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'Flounder Bill' and His Honey Just Hit 70 Years of Wedded Bliss

September 15, 2005 By:
Carin M. Smilk, JE Feature
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The Nerenbergs on the boardwalk this past June, the month they celebrated their 70th anniversary
Evelyn Nerenberg likes to talk; she likes to philosophize. After all, at her age, why shouldn't she have a thing or two to say about life?

Take the stage she's in now - what she calls the third stage of living. First, comes youth. The second, middle age. The third, she offers with a glint in her eye, is "Gee, you look good!"

And, at almost 90, she does. So does her husband of 70 years, William Nerenberg, who turned 92 on Saturday.

While the two are not the oldest married people in the world - that honor was recently taken by another Jewish couple, Herbert and Magda Brown, also of Philadelphia - seven decades together, which they celebrated this summer, is no small feat.

While not as spry as they used to be - both use motorized chairs for any serious moving about - they certainly like to drum up the past, telling stories of Philadelphia in the days of the Depression and of a South Street that boasted quite a different flavor than today.

Evelyn Toll and William Nerenberg met in South Philadelphia in 1932. She was walking with her younger brother on South Street when a man who ran a shoe store there - William's father - approached her and said, "Do I have a son for you?!" Evelyn was all of 16 at the time, and the first thing she recalled thinking was, "What was wrong with their son?"

As it turns out, nothing was, and the two started dating - at the expense of William's girlfriend at the time. "That other girl was so heartbroken," Evelyn says solemnly, "but we've been together ever since."

They spent New Year's Eve on Roosevelt Avenue, at a nightclub during Prohibition, says Evelyn; the place, she adds a bit ruefully, is now the site of an apartment house.

The couple became engaged two years later on Nov. 28 - Evelyn's 18th birthday - and then married on June 9, 1935.

The wedding was small, held in the living room above William's father's store, Belle Shoes. The bride and groom went to Atlantic City, N.J., for a three-day honeymoon, which became extended an extra day when a close cousin, John Schoenfeld, came to give them another $10.

They got their picture snapped on the boardwalk - he in a dark jacket, button-down vest, white pants and a tie; she in a white dress with matching shawl, donning a corsage and carrying white gloves.

"We were walking out for our 35-cent dinner," recalls Evelyn.

They named their first baby, born a year later in 1936, after that cousin's mother, Sandy.

The Jersey shore wound up meaning a lot to the Nerenbergs. Evelyn spent summers there in her youth; they stayed with family, and later rented a room with a bath in nearby Ventnor. Later, she and William visited with their own two children (daughter Barbara was born in 1946, after the war, and after they had a bit of money), and in 1982, eventually got an efficiency apartment at the Warwick condominium building, on the boardwalk between Atlantic City and Ventnor.

"It's our escape," affirms William, an avid fisherman and a charter member of the Ventnor pier, who goes by the nickname "Flounder Bill."

After more than a decade living over the shoe store on South Street, and then nearly 50 years in Northeast Philadelphia, the husband and wife now divide their time between the Brith Shalom House on City Avenue and their little Warwick slice of paradise.

Humor and Attitude
So, what can they say about the marriage, and some of the secrets that have kept them thriving all these years?

"Well," begins Evelyn, "we're good friends. We've got a good sense of humor, a good attitude. And we're still sleeping in an old-fashioned double bed. How can you be angry with someone when you're that close?"

"Don't go to bed mad at each other," agrees William.

"And talk to each other; so many people don't talk to each other. Talk at the dinner table; don't have the television going or music on. Talking to one another is still the most important thing," insists Evelyn.

"And I always gave my husband space. I let him fish, and for me, getting away from him was always a wonderful thing!"

There were rough times, they acknowledge, especially due to complications with William's health. Three years after their marriage, a doctor diagnosed William with polycistic kidneys and gave him six months to live.

"I'm still here," quips the 92-year-old, "but the doctor died."

Evelyn nods: "He's been sick over the years and recovered every time. And all those doctors are dead and buried."

There were also issues over finances, although the shoe business wasn't affected so much by the Depression. As William explains: "There were ration cards for footwear, and lines around the block for shoes. We had enough to eat; we felt privileged."

And they feel privileged still, though they've never been to Israel or even Europe. But they have their daughters, 69 and 59, respectively; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

They have their memories: William can still recite, word for Yiddish word, his Bar Mitzvah speech, and Evelyn can describe where she was when World War I ended in 1918, when Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president in 1923, when the "Hindenburg" burned in 1937 and when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941.

She talks of Hiroshima and the assassination of President John K. Kennedy and, worst of all, she says, Sept. 11, which she claims "indescribable - like the end of the world."

She remembers when you measured your foot with a string, when you drank hot tea with a sugar cube wedged in your teeth, when you boiled diapers over a stove and paid a baby nurse $5 as compensation for a 12-hour shift.

He remembers when a basket of tomatoes was 5 cents ("Now, it's a buck for one!"), and when gas went for 13 cents a gallon.

And she recalls July 1, 1926, when she was 10, and the Delaware River Bridge - now the Benjamin Franklin - was done, and she was carried across by her father to Camden, N.J., for the opening ceremonies.

"It was 25 cents to cross that bridge - a lot at the time. And they said as soon as the bridge was paid for, it would be free."

"Today, what, it's $3 to cross?" chimes in William. "A paint job alone costs more than the original bridge!"

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