Memories of (yet another) Catholic girlhood.

I know who and where I was – a tired three-year-old, napping – but only because I’ve been told.

My first conscious memory of the events of 22 November 1963 actually dates from November 1964, and is another masterpiece of toddler insularity. I was outraged that my normal fix of cartoons-cum-Romper Room was being preempted by wall-to-wall first-anniversary coverage of an event featuring an odd, wheeled vehicle bearing a large flag-draped box.

My mother’s description – That’s a caisson – added to my vocabulary, but not my understanding. Romper Room was gone, and the box was in its place. Why was this so important? Why did everyone in the wavering black-and-white images look so serious? And why did my mother look like this had just happened, while explaining it had actually happened a year ago?  (Also: Have I gotten it right; could there really have been such a television program in the cartoons time slot?)

No, I can’t really write about witnessing a day when the world shook and changed. It happened when I was napping, and I grew up in its wake. I was a Catholic schoolgirl in a town with a lot of Catholics. Everybody, especially the mothers, had loved Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, revered her, really. At age six I modeled a little round white hat on the crown of my dark pageboy and a friend of my mother’s gasped and said, “Oh! You look just like Jackie!” By that point I knew without being told, without still knowing quite why, that this was a rare honor.

For years my parents kept a box full of memorabilia from that epochal weekend – the issues of Life magazine, the New York Daily News, of our New Jersey paper, the Plainfield Courier-News; shiny supplements filled with photos of the Dallas streets, the swearing-in on Air Force One, the streams of black-clad mourners in Washington. In a box on her bureau, the same box where she kept her collection of funeral cards from all the wakes, my mother kept a little pamphlet printed with an elegy on JFK, written by a student at a Catholic high school. You could tell that while it was a national death, it was somehow also a personal death. He was the first Roman Catholic president and he was killed. The teachers at parochial school told us that, not having to add: he was ours.

I was growing up in an age of assassinations, of which JFK’s was only the first: almost a prelude, felt rather than remembered,  through the photos in the dog-eared magazines and the thoughtful looks on the grownups’ faces.

There are a lot of JFKs one can discuss: the historical JFK and the conspiratorial JFK and the philandering JFK, to name only a few. But here I talk about history that is personal, and in that context I find myself dwelling upon that cultural JFK: the grainy image of the Irish Catholic candidate waving to the crowd, the flashing smiles, the brief moment. The member of the tribe who gained the presidency, only to die cruelly young. The minor-chord leitmotif playing in the background of my childhood.


Good Reads: ‘Book of Ages’

It is not often that I say this about a book that is 400-plus pages with something like a third of them appendices and notes, but GO READ THIS RIGHT AWAY.

If you want erudite opinions about why, go here and here and here.

08-28bookages_full_380But if you are satisfied with my two cents: In Book of Ages (Knopf, $17.68 hardcover at Amazon), Jill Lepore manages to fascinate you and break your heart simultaneously, in ways you just don’t expect, even from a National Book Award finalist.

It’s not just that she makes you laugh at Ben Franklin’s jokes all over again, although that’s pretty impressive.

It’s not just her imaginative yet meticulous restoration of his sister’s obscure and far less fortunate life.

And it’s not just the way the teasing, life-affirming friendship between “Benny and Jenny” glows brightly throughout.

It’s how, without being heavy-handed or pedantic about her story, by simply taking us along on the quest for it, Lepore imbues this narrative with the quiet courage of ordinary lives that were unremarked, unrecorded, but still, somehow, matter.

Any of us piecing together fragmentary evidence of never-famous people we’ll never truly know must surely understand the pull on the heart exerted by Jane Franklin’s laboriously handmade “Book of Ages,” wherein she recorded the births of 12 children, and eventually, the deaths of 11 of them.

Upon finishing Book of Ages, I was struck by the sentiment that often occurs after absorbing cryptic, incomplete references to ancestors whose full stories will likely never be retrievable — the only thought there sometimes can be, really:

I’m here.

I noticed.


“Genome Hacking”? Huh.

So that’s what they’re calling it these days.

I thought it was “clipping and pasting online trees.” But what do I know.

But I will take my snark hat off now and say you should read the Nature article if you haven’t already done so. It does contain serious discussion of whether one can combine DNA sequencing data with self-reported genealogical information to arrive at solid conclusions.


Sentimental Sunday: Anything f’Thanksgiving, Continued

Back in 2010, I expounded upon a long-ago Brooklyn custom in which kids went door-to-door on Thanksgiving, asking for treats. As I wrote then, I once suspected my Greenpoint-raised mom of making this up purely to mess with our childish minds.

But the custom was quite real, as readers have since noted. “Anything f’Thanksgiving” has generated some lovely comments. As they show, not only did this custom extend beyond the borders of Greenpoint, it remains a bright memory in the minds of former city children.

Most recently, Lola from Queens writes:

On Thanksgiving morning, the children dressed up in costumes to honor the people that they admired. No Hobos Allowed! My younger brother dressed up as a policeman. I dressed up as a fine lady, like my mother, so did my twin sister. One would say “Anything for Thanksgiving”? as you rang the door bell.

And here’s Judy from the Bronx:

Anything for Thanksgivin. Absolutely, We lived on 162nd Street in the Bronx in a 10 story building and we would dress up and go into the alleys and beg. People would throw pennies out of their windows. Some would wrap the pennies in bits of newspaper so they didn’t bounce all over the place. We also, filled socks with flour and tried to hit each other.

(Hey, Judy, a belated thanks for remembering the flour-filled socks. My mother HATED those as much as she liked the dressing up.)

Speaking of which, John from Greenpoint also recalls the socks, but as a Halloween high point:

We would fill womens’ old stockings with flour and hit each other with them..Lots of fun.

I think I’ll move on, so as not to give the youth of today any bright ideas. The point is, John and my mom might have differed on the socks part, but not on the fun.

Another, larger point to be made about Anything f’Thanksgiving:

For a lot of people, the terms “city” and “folk tradition” are incompatible. What an error this is, as the shared memories demonstrate so strongly. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all of you who reached out to explain and expand upon this custom and where it took place. What a beautiful example of the lost flavors and colors of city life, long ago.

[UPDATE: Helen in her comment below asks: Did kids dress up on both Halloween and Thanksgiving? My short answer: I'm not sure. The longer answer, according to my late Mom: Thanksgiving was when she dressed up and went door-to-door; Halloween was for mischief-making, such as chalking people's doors and clouting them with the infamous flour-filled socks. She did not specify whether one dressed up for the mischief making. So, please tell us, anyone who remembers -- did kids dress up on both days?]

And now, for all of us Anything f’Thanksgiving fans, Mr. Robert Martens has shared a remarkable treat — 1940s home movie footage taken by his grandfather, Gus, in College Point, Queens.

Be sure to read Mr. Martens’ accompanying description to his video, where he describes his family’s memories of the tradition in greater detail.  He thinks Anything f’Thanksgiving might have died out because city residents who had survived the Great Depression became understandably allergic to the idea of their children dressing up as beggars and seeking treats door to door. I think the ways mass media smoothed out and homogenized pop culture after World War II didn’t do the custom any favors, either.

But whatever your theory, it seems clear that the ragamuffins of Thanksgiving went away sometime in the 1950s, so this crystal-clear footage is now a precious reminder of lost era.

Happy trick-or-treating, whenever you do it.


This Makes Me So Happy …

A Google maps tour of old Red Hook, by Adrienne Onofri.

This map includes sites where lived Brooklynites who served in World War II, along with historic landmarks and just a lot of interesting information about how the neighborhood evolved. So wonderful that someone took the time to do this; it’s already answered a question or two I have about some Red Hook places.

Also, since it’s Wednesday (Hump Day) and all, I thought I’d give you something else that always makes me  so happy: the final scenes of the 1982 movie My Favorite Year. I never tire of the touching performance by Peter O’Toole as an over-the-hill matinee idol doing a guest turn on a live-television variety hour.

And my mother always said it was a spot-on portrait of early-1950s New York City.


Census Nerd Heaven! A Cautionary Tale

Right here, from the 1930 U.S. census for Ward 6 of Jersey City, N.J., is one compelling reason to become a Census Nerd™.

Here is what the Ancestry.com index gave me for a gentleman named Philip Teitelbaum:

“Philip Deitelbaum [Teitelbaum]”, born about 1895 in New York, in the household of a father named Edward Holman in Jersey City, N.J. Clicking through to the image set for Ward 6, I found the beginning of the household, at the bottom of Sheet 13B.

Name/Age Relationship Birthplace Parents’ Birthplace
Holman, Edward, 46 Head Ohio Ga./N. Dakota
James, Julia, 46 Boarder Georgia Georgia/Georgia
Livingston, Elijah, 49 Boarder Ohio Tenn./N. Dakota

So there is Edward Holman. Ohhh-kay. Let’s look at the rest of the family, which is continued on the next scanned image, Sheet 14A.

Name/Age Relationship Birthplace Parents’ Birthplace
Guthier, Dorothy, 8 Daughter New Jersey New Jersey
Ruane, Anna, 27 Servant Irish Free State Irish Free State
Schwartz, John, 12 Son New Jersey Poland
Schroder, John, 3 Son New Jersey New Jersey
Deitelbaum, Philip, 35 Son New York Czechoslovakia
Fulton, Joseph, 3 Son New Jersey New Jersey
Williams, Roger, 20 Brother South Carolina South Carolina
Robinson, Eric, 16 Niece Georgia Georgia

What an enigmatic patriarch Edward is – born in Ohio, or New Jersey, or Poland, or Czechoslovakia; running a boardinghouse, and siring children with four different surnames!  (Not to mention siring Philip, only 11 years his junior.)

This is either an early example of a family in the Witness Protection Program, or a terrific cast of characters in an abandoned novel by John Irving. (The World According to Holman? The Ward 6 Rules?)

Beguiling as those possibilities are, of course that is not what is going on here. What is actually happening is signaled by a line written by the enumerator at the bottom of Sheet 13B, right after Edward Holman and his two boarders:

Enumerated by Elizabeth Finkel and Finished On April 9. Here ends District 368 Block District 9-10.”

Ah. If you hadn’t sensed it before (and gosh, I hope you did), now you know that Edward Holman & Co. on Sheet 13B are probably not connected to the group on the following sheet. And in fact, they aren’t.

That final sheet, 14A, with its wildly varying assortment of names and ages and relationships and birthplaces, represents a bunch of people connected only by one circumstance: Elizabeth Finkel somehow missed them on a previous go-round. But she wanted to make sure they were counted. So she carefully noted, next to each name, the sheet number and line number of the household where each of these individuals actually belonged.

Therefore, in the far left-hand column next to Philip “Deitelbaum’s” name, is the notation: “Sheet 10, Line 35.” Backing up to that location in the image set, we find:

Name/Age Relationship Birthplace Parents’ Birthplace
Teitelbaum, William, 60 Head Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Teitelbaum, Rose, 57 Wife Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Teitelbaum, Harold, 22 Son New Jersey Czechoslovakia

Philip, age 35, born in New York of Czechoslovakian parents, is a much nicer fit for this family, isn’t he? (Also, note how one might have been tempted to erroneously conclude that the people on 14A were boarders in an establishment run by Mr. Holman — unless one stopped to notice stray marginal notations and ill-fitting ages/relationships.)

This is a great example of what makes an index a finding aid, a starting point, not an actual source. Indexes are compilations with varying degrees of accuracy. Mind you, not all indexing issues are as beautifully explicit as this one. But they can stall research just as effectively – unless you take that closer look.

Related: Turn That Page. Seriously.


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