1. Where were you born?
I was born on April 3, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan.
2. Tell me about your family.
I am of Jewish heritage. Both sets of grandparents came from Russia to settle in Rochester, NY. I married a military man and we had two children. We lived overseas in Germany and Japan. We lived in Nagoya, Japan for 3 years where I learned a lot of Japanese customs and language. We had a wives club in Japan, where we would exchange Japanese and American recipes and give each other cooking lessons. One of the Japanese women in the club had a father in the Kabuki Theater, and we visited the Kabuki and learned a lot about Japanese theater and plays.
3. What was growing up like for you?
I was born in Detroit and we moved to Batavia, NY. My father was a successful auto mechanic and owned his own garage. He had an artistic bent, like all my family. Once he painted two hula dancing girls on either side of his car with the slogan, “Does Your Car Shimmy and Shake? Bring it to Morts Garage.” I was too young to be embarrassed. I liked it.
When I was 6-7 years old, my mother asked me to buy some eggs on the way home from school, and I accidentally dropped the box of a dozen eggs and broke 2 of them. I was really nervous to tell her, so I decided to solve the problem a different way. I immediately went into the kitchen before my mother saw, and broke all 12 eggs into a bowl to hide my mistake. When she asked me why I broke ALL the eggs into a bowl. I told her I thought she wanted to make an omelet.
When I was very young, I loved to look at the sky and see the clouds. I told my mother that I wanted to go and lay on a cloud. She said, no, you can’t, you’ll fall through. I always loved the sky and wanted to go up and explore it.
For part of my childhood, when my parents got divorced, I lived in a foster home on a farm in Upstate New York. We attended a 1-room schoolhouse and walked to school. During that period of my life, I read a lot of books and discovered the joy of reading.
4. What memories stand out for you about the Great Depression?
I was very young. I don’t remember it well.
5. Tell me where you were and what you did during World War II?
I was living in New York City with my father. I wanted to join the Women’s Air Force and become a pilot, so I joined the Civil Air Patrol for flight training. I loved it! We had cockpit simulations and learned how to navigate the plane. I was only 18, but told them I was 21 when I signed up. One day my father came home early and saw my uniform, and said, “What are you doing!” I was underage, so they made me quit.
I was also working part-time and going to art school. My mother gave me excellent advice. I dreamed of becoming a fashion illustrator in NYC, and my mother said, okay, that’s great, but also learn how to type. I got a job typing for the Decorations and Awards Department during the war. We typed awards for Medals of Honor and Purple Hearts. Typing gave me a practical work skill to use the rest of my life, and gave me many job opportunities.
During World War II, I also remember rationing and food stamps, because food was scarce.
I remember the songs, the music, the movies, the shops, 5 & 10 cent stores, Woolworths. Broadway plays, and jazz music. I remember seeing Ella Fitzgerald in Times Square. I loved jazz and experienced many wonderful concerts—Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and others. In those days we never talked while anyone was singing or playing, we were completely silent out of respect. I remember concerts at Carnegie Hall with Leonard Bernstein, hearing Lionel Hampton in the basement of Child’s Cafeteria.
There were USO dances all over NYC and Long Island during the war with famous orchestra leaders such as Tommy Dorsey and sailors en route through NYC would attend. Once after a dance we took two sailors from Montana to see the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the night. It was a lot of fun. In those days you could walk around on a Saturday night and feel safe.
Since we lived in a multi-story apartment building and had no backyard, we always met on the roof to socialize, ours was a “vertical neighborhood.” We’d meet people up on the roof to talk and play. We did our homework, dried our hair and flew kites, took family photos for birthdays and holidays.
How did your life change when the war ended?
6. Your most vivid memories of:
• Vietnam War – We never should have gone in the first place. I was very angry, very upset. I joined the Mothers for Peace movement in St. Helena. I still have a pendant that I gave to my daughter. It says, “War is not good for children and other living things.” The peace movement was not against soldiers, like people thought. We wanted to keep them alive. “Bring them home now” was our slogan. We went to meetings in San Francisco. It was easy to go to San Francisco in those days. We voted to impeach the President.
• The first moon walk – I have wonderful memories. We were glued to the television! It was an exciting time! I remember we were worried about them landing.
• Assassination of JFK – I found out about it word of mouth. My husband and I had just gotten back from Germany for less than a year. I was shopping at a store in Cotati. I was absolutely shocked. I turned on the television as soon as I got home.
• Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
I was shocked and horrified. I thought it was terrible.
• Civil rights movement?
In St. Helena in the 60s, there were many Mexican workers who came to pick the grapes for the wineries. I heard Cesar Chavez speak at St. Helena High School supporting workers rights. The workers needed toilets, places to sleep, decent pay, and safe and healthy working conditions. People against the movement were claiming, “They’re taking away our jobs!” I doubted those people would work hard picking grapes in the hot sun for little pay.
My husband and I were newlyweds and wanted to rent a home on Long Island. My husband had a job with the Atomic Energy Commission. His Russian parents wanted to leave the Old Country behind them, so had changed their name from Harinsky to Harris. We went to sign the rental agreement, and my husband signed his name, Saul Harris. When he read “Saul”, the man asked, “Are you Jewish?” Saul said, “Yes.” We were told, “This neighborhood is restricted, no Jewish allowed.” There was open discrimination in those days. We ended up in Levittown, the first big housing built after World War II on Long Island.
7. What do you think has been the most important invention of the last hundred years? Why?
Television in the 1950s. We could now watch the news and it made us more aware of the world and our communities. There were interesting, educational programs.
8. If you could pass on any advice about life to the newest generation of your family, based on your experiences, what would it be?
You don’t know everything when you’re young. Be open to information that will help you with your life. My mother’s advice about typing helped me my whole life.
Also, when one door closes, another opens. Be open to change, try new things, you will learn new skills that will take you farther in life.
9. What book had a big influence on you?
Later in life, the past 15-20 years, the Diaries of Anias Nin had had a big influence on me. To summarize a quote from Nin, “Each human being that comes my way I try to treat with tolerance, compassion and understanding.” Also, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang about helping the environment—his life as a forest ranger and how important it is to protect the environment. And the writings of Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) to learn about Jewish life in Russia, and the customs. I have always loved Mark Twain. He’s my favorite author, with his funny, wonderful sense of humor.
10. What major life event did you experience that changed you?
As you pass through the stages of life, these things change you. You are not the same person you were at sixteen. You grow and you change. For me, parenting, traveling and photography were all major influences in my life.
a. Parenting: Getting married, having children, learning how to be a good parent.
b. Traveling: Being an Air Force wife, living abroad and experiencing different cultures. Moving from year to year, learning to adapt to new customs and to make new friends, learning other languages.
c. Photography: After I graduated Rochester High School, I moved to NYC and my mother gave me a Brownie Reflex camera. Just after the war they were offering free classes at the New School of Social Research in art, photography, and writing. I walked into a photography class and was very intimidated by the assortment of lenses and high powered cameras the other students had. I had my Brownie Reflex with me. I almost walked out and the teacher stopped me and asked me where I was going. She said, “I will give you assignments that you can do with your camera. What really matters is what is in your head and in your heart.” She was Berenice Abbott, a famous early woman photographer in NYC. Photography has been a wonderful, creative outlet all my life. I have documented my family life and my travels—NYC, Germany, Japan, California.