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Tag Archives: grandfather

found poem: rain

perfect

Dorothy age 2Not yet three years old, Dorothy — they would have called her Dottie — sits motionless and polished for her portrait. Her shoes — spats? — and lace-trimmed dress and the tiny finger ring on her right hand, even the portrait itself, speak of privilege and a degree of “perfection” that would be a burden to my mother throughout her life.

Before long, the darling toddler, who could be doll-dressed and encouraged to smile for a morsel of praise, had unmanageable red, curly hair and buck teeth. Her mother (who, to her credit, turned out to be a wonderful grandmother) already favored her firstborn son and couldn’t bring herself to embrace this messy, imperfect girl.

Distanced by her mother, teased by her brother, Dottie invested her hopes in her father: the youngest of ten children, a good-hearted joker who was coddled as the “baby” of the family throughout his life. He was playful and kind to her, but his work and the child-rearing practices of the day — children were “seen, not heard” — kept him at a distance. At any rate, he was no match for his more serious and imperious wife, who made and enforced the rules and set the expectations that the young Dorothy was never able to achieve.

Her life was shaped by that duality — perfect girl on one hand, zany misfit on the other — and the long, painful search for unconditional love.

inheritance

This is JakeI never knew my mother’s father, Jake, who died more than a dozen years before I was born, but among the things my mother kept was a small notebook of his. It’s soft leather, pigskin, perhaps, and much worn with handling. Embossed on the front are the words COMPLIMENTS OF BRODY & FUNT* and a New York address. Calendars for 1907 and 1908 line the front and back covers and printed pages include a compendium of essential information, such as USDA Weather Bureau Explanation of Flag Signals; the National Bankruptcy Law; Facts about Panama; Height and Weight of Men; New York Hotels; and much more.

Jake sold insurance, and tucked inside the notebook is a cellophane cigar sleeve imprinted with his name and New York Life Ins. Co. There’s also a long (14 column Jake's notebookinches!) newspaper article from the Milwaukee Journal, “Journal Carrier Upholds His Rights,” that recounts the trials and triumph of young “Jakey,” whose newspaper delivery route put him crossways with a local citizen. I imagine him bringing out the ten-year-old much-refolded article to regale customers and anyone else he might encounter on the road.

The blue-graph-paper pages of the notebook are covered with my grandfather’s untidy writing, the contents as eclectic as the book’s printed pages. Some are reminders, scrawled and crossed out, “Ma G birthday Oct 2,” (his mother-in-law, my great-grandmother). Many pages are covered with columns of names and numbers — perhaps a record of installments paid or owed by his customers.

But the pages that interest me most are collections of cryptic notations — “Barber, where do you get shaved” — “Keep off Michigan Ave. (rubber ball)” — a firm line dividing each note from the next. Whether these are observations, punch lines, song lyrics or random firings of Jake’s magpie mind, I can’t know.

Maybe, if I keep studying it, this little book will teach me something about my mother. Or maybe a few of these unmelodic lines will find their way into poems: collaborations with the laughing man I never knew.
. . . . .
*Brody & Funt, as the first interior page explains in eight lines of text and a half-dozen different typestyles, were “Makers of well made popular priced Ladies’ and Misses’ Cloaks, Suits, and Tailor Made Wash Suits, separate coats and skirts.”

and yet another postcard…

Oberndorfer-Aarons card

Oberndorfer-Aarons card backI know so little of my grandfather (seated at right, with his sister’s husband). I think my mother liked him, but she didn’t talk about him much except to say he was the youngest of ten children, always a joker, ready with a prank, and he died young.

In his six-page handwritten letter to his future in-laws asking for my grandmother’s hand, he wrote, “…promise you now & forever that you will not find me lacking in any detail of true manliness, & devotion for your dear and my dear.”

His gold wedding band, on my middle finger, is engraved inside, January 15, ’07. My mother wore it; she had it on when she died.

Here, at age 27, his life more than half over, bowlered and cigared and finely dressed in the voluminous fashion of 1910, he looks like he can barely contain the impulse to jump up and be silly.

in sepia memory
color of your eyes
          unseen
timbre of your voice
          unheard
chromosomal gift
          unopened

another postcard…

Elsie and Jake postcard back

Elsie and Jake plus two unknown -- postcardNo note suggests the place or tells their names. Nothing in their faces says Wish you were here. But in their Edwardian garb, their solemn stares, my grandfather’s firm grip on my grandmother’s arm, the faint trace of ivied column in the background, the image says occasion. The postcard was never sent, and shall not be.

Still cinched into
my slenderness
my practiced gaze
behatted bride
I do not know
that you will die
so soon but only
that your earnest
heat can melt my ice
and make me laugh.

© j.i. kleinberg 2013