The war had been over for months, yet rationing continued: Millions of Americans were still in uniform, and many millions more roamed hungry through Europe and Asia. And so we all had to make an effort to save meat for those who needed it more than we did. All this Mom explained as she carefully trimmed fat from the stew meat that she’d bought at the butcher shop a few doors down Taylor Street at the corner of Ashland Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. She saved the trimmings in a coffee tin, and when she bought more meat, exchanged it with the butcher for its weight in ration coupons.
"What happens to the fat?" I asked one day, and she explained how the butcher sent it to a factory to be melted and turned into candles, soap, and other useful products.
A few weeks later, about the time I usually had my nap, Mom asked me to come into the kitchen.
She had emptied the scraps from the coffee can into a sheet of newspaper and was wrapping it. Cinching the bundle with string, she told me that we’d saved at least a pound, and I was to bring it back to the butcher shop.
"Watch the scale while Mr. Kravetz weighs it. Then give him these," she added, pressing green and brown coupons into my hand. I thumbed their serrated edges, enjoying their reassuring tickle until Mom put them in my pocket.
"Read this list to Mr. Kravetz one item at a time," continued my mother. "Wait until he wraps each item, then read him the next."
It would be another year before I started kindergarten, but Freyda, my seven-year-old sister, was in the second grade. When she returned from school every afternoon, Mom gave us peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches in the kitchen. Then we went into the dining room and sat at a long wooden table, where Mom spread Freyda’s schoolbooks across the lace tablecloth, the only thing that her own mother had left her. As Mom went over Freyda’s lessons in reading, penmanship and arithmetic, she explained things to me. Freyda’s penmanship was far better than mine, but I read nearly as well as she did.
Mom’s list was short: A chicken, two pounds of ground chuck, a pot roast. I read it aloud twice; then Mom explained what I was to say to the butcher. I repeated it twice before she shooed me down the long flight of stairs.
It was my first shopping trip alone, and at the glass door to Kravetz Kosher Meats I paused — not frightened, exactly, but wanting to please Mom by doing well — then turned to look up at Mom in the open bedroom window where she held the baby in her arms. She waved, encouragingly, and I waved back.
I felt proud and happy to be helping, and glad to be home with my new brother. Ted was born a month before the war ended, about a week before my fourth birthday, while Dad was off working at Great Lakes Naval Station. With his thick glasses and impaired hearing, Dad had thrice been drafted and each time judged unfit for military service. But he knew how to work with sheet metal, and so landed two jobs at Great Lakes. By day he taught young seamen how to use acetylene welding torches, then worked the night shift building some of the flat-bottomed landing craft that would deliver our troops onto enemy-held beaches and help win the war.
But Mom had a difficult pregnancy, and the schizophrenia and depression that would warp her life, and our family, had begun to surface, though a diagnosis was still many years off. In the seventh month of her pregnancy, she refused to leave her bedroom. With Dad working double shifts and returning home to Chicago only on Saturday nights, then catching the early Monday train back, there was no one to care for Freyda and me.
My parents were orphans, but between them they had thirteen siblings. Except for Uncle Bill, who was in the Air Corps, all lived nearby. Nevertheless, for reasons still I still don’t understand, Freyda and I were placed in a county orphanage.
It was near the stock yards, and when the wind blew, a fetid miasma of blood and manure descended on this Egypt like some unspeakable Biblical plague. We were probably the only children in the institution with two parents, a fact of which we were reminded almost daily. If Freyda complained about the food, or cried when a bigger kid broke her doll or brazenly swiped her candy, the matron told her to shut up and be grateful for having both a mother and a father, for having a home that we would soon return to. I was punched in the face trying to protect Freyda's Fourth of July sparkler from a bigger girl. As she wiped blood from my nose, a nurse delivered the inevitable lecture about how lucky my and sister and I were.
This was bearable only because Dad visited every Sunday. We counted the days until his next visit, and after his hugs and kisses reeled off our respective lists of the previous week’s indignities, which earned us more hugs and kisses.
The weeks turned into months and I began to worry that Mom might forget me. Then in the middle of the week, Dad appeared to take us home. Mom was again her usual, cheerful self, and I met my month-old brother. That afternoon we all went to Lincoln Park, where Dad rented a boat and rowed us around a pond.
"Why ain't you working?" I asked, and Dad explained that the war was over: It was V-J Day.
And soon, so were Dad's jobs. He went looking, but wartime government contracts had been cancelled. Civilian hiring preference went to veterans. Our savings vanished into rent, food, clothes, diapers and doctor bills. The day before I was sent to the butcher, Dad finally landed a new job. Mom announced that we would celebrate with a roast.
I stood on the sawdust floor, enjoying the coolness, until the thickset, balding man said, "What can I get you today, boychik?" On tiptoe I handed up first the bundle of scraps and then the coupons. The butcher weighed the fat carefully. "Almost a pound, close enough," he said.
I backed away from the counter until I could see his face, then consulted the list. "One chicken," I read. "A nice big one," I adlibbed.
"Roaster or fryer?"
I had no idea what he meant.
"Does your mother cut the chicken up and fry it in a pan?" he asked.
"She cooks it inside the stove."
"A roaster then. What else?"
"Two pounds of ground chuck."
"Is that everything?"
"A pot roast."
The butcher shuffled around, grinding the beef, then wrapping it, the roast and the chicken. I took the packages from the counter, then turned to go.
"Not so fast," said Mr. Kravetz, smiling. "You haven't paid."
"Mom said to say, 'Please put this on my mother's account,'" I recited.
The smile faded. Wiping his hands on his apron, Kravetz came around to take the packages. "Wait just a moment," he said, setting the meat on a chopping table behind the counter. Then he took a telephone book from a drawer, peered at it, dialed a number.
"Mrs. Wolf? This is Kravetz Meats," he said. "I've got your boy down here with a shopping list, but he didn't bring any money."
The butcher listened for a while. When he replied, he raised his voice.
"Mrs. Wolf! You know very well that you don't have credit here any more! And please, don't send your child to beg!"
It took a long while to climb the stairs to our apartment. I was empty-handed. I had failed to do as I had been told: I had added words, read the whole list at once, and worst of all, forgot to tell Mr. Kravetz to put the meat on my mother's bill until after he asked for payment. No wonder he was angry. Mom would be mad, too.
But all she said was, "Time for your nap." It was too early, I fretted, and she swatted my bottom and put me to bed until Freyda returned from school. At supper, Dad praised the tuna casserole, and took seconds.
But I lay awake long into the night, hoping that Mom wouldn't send me back to the orphanage.
Copyright © 2008 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.