Dec. 12, 2018
I always hear about these things late.
So, I did not hear about Gwenn’s passing until just recently, too far after the fact to adequately mourn her loss, yet not distant enough to feel without pain – this despite the fact that I have not seen her in 40 years.
While others who knew her better saw her in a different light, for me, Gwenn was like a movie star. When ever she swept into the office of the Bloomfield Avenue warehouse in those early days of my employment there, she lit it up and left behind lingering good feelings that overrode any disasters that might have befallen us prior to her arrival.
She was always amazingly dressed, far beyond the blue-collar sensibility of a warehouse worker like me, or even Stanley – who did not particularly like her, though knew better than to show his distaste.
Stan saw Gwenn as flamboyant where I saw her as classy – though in many ways she was just like her husband, Donald, a product of the Newark Jewish community and the white flight that sent many Jews to more remote parts of the state – and in her case, to the shore area where she apparently returned later in life when she remarried.
Her obituary in the Asbury Park Press said it best when it claimed she “lit up the room with her vivaciousness, her sense of humor and spunk” or should I say she wandered in and out of my working world, always ware of me because I was always are of her, and Donald being Donald claimed I hate the hots for his wife, when it was something far more serious than even he could have imagined.
A graduate of Asbury Park High School in 1965, she lived through the heyday of the music scene there and her young life may well be reflected in the autobiographical elements of early Bruce Springsteen albums, about the boardwalk, fast cars and an energy long gone from that world by the time I discovered it a decade later.
She apparently lived in nearby Deal with her sister, Leslie, brother Louis, and perhaps another sister none of whom I never met.
I never learned how she met Donald, though both his and her families had roots in Newark – her parents were Emanuel (called Manny) Kuskin and Ida Byhoff (one source says her last name was Tunkel).
Manny was born in Newark, and lived in a time with Ida in Elizabeth in the 1940s and 1950s.
They moved to Deal at some point in the late 1950s and lived there until about the time when I started to work for Donald in 1974, when they moved to Florida.
Manny made a living in lumber and apparently owned the Amboy Builder Supply company in Perth Amboy.
Manny retired in 1972 at which time he owned the Westfield-Cranford Lumber Company in Garwood, and the Bond Lumber Company in Point Pleasant.
Manny died in Florida about a year after Donald moved into the new warehouse on Kaplan Drive, during a disastrous spring and summer that included a massive power outage, Elvis’s death and a tornado strike that ripped up a corner of the warehouse roof while we were in the buildings. I heard briefly about the death in passing from Donald and remember how shake she seemed a few times I saw her afterwards. Those were my last few memories of her before I left Donald’s employ in mid-1978. Her mother died 33 years later in Neptune.
Gwenn and Donald divorced at some point in the mid-1990s, after which she married Harry Feldman, by which time I was long out of touch with any of them, but at a point when their son Josh had already made inroads as a speech writer and legal counsel for then President Bill Clinton, a platform off which he would eventually make a successful big for political office as a congressman.
I don’t know what Gwenn did for a living when I knew her. She later taught pre-school at a local Jewish facility in South Orange. But when I knew her, she always looked like and acted like a fashion model or at lease dressed up in fashions that cost more than a month of my salary. I don’t recall seeing her pregnant, but I do remember going to Donald’s house in North Caldwell to share a Seder just after their son Josh was born.
At the time, I was puzzled by the invitation, knowing too little of Jewish tradition except those I occasionally encouraged while wandering the Eastside of Paterson as a kid.
Their home was as stylish as they were, yet not overdone. Both Donald and Gwenn seemed to have a sense of eloquence not typical of the nouveau riche. Both seemed determined to defy the label of “rich Jews” that might otherwise have been applied to them after coming up out of roots that started in the heart of Newark.
I remember feeling inadequately dressed for the Seder, even though I had put on what I considered at the time my best clothing.
I remember how tasteful their private world was, the clean lines of functional yet attractive furniture, a few house plants (I believe) and my seat at the table with them – their infant son nearby (I don’t recall the daughter) and the plates placed before me in a ritual I would later recall when attending other more orthodox Jewish ceremonies such as the first hair cut as a journalist.
I did not understand then why I deserved this, how as an employee I should get to share was what clearly a private moment. I was stunned (but not put off) when they read from some Jewish text. I was not asked to read as I later learned was also part of the ritual otherwise, I might have made more of a fool of myself than I thought I already had.
It was a moment I would later recall often especially in relations to my betrayal of their trust, feeling in retrospect how Judas must have felt at The Last Supper.
Although Gwenn was a small woman, I never thought of her that way, partly because Donald was not tall, and the two of them seemed to fit together. Both of them dressed impeccably all of the time, but Gwenn seemed more flamboyant, yet still within the boundaries of good taste.
So, each time she swept into the old warehouse office, I found an excuse to come up from my duties packing in the back – though for the most part I was dumbstruck when I actually had to be in the same room with her, a fact lost on neither Donald nor Stanley, or worse – her.
She being a playful person, she some how found humor in exasperating my discomfort with a smile or a nod, and even all these years later, I still blush at the memory of these ostentatious displays, a well-meaning teasing that I late realized was a sign of affection as well.
Yet I also think of Gwenn from the Seder when I saw a whole different side of her, as if she was far deeper a person than she let most other people know about, her chatter, her laughter, and her flamboyancy serving as a barrier against the world’s intrusion on that part of her that went far beyond the slick surface most people saw.
Born in 1948, Gwenn was younger than Donald by five years, and had much more in common with my generation than she did Donald’s or even Stan’s, still in high school when The Beatles exploded on the scene and changed pop culture forever.
Yet three years older than I was, she seemed light years ahead of me in world experience, something that often showed in her eyes and manner. Sometimes, she titled head in a curious way, as if looking for a new angle to see what went on around her or to shrug off everything the rest of the world worried about – and sometimes, even her own worries.
Petite did not describe her, even though she was small. She carried herself with bearing that disguised her side. She filled a room with her personality and it lingered behind her like a familiar scent long after she’d gone.
She reminded me of my Aunt Alice, although not at all as serious.
Gwenn could be serious, no doubt, but I mostly saw the playful aspect, a smile that suggested she knew something nobody else knew, and whatever that was, it made her laugh – not mockingly, but more like she knew the punch line to this joke we call life and she wasn’t going to spoil it by telling anybody what it was.
She was unbelievably erotic – at least to me, carrying around with her a femininity I found extremely attractive, and this she knew and also found amusing, not in a mean or arrogant way, yet she could not resist teasing me, flirting just enough to cross-circuit my hormones and leave me speechless.
I remember her having nearly constant laughing eyes, yet could sense something deeper behind them, an emotion that I might have even thought of as joy.
She seemed thrilled to be alive, and though I’m sure she had her moments of pain and doubt, I never saw them, and Double seemed to be proud at the fact that she was his wife.
I would have been, too, if I’d been him.