size, and so Ruth was the target…and a target that didn't fight back.

In the fall of that year, Ruth took a job in the keypunch area of one of the Wall Street brokerage companies and started taking a few classes at the New York Institute of Finance that emphasized studies for the securities industry.It was just after this that Mrs. Miller started having "excitements", as my Mom called them, again.

Stanley - all of a sudden - found love, got married, and moved to Brighton Beach. It seems he never took his girlfriend, then wife, to meet his Mom or to see where he lived. My Mom stayed with Mrs. Miller of the day of the wedding and they drank a lot of tea.

When Mrs. Miller finally found out what had happened with Stanley, she completely lost it, and the Police and Kings County Hospital had to be called. When she came back after three weeks she was more dazed than ever, required more attention than ever, and was very bitter and cruel to Mr. Miller over it all. In one of her last rages, she pulled a chair onto the fourth floor apartment landing and yelled to anyone and everyone that if Mr. Miller didn't leave she was going to hurt someone and sign herself into the State Hospital.

Ruth loved her Mom and wanted to help take care of her so, as much as it hurt her, she asked her Dad to move out. I think in a way he was relieved when he left. He moved in with his sister two floors down. This allowed him to still be around for Lance and to be able to help out financially.

About a year later, Mrs. Miller died. It was strange…just about no one came by to convey their condolences. Mrs. Saltzman didn't come and Stanley came but without his wife. My Mom had made a lot of food that went to waste.

Just after the burial there was a big to-do. Ruth wanted to keep the apartment and for her father to move back up. He and Mrs. Saltzman wanted him to stay where he was and for Lance to come live with them…but there was no room for Ruth.

Mr. Miller won out and Ruth got a small apartment over one of the stores on Church Avenue. The split was like a bitter custody settlement: Lance stayed with his Dad and Mrs. Saltzman through the week and with his sister on Saturdays and Sundays.

I didn't see Ruth much anymore and when I did she was either picking up or dropping off Lance. My Mom stayed in touch with Mr. Miller and learned that Ruth had become a programmer with Dean Witter and was taking evening courses at Pace College for a degree in Accounting.

In 1965, when I got married, Ruth and Lance came to the reception and she looked almost fashionable. While the time was brief she said that she was halfway through school and things seemed to be going better for her. With me away from the apartment house on Avenue C, and Ruth away, I lost touch.

About a year later my Mom told me that Mrs. Saltzman had died and that Mr. Miller had advanced cancer. Adding to this was that Lance had gone off to Purdue to study aeronautics, supported financially and emotionally by Ruth, and that Ruth had moved into the old Saltzman apartment to take care of her father.

When he died some months later, Ruth took five months leave from work to finish her degree. When she graduated, my Mom had a dinner for her and we all sat and told good stories of growing up in Brooklyn.

With all things pretty much in order, Ruth took a transfer to Paris to learn the International side of the securities business. She corresponded for a while but then it tapered off after my Mom died. Her letter to us after the death was from the heart. It spoke of all the things my Mom had done for her and her family and that she would always remember her fondly.

Fast forward to 1983 when I was attending a technologies conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in The City. After taking a seat, I scanned the list of attendees to see all the people I didn't know. Tucked in the middle of the listing was Ms. Ruth J. Miller, Senior Vice President for a very large financial services company in Boston. I looked over the audience but didn't see Ruth.

At the afternoon break I walked the ballroom hallway and finally located her by her name tag in a small group where she was the center of attention. She was not as I remembered her; she was sophisticated, very pulled together, professional, self-assured, and yet both personable and very engaging.

After a few minutes I got close enough to assure myself she was the same Ruth Miller. I introduced myself and our connection. After two seconds, acknowledgement crossed her face and she reached and gave me a big hug. She excused us from her group and ushered me off to a corner to chat.

She was now married with two step children that came with her marrying a widowed professor from Boston University and very happy. She continued to use her maiden name for businesses purposes. She seemed sincerely pleased to see me again.

That evening we went to Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn, spoke of the old days, and then used the limo at her disposal to crisscross the boro and see sights and recall memories. Flatbush Avenue, the Fox, Ocean Parkway, Kings Highway, Brighton Beach and Coney Island, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Fifth Avenue, the Prospect Expressway, Church Avenue, and Avenue C. The stories were great. They were cheerful and warm and from deep recessed crevices of memories long thought to be forgotten.

We sat in the limo in front of the old apartment house and spoke of people and kids who had long ago moved on and of how our lives had taken different twists and turns. Tears welled up in her eyes as she spoke of the years in the apartment house and all that had happened there. I tried to change the subject and move on.

We spoke of the changes in Brooklyn and that it was now not where we had grown up. The geography may be the same but the landscape and environment had changed. Each new generation made Brooklyn its own, often without regard to the way thing were or even had been. It was their prerogative, their Brooklyn…whether we, as outsiders now, liked it or not. We were no longer residents who had a say in such matters.

On the ride back to the Waldorf we spoke of our expectations for the future. We bid each other goodnight and said we would stay in touch. We meant it…but we didn't.

Ruth died a few weeks ago in an auto accident while taking her husband's mother to a doctor's appointment. Her husband found my old business card with a note Ruth had put on the back, and he chased me down to Texas. Our conversation was brief and was simply expressed as "We grew up in the same apartment house in Brooklyn." I didn't know what he knew, and didn't know what to say other than that Ruth was so special and he was so lucky to have had time with her. The conversation was over quickly.

Over fifty years, wrapped up in a trite statement of where we grew up. The wonder of it all was that Ruth always seemed to be placed where she could do good. It took me awhile to see it, but Ruth was the epitome of the Brooklyn Woman, as was my mother. I am so proud of them both.

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