Last week, I traveled up to Massachusetts to attend the memorial service for my uncle, John Juergen Bubbers, who died in May after a long illness. I was reunited with my cousins most of whom I’ve not seen in many years. Sadly, it has been funerals, first of our grandparents and now parents that have given us the occasion to gather together again. It’s probably typical that at these events that bring together extended families, we all observe our cousins and the grandchildren and look for our genetic connections. This person looks like Oma, that person has Opa’s mouth, and so on. In fairness, we also acknowledge who resembles a spouse who married into our family.
I took particular notice of one of my cousins. When we were younger we were very similar looking, both of us blond haired and blue eyed and bearing some resemblance to our grandfather. Now, not so much. He was always taller and skinnier than me, and now it seems even more so, especially on the skinnier part. That’s right, Fred. He got skinnier. What struck me was how much he reminded me of his father. In his physical manner, speech patterns, even the way he carried himself was eerily evocative of my Uncle John. It’s been decades since he lived in his father’s household, so how strong could his father’s influence be by this time? When I remarked on this to my sister, she said, “Well, Freddie, I hate to break this to you, but everybody’s been telling me how much you remind them of Daddy.”
“I try not to,” I said.
“There, the way you said ‘I try not to.’ You sound just like him.”
There’s no escape from Gregor Mendel and his wretched wrinkled peas.
One of the things that we all felt deeply with the passing of my Uncle John is that, for our family, another generation is now gone, and with it the links to our unique heritage are now broken. In our nation of immigrants, heritage always seems to be both a curse and a blessing. When we are young and desperately trying to forge our own identities, heritage can seem like heavy baggage, weighing us down. The old stories don’t mean much to us. In moments of doubt, however, when life’s challenges make us question just who we think we are, heritage is a home that provides solace and comfort. In our case, our story is of a German-American family that, through circumstances driven by abject poverty and the sheer bad luck of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, became Nazi refugees, arriving penniless back in New York in 1939. It can’t be understated how much that experience shaped the lives of my father and his brother and in turn the lives of all of their children and grandchildren. As my daughter, the youngest and last grandchild of my father’s generation, begins her first year at Florida State University, I have to take notice that there are no exceptions to this precedent in our extended family. At our reunion last week, there was no doubt among us that the values that were forged into those two brothers by poverty and war were responsible for this. An education, an intellect, a profession, a trade, a skill are priceless possessions and are things that can never be taken away. My sisters, my cousins, myself, and all of our children are the beneficiaries of those two brothers’ extraordinary achievements. To be the recipient of an unearned gift is the very definition of living in grace.
After the service, I had a long solitary drive across western Massachusetts to consider all that had been said and offered during the previous two days. One thing that was on my mind was the life-long sibling rivalry that existed between my father and my uncle. It was always hard to know the true nature of this conflict. In the end, my father and uncle were more alike than they were different, and neither of them was disposed to revealing much of their inner lives. My uncle was a man with enormous intellectual gifts, and had accomplished much in his life. He was one of the pioneers in the audio engineering industry (he helped put both the “hi” and the “fi” in Hi-Fi). My father, the younger brother, never felt he could live up to that. I’m sure many people told him that he didn’t have to and he had done a lot to be proud of as well, but stubbornness also seems to be a family trait. Forgive us, we’re Germans.
This rivalry was kept out of sight and I’m not even sure how we are even aware of it aside from a very rare unguarded remark and the fact that as my sisters and I grew up, our accomplishments always seemed to be measured against those of our cousins, who were a few years older than us. I believe there were some periods where the brothers didn’t talk, but they weren’t long and they always ended. What I do remember was that our two families visited as often as time and distance allowed, and my father and uncle always remained in touch and visited with each other up until my father’s death in 1999. The mysteries of their relationship will now never be solved but they are also now moot. In all the ways that truly matter, they were brothers and loved one another. It may have been impossible for either of them to say it, but they showed it in everything they did.
Nothing made me more aware of this than something that happened at the luncheon-reception that was held after the memorial service. On of the people who spoke at the service was a man who met and became one of my uncle’s closest friends in the last four years of his life. He was a charming bow-tied gentleman with a British accent. As a fellow engineer, they had formed a friendship, cautiously at first, but it became fast and deep. He was with my uncle on the day that he decided to finally end the dialysis that was now just prolonging his suffering.
After the service, the gentleman and his wife sat down with my sister and me at the reception. When we introduced ourselves as John’s niece and nephew, the gentleman said, “Oh you are Fred’s children!” He turned to his wife and said, “John used to tell the most wonderful stories about his brother Fred. There was one that I loved and I can only hope it was true.”
I asked him if he could tell it and he began. After only a few sentences of setting the scene, I immediately knew the story. “Is this the one about the priest and the Kodak girl?”
The gentleman’s face lit up. “Yes it is,” he said. “Is it true?”
“It’s true,” I assured him.
“You’ve validated it for me and it’s so wonderful to know, ” he said. “Please…you tell the story.”
I proceeded to tell the story as best as I could and was rewarded at the end when the table erupted in laughter. It was a story about something funny that had happened many years ago in my father’s drugstore that revealed a sharp wit and sense of irreverence that I think was something that both my father and my uncle shared. To learn that my uncle was telling this story years after my father had died was for me one of the most moving moments of that day. I can’t think of a more simple example of the love, respect, and affection that my uncle had for my father. Enduring love, hidden in plain sight.
I guess now I’m obligated to tell the story that led that profound epiphany as I drove through the Berkshires listening to Jerry Garcia sing “Ripple.” The title of this article may be misleading, so let me reset some expectations. “Oral Tradition” conjures up images of epic and lyric poets captivating audiences with tales of heroic derring-do and beautiful maidens chastely worshipped from afar. That’s not what this is about. Don’t think of the Divine Muses, think of New York Wisenheimers. As for poets, don’t think Homer, think Joe Pesci. Here goes:
My father’s drugstore was his pride and joy. The main focus of his business was the prescription counter, on a raised platform at the back of the store. He kept his store tasteful and didn’t have racks of cheap house-wares and motor oil in the middle of the floor. From the street, you could seen through the plate-glass windows and doors straight through the store to the prescription counter. He still sold the things you normally find in a drugstore, but he kept them to either side of the store on shelves and in display cases. The biggest part of his non-prescription business, from the early sixties to the later part of the seventies, was Kodak film. In those days, there were no one-hour photo kiosks and digital photography was science fiction. Instead, you brought your film to a drugstore and it was sent out to a lab for processing. A week later you came back to get your pictures. My father sold and processed a lot of film and even had a display case of Kodak instamatic cameras, which he sold.
Among the promotional items that Kodak used to distribute to retailers in those years were life-size cardboard cutouts of pretty young models posing with Kodak instamatic cameras. They were tame by today’s standards and the models were always wholesome looking types (think Mary Ann, not Ginger), but they did show some flesh. Every year or two, Kodak would send a new model, to keep them looking fresh since over time fashions changed and colors faded. It wouldn’t do for Kodak advertisements to have faded colors, now would it? My father placed his model in the back of the store in front of the left side of the prescription counter. It was out of the way, but due to the wide open nature of the store, it was still eye catching. My father gave them names. One that I remember in particular, and I believe figures in this story, was a pretty brunette with cut-off jeans and a polka-dot halter, the kind that wraps around the back of the neck, crisscrosses in front, and ties up in a bow in back. Yes, I know cardboard cutouts don’t have backs, but I have a pretty good imagination when it comes to things like this. Her name was Marie and she had replaced a blonde named Heidi.
One day, one of my father’s regular customers, a priest from the rectory at nearby St. Bart’s came into the store and asked to speak to him. My father came down from behind the prescription counter and said, “Yes, father, what can I do for you.”
The priest gestured at Marie, who remained smiling with her perfect white teeth. “This display is in very poor taste,” he said.
“What do you mean, father?”
“The way her breasts are protruding. I can see the valley between them and I think I can even see the shape of her nipples. When I look at her I am filled with lust and I become aroused.”
Most people would be rendered speechless at the revelation of a priest’s lust and arousal, even if that revelation is only verbal. My father wasn’t most people. Without missing a beat he said, “Why father, thank you for pointing that out. I’ve never noticed her breasts. I’m a leg man myself.”
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