by Patty Baumann (Hillsdale, NJ)
I never met my cousin Melvin. The first I heard of him was when I was little, maybe 4 or 5, playing in the Bronx apartment of my great-aunt, Lena, and her husband, Morris, back in the 1950’s. I can picture the adults socializing; my parents, my grandmother, her three sisters plus their husbands. The room smells of coffee and cakes. My brother and I are keeping busy as we are the only children present. Perhaps we’re playing tag, or cards, or a board game.
The buzz of the conversation is background noise to what my brother and I are doing. Yet a fragment of conversation makes its way into my head, unnoticed. It clings tightly, as if it is so important the child that I am would want to remember it years later as an adult. Above and beyond the din of chit chat and European accents come the words “He fell out of the window.” I don’t remember who said it or in what context or what came before or after it. And I continued playing on the living room floor.
A few years later, the sentence came to me. “Mom, who fell out of a window?” I asked one day. “Aunt Anna had a son,” she said. “It was a terrible accident. His name was Melvin.” And then, perhaps sensing that I could fear that happening to us, she added, “he was very little.”
Melvin’s parents, Aunt Anna and Uncle Joe, lived in the Bronx, not far from Aunt Lena and Uncle Morris, on the Grand Concourse. What made them so adorable was that she was big and he was short and stocky. My only problem with Uncle Joe was that I could hardly understand a word he said. He had a gravelly voice that only adults could decipher. Melvin had been their only child. After his death they had only each other. Aunt Anna was expressive and warm with her love for us and for all the children of her nieces and nephews. She had a lot of love to give, and no child of her own to dote on.
When I was fourteen, Aunt Anna died suddenly. A few days earlier, she had broken her hip. She had been in a Long Island hospital where her nephew worked as a doctor, so he could check in on her. That day, suddenly, a blood clot finished her off.
Uncle Joe naturally took care of the funeral arrangements, and I remember Aunt Lena and Grandma being upset that Joe was not including them in the plans or giving them any of her property. Both rightly felt that their Anna had mementos that were meaningful to her sisters. But they were apparently not consulted. I don’t think Joe had any contact with his sisters-in-law after the funeral. He suddenly was out of the picture. Our lives moved on.
In the last few years I’ve attempted to piece together my family tree. It has become a booming industry on the internet, and the amount of information available at the touch of a few key strokes is staggering. As I remembered details stored in the recesses of my mind, one sentence leaped out at me: “He fell out the window.” It took its rightful place front and center, having waited quietly all these years for me to notice it. But my mom, my aunt, and their cousins were dead. My dad, if he ever did know, had long ago forgotten the information I wanted. So the tidbits I had stored away tumbled out, as needed.
It pained me that someone, anyone, could have lived, been loved and lost, never to be thought of again as the few who cared about him left this world. It would be virtually impossible to find anything about my distant cousin, the boy who fell from a window. But I wanted to try.
Naturally, I needed a name. First name, Melvin. But last name? For the life of me, I could not remember Anna and Joe’s last name. Instead, I searched the vast New York Times archive of articles, pairing “Melvin” with “fatal,” “fall,” “windows,” etc. Nothing. Yes, lots of children fell out of windows, but apparently none were named Melvin.
On a whim, I leafed through page after page of last names on a genealogy website, hoping one of them would ring a bell. When I got to the “P”s, the bell rang. I settled on Pollack and it sounded right.
Quickly back to the New York Times archives, I entered “Melvin Pollack” into the search site and…. nothing. No other New York papers had an extensive online archive; the Times had been my only hope. Could I be at the end of the road so soon?
Call it fate, call it compassion from long ago and far away, or call it a heavenly kindness. And maybe just coincidence. My dad asked me to come over to his apartment and help him get rid of an enormous amount of junk; a lifetime accumulation of every day stuff that was part of our daily lives for so many years.
He and I came upon a box of photos, mostly from my parents’ wedding and early years together. Both came from very large families, and their wedding featured dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws. But, surprisingly, in this box was just one greeting card celebrating their upcoming wedding.
“Congratulations on your Engagement” it read on the outside with colorful but faded streamers decorating the border. The inside continued the sentiment, and was signed, “Aunt Anna and Uncle David Paulian.” I stared at the signature, then looked at my dad. “Who was Uncle David?” Dad shrugged. He had no idea. He too looked at the card. Still, he didn’t know who Uncle David Paulian was.
Apparently Aunt Anna had been married twice. More importantly, I realized that little cousin Melvin’s real last name was Paulian, not Pollack. What a treasure trove this small box of mementos had been.
I returned to the on-line archives of the New York Times. This time, I confidently typed “Melvin Paulian” and hit “search.” And… zero. “What does one have to do to get into the New York Times?” I wondered. I decided to search just the last name. Of the few hits that I got, one was “David Paulian.” It was an announcement of his funeral less than a year after my parents’ marriage. It gave his address in the Bronx but did not name his survivors.
Some of my relatives had been buried in Queens, and a number of cemeteries out there had websites. In a matter of minutes, I found his grave. Then I entered Melvin’s name. And his gravesite, near his dad, appeared as well. The sadness consumed me. His date of burial, July 21, 1933, was fifteen years before his father’s. How painful those years must have been for Aunt Anna and Uncle David. A search of the 1930 New York City Census revealed their little family of three living in the Bronx. Melvin was just a few months old.
My mission now was to find any information available. My ultimate goal, with luck, would be a picture of him. I wrote to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office for their reports on Melvin’s death. A few weeks later the documents arrived. They spoke of an average, four year old boy, well nourished, with brown hair and brown eyes, who had suffered a fractured skull when he fell from his apartment window on Washington Avenue to the courtyard below. He died an hour later at nearby Bronx Hospital now called Bronx-Lebanon.
My eyes filled with tears. I could picture my distraught Aunt Anna as she paced the hospital halls, surrounded by her family, praying for a miracle that would not come. She had been an “older” mom in her mid-thirties when she had this baby. Now, there would be no more children.
On a hunch, I searched the archives for what the weather was like on that terrible day. I learned that it had been the second hottest day of the summer. With no air-conditioning, apartment windows were wide open. It explained why, in my initial archival search for Melvin, I found so many children who had fallen out of windows. It was, sadly, a regular occurrence many decades before window guards were required.
I needed some sort of closure. Certainly, any of Aunt Anna’s memorabilia was long gone, left to the machinations of her second husband, Joe. Again, the box of mementos from my Dad came to the rescue. In it I found a laminated newspaper announcement of my parents’ engagement published in a newspaper called The Bronx Home News. If the Home News had reported on the accident, it would mean that for one day in his brief life, Melvin would have been known. Perhaps there would be a picture.
Through a series of e-mails, I learned that The Bronx Home News was on microfilm at Lehman College in the Bronx. I was willing to go there, but first I wanted to make sure the particular issue existed. I sent an e-mail to one of the library administrators. Generously, she wrote back that she would have her assistant double-check. Then, incredibly, she wrote again. While checking for that issue, her assistant had spotted the article on Melvin. She was mailing it to me.
Days later the envelope arrived. The page of the Home News had separate stories of two children who fell from windows and died. The story of Melvin’s fall appeared in the middle of the page, but referred to him as Marvin and his mother as Bertha. It reported that his mother had left him playing with his toys on the living room floor, and he had fallen from their third floor apartment to the rear courtyard below. There was no picture of this little boy, loved and lost like hundreds of other children left alone for a moment or two on hot summer days.
It so pained me to think of Aunt Anna. As a child, I had no notion of how much she had suffered; I was small and she, despite her tragedy, was not a sad woman.
I felt the need to explore one more avenue. My parents’ wedding at the majestic Concourse Plaza Hotel in the Bronx had been filmed by my uncle, and about 90 seconds of jumpy, dark film had been transferred to a DVD. I loaded it into my computer and gazed at the familiar faces of my long gone family having the time of their lives. When the camera focused on the table where Lena and Anna were sitting, I immediately recognized them and Uncle Morris. But the man seated next to Aunt Anna, whom I always just assumed was some unnamed relative, was my Uncle Dave. No longer a stranger, he was now part of my family history.
There was one more obligation I felt compelled to complete. On a beautiful fall day my husband and I traveled to Queens to the cemetery where my cousin Melvin had been laid to rest, eventually to be joined by his grief-stricken dad and mom. We walked the rows of the well-kept cemetery, following a map given to me by the office. And there, in front of me, stood the headstone of my cousin Melvin. Ironically, there was a space on the stone which once held a picture of him as was the custom back then. But now it was gone.
I do not know when someone last visited it. If I had to guess, it would have been more than forty years ago. But I was here now. I placed a small stone from my own yard on the headstone. My husband and I said the Mourners Kaddish.
A symbol on the headstone captured his story eloquently. It was of the trunk of a tree with the upper part hacked and tilting off, as if the tree had been cut before it had a chance to grow.
Patty Bauman worked as a producer and researcher for Good Morning, America for over twenty years. She has spent the past five years tracing her family roots, and is currently working on a book about her mother, herself, and medical malpractice. She lives with her husband and their 16 year old daughter in northern New Jersey.