Norma Plavnick Simon

Norma Plavnick Simon

My recollections of Manumit and what it meant.  Norma Plavnick Simon

It is not easy to recollect a period of time so long ago, however, it is worth a try.

When I was five, my father died at age 42. This was, understandably, a turbulent time in our lives. It was in the midst of the depression (January 1936).  Shortly after his death, my mother became deathly ill with a staph infection. Treatment for this was hit and miss in 1936.  We, my brother who was 7 and I, were not permitted into the room with her as they were all afraid we could catch this. It was pretty frightening losing our father and not having our mother available to us. Fortunately after a long struggle, she recovered.  My father was Russian and the only member of his immediate family to come to this country. All the rest were in Moscow.  My uncle, an economist, was a friend of Lenin’s and teaching at the university of Konigsberg in Germany when the revolution happened.  He was, therefore, pretty well placed in the government at that time. My mother’s friends all encouraged her to go to Europe to recover her health and meet her husband’s family and that if she did that, she would be better prepared to raise us two kids.  I remember my brother and I telling her she should go – that we would be all right.

My mother decided that, rather than leave us in the care of our grandmother, that we would have a better time being in a boarding school.  She was giving up our big apartment when she was to leave and it just seemed a good decision to her.  Paul Kelly, who was, for a time at Manumit, and a dear friend of our family would be there to look out for us. Oh, I forgot to say, we lived in Washington ,D.C. so it was a long way from home to Pawling , New York.!  The deal was, we would be taken to school in January of 1937 and have a month to adjust before mother was to leave. She took us there and settled us in and then came back to say goodbye in February the night before she was to sail on the Ile de France for Paris.  The promise was that she would be back for my seventh birthday, September 20 1937.  I can still remember the smell of her wet fur coat when she came to the bedroom dorm to say goodbye to me. That smell lingered in my nostrils then and I smell it now as I think about that night.  As much as I liked the school, the thought of my mother being so far away on a boat was terrifying.

From the time we got to the school and settled in, I loved it.  I think my brother, Bob, did too. It was so different than living in a city. It was winter and much colder than we had ever been but we wore lots of sweaters and coats and since we were always doing something, we didn’t get so cold.  I remember being in the first grade.  I had learned to read before coming there but remember having lots of time to read. I remember going to the barn and watching the cows be milked. I also learned to ice skate on the frozen “lake” above the water fall. I loved to skate and to run and do things.  The only child I remember by name was Peter Silverstone. I would love to know what happened to him and if he is part of this group effort.  He was a sweet child and we became good friends during my time there.  Since my brother and I were not leaving for the holidays, we were at school with only a handful of other kids for the Spring break. We had a terrific time. We were taught how to bore holes in the maple trees to collect the sap and then there was that huge cauldron out on the side of the house boiling away with the syrup.  The night before the other kids were due back, we had a grand party with syrup on everything – ice cream and more ice cream and pancakes and any and everything you could put syrup on.  Delicious.  I remember spending lots of time in the dining hall on those breaks having hot chocolate.

When Spring came and the planting started, the first grade was in charge of rhubarb.  I love rhubarb to this day. We planted it, weeded it, picked it and cooked it. We felt so responsible for providing food for the others.  We watched the chickens run around (and get their heads cut off) and the other barnyard animals.  My brother had a pet lamb that was lame. He built a little cart in woodshop and painted it yellow and red and his lamb pulled the cart. They let him keep this pet till we left the school.
Some time in the Spring, my brother and I both got whooping cough. We were in the infirmary together. It was awful. I can still remember the horrid feeling of the whooping and the coughing. It must have lasted a week but felt like a year.  Later in the Spring we were both supposed to go to NYC to visit a young woman doctor friend of my mother’s who was going to show us around and have a great weekend. My brother ended in the infirmary with an ear infection and wasn’t able to go. I was sent alone. There I was delivered to the train conductor with a big luggage tag around my neck and to be met at Grand Central by Naomi. I was very scared. I had never been along on a train before. I remember walking up the platform in grand central praying that she would be right there. She was!  She and I had a good time in NY. We went to see Rockefeller Center and went to the movies and had dinner with her family. On Sunday she put me on the train with my luggage tag and the conductor set me down at the Pawling station and I didn’t see anyone there to meet me.  I went into the waiting room very scared and I didn’t know how to get to the school I remember sitting there terrified and the door opened and a man came in – not for me. The second time the door opened and it was a woman – not for me and, by now I was almost in tears when the door opened a third time and it was Paul Kelly for me!  I ran into his arms and probably shook for a long time.

I wanted to say something about Miss Taylor She was our wonderful, loving dorm mother for the little kids. She held us in her arms when we cried and were home sick and lonely. She was always there for us and I adored her.  I am not sure I would have gotten through this whole time without her love and warmth and devotion. I have no idea if she was young or elderly. She was a fairly plump African American woman. Full of love but strict too. We had to learn to make the bed and have on clean clothes and take showers. She saw to all that.

Sometime in the Spring was the only bad incident. Our class was outside under a tree to the left side of the house. I guess one of the teachers had hung an apple on a long string from that tree.  I guess a game was planned but nothing was said.  I kept eyeing that apple and I just got up and took a big bite out of it!  I was scolded for being selfish and ruining the game. I felt dreadful and still do about that.

The ear infection my brother had turned into a mastoid infection.  Fortunately my uncle was the chief resident in ear, nose, and throat at Bellevue. He was sent for and he and my grandmother came to the school.  Sulphur drugs were just beginning to be introduced. Eventually , the use of them did away with the whole mastoid surgery. You never see anyone anymore in this country with that deep cut behind the ear.  My uncle decided to take my brother to Bellevue to see the head of the service and get the drugs so he wouldn’t have to be operated on.  My grandmother, who had come all the way from Washington, took me for a walk along the creek path. She told me that she was gong to take my brother to Washington for a month for him to have the treatment for his ear and that I was to stay at school. I said, ” no, grandma, I am going too”.” No” , she said, “you have t stay here”. I said “grandma, do you see that waterfall. If you leave me here I will jump down it”.  They took me home with my brother.  I loved being at school but not alone. My brother and I only had each other. We had a good month of June in DC and then, when he was better we went back to school for the camp time. We learned to swim and boat and ride a horse. It was a good time. By the end of the summer, I was beginning to hope for my mother’s return.  She wrote to us almost daily but, of course, it took forever for the letters and little gifts to reach us. I remember once she sent Belgian chocolates and we were all very excited to get them.  However, the kids didn’t like them. I guess Belgian chocolate was too rich and not like a Hershey bar. The kids spit them out and I was devastated. They didn’t like my mother’s gift. It hurt very much. I liked the chocolate but couldn’t enjoy it after that rebuff.  After Camp, we had quite a time at school with the few other die-hards who were left there until the end of September when the regular school year was to start. . The school had all kinds of activities and outings for us and we were content to do whatever we wanted.  We met for meals and spent a lot of time wandering about and looking at the animals and going to Lowell Thomas’s Silver Fox Farm and to local baseball games.

One day in late September, the 19th to be exact, we were in the dining room having some punch with about 4 other kids when one of the others said there is a lady at the door looking at you two.  I looked and there was a pretty lady standing there dressed in very interesting but not familiar clothes. Suddenly my brother and I realized it was our mother and we flew across the dining room to her and clung to her.  I was never so glad in my life till now to see someone quite like that. She stayed the night with us and we shared a room, the three of us crowded onto three cots. We left the next day for NYC and then, after a shopping trip, a bath at a cousin’s house and a hair cut, we went home.  In later years I came to realize how important the promise my mother made to us was.  I think my very sanity depended on her understanding how important it was to keep her word.  As it turned out, she had an opportunity to sail on the queen something or other’s maiden voyage but it was not due into NY until the 21st. She knew that she had to keep that promise so she took a tramp steamer to Montreal and a train down to Pawling and got there on the 19th.

My mother lived to 89 and was a most extraordinary warm, caring, wonderful person and mother.  I have always thought she did the right thing for her and, in the end, for us by taking that trip and getting herself better so she could take care of us. The trip itself was a high point in her life and we always enjoyed hearing stories about it and the family in Russia that my brother and I never met.  She came back stronger and determined to make a life for us. She did. I miss her and my brother every day of my life.  My brother, Bob, died in 1986 of lung cancer at 57. He never smoked a day in his life.