First person: An unexpected meeting

 

The year was 1948 and I was 12. We lived in a remodeled upper duplex on 15th Place and Scott Street on the near south side of Milwaukee.

My dad owned and ran a drug store two blocks away on the southeast corner of 16th Street and Greenfield Avenue. This ethnically diverse neighborhood was populated by Poles, Germans and Slavs and very Catholic. Even though I was a Jewish child, I always wanted a first communion so I could wear one of those beautiful white dresses and a veil.

Many of the men in the neighborhood worked at local factories like Allis Chalmers, A. O. Smith, Ladish Drop Forge and the breweries. I was one of three Jewish students at Albert E. Kagel, my elementary school. There were many Jewish merchants with businesses on South 16th Street, but most of them didn’t live in the neighborhood. We were an exception, along with the Temkin family who owned a custom quilt and pillow business on the street and lived in an apartment behind their store.

My mother was concerned about my lack of Jewish education and Jewish friends, so she enrolled me in a Sunday School program at Congregation Beth El on 47th Street and Garfield Avenue. The journey took an hour each way on two buses, not the most fun on an early Sunday morning.

I met other Jewish kids in my class, but the geographical distance of our homes, lack of contact in a daily school environment and after school activities hampered the development of relationships. Fortunately, I was a good student at my elementary school and was well-liked by the principal, Miss Andrucetti, so she was sympathetic to my mother’s pleas to facilitate a transfer to Steuben Junior High School on 51st and North Avenue. It was located in a densely populated Jewish neighborhood, but completely out of our district.  Through her influence she negotiated a transfer for me to attend Steuben on a permit, and I began eighth grade there in 1949.

Thus, from Sunday through Friday every week I now had two hours of travel time on the bus.

One morning, at the first stop after crossing the 16th Street viaduct, a young girl with flaming red hair and freckles got on the bus at 15th and Clybourn streets. She spotted me and sat down close by, but we didn’t talk. The bus arrived at 8th and North Avenue where I had to change to the westbound #21 bus, and she got off too. We crossed the street and waited on the corner for the bus to arrive. Still, no communication, just quick glances at each other with shy, tentative smiles.

After a few minutes, the bus arrived and we climbed on. Still, no conversation. As we neared our stop on 51st and North we both stood up and pulled the cord to let the bus driver know we wanted to get off. A light bulb went off in my head— perhaps we were heading for the same place. And indeed we were!

As we began to walk toward the school building, I sidled up to her and asked, “Do you go to Steuben?”

“Yes,” she replied and the ice was broken. “I’m Elaine.”

“And I’m Phyllis.” We chatted a little bit about teachers and agreed to meet after class and ride home together. I was eager to find out more about this girl who spoke English a bit haltingly and with an accent, which I later learned was Spanish, her first language. Thus began my relationship, limited though it turned out to be, with Elaine Buchman from Havana, Cuba.

On the bus ride home that day, Elaine filled in the blanks. “Me and my older sister and our mother came to Milwaukee in 1946 from Havana. My father died in Cuba. We have a lot of relatives here and not so many left in Havana.  Now we live at the Stewart Apartments on 15th Street, a block north of Clybourn in a one-room apartment with a Murphy bed. I sleep in it with my mom and my sister sleeps on the sofa.”

“When we arrived in the summer of 1946, they wanted me to go to summer school to learn English and were going to put me in kindergarten because of my poor English. I was 11 years old. I refused to go with all those little kids.  I remember shaking my head from side to side and saying, ‘me no go.’ So, we got a tutor to help me. My mother’s aunt, Minnie Friedman, helped to get a permit for me to go to Steuben once I improved my language skills. I started there in seventh grade after that first summer.”

Elaine was almost a year and a half older than I was, and was now in ninth grade. She was set to graduate the following June and go on to Washington High School. I don’t have any memory of our relationship beyond meeting often on the bus.  We may have gone shopping or to a movie on weekends, but I can’t remember.

Since she was in a higher grade, she drew her friends from a different group, so our contact was limited. Following her graduation she began Washington High School in fall of that year but didn’t like it, so she dropped out and went to work in a women’s clothing shop in downtown Milwaukee. She also met a young man, Sam Hornik, who became her boyfriend. His brother Seymour was her sister’s beau.

That was when we completely lost touch with each other. It was a thin thread that had held us together, and now that thread had broken. Our lives went in different directions. I finished high school and went on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She continued to work, go to classes to improve her language skills and learn more about her newly adopted country.  

When she was 17, Elaine and Sam married, after her sister and Seymour tied the knot. Sam was drafted, and Elaine followed him to his posting in El Paso, Texas. In the following years, she gave birth to three sons and lived in Fox Point. During that time she worked in a women’s clothing store in the old Brown Port shopping center. “The owner willed the store to me when she died. She thought I was a good business woman and salesperson and could keep it going. I continued to run it for a while, but eventually sold it and left the business.”

The years flew by. Life was busy and full for me: marriage, babies, growing children, moving to new homes, graduate school, new jobs — the list is endless. I was plagued with some chronic health conditions, and my beloved husband Harry died in 2003. We had purchased a lovely condo in Florida in 1999, but the back and forth travel and logistics to spend the winter there became more difficult. In 2016 I decided to sell it and remain in Milwaukee for the winter. The following spring I sold my condo in Glendale and moved to Ovation Chai Point on March 21, 2017.

My wonderful daughter, Roberta, who lives in Toronto, came to Milwaukee to help with my move. Two days after my move-in, I sadly said adieu to her and went down to dinner in the dining room for the first time. My friend, Shirley Behr, invited me to join her at her table and introduced me to the other women seated there. Prior to dinner, she had given me a brief description of her tablemates. One of them stood out, a woman whom she said came from Cuba and had a good sense of humor. I liked her already, even though we had not yet met. During dinner we chatted back and forth. When I began to talk to the woman from Cuba, whose name was Elaine Hornik, I said to her, “I used to know someone from Cuba. I went to school with her when we were in junior high school.” She nodded, but the conversation went no further.

A little later, someone at the table made a remark that sparked something in my brain, and I asked Elaine, “What was your maiden name?”

She replied, “Buchman.”

“Did you have red hair and freckles?”

“I sure did.”

“Oh, my God,” I screamed, “are you Elaine Buchman?”

Well, I don’t have to tell you the answer to that question. I couldn’t believe what I had just discovered. Who could have predicted that Elaine Buchman Hornik and Phyllis Kaplan Lensky would find each other after almost seven decades, living in the same place!  Elaine was as overwhelmed as I was and spent the rest of the evening telling anyone who would listen what had happened that evening.

This dinner was a moment to remember, a must for my memoirs. In the weeks prior to writing this piece, I spoke to Elaine several times to fill in the blanks of her life since we lost touch. Her memories of dates and events aren’t perfect, nor are mine, but we pieced together enough to put events into context. This had been another unexpected meeting — just like our first one, 69 years ago.