Sunday, May 15, 2011

Alles Gute Zum Geburtstag, Grandma Rosina!

My German Grandma Rosina was born 125 years ago today, the same birth date as her first born granddaughter, my cousin Gail. My maternal grandmother exerted a powerful influence over three generations of Kramer family, as my cousins and I have been sharing recently on Facebook.

Grandma was born on May 15, 1886 in Buchbrunn, Germany and died in Garden Grove, California on December 14, 1970. In the last few months of her life, my mother had to move her into a nearby assisted care center with great reluctance and a heavy sense of dereliction of daughterly duty. The facility was located where the infamous Islamic Society of Orange County now stands, known as the mosque where homegrown terrorist Adam Gadahn, aka Azzam the American, converted to radical Islam.

Duty to family and God was the defining attribute of my grandmother’s life and legacy. The eldest of 11 children born to poor Bavarian parents, young Rosina helped raise her ten siblings, learned to cook and manage a large household, and developed the indestructible character that carried her through a lifetime of often overwhelming challenges. Barely an adult, she left the comfort of family and familiarity to become cook and nanny for a German couple residing in New York who sponsored her emigration in the early years of the twentieth century.  It was an enormous personal sacrifice in a strange new world to provide financial support to her beloved family utilizing the only marketable skills she possessed.

When World War I erupted in August 1914, our grandfather Wilhelm (later Americanized as William) was a chef aboard a German ship that was interned by the U.S. government, which at the time was still a neutral party, for a brief period in Boston Harbor. After being released as a detainee, he made his way to New York in search of a culinary position. Grandpa was the adored son of a devoted mother who encouraged him to pursue his passion for food. My grandmother, an accomplished cook herself and symbol of the Teutonic female strength of his mother, must have seemed a much safer, more welcoming harbor.

After they married, they had their first two children in short order: my uncle Eitel (aka Bill) and mother Elisabeth (aka Lee), with my uncle Willie following several years later. Despite all the responsibilities caring for a young family, Grandma worked closely at Grandpa’s side to fulfill his dream of opening his own restaurant, which later expanded to a grocery market and real estate holdings. From their separate arrivals with empty pockets and substantial cultural disadvantages, together they built a business empire so successful that it was highly rated by Standard & Poor’s.

Grandpa was an extremely creative force of nature, an extrovert who loved to name drop and an alcoholic with enormous appetites and ambition. He was a writer, a poet, and a frustrated musician who had some of his own compositions performed in New York theatre. Grandma was the quiet, reserved architect of his loftiest plans. The family of five enjoyed the rewards of wealth and hard work, even my modest, unassuming grandmother. The children’s clothes were handmade by private designers and they received a well-rounded education fostering a love of learning and the arts. They lived in a large house covering two normal lots on Long Island and socialized primarily with other emigrants in their close knit German community.

Grandma was a quiet stoic, never comfortable with physical affection, but she expressed her love by constantly serving her family and handling all their needs. Although she was completely devoted to all three children and her demanding husband, she permitted herself the pleasure of overindulging her youngest, my Uncle Willie, who enjoyed special perks including music lessons.

My mother and uncles spoke their parents’ native language at home, but they were American kids through and through. When Adolf Hitler rose to power, Grandpa received a letter from the new regime inviting him to bring his talents back to the motherland. The three children immediately vetoed the move, thank God.

The Great Depression eventually took its toll on the family businesses. Tender-hearted Grandpa could not bear to charge customers or evict tenants whom he counted as friends and inevitably the restaurant, market and real estate holdings were lost. One renter gave him a genuine Gutenberg Bible as payment, which was later stolen from the foyer where my grandparents displayed it. Deeply ashamed and devastated by the greatest failure of his life, Grandpa left the family for a distant job as a cook, sending home the money he didn’t spend on drinking binges. Grandma and Mom told me they had no assurance he would ever return. The money my grandmother counted on for my Uncle Bill’s college launch was gone, along with the family dreams for him to explore his uncommon intelligence and personal gifts. It was one of Grandma’s greatest disappointments, as she confided to me near the end of her life. Grandpa finally came home to the comfortable, low maintenance life Grandma created in his extended absence.

Fortunately for all their spouses, for my first cousins and for me, the parents who married into the first American Kramer generation provided their children with plenty of affection to balance what I must describe as some very peculiar traits we inherited from both of our German grandparents. Uncle Bill wed fun loving, high spirited Aunt Esther and they started their own family of seven children. Uncle Willie found in Aunt Joyce the feminine strength and unselfish devotion his father immediately recognized in my grandmother, plus all the affection and adoration that two generations of Kramer men craved. Like Grandma, my mother married an alcoholic and they had a son, my brother Richard who lives with me. Despite his family’s financial assets, Richard’s father insisted the baby be born in a charity hospital, where a forceps delivery led to congenital deafness and learning disabilities. Soon fed up, Mom hit her first husband over the head with a heavy frying pan during one of his daily drunken rages and moved back home with her parents.

When World War II called the most able-bodied men of her generation to distant shores, Mom left Richard with her parents in New York and moved to Detroit to work in the factories that supplied the tools of war. She made the most of the experience, befriending the other young women whose patriotism and diligence lifted the nation out of economic and political catastrophe. When homesickness overwhelmed her, she returned to New York, the stability of her mother’s constant support, and her young son.

On a New York City outing with a girlfriend, Mom was gaily window shopping when a young sailor pulled on the back of her curly auburn locks. It was my father on Navy leave in the middle of the Great War, falling in love at first sight with the tall beauty, her ready laugh and her long, gorgeous legs. After their wedding, which took place 5 months after his involvement in the Normandy invasion of 1944, he shipped back out to the European front.

After the war, my parents bought their first home adjacent to my grandparents’ on Long Island and near my Uncle Bill’s family. My sister Donna and brother Bob were born soon after and my father lovingly raised Richard as his own. Grandpa was still working as a chef and Grandma enjoyed the extra time with her growing family so conveniently close. When Bob was born in 1948, my grandparents took the short walk to greet the baby’s homecoming. Apparently Grandpa was expecting a special drink to celebrate the occasion but was offended by what he was offered. “Water I have at home,” he sulked before walking down the street to his private reserve.

Dad, a self-taught man with a surplus of common sense, natural intelligence and an impressive work ethic who could fix anything, struggled to establish a stable career in the new economy as did many returning soldiers. After Bob's birth, my dad reluctantly decided to move his young family to the southwest in the hope that Texas and New Mexico would provide the financial opportunities so scare in the northeast. Soon Grandma and Grandpa joined them, turning over their large Long Island house to my Uncle Bill’s family. Dad found jobs as an electrician, plumber, and skilled maintenance worker but not the career he sought to secure his family’s future. He enlisted in the Army early in the Korean War, leaving his wife, three children and two parents-in-law to live in a tiny, single wide, desert hot, overcrowded mobile home, to which he returned at the end of his second military service.

Dad had come to love the California he discovered on long Indian motorcycle rides during his bachelor Navy years and purchased a home there for his Kramer-Herrick family in Lakewood, one of the first planned residential developments in SoCal. Soon he began a steady, successful career in the burgeoning aerospace industry and was hired at the Douglas plant in Santa Monica, where his talents attracted the attention of Sandy Douglas who later personally selected Dad to be the first lead quality control inspector to open the new Huntington Beach plant in 1964.

In November 1955, Grandpa sustained a painful fall at home and was hospitalized, where he was diagnosed with end stage leukemia. Within 2 weeks he was dead and, despite whatever birth control practices that worked so well for my parents during the preceding 8 years, I was conceived as a mid-life surprise. During my teenage years as a nonbeliever investigating astrology and alternative pseudo sciences, I wondered whether I was the reincarnation of my late grandfather. Certainly I helped fill the void he left in my mother’s and grandmother’s lives. Grandma spoiled me rotten just as she had Uncle Willie decades earlier and soon a competition between them ensued, abetted by my sister Donna, to smother me with attention and all the goodies my family could not afford during those earlier years spent on the brink of poverty.

Mom inherited Grandma’s willful stubbornness and aversion to initiating physical affection. I later learned quite happily that Mom loved to receive affection and lavished it freely on young children, but she feared rejection as we all grew older and more independent. I can only imagine that Grandma was the same way, because I have no memory of her ever voluntary hugging or kissing me. I never had the opportunity to meet my grandfather or observe his marriage to my grandmother, but I understand the secret to my parents' connubial contentment was my father's immediate acceptance that all disagreements were entirely his fault, despite any evidence to the contrary. My parents were well matched in the uncompromising ethical code they learned from their mothers, which they followed even to their own detriment.

Grandma and I shared a bedroom at various times during my childhood. She took amazing care of me when Mom returned to work briefly when I entered Kindergarten. Every day after school, we would stroll north to the Sav-On drugstore at Fallbrook Square in Canoga Park to get ice cream cones and exercise, instilling in me a lifelong love of walking. On rainy days she played hide-and-seek with me and came to my swift rescue when I had attacks of claustrophobia under the beds. She practically ordered my parents to give me dance lessons beginning at age 5.

Grandma loved to tend to her garden of pansies and roses. She and Mom shared kitchen duties and mealtime was always a culinary delight, but my mother never rebelled against Grandma’s preferences, which must have been frustrating for a maturing woman in her own home and with her own family priorities.  

When we moved into a brand new house in Orange County in 1964, Grandma bought me my own piano after hearing me spontaneously play some popular songs by ear on a neighbor’s keyboard and then paid for 5 years of weekly lessons. This led to one of the most shameful episodes of my childhood. I was a tomboy who vastly preferred outdoor fun to daily piano practice. In defiance, I staged one of my frequent trantrums, stubbornly refusing to waste another minute on the piano. My stubbornness was nothing compared to Grandma's, who hastily marched to our shared bedroom, packed some belongings into a large bag, and announced she called a taxi to move her to my Uncle Bill’s house in Canoga Park. Duly horrified and firmly reminded of who exactly was in charge, I raced to the piano bench and played as perfectly as my shaking fingers would allow.

Grandpa craved success and verbal validation, which he supplemented with a habit of name-dropping that his sons inherited. He lacked Grandma’s steely self-discipline, humility and introspection. Grandma was a loyal friend and matriarch, but she enjoyed solitude vastly more than socializing. My Uncle Bill seemed to share her pensive thoughtfulness and resembled her most among the three siblings. Uncle Willie was a lot like Grandpa and Mom was a more verbal, Americanized version of Grandma.

My grandmother’s long silences were quite imposing, but often her words were unexpected and unusual. Some of her habits were strange and strangely amusing. In her last decade, she liked to sit in the kitchen and snack alone on favorite treats like pumpernickel and liverwurst. When there, she would pass gas quietly and then suddenly utter the word “poop” in an elongated, drawn-out, sing-song way with her voice rising several notes to stretch it into “poooooop” so that everyone in the house could share her experience. My brother Bob, a typical Herrick smart aleck, enjoyed teasing our seemingly humorless grandmother and in response she enjoyed kicking him hard with her reinforced orthopedic shoes. At family gatherings, Mom always made a delicious wine-club soda punch with frozen strawberries and pineapple chunks. When Grandma would retire to her beautiful wooden rocking chair to sleep off the alcohol, Bob or Donna or Richard would place the empty wine bottles next to her chair and snap incriminating photos.

Somehow Grandma’s idiosyncrasies never detracted from her spine-stiffening pride or her air of authority. She was ever graceful as she aged, reminding me of an Indian warrior goddess. She had waist length silver hair that fell into glistening waves as she brushed it nightly at bedtime. She had a quiet faith and incredible inner peace with her life and her God. When I chose to become a Lutheran the year before her passing, she was so pleased. It was difficult to know when you received her approval, but there was no mistaking her disapproval.

I was incredibly blessed to have such exceptional, ethical role models in my parents and grandmother. Regrettably, I contributed so little to my grandmother’s life except for my mere existence in her last 14 years in proportion to everything she did for my benefit. One of her greatest gifts was something she endowed unintentionally. In the aftermath of her death, my mother reappraised her spoiled teenaged daughter and finally tired of my prolonged juvenile self-absorption. In truth, I was ahead of her in my self-loathing by many years. I worshipped my mother and for years cried myself to sleep after I was old enough to understand mortality and life cycles, which Mom later confided she had done as a child over her own mother. When as a young adult I developed the Kramer passion for food and cooking, she was deeply gratified and thoroughly relished all the new dishes I prepared for her. Before she died in 1994, I spent the last weeks of her life kissing her feet and pouring out all the affection and adoration she secretly yearned for.

At age 14, I was long overdue for fundamental personal changes that were far from easy to implement, but Mom and I survived to establish the kind of mutually loving and respectful relationship I would wish for every parent and child. She gave me her often unspoken love, her mother’s timeless values, and an enduring example of indomitable strength to overcome all adversity. I could not ask for more.