Many of us who grew up in Middle Village and are of a certain age remember when it was a staid restrained little town with lots of vacant land and some very large one-family homes. These houses rested on plots of property that today hold several attached dwellings erected in the late 1950s through the 1960s. One by one, the great edifices were felled by the wrecking ball of developers whose avarice wouldn’t be quenched.
In one of those magnificent homes resided Miss Emma. Miss Emma was a quiet, friendly, yet stern woman filled with great propriety who, by the loss of her younger brother in World War I, was forced into becoming an amazingly successful businesswoman in a time and industry dominated by men.
As a boy, I got a glimpse of her and her life due to the fact that she was a close acquaintance of my great aunt, Rose, who resided on the same street as me. Rose and Miss Emma’s fathers were both in the lumber trade. Her father owned a milling firm by the Newtown Creek and my great-grandfather was the foreman of one of the largest yards in Brooklyn.
The men met on the Metropolitan Avenue trolley in the late 1890s while commuting to their respective businesses. Both had emigrated from Germany earlier in the century and they immediately developed a professional friendship that evolved into a personal one over time.
Eventually the men introduced their families to each other and my aunt and Miss Emma, being close in age, became fast friends along with Miss Emma’s brother and one of Rose’s younger brothers. Miss Emma’s dad enjoyed their family gatherings because he had lost his wife in the mid-1890s to what was then called “The Grippe” which we now know as influenza. Emma and her brother became close to my great-grandmother and the families had much in common except for religion; Emma’s families were strict Lutherans and mine were practicing Roman Catholics.
There was something about Miss Emma that my great-grandmother was drawn to, something Emma’s father called her “situation.” Starting when Emma was about ten years old she would accompany her dad to the millworks on Saturdays to assist him with office work and payroll. She was quite exceptional with numbers. Being of sharp mind she learned how to operate the lathes and other shop machinery. One Saturday, she convinced her dad to let her stand in for one of the truant workers. Being a responsible young woman, her father gave in to his daughter’s pleas. She hadn’t a problem equaling the truant’s output but something unforeseen happened.
As Emma reached to adjust the handle that controlled the lathe speed, the long sleeve of her blouse became caught in the teeth of the lathe’s gears. She could not free the sleeve and her hand was fed into the greasy gears’ hungry teeth. Emma screamed, dropped to her knees and tried to free the mangled hand and digits from the cogs that held her prisoner. A worker immediately raced from the mill floor to the office summoning her dad to come at once, there had been an accident.
Emma’s dad had seen workers get hurt many times; it was an all too common occupational hazard. However when he reached the aisle where the accident occurred he became ill. He rushed to his beloved daughter who was now in excruciating physical and emotional pain realizing that her life had just taken a drastic turn into invalidism. Wracked with pain and unable to utter a word she pleaded to her dad with her eyes for immediate release from this mechanical monster but her hand was now so enmeshed that the gears had to be loosened and removed before her mangled appendage could be freed. A doctor was sent for but none could be found. Her father held her and verbally issued orders to the workmen armed with wrenches and ball peen hammers on how to disassemble the lathe.
In actuality, Emma was freed from the machinery in a matter of minutes but it must have seemed like an eternity to her, her dad and the saddened workers. She was rushed by horse and carriage to the newly opened German Hospital of Brooklyn, today’s Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, which had just opened its doors. She was attended to as best as medical science at the time would allow. After an hour or so a doctor appeared to inform her father that Emma would live but her severely mangled hand would be forever lost, almost as if paralyzed. From her right hand the doctor had to amputate her pinky, ring and middle finger as well as a portion of her palm and they hoped the remaining broken bones would heal so additional surgery would not be necessary. But above all, they hoped infection from the filthy gears would not set in.
Emma remained in the hospital for several days so the doctors and nurses could change the dressing, monitor her health and appease her physical pain. She returned to her Middle Village home and took to her darkened bedroom for weeks sulking in self-pity and sorrow. Her father and brother were helpless. They brought her meals, refreshments and sweets and tried to draw her from what was becoming a hermit’s existence. She even refused to see her good friend, Rose.
Her father consulted his Lutheran pastor about Emma’s “situation.” The pastor brooded on the problem and the next Sunday a middle-aged woman appeared at the family home. She informed Emma’s father that she was sent to visit the girl. The woman was brusque and asked where she could find the injured girl. Her dad pointed to the stairs and said Emma could be found behind the closed door. As she headed toward the long flight of steps, her father notice the woman walked with a pronounced limp and took the stairs one at a time. In a matter of moments, he heard a loud voice berating and condemning for being selfish and uncaring toward those who loved her and from now on her door was to remain open and she would no longer spend time in her room. A bedroom is for sleeping and not for brooding, crying and hiding from the realities of life. Through the door, there could be heard sobbing and wailing with copious amounts of tears – then whispering. Whispering, as her father learned later, about the injury the woman had suffered as a youth that left her crippled. With strength and perseverance, she said all injuries could be conquered. She must think positively. After several hours or so the door to the room opened and the newly re-born Emma emerged, followed by the woman who brought her back to her family and transformed her.
A Re-born Emma
From that moment on, the foundation of her life took form. Emma became Miss Emma and grew into the pillar of her family and the strong lady who would become the confident businesswoman in the coming years. However, from that time on, Emma would never appear in public without wearing a pair of gloves, the empty fingers filled with prosthetics to give the appearance of a normal hand. She never shook hands or allowed herself to be photographed without hiding her damaged hand.
Emma left school the next year. The teachers advised her father to send her to college at the age of sixteen, but Emma refused. College would be for her younger brother. She chose to stay in Middle Village, watching over and mothering her small and loving family.
She accompanied her father to work every day and quickly became the office manager and business development expert. In the early part of the twentieth century, the small farms that dotted western Queens county and north Brooklyn were rapidly disappearing, being broken up into small lots by developers and builders who were erecting houses at an astonishing pace. Emma recognized this and advised her dad to undersell his competitors and add a second shift to the mill. He followed her advice and the company grew by leaps and bounds.
In several years, her brother graduated from college with a degree in engineering and he, too, joined the business, re-organizing the floor with his “time and motion” skills. The firm expanded to a second building and became a twenty-four hour a day enterprise.
All the time my family remained friendly with Emma’s but they did not see each other as often as before. Rose had lost her mom and took over the running of her family and Emma was consumed with her business life. They still would still exchange cards and letters but not share the warm times as before.
When the World War broke out, two of Emma’s brothers and Rose’s two brothers joined the army – my two great uncles became regular GI grunts and Emma’s brother an engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers.
One day in 1918, Emma appeared unannounced at my aunt’s home. The night before, she had received a telegram from the War Department revealing that her brother was missing in action. She was distraught. She didn’t know how to tell her father. She asked if Rose and her father would come with her to the Middle Village home and be there with her pastor when she broke the news because she had no one else to turn to. The three left in Miss Emma’s car which was specially equipped so she could operate the stick shift.
When Emma’s father arrived home and saw the pastor, Rose, and her father, he knew. Silently, he walked to his liquor cabinet and poured himself a large glass of whisky. He swallowed it in one long sip then offered those present a drink. All but the pastor said yes, but with a cold hard stare he told the pastor that “no” was not an acceptable answer.
Miss Emma tried to speak but her father put forth his hand and she went silent. Her dad then raised his glass and toasted his only son, who he knew was lost to the ages. He then bade everyone good evening and strode to the stairs up to his bedroom. He closed the door and those remaining in the center hallway heard the emotional throes of a broken man. He took up where Emma had left off almost twenty years prior however this broken man would never be repaired.
Emma’s brother’s body was never found and nothing of a personal nature was ever returned. There was no funeral, no religious service and no grave in Lutheran Cemetery to visit on Sundays. The business went on and Miss Emma cared for her broken father. He lost all interest in his firm while Emma dove into it hiding the pain of a lost, loved sibling. In a world filled with hurt and anguish, life went on.
The 1920s were very good for Emma’s milling business. Houses were being constructed all over Queens and Brooklyn and she was providing much of the door frame and baseboard stock.
At this time she also developed an interest in gardening. She removed most of the trees surrounding her house, replacing them with decorative bushes and flower beds. Along the wrought iron front fence she planted rhododendrons, azaleas, wisterias and many others. Her garden became known among the local florists, one of which was my other great-grandfather. Emma had him find small Japanese maples trees and other exotic plantings. My great-grandfather took to calling her the “Queen of Bulbs,” for she purchased hundreds of tulips to be planted in the fall for spring blooming.
The interior of her home was filled with gorgeous house plants and many, many African Violets in addition to cut flowers everywhere. She even considered erecting a greenhouse but it never became a reality.
As time wended on, Emma’s dad became more of a recluse and during Prohibition he took up wine making, filling the rear of his yard with vines and his cellar with oak barrels.
The Great Depression hurt Emma’s milling business little. She moved into supplying the Brooklyn Navy Yard with items she could easily make in her shop. She became one of the military’s largest suppliers of wooden ladders and screen doors. She once told my aunt that she managed this task by becoming friendly with the local politicians’ wives and fertilizing the politicians’ election coffers.
During World War II Emma turned out many wood products for the military including boat and aircraft parts.
Toward the end of the war Emma was in her sixties. Her dad had to be institutionalized with dementia, which today would most likely be diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease, and he passed on in the late 1940s.
She considered selling the business but remained out of fear, believing her mind would rot from inactivity. Eventually she did sell the business in the 1950s. She could not find workmen who pleased her or were reliable or knew how to properly work a lathe.
Also at this time, her damaged hand was starting to greatly bother her. She finally had to have it operated on. The procedure relieved her pain but it eliminated much of the dexterity that remained in the hand. She told my aunt that she was lucky Detroit had come along with the automatic transmission or she would be a prisoner in her own home.
Emma was now in her seventies and her home became the centerpiece of her life. My father, who was then a florist, took care of her plantings, supplying her with beautiful shrubs and flowers and preparing a vegetable garden which had become one of her joys.
A Garage Adventure
At this time, I was a young boy helping my aunt in her yard and going with my dad to Emma’s house to do her gardening. Once I had to go into her garage, which was a converted barn, where I searched all over for a certain tool my father needed. I eventually climbed into the garage loft and found her late brother’s old bicycle, sleds, a toboggan and other toys a young boy would have had earlier in the century. Emma came into the garage looking for me and when she saw me in the loft she ordered me in a very stern voice to come down and never, ever go up there again. I told her I was looking for a certain tool for my dad. She didn’t care and told me to leave the garage and never enter it again. I had never seen her like this before. By the end of the day, she softened and told me that no one goes up to the loft as it contains memories that were sacred to her. It was a private place, her brother’s clubhouse when he was young – another one of her painful memories.
Emma and my aunt became closer during this time and they got together about once a month for lunch at Niederstein’s or Gebhardt’s on Myrtle Avenue and once a year they’d travel to the “City” to dine at Lüchow’s.
In the 1960s the two old friends were approaching eighty and still getting along quite well until the accident. One Sunday afternoon after returning from church, Emma crashed her car into the rear of the garage and that ended her driving. Apparently, she had an eye problem and was losing her depth perception.
After my father left the florist business, Emma hired a landscaper to care for her property. And then she hired another. And another. And so on. No one could get it right and she felt she was being taken advantage of. Also, about this time my aunt was experiencing a series of illnesses and she wasn’t getting about much, so I wasn’t seeing or hearing about Miss Emma.
One day, I was riding with my dad along Metropolitan Avenue and we stopped for a red light and out of Kopp’s Bakery toddled Emma, dressed to the nines. She carried an umbrella that seconded as a cane because she was too prideful to admit she needed one, and atop her head was a hat that would make a milliner proud. We immediately pulled over and offered her a ride home. She refused but my dad would not take no for an answer. She got in and we took her home. Emma invited us in but we were in a rush and didn’t take her up on the offer. She smiled and said thank you. I walked her to her door, waited for her to get inside, and then we drove off. That was the last I saw of Miss Emma.
About six months later, my aunt told me she couldn’t reach Emma by phone. She kept getting a recording about it being out of service. I tried to dial the number and got the same. I told her she probably had the number changed. My aunt said no, something was wrong. She asked me to get my dad and go see if Emma was okay.
My dad and I drove to the house and it was sealed shut. A neighbor saw us and my dad told her our story. The woman informed us that Emma was rushed away by ambulance about two months before, and the last she heard, Emma was placed in a nursing home by a distant cousin. She also said the house was sold and to be demolished soon. We thanked her and went home to Aunt Rose with the bad news.
When told, Aunt Rose went to her Roll-a-Dex and took out Emma’s card. She placed it on a plate and set it on fire. “She’s gone” is all Aunt Rose would say.
My dad tried to find out where she was but to no avail. The pastor of Trinity Church didn’t know, the neighbors of course didn’t know, and the people at Lutheran cemetery said she wasn’t interred there. The new builder who bought the property only had the address of her distant cousin in Florida. We tried to contact the cousin but never heard back. To this day, I have no idea what Emma’s last name, address or disconnected phone number was. All of that information went up in smoke that spring afternoon in Rose’s kitchen. Recently, I have tried to locate the spot on which her home rested, but cannot. All of the homes appear similar, other homes that I remember have been upgraded or altered and the streets of old Middle Village are now a labyrinth of one ways.
About two years after Miss Emma’s disappearance my aunt became very ill and when I visited her she would lay on a day bed in her porch and tell me stories about her youth, old Middle Village and her friends who were now all departed.
She said she looked into all their graves except for one, the mysterious Ms. Emma.