A Century and Counting

Esther Laufer remembers trolley cars and horse-drawn wagons
Esther Laufer T.E. McMorrow

   Esther Laufer, who turned 100 on Tuesday, remembers trolley cars and horse-drawn wagons, silent movies, spinning tops in the gutter on the street, and egg creams at the local soda fountain.
    Mrs. Laufer, who lives in Northwest Woods, is the daughter of Russian immigrants who came to the United States to escape the pogroms of the czar. She was born Esther Murofchick in Brooklyn and grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. “Everybody knew each other,” she remembered last week.
    Her parents were observant Orthodox Jews. If you wanted a light on on a Saturday, you had to plan ahead. “You had to turn it on Friday,” she said, because Orthodox traditions prohibit work, even the work of cooking or turning on a light, on the Sabbath. Her family kept a kosher kitchen, and she soon supplanted her mother as the primary cook. “I made pasta, bread, cakes, you name it,” she recalled proudly. Her father was a lather, laying the strips of wood inside a room’s framework before it was plastered.
    “I went to Girls Commercial High School, where I leaned to play the piano,” she said. She taught piano lessons to the neighborhood children, while continuing to play herself. She remembers playing in a studio one day with her piano teacher in the back of the room with another man, who smiled and waved at her. Her teacher later told her the visitor had been Sergei Rachmaninoff.
    Silent movies were the rage, and Charlie Chaplin’s tramp was her favorite character.
    In the summer, the family would go to Brighton Beach.
    Mrs. Laufer met her future husband at a social club at her temple. Leon Laufer was there with another girl, but he took one look at her blue eyes and said, “ ‘Wait here,’ ” she recalled. He took the other girl home, then returned to see her. A few months later, they were married.
    He was a cab driver, then a trolley car driver, before he went into business as a photographer, taking portraits on Flatbush Avenue. Mrs. Laufer joined him in the business. “I used to dress the high school girls” for their graduation portraits, she said.
    They didn’t have a telephone. Instead, she would pay a young boy in the pharmacy downstairs to knock on her door when a call came for the Laufers.
    “My husband worked the 1939 World’s Fair,” she remembered. “We were walking and we saw this big mob. What was going on? It was the first television.”
    World War II brought its share of tragedy for the family. Mrs. Laufer lost a brother. “It was terrible. We never told my mother and father when we brought him here from Normandy. . . . We buried him in Brooklyn. . . . It was very sad.”
    Her husband wanted to enlist to fight against Nazi Germany. He was even issued a naval uniform, but when they discovered during his processing that he had two children and a third on the way, he was told to go home. According to Mrs. Laufer, a father with three children or more wasn’t allowed to join up.
    In 1955, they moved to Cedarhurst to raise their three young children, and in the 1970s they began summering in East Hampton.
    They bought property and built a house with plans to spend winters in Fort Lauderdale, but they discovered they didn’t like Florida. “Too many yentas,” Mrs. Laufer said.
    So they returned to East Hampton and their house in the woods full time.
    Now, Mrs. Laufer enjoys sitting by the slider door to her back deck watching the wildlife that visit her yard throughout the day. Her family has grown to include five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
    The world and East Hampton have changed, and not always for the better, in Mrs. Laufer’s view. “People are not as nice, now. Everybody is for themselves, here,” she said. “The world? I think it was better when I was younger. You knew everybody.”
    On Saturday, Mrs. Laufer celebrated her birthday with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk.