Would you believe that shy May’s first job was as an usher in a burlesque theater?
Mae was born on January 15, 1918, to Minnie Laber and Irving (Isador) Wosnitzer – or so she thought. (In February of 2017, we found out that she had been adopted. That is a story for another time, though.)
Early documents have the spelling of her name as Mae, but as her children, we only knew her as May. One mystery that still remains, is that on the 1920 Census, her name is listed as Elsie. Could that have been her birth name or did the census taker get it totally wrong?
Minnie and Irving had been married for 15 childless years and were overjoyed to finally have a beautiful baby girl. They lived in the Bronx at 757 Kelly Street until May was about 7. She grew up in a loving home and was exceptionally close to her mother throughout her life. Although she was an only child, she grew up near, and with, her 9 first cousins: Millie and Mollie Zucker, Wilton and Marcy Streicher, Max, Sam and Millie Pollay, and Marilyn and Merlie Streicher. (Her Aunt Rose and her Aunt Goldie married 2 brothers).
Minnie was a strict mother and never allowed May to eat candy. Raisins were her special treat. She had very few toys. She had one doll and she made a shoe-box carriage for it. One day she went for a walk with her mother. She decided to take her doll in its shoe-box carriage with her. While she was looking in a store window, a man’s big foot accidently stepped on her doll and crushed it. She was so sad. Were they shopping that day on the busy Grand Concourse in the Bronx? They were living at 757 Kelly Street in the Bronx then. She talked a lot about going tto the Grand Concourse.
May with her grandmother, Tobi, and her cousin, Marcy Streicher
May probably attended Kindergarted at PS 39 on Longwood Avenue. By looking at the class statistics in the top right corner, we can see that there were over 40 children in the class!
When May was about 7, her family moved to 2054 78th Street in Brooklyn, NY, to the House of the Four Sisters, as it was affectionately known. May’s family lived upstairs in the back. Across the hall from them, was Minnie’s sister, Ray Pollay and her family. In the 2 downstairs apartments were Minnie’s sisters Rose and her youngest sister, Goldie, and their families. (You can read more about the House of the Four Sisters in the Laber section.) May’s cousin. Millie Pollay, lived across the hall. Although Millie was about 9 years younger, she remembers playing jacks in the hallway with May.
When May was a young girl, Minnie and Irving got divorced and she did not see her father again until she was married. Did he continue to support her? We don’t know for sure, but her Cousin Millie remembers that she always had beautiful clothes.
May’s high school graduation photo
May probably attended New Utrecht HS in Brooklyn. After graduating, May went to work as a salesgirl at May’s Department Store in Brooklyn, NY. However, her first job was as an usher at the Elgin Theater which her other Cousin Millie Zucker’s husband owned. (To read more about this, check out the How They Met page. ) Being somewhat tall at 5′ 6″ and very pretty with high cheekbones, thick, wavy, brown hair and an hour-glass figure, she was also offered modeling jobs which she turned down. She was barely 18 years old when she met Bernard Blieden at her cousin’s house.
May and Bernie dated for 10 years trying to save money to have a wedding. For the last four years of their courtship, Bernie was overseas with the Army Air Force. May, normally a shy, happy girl, was despondent during this time period. She kept busy by working, though.
After their wedding and honeymoon, they lived with Minnie in her 2 bedroom apartment. (Click on Wedding in the menu above to read about their wedding and also to view their wedding album, their honeymoon photos, and to read the telegrams they received on their wedding day.)
May with her first child, Tara
Bernie encouraged May to look up her father. By this time, Irving owned the I. Watson Hat Company and gave Bernie a job. Minnie did not like Bernie associating with her ex-husband, so he only worked there for a short time.
May was very upset when her father died in 1949 after her daughter’s first birthday. She was finally getting to know him again.
May was known as the “young, cool” Mom of the building. My downstairs friend loved my mother and called her Maize and even carved my mother’s name in her parents’ headboard! My friend remembers that while playing together, we would run upstairs and my mother would give each of us a freshly peeled whole carrot for a treat. My friend thought that was the best treat ever. My mother was always conscious of what we ate and tried to feed us healthy food. She was ahead of her time on that.
However, she also believed in huge portions and our sandwiches were stacked high with bologna and salami (not so healthy afterall). Also, in those days my mother and grandmother were always rendering chicken fat and that was smeared on everything, or just smeared on a slice of bread. Oh, it was so good, but as we know now, so bad for us!
Visiting Minnie in Brooklyn with the family
Ira, May holding Avra, Tara
After their 2nd child, Ira, was born, they needed more room, and moved to Alley Pond Park Garden Apartments in Queens. They lived there for 5 years. May loved to cook and was always making extra food which she would then give to the neighbors. Their 3rd child, Avra, was born while they lived in Alley Pond Park.
A Few Alley Pond Park Family Photos
Their next move was to Teaneck, NJ, a few streets away from Bernie’s brother, Arthur, and his family. May was very upset about moving to NJ. She was sad and felt she would never see her cousins again. However, Teaneck had a good school system and it was easy to walk to town and to the Synagogue which was important since May did not learn to drive. She did try taking one lesson, but she was too nervous to continue.
Bernie’s Uncle Max Abramowitz came to live with Bernie’s family in Teaneck. May always cooked him his favorite foods: boiled potatoes, and herring. However, he went to FL for the winter as was his usual custom and died there at age 92.
Then May’s mother, Minnie, came to live with in May’s Teaneck house. At this point, she was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and fell often and easily. When May became pregnant with her 4th child, she could no longer lift Minnie up and sadly, Minnie was moved to a nursing home.
At this point in time, May might have found out about being adopted and was also disappointed and mad at her mother for not telling her. Why is this a possibliity? Her cousin, Marcy Streicher, had died a few years before. His wife, Estelle, remarried and the new husband adopted the children. May was good friends with Estelle and Estelle brought her family to visit in Teaneck so May could meet her new husband. Rumor is she told May that she was adopted. Could it because her children were now adopted, too?
May’s 4th child, was born in Teaneck, NJ, in 1959. Mavra was born 6 weeks early and weighed 4 lbs. 12 oz. When she was born, May’s other 3 children had the chicken pox. While the new baby stayed in the incubator, the other 3 went to stay with their Aunt Lois and Uncle Arthur Blieden who lived just a few blocks away.
At this time, May and Bernie realized that their children’s names all ended in “ra” so they made up a name for the baby that ended in “ra”, too. How should it be pronounced, though? Should it have a long “a” sound or a short “a” sound? To decide, their Teaneck neighbor, Lonnie Dressler, stood on a busy street corner, showed people walking by the name written on a clipboard and asked people how they would pronounce the name. The short “a” sound won out!
In 1960, when her Mavra was just a little over a year old, May was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. She never knew. She was told she had ulcers. May’s Aunts and Uncles visited her constantly in the hospital. Bernie would take his children into New York City to visit with their mother, but in the late Spring and early summer, they were made to stay in the park across the street and just wave to her as she stood with help at the window in her room. Looking back,they were cheated out of time with her.
May came home for a few days to attend Tara’s 9th Grade Graduation from Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in Teaneck. However, she was so thin, her clothes hung on her and she was so weak, two people had to hold her up as she walked. Her Cousin Millie remembers that on one visit towards the end, May said she was in so much pain, she wished she had the strength to jump out of the window.
May and Bernie had 4 children and her family was everything to her. She was a stay-at-home mom and did not believe mothers should work outside of the house. She was always shy and nervous and never learned how to drive.
She died July 28, 1961 leaving her four children ages 14, 10, 7 and 2.
The children’s pediatrician sent Bernie a note that said “. . . I’ve never known anyone who tried so hard to do everything for her children, and who had such enthusiasm for her family . . . ” A young cleaning girl stopped at the house a few months later just to talk to Mom to let her know she had gotten married and had followed her advice to stay in school. She was shocked to learn what happened, as was the butcher, the jeweler, and anyone else May had ever come in contact with. She might have been shy, but as Bernie’s mother, Gussie, always said, her daughter-in-law was a real “balaboosta”.
At the funeral, Bernie was hysterical, while her children were in shock. The youngest, Mavra, only 2, stayed at home with our neighbor, Lonnie Dressler. Ira remembers that Mildred Drosin, mother of Aunt Lois, guided us outside and tried to push us into a taxi to take us home, saying we did not belong there. Luckily, Aunt Lois saw her and stopped her from taking us and brought us back inside. That being said, I have no memories of the day other than hating all the pats on the head and mornful stares we got from everyone. That just added to my own agony.
Until finding this obituary in a pile of family papers, I had no recollection that we went to New York for the funeral.
May is buried in the Blieden family plot in Cedar Park Cemetery, Carmel Section, Lot 635, in Paramus NJ.
May spoiled her family, but because of her love and devotion we all had a good foundation to life, and with a 2 year old in the house, we had no choice but to keep on going forward.
Outstanding questions to research:
- Where was May born
- When was she born and when was she adopted
- What was her birth name
- How did the adoption occur