by Greg Lindberg
(Editor’s Note: Greg Lindberg is the editor of Florida’s “White Cane Bulletin.” He was also a DKM First-Timer in 2016.)
Let’s take a trip back in time. It was the spring of 1916. Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. Just over 100 million people made up the population of the United States. It was nearly one year before the U.S. joined its allies in World War I.
On the final day in May that year, Ida Restaino Schwerzel was born in Astoria on Long Island, N.Y. She was delivered at home by a midwife, who was friends with her mother. She says she was her mother’s “miracle child.”
“I was probably premature, although they didn’t really know about all that at the time,” she says. “From birth, I was on oxygen and medication. They even gave me B12 shots. They did not expect me to live. But now at 100, I feel better than ever. My mother always gave me an extra hug on my birthday and was amazed that I could keep going. If I ever took a vacation, we’d always look for the nearest hospital in case I needed medical attention.”
Schwerzel had four siblings, and her mother raised all five children due to her father’s abusive personality. “My mother was like the Rock of Gibraltar,” she says. “She could do absolutely anything. But the neighbors around us were very unaccepting of our mother because she was separated from our father. That was frowned upon much more back then.”
Her mother, Amalia, was just 17 years old when she came to the United States from her hometown of Naples, Italy in the early 1900s. Amalia would later sponsor her only sister, Adelina, to become a U.S. citizen.
“In those days, you put yourself on ‘the list’ to come to the U.S. You had to have a sponsor who was often a complete stranger. Many people could not speak English when they moved here.”
Schwerzel’s grandmother had severe asthma, which she believes she inherited from her. She has struggled with breathing problems her entire life.
“My mother put two chairs together and laid a mattress across them. She put all of my medications, paper, and pencils on them so that everything I needed was in one place. I missed a lot of school when I was young. I had to bring a clumsy oxygen tank to school and give it to the school nurse. When I had a breathing attack, the teacher took me to see the nurse. Kids would huff and puff while laughing at me as I had trouble breathing, which goes to show that some kids have always been mean. I attended P.S. 83 in Astoria, N.Y.”
Schwerzel says it was a different world when she was growing up. “When I was young, life was simple and trusting. The screen door on our house had just a little latch. It was such a different time.”
She has one surviving sister, Gilda Ebel, who is 92. Her eldest sister was Amelia Virga, who was 11 years older than her. She also had two brothers, Mario and Julio.
“I went to Lawrence High School for two years. There was Brown’s Business School where you could receive training to become a secretary. You had to pay the tuition two months in advance. My mom signed me up to go there for one month, but I wanted to be a seamstress, so I dropped out. My mother could take a rag and make something beautiful, so I really learned these skills and became a seamstress myself.”
The next chapter of her life would bring some big surprises that would impact her forever.
“I went on to work at Lord & Taylor, where I made girdles and bras, and did lots of alterations. I met so many famous people there. I actually got to shake Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand when she was First Lady. She took the elevator up to our store, and she had several Secret Service men with her. All of the employees were lined up on either side of the aisle. She shook everyone’s hand and had a pleasant word for everyone. When she shook the store manager’s hand, he whispered something to her, and she started laughing hysterically. I was so eager to find out what he said and asked around if anyone knew what he told her, but he said it would always be a secret. I also met Dorothy Lamour, Eleanor Powell, and June Allyson. The store was on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, so all of the big names shopped there.”
She and her husband, Harold, were married for 60 years. The two first met when both worked at Lord & Taylor.
“I was a corsetiere and started working there when I was about 17 or 18,” she recalls. “My future husband was a stock boy. He’d always wait for me at the employee exit. He kept bugging me to go out on a date, so I finally gave in. On our first date, he told me we were going to get married. I thought he was nuts, but we eventually did, and it’s incredible we stayed together for all those years.”
Harold was a year and a half younger than his better half. He served in the U.S. Army for over four years, including stints at the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Normandy, and the Battle at Patton’s Run during World War II.
In 1942, Harold was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. Ida took a bus to Columbus, Ga. to meet him. This is where they would tie the knot.
“I sent a wire to him saying I was on my way,” she recalls. “He bought socks and cigarettes with the little money he had, so I wound up paying for the wedding ring, the hotel, and the Justice of the Peace to marry us at the courthouse. We stayed at the Ralston Hotel in Columbus for $10 a night. My mother was not too happy about all of this since her other children had traditional church weddings.”
She recalls some early forms of technology to which she was exposed. “When I was younger, I went to the World’s Fair in Flushing, New York. They had an exhibit that showed how overpasses would be built and how they’d work all over our country. They called them ‘highways of the sky,’ and everyone thought it was more like a pie-in-the-sky idea. Also, when one of our neighbors got a TV for the first time, everyone in the neighborhood would go over to his house and crowd around this little box that you could hardly see. That poor man, who was actually very wealthy, wished he had never opened his doors.”
Upon learning they had a child on the way, Schwerzel’s doctor sent a telegram to her husband who was at Fort Sutton so that he would come to New York for Ida’s pregnancy.
“The doctor told my husband to get me out of New York because I wouldn’t be able to deliver my baby due to my health. He even mentioned an abortion. I wound up getting put on strict bed rest for six months and had to eat very lightly. I finally delivered the baby, but his face was so messed up because of how he came out. He also had one weak eye. We were in the hospital for two weeks. He finally started looking better physically. His name was Brian. He went on to serve in the Navy and worked as an airplane mechanic. He died at 59 from a heart attack.”
She also has a daughter, Linda Nicodemus, who is married to Bruce. “My son-in-law is a prince,” she enthuses.
At one point, Schwerzel lived in Belton, Texas right after her son was born and while her husband was stationed at Fort Hood.
“It cost me $10 a week to live in a country house in Texas. The woman who owned it knew I had a baby. She said I could only live there if my baby was quiet. I said he wouldn’t make a sound, but he hollered and cried most of the time. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no use of the refrigerator. I was there for three months. I had to mainly eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I had to use evaporated milk with water. I had to use an outhouse, and I had to fill up a pan with water from the outhouse to get any water there. I had to wash my son’s clothes on a table with a galvanized pail. This woman wanted me out and made things so difficult for me.”