This essay was originally published three years ago in Seeker Magazine. When I began writing it, my only intent was to document a family story that was going to be forever lost due to the passage of time. As what sometimes happens when writing personal essays, they start out about one thing, but in the process of writing them, they turn out to be about something else. In this case, I discovered, over twenty years after they were gone, the impact my grandparents had on the person I became.
Tomorrow, Christmas Day, 2009, a new epilogue to this essay.
My grandparents, John and Frieda Bubbers, or “Oma” and “Opa,” came to America some time after World War I. Opa had been a soldier during the war and for a brief period after the war was over, during the social and economic chaos that was Germany during that time, he had been a police officer. He never spoke much about those experiences, but when he was in Astoria General, near the end of his life, he struggled and had to be restrained when the nurses attempted to place an oxygen mask over his face. He was having flashbacks of trenches and gas masks.
The young couple settled in a small German community in Lawrence, Massachusetts, probably around 1920 or 1921. He never told me what he did for a living, but I imagine that he worked in the textile mills that were still operating all over the northeast at the time. During my time with Computer Associates, a software company based on Long Island, I traveled quite frequently to our office in Andover, just a few miles from Lawrence. I took several trips to Lawrence and saw a poverty stricken area that didn’t seem to have ever recovered from the great depression; the mills still standing like red brick carcasses, crumbling, abandoned and overgrown for over fifty years.
My father once gave me an address and I found the house they had lived in, a non-descript three story dump where they rented a flat on the top floor. I took a picture of it for my father and thought that the place might have fit in anywhere the working poor live in the northeast. It could have been Troy, it could have been Yonkers, it could have been Bridgeport, or it could have been Hamilton Street in Albany. To my father’s surprise, it hadn’t changed in fifty years.
My uncle Johnny was born around 1921 in Lawrence and my father was born in 1930, also in Lawrence.
The depression was devastating to places like Lawrence. The mills closed down for what turned out to be forever and destroyed their fragile economies. It was during this time that my grandparents decided to move back to Germany. I never got the chance to ask them as an adult what made them make what they later admitted to be the biggest mistake of their lives, but all I have are the memories of what they told me when I was a child. For whatever reason, in 1935 they moved back to Hamburg.
They did tell me that within days of arriving “home”, they had realized their mistake. Opa, visiting some old friends at a police station heard, “John, go back to America. Get your sons out of Germany.” Indeed, my uncle, aged fourteen, was in grave danger, first of being “recruited” in to the Hitler Youth, and then into the Army. Everyone in Germany knew that war, and disaster, was coming. My grandparents had been born in Germany, so their sons’ US citizenship meant little to The Third Reich, and after Opa’s experience in The Great War, he wasn’t going to let that happen to either of his sons.
This story was told to me many times by both my father and by Oma. My father’s version is one of excitement and adventure, the kind of thing that thrills the five year old boy that he was at the time. He never seemed to understand that his older brother could very well have been senselessly slaughtered fighting on the side of evil or that he himself might have been incinerated when the allies firebombed Hamburg. Oma’s version, however, is a little darker. The last time she told me this story I might have been about thirteen or fourteen, so I think the truth of what they must have felt is more frightening than she was willing to tell me at the time.
It took my family some eighteen months to finally be together again in America. Opa worked double shifts in factories for about a year to earn enough money to return to the United States. He headed to New York City to find work and to prepare a place for Oma and the two boys when they arrived.
In the meantime, my father and my uncle got to experience both the gifts and the punishments of a classical German education. I remember my father proudly showing me his German composition book containing his writing exercises, written with the most exquisitely beautiful and precise penmanship I’ve ever seen, particularly astounding when I realize that it was done by a five year old boy who had learned German as a second language just six months before. My father told me it was the product of both high standards of excellence as well as canings on knuckles and buttocks from the stern schoolmaster.
When Opa had finally sent enough money back to Oma, it was time for them to join him in New York. They took the train from Hamburg down to Genoa, Italy and from there sailed to New York. My father’s account of this trip is the romantic vision of a small boy, riding on a train, seeing Italy, boarding the huge ocean liner. Oma’s story about traveling south on the train, a mother with her two sons, trying to keep the youngest one from innocently telling their story to fellow passengers, passing through checkpoint after checkpoint and having documents scrutinized, is a little more scary.
I can’t pretend that their experience matches the sheer terror of what it must have been like for the many thousands of other people who were fleeing Germany at the time; they were, after all, “pure” Germans. They were still, however, fleeing fascists and fearing for their lives and futures. It is a state of fear that I can hardly imagine myself enduring.
The experience seems to have been particularly traumatic for my uncle. These days, we hardly think of fourteen and fifteen year old boys as “men”, but back then in that time and place, he surely must have felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, feeling that he was the protector of his mother and young brother as the three of them made their way south among all the other refugees.
At my mother’s funeral several years ago, I saw my cousin, Marian, for the first time since we had both become adults with children of our own. She asked me if my father had ever spoken about Germany. I told her that he had quite often and that Oma had told me about it too. Marian, her sister Susan and her brother Eric, had never heard much about it; their father never talked about it when they were growing up, and they hadn’t been able to spend as much time with Oma and Opa as my sisters and I had. She told me that her father, now in his late seventies, had just begun to talk about it in halting, sketchy terms. I spent some time with her and told her the things I could remember. I’m afraid my poorly remembered version of the story told her little about her father’s life-shaping experience.
My grandfather managed to get a factory job in Astoria, Queens and had found a place for them to live on Corona Avenue in Elmhurst. In return for being the superintendent, he had an apartment in the basement of a small apartment building. Being a super in a building in those days was a bit more work than it is now: keeping the hallways and stairwells sparkling clean, installing screen windows in the spring, replacing them with glass storm windows in the fall, keeping the coal furnace in the basement burning through the winter. My father helped him in these tasks as Opa found whatever other work he could in order to make ends meet.
My grandparents lived in that building for the rest of their lives. When Opa was superintendent they lived in that basement apartment while the two boys found what jobs they could while pursuing their educations; my father became a pharmacist, my uncle an audio engineer. Later, after the boys were grown up and moved out, Oma and Opa moved to an apartment on the fourth floor. It was large enough for the two of them to live comfortably as well as entertain guests. There was a living room, a dining room, a bedroom and a small kitchen. Oma served a Christmas Eve dinner for my family every year consisting of homemade potato salad and several varieties of German sausages and cured meats.
The bedroom had an unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline. When I was a small boy, Opa would give me a pair of binoculars and I would scan the distant skyscrapers for hours, silhouetted against the orange and red sky at dusk with the last rays of the sun glinting off the stainless steel crown of the Chrysler Building, and on into the evening when the lights of the Empire State Building and the Pan Am Building fascinated me.
After the war, in the late 1940’s, Opa had managed to scrape together enough money to buy a small cottage in Stony Brook, out in what was at the time, the distant reaches of the north shore of Long Island. A few years later he was able to buy the lot in back of the cottage creating a large wooded property with pretty gardens in front and on two sides of the house. In back of the house was a large lawn, shaded all summer long by towering oak trees.
It was a small, inexpensively constructed house that he improved over the years: excavating out a full basement, replacing the beaverboard walls with sheetrock, adding wood paneling to the living room, and adding a lovely sun parlor to the side that caught the afternoon sun. There was only one “official bedroom”, so a large dining room table was placed in the living room and the dining room was turned into a bedroom with a huge, in the eyes of a small child, maple bed and matching furniture: nightstands, a small table and lamp, a dresser and several well-stocked book cases. The sofa in the sun parlor opened up to a king sized bed as well.
There was enough room in the house for all six of their grandchildren, some by themselves, others paired by relative age, to take turns spending time each summer with Oma and Opa, going to the beach on most days, but sometimes fishing off the pier in the village or taking a drive in Opa’s Chevy to Montauk or Shelter Island. To me, this little cottage seemed a million miles away from the sidewalk on Corona Avenue back in Elmhurst. The air was fresh and clean, some mornings faintly carrying the salty scent of the Long Island Sound, and crickets and owls sang all through the night.
When my father bought the drugstore a few doors down from the apartment building, Opa retired and went to work for him. He dusted and stocked shelves and made deliveries, first using his own car, and then when my father was able to afford it, a specially painted Volkswagen beetle:
During the summer, my father would hire a teenager for making the deliveries and Opa would spend July and August in Stony Brook with Oma, hosting the grandchildren as we rotated through. When I was old enough, I got the summer job, first riding all over Queens to make deliveries on a bicycle and then, after I got my license, the famously painted Volkswagen. The girls I dated in high school eventually got used to sitting at night in a car that stood out among the others parked alongside a small park near a Long Island Railroad overpass.
During the years that Opa worked for my father, a special bond formed between them. Opa was, I believe, my father’s closest friend in the world. As my teenage years progressed, my relationship with my father became strained and distant and we were never completely reconciled. I have always been envious of the relationship that my father had with his father.
My cousins lived in Huntington on Long Island. Oma and Opa were equally kind and generous and loving to all of their grandchildren, but because my sisters and I lived next door to them in the city most of the year, we got to spend more time with them. As the youngest of all the grandchildren, and the most spoiled, I probably got the most exclusive time with them.
When I was very young, Opa would stop by early in the morning on his way home from the deli with fresh breakfast rolls to bring me up to the apartment to have breakfast with him and Oma: orange juice, rolls with whipped butter and jelly, tea with milk and honey, and fruit. When I started school, I visited them in the afternoon when Oma would have afternoon cake and chilled leftover tea, again with milk and honey. I would spend a few hours with Oma until it was time for me to go home for dinner.
Oma, as everyone who knew her will remember her, was always a “Lady.” She was always dressed tastefully in dresses that she made herself. She spoke gracefully, as if she were a member of gilded age society. The rest of us were amused by this and teased her sometimes, thinking that she was trying to put on airs because we did, after all, live in the middle of middle-class Queens, and we had the accents to prove it. She did, however, have a good sense of humor, at least when it came to tolerating her youngest grandson’s childish pranks.
While Opa was a very quiet man who always retained a very strong German accent, Oma was very talkative and had barely a trace of an accent. To this day, I cannot understand how it was that this woman who came to America in her twenties and learned English as a second language could speak such grammatically perfect English with hardly any accent. At some point she may have taken lessons, because I remember her once asking me if I was studying “elocution” in school. I had to ask her what “elocution” meant. The one thing that she always had problems with was the “ch” sound which she could never do; it would always come out as “sh”. I used to play a game with her where I would say, “Oma, do you remember the name of that movie you took me to see? The one with the magic car?”
“Shitty Shitty Bang Bang,” she would reply, and then get flustered and scold me. I now realize that after the first twenty or thirty times I did that, she probably caught on and was play acting with me just so she could hear the scrawny little boy with the short pants and crew-cut laughing hysterically. So much for Oma putting on airs.
And she could talk. It became an in-joke in the family that you could have a conversation with Oma and not have to say a word for the first hour.
It was during those afternoons that Oma would tell me stories. The very first one I remember her telling me was “Hansel and Gretel” while I looked at illustrations through a tiny window in the back of a small plastic toy Bavarian cottage, clicking on the chimney to advance to the next picture.
As I got older, she tailored the stories to my age. Since they were from Hamburg, their apartment was decorated with pictures and mementos from the German city. There were several small nick nacks depicting Hummel. When I asked her about them, she told me the story of Hummel, the ill-tempered water carrier who was taunted by children who cried “Hummel Hummel”. Poor Hummel couldn’t chase them because he was weighed down by the water he was carrying so he would reply, “Mors mors,” a low-German phrase loosely translated as “asses, asses.”
Many years later, after both Oma and Opa were gone, one of Opa’s younger brothers came to visit America for the very first time and stayed with my parents. He was in his seventies and spoke no English. He seemed both surprised and disappointed that none of my father’s children knew German and that my father had to act as a translator. When he asked again, through my father, “No German at all?” I replied “Mors Mors.” With that, the old man’s face lit up with joy and he leapt across the room, pulled me out of my chair, and kissed me on the lips. It’s a Hamburg thing.
Oma told me the story of her trip out of Germany with my father and uncle many times. When I first heard it, I was quite young and her story was probably told the way my father remembered it: an exciting adventure. Gradually, as I got older, she added in more of the frightening aspects of the story.
She also told me about the sinking of the Titanic, about how she heard about it as a little girl in Germany when it happened. She told me about Scott’s expedition in Antarctica, followed by Richard Byrd’s flight over the South Pole.
I was captivated by her stories and asked her to tell them to me over and over again. None, however, captivated me as much as the story of Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic in 1927. She told me how no one had believed that a man could fly solo for so many hours and find his way across the unforgiving north Atlantic to Paris, but Lindbergh, through courage and conviction, had proven them all wrong. She was able to talk for hours about it as I eagerly listened to it again and again. She told me that when I was old enough, she would give me the book that Lindbergh himself had written and I could read it all for myself.
That day came when I was about ten or eleven years old and I was staying with them for my annual turn out in Stony Brook. In addition to finally being able to go out on the big fishing boat from Captree State Park on the south Shore with Opa, as my older cousin Eric had once done, she finally presented me with the book.
On the first night in the sun parlor, with the crickets singing outside the window screens, and after several games each of Clue and Parcheesi, Oma handed me her copy of Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis. It was a huge intimidating book for me, but every night I climbed up onto the big maple framed bed that dwarfed me with Lindbergh’s book in my hand. I struggled reading it, but by the end of my two weeks that summer in Stony Brook, I had completed it. On the final Sunday afternoon while Opa was putting my suitcase in his car for my trip back to Elmhurst, I attempted to hand the book back to Oma. She pushed it back to me and told me that it was mine to keep.
For many years, Oma and Opa had been members of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and they were voracious readers. Although he was very quiet and usually let Oma do all the talking, my memories of those nights in Stony Brook include the picture of Opa sitting in the corner of the living room in his rocking chair, reading a book or a magazine while Oma played board games with me and told me stories in the sun parlor. He rocked very slightly in the chair as his eyes focused intently through his reading glasses. In later years he would also use a large, square framed magnifying glass.
Starting with The Spirit of St. Louis, Oma would periodically give me books to read, each time turning them into gifts that didn’t need to be returned. Finally, when I was a college-bound senior in High School, she said “Take any books you want, they are all yours.”
As my teenage years progressed, my interests diverged from what seemed to be the only acceptable field for my generation in my family: medicine. My relationship with the rest of my family, particularly my father, was a disaster, and there were times when I wondered how I could be such an oddball in this family that was producing medical professionals. Throughout all this, Oma flew in under the radar and nurtured my interest in literature. The books she gave me during those years included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring, Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London, Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner, Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, and several volumes of Shakespeare, organized into tragedies and comedies.
I have a book entitled The Hemingway Reader next to me on my desk as I write this essay. It contains the complete text of The Torrents of Spring, The Sun Also Rises, eleven short stories, selections from five other novels, and selections from non-fiction works on Spain and Africa. On the blank page facing the inside cover is an inscription, hand written in a fine slightly Germanic looking script:
John & Frieda Bubbers
Every book that Oma gave to me was so inscribed, with both their names and the year the book was acquired. At some point in time The Book-Of-The-Month Club, in cooperation with Scribner’s, sold a matched set of Fitzgerald and Hemingway novels. Each book has a blue hardcover and a black spine. Titles on the spines are embossed in silver and the author’s names in gold. Oma and Opa only had a few of these volumes. Over the years, I looked in used book stores, gradually filling out my collection. On one happy day when I was in college, I found both a Gatsby and a Farewell to Arms in a musty old used book store on Pearl Street in Albany. These books aren’t of much value, the ones I purchased that day were about two dollars apiece, but they are the two authors who matter the most to me, and my collection began with a gift from Oma and Opa. The completed set now sits on the mantle above the fireplace in my den.
When my sisters, my mother, and I were preparing for my father’s funeral, we were pulling out all the old family photo albums to use the pictures to decorate the funeral parlor. Here and there in the photos we found pictures from long past holidays where both Oma and Opa were present along with my father, my uncle and all my cousins. The pictures are striking. First of all, there’s the abundance of blond hair and blue eyes, blond enough and blue enough that I’m sure to have given tsoris to the grandmother of one of my old girlfriends. Even more striking, however are the physical features that you can see in all of us who have descended from Oma and Opa. A geneticist could use these photographs as lecture aids. My father resembles Oma. My uncle resembles Opa, although he still has some of Oma’s features. My sister Judy and my cousin Marion look like Oma. My cousin Eric and I look like Opa. My daughter Caroline looks like Judy, my father, and Oma. We do, in fact, have photographs of Caroline, Judy and my father each at about the age of five or six. With my father’s girlish blond hair style that mothers of all generations to like to inflict on their little boys, the children in all of these pictures from different generations look identical.
Opa died after a long battle with cancer when I was a sophomore in college. The protracted illness that had slowly killed Opa had been particularly difficult for my father and the death of his closest friend hit him very hard, heightening the disappointment he felt with me. At the time, I was away at college majoring in everything except pre-med. Oma died of a sudden heart attack several years later.
Years later, I now have questions for them that can never be answered. What was it that sent them back to Germany? Was it simply poverty, or was it more? How frightening was it for Oma without her husband, shepherding her two sons south to Italy and back to freedom? By the time I was born, they had completely embraced America. Opa went to visit Germany just once in the 1970’s and Oma never left America again after those eighteen months in Germany in the 30’s. She voted Republican in every single election from Eisenhower to Reagan.
The biggest mystery of all is the collection of books. There is a significant amount of Hemingway and Faulkner in this collection. The Hemingway is understandable. His writing style and subject matter crosses all cultural barriers and he is still one of the most popular writers of English around world. What I can’t understand is how a woman who was raised in Germany, who came to America in her twenties, and who learned English at the same age, could both tackle and embrace Faulkner. Reading Faulkner is not for lightweights and I doubt that these books were ever default selections for the book club. The contents page of The Collected Stories of William Faulkner as very faint checkmarks next to each item. The inscription on the book tells me they acquired it in 1953, after their sons had both been married and moved out; not that I can imagine either of them reading a book by Faulkner they didn’t have to. How I wish I could ask Oma what she thought of “A Rose for Emily.” It is only now that she has been gone for almost twenty-five years that I realize that she must have possessed a finely tuned ear for language and a love for literature and ideas.
Oma and Opa quietly lived a literary life, unnoticed by everyone but their youngest grandson to whom they gave their most precious gift: an enduring love of stories.
Tomorrow: Gifts Epilogue: Christmas 1979
Selections from Oma and Opa:
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