Cromey Online

The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Monday, January 05, 2015


Helen Louise Reinemann Cromey
My mother’s smile, warm, open and friendly, beamed from her eyes, as she demanded another drink of rum and coke from dad.  She stuck out her chubby leg, sitting on the dark green sofa, in her peach slip on a hot humid New York City evening after dinner. I used to threaten that I would carve that expression on her tombstone.

She stood straight and five feet four inches tall. Always worried about her weight. She said, “I want to lose the weight from my legs, arms and tummy, but weight loss always shows in my face.” She had bright merry brown eyes and graying hair. She said she started going gray in her 30s.
Helen taught me social dancing. First was an awkward one-step, then later the simple fox-trot steps. She cajoled me and my big size 13 feet into some form a regular pattern to the point where I became a fairly smooth dancer.

An expert swimmer, she taught my brother Edwin and me to swim. She held my hand as we waded into to the light surf of the beach at Rockaway. We held our noses and ducked under the water. Opening or eyes under water my eyes stung but I soon got used to it. She held me in her soft arms and we ducked under the water together. She took my skinny arms and swung me around in the water and we ducked under together. I learned to trust the water to hold me up as I did the dog paddle and kicked my legs. It was all great fun. Sometimes I got a snoot full of water and I cried. She laughed and said do it again and I did.  Slowly I trusted the water and myself to move about in the water testily at first and then with more vigor.

She was enormously affectionate with lots of hugs and kisses amply displayed toward my brother Edwin and me.  When I was 14 and well over six feet, I ran into the living room and plopped down on her lap.  She loved it.  She laughed and said she loved me.

Her free and easy ways, her enjoyment of life's pleasure and her being very physical with me taught me to be the same way.  Coming home from work she climbed out of her dress and girdle to get into something “compasil” as she liked to say.  Helen used to sit in her slip with Dad in his undies on hot humid summer nights watching TV on Welfare Island, where they lived for 14 years.
Welfare Island is now called Roosevelt Island after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White house from 1933 until his death in 1945.

The island in the 1940s and 50s had three hospitals, the City Home and a Detention Home for Girls behind a high chain link fence. Dad was the chaplain at Bird S. Coler Hospital and the City Home or the poor house, which housed homeless, sick and elderly people. Mother was the secretary to the superintendent of Coler hospital, Mr. Lewis.

The chaplain’s apartment was in the basement of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. There was a large living room in the shape of a D under the curvature of the chapel’s rounded rear wall. There was a dining room, two bedrooms a large meeting room, two baths and a small kitchen.  It was quite luxurious after living so many years in small flats in Brooklyn.
The chapel is a city landmarked building and still stands, although the City Home and Detention Center gave way to condominium apartments. In 1959 my mother Helen died in the apartment under the chapel. She was 57 years old.

Her favorite song was Irving Berlin’s “Always.” I still get a lump in my throat when I hear someone sing, “I’ll be loving you, Always.  With a heart that’s true, Always.” I think of mother singing that to dad.  She had a lovely singing voice and sang in church choirs where Dad was the rector. She sang around the house as she did chores.

She used “Evening in Paris” after bath powder and perfume. It is certainly not top of the line cosmetics, but that is what she used.  Dad went out to buy Christmas presents for her usually on Christmas Eve. He was not one for planning ahead. He would rush home and wrap the Evening in Paris Cosmetics in a sloppily arranged package and put it under the tree to open a short while later. We shared Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, as Dad would often be away doing church services on Christmas morning.

Helen loved to go shopping on Thursday evenings. That is when New York department stores were open only one evening a week. 24/7 shopping had not been invented yet in the 1940s and 50s. We lived near Bloomingdales on Third Avenue and 59th Streets in Manhattan. She loved cruising the cosmetic counters on the first floor of that store. When I go to Manhattan I often take the Helen Cromey Memorial Walk through those counters and think warmly of her. I have only visited her grave in Paramus, New Jersey once with Edwin. I have taken the Bloomingdales memorial walk many times.

One of her best friends was Sylvia Pamigiano. Sylvia was a Jew married to an Italian. Her family was not pleased with the union. Bill was a big blustery fellow with a wide smile and good laugh. He died a very few years after their marriage. Sylvia was bereft and Helen invited her to dinner and she and Dad talked Sylvia in her grief. She became Aunt Sylvia to us boys. She often joined us for dinner on Tuesday evenings. She was dark haired and slender with bright brown eyes and was a sweetie to Edwin and me.

Helen was a confidant to family members especially the young women.  She was tolerant and non-judgmental about people’s thoughts and behavior. My cousin told me that she could talk with Helen about personal things where she couldn’t talk so easily with her own mother. I assume this had to do with men and sex.
The following memory haunts me. We lived in Great River out on Long Island in the late 1930s. Dad was the rector of Emmanuel Church. The rectory was right next door to the church.

One day we were all having breakfast in the kitchen of the rectory: Dad, Annabel, Edwin, Jimmy and I. I saw the boiling brown, hot coffee spill into my mother’s lap from the aluminum pot. She shrieked,
“Aagh, Oh, Ah.”  Her screams contorted her face.  Annabel rubbed butter on her naked thighs. She was taken to the hospital. What a shock that must have been, but I don’t remember any feelings, but the memory lingers. She recovered and the awful event was never referred to again.
Several times Helen was away for a while with nervous breakdowns. She went to some institution in White Plains, N.Y. I never knew any more about these absences. I don’t remember any adverse feelings about these situations, except that mother seemed to cry a lot. I do not remember being afraid or angry. Dad took good care of us. Annabel Knorr and her son Jimmy, a boy of my age, moved in with us for a while. She helped soften our family situation while Helen was away. I am only conjecturing.

I lived at home on Welfare Island while I attended New York University. One evening I took my girl friend Lillian home to meet mother and Dad. Helen was warm and friendly with Lillian and she and dad welcomed her warmly. Neither parent was surprised when I announced that we wanted to marry after finishing my junior year at NYU. Lillian had already graduated and was employed at Women’s Wear Daily as a researcher.
Helen and my dad supported our marriage. I was surprised when she cried when I moved out of our home to share an apartment with Lillian. She missed her oldest son.

Helen often invited Lillian and me to dinner on the island.  Our first two children were born by 1958. Helen doted on her first grandchildren. She baby-sat the little girls one weekend when Lillian and I went away. She was very tired and said she could not do that again and never did.  We saw mother and dad often for dinner on the Island or at our homes.
Helen lost weight and began to look gaunt in the face. Dad called me at 9:00 AM on May 6, 1959 to tell me that Helen had died in her sleep during the night. He discovered her dead when he awakened in the morning.

The day before was Mother’s Day. Helen always laughed that the day was cooked up by Hallmark to sell cards. My brother and I always sent her a card on Mother’s Day. Brother Edwin was away in the army and I was a busy rector of an Episcopal Church. Neither of us was home for dinner on that Mother’s Day. Helen died after going to bed on Mother’s Day, 1959.

She told us that she had travelled to Cuba for a fun filled vacation in the 20s. Pictures show her crouching donning a catcher’s mit, playing in the streets with her girl friends wearing the clothes of a 1920s flapper girl. She was always smiling and playful.

Sadly I know nothing of how she got along with her mother and dad. Her father Henry Louis Reinemann worked in bars and restaurants and worked his last years as a janitor in Schrafft’s restaurants in Manhattan. In retirement he lived part time with us in Brooklyn and part time with his son Louis and his wife Hattie in New Jersey. He died in the late 1940s.

Helen’s mother was Emma Reinemann. There are pictures of her with white hair, a matronly figure holding babies, probably Edwin or me. She committed suicide sometime in the 1930s.

I also know nothing of Helen meeting Dad, their courtship, marriage or early years together. After Edwin and I were born we moved from Brooklyn, to Great River and Sayville on Long Island and back to Brooklyn and then to Welfare Island. Dad was not careful with money and this upset Helen. Things got biter when she went to work and helped with the finances.
Helen taught by example. Her warmth, humor, easygoing nature and non-judgmental stance made her available and enjoyable. I absorbed much from my mother.


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