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The Past is Never Past

David Berger



I didn’t make that up—Faulkner did, so I’ve got to give it some thought. I was just reading a movie review about a teenage coming-of-age story starring Elsie Something-or-other. I always thought that my Aunt Elsie’s name was so old- fashioned, but I suppose everything comes back into style eventually.


And then, out of the blue, my daughter texted me that she just took my granddaughters out to buy them malteds in honor of my aunt. When my daughter was little, I told her the story about how when I was five or six years old, and it was either Christmas or New Year’s Day, my parents, little brothers, aunt and I were on our way to my grandparents for the afternoon and dinner. We normally drove, but this particular day there was a blizzard, so we were waiting for the train to take us to the city.


In those days there was no waiting room, and so we waited inside the candy store next to the train stop. Due to the blizzard, the train was late. We must have waited an hour or two. My little brothers and I were all bundled up in our snowsuits and getting hotter and more impatient by the minute. My aunt sensing my unhappiness, turned to me and said, “If worst comes to worst, I’ll buy you a malted.” Those were her exact words. Funny how I remember them after all these years.


Before she had time to order me a malted, my father decided that the storm had gotten worse, and so the train would not be coming at all. We left the candy store and trudged home through the snow.


Over the next 20 years I would tell my aunt that she owed me a malted, to which she would respond that she’d bought me that malted many times over. I’m sure she had, but that never stopped her from buying me another, and giving me so much more.


My Aunt Elsie was 25 when I was born. She was my dad’s kid sister and 3 months older than my mom. She lived with us for two years when I was five and six. She never married and spent most weekends with us. She loved my parents, siblings and me unconditionally. I don’t know if many people can really do that, but she did.


Not only did she buy us kids whatever our hearts desired, but also she took us everywhere—Broadway shows, Washington D.C., movies, the best restaurants and jazz clubs. She even took my brothers to a rock concert at the Fillmore East in the ’60s. She wasn’t a fan of that sort of music (she loved the big bands and singers of that era), but my brothers were too young to go by themselves, so she took them. I wish I could have been there to see the look on her face when the hippie sitting on the other side of her passed her a lit joint. I’m sure she found a nice way to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” My brothers loved it.


She was always my biggest fan. When I got into jazz at the age of 12, she started buying me great jazz records—boxed sets and amazing reissues of the classics like Birth of the Cool and Clifford Brown sides. She would join record clubs and give me most of the dozen LPs that came with the initiation.


She had this concept of me as the next George Gershwin. To her, Gershwin was the tops. He was the most sophisticated of the songwriters. She came to my concerts and would kvell—that’s Yiddish for feel proud, but like all Yiddish expressions, it’s loaded with so much more meaning that just doesn’t translate. She would tell me that when my first show comes to Broadway, she’ll be seated in the front row.


She was the office manager of a dress company on 35th Street in the heart of the Garment District in New York. For two summers during college I worked there with the salesmen. When they would see me coming, they would say, “Here comes the boy with two mothers.” And it was kinda true, but really she was more like an older sister. I could talk to her about things I could never discuss with my parents. I didn’t realize it then, but the reason was that she didn’t judge me—she just loved me for who I was.


Starting during those two summers and afterwards she would take me out to dinner once a week. When I was younger, she would teach me things like holding doors for ladies and walking on the curbside—all kinds of good manners and politeness. That sort of stuff may seem archaic now, but I still do it. I’m of an earlier time, a time when little boys were expected to grow up to be gentlemen.


When I was 25, and she was 50, she was spending a Saturday with my mom and complained of very bad heartburn. They got into my mom’s car (Elsie didn’t drive—a true Manhattanite) and took off for the doctor’s office. On the way she said that she felt better and there was no need for a doctor. So they turned around and went home. The next night she took the train back to town and her own apartment on 34th Street. The next morning she got up for work, got dressed, but didn’t feel well, so she lay down on her bed, closed her eyes and never woke up.


When she didn’t show up at work, one of the salesmen went to her apartment and found her. I never thought about this, but I’m sure her boss must have called my dad, whose office was a few blocks east in the Empire State Building. I can’t imagine how he must have felt seeing her dead from a heart attack. You see, when he was 17, a policeman asked him to come downstairs to identify his 50-year old father who had died from a heart attack and was lying on the Bronx sidewalk. That’s some terrible coincidence.


Within an hour my mom called me on the phone to tell me that my aunt had died. I guess I was in shock. I couldn’t feel anything. It just didn’t seem real. For an entire year I didn’t shed a tear. I just shut down.


It’s been 44 years since she passed away, and I’m still grieving her loss. I never got to share my professional success with her. She never got to know my children and grandchildren. She never wanted anything from me, but oh, how I wish I could buy her a malted and thank her.


Everyone who knew her loved her, but I wonder if anyone ever thanked her. She never did anything for anyone expecting something in return. She would always tell me that it just made her feel good to give. As a child, I thought she was nuts, but as the years go by, I find myself wanting to be more and more like her. It just feels good to give.

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  • Ginny H on

    My fathers sister, my Aunt Hannah, never married and spent most weekends with us. She too lived and worked in Manhattan. She had a very special relationship with me and my brother. Funny we grew up around the corner from each other but never knew we had this in common. Great memory of your aunt.

  • Steven Ross on

    Dear David,
    What a touching reminiscence – I too had an aunt who was by way of being an “Auntie Mame” – taking me to my first visits to Radio City, Sardi’s AND my first Broadway shows.
    How I wish for the impossible – to be a grown-up and talk to her now and thank her for all she did.

  • Bobby Berger on

    I remember waiting at the station it was cold and snow everywhere in the three sided hut with benches along the walls. I still talk about Aunt Elsie taking us to see the Mothers of Invention. Malcolm and I wearing jackets and ties coming from Lino’s restaurant. It was a classic story. I could go on about Aunt Elsie.

  • River Bergstrom on

    Oh man, Dave…this reminds me so much of my Aunt Rose. She and her sister (my Mother) both always said it was better to give than receive. When I was young, I thought they were nuts, too! But Aunt Rose, man she loved all the things that I loved, too. I was born a bit too late for many things…lately I’ve been saying; “I’m good at catching the tail end of things…” When I was in town playing with the Harry James Orchestra I would always call her and get her and Uncle George tickets. Same thing with the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras. Afterward, she would always tell me stories about how handsome Harry was, etc. My dad always said I was born 30 years too late. Maybe…maybe…

  • Bob Schwartz on

    Man, I HOPE I did. She generously took me along with you to see and hear things that can’t possibly be recreated and for which there is no substitute.

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