In the 1920 Federal Census Grandma Bessie’s sister Belle is listed as a milliner. At the age of 16 she had completed the mandatory 8 years of public education and was already employed full-time.
In earlier Federal and New York State Census records she appears under the names Rebecca or Becky. The 1920 Census has her name as Bella.
As a child my Dad called her Aunt Belle and when I met her she was also called Aunt Belle. My parents never used the term Great Aunt or Great Uncle when introducing their Aunts and Uncles to me. I grew up, then, considering the Aunts and Uncles of my parents’ generation as my Aunts and Uncles as well. There was no sense of distance or generation gaps between us. This is why I say that in many ways I was an extension of my Mom and also my Dad in many ways. Their cousins were also my cousins. From childhood on I grew up with a sense that we were all one very large and extended family. There was a sense of present tense.
I can only explain it like this: To say someone is my aunt or my uncle brings them directly closer to me in time and space. To use the term Great Aunt or Great Uncle pushes them further into the past and makes them feel distant to me. Yet for the sake of clarity in writing the family history I must use these terms to differentiate and clarify to readers who is who.
But deep down in my heart these terms do not exist. I still retain that sense of extension my parents created. I also still have the altered version of the family history within my mind but that is changing as research progresses and facts come forward. It does not diminish my love for my parents but at times I feel like at long last some mysteries are getting answered. I am also motivated to persevere in the research and discover what was hidden from me for so long. Somewhere in this cover-up and altering of facts I think I will find answers to the way my Mother’s mind worked and how she perceived reality. I have always held that her descent into Parkinsonism did not just happen all at once. It was a lifelong journey towards the outward manifestation of the illness, one which was preceded by what the doctors describe as psychotic episodes and a slow deterioration of the brain’s processes as dopamine levels decline.
This makes me always love my Mother more and affirm that I made the right choice by abiding and standing by her through the years. I always knew she labored under burdensome anxiety attacks and mood changes yet on the surface she managed to get through daily life with much patience and perseverance. Life was complicated with her but nothing she ever did had any vicious or nasty intentions behind it. It was always motivated by her sense of impending danger that would precede the anxiety attacks. She truly believed she was protecting those she loved by the reprimands she gave or the demands she made that we desist from certain behaviors or move away from certain relationships.
In the end she left the final choices and decisions up to whomever she addressed her fears and concerns to. But it would be hard to take because some of the things she would say were so unexpected.
In my case she could always tell when a female friend was not sincere or had good intentions and I’m grateful she could see through that. But when it came to some of the boyfriends I had she was less than observant and often too good to them when they would come to visit and end up using our apartment as a hangout. Yet whenever I broke up with a boyfriend my Mom was always there when I came home feeling empty and sad that it was over. She’d help me sort things out and encourage me to get busy with my creative projects since that was life affirming and productive.
All of these thoughts went through my mind as I searched and searched for Great Aunt Belle after 1920. I did not know her married name since my parents never mentioned it to me. I also did not know the name of her husband until I obtained the death certificate for Grandma Bessie’s brother David. When David Flashenberg died, according to his death certificate, the body was discovered by his brother-in-law David Arens. Since I knew David Flashenberg had never married I figured this was Great Aunt Belle’s husband.
Yet a search under Belle Arens brought back different results than I had expected.
In the 1930 Federal Census, there was a Bell Arens, 25 years old living with her 30 year old husband William in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There was no street or avenue name on the pages preceding this entry or right after it. I knew only that they lived in a very large apartment house and the building number was 183. About 6 pages prior to the one in which William and Bell Arens appear there are entries for Fort Washington Avenue, which was the address given for David Arens on the Death Certificate for David Flashenberg.
William Arens listed his profession as “salesman-millinery”. He was born about 1900 in Russia and stated that Yiddish was the language of his parents. William immigrated to the United States about 1910.
Bell and William were married about 1925 or 1926 since in the 1930 Census they state that their ages at marriage were 26 (William) and 21 (Bell). I have not been able to locate a marriage license in the New York City Municipal Archives and just may take my search to Pennsylvania since Great Aunt Belle and Great Uncle William/David went to live there sometime in the late 1950s-early 1960s.
I think the Arens enjoyed a very good standard of living as they had a radio set and were paying $75 a month for rent in Manhattan, which was almost double what Great Aunt Dorothy and Great Uncle Isidore/Irving (Belle’s brother) were spending for their Coney Island apartments in the mid-late 1930s.
I have done some preliminary work on William’s immigration record and have located an index entry at Ancestry. It states that William Arens in New York County filed a Declaration of Intent for Naturalization. It is contained within the records for 1907-1924. I do not know if I will pursue ordering a copy yet as I have other official documents and vital records that are more necessary for my maternal line.
The 1940 Census brought more surprises when I located the Arens again. This time the Federal Census contains the full address where they had been living since 1935: 640 Forth Washington Avenue. So I had a good reason to believe this was my Great Aunt Belle. This time her name was entered as Belle instead of Bell.
But what was I to make that this time the husband’s name is David Arens instead of William Arens?
In keeping with my research on the Flashenberg family and the way Jewish immigrants changed their first names I think William changed it to David sometime after the 1930 Federal Census. This is the same kind of name change Belle’s brother Isidor did when he appears as Irving in the 1940 Federal Census and on the 1935 birth certificate for his son Jack.
I knew that this was Great Aunt Belle’s family when I saw that Belle and David had one daughter named Sybil.
My Dad frequently told me about his cousin Sybil who lived in Philadelphia area as I was growing up. Although I never met her I always remembered her name because I thought it was very beautiful. In the late 1950s as I started school most girls were named Linda, Barbara, Debra and Cathy. Sybil was exotic and different. I imagined a young woman with dark black hair, tall and willowy. Whenever I pressed my Mom for more details she’d tell me she didn’t remember much about Sheila. She would call Aunt Belle’s daughter Sheila and so for some time I remained confused about the child’s name until I sat quietly one evening and remembered what my Dad had told me and decided that Sybil Arens was the correct name for Great Aunt Belle’s daughter. My Mom frequently mixed up people’s names when we would have our little mother-daughter chats as I was growing up so I learned how to ask questions and seek confirmation of details from other people very early in my life.
This in turn has proven a useful trait to have when doing family research.
In 1940 Great Aunt Belle was still a housewife. Great Uncle William/David was making $5,000 as a salesman in wholesale millinery. The family was enjoying an even better standard of living than my Great Grandparents Tillie and Benjamin or Great Uncle Isidore/Irving and Great Aunt Dorothy Flashenberg. The Arens were paying $82 a month for rent for an apartment my Dad described as spacious with a beautiful view.
1930 Federal Census
1940 Federal Census
Index for Declarations of Intent for Naturalization New York County 1907-1924