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Mama Lily's Cookie Jar

1940’s Cookie Jar

I have a cookie jar story to share that connects the present with the past. On a bitter cold day in December I revisited my grandparent’s old neighborhood in Washington Heights- a formerly German Jewish neighborhood in NYC. I hadn’t been there in over 30 years- not since my grandmother Lillian, in her early 90’s, died in the late 1970’s. Armed with a brand new Nikon DSLR camera, my partner and I ventured uptown, looking for 709 W 176th St.

We were searching for the apartment building where my father Sanford grew up, the address where he sent 40 letters in 1946 that is the subject of our documentary film, Letter From Cloudcroft. In 1946, my father, then a 21 year old Jewish engineer in the Army was one of the first engineers assigned to work with the captured German rocket scientists that had been secretly installed at Fort Bliss, in El Paso Texas. These men, including the renowned Wernher von Braun reassembled the German V2 missiles, initiating America’s dominance in the cold war and race to space. My father, writing frequently to his parents about his experiences addressed every letter to his home in Washington Heights. I was on a mission to see if the old building was still intact.

The lobby of 709 W. 176th Street, 32 years later

Filmmaker/Granddaughter Melinda Hess returning to her grandparent’s apartment building

Much to my delight, we easily found the apartment building and it appeared much as I remembered it from my childhood. We managed to sneak inside and it was if my entire childhood appeared before me. The large entry way looked exactly as I remembered it, with the long row of mailboxes, black and white tiled floor, gold paint on the ceiling. I turned left from the foyer and began my ascent up the many stairs to the third floor where my grandparent’s apartment had been. Thirty years later, there was still no elevator service to the third floor. I labored up the flights of stairs taking in all the aromas of each landing, remembering how it smelled when I was a kid. After finding what had been their apartment I walked back downstairs to the lobby where I encountered a woman inquiring about why we were photographing the lobby.

We began a lively conversation as I explained that my father and grandparents had lived in the building and told her about the film we are making. As I showed her a film sequence on my iTouch, this 55 year old woman from the Dominican Republic shocked me as she shared her story of living in the building for over 30 years. She had known my grandmother briefly, remembered her as a solitary and somewhat stubborn 90 year old woman who walked with a cane and refused to move from her third floor walk up apartment. Theresa remembered that she had a son, a son who would visit her regularly and who, upon her death, allowed some neighbors to select items they might want from my grandmother’s apartment.

Theresa apparently selected one item- a large cookie jar from the 1940’s with a clown/pixie head. I couldn’t believe that Theresa knew Mama Lily, as I called her, let alone that she had an item that once belonged to her. Then, just as I was getting over my astonishment, Theresa asked if we’d like to see the cookie jar. This was not to be missed, so Patricia and I climbed the stairs again, this time to the second floor to Theresa’s apartment to look at her cookie jar. There it was, on top of a cabinet, smiling down on all of us. It was an extraordinary moment of synergy, connecting with a stranger and bridging the past and present. As we left the building, quite amazed at what we had discovered I asked my partner if by any chance she had been able to capture with the DSLR any of the interaction with Theresa. While we conversed I had noticed that Patricia was standing opposite us, holding the camera at her hip, angled slightly up towards the two of us. Without being intrusive and holding the camera to her eye as normally done, Patricia had miraculously captured this serendipitous encounter. We intend to return to 709 W. 176th Street later this year, to film the apartment building and interview Theresa and other neighbors for our documentary. There might be other gems of connections to be discovered among old cookie jars.