Agility and Elegance

The house still stands, though other people own it and live in it. They have no thoughts of us just as, when I was growing up, I had no knowledge of my grandmother, who raised her three sons in the same sturdy brick house where I was then living. Nobody told us children that our father had grown up there. Maybe they thought we knew, because they all knew and it seemed unnecessary for them to state the obvious.

Had I known that my grandmother once lived in this house, my thoughts of it would have been quite different. I never knew my grandmother or her son who was my father, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from imagining them in the hallways and the doorways that I was walking through. Through these musings, I might have learned to know them each in a way that was more satisfying than the emptiness their deaths left in my young life.

My father had died soon after I was born, and five years later we moved into the brick house on the hill where my grandfather had lived. His death opened the way for my mother and her four children to move into her late husband’s childhood home. At the time, we as typical children didn’t know all the implications of the move our family was making; we just packed our small bags and followed our mother.

My mother had her own memories of this house. She had lived out of state when she was dating my father, so she had stayed at the house once before she and my father were married. It was during the war, in June of 1942. I can imagine now the austere household of my very formal German grandfather. He had been widowed for 14 years when my mother visited. Coming from a German household herself, my mother would have been familiar with the airs and customs of the home my father grew up in. My grandfather’s sister Helen ran the house for her brother. This meant, according to a letter my mother wrote to her parents, that Helen directed the maid and the butler, who actually kept the household in order. My parents returned the following December, just days after their marriage. A wartime housing shortage was reaching its peak, and the house was crowded with adults.

My mother didn’t share a single one of her memories of this house with us. She never talked about my father and their short life together. I don’t think the thought ever crossed my mind of a man living in our house. Of course, as a child I didn’t consider my brother a man. I just thought that men lived elsewhere.

My grandmother’s thoughts about men must have been quite the opposite. When she was growing up, she had five brothers and no sisters. Later she married and had three sons. After her mother died, her father and her youngest brother came to live in the already male-oriented household on Shorthill Road. Although I, her granddaughter, couldn’t imagine a man living under the same roof, she certainly must have longed for a daughter or a sister.

Deep in my imagination and well beyond the artificial boundaries of time and space, I lay unable to fall asleep in my grandmother’s house. Time like facts are luxuries we never shared. Imagination is where our connection rests. She sits on the side of my childhood bed and we talk of shared longings, distant dreams and certain possibilities.

************

In January 1904, my grandparents, Charlotte Sommer and Fred Gretsch, were married in a small ceremony, at the Manhattan home of the bride’s parents on West 54th Street between 7th and 8th Ave. This residential neighborhood was filled with study brownstone and brick houses, and the Rockefellers lived nearby. The Sommer family was well grounded in their neighborhood. Charlotte was born just a few blocks east on West 53rd St. Her father had purchased the property on West 54th Street in July 1903, and her mother had bought the lot adjacent to it in a few years earlier.

With this purchase, Charlotte’s mother was continuing a tradition begun by her father Leopold Leicht in the 1860’s and 1870’s. At that time, Charlotte’s paternal grandfather purchased several lots on Ninth Avenue and the adjacent blocks of 39th and 40th Streets. The family furniture business “Leopold Leicht and Sons” was housed in some of this property. After Leopold’s death in 1887 these lots were left to Leopold’s family and later sold to his sons who continued living and working in the area. Charlotte’s mother Theresa used her share of the inheritance to buy more land further north in the city. The Sommer family three-story brick home, which included a basement, was busy with the lives and the antics of Charlotte’s three younger brothers, Charles, Leo, and John. At the time of Charlotte’s marriage, census records show that four of her six brothers were living at home with their parents. A German maid and an Irish cook took care of the large family.

At this same time my grandfather was living with his family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Census records for his household did not register a cook or a maid. Like his wife’s mother, his mother had been born in America. And, as was also true for his bride, all of his grandparents were born in Germany. Close ties still existed between my grandparents’ generation and the traditions of the German American community.

My grandfather’s parents were married in a small ceremony with only two male witnesses. There is no reference in their wedding papers to a minister or a church. My grandmother’s parents, however, were married in a large church ceremony officiated by the well-known and respected Rev. F. W. Geissenhainer, who was then the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at the corner of 6th Ave and 15th Street. Eight siblings, cousins, and friends squeezed their signatures onto the small space on the wedding certificate allotted for “Witnesses.”

At first glance, the simplicity of my grandparents’ 1904 wedding reflects more substantially the traditions of her husband’s family than of her own. A closer look makes clear that Charlotte’s wedding had several details in common with her parents’ wedding thirty years earlier. Both Charlotte and her mother, having no sisters, choose a female cousin to witness the formal documents. The weddings of both mother and daughter were held in Manhattan where both brides were born, and both rituals were officiated by ministers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Looking back from the distance of another century, it seems as if a compromise was being made between the bride and the groom, a compromise which only began with this small ceremony in the privacy of Charlotte’s parent’s home. This compromise is what was remembered long after Charlotte’s death by my grandfather when he almost forty years later wrote of his marriage to my mother who was soon to be his daughter in law. “Your religious differences should make no difference. Billy’s mother and I were as far apart as you are but by sharing our joys and our sorrows, we had a very nice life together while it lasted.” Charlotte as brides traditionally do was making a break from her family. But the opening of the break did not reach deep enough yet to sever completely her Evangelical Lutheran roots.

I’m amazed at how quickly I travel back to the 1904 world of my grandmother as I read through the oversized pages, which I copied some years ago from the opaque film reels of the New York Times. As I search through these curling copies which until recently were housed in a slim cylinder and fastened tightly by a rubber band, the enormity of the GENERAL SLOCUM steamship disaster slowly unfolds. In mid-June of 1904, four months after my grandparents’ wedding, over one thousand victims—mostly women and children—perished in the panic, flames, and water which enclosed this excursion boat on the East River and finally brought it to ground off North Brother Island. Most of the passengers on the GENERAL SLOCUM came from a section of Manhattan’s Lower East Side known as “Little Germany.” They were en route to a church picnic sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Parish of St. Mark’s. My grandmother and any number of her friends and relatives could have been on that boat. The possibilities are as clear to me today as no doubt they were to Charlotte one hundred years ago. The same qualities of imagination which allows me to consider the traces of Charlotte’s involvement in this tragedy were strong and vibrant in Charlotte. She understood and experienced the underlying pathways much more clearly than I do today. Their slow discovery draws us ever nearer to each other.

Memory and silence, as well as possibility, connect me to this tragedy and to my grandmother who lived through those times. As I scrutinize these copies of copies, the pages curl in on themselves, revealing and obscuring the event. Their curling mimics the unlocking of memory. Facts, as these long-ago newspapers remind me, can change and disappear, but even in oblivion a memory can remain in the body and be passed on. One hundred years after the SLOCUM tragedy, my grandmother’s recollections lie ponderous and obscure in the shadows of my own life. Inside her unrecorded experiences, I spend time with a woman I never met, paying close attention and hoping to weave together the history she silently passed on to me.

Fourteen months after my grandparents’ marriage, their first child was born in Brooklyn and baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. This Catholic faith, which was a part of neither my grandmother’s family nor my grandfather’s, remains strong in the family generations later. I’ve heard only a few stories about the grandmother who died long before I was born, but all these stories had one theme: Charlotte was a devout Catholic and raised her three sons, Fred, William, and Richard, in the church without the support of her husband—indeed, in spite of his frequent ridicule. Her Catholic faith rings unequivocal, her Lutheran roots apparently forgotten.

Family stories never refer to a transformation in Charlotte’s religion. My Catholic relatives simply remember her as a “saint.” No stories were passed on which would suggest even the smallest details of Charlotte’s conversion. I’ve had to search elsewhere for the events which surrounded and influenced this turning-away in Charlotte’s life from her roots in the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manhattan and connected her to the Catholic church in Brooklyn.

Charlotte’s change of faith took place during the first year of my grandparents’ marriage, just before the birth of their first child. The tense juxtaposition (seemingly forgotten in my grandfather’s letter to my mother) between her sainthood and her husband’s ridicule had its roots here in the very beginning of their marriage.

At precisely this time, the city of New York, especially the German Lutheran community to which Charlotte’s family belonged, was coming to grips with the largest tragedy that had as yet befallen the city. June 15, 1904, a day bright with the expectation of fun and adventure for those boarding the GENERAL SLOCUM, turned into unimaginable tragedy.

That June, Charlotte may well have been traveling in Europe with her new husband. My grandfather along with his brother Walter ran the family business which was still struggling after the death of their father 9 years earlier. In previous and future years, my grandfather made annual buying trips to the continent. Perhaps, in 1904 he included his young bride as part of this yearly excursion. To Charlotte, who had never been abroad, it would have seemed wonderful to be included in this trip. Family papers include a passport picture of my grandmother taken at this time. Her face is still young and without care. I can easily place its date between her wedding and the birth of her children. Perhaps, this is the photograph she carried with her on her wedding trip.

In Europe, Charlotte would have heard the news about the SLOCUM disaster almost immediately. But the names of its victims would have been excruciatingly slow in crossing the Atlantic. Hours stretched into days of agony as she waited to learn whether her family and friends were involved in the tragedy. Charlotte had grown up in Manhattan, so she was familiar with this annual excursion for the German Lutheran parishioners of St. Mark’s. Perhaps, she and her family had even gone on one of the 17 previous church picnics. Charlotte would not know for sure that her family and friends were safe until she returned from Europe weeks later.

The 1904 Annual Report of the New York City Department of Charities reveals, through its painful and carefully compiled records, that no members of my grandmother’s immediate family were passengers on the GENERAL SLOCUM that day. Yet, the fabric of religion, family, and nationality which was woven through Manhattan enfolded Charlotte in the events in less tangible ways. More surely than either memory or history can detail, the circuits of possibility connect her to this tragedy. Charlotte was keenly aware that her family or acquaintances might well have gone on this excursion. This awareness stayed in Charlotte’s mind long after her return home and left its mark.

One hundred years later, as I piece together Charlotte’s large kinship network through forgotten records and certificates, the pathways of connection multiply and crystallize with each newly discovered cousin and aunt, each yet-to-be discovered friend.

In 1904, Charlotte’s aunts, Eliza Kruger and Anna Schmidt, lived with their families on the Upper West Side in a section of Manhattan known as Harlem. This fast-growing area had recently become one of the most attractive places for middle- and upper-income families to live. Charlotte’s father’s sisters moved there separately just before the turn of the century, and their families were now sharing a house together on West 131st Street. Several of the passengers of the SLOCUM made their way from the Upper East Side down to the pier on East Third Street where the steamship departed that bright Wednesday morning in June.

It is easy to imagine that Charlotte’s cousin Clara Schmidt, who was a witness at Charlotte’s wedding only months before, might have gone on the excursion with her young brothers, George and Philip. Another cousin in her early twenties, Carrie Kruger might also have considered the adventure. Charlotte’s young brothers, John and Leo, might have been tempted to follow in the footsteps of the students at St. Mark’s school and gone along on the boat ride to celebrate the end of the another school year.

In the weeks and months following the SLOCUM disaster, Charlotte distanced herself from the Evangelical Lutheran religion in which she was brought up and embraced the Roman Catholic faith in which she would raise her own children. Perhaps, she was reverting back to the religion of her grandparents before they came to America. As a child, Charlotte had always been close to her maternal grandmother, Susanna Meyer Leicht, and she was certainly aware of her grandmother’s Catholic religion. Perhaps, now that her grandmother was no longer alive—and in the face of the SLOCUM tragedy—Charlotte found some comfort in the embrace of the religion which her much loved grandmother once held dear. Charlotte didn’t make this decision completely independently of her family. Records show that in 1907, at the Roman Catholic baptism of Charlotte’s second son, her mother Theresa Sommer was the godmother. By that time, both Charlotte and her mother had both come back to the religion of Theresa’s parents. The imagined explanations for Charlotte’s acceptance of the Catholic faith can easily multiply. However, the atmosphere of tragedy and possibility in which she made this decision remains palpable till to this day.

Charlotte’s sons, raised steadfast Catholics in the looming shadow of this enormous misfortune, stand as tacit witnesses to their mother’s turning away from the faith of her childhood. The unspoken narrative of their mother’s life resounds loudly with their life-long adherence to her adopted faith.

Charlotte’s first child was born in March 1905, just nine months after the SLOCUM tragedy. When she first heard the reports of the SLOCUM, my grandmother would have been barely aware of her pregnancy, but she was certainly aware of her proximity to motherhood. Newly married and hoping soon to start a family, Charlotte felt an immediate kinship to the young mothers and children who perished in such numbers on the SLOCUM.

On the first anniversary of the disaster, the newspapers again carried stories of tragedy and survival. The most reported story was the memorial ceremony which was held at the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village in Queens. These events linked the tragedy to Charlotte and her Lutheran roots perhaps more deeply that the initial tragedy had. Charlotte knew this cemetery well and had visited it often. The memorial service certainly magnified the proximity of sorrow to Charlotte’s life. In the 1850s when New York City was closing its churchyards for burials, the Rev. Frederick William Geissenhainer, who officiated at Charlotte’s parents’ marriage in 1872, brought the land which became later the Lutheran Cemetery. All four of Charlotte’s grandparents were buried there, and in years to come she too, despite her Catholic faith, would choose to be buried there. Now, with her own baby in her arms, Charlotte could not help but see her family and its connection to the Lutheran faith deeply mirrored in the events tragedy of the GENERAL SLOCUM.

Through the years, her continuing mindfulness of this tragedy was assured by the birth of her third son on the day just before its fourth anniversary. At that time in New York City, June 15th still resonated with terror and tragedy. It would have been impossible to celebrate the birth of a child on this date without also remembering the loss of so many children.

Quietly, during the Christmas season of 1907, Charlotte would have realized early in her pregnancy the date of this child’s arrival. Counting back through her missed cycle and adding forward through the coming months, her fingers reached the middle of June. Then, when the days again are long and warm with summer excitement, her new baby, unaware of the history it carries on its tiny shoulders, would arrive.

This realization, taking place as it did deep inside my grandmother’s solitude and deep inside her body, connects Charlotte’s thoughts unavoidably to the GENERAL SLOCUM. There are no documents or affidavits to confirm this linkage. Yet, its certainty is supported by generations of evidence, centuries of expectant mothers counting the days and surveying the environment into which their children will be born.

************

Under the elm tree in the far corner of our backyard, I’d meet my grandmother in the early summer mornings of my childhood and we’d begin our days together. I’d still be in my pajamas, the traditional dress of dreams and she’d be in her ankle-length skirts which, although long since out of style, suited her exactly. In this allusive space carved out of time, I had yet to learn that she was once a little girl. And she, slow and easy in her elegance, held out a promise of possibility buried deep inside me.

Together we’d watch the house wake up. It was the same house where she had long ago brought up her children, the house where I was then growing up. From our vantage point, we could see the shades being raised in my brother’s room, the windows in the bathroom steaming up from my sister’s shower, and my mother lifting the clanging milk bottles from the back entry stairs.

When Charlotte’s sons were young, they tested their strength and agility on the lower branches of this backyard elm tree. Thirty years later, its powerful limbs were much too high for me to grab on to. Instead my grandmother and I sat on sturdy iron chairs in the shade of its unreachable leaves. Together, looking backwards and forward through time, we imagined a landscape of deeply rooted possibility. Facts, in our mutual view, offered only footholds for the agile and carefully climbing to which we were inclined. Connected as we were in possibility, neither her long skirts nor my pajamas hampered our ascent.

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