Brooklyn Boro

Aunt Pauline the Pencil Lady

"In a word, he was cheap. In two, he was very cheap."

June 11, 2021 William A. Gralnick
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Tales of Eastern Parkway came up among friends. This is the memory it evoked.

Everyone has an Aunt Pauline, regardless of her name. She’s that spinster aunt who loves you dearly but can’t quite remember which birthday it is you’re celebrating. She takes you places you don’t really want to go and gives you things you don’t really want, but she smells nice and means well. My Aunt Pauline didn’t stay a spinster forever, but we’re not there yet.

The second oldest of my father’s five siblings, Pauline was sort of mannish looking, also prim and proper. Unlike her older sister who was short, stout, and had a bosom that could confound a bra saleswoman, Pauline looked more like a tennis player. As the family was hit harder and harder by the Great Depression, Pauline became more and more “Papa’s girl” as she worried about his long hours and financial struggles. This pattern became her life after her fiancé committed suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge during that Depression, something my brother and I as teenagers found inexplicably funny. When my grandfather died, she threw herself into the caring for her nieces and nephews, of which I was her favorite.

There were things she’d take me to that she was sure I would love that I didn’t, like the annual church bazaar on Eastern Parkway across from The Abraham Lincoln Apartments where she lived for decades. There were other things that I hated then but came to realize were wonderful things to have done with her like the Brooklyn Museum visits and concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Museum had this amazing display about American Indians that I remember to this day, and I heard Peter and The Wolf for the first time at the Academy. It remains today a seminal memory; I still have the 78 rpm with Basil Rathbone (real name!) narrating.

The thing about Aunt Pauline was that she was a little weird. She never forgot my birthday, but for years the number on the card was always a year or two off. And always too young. Maybe she didn’t want me to grow up. Usually her birthday presents were also off, more appropriate for the age of the card she sent than the age I actually was, but her strangest ways manifested themselves in for-no-reasons gifts of pencils and dollar bills.

Whenever we had the family over, Aunt Pauline would come in and whisper to me that she had something special for me. Each time, that special thing was a bunch of #2 pencils that she had used and sharpened back to a point. Thus, they were both used and of varying lengths. What she thought I would do with them, especially after she’d given me about a pound and a half of pencils, I don’t know. But they just kept on comin’. The other gift brings us to the end of her spinsterhood.

My mom was the advisor to all the women in the family on whatever problems they were having or whatever decisions they had to make. Years after Uncle Murray the Furrier died, and Aunt Pearl met Harry the whatever who asked for her hand in marriage, she was on the phone and then in the house in record time. What to do? What to do? Mom said marry him. She did.

And so, it came one day that Aunt Pauline decided her dull, dark apartment needed a new lamp. She walked down the block a-ways to the lamp store, and there she met its owner Izzy Pollack from Wales. Izzy was about the size of a gnome, had ears like Dumbo, and was immediately smitten with my aunt. He sold her a lamp and then pursued her like a golden retriever puppy pursues its playmate—relentlessly. Now it was Pauline’s turn in mom’s chair because he asked Pauline to marry him. And with mom’s assurances, it was the right thing for her to do, she did, leading to one of the most hysterically funny nights in our family history.

It was a simple wedding conducted by a rabbi in the chapel. We had a reception at our home, and afterwards Iz and Pauline left to spend their wedding night together at the Abraham Lincoln Apartments. No honeymoon. Iz was in a word cheap. In two, very cheap. Both I guess in their ‘70’s at the time, the tennis player and the gnome took their leave from all the well-wishers and disappeared into the night. At about 1 am the phone rang. It was Pauline—screaming.

In trying to calm her down, my mother woke everyone up. When she finally got Pauline calm enough to understand what had happened, this was the story. All the cabinets in the kitchen, full of dishes and glasses and whatnot, had fallen off the wall in what must have been the likes of the cymbal crashes in the 1812 Overture. ‘scared them both awake and half to death.

Now they were faced with a disaster scene. Abraham Lincoln Civil War-like destruction was to be found in his name-sake apartments in Brooklyn, NY. Just no dead bodies. A brigade was needed. All hands on deck. We all dressed and drove over there, and no lie, there were all the cabinets everywhere, some smashed on the sink, some smashed on the floor, pieces of plates and glasses, large and small, exploded over everything. You know of course what my teenage brother and I conjured up in our minds as we envisioned what the tennis player and the gnome could have been doing on their honeymoon night to shake the cabinets off their moorings…so we laughed until we almost wet our pants.

As I said, Izzy was cheap, so cheap that he made the proverbial Scotsman seem generous. Someone said, “He squeezes the nickel so tight, it makes the bull shit.” For instance, eventually, everyone in the family had new lamps, but Izzy’s idea of a gift was a deal–10% off. Or if it was a really good lamp… five per cent. Free? Not in his vocabulary. So now we come to the second of Pauline’s gifts.

I think my mother had tipped her off that I had enough pencils to run an art studio, and she could start throwing them out rather than wrapping them up. “Well,” she asked, “what do you give a boy?”

“Money” was the answer.

Came the inevitable family party, and now Aunt Pauline has a husband, a cheap one. As usual, she greeted me with a whisper, “I have something for you.” Later in the day, I saw her scope out the room to see where Uncle Iz was located. When he was far enough away, Pauline would pull me into a corner and slip something that felt like origami into my hand. It was a dollar bill, always folded as many times as one could possibly fold it then pressed into my palm with this admonition: “Now don’t tell Uncle Iz…you know he loves you but…. you know how he is….”

“Yes, I do”, I would think, “cheap!”

And so unfolded the story of Aunt Pauline and her origami dollars who lived longer than Uncle Iz and I think ended up with more money than he had, and certainly more pencils.

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