Looking For Max Bunshaft

Look­ing for Max Bun­shaft©

My moth­er smoked Chester­field Kings and drank a Bloody Mary when she got home from work each night.  She liked Kurt Von­negut, Cary Grant and Antho­ny Quinn.  She was a scream­er, both as a par­ent, and when she and my dad were locked behind their bed­room door.  Lat­er, when the can­cer had devoured her spine, a car ride became a tor­ture cham­ber and she would respond to each pot­hole and bump by shriek­ing in agony.  She suf­fered from migraines and hay fever and thought her breasts were too large.

I was too young and self­ish to con­sid­er which ques­tions I would lat­er wish I had answers to.  Like, how she got that strange bruise on the white part of her left eye, and did it have any­thing to do with why her moth­er, Sophie, was com­mit­ted to a men­tal insti­tu­tion when my moth­er was just six­teen years old?

Would the box out­side my front door con­tain any clues? With trep­i­da­tion and curios­i­ty, I opened the musty smelling pack­age my broth­er had sent promis­ing a sur­prise.  I won­dered if its con­tents con­tained tox­ic mold capa­ble of infect­ing me if I inhaled the sur­round­ing air.  Inside, I found the small hard cov­er book, 20,000 Com­mon­ly Mis­spelled Words my mom kept beside the IBM type­writer she’d use to type my father’s man­u­scripts.  Under­neath some vague­ly famil­iar books from my teenage years, was a year­book cov­ered in yel­lowed and ripped pro­tec­tive plas­tic from West­side High School, Class of 1949.

I could feel my heart pal­pi­tat­ing as I pulled out the book and placed it on the din­ing room table.  When I saw the laven­der rib­bon from her prom cor­sage tucked inside the front cov­er, I knew it belonged to my moth­er.   I didn’t remem­ber ever see­ing the year­book before, although I might have been too young to care.

I flipped to the sec­tion con­tain­ing senior pho­tos and imme­di­ate­ly spot­ted my moth­er, but was sur­prised to find Ann Volken­heim had been nick­named, “Raggedy Ann.”  She was a mem­ber of the Com­mer­cial Club, the Nation­al Hon­or Soci­ety, the Inter­pre­tive Read­ing Club, the Ty-Pin Club, and the Year­book Fea­tures Com­mit­tee.  “Raggedy Ann” loved to Rhum­ba, was known for her “ever­last­ing gig­gle,” her loud sneezes, and “could often be spot­ted danc­ing at the Y.”  I scoured all the club pic­tures; find­ing no evi­dence my moth­er earned her nick­name because she wore shab­by clothes.  Since her moth­er, Sophie, was con­fined to Essex Coun­ty Hos­pi­tal Cen­ter, did my moth­er suf­fer the loss of a mater­nal influ­ence, some­one who might have helped her dis­cov­er and exploit her most flat­ter­ing assets?  Or, did stumped year­book edi­tors sim­ply invent “Raggedy Ann” on the spot?

Flip­ping through the year­book, I won­dered if any­one who’d writ­ten, “Best of luck to a swell girl,” had actu­al­ly known my moth­er.  Sev­er­al girl’s notes indi­cat­ed  they’d known Ann Volken­heim longer than four years of high school, and I won­dered how I might con­tact them if they were still alive.  I got to the last page of the year­book where a dozen peo­ple had writ­ten notes, includ­ing one Max A. Bun­shaft:

 

Dear Ann,

                                    I won­der if you still remem­ber that night! 

What say?

                                    Max A. Bun­shaft

                                    (“A” is for Allen)

Who was Max Bun­shaft?  There was no trace of him among the senior por­traits. Was he an old­er guy?  I smiled at the thought of my teenage mom engag­ing in a mem­o­rable night of promis­cu­ity.  There had to be more about Max Bun­shaft –some­where.   I start­ed to close the year­book when a stack of papers tucked between the final page and back cov­er caught my eye.

In that pile, I found a com­mence­ment pro­gram, some news­pa­per clip­pings, two iden­ti­cal sou­venir pho­tos from prom night, and a tiny pen­cil attached by a green string to a small card fold­ed in half.  It had the let­ters WS HS along with the date of her prom, Tues­day, June 14, 1949 print­ed on it.  Inside were the names of chap­er­ones and the menu includ­ing an appe­tiz­er of hearts of cel­ery on ice, and an entrée of turkey with pota­toes and veg­eta­bles.  The mid­dle two pages, labeled “Dance Pro­gram,” were filled with six­teen num­bered lines.  It was her dance card!  On the first page, the same Max A. Bun­shaft who’d writ­ten in my mother’s year­book had signed sev­en of the eight lines. The last line, writ­ten in my mother’s unmis­tak­able hand­writ­ing, held the crossed-out name, Herb Baron.  The sec­ond page was iden­ti­cal to the first.  Max Bun­shaft had four­teen sched­uled dances with my moth­er on prom night.   In the prom pho­to, a young man dressed in black pants, a white tux shirt, black bowtie and white jack­et stood slight­ly to the right and behind my moth­er with his arms wrapped around her, hold­ing her hand.  As a cou­ple, they looked radi­ant.  Was that Max Bun­shaft?

I also found a hand­writ­ten note from my moth­er to “Mr. Heel,” which had been ripped from a steno note­book dat­ed June 13, 1949, a day before the prom.

It said, “I was sur­prised (to say the least) at your pleas­ant behav­ior in regard to the lit­tle mat­ter of a for­mal prom which I nev­er attend­ed.  To be truth­ful I thought you were at least trust­wor­thy, if not hon­est.  Well, we all make mis­takes, but this has been my worst so far. “

I felt like I was wit­ness­ing her high school dra­ma unfold­ing before me.

I checked the year­book with no sign of Mr. Heel.  Was he Herb Baron, the boy whose name was crossed off her dance card?  Did Max Bun­shaft res­cue Raggedy Ann at the last minute and take her to her senior prom?  Why was this note tucked away in her year­book?

I scoured the pile again and a found a sou­venir dance pro­gram from a per­for­mance fea­tur­ing Ralph Flana­gan and the Chester­field Orches­tra. The back page offered these words of wis­dom from Ralph him­self:

Be your own expert and you’ll always buy Chester­field, the cig­a­rette that smells milder and smokes milder.”

Was this the night Max Bun­shaft ref­er­enced?  Was this the night my moth­er start­ed smok­ing Chester­field Kings?  Did my broth­ers look at all this stuff before they sent it?  Or, was her year­book only of inter­est to a daugh­ter in search of clues about her moth­er.

I unfold­ed the larg­er news­pa­per clip­ping and dis­cov­ered a list of the grad­u­ates of West Side High.  The small­er one was a wed­ding announce­ment, the kind door-to-door Cut­co knife sales­man use to iden­ti­fy prospec­tive cus­tomers.  It read, “Eleanor Mar­cus Is Newark Bride. She and Max Bun­shaft Are Wed at Steiner’s.”

Was my moth­er a stalk­er?

Grief strick­en at four­teen, it had nev­er occurred to me to try and find peo­ple who knew my moth­er when she was a teenag­er.  As the years passed, the desire to “know” my moth­er grew stronger, and though I would ask fam­i­ly, friends, and acquain­tances if they could recall mem­o­ries of her, strange­ly, not even her “best friends” could remem­ber any­thing.   My father, with his dwin­dling, drug-abused mem­o­ry also failed to give me what I wished so des­per­ate­ly for.  Iron­i­cal­ly, he called out of the blue one day, and said, “I’d like to inter­view you about your moth­er.”

All I could say was, “I thought it was sup­posed to be the oth­er way around.”

If they had sur­vived, my moth­er and her class­mates would be sev­en­ty-five years old.

Could Max Bun­shaft be alive?

I Googled him and the search results shocked me.  Max Bun­shaft was a stamp col­lec­tor from Newark, New Jer­sey with an address less than two miles from where I lived in Van Nuys, Cal­i­for­nia.

It was too late to call.  I slept as if I’d just won the lot­tery, with one eye open clutch­ing my pre­cious tick­et.

 

***

 “Max Bun­shaft lives with­in walk­ing dis­tance of my house!”

No kid­ding, “ my broth­er said after I told him the sto­ry.

I can’t wait to call him!” I said.

But wait I did.  At ten a.m., I got a woman’s voice on an answer­ing machine and left a mes­sage men­tion­ing my mother’s name and my num­ber.  I called lat­er that after­noon, and again in the evening. I did this com­pul­sive­ly for almost two weeks, but only got the machine.  I didn’t leave more mes­sages.  I didn’t want him to think I was a stalk­er.

My first reac­tion was that he must be dead; the sick punch line to a cos­mic joke.  After all these years, I final­ly get the year­book only to have missed Max Bun­shaft by a week.

My cat­a­stroph­ic think­ing was a pathol­o­gy caused by ear­ly moth­er loss.  I always went from A straight to death.  If I didn’t get an expect­ed phone call, a heart attack was to blame.  If I got a phone call late at night or in the wee hours of the morn­ing, then somebody’d been hit by a truck.  I was the great­est risk to myself when my mind played in this dan­ger­ous play­ground.

While obsess­ing about the fic­tion­al end of Max Bun­shaft, I became enraged.  I’d wait­ed thir­ty-four years dur­ing which time, mem­o­ries, like pic­tures, had prob­a­bly fad­ed.   I didn’t know what would be worse –fad­ed mem­o­ries, or a year­book filled with dead peo­ple.

Josephine Tozzi, who’d writ­ten, “To Ann, I’ve known you straight thru school and I’ll always remem­ber you.  Good Luck and suc­cess to a sweet girl.  For­get me not,” was prob­a­bly mar­ried long ago.  How would I be able to Google her, or my mother’s oth­er girl­friends, with­out know­ing their mar­ried sur­names?

I had to remind myself that Google didn’t exist in 1972, and with­out it I wouldn’t have found Max Bun­shaft.  I Googled his name again hop­ing to find some over­looked detail, and found that in addi­tion to being a stamp col­lec­tor, he was also pres­i­dent of the Val­ley Beth Israel Men’s Club.

Mr. Bunshaft’s med­ical prog­no­sis improved imme­di­ate­ly!  Instead of going from “A to dead,” I decid­ed Max must be tour­ing Israel with his Men’s group.   I’d left the play­ground of cat­a­stro­phe and head­ed straight for Classmates.com.

They’d been hound­ing me to become a paid mem­ber for at least five years.  In search of a bar­gain, I joined under my mother’s name think­ing I could access my own high school com­mu­ni­ty and get a two-for-one deal.  They even asked for the last names my moth­er (and I) would have been known by, while we were stu­dents.

After writ­ing a dozen indi­vid­ual emails, I post­ed an announce­ment next to my mother’s name, so any­one scan­ning the list would see it.  Then I searched the entire ros­ter for Max Bun­shaft and dis­cov­ered he’d grad­u­at­ed from West­side two years ear­li­er.  He was an old­er guy… and he still hadn’t returned my call!

Three weeks after my first attempt, I phoned him again, and a man picked up the phone.

Hel­lo,” he said.

Hi, I’m look­ing for Max Bun­shaft.”

This is Max Bun­shaft.”

My name is Brett.  I left a mes­sage on your machine a cou­ple of weeks ago.”

Oh, my wife said some­thing about that.  I was in Las Vegas.”

Did you win?”  I asked, try­ing to be con­ver­sa­tion­al rather than nosy.

No, I was just vis­it­ing my mon­ey,” he said.

Before I take up any more of your time, may I ask if you went to West­side High in Newark, New Jer­sey?”

Yes, I did,”

Well, I know this might sound crazy but I believe you took my moth­er to her senior prom in 1949.  Do you remem­ber Ann Volken­heim?”  He paused.  The silence was dead­ly.

No, I can’t say I do.”

Well, I have this year­book and there’s a note from you on the back page, plus a dance card with your name all over it.

I went to a lot of proms,” he said.  What?  I’d nev­er heard of such a thing. I nev­er even went to one prom.  Was he afraid to talk?  Was his wife lis­ten­ing to his con­ver­sa­tion?

I have a pho­to­graph of my moth­er, her date, and anoth­er cou­ple from prom night.  I was hop­ing you would help solve this lit­tle mys­tery.  Is there a chance we could meet and I could show you these things?”

Maybe”

Maybe?  I won­dered.

You’re not going to believe this – I can hard­ly believe it myself– but you live real­ly close to me.”

Well maybe I’ll call you some­time.”

Some­time?  I could feel myself head­ing back to the cat­a­stro­phe play­ground.  Did this guy think he was going to live for­ev­er?

Well, please call any­time.”  I gave him my home and cell num­bers and said good­bye.

What if he didn’t remem­ber my moth­er?  No, I’d prob­a­bly just caught him off-guard.  After all, I could be a con woman prey­ing on an elder­ly man.  Of course he was sus­pi­cious.  Maybe I should vis­it the Rab­bi of Val­ley Beth Israel.  He would under­stand my want­i­ng to talk with Max Bun­shaft.  Per­haps he would con­vince Max to talk to me.

I was painful­ly aware of the unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions I had rid­ing on this old man.   It was anoth­er per­son­al­i­ty defect I’d acquired while watch­ing my mother’s health dete­ri­o­rate.  My emo­tion­al needs at that time were ignored.  I was wit­ness­ing my mother’s slow death, and didn’t know it.  In addi­tion to main­tain­ing fam­i­ly secre­cy about my parent’s illic­it drug use and my father’s asso­ci­a­tion with promi­nent con­tem­po­rary artists and musi­cians, I was required to cook, clean, and run the “fam­i­ly show,” while per­form­ing in school at noth­ing less than a lev­el of excel­lence.  When I proud­ly hand­ed my moth­er my report card with straight A’s, she replied, “You’re so bor­ing.”

It didn’t occur to me that oth­er kids weren’t grow­ing up under the same per­for­mance pres­sure.   My expec­ta­tions of oth­ers became com­plete­ly dis­tort­ed.  My hopes about Max Bun­shaft were already rag­ing out of con­trol.  If Max Bun­shaft didn’t remem­ber my moth­er, sure­ly her pic­tures would jar his mem­o­ry.

I kept return­ing to the year­book, hop­ing it would shed light on some detail I’d missed, some per­son who could help me.  That’s when I got an email from Olga DiBlasi, class of ’49:

 

Dear­est Brett,

 

I wish I could tell you more.  I remem­ber Ann as a qui­et and seri­ous stu­dent. Nev­er under­stood her nick­name of “Raggedy Ann.”  I’m sor­ry to hear of both your par­ents pass­ing.  Ann was very young…

We were all so star­ry-eyed and oh so inno­cent those days.  We were head­ing into the fifties, the gold­en years. We knew noth­ing of child molesta­tion, ter­ror­ists, ille­gal immi­grants, Niger­ian scams, crooked politi­cians, etc.  We did not have com­put­ers, cell phones, i-pods or vac­u­um clean­ers that moved by them­selves!  We were deliri­ous­ly hap­py with the world the way it was and eager­ly await­ed our des­tinies. Was it a bet­ter world? I don’t real­ly know. What I do know is that your Mom and I and count­less oth­ers looked for­ward to our futures know­ing noth­ing could stop us!  Sin­cere­ly, Olga Di Blasi

I wept.  Olga’s words helped me under­stand my mother’s world.  I looked at the pho­tos of Raggedy Ann and saw the glim­mer of hope in her youth­ful eyes in spite of what I could only guess was her hard­ship at home.  I saw my mother’s inno­cence and beau­ty.  I longed to know her.

Mean­while, I was cer­tain Max Bun­shaft and I were shop­ping at the same super­mar­ket.  He prob­a­bly fre­quent­ed our favorite Thai restau­rant around the cor­ner, too.  I con­sid­ered mak­ing a t-shirt, embla­zoned with the words, “Look­ing for Max Bun­shaft,” which I could wear when­ev­er I had to run an errand.  Instead, I called him again.

Hi, it’s me, Brett Aronowitz.”

Who?”

The daugh­ter of the woman you took to the prom in 1949.”

Oh yes, I was think­ing of call­ing you.”

I’m glad.  I was hop­ing I could show you this year­book and the pho­tos.”

How about next Wednes­day?” he asked.  “Where do you live?”  Appar­ent­ly he wasn’t so old that he couldn’t get around, even in the mid­dle of a south­ern Cal­i­for­nia heat wave.  Per­haps he was ner­vous about me com­ing to his house.  Maybe he did think I was prey­ing on the elder­ly.

 

***

If mem­o­ry is pro­por­tion­al to com­fort, then I want­ed Max to feel like he was in the lap of lux­u­ry.  The only prob­lem was that I felt ill equipped to enter­tain him if he was an obser­vant Jew adher­ing to kosher rules.  The morn­ing of our meet­ing, I stopped for paper plates and snacks from a kosher bak­ery – just in case.

I arranged the year­book, news clip­pings, pho­tos and oth­er items neat­ly on the cof­fee table.  I even rehearsed the order in which I would present the objects, so I wouldn’t get flus­tered and for­get some­thing that might trig­ger his mem­o­ry.

I saw his car pull up and opened the door.  Before me was a short, elder­ly, agile man, wear­ing a t-shirt and jeans, arm in arm, sup­port­ing his plump, auburn-haired wife, Rena, as she walked with an unsteady gait, into the house.  Her pres­ence made me uneasy.  I’d con­sid­ered video­tap­ing our meet­ing, but didn’t want to cen­sor his mem­o­ries in any way.  I had no idea he was going to bring his wife along and hoped she wouldn’t have the same effect.  They sat on the loveseat in my liv­ing room and I offered them drinks but they’d brought their own.  The tem­per­a­ture out­side was well over 110 degrees and the air con­di­tion­er could bare­ly keep the house cool enough.

Max’s face resem­bled my dad’s, with his white mus­tache and trimmed beard. They both looked like old Jew­ish men with glass­es, but that’s where the com­par­i­son end­ed.  Max was more alert and fit than my father had ever looked.  For a few sec­onds, I couldn’t help but won­der what life would have been like if Max Bun­shaft had been my father.

Here’s the year­book entry,” I said, hand­ing him the book.

That’s my sig­na­ture,” he said mod­est­ly.  I think he was embar­rassed because he turned to his wife and said, “I nev­er had a mid­dle name but used to tell peo­ple it was Allen.”

That’s fun­ny,” I said. “My moth­er didn’t have a mid­dle name either.”

Maybe I should have let him reflect on the year­book mes­sage a bit longer to see if he could remem­ber the night in ques­tion.  Instead, I hand­ed him the dance card.

Yes, these are my sig­na­tures, too.”

I hand­ed him the prom pho­to in a yel­lowed frame.  He smiled and said, “Yes, that’s me!”

He sat there, star­ing at the pic­ture, with­out say­ing any­thing.  I opened the year­book to the page with my mother’s senior pho­to.  He looked at it for a few moments and then stared back down at the prom pho­to still in his hands.  I also pulled out her wed­ding por­trait.  Final­ly, when I could stand it no longer, I asked, “Do you remem­ber my moth­er?”

He sighed and shrugged his shoul­ders slight­ly.

She looks so… famil­iar,” he said.

An earth­quake roared through my body crum­bling the last bit of hope.  I couldn’t let it show.  “Mem­o­ries are fun­ny,” I said.  “Some­times it takes a while for them to come back.  You might wake up next week and remem­ber some­thing and you can call me.”  I hoped it might be as true for Max as it was for me.

I encour­aged Max to tell me about him­self, think­ing it might spawn a mem­o­ry.  He told a lot of sto­ries, includ­ing one about a high school prank with his friends in Man­hat­tan.  They picked up a tiny sports car, an MG, car­ried it on its end to an ele­va­tor and put it on the roof of a build­ing.

He also told me he’d lost his moth­er when he was eleven, and that, by the time he was in high school, he already knew that he was going to mar­ry Eleanor Mar­cus, who had been his sweet­heart since ele­men­tary school.

I hand­ed him the news clip announc­ing their wed­ding.  He seemed sur­prised.

I have two daugh­ters, but my wife died in 1964 from com­pli­ca­tions dur­ing preg­nan­cy.  I think my daugh­ters would like to see this.”

I’ll give you a copy,” I said.

Max mar­ried again, short­ly after the death of his wife but, “It was a big mis­take” and they divorced.  Then he mar­ried anoth­er woman who also died.  Rena was his fourth wife.  I could see this con­ver­sa­tion made her uncom­fort­able.

How is it that you went to so many proms?” I asked.

I love to dance and I liked girls who could dance well,” he told me.  “I also liked girls that were hap­py and smiled.”

My mem­o­ry couldn’t latch on to an image of my moth­er danc­ing the way I will always remem­ber my dad and his fan­cy foot­work, snap­ping his fin­gers in time to the music with a euphor­ic smile on his face.  It made sense that my par­ents shared a pas­sion of music and move­ment– espe­cial­ly after read­ing that my moth­er loved to Rhum­ba.  How­ev­er, Max’s com­ment about being hap­py threw me off.   How could Raggedy Ann be hap­py with her moth­er locked up in a men­tal insti­tu­tion?

But you don’t remem­ber this par­tic­u­lar prom you took my moth­er to?”  I asked, still in dis­be­lief.

Well, “ he said, “There was one prom where a friend of mine offered to dri­ve me and my date around in his brand new green Buick all night if I agreed to pay him.  I asked my father and he said he would foot the bill.  Lat­er that night, when it came time to pay, my father reneged on the deal.”  Max paused and I could see the strained rela­tion­ship between father and son on his face.  “And when my father said “No,” there was no point in argu­ing with him.  He refused to give me the mon­ey to pay my friend and I was very upset.”

When Max was done with this sto­ry I under­stood why he didn’t remem­ber tak­ing my moth­er to the prom. The humil­i­a­tion of that evening cloud­ed all his oth­er mem­o­ries.  I also under­stood why Raggedy Ann had kept all those details safe in her high school year­book. I’ll nev­er know if it was a teenage crush or if she wished she had been his bride.  But, from the prom pho­to, I could see that my moth­er was full of life, hope and opti­mism and she couldn’t help but smile in his pres­ence. She was smit­ten with Max Bun­shaft.  Why else would she have kept his wed­ding announce­ment?

Max had shared all he could remem­ber.  I excused myself, made a pho­to­copy of the wed­ding announce­ment and returned to the liv­ing room.

Max, I’m glad you shared your sto­ries with me.  It’s okay if you don’t remem­ber my moth­er because I’ve learned a lot about her from read­ing her year­book, look­ing at these pic­tures and papers she tucked away, and find­ing you.  I am a lot like my mom who rel­ished and clung to life’s details.  I think she was very fond of you and hoped one day I would meet you.  I’m glad I did, because I think she meant for you to have this.”  With tears in my eyes, I hand­ed him his wed­ding announce­ment and one of the two iden­ti­cal prom pho­tos.  I’d want­ed so des­per­ate­ly to get some­thing from Max and, here I was giv­ing the gifts.

I walked the Bun­shafts to their car and gave Max a gen­tle hug, remind­ing him to call if he had any oth­er sto­ries to tell me.

I put the pho­tos and memen­tos I’d so care­ful­ly laid on the cof­fee table back into the year­book, and closed its cov­er. I’d want­ed to know my moth­er bet­ter and, almost mag­i­cal­ly, she’d grant­ed my wish.  I smiled.  And for the first time since open­ing the musty smelling box my broth­er sent me, I looked at the year­book and noticed that it was called, “The Lamp,” and that the image of a genie’s lantern was engraved on the cov­er.

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