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A generation ends with Aunt Flo’s passing

I always called her Aunt Flo, though it was said that everyone called her Flossie. Either way, Florence Goodman, nee Goldberg, was the last of the Goldbergs of her generation.

And what a generation it was. Nine siblings, six boys and three girls, all orphaned when their father, my grandfather Yechiel (“Charles”), died in the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918.

He was 42 years old.

Florence was his youngest daughter, five years old at his death, just shy of her 95th birthday at her own death a month ago.

It is hard to imagine a tighter family.

Two of the girls, Aunt Libbie Steinberg and Aunt Rose Barnett, and their husbands, spent their entire married lives in the same house, raising their families together.

And the other girl, Aunt Florence, took in her mother, my grandmother, the family matriarch, and they lived in the same house, together with her husband and daughter Carol, for decades.

Meanwhile, it was as if Aunt Flo also lived in Aunt Libbie and Aunt Rose’s home; the three were inseparable, day in and day out. It is not a surprise that among Aunt Flo’s great-grandchildren are both a Libbie and a Rose.

Still more: In his eighties, my Uncle Harry, who lived in Los Angeles, regularly called his older sister Rose for advice and counsel.

All of the siblings lived into their nineties — my Uncle Jack lived the longest, to 97 — with two exceptions: Uncle Morris, who died at 89, and my Dad, Max, the second youngest of the siblings, who died at 61.

Being the two youngest, Aunt Flo and my Dad were very close. They goofed around as kids and, it seems, the only sore point was that Dad brought home an ice cream cone for his Mom every day after selling newspapers on the street corners of downtown Denver.

But he didn’t bring home ice cream for his sister Florence — he didn’t have the money. His sister Rose remembered an earlier moment: “Once Papa gave me a quarter and I thought I was a millionaire.”

Dad started selling newspapers downtown when he was seven. He and older brothers would dump the newspaper sales receipts — pennies, dimes, quarters — into their mother’s hand. That was the daily parnassah, or livelihood, after Papa Yechiel died. In addition, my Dad would present his Mom with the ice cream cone.

That kibbud eim, as in “honor your father and your mother,” stuck with Dad his entire life. He was quite the world traveler, but never did he leave home for Stapleton Airport and never did he come home from Stapleton Airport without first visiting his mother (and Aunt Flo, too; remember, her mother lived in her home).

In fact, every morning of Dad’s busy life, he would visit his mother a few blocks away before going to work, or going to shul.

A tight family indeed.

Uncle Willie and Uncle Morris lived in Salt Lake City. The big excitement of our youth was when they would pay the Denver relatives a visit. They always stayed at the home of Aunt Libbie and Uncle Dave Steinberg, and of Aunt Rose and Uncle Louie Barnett. They were four siblings in one house.

Uncle Willie was quite the sportsman. In his youth he once sparred with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey (once, and only once, he emphasized — he was afraid). Uncle Willie was a bundle of fun. And Aunt Sarah? She was flamboyant, with a loud, metallic voice and a heart of gold.

Uncle Willie loved telling the story of how he met Aunt Sarah. Willie, struggling to work his way out of poverty, tried his luck in Salt Lake City. Legend has it that he was aiming to ride the rails to Omaha, but his buddy got mixed up and they ended up in Salt Lake. Willie stayed.

He got a job as a meter reader. Happening on the household of the Brisk family, the head of the household somehow detected that Willie was Jewish and invited him in — then managed, somehow, to introduce him to his daughter Sarah.

There were probably no more than a handful of Jews in the Salt Lake City in the 1910s, and lo and behold, Willie Goldberg meets Sarah Brisk and they marry.

Uncle Morris followed his older brother Willie to Salt Lake and how he met Aunt Augusta I never learned.

Speaking of weddings, here’s what Rose remembered about sister Libbie’s: “The Glazelach [Glassblowers] Shul — Libbie and Dave married there. Someone stole all of the fruit, and Dave forgot the ring.”

Seems there’s a lot of stories about matches in our family. The shidduch between Grandpa Yechiel and my grandmother was made back in their hometown of Brisk, Poland. He came to Denver in 1894; his bride followed in 1895. Aunt Rose and Uncle Harry remembered this:

“In New York they loaded Mama [my grandmother] in a box car. They wouldn’t let her out until Papa was there to take her . . . She was so pretty, they were afraid someone else would grab her.”

When Dad was right out of high school he joined Willie in Salt Lake and got a job with the Salt Lake Telegram. One fine day he announced to his editor that he was going to bring in an exclusive interview with Jack Dempsey. Willie had introduced his kid brother Max to Dempsey. The editor laughed, but sure enough Max came back with the interview.

That began a lifelong friendship between Max Goldberg and Jack Dempsey. This resulted in the first donation to the General Maurice Rose Memorial Hospital — a facsimile of Dempsey’s $1,000 check is still on display in Rose Medical Center.

Dad’s association with Dempsey also began a lifelong, colorful media career that brought exclusive TV interviews with the likes of President Kennedy and Martin L. King, Jr. to Denver viewers 30 years later, in the 1960s, on Dad’s show, “On the Spot.”

If you’re going to be a promoter up there with Kennedy and King, you start young. From Aunt Rose’s memory:

“Max brought [my mother] Miriam to the house. I said: Where’d you get such a beautiful girl? “Don’t worry,’ he said. He bought her a ring. I said: Where’d you get the money for a ring? ‘Don’t worry,’ he said — you see, he took it on payments. Then he went on a honeymoon to the best hotel in Denver [the Park Lane] — and he didn’t have the money. And I said: How’d you do that? ‘Don’t worry,’ he said.”

He traded the six-month hotel stay for advertising on a radio show he launched in 1936.

Aunt Flo was small and kind, while her husband Uncle Dave Goodman (not to be confused with sister Libbie’s husband, Dave Steinberg) was large, really big, with this fake harsh exterior that he put on for his nieces and nephews. In fact, he was as soft and kind as his wife, without an enemy in the world.

He also had this deep, rich, melodious voice, and absolutely perfect diction and pitch. I was just a kid, but I urged him to go to Hollywood. Easily he could have been the narrator in major movies. It never happened.

As one of the younger of the next Goldberg generation of these nine siblings, I found it hard to figure out who was who. Gradually, I came to learn that Uncle Jack Goldberg was the only one of the siblings to earn a college degree. When he retired, he was the oldest practicing pharmacist in Colorado.

I came to learn that Uncle Louie Goldberg (not to be confused with sister Rose Barnett’s husband Louie) was quite the craftsman. The founder and owner of Artcraft Signs, he was responsible for all those lawn signs politicians put up during elections.

Uncle Jack’s wife Goldie was an artist of a different kind, oil on canvas, while Uncle Louie’s wife Josephine could tell a great story.

All the Goldberg siblings had this slightly cynical humor, both wicked and good-natured, serious and simple. I can’t quite capture it. Aunt Rose would say, “They say you can’t take it with you. Oh yes you do! You take that little sack of sand [from Israel] they put in the casket.”

Uncle Dave Steinberg was very pious and his brother-in-law, Uncle Louie Barnett (remember, they lived in the same house) pretended he was not. On the face of it, you couldn’t find any two people more unlike each other. Leather-faced, Louie chomped on his cigars and had a lot of fun with his daughters, nieces and nephews. Dave davened and treasured Shabbos. Yet, when Louie died suddenly at 62, while playing golf at City Park, Dave was heartbroken. They had lived harmoniously in close quarters for decades, more like brothers than brothers-in-law.

Many remember Dave Steinberg as a longtime gabbai. He must have served 20 years in that position without ever offending a soul. Anyone familiar with this critical and often thankless task will readily see that Uncle Dave had a special gentleness to be a gabbai so long, beloved all the way.

I think it took me almost to adulthood to figure out who all the cousins were, not to mention my Aunt Flo’s own aunts and uncles. It probably wasn’t until I was a grandparent that I got them figured out. (Maybe. I still get calls about the extended family tree that I can’t answer.)

Meanwhile, our son Chaim ended up in preschool with, we determined, his second cousins, once removed, David and Robert Zarinsky and Alex Gierzkak; and in shul with his third cousins, once-removed, Gillian and Trystan Hecht.

So, while the older Goldberg generation is gone — the generations continue.

Aunt Flo’s death is far more than symbolic, however. Her passing didn’t just mark the end of a generation; it marked the passing of a kind, perceptive, humble, very understated person, a deep believer, always with a smile and her deep blue eyes, the progenitor of great-grandchildren in Gush Etzion, Israel, and in Ohio.

Florence, like her husband Dave, made people comfortable, at ease. She knew her own mind, and could helpfully advise her relatives, perhaps because she was utterly unthreatening. In this she took after her mother, who embodied the unassuming Yiddishkeit of the “Old Country.”

I’ll never forget how Aunt Flo and her sisters rescued me when I was about eight. I had the bright idea to throw a surprise party for my Mom and invited some 20 people. Needless to say, I hadn’t a clue how to put on a party. Somehow, Aunt Flo, Aunt Rose and Aunt Libbie got wind of this and, without a comment, made the whole party.

And who can forget how Aunt Flo cooly saved her life a couple of years ago? Suddenly felled by a stroke, she crawled to the phone, managed to call her daughter in Ohio, who also cooly had a rescue team there two minutes later, and Aunt Flo recovered completely.

Still, she stopped driving — at 92. Then came her last period in Shalom Park, which, in uncharacteristic effusiveness, she praised for its Jewish character and kosher food. Her final moments? Bright and active two days before she died, she passed as she lived, simply, peacefully, going to sleep: mitat neshikah, “death by a kiss.”

Now her entire generation is gone. It strove to rise out of the poverty of the original, Yiddish-speaking Jewish community on the West Side of Denver, under the Colfax viaduct, astride the Platte River.

“I was too busy taking care of my six brothers to read books,” recalled Aunt Rose. “I only went to school through the eighth grade. My father couldn’t afford to send us to high school.”

We miss them all, and Aunt Florence most poignantly now. But we are grateful that we had her and her siblings as long as we did.

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