Lillian Bressman just celebrated her 97th birthday and still loves to tell stories, especially about her mother. On a recent visit in her Maplewood apartment, sitting at her dining room table stacked with photo albums and scrapbooks, she recalled her mother’s famous pumpkin baby escapade in which, having been told that babies come from pumpkins, and wanting a younger sibling, she went out to the pumpkin patch when her mother wasn’t home and carefully cut open every pumpkin. Sadly, she found no babies inside. Bressman will tell you that her grandmother never did tell her mother where babies come from, though she eventually figured it out; she’ll also tell you that her grandmother told her mother “not to do that to pumpkins.” It’s not that she ever met her grandmother, but she tells the story in a loving and unfiltered way, as though she just heard it fall from her mother’s lips in the Lower East Side apartment where she was raised.
For more than four decades beginning in 1969, Bressman wrote an occasional column for NJJN, “Tales of Mama,” that kept her mother’s stories alive. They were nostalgic, uncritical, and sprinkled with Yiddish. Farbisseneh Faygele, Yussel der shainer, and sister Mollkeh all make regular appearances in the columns, along with plenty of greeneh kuzeenehs. Bressman’s stories captured a vanished world for a readership caught between their parents’ immigrant experiences and their own suburban lifestyles.
Bressman is quick to tell you that she grew up poor on the Lower East Side, but the details she offers paint a picture not of privation but rather of a rich family life grounded in Jewish values with kindness topping the heap.
During a two-hour visit she recalled how on the weekends, her father would put on his best clothing and sit and listen to classical music on the radio, imbuing Bressman and her sister with a life-long love of classical music.
She recalled her mother’s beauty, or at least what an entire side of the family had long-ago decided. But she also shared some stories from her own life that never made it into her columns: the scrapbook of love letters and notes she and her husband, Edward Bressman, exchanged that tell their own tale. “I started writing notes to my husband from the day we were married. And after about a year, he started writing me,” she said.
Despite the kindness that exudes from Bressman, she’s not afraid to call out her disappointment in people, no matter who they are. It could be a rabbi who she feels isn’t up to the pulpit, or someone as famous as Leonard Bernstein.
Looking at a photo of herself holding a violin as a teenager, she recalled that at the time, she considered Bernstein her hero. “There wasn’t a book written about him that I didn’t go out and buy,” she said. (The voracious reader still makes her way through The New York Times from cover to cover every day.)
She finally had the opportunity to meet Bernstein when an acquaintance was photographing him. All she had to do was carry some equipment. “I put on my best dress,” she recalled of the day.
But disillusionment set in when she said he arrived, drunk and belligerent. After a brief and unpleasant interaction, he said to her, “You look like you’re disappointed in me.” And she said, “I don’t know where I got the chutzpah. I said, ‘I am.’” Although he fell from the pedestal she put him on, she acknowledged that she still enjoys his music.
Bressman’s NJJN column happened almost by accident. Then-editor Harry Weingast (at the time, the paper was called The Jewish News) was a patient of her husband. Somehow, he figured out that Bressman could write (she always loved to write, she said, and can even recite a poem she composed in the sixth grade) and invited her to pen a column “about anything you want,” she recalled. She had ideas wherever she went. “As soon as I started to write, they’d just flow,” she said.
At the beginning, she was still raising her own family in Millburn; eventually, children gave way to grandchildren.
She shared her mother’s views on hospitality, on child rearing, on family. “My mother was a wonderful storyteller,” she said. But she rarely shared her own experiences navigating the joy and pain of her own circumstances.
Bressman and her husband raised a daughter who became a psychologist; they also had a son, seven years younger, who contracted viral encephalitis as a baby. He miraculously lived but became significantly disabled.
She described the nights when they would dash to the hospital during his illness. “We slept with our clothes out, ready to go.” She talked about making the difficult decision to put him in a group home. “At first, we couldn’t part with him; we couldn’t hear of him not living with us,” she said. Ultimately, they were convinced it would be better for him to be with his peers.
She spoke of his passion for a radio that he holds in his hand all the time, listening to a particular oldies station. She expressed gratitude to the teacher who revealed the poor treatment he was exposed to in one school that included regular beatings (that teacher is still a friend who happened to call during NJJN’s visit). She shared her pain now, as her son recently suffered a stroke and she visited him in the hospital, where he was still holding his radio, but didn’t have it turned on. “I wish you could have met him,” she told this visitor. “He would ask you first if you have a radio.”
As our meeting drew to a close and I commented on the view from her sixth-floor terrace, she took the opening to tell one last story.
It turns out that view was very important. She and her husband moved to the apartment at the behest of their daughter, who worried that they could no longer manage in their home. They abided by her wishes. “At first we were so reluctant about moving,” she said. But on their first or second night, looking out the terrace, her husband saw a full moon while she was making dinner. “And he said, ‘Please come here and share the moon with me.’” She joined him, “And we were standing there like two children, looking at the moon.” It became their thing, to watch the moon together on the terrace.
When her husband died in 2002, she said, “I couldn’t bear to look at a full moon.” But she called her friends, and asked, “Would you please share the moon with me? I can’t see it alone,” she recalled. “And now they call me to ‘share the moon with me.’”
So maybe she can still tell her mother’s stories as if she had just heard them; but now she also tells her own story, richly hued, full of the joys and heartache that comprise a life. She knows how important it is to share the moon.
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