A Bronx Tale: Childhood Neighbors Celebrate 7 Decades Of Love

Jul 23, 2019
Originally published on July 26, 2019 11:25 am

The 1940s were significant for a number of reasons.

America went off to fight in the second World War. Orson Welles released his masterpiece Citizen Kane. A rocket-powered plane flew faster than the speed of sound.

And a great love story was being written.

Joel and Julia Helfman grew up in the West Bronx in New York during the '40s. Joel was 13 when a 12-year-old girl moved in across the street. After an errant ball during a stickball game landed near Julia as she read a book, she retrieved it for Joel.

"And the rest is almost history," Joel says in a StoryCorps conversation with his now-wife of 69 years. As the couple recalled their 1943 meet-cute, they couldn't help but finish each other's sentences.

Julia and Joel Helfman on their wedding day in November 1949.
Courtesy of the Helfman family / StoryCorps

The two became fast friends but said goodbye after Joel left home for Chicago at age 17. When he returned, Julia was unenthusiastic to see him, as he hadn't kept in touch.

Nonetheless, Joel paid her a visit, and she asked him: "How much do you like me, a little or a lot?"

Joel and Julia Helfman (center) with their five kids around 1972. They now have 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Courtesy of the Helfman family

The two admitted they had feelings for each other, and Joel made the next logical step. He proposed marriage.

"We had never even kissed; we had never held hands," Julia says to Joel. "So, you walked me up the five flights of stairs and then you gave me a kiss on the lips, and that was enough for me. I went into the apartment, and I said, 'Papa. I'm going to get married.' "

Her father was reluctant, but Julia was adamant. She knew Joel was the one.

"I said, 'Papa, there's just something about him that makes me feel I can do things. I know we can build a great life together. I just know it, Papa,' " Julia says. "And my father looked at me and he said, 'I have never doubted your judgment. If this is what you want, I support you in it.' And that was that."

The couple wed in November 1949. Julia is now 88, and Joel recently turned 90. "Every day I look at you and I say to myself, 'How was I smart enough to know that this young man would always keep me happy, always make me feel safe, always challenge me?' " Julia says to Joel.

The Helfmans will celebrate their 70th anniversary later this year.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Aisha Turner and Eleanor Vassili.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for a StoryCorps love story more than 70 years in the making. Joel Helfman grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s. He was 13 years old when a girl named Julia moved in across the street.

JOEL HELFMAN: I was playing stickball.

JULIA HELFMAN: I was reading a book.

JOEL HELFMAN: You caught the ball, and I came to retrieve it.

JULIA HELFMAN: You were the skinniest person I'd ever seen.

JOEL HELFMAN: And I thought to myself, what a hot babe (laughter).

JULIA HELFMAN: (Laughter) Did you really?

JOEL HELFMAN: And the rest is almost history.

JULIA HELFMAN: We became fast friends.

JOEL HELFMAN: And that's all we were. I mean...

JULIA HELFMAN: That's right. There was no hanky-panky. There was no writing my name next to yours. How come you never made a pass at me?

JOEL HELFMAN: You were really beautiful, but you were above fooling around.

I left home for Chicago when I was about 17 1/2.

JULIA HELFMAN: And a half, right.

JOEL HELFMAN: I wrote to you and said I was coming back to New York for a week, and I would love to see you.

JULIA HELFMAN: Right.

JOEL HELFMAN: Were you enthusiastic about it?

JULIA HELFMAN: No.

JOEL HELFMAN: No, OK.

JULIA HELFMAN: I said, well, he's been gone over a year, and I haven't even gotten a postcard. And my mother said he's such a nice boy. You always enjoyed being with him. So I thought, well, I'll listen to my mother.

JOEL HELFMAN: So I came back, and we saw each other every day. And then we were walking home in the park.

JULIA HELFMAN: Thursday night.

JOEL HELFMAN: And you stopped and said...

JULIA HELFMAN: I'll say what I said.

JOEL HELFMAN: Go ahead.

JULIA HELFMAN: I said, how much do you like me, a little or a lot? You said a whole lot.

JOEL HELFMAN: A whole lot.

JULIA HELFMAN: And I said I like you more than any other male except my Papa. And then I looked at you, and I said...

JOEL HELFMAN: What are we going to do about it?

JULIA HELFMAN: And what did you say?

JOEL HELFMAN: We could get married.

JULIA HELFMAN: And I said let's. We had never even kissed. We had never held hands. So you walk me up the five flights of stairs, and then you gave me a kiss on the lips. And that was enough for me.

I went into the apartment, and I said, Papa, I'm going to get married. He said no, you're not. You've got a brain. You're going to make something of yourself. And I said, Papa, there's just something about him that makes me feel I can do things. I know we can build a great life together. I just know it, Papa.

And my father looked at me, and he said I have never doubted your judgment. If this is what you want, I support you in it. And that was that.

JOEL HELFMAN: We're happy, right?

JULIA HELFMAN: Every day I look at you and I say to myself how was I smart enough to know that this young man would always keep me happy, always make me feel safe, always challenge me?

JOEL HELFMAN: And there is no one that really comes anywhere near close to you.

JULIA HELFMAN: Oh, my God, honey. We're both lucky. And I think this is done because what more can we say, unless I leap across this table and just hug and kiss you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Julia and Joel Helfman for StoryCorps, still clearly over the moon for each other after seven decades of marriage, five children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.