Those are my feet on the left, in the beat-up loafers. I was very hard on shoes, my mother said. That was also the opinion of Manny, the guy who measured us at Martin’s Shoe Store in Plainfield, N.J. He and my mother would mourn the state of my current shoe, and shake their heads, and sigh.
“She’s really hard on shoes, isn’t she?” Manny would say.
“Let’s hope this pair lasts,” my mother would say.
In my defense, I would like to draw your attention to that ripped sole of the Keds sneakers on the right, which belonged to one of my younger sisters, proof that I was not the only kid who was hard on her shoes.
The shoes in the center belong to a littler kid who went easier on them, because he didn’t play as hard as we did. However, being a little kid, he was about to commit the equally heinous sin of Growing Like You Wouldn’t Believe, necessitating a pair of new shoes in an equally indecent amount of time.
Shoe shopping was a definite event back then, partly because shoe stores were fuller-service destinations, as opposed to today, when the only stores that make a big deal of fussing over you are the ones catering to marathoners or people with really bad bunions.
But the other reason was that when seven kids all needed shoes at the same time, it meant major shopping expeditions. These took place in August, when we bought school shoes, and late spring, when we bought summer play shoes. Easter shoes were also important, but because we wore dress shoes so infrequently, we handed them down a lot. This might cause responsible parents to clutch their throats in horror today, but my mother would have thought it irresponsible to waste a set of patent-leather Mary Janes that had only been to Mass once or twice. So every Easter, we’d root around the closets and line everyone up to see which dress shoes fitted whom.
Shoe shopping was always a mixed experience for me. I loved the look, smell and feel of new shoes, but I hated being called to account for the damage I wreaked on them. “You really banged these up, kid,” Manny would say, as Mom nodded in sad agreement.
How did I do it? I was never sure. As far as I knew I was just running and walking in them, not using them to pound fence posts. Every year, I would vow that my shoes would stay smooth and whole until they no longer fit. But every year, I wore out my shoes before I outgrew them. The pleasure of new shoes was always shadowed by my awareness of their fleeting glory.
I never did turn into a person who collects shoes. I still tend to buy a pair I really like and wear it into shreds, despite good-intentioned vows to buy that one great pair in several colors and rotate them. Maybe all that early training in shoe shopping has conditioned me to stick with the tried-and-true, and await its inevitable decline.
Or maybe I’m just really hard on shoes.
… Peter Thompson.
Which is a dress as well as a guy’s name, as you can see in this picture from a turn-of-the century newspaper ad. I recently encountered it in a novel I was re-reading, in which a 13-year-old girl, circa 1910, waxes philosophical about fashion:
“Clean and neat is all my mother asks, and it’s all I’m willing to give. Time enough to discard my Peter Thompson and get myself up as the queen of the May when there’s a king in sight.”
The kid had a point, and a Peter Thompson was a good way to make it. This was an enormously popular mode of children’s dress that translated either into sailor suits (for boys) or dresses (for girls). I am still trying to find a reference that will tell me who Peter Thompson was, exactly, but if you’re interested in a closer look at how these dresses worked, check out these directions from a turn-of-the-century sewing book on how to make them, including steps like soaking your material in salt water to set the color.
If you’re interested in fin de siecle New York City in general, you ‘d also enjoy the book I was reading: The Best of Families (1970) by Ellin Mackay Berlin, who was famous to a lot of people for being Mrs. Irving Berlin, but who also was a very good writer.The Best of Families is about New Yorkers who worshipped Episcopal, sent their daughters to Spence and their sons to Groton, and never met a peccadillo they couldn’t ignore, as long as the perpetrator was well-bred and discreet.
In writing it, Ellin Berlin — a millionaire’s debutante daughter whose marriage to a Tin Pan Alley songwriter was a 1920s sensation — clearly drew upon her own memories of silver-spoon life. The novel is full of the wistfulness that suffuses memories of vanished, specific things: “trolley cars and the ferry to New Jersey and the wonderful, fast, rattling ride on the Elevated; Little Nemo and Buster Brown and his faithful dog, Tige … high-button shoes and white kid gloves so tight that each finger must be laboriously worked into its separate, stiff compartment, and the wooden stick on which even naturally wavy hair was harshly twisted into sausage curls.”
And Peter Thompsons, too. Worth knowing about, if you find an old family letter mentioning one. Your great-great-aunt might have been talking about an old dress, not an old beau.
In family-history discussions we often talk about the power beloved family recipes can exert in bringing warm, vivid memories to life.
Not long ago, I got an unexpected reminder that bad food memories also pack a punch. One of my favorite non-genealogy reads is David Lebovitz’s beguiling blog about cooking, eating and living in Paris. My epiphany there came in the comments section of a recent post on French charcuterie.
As you might imagine, one reader’s ick is another’s addiction, especially when it comes to charcuterie. So the comments inevitably turned to the question of foods people absolutely Will Not Eat, and why entire cultures sometimes put certain foods on the Will Not Eat List.
For instance, David speculated that the reason rabbits remain off-limits to many people might be that “perhaps they are associated with hard times.”
One of his readers from the U.S. chimed in to agree, saying he had once encountered an elderly neighbor who wouldn’t touch rabbit for very specific, personal reasons. For years during the Depression, this woman’s enterprising mother raised rabbits in backyard hutches, bartering them for goods and services and, of course, putting them in the stewpot nearly every day.
My mother, on the other hand, hated lentils. Lentil soup was on the menu every single Friday night of every year she spent growing up in her parents’ strictly Catholic home, in the days when all Fridays were meatless.
And my mother-in-law cannot stand spaghetti. This is because her Great Depression was spent in a small farming community in South Dakota, where spaghetti was the only reliable entrée for weeks on end, during a particularly desperate stretch. So desperate did this stretch get, that there was actually a food drop from an airplane bearing government-surplus supplies. My mother-in-law and all the other children scrambled out to the field, excited beyond belief at what might be there.
“And what do you think they dropped?” she asked. “Spaghetti!”
The bitterness in her voice was still sharp after more than six decades.
Or consider the case of a gentleman from Rostock, Germany who finally decided to open and taste a 64-year-old can of lard he’d been saving “for emergencies” ever since he acquired it in an aid package in the devastation of postwar Germany. (The verdict? “Gritty and tasteless,” but edible.)
Bad eats can be a potent catalyst for memories, just like good eats. And the stories are just as absorbing.
“Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”
“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.” …
“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so … Because the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. … Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.”
This is a scene from Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, in which the just-born heroine’s Grandma Mary explains to an exhausted, disillusioned new mother why flights of fancy are still worth the effort. It is still, for my money, the best apologia out there for letting the Santa story survive — or letting it take root at all.
And no, I haven’t forgotten Frances Pharcellus Church’s* immortal letter to Virginia, another indelible defense of spirit over materialism. But Grandma Mary’s words carry an irresistible blend of practicality and joy that has resonated for me ever since I read them as a teenager.
Most of the parents I know don’t fight the Santa story; it would be like trying to stopper Niagara Falls. You can be the biggest rationalist out there, but then the kid hits preschool, the weather turns cold and there is no stopping the Santa stampede. Perhaps that’s wrong; I suppose you could dig in your heels and let your three-year-old be the one to tell all the other three-year-olds in the nursery school that it’s all a fake. I have not met anyone with that sort of internal fortitude.
But still, every child reaches the day when Santa leaves for good. There is always a classmate or an older sibling to do the deed. There is always that moment of shocked disbelief, followed by dawning comprehension. In particularly stubborn cases, the Rationalist Cop has to produce physical evidence — trotting the defiant Santa believer over to peek in the secret gift cupboard two days before Christmas Eve. Very few cases of defiant belief survive that.
In really stubborn cases of days gone by, the believer could always write to the New York Sun.
But with the Sun and Mr. Church long departed, The Parent must take the question: “Is it true? Is there really no Santa Claus?”
I don’t remember exactly what I said. I remember what I felt, which was resignation, and numerous connected thoughts:
A. It had to happen.
B. Our household had had a longer than average Santa run as it was.
C. Thank Rudolph I wouldn’t have to hide packages all over the place anymore.
What I also felt, surprisingly, was gratitude. For the story, for the fun of it, for the blind belief and the inevitable growing up. And above all, for the foundation of fancy this early journey into mythmaking has given my two tale-spinning daughters as they write their own scripts and stories.
I think Grandma Mary had it right. The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination.
*In case you have ever wondered, as I have, where the “Pharcellus” came from, apparently it was a gift from dear old Dad. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Frank Church was born in 1839 in Rochester, N.Y. to Baptist minister Pharcellus Church and his wife, Chara Emily (Conant) Church.
I live in New Jersey, where summer vacation has barely started at the time the Midwest is beginning its back-to-school shopping. Yeah, it’s high summer here. We aren’t even thinking about Office Depot for another four weeks. A brief news digest will surely show what I mean:
• I am a Bastille Day baby. I have always enjoyed my stylish birthday! When I was younger and footloose I often went to French restaurants to celebrate. This year, I made my own cake, over my daughters’ objections. (Before you start to awwww and assume they were devastated at not being able to bake for me, they were actually pushing for a Carvel ice cream cake.) It was a Devil Dog cake, recipe courtesy of Deb at Smitten Kitchen. More on birthday cake later, in a family history sort of post, even.
• I saw the New York Times story on family trees in the age of reproductive technology, had some thoughts and wrote a post which I’ve been mulling over to make sure my thoughts still hold up. I will post it, but for now I’ll just say I hate pseudo-trend pieces in the lifestyle section of the Times, for what it’s worth.
• I just discovered The Diamond in the Window, a wonderful blog about children’s literature. What’s really great are the thoughtful recommendations passed along by the blogger’s own daughters, aged 11 and 9. I predict this blog will give me many answers on frustrating rainy summer days.
• Played around with PowerPoint to make a simple, hierarchical family tree for a core group I’ve been researching among my paternal lines. I’ve been thinking of summarizing some of this research in a narrative to send around in Christmas cards to extended family, and the family tree diagram would be a visual aid. Doesn’t this sound like the sort of thing that would get me dropped from Christmas card lists?
• Went to the beach here. And here. Before you ask: Snooki is nowhere to be seen, and indeed, unless the Jersey Shore crowd likes string cheese and juice boxes for lunch, they would be quite out of place at these beaches.
• Am teaching Latin and German to my daughters. The Latin is for the older one, who needs to review for the fall, with the help of the Cambridge Latin series textbook. My long-ago, very basic high-school Latin is creaking back, hurray. The German lessons are something both kids have actually been asking about for some time. Their motives are not exactly pure — they are entirely too focused on determining whether a certain schoolmate and native German speaker is using swear words, for instance. Also, they have noticed that I sometimes talk with one of my sisters in German when we don’t want them to understand (we both majored in it in college, but sis is way better at it). It all adds up to a level of avid interest that’s touching, it really is.
But I still won’t teach them the swear words.
As the family plans its summer schedule, the term “day trip” looms large, as I’m sure it does for many families in these cost-conscious times. I’m toying with the idea of the genealogy day trip, which would thrill me to no end. It might not thrill the kiddies as much, though.
Still, on the positive side, my kids are a little older now and might actually enjoy trooping through a graveyard or three. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a chance to make fun of Mom and her graveyard obsession. And a chance to take goofy pictures of Mom weeding graves. Sweet!
So I scribbled out this list of possibilities within a day’s drive of northern New Jersey:
• To Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island to photograph family markers there — my parents, and several aunts and uncles.
• To various cousins’ houses to look at their photograph albums. (Hmm. Might do this on a day the kids are in day camp.)
• To NARA-NYC to look at a bunch of indexes. (Another one for a day-camp day. In a perfect world, my kids would love hanging around microfilm viewers for five hours … but …)
• To Albany County to take a better picture of my great-great-grandparents’ tombstone. I really need to rectify this awful photo, which has been bugging me for four years. I would post it, but I’m just too mortified. If I succeed in getting a better one, I promise to post Do and Don’t pictures.
Will I do all of these things? The biggest enemy to productivity is the way summer fries a perfectly good brain. Summertime always seems to stretch into infinity on the day school ends. With so many more hours of daylight, what’s the rush?
Then, all too soon, it’s Labor Day already, and the genealogy to-do list has maybe one item crossed off.
I think I’ll ask the kids tonight how they feel about cemeteries.