As a child, Mort Zachter slept in a bed wedged against the refrigerator in the dinette of his parents’ walk-up Brooklyn apartment. His mother regularly helped out at her brothers’ Lower East Side bread store, her pay the leftovers from the day’s sales. Her bachelor brothers, Joe and Harry, had taken over the store when their parents died and worked there seven days a week from seven in the morning until midnight. They lived nearby until Joe died, and Harry, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, moved in with Zachter’s parents.
On a sweltering summer day when Zachter was visiting his parents, the phone — a black rotary model — rang. By the time Zachter hung up, his entire life was upside down. His uncle’s stockbroker — the ailing uncle who was sitting on a broken-down chair across the room — was mailing Zachter power of attorney over his uncle’s account of a million dollars.
Thus begins Mort Zachter’s journey into his uncles’ history, more accurately, their mystery, and his parents’ part in it. As he empties his uncles’ apartment, crammed with castoff furniture, unused bank giveaways, and piles of papers, he discovers six million dollars in various bank and brokerage accounts. Why had his family struggled so, working so hard for such modest comforts? With his knowledge as a CPA and graduate of night law school, Zachter, the ultimate heir to this money, is able to pay off his debts and follow his original goal of being a writer. The result is this forgiving, amiable, and affectionate memoir of second-generation Jewish working-class life, a warm and lively picture of one family’s unlikely road to the American middle class. Photographs.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.