The tall, narrow homes and straight brick buildings of Jamaica, Queens stood in neatened order like soldiers at attention. Each structure was uniform on the outside, save for little window boxes, a chain link fence, or the occasional vegetable garden. Inside the homes of Jamaica were varied with families bustling about, doing what daily tasks could be done in the Depression. Children ran barefoot, played hide and seek, or searched for an open space to play stickball. The Reilly family was one brood with five children – there were six, but the youngest passed away when he was very small. The Reilly children were known for having a mother on the police force – something not common. They were also known for swiping potatoes from the kitchen when their mother was at work and roasting them in back alleys and eating them plain.
Only a few houses down from the Reilly’s, in an identical structure, was the Schwerdt family. The mother and father, both German immigrants who left before the first World War, raised a family of ten children, the youngest two being identical twins. The twin boys had bright red hair and bright blue eyes and their own mother was unable to tell them apart. Their father, John, was a brewer – and at one point a milkman – but in the economic downturn of the United States, his skills as a brewer were in great demand from the general working class. His wife, a homemaker, spent her days making and repairing clothes and raising ten children.
This tangle of youths, generally unsupervised – especially in the summer months – made the most of their time by adventuring outside and exploring what there was to do for free in the Great Depression. They ran around in dirtied clothes, equal parts oblivious and affected by the poverty that haunted most families in the 1930s, not just the children of immigrants.
One of the German twins, Harold, made his way to the playground at the end of the block. Oftentimes it was crowded with other children, but on this particular evening there seemed to be only a smattering of playmates. The sun sank behind the brick horizon that New York made as he reached a swing set occupied by one other.
“Hello,” the young girl said as he sat down on a swing, leaving one between them. “I like your hair.”
Harold felt himself blush. She was very pretty, maybe fourteen years old to his sixteen.
“Thank you. I’m Harold. What’s your name?”
“Loretta,” she replied. The children sat in a comfortable silence, peppered by the squeak of swing chains, the scuff of dust below their feet, and the occasional honk of traffic. They learned their homes were very close, and Loretta believed she saw Harold a week earlier, down by an ice cream shop.
“Oh, that was probably Arthur, my identical twin. Y’know our own mother can’t tell us apart?”
Loretta laughed. “Wow, identical twins. You must do everything together.”
“Well, most things. He’s more of a prankster. My mother says I’m too serious for my age.”
In the distance, towards the low glow of the setting sun, “Dinner!” was called. Loretta stirred a moment before hopping off her swing.
“That’s my mother. It was nice meeting you.”
“Maybe you can find me by the ice cream shop one day, and I’ll buy you a cone,” Harold said. He stood to tip his head to Loretta, and from the opposite direction of the block he heard, “Abendessen!”
Loretta wrinkled her eyebrows. Harold shrugged a little and chuckled, a little embarrassed.
“German. It means dinner.”
“Oh,you speak German?”
“No, not really,” he admitted. “Our parents prefer us to speak English. But when my siblings and I are out and we hear someone hollering German, we know it’s our mother.”
“That is very clever,” Loretta laughed, “and ice cream sounds lovely.”
The two agreed to meet again at the playground towards the end of that week and before he left Harold took Loretta’s hand in his to shake.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Loretta Reilly.”
“Likewise, Harold Schwerdt.” She pronounced his name Schwartz but he didn’t dare correct her. Harold believed, at sixteen, that he found love at first sight.
July 13, 1938
I received your letter and was glad to hear from you. I was surprised you wrote so soon. Well, since your first topic was about the weather, I’ll be a copycat. At eight o’clock, Monday morning I was awakened by a large crash of thunder. What a storm it sent everyone out of their beds. It rained off and on all day, so I stayed in. Tuesday, I got up at ten thirty and it was so warm, I sat around and listened to the radio all day. Tuesday night Evelyn, Lil, and I went to see Albie. He has a heavy cold. Today, I got up at ten thirty and helped around the house, then to the playground. I stayed there about an hour then came home. Tonight, I went to a meeting, then to Nachlin’s. Later, Harry took several of us including Lil, Betty, Gert, Ed W., Eppie, and myself to the night baseball game on Hillside Ave. I go in at 11:30 and boy! Did I get a balling-out.
Now, I must ask you how is everyone, if they look as well as they did Sunday. They are swell. Oh! Pardon me. How are you? As far as missing you, I do (not). Hoping to see you soon I’ll close.
Your Honey (I hope)
Loretta (chubby in your eyes)
P.S. “The Old Gag.” Excuse pencil and paper writing –
Also, give regards to the family.
(the perfume is my sister’s) xxx