Charlotte Shirley Dickstein
December 13, 1926 – November 22, 2019
Thank you for visiting this site to read about Charlotte’s life.
Charlotte Shirley Dickstein (née Ellenberg) was born in the Bronx in 1926, one of four children of her parents, Rose and Jacob. She was the second oldest, between Seymour and Dolores, who both predeceased Charlotte within the last couple of years. A baby brother, Teddy, died as a toddler.
Charlotte’s childhood was one of a bit of privilege, especially considering it was the time of the Great Depression. The family lived in a nice apartment in the Bronx; they had a housekeeper, as Charlotte used to reminisce. Her father owned several restaurants. He was very smart, and a hard worker, and a real hustler. Charlotte really adored her dad.
Unfortunately, the comfortable life Charlotte knew would end when she was just nine years old. Her father died of what would now be considered a routine ear infection. No penicillin in 1936.
Almost literally overnight, because of some unscrupulous business partners, the family was in pretty dire financial straits. Yet Rose did what she had to do and became a role model. With three kids, she opened a small grocery-type store in East New York, Brooklyn—selling, primarily as her children always heard, pickles from barrels and candy by the pound. Rose worked hard, and she expected her kids to work hard, too. It’s most likely where Charlotte got her no-nonsense approach to things—and her love of food.
Charlotte graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York and was a very talented artist. In fact, upon graduating from Jefferson, she earned a scholarship to Pratt Institute—but she couldn’t go because she had to get a job to help support the family. She worked in the garment industry, which she would later admit she enjoyed. It was somewhat glamorous, and she enjoyed dressing nicely to go to work every day.
Nonetheless, she wouldn’t be able to pick up a brush and pursue her love of art again until after her retirement.
Charlotte met Bobby Dickstein in 1947, a man with some flaws, maybe, but a really kind and charming guy. Charlotte fell hard, because in spite of the fact that Bobby was a widower and a single parent, she—a talented, and strikingly good-looking young woman—decided that he was “the one.”
They married on Christmas Day in 1947. Joy was born a few years later, then the twins Larry and Joel, then “the baby,” Howie.
Bobby was a career cab driver who didn’t always bring in as much money as the family might have needed. Yet Charlotte held it all together under some amazingly trying circumstances. When Howie entered kindergarten, Charlotte went back to work. She started as a clerk at Chase Manhattan Bank in Manhattan’s Financial District; it was a night-shift job to which she commuted by subway for a couple of years. Finally, she saved enough money to take driving lessons near the family’s apartment in Brighton Beach and then buy, for $200, a very well-used car: a dented-all-over 1964 Chevy Biscayne with a tendency to stall at the worst times. And she continued to work her way all the way up to supervisor of expatriate taxes. She was proud of her progress, as she deserved to be.
Finally, Charlotte retired in the late 1980s with a big party and enough of a pension and some savings that allowed her to be financially independent. Bobby had died years earlier. She was able to go to a program for retirees at Kingsborough Community College and begin painting again, and take up sculpting, too. Her works live on in her children’s and grandchildren’s homes, reminders of her inborn talent.
But Charlotte never remarried, never had any other romantic relationships. She was satisfied, she said, with her children—and, by then, her grandchildren. Oh, boy, did she love her grandkids! Each one had a special place in her heart. She loved to hold them, spoil them.... and most definitely to cook for and feed them.
Charlotte could be difficult—opinionated, stubborn, maybe somewhat relentless. Life made her that way. It was unavoidable. Her father’s death at an early age, and her husband’s. Not being able to fulfill her potential at Pratt. Financial worries most of her life. She probably felt life had cheated her, in some ways.
But all that melted away with her grandkids.
When Charlotte had to leave Brooklyn and move to the apartments and then nursing facility of Daughters of Israel, she began to encounter some pretty severe health issues, the most serious of which was a failing aortic valve. Surgery was predicted to be very risky, and initially, she declined to go through it. She was satisfied with things. Happy with her children and grandchildren, but maybe a bit tired. Finally, as she began to get short of breath (something that frightened her tremendously) she developed a plan—okay, she would schedule the risky heart surgery. She explained that either way, she would first get to spend some time with everyone she loved. Then, she would be peacefully anesthetized, and either she would not wake up, or she’d live.
After a 6-hour surgery, her children were there to break the news to her: “Hey, Mom, you lived!” The story is illuminating because it shows how tough and pragmatic she could be—and how resilient, too. She survived that long and very risky surgery, beating overwhelmingly poor odds.
When she severely fractured her ankle two years ago, her children thought that was it, too. But, four surgeries later, she came back again.
As time went on and she became less mobile, Charlotte lived for the visits made to her at Daughters of Israel. From the grandchildren, for sure. But also from Joel, who traveled often from Florida, from Larry who frequently popped in throughout the week as a constant, and from Howie, driving in from Long Island. The parade of visitors, including children-in-law and grandchildren-in-law, may have been something other less-fortunate residents may have envied.
At the end of the day, though, it was Joy who carried the primary responsibility of Charlotte’s day-to-day life in the last decade. It wasn’t easy for her. Like many mother-daughter relationships, theirs was complicated, and Charlotte’s appreciation wasn’t always apparent. But Joy’s siblings always knew, and often let others know, how lucky they were to have her at the helm of the efforts—along with her husband, Marv, who in more than 40 years of marriage has always provided his unwavering support.
Charlotte was a complicated person. She could be difficult. In the end, though, she should be remembered as someone who fiercely loved her family and completely adored her grandchildren, as a creative artist, and as a terrific cook. Probably it’ll be the food that’s remembered the most—and, of course the good memories that accompanied those many, many meals.
Most recently, she couldn’t seem to get enough of telling all the members of her family how much she loved them. And they, in turn, are so happy that she went peacefully—after a long, full life—just the way she wanted to.
And, here, Howie adds a final little story. In his words:
This past week, Joel had the flu. He struggled to get here. I spoke to him twice, and he sounded terrible. On Friday night, he told me about his plans to take Nyquil and spray with Afrin to prepare for the flight. I got off the phone—and, after a moment, I had to smile when the thought occurred to me of what my mother would tell him, the thing she told all of us when we were legitimately sick and didn’t want to go to school. She would say, “You’ll hit the fresh air—you’ll feel better.” We could be nauseous, throwing up, have 101 fever—didn’t matter: Off we’d go. Thinking about that made me laugh—and I know that we all hope that Mom is now in the magical fresh air, and that she feels much, much better.
- Funeral Service Sunday, November 24, 2019
- Committal Service Sunday, November 24, 2019