Juliet Relis Bernstein, 107, my cousin, clearly recalls being with her mother at the polls the first time after women won the right to vote. Within the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, they …
Juliet Relis Bernstein, 107, my cousin, clearly recalls being with her mother at the polls the first time after women won the right to vote. Within the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, they traveled as a family in a horse-drawn carriage.
In 1920, Juliet was the tender age of 7. She may very well be the only woman alive today who remembers the momentous event. One hundred years later, she contently watched as the first female Vice President of the United States took the oath of office.
She was born July 2, 1913, and her family had a farm and small boarding house on Old White Lake Road between White Lake and Stevensville, now Swan Lake. She graduated from Liberty High School.
Another momentous occasion recently occurred in Juliet’s life: On February 3, 2021, she got to wish her daughter, Ellen, a happy 80th birthday. I called Juliet that day to ask her what it was like to have a daughter who is 80. She laughed and said she never expected to live so long to see her daughter turn 80. Continuing with our conversation, she expressed hopes of seeing a female President and discussed her thrill of living to see a female Vice President.
A quick Google of Juliet Relis Bernstein will give you lots of reading material. Aside from being voted as Cape Cod’s Woman of the Year in 2019, another highlight of Juliet’s long life has been the honor of officiating at her grandson’s wedding in 2019.
When I posted about my call to Juliet and her reaction to her daughter turning 80 on a Facebook group that I belong to, People Who Went to Catskills Bungalow Colonies, I received several hundred replies. The most unexpected and consequential comment was from Harriet Shagrin Saffer, a woman nine years Juliet’s junior, who grew up two miles from the boarding house owned by Juliet’s parents. She remembered Juliet’s family and wanted to reconnect and “reminisce about ‘the old days,’ almost 100 years ago.”
When Harriet, 98, called Juliet to talk about the past 100 years, I waited with bated breath to know that the much-awaited connection occurred. With help from her daughter, Lynn, and her cell phone, Harriet called Juliet at her house in Chatham, MA from her home in Fleming Island, FL.
Harriet first tried reaching Juliet on February 10. That day, their daughters and I had an afternoon of back-and-forth emails, phone calls and text messages trying to figure out why Harriet could not get through to Juliet on the phone. The two women, neighbors from the 1920s, were eager to speak with one another. The rest of us were just as interested in learning about their topics of conversation.
On her next attempt to call Juliet on February 18, we went through the same back and forth, but this time, Harriet and Juliet finally spoke in between naps, and it was a rousing success. The two ladies, Catskills born and bred, spoke for about 30 minutes in earshot of Lynn.
According to Lynn, who sat with her mother as she spoke with Juliet, the conversation centered around family and familiar places from their childhoods in the Catskills, moving to New York City and raising their families.
Following the call, Lynn immediately texted, “We just had a lovely chat with Juliet. They really had fun reminiscing.” Lynn’s comment about Juliet was, “What a delightful lady she is! And such good recall.” Later in an email, Lynn recapped what I dubbed “The Chat of the Century.” She wrote, “I am so glad that the ladies got to talk on the phone today. My mom was so excited to talk about their lives almost 100 years ago. Juliet is a real talker, and there wasn’t a moment of awkwardness between them. Well, except that both of them are somewhat hard of hearing at their advanced ages.
“First, they talked about their memories of each other’s families. Juliet would not likely remember my mom since she is nine years older. She thinks she remembers my mother’s sister, Estelle, and might even have a photo of the two of them together. She remembers my grandparent’s farm/boarding house/hotel and exactly where it was located (on the main road between Swan Lake and White Lake, called White Lake Road back then). My mother remembers Juliet’s parents, her brother, Matthew, and her older sister, Carolyn.
“Then the name dropping started: They both remembered the names of all the neighbors in the area, where they lived, who married whom, where the children landed up... That led [them] to talk about the shops and landmarks in the nearby towns, comparing the one-room schools they attended (not the same one), and both graduating from Liberty High School (10 years apart).”
Getting back to Lynn’s discussion of “The Chat of the Century” led to their move from the Catskills. “In 1951, my parents bought a house in Whitestone, Queens, NY and lived there for 20 years. And who else settled in Whitestone? Juliet’s sister, Carolyn, so they were practically neighbors. Juliet herself lived in Bayside, the next town over. Incredible coincidence when you think of all the places there are to live in New York.”
Naturally, they spoke about their children. Lynn noted, “Juliet’s daughter lives just south of San Francisco; my brother, Jason, lives just north of her. One of her sons still lives in upstate New York, and the other lives in Manhattan and just got married for the first time, at the age of 60-something. She said he told her, ‘now you don’t have to worry about me, Mom.’ So cute! And they talked just a little about losing their husbands and going on without them.”
Lynn added that her mother promised Juliet that she would email her. Lynn will try to include some old pictures of her mother’s home in the country.
“So, there you have it,” Lynn concluded. “It was great fun moderating the call, once we finally got all the phone numbers working.” She added, “Mom said it made her feel 15 again.” I can only add, what a blessing.
This entire monumental telephone get-together flooded me with warm memories of my mother at the Catskills. Our talks about the highlights of her long years spanning from 1915 to her passing in 2012 often included the rollicking fun times up the mountains. Memories of my earliest Catskills days bring me back to the peacefulness of the dew-filled mornings on Debruce Road in Livingston Manor.
Those glorious summer days started with our “mommy and me” walks to the serenity of the creek on Tuttle Hill Road, diagonally across from where we stayed at our cousin’s Mountain View bungalow colony. In my mind’s eye, I can see the farmhouse of the namesake of the road. Inside, I’m watching sweet, aged Mrs. Tuttle churning the fresh butter in her kitchen.
Her husband, a friendly, wiry farmer named Martin, walks in from the fields donning his characteristic plaid flannel work shirt, jeans and a straw hat. To Harriet and Juliet, my memories of the Catskills 60-plus years ago and reconnecting through social media with my grammar school friends from the late 1950s are like current events.
May Harriet and Juliet enjoy continued enriching correspondence, enveloping the fondest memories of their lives in the Catskills. I have gained a lot from my conversations with Juliet. Our regular communication started, mainly via email, when I reached out to her after beginning my family tree research over 30 years ago.
After contacting Juliet’s daughter, Ellen—wait for it—in Mountain View, California (of all cities in the country, Ellen lives in one with the same name as the Catskills bungalow colony!) and letting her know that Harriet reached her mother, Ellen emailed me. Her response was, “Yes my mom really enjoyed reminiscing—both of them did. Thanks for the effort of putting them together.”
To that, I take a deep breath and say, I am thrilled I could facilitate “The Chat of the Century.”
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist who believes that everyone deserves a legacy. Follow her at www.sharonmarkcohen.com.
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