Both aunts on my father’s side spoke excellent French. This was quite an accomplishment for two Brooklyn girls from a poor Jewish family.
Aunt Florence (1920-2009) went to Hunter College. She married a Merchant Marine engineer who joined the U.S. State Department after the war. They were posted in France, Germany, Morocco, Senegal, Ghana, and elsewhere. Their six children were born in six countries. Her French was exquisite.
Aunt Sonia (b. 1934) was the baby of the family. Florence took on the responsibility for much of her upbringing and education. This eased the burdens on their Yiddish-speaking immigrant mother, my Grandma Mary (1892-1980), who had lost most of her hearing in childhood.
My father, Leon, the middle child, worked all throughout his childhood. You can read all about that in LEON: A LIFE, available in print and eBook from Amazon and other online booksellers.
But Sonia never had to work as a kid. She just focused on studying, and she was glad for that. “My main thing in life is to study hard,” said Sonia. “I don’t know where I got that, but that was my main thing, I had to study hard. And I did, and it worked.”
The day after my nephew Nathan’s bar-mitzvah (and it was a wonderful bar-mitzvah, he did so much better than I did which isn’t a high hurdle, but no joke, it was the best performance of a bar-mitzvah kid that I’ve ever seen, he’s got a sharp memory and amazing musical talent, so keep an eye out for Nathan), we took my father to visit Aunt Sonia at a memory-care facility and her late husband, Walter Figer.
Sonia and Walter had met at a party, and it was love at first sight. Walter was a Navy engineer who worked with Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” and then in the private sector. They had three children and lived in a beautiful home in South Carolina.
My father hadn’t seen his younger sister in 24 years, ever since Sonia had stopped flying on airplanes, or going on long drives, or attending family parties.
But back in 1952, Sonia flew on airplanes. Under Florence’s guidance and tutelage, she studied for a year at the Sorbonne.
Aunt Sonia told us about her time in Paris:
When I was there, it was not the right time. I can’t explain it. But I was there, so I figured I’m going to study. So I studied and studied, but I was just very lonely.
I was only 18, and very lonely. But I figured I was there, so I did my best, which was always very good, because that’s the way I am. It’s hard to explain, but I was never the right age, the right circumstances, the right this and the right that. I learned, but it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy at all.
Where did you live?
In a dorm on the Left Bank. It was really dreary. You picture France, oh the glory of France, but France, it was so lonely. I was always there, you know, I was only 18, so I was mixed up. I didn’t know why I was there, but since I was there, I studied hard, and I really learned it. But it was very lonely.
And then I came back to Brooklyn College. It was always that year that threw me off. Because all my friends were graduating, and I had to wait. I was always off by six months, that’s it. I realize now that it’s a silly thing to control you, but I just wanted to be like a regular girl, just graduate with my friends. So now I realize it’s silly, that it’s silly, but then, it seemed very important.
And then you taught French?
Yes, at different schools. They had to learn it to pass.
Without grades and things like that, they would thrive. And that was my favorite teaching of all, when they were not learning just to pass and get credits and move on, when they really wanted to learn. We had a ball, it was wonderful. It was my favorite teaching when they didn’t have to have grades. They just wanted to learn, and boy, did they want to learn.
Aunt Sonia never returned to France.