October 20, 2018

A Bronx Tale

“Before I was born, my mother had decided to name me either Laurel or Lydia, names that appealed to her artistic temperament. But then somehow, while under the scrim of anesthesia, she was convinced by my father’s sisters to make me a lackluster Ruth, in honor of their recently deceased mother, Rose. And so my birth certificate read Ruth Leila, a name I was never, ever called by my mother, either of my father’s sisters or anyone else.”

Thus begins “My Life As a List: 207 Things About My (Bronx) Childhood,” Linda Rosenkrantz’s rich confectionery tale of growing up in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. Like a box of candy, this numbered collection of memories and anecdotes is best eaten slowly, the better to digest each morsel.

Not that everything inside is sweet. The book covers the period from Rosenkrantz’s birth, in 1934, through her entrance into puberty at age 12. It includes such wartime memories as her childhood nightmares of Hitler and SS troops searching her family’s home; the departure of two of her uncles to serve overseas; and the grainy Movietone newsreels that preceded every movie. There is also her vivid description of the polio epidemic and the loss of a classmate to the disease: “When I learned that George Rabinowitz, a rumpled, wavy-black-haired boy in my class (white shirt always pulling out of his pants) who reminded me somewhat of my rumpled, wavy-black-haired father, had died of polio over the summer, I couldn’t believe it. I immediately wrote a poem, beginning with the line, ‘They told me George Rabinowitz was dead and I didn’t understand what they meant by dead.'”

For the most part, though, the slim volume is packed with sunny memories and colorful reflections of a romanticized era. Rosenkrantz’s comments on her family are often hilarious, as in list item No. 19: “All my aunts and great-aunts floated but none of them swam. One day at the beach, I was told to watch my great-aunt Annie (never quite the same after her minor stroke), but I’d left my glasses on the blanket and it wasn’t till she was drifting off to sea that I noticed she was out of sight…halfway back to the Old Country and I had to fetch someone else to swim out and bring her back.”

Rosenkrantz was on a plane, returning to Los Angeles from a trip to New York, when the idea for the book came to her.

“I’m an inveterate list maker. I can’t start the day without one,” the author said over a recent breakfast at the Marmalade Cafe in Calabasas. “It was a good way to do the book without having to write chronologically. It gave me a way to draw out the essence of things.”

Writing the book took the better part of a year (“I was constantly polishing it like I was writing poetry,” she said). Rosenkrantz is best known for her series of baby-name books; her latest, “Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison and Montana,” is set to be released in June. She has also co-authored books with her husband, art expert Christopher Finch. The couple, along with daughter Chloe, 24, live in Woodland Hills.

“I think the two most important things I discovered when I was writing the book was the ultra-Jewishness of my neighborhood and how much I miss being part of an extended family,” Rosenkrantz said. “Those Sundays on Uncle Charlie’s farm, where 30 or 40 people would come, were so wonderful. I don’t have any family where I am now. My daughter never sees her cousins, and I do feel there’s something lacking in our lives because of it.”

The book is brutally honest, detailing troubled marriages and popular racial stereotypes of the day. Rosenkrantz said that she was a little worried about the response of some of her friends from the “old neighborhood.”

“I talked to Margery [Schwartz, her best friend], and she said it was fine, that I was actually very kind to people,” she said.

Will there be a sequel? Rosenkrantz said that it’s already in the works and will cover the years from age 13 to when she went off to college.

“I’m finding it’s a lot more complicated, though,” she said. “Memories from our teen-age years do not come in short spurts, like those from our childhood do. There are more extended situations, more of an adult sensibility.”