While the world was at war in 1944, Florence Tannen was dealing with a war of her own. Tannen, then 9, watched as her beloved mother, Blanche Weinstein, was taken from the family’s Crown Heights, Brooklyn, apartment by workers to Creedmoor State Psychiatric Center in Queens Village.
Tannen, 82, who now lives in Baldwin, still has vivid memories of that night when her father, Abe Weinstein, contacted authorities for the involuntary removal of his wife, who suffered from schizophrenia. She said he looked as white as a ghost standing in the kitchen as his wife turned to him and asked, “Is this what you want, Abe?” Then he looked directly at her and said, “Yes, Blanche.”
The life-altering event still haunts Tannen, who regularly visited her mother until she died in 2003 at the age of 94 at the state-run nursing home in Woodmere Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center. “I loved my mother more than anyone in the world,” says Tannen.
Their loving yet difficult relationship serves as the framework for Tannen’s memoir, “Momma’s Black Refrigerator” (Casa de Snapdragon, $13.95), which details Tannen’s struggles from childhood to adulthood in dealing with her mother’s disorder.
“We know today that schizophrenia is a serious mental illness with origins in abnormalities in certain regions of the brain that may cause the disease’s associated psychotic episodes and delusions,” says Dr. Constantine Ioannou, of the Department of Psychiatry at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. “Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the disease was not recognized as such and the families were often blamed for the disease. The stigma of having a relative with schizophrenia was a great burden, forcing families to keep it a secret.”
Even as a child, Tannen says, she noticed changes in her mother’s behavior, notably long periods when she did not engage in normal conversations with her family. By contrast, Blanche was also a doting mother to Tannen and her sister, Lillian, who was eight years older. But as her mother, who was born in Canada to Russian Jewish immigrants, became withdrawn, young Flori used to say to herself, “Momma was lost behind her eyes,” a reference to her blank stares. Blanche would also do erratic things like paint the entire kitchen all different colors while in a euphoric trance. After Blanche painted the refrigerator black, Tannen’s father, who was born in Russia, knew it was time to have her committed.
Tannen and her sister would take the subway from Brooklyn to Queens and then catch a bus for the long ride to visit their mother in Creedmoor. Tannen recalls her father, who owned a candy store on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and had no close friends, making the trip with them only once. Those visits were usually more emotional for Tannen than for her sister, she says.
“The different emotional experiences the two sisters may have been experiencing may have been due to what is called the parentified child in psychiatry,” Ioannou says. “When a parent is no longer part of daily family life, the oldest child usually takes on all the responsibilities and tasks — cooking, cleaning, laundry and even child-rearing — that the parent did; therefore taking on more adult tasks and becoming more mature. It is a role reversal.”
Her journey as a writer
Even as a girl, Tannen says, she loved to write. One of her proudest moments was when she won an award for poetry at her grammar school, P.S. 241 in Crown Heights.
“They actually printed one of my poems in the school journal. I was so happy,” she says.
After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School, Tannen went to work as a secretary and then an office manager in Manhattan. Though she didn’t attend college, Tannen says that she furthered her education by borrowing textbooks from her boyfriends who were in college. “I would read their literature and psychology books. I learned to love both traditional and nontraditional writing,” she says.
Although she always kept journals, Tannen’s family life took priority over writing. She married Jules Tannen, former vice president of Botany 500 menswear in Manhattan, in 1959, first settling in Elmhurst and then moving to Baldwin in 1962. She spent the next couple of decades raising her sons, Robert and Richard, whom she and her husband often took to see Blanche. “We used to take the boys to go visit my mom and we were allowed to take her out to lunch and then bring her back. She loved Chinese food. The boys loved her,” Tannen says.
At 50 and with her sons now grown men, Tannen rekindled her love of writing by joining workshops and taking private lessons. “It was through these courses that my short story of my mom and the black refrigerator became a book,” Tannen says.
The strongest influences in shaping her as a writer, Tannen says, were New York City writing coach Viva Knight, who also was a producer on the ’70s series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Good Times”; Sherril Jaffee, author and writing teacher at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village; and Barbara Novack, author and writer in residence at Molloy College in Rockville Centre.
It was Novack who suggested to Tannen that she submit her memoir to a publisher after reading it. “Florence is not only a great observer of life, sensitive to its nuances, but she has great empathy for and understanding of the human condition, an emotional depth that informs her writing,” says Novack.
The culmination of Tannen’s dream of having her work published occurred Sept. 11 when Temple Avodah in Oceanside hosted a launch party for her book. Of the 200 people in attendance, Roberta Treacy, coordinator of the book signing at the temple, said: “Florence loves people and they love her right back. The signing line was an excited and civilized mob scene.”
The occasion also had its bittersweet moments for Tannen as she spoke that night. “ ‘What a sad story,’ many people have said. Yes, it is a sad story, but I think, more importantly, it is a story of surviving and what we can become, no matter what our beginnings.”