By that time the war started, World War One. Mr. Unterberg had said to me watching the way I dealt with people who came into the office, that I had greater abilities than secretarial. I was very sensitive to poor people, and sometimes going to the settlement house I would see these people in need and talk to them and try to help them. So he got me a job working for the Jewish Welfare Board, dealing with immigrants and their problems. The Board had set up an apartment for those people. I taught the immigrant women and men how to live in the modern world, how to keep clean, store food, make beds, all that sort of thing. It was astonishing how little people knew, how uneducated they were. It was touching, you could not help being moved to see the struggles they had to understand, to learn, their desire to make good in America. I, having been born here, had no idea of my own parents' struggle, they too had come as young people not knowing the language, the ways of the new world, but at least they had skills, my father had a profession, he had work the day he landed, he was always very proud of telling us that. My father always knew how to make a living, and he worked till the day he died. He was extremely responsible, for him the family was everything. He not only got himself work but other musicians too. He became a sort of booking agent for musicians in addition to working himself. I learned ambition from him.
Then in 1918 we had the terrible flu epidemic, and my two older sisters, my dear sisters, one twenty-three, the other twenty-four, they each contracted the flu and within months of each other they both died. To this day I don't like to think about it. I saw my poor mother turn old before my eyes. It was never an easy life, she was the hardest-working person I had ever seen, and how they had struggled the both of them to make a good life, and bring us up properly, so that we could have some prospects for our own lives, some promise. It was not easy raising six children on the wages of a free-lance musician, however responsible he was; and in those days, of course, there was nothing that made running a home easy; you washed clothes with a washboard, you scrubbed them by hand in the sink. I used to do that myself, and you shopped every day because there was no refrigeration, and you cooked from scratch, there were no conveniences in cooking any more than in anything else. She had never had help. And these two beautiful young women got sick and died. She lost her two oldest daughters! I've blocked it all out, I don't remember the funerals. I try not to picture those girls. I don't remember any of it, only that that time in my mind is blank, a grey space, an emptiness.
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The author was touched by the readiness of the people
- to do their best to adopt for America.
- to help each other.
- to join the army.
- to bring up their children properly.
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