In 1994, after a lifetime of scrimping and barely making do, the 36-year-old author discovered that his two bachelor uncles had accumulated five million dollars in savings—all of it coming his way.
Harry and Joe Wolk ran a bread store that their parents, Russian-Jewish immigrants, founded on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1926. Their sister, Zachter’s mother, gave up her dreams of teaching to work full-time for free at the family store; her husband pitched in after his regular hours as an unemployment insurance claims examiner. Young Mort slept in the kitchen of his parents’ rundown one-bedroom apartment; he learned to consider a career in writing a fantasy and instead became a CPA. The question of why his uncles would sit on so much wealth rather than, say, help put Zachter through college, is never answered. Uncle Joe died before the story begins, and Uncle Harry was suffering from Alzheimer’s when his nephew learned of his millions in brokerage accounts. Apparently, they had the tormented relationship with money all too common among immigrants. Nonetheless, the author winningly details the prickly love of his close-knit family and the endless hours they put into running the beloved store. Scenes of the annual gathering after Passover dinner to count the food stamps acquired throughout the year are both touching and appalling. Zachter charmingly portrays the changing Lower East Side and the shifting relationship his uncles had with their patrons. Prices varied according to what they estimated each customer could pay (some got their bread for free), and Uncle Harry had a habit of supporting members of the community who were unable to pay their bills. Yet when his own nephew was out of work, he slipped him…two dollars. Zachter never seems bitter, describing the discovery of his uncles’ secret hoard with such surpassing sweetness and affection that readers won’t dream of envying his newfound wealth.
Occasionally uneven prose more than redeemed by a warm family narrative.