Word Worth®
                      World Magazine of Ideas and the Arts™ — ©Winter 2020 Volume XX,  Issue 1

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Born in the 1800s

You have no way of knowing how young ten years old is until you have a child of your own. It was part of family lore that my grandfather (RGH) had had to go to work when he was ten because his father and elder brother had died. Women could earn next to nothing at that time, so my grandfather had to support the family. While we want to think that adults are helpful and kind to children, we know that’s often not the case, and a child would have to navigate dangerous waters.

Winters were cold in Milwaukee in the 1880’s and homes were heated by coal which was scarce. The children would go to the train yards and pick up coal which had fallen on the ground from the coal cars. They couldn’t take it from the cars because that would be stealing. One of my grandfather’s friends would buy a glass of milk at the diner and pour ketchup in to to make tomato soup.

My grandfather was lucky in that another of his boyhood friends was the son of a successful businessman who hired him in the company, first as an office boy. RGH was with the company until he retired and rose quickly to management. He was respected to the point that when the workers were on strike and, many thick, blocking the door, they parted like the Red Sea for RGH. One of those who worked for him was Mr. Winkleman who remained a lifelong and dedicated friend.

As a result of the poverty he had come from, he was very careful with money. When my father was in college, RGH had him paint the house. The brush that my father was using was so worn that it had few bristles left. When Mr. Winkleman saw that, he said, “Buy that boy a decent brush!” He was the only one who could talk to RGH that way.

When my father was in college doing complicated mathematical problems, RGH could figure out the correct answer. He couldn’t say how he did it, but he could always do it.

With the first two children, he was an overly strict father, but he was a doting grandfather. We spent August at their home and stayed in a cabin across the driveway. He decided that we would race to see who would be up first. We always won because when he got up he sang “When You and I Were Young, Maggie”. The clear baritone voice would fill the summer morning air, and since we didn’t have to shave, we threw on clothes and scurried to the house, always winning the race.

Through hard work, he made a fortune after working his way up from messenger boy. He lost most of it in the Great Depression. My father remembered him sitting by the radio day after day listening to all the work from his childhood evaporating. From there, he built another fortune. He watched money closely. Once I was with him in a Sears store when he was buying a can of paint. He asked the clerk how much the paint was, and when told, replied, “Oh, that’s too much.” The clerk was startled. I tried to hide my amusement. It was Sears: the price was the price.

He educated his children as far as each could go. Two became PhDs in demanding scientific fields. He survived the loss of his fortune through his investment theory—put a third in savings, a third in stocks, and a third in land. It was the land that allowed him to rebuild his finances. In spite of that, he had told a man that when he was ready to sell a plot he would sell it to him and for a specific price. By the time he was ready to sell it, the price had gone way up, but he still sold it as promised for the price promised.

My grandmother was probably the gentlest person on earth and the most empathetic. They had four children in less than six years following their marriage. The fourth contracted polio at the age of nine months. There were children who had suffered from polio who had withered limbs from then on. My grandmother tended to him constantly in addition to doing laundry, making three meals a day—there were no pre-packaged foods, washing diapers and caring for the other three children. There were extended families then who pitched in, so she would have had some help.

Six years after the fourth child was born, they had another child, one she would have been able to spend time on, a very bright boy who spoke both German and English. He died of Scarlet Fever ten days after his second birthday. Despite being a gentle and compassionate person, she was very strong. This, however, knocked her down. Her parents had had ten children, five of whom survived. It seems that in the 1800’s, accepting that occurrence was required. Outwardly, Anna stayed strong, but even in the back and white photographs in which she stands straight, the sorrow shows through.

She had been an enchanting person who played piano brilliantly. As a young woman, she traveled to Germany with her father and shone to all around. She became engaged to one of the young men, but her father didn’t want her so far from home, so the engagement was ended, and all that remains of it is a silver platter with the date 1898 engraved on it. She was far too sympathetic to have survived the Nazi scourge; she would not have lived through it.

At some point after the baby died, she began to wonder why she could hear so much better in the daytime than at night. Her compassion for people was so deep that she had been reading lips without knowing it. She learned on her own as a result of her connecting to everyone she spoke with. When I was little, I didn’t believe that she was deaf since she usually heard me. As it was, she was totally deaf and could not even hear loud bangs. What she missed most was hearing the birds sing.

She died when I was seven and was too ill to talk with us the last time we saw her. My last conversation with her would have been when I was six, or even five, but I remember talking with her. In one instance we were sitting on the couch in the living room, and she told me that I must always be careful of my eyes and ears. She moved her hands over her face and told me that she could not hear at all. It was probably then that I really believed that she was deaf.

She has been gone so very, very long, but her gentleness and gentility will be here forever.

It was on my twentieth birthday that my grandfather shook my fathers hand, said, Im going now, and then died. How did he know? Most people dont.

 

 

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