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Life’s a Banquet

Chapter Four of a short memoir I wrote about Taffy. Never economize on luxury.

When traveling, Taffy always wore a skirt-suit, which I never understood as a child, but now wish people did more often.  There’s something about going out and looking great that not only makes you feel good about yourself, but draws looks from the crowd and makes others look back at you.  And doesn’t that always make you feel the star?

Taffy’s always the star of her story, and that’s just the way it should be.  While she’ll probably argue that I never picked up the ‘dress nice while traveling’ bug from her (it’s true, I’m a jeans and t-shirt person), I rarely go see a live show without looking good and I almost always stay to see the credits in a movie.  Both habits I learned from her.

My mother, I always thought, had a great sense of style.  Now that I’m older I can see she learned a lot from Taffy.  After my parents divorced, my mother lived with Taffy for a while as she went to law school.  Later, when she had her first job, she wore some of Taffy’s suits to the office.  When Taffy wore the same suits to those offices later, as her lawyer was in the same firm, he swore the outfits looked familiar.  Of course they did!  He’d seen them on my mother!

As her sister Rosanne puts it:

I’m four years older than Taffy, and when we were kids she could always get me to do what she wanted with just a look.  I had a hard time refusing her anything.  When we got ice cream, Taffy would finish hers first.  She wouldn’t ask me for a bite of mine, just look longingly.  I always gave in and let her have some of my ice cream.   When it was her turn to do the dishes or some other chore, she would give me “that look” and I would do it for her.  When I earned my letterman sweater my last year in high school, Taffy wanted to wear it and so I let her.  She wasn’t even in high school at the time!

Even though I’m the older sister, Taffy was always more sophisticated than I.  She started getting the boys attention when she was only 12.  She was beautiful and vivacious at an early age.  I was a late bloomer – Taffy used to set me up on dates!  When she was 16, she came to visit me at Miami University where I was studying and fit right in because she was already beyond dating high school freshman.

In addition to her style, Taffy was known for her trips.  There wasn’t a nation that wasn’t invaded by Taffy and her ‘entourage.’  Be it taking my father’s cousin, Dan, to Israel or flying out herself to meet her daughter-in-law to be.  There was the time that Taffy and Rita were staying in a nunnery (no one really knows why) and were kicked out after coming back one night, drunk.  It was on one of those trips that the family came up with Marmoset’s Day.

Not just by travel were people acquired into Taffy’s auspice.  Taffy’s, the business, started out as a dance ware shop in the old Cleveland Arcade, which was a ‘gift’ from Harvey.  Little did he know that it would transform Taffy from just another accountant into the dame of the ball that we all know and love.  But as Taffy’s transformed it’s namesake, she and her stores transformed many of us.  As I reflected upon it, Taffy’s was a wonderful place for me to grow up.

Many people whom I meet remember me from Taffy’s, and every last one of us thinks of it as good times, and part of what made us who we are.  We all think of ourselves as extended family.  Certainly, her name carries weight.  When my girlfriend went to buy character shoes (the ones you wear on stage when running, dancing, jumping, etc.), she wound up at a Danskin store and during conversation mentioned Taffy’s name.  The woman helping her said she knew Taffy Epstein because she’d once worked for her, and my girlfriend said she’d not only met Taffy, but she was dating Taffy’s granddaughter.  My name was dropped by the surprised store owner, and a picture was produced.  A few moments later, there was a special ‘Taffy’ deal: two shoes for the price of one.

That’s just one of the little things that Taffy has done to us that’s changed our lives.  One of Taffy’s first employees, Rita, says that she is what she is because of Taffy.

I owe to Taffy almost everything (the rest goes to family, friends and a few good men).

She taught me to write a check (I got very good at it) – took me on a plane trip – allowed me time for theater auditions (she knew I’d make up the time) – was my fashion mentor – and never asked me to cut my bangs.

I remember: the gorgeous pleated brown dress that I ironed for her.  She forgave me – Chicago, sleeping under the banners and the Jazz Festival – The Shoreham Hotel in D.C. – you’ll have to wait for the book.  Theater every night in N.Y. – and, oh, so, much more.

She was not always an easy ride (there are scars) but always an interesting one.  I’m glad I was on board.  She is for me, “the first Lady Intrepid.”

Rita also adds:

One thing – as you know – I spent three fabulous days with Taff in the end of April – well around the 16th – for my 50th high school reunion – it was very special in lots of ways – and you know it was 80% reminiscing which I know worked for her – me too!  She was her usual overly generous [self]!  Way too much food – for me – I took her out for French in hopes that she would eat.  Oh well!

I often think of Taffy as having always been an Epstein.  I’m one, after all, and she must have been one forever as well.  But Taffy remained an Epstein after her divorce by choice, and by what I can only call an amusing coincidence, so did her husband’s brother’s first wife, Anita.  Of course, Anita has her own story to share:

Bernie and I arrived in Cleveland after spending our first year of marriage in Denver.  Bernie had just completed his internship at the Army’s Fitzsimmons General Hospital and he would spend the next year at  Sunny Acres, the county’s TB hospital which  was in what was then the boonies.  I was pregnant with Paul and knew little of the Cleveland area.

Taffy quickly became my mentor in all things  Epstein and culinary;  her can-do attitude and irrepressible laugh quickly increased my comfort level.  Pearlie was a great cook, but of the a-little-of-this-and-a handful-of-that school and I needed more structure.   I’d been an ok cook but Taffy expanded my range (oops, didn’t plan the pun) as well as my ease in the kitchen.  We’d spent Thanksgiving together and the half turkey we’d brought home as leftovers would be a life saver as a major snow storm would then isolate us for the next several days.

I was impressed that Taffy made gefulte (yes, that’s the spelling) fish from scratch and I watched as these little white balls turned into tasty holiday fare.  Can’t remember if it was Passover but the large pot of fish was steaming slowly on the stove as I went home with Paul and Nancy—obviously some years later than that fateful Thanksgiving of 1950.  Next morning the phone rang and Taffy is laughing.  “I forgot the fish and it cooked all night.”  I had visions of ruined fish AND an uncleanable pot.   But not to worry—Taffy’s lucky star and very low heat on the burner turned this into the best fish we’d tasted.

Taffy is the epitome of that all-too-true cliché, “ When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  She’s always ready to enjoy life and face, with humor, strength and knowledge, whatever obstacles come her way.

Anita once drove all the way from Toledo to come out and spend one night at Taffy’s, just to say hello and to see me again.  Her youngest son, Dan, recently moved out to Chicago and ended up mere blocks away from me.  Imagine what would have happened to our merry clan had she and Taffy not stayed Epsteins.

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