In childhood, I was a little boy in an aging community. I was the late-comer in the family and most of the neighbors were already approaching retirement- or beyond. The many ladies in the building could delight in having me come in for a cookie or sometimes they would babysit me if my father was photographing a wedding on a Sunday.
When I was born, my mother decided she needed a job to supplement the income. Mrs. Veronica “Vera” Klein was a school teacher around the corner at St. Elizabeth’s and she had just retired. She was the most proper and genteel woman – with a polished mid-Atlantic accent and perfect diction- that one could cast for the role of grade-school teacher.
Becoming a nanny was not something she planned on doing in her retirement, but she must have realized that she had no other retirement plans and she was a natural pedagogue, so when my mother approached her with the idea, she accepted.
From my early infancy she watched me daily, and when I began to talk she taught me to call her “Oma”, the German for grandmother. This was a nice idea since I did not have any grandmothers and she did not have any offspring.
Oma Klein had an old-school expectation of children’s behavior and taught “obedience”. She would tease me about bad children who had to attend “obedience school”. She also had many little ethical sayings that she repeated. One that I remember is, “A promise is a promise and it must be kept!”
A little bit about Vera Klein: She was one of the earliest tenants of the building still residing there. (She appears in the 1940 census here .) She remembered when the building had a long awning in the courtyard and bushes around the periphery. (She also mentioned an elevator operator and maybe a doorman?) She and her late husband Adam were German-Americans. She was not Jewish, and when asked about a picture of a semitic- looking man hanging in her apartment she assured us that she was not Jewish. She was friendly with all the German-Jewish women in the building though (and could converse with them in German at times).
The entire arrangement was special to me. Oma Klein was as proper an influence a child could have in his early youth. And the experience was one to change her too. My sister’s friend told me that before Oma began watching me, she was known as the woman who yelled down at the kids playing in the courtyard and making noise- sometimes even throwing water at them. Caring for one of the children in the building helped her see them in a different light and, perhaps, brought out a sunnier side of her personality.
When I was still a young boy she moved to California- La Jolla- to be near her sister in her old age. We corresponded by mail and telephone, and she made an occasional visit back east. I will always remember her.