First Generation American

by Elaine Greene Weisburg

My sister and I are attracted to movies starring Clive Owen–more than those of any other actor.  A year or two ago, I took a good look at him and realized that he resembles our father, Harry Greene, when we were young—especially around the eyes.  “Sigmund Freud did a good morning’s work when he invented the Oedipus Complex,” my psychoanalyst said, early in our acquaintance many years ago. But without an Oedipal connection, a precocious friend of mine had a crush on him when she was twelve, and when he was sixty, a fashion-editor friend said my father looked like Hubert de Givenchy, the elegant French couturier.

As adults, my sister and I admitted that each of us felt she was our parents’ favorite child. Yet for half a decade ending with adolescence, I was definitely the Daddy’s Girl, perhaps because I was older. Every Friday I got to stay up late with him, listening to the comedians Fred Allen and Phil Baker on the radio. And when we were snowed in during a blizzard one winter, Daddy and I were the ones to trudge to the grocery four blocks away, with laundry bags slung over our shoulders for all the food we would carry back home. In those pre-snowsuit, pre-blue jean days, I wore two pairs of flannel pajama pants tucked into my galoshes. This was such key scene in my young life that I could draw you a picture of it—from the rear, two figures disappearing into a cloud of snow.

I also got to go on a beach walk with my father many Sunday mornings when we were living in Rockaway. That’s where I developed my long stride because he didn’t slow down just to accommodate a child and I wasn’t going to show any weakness. That’s where Harriet Z. would sometimes show up on her own Sunday walk. She was a Long Island Rail Road commuter who rode the same weekday train to and from the city as my father. A tall, stylish single working woman my parents’ age, she patronized and annoyed me, but I didn’t think until decades later that perhaps my presence helped to make a not-so-chancy meeting look innocent.

Not many years later, after we entered the Second World War, my father used to walk the beach at night as a Civil Defense volunteer. This was not make-work: along this same beach in 1942, close to Montauk, several German submariners came ashore, were captured heading west on the Long Island Railroad, tried and executed.

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My father was the third and last child in his Ukrainian-American family and the only one born in the United States. His Manhattan birthplace was an apartment at 184 Rivington Street; the date was May 14, 1895. There is a schoolyard now where the building stood, but random parts of the street remain the same. His birth certificate contains four errors: the date of birth, the newborn’s first name, the father’s first name, and the mother’s maiden name. Is this evidence of an indifference to immigrants?  Problems with foreign accents? His passport said “Henry known as Harry,” we celebrated the real birthday, and for over three quarters of the 20th century, he lived a good American life.

Harry graduated from Boys High School in Brooklyn and went to St. Lawrence University in Canton near New York’s Canadian border. His studies in the forestry department of the agricultural school were probably tuition free, and he earned his room and board as a clerk in a hotel near the campus. I have his photo album which covers many decades and in it a large sepia print shows the St. Lawrence football team including Harry Greene, a man of average size, playing left end. He also did a lot of bicycling, played tennis, and into late middle age played four-wall handball. He probably would have liked to have an athletic son in addition to his two daughters whose only form of exercise was the Lindy Hop. My father was a big reader, especially of serious biographies, and was an invaluable help with my math homework.

The college hotel job included summers, so for four years Harry didn’t see his family in New York. This was evidently not a sacrifice. His troubled father, a depressive by nature, did not find the streets of New York to be paved with gold as some immigrants did, and his mother was a generally acknowledged shrew. After graduation, my father found a job with a research laboratory where they investigated infectious diseases. His mother, fearful for his health, forbade him to take it. He actually obeyed her, and joined the Army (perhaps drafted) after the United States entered the First World War, serving in the Quartermaster Corps managing supplies. He remained in or near New York throughout the war and probably enjoyed being seen in his Teddy Roosevelt-style broad brimmed hat and puttees.

Upon marrying, my father he joined his new father-in-law in the floor covering business just as his two future brothers-in-law eventually did. His opinion of this practice was made clear in the rule established as soon as he, also the father of daughters, started his own company:  “No sons-in-law.”

When the Depression arrived, the family business had already been sold, the million dollars paid to my grandfather by the purchaser, the Armstrong Cork Company, was greatly diminished by the bursting of the Florida real estate bubble. My father was supporting us by various endeavors. The most exotic to me was his part-ownership of the Ocean-Edge Baths—lockers and showers for day-tripping beach-goers a few miles from our Neponsit house. But for the repeal of Prohibition, my father might have become involved in bootlegging. The well-known gangster Big Bill Dwyer was trying to arrange to smuggle some of his illegal booze into the country in small boats that would land on my father’s piece of beach. Would he have given permission? I think he was too sensible to have broken the law.

His business career was spent in the importation of linoleum from Europe which frequently required his presence at the factories. There was a lot of trans-Atlantic shipping in the 1930s so ocean liners went back and forth even with passenger lists in the single digits. My sister and I loved going to see him off. I’ll always remember the white-and-gilt piano on the Normandie and the grandeur of the Rex.

One winter, his ship returned three days late and covered with ice. My mother told me in an uncharacteristic confidence that Harriet Z. had phoned to ask when Harry was coming back. My mother said to me, “I hung up on her.” To me, on later reflection, Harriet’s phone call proves that although there may have been a flirtatious friendship, there was no affair: no guilty “other woman” would have dared to phone a wife.

After my father died, my mother recalled that in 1934 he spent more time at sea than on land. I wonder now why he didn’t move us overseas with him so we could all stay together. Maybe he didn’t think of it. Maybe my mother refused. That we girls never asked to go along for the ride just once is something else to think about. My children certainly would have asked, and my grandchildren would have insisted. My theory: we were powerless and we knew it. Our household was not a democracy. An example: When I was in eighth grade and all my Jewish classmates were going to be confirmed at the synagogue, I asked to join them. My father said no, he hated that rabbi. I didn’t argue and never asked again, although I was seriously discomforted socially and disappointed personally.

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Harry sometimes talked about his deprived childhood. He only had one toy—a small painted metal car with wheels that turned. He would push the little car back and forth on the floor and that served as fun and games for the baby of the family. His sister became a beautiful woman who taught school, the pride and joy of her father. His elder brother became a lawyer, insurance broker, and perennial losing candidate for a judgeship on the Republican ticket. This son was the pride and joy of his mother and was referred to as Sonny Boy by my resentful father. I think my poor Daddy was entitled to his self pity, and to his lifelong touchiness too, I suppose, although the latter was sometimes a burden to me.

When I made a political and aesthetic leap away from my parents as a Queens College student, I was living at home—a bad place for leaping away. (College dorms do a lot to preserve family peace.) Although my mother ignored such details, my father found it hard to accept the huge poster I hung on my bedroom wall: Picasso’s Woman in the Mirror with those bulbous protuberances and weird extra noses. Another offense was the harsh-sounding Hindemith record often playing on my phonograph. To him I had become an alien and he took it as a personal insult. My moving to the left of his New Deal politics and insisting on arguing about it was even worse: I was a combative alien. My sister remembers me once charging up the stairs with our father charging after me although I have no such memory.

Yet my last years at home were peaceful and warm while I worked at a market research job my father helped me find and was being courted by someone he respected and liked. Years later, on his retirement, he and my mother moved to my apartment complex. She worked in her best friend’s art gallery and he walked his daily mile or two and shopped for their dinners. He was walking to or from the Second Avenue Deli the Friday he suffered a fatal heart attack. It was a month before his 84th birthday. I know just where he fell because the police told us the principal of a junior high school saw the collapse through his office window on First Avenue, just north of 11th Street. I pass the school a few times a year but I always cross the street to avoid stepping on that haunted pavement, even after more than thirty years.

Harry Greene died about a mile from where he was born. There is something oddly satisfying about that.


Elaine Greene Weisburg for some fifty years was a writer and editor at Seventeen, Esquire, House & Garden and House Beautiful and free-lanced widely for the New York Times and other magazines.