Remembering The Way It Was



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Little Marvin and the Banana

A memoir by Gerard Meister

Last month, when my wife and I were visiting our children in New York for some family celebrations, we noticed our grandchildren rummaging through their mother's pantry for canned goods.

"What are they doing?" I asked my daughter Ellen.

"Post office is doing a food drive for the needy," she explained. "And the children are eager to help."

I looked around at her granite countertops and designer cabinets, and got a chill from a long lost flashback of a similar scene in a very different kind of kitchen nearly seventy years ago.

It was 1937 and Mama and I lived alone in a small apartment in Brooklyn. It was in the autumn of the year and the economists in Washington had already proclaimed that the Great Depression was over. The problem was that the news had yet to reach our neighborhood.

I was in the third grade at PS 182. My teacher, Mrs. Lady, was the tallest teacher in the school, even taller than Mr. Miller the truant officer. She had kind and smiling eyes and always kept a pencil wedged over her ear. Everyone in the class loved her.

One day I saw her speaking in hushed tones to the boy we called "Little Marvin" (because he was the smallest kid in the class). She reached into her pocketbook for the cookies she ate at snack time and handed them to him. Then she made an announcement.

"Attention class." She tapped her pointer gently against the desk. "Marvin's mother had no food in the house for breakfast today, so tomorrow I want everyone to bring in a can of food for Marvin to take home. I'm sure your mothers will understand. Now don't forget, at least one can from everyone and remember children it must be kosher, Marvin's mother keeps kosher." (I didn't even know anyone in our neighborhood that wasn't kosher.)

I tore home without even stopping to speak to Mutty, who was the most famous kid in the school because he had Babe Ruth's autograph. "Mama, Mama," I shouted, as I burst through the door. "Little Marvin's hungry because his mother doesn't have what to eat in the house and Mrs. Lady told everyone to bring something for him to eat tomorrow. A can, we have to bring a can, Mama," I said in one breath.

Without waiting for an answer, I opened the single cabinet we had in the kitchen only to find a lone package of spaghetti and an opened box of Uneeda Biscuits. "Mama, we have nothing!" I said, tears welling up in my eyes. "When will Papa be home?" (Papa was still in the hospital after he had collapsed at work a few months before.)

"You can bring that nice banana I have in the icebox."

"No Mama, It's gotta be a can! That's what my teacher said.

"Papa will be home soon, Geruleh, then we'll have money and be able to go shopping.

But for tomorrow take the banana, your teacher will understand. I promise," she said, hugging me.

I stopped crying like I always did when Mama hugged me and told her that I would take in the banana. I wanted to be a good boy. The next morning after my favorite breakfast of crumbled up Uneeda Biscuits in a glass of milk, Mama put the banana in a brown paper bag and as I left for school, she hollered after me: "Try not to lose the bag, Geruleh."

When I got to class there were already about six or seven cans on Mrs. Lady's desk. I walked up to her and hesitatingly holding up the brown bag said, "I only got a banana."

"Oh, Marvin look, Gerard brought you a nice cold banana."

Sitting in the front row, Little Marvin raised his hand. "Can I eat it now?" he asked.

"Why certainly, Marvin," the teacher said, as she handed him the brown bag.

As I watched Little Marvin peel and gulp down the banana in between a couple of smiles, a whole new feeling came over me. Instead of being ashamed I felt proud; proud of myself, proud of Mama and, yes, proud of the banana. I was the happiest kid in Brooklyn, maybe the whole world.


from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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