WE NEED YOUR HELP — Support your hometown newspaper by making a donation.
Randi Kreiss

A loving tribute to my irreplaceable elders


My aunt Sylvia Gentile Brownstein died April 11 in a nursing home in New Jersey, of Covid-19. She was 97 years old, and lived in a room at the facility with her husband of 74 years, Murray Brownstein. He was my mother’s older brother. The last time I saw him was seven years ago, when I visited him in Florida, and he insisted we go to a pub nearby because they were serving free ice cream to World War II veterans. A proud Navy vet who lied about his age to get into the service when he was 16, Uncle Murray served on a minesweeper in the Pacific.

Aunt Sylvia died alone, because Uncle Murray had become sick and unable to comfort her. Before the pandemic, which precluded visitors, they were cared for by their daughter, my cousin, who has shepherded them through these last difficult years.

But only the ending was sad.

Murray met Sylvia in Brooklyn just after the war. He fell in love, and defied his Jewish family by marrying an Italian Catholic girl. Smart guy. She was a gem, loving and mildly crazy, so she fit right in, seeing as how everyone in our anxious, highly emotive clan is a notch off plumb.

When I was a kid, Aunt Syl and Uncle Murray lived in Valley Stream and we lived in Cedarhurst, so the visits were frequent. Murray was a Garment District wheeler and dealer who won big and lost big over the years. Aunt Sylvia was a homemaker extraordinaire. She cleaned that house until it sparkled, every single day. And she was an outstanding cook. Her specialty was Italian food, and an invitation to their table was a gift.

When she hosted Thanksgiving, the meal started with homemade minestrone, and was followed by eggplant parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs and veal cutlet parmesan. I don’t recall seeing anything green, as in a string bean, on the table. The last entry was the turkey, an afterthought, a gesture to the new world, fully dressed but largely ignored because we were all so stuffed from the Italian feast.

I confess, I didn’t know Aunt Sylvia as a woman. I have no idea what her dreams or joys or disappointments were. I do know she raised her kid sister, Madelaine, when their mother died very young. Madelaine joined Murray and Sylvia’s family, big sister to their own two kids.

I wish I had gotten to know Aunt Syl better, but in those days, people kept to their roles: She was the elder aunt and I was the young niece. Uncle Murray was difficult, but she would never talk about anything as personal as her marriage. She had a twin sister, Anna, and I suspect that that was her most emotionally intimate relationship. They had a brother, too, Johnny, who went to the Naval Academy and was the pride of the family.

Every Christmas of my childhood, we went to Aunt Syl and Uncle Murray’s for an event that was part celebration and part child abuse. As dinner drew to a close, we would hear someone stomping up the basement steps and the loud jingling of bells. Eight little kids immediately dived under the dinner table and began screaming, which sent the adults into fits of laughter. Not normal, right?

The stomping came closer, our screaming got louder, and suddenly Santa burst through the basement door. We kids were traumatized. He was a terror in his wild white wig and garish Santa mask. None of us noticed that Uncle Murray had disappeared from the dinner table some time earlier. This intruder was the Santa from hell, and we were scared out of our socks.

The elders, however, were greatly entertained, and so this became a cherished tradition, and we did it every year. I think I was finishing my junior year in college when I realized that Uncle Murray was Santa Claus.

All of our childhood birthdays were occasions for big parties. Aunt Syl and the other aunts and uncles would raise a glass or three, and before long the women were dancing on the table and the men were telling stories about the war and the old Brooklyn neighborhood. It was a rich experience for a little kid who was all eyes and ears.

I don’t know if Aunt Syl was a religious woman, but wherever she went, she wasn’t alone for long. The day after she passed, Uncle Murray died. He was 98.

Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.