The Two Faces of Ella – A Tribute to My Enigmatic Late Aunt

I have recently become fascinated with my Dad’s family, perhaps because many of them are an enigma. I never met my paternal grandparents – my grandmother Nettie died in 1951 at the age of 67 and my grandfather Abraham died in 1955 at the age of 71. My dad is 90 and has beaten the familial odds by leaps and bounds – a 26-year colon cancer survivor; he has been on medication for hypertension since he was in his 40s. I wrote about my grandfather Abraham in my Triangle Fire article. When I was younger I was not that interested in discovering facts about my mysterious grandparents, but with my dad’s own mortality looming on the near horizon, I feel compelled to fill in the missing pieces. The problem now is that my dad’s memories have faded, although some of the facts were probably unknown even when he was a much younger man. My dad was the youngest child and his eldest sister Ella essentially served as a surrogate mother because my grandmother was in a deep depression after immigrating to America – and for very good reasons. She was separated for years from my grandfather, fending for herself and her children and being forced to board a German soldier in her house during WWI. Most of her family died in Poland, either in pogroms prior to WWII or in the Holocaust.

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The Times Square of My Mind

As an impressionable young woman, I journeyed to fabled Manhattan from my relatively sheltered life as an art student at RISD in Providence, R.I. Upon alighting at Penn Station for the very first time, there was a bit of a glitch. My older, worldlier sister who had already been living in the Big Apple for 3 years had not given me clear instructions on where we were to meet. Those were the days before cell phones – there was no way to get in touch with her. I was an innocent 18-year-old in New York City wondering what the hell had happened to my sister – after about 40 minutes or so I decided to go search upstairs and there she was … my street-smart sister nearly as frantic as I. For a good part of this visit I was on my own – marveling at the gritty, wonderful streets of NYC. Camera in hand, I attempted to summon the spirits of dead immigrants on the Lower East Side, admired the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building – imagining King Kong and Fay Wray at the top, and prowled Canal Street for Vintage. A longtime admirer of the photography of Bernice Abbott, Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt, I too desired to capture a moment in time in “The City that Never Sleeps.”

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