New York Aug. 2nd 1928
My Dear Jeanie: -
I am in receipt of your card and letter
which is so peculiar of that fighting spirit of yours
which I so admire, in fact I got a kick out of reading it,
I am really sorry if I made you sore, and please
let's consider that a closed incident.1
From your meager description of the place I can
gather that it is an ideal place for you to get a real
rest, with noise and excitement the city can supply you
Your folks received your card and letter as well
dad told me that he was feeling fine and so does everyone
in your family.
My working season is getting a slow start, I am
off again today and tomorrow on again, my business
to me is a like a barometer description of the poor
business conditions of the current times.3
This morning my dear I mailed you a
package of candies I hope that you will receive it
before the end of this week.
And now I intend sending you some funny
magazines, at a quiet place like the one you're at
it would serve well to fill out your leisure time by
reading light literature.4
I think that your neighbor Etta the Kid, her
mother and Phil are leaving for the country today
and my friend Jack will be lonesome for awhile.5
This Friday I will be up your house and
see everybody and hear little Shirley's greeting to me
which is something like this Alloh Messah Shaman6
that's the way she saluted me last time, and besides
I expect your father to have a revival of old music like
Ich bin a yingele von Poilen, the Bowery, etc. and if
I can hook you up on the phone you will have the
pleasure of listening to this Grand Operatic Concert.7
Here I'm closing that I may leave
space for another poem this time by Robert
Burns the immortal Scotch poet.
Intermingled with Scotch words.
It is Na, Jean, They Bonie Face
In is na, Jean, they bonie face,
Nor shape that I admire,
Altho thy beauty and thy grace
Might well awauk desire
Something, ilka part o' thee
To praise, to love, I find,
But dear so is thy form to me,
Still dearer is thy mind.
Nae mair ungenorous wish I hae
Nor stronger in my breast,
Than, if I canna make the sae,
At least to see thee blest.
Content am I, if heaven shall give
But happiness to thee;
And as wi' thee I wish to live,
For thee I'd bear to die.
Jean is the correct name
as used by Burns in the
1 - We can’t be sure, but it looks like my grandmother gave Papa a figurative earful for his July 29th letter, in which he took her to task for blowing off a scheduled phone call with him and upsetting his plans. True to his remarkably forgiving, generous nature, Papa takes what was almost certainly a grouchy card and a nasty letter and interprets them as admirable, entertaining signs of her “fighting spirit”. This may seem like an exaggerated response designed by Papa to demonstrate his devotion to my grandmother or defuse her anger, but I don’t think it’s too far from sincere. My grandmother gave what we could politely call enthusiastic voice to her “fighting spirit” throughout her life with Papa, and had he not a real capacity to admire it, or even enjoy it, he likely wouldn’t have been able to tolerate it.
2 - On the other hand, Papa still hasn’t stopped expressing dissatisfaction with my grandmother’s infrequent and spare correspondence, in this case her “meagre” description of her summer vacation spot, the Viola Hotel in Lake Huntington, New York. Perhaps, as a non-native English speaker, Papa has improperly used the word “meagre” to mean “short” without understanding its connotations of deprivation, but I think his oft-demonstrated, admirable writing skills preclude the possibility. He’s just not going to let my grandmother off the hook for her lack of interest in communication.
3 - Those of us who haven’t formally studied economic history tend to think the Great Depression hit the United States rather suddenly in 1929, but of course it couldn’t have happened all at once. American workers like Papa obviously detected “the poor business conditions of the current times” much earlier, and in the election year of 1928 Democratic Presidential candidate (and New York Governor) Al Smith and other critics of President Coolidge publicly questioned whether the economy was as healthy as it looked. (Perhaps the subject of the economy came up in Papa’s letter because it was a hot topic of conversation that year.) Papa had shown his support for Al Smith and his anti-Prohibition, progressive platform during the disastrous 1924 Democratic Convention, so he was probably as happy about Smith’s candidacy in ’28 as he was unhappy about Herbert Hoover’s eventual victory.
4 - This reminds me that my grandmother had a strong appetite for “light literature,” especially Harlequin Romances and the like.
5 - “My friend Jack” was, as those of you who have been following along well know, the legendary Jack Zichlinsky, one of Papa’s best friends. Jack lived just a few doors down from my grandmother’s family on Hart Street in Brooklyn and, judging by the familiar way Papa discusses him here, knew my grandmother fairly well.
6 - That’s “Hello mister Scheuermann” in baby talk, in case it wasn’t clear.
7 - My mother tells me that everyone in my grandmother’s family yelled at each other all the time, but Papa’s letters indicate that they liked to sing together, as well. (Perhaps they were a musical bunch in general; they even boasted a professional violinist among their ranks in the person of my grandmother’s brother, Bob.) If you've been paying attention you'll remember that Papa had already established my grandfather's mastery of the traditional Yiddish song “A Yingele fon Poilen” in his May 7, 1925 postcard, but in case you missed it here’s a version of it by the Kharkof Klezmer Band from Last.fm:
This is the first time Papa has mentioned “The Bowery,” a beloved ditty from Charles H. Hoyt’s 1891 musical “A Trip To Chinatown.” The blog Vitaphone Varieties tells us that vintage recordings of “The Bowery” are difficult to come by, but it does make this contemporary reproduction available:
In his last letter, Papa quoted a Robert Browning poem because he found himself unable to compose for my grandmother a "sentimental" passage of his own. Though he blamed the summer heat for his sluggish writing skills, I think he was (as I noted previously) angry with my grandmother for blowing off a phone appointment and for her ongoing lack of interest in written correspondence. He expressed his irritation in mild ways, but I think he really wanted to say more, maybe even explode with frustration over her five years of spare communication and withheld affection. At odds with these feelings, he may have developed a little writer's block to keep the words at bay. Perhaps he quoted another poem in this letter because he still felt angry, still needed to keep his safety valves shut tight against the gathering flood.
- 'COOLIDGE ECONOMY' MYTH, SMITH TELLS MISSOURIANS; CHARGES REPUBLICAN WASTE; GETS OVATION AT SEDALIA, MO - The New York Times, October 16, 1928
- A Trip to Chinatown at Wikipedia
- Al Smith biography at Wikipedia
- 1928 Presidential Campaign coverage from Time.com
- Lyrics to "The Bowery" at A Traditional Music Library