Treasure preserved: Ernest Singer’s rolltop desk, now in the author’s home.
I got married in 1971, at 21. Like many people who marry young, I embraced my in-laws as my second family. To say that they were formative in my life would be an understatement. My own family’s impact is indelible and powerfully important in my life, but this is a story about the Singers.
Ernest and Lilly were a glamorous European couple who lived in a Central Park West penthouse furnished with exquisite pieces of silver and crystal and charming mementos of their travels. To realize today that Lilly was 48 and Ernest 50 when I met them is an astonishing lesson in the perspective of the young toward the older. To me, they were fully formed authorities who had it all figured out. They called each other “Darling,” and laughed together with an intimacy that gave me a high bar to aim for. She looked like Barbara Stanwyck and he had a dry, witty humor, à la Victor Borge, whom he loved. They traveled all over the world and particularly loved the Amalfi Coast, where they sent David and me on our honeymoon. They had a delightful old lakehouse an hour from the city, where we spent many happy times. There wasn’t a foot of space that didn’t have a marker they had personally placed.
They had come from Poland and Germany, just in time, with harrowing stories of escape and bribery and sheer luck. They settled on the Upper West Side in an enclave of families similarly situated. I remember with terror the Shabbat dinner when, at 18, I was first presented to Lilly’s mother and the greater family of aunts and uncles. They offered me Slivovitz (a powerful plum brandy) and laughed in good-natured delight as I practically spat it out. I had passed the test.
I married their son, David, and gained a sister-in-law, Susan, whose birthday 13 days before mine I have noted for 45 years with a card and a phone call laughingly gloating that she was older. She replied in kind on mine, and we saw each other from time to time.
Ernest died, so young, at 54. I had only six years with him. My children, who were born in 1978 and 1982, had only stories—some lukewarm and others vivid—with which to know him.
David and I divorced in 1992, and soon afterward I moved to Maryland with my new husband, Michael, and my sons, Aaron and Josh, who were 14 and 10. Over the ensuing years my relationship with Lilly remained important—she was a guest at my second wedding—if appropriately second-string to her (complex) relationship with her own children. She and Michael became close. She sent him cards and called him on his birthday and Father’s Day every year. Smart woman. Above all, she was a present and loving grandma.
A year ago, Susan, who had lived in D.C. all those years, learned that she had advanced cancer. She was an eccentric woman who valued her privacy; I long ago learned to keep it light with her. She was Aunt Susan to my children, and, even though they didn’t see her much, she was definitely a part of their lives. She did everything possible to prolong her life, but she died in November.
Lilly, at 90, was bereft. She had been physically unable to be with Susan during her illness, although we all knew Susan would not have wanted her to see what she was going through. My family traveled to her funeral in Westchester County and to the cemetery where Ernest is buried and where Lilly will one day be. Michael and I came from Maryland, Josh from Florida (to offer a touching eulogy), and Aaron and his family came from Manhattan. It was very small and very sad.
Before Susan’s death, the shaky triad of the remaining nuclear Singer family was such that Susan and David were estranged and the Lilly-David relationship was highly fraught. After she died, there remained a condominium in D.C. to clean out and a car to sell. Susan expressly did not want her brother to do it. Lilly could not. My sons were scattered, and not suited. It fell to me.
The apartment was in a sorry state. A year of illness—and probably earlier years of neglect—left it a challenge. Aaron and the lawyer handling the estate hired a company to clean it out. One day earlier this month, I showed up to meet TJ and his crew, and we went to work for two days. Going through every item, the crew checked with me before discarding. They uncovered jewelry (Lilly’s diamond ring with baguettes only, the emerald solitaire having been given to me when David and I became engaged), ceramics from Positano and tiles from Curacao with deep sentimental importance to Lilly, and a silver tea set Ernest had insisted on buying Susan many years ago in London. Many items had no real value—the tiny mezuzah Ernest had worn on his watch, a silly little wooden sculpture of Pluto the Dog that Susan had always loved—but were embedded in my memory. It struck me profoundly that I was the only person who could have done this task justice.
Most touching was the beautiful inlaid wood rolltop desk Ernest had commissioned from an artisan in Amalfi in the early seventies. Typically—you had to know him—he had wanted to make sure that he was shipped the actual piece he bought, and not an inferior substitute. It was family lore that he wrote his name on the back of every drawer. On that cold, rainy, sad day on Connecticut Avenue, I pulled open the first drawer—and there it was, his signature. Who else would have known to look? It had been hidden for more than 40 years and was now in the consciousness of only three living people: Lilly, David, and me. TJ helped me inventory, donate, and toss. Now the apartment is empty and will soon be placed on the market for sale.
Forty years after Ernest Singer commissioned his rolltop desk, Shelley Singer found proof that the Italian artisan had indeed sent him the real thing.
Years fell away during this startling experience of time travel. It was an intimate process, one I know Susan would not have wanted, so I did it as gently as I could. I did it for Susan, for Lilly and Ernest, and for my memories of the good years with David. I also did it for my sons. It brought back the history of this small family, and it amazed me, 22 years out of it, that it was all still in my heart.