Friday, February 13, 2009

April 17th, 1930 - New York City


April 17, 1930.


I couldn't call you before
6. p.m. so I didn't, knowing that you
would go to the dentist earlier.

But I do wish I could
Call you now but I just won't call
you next door on the phone, I just
want to know whether the dentist
cemented the bridgework and how
you feel in it. 1

When I left the place I went
downtown immediately to the synagogue
just in time for the evening prayer
to say Kadish.2

Sweetheart: I hope you will go to
bed early tonight so that you may
have rosy cheeks in the morning
after a real good nights rest.

There's nothing doing at the store
tonight which may be due to the

Tomorrow I will call you earlier
about 12:45 because I have to to to meet
someone (about work) but if you
desire to be down in the sunshine
(if any) don't let the fact that I want
to call you earlier keep you within
the office if you should not be in
I will call you back later in the day.

Beloved: My spirit is high
my courage is great just because
I am inspired by you Dearest
of all Dear ones to whom my life
is dedicated.

There's not a moment when the
sweet thoughts of you should leave
me, your image is always with
me, even in my slumbers I dream
of you my "Beautiful Chippie"3

These lines a written at
the store, and as Archie is
proposing to close the place,4 I
will have to close this note with
the sweetest thoughts of you

and countless kisses
to you My Precious

Your own Harry


Matt’s Notes

1 - Those fascinated with the minutiae of Papa’s Diary Project will no doubt remember that my grandmother paid a visit to her dentist’s 42nd street offices on February 27th; the bridgework mentioned in this letter was probably related to that appointment. My cousin Ken, who is a dentist (and of whose existence, as you may recall, I was unaware until he discovered this blog and wrote to inform me that we shared the same great-great-grandparents) tells me:

A bridge takes a few visits, the teeth have to be prepared and shaped, an impression taken which is then sent to the dental lab where a technician would make the bridge. If it was a bridge replacing a back tooth it would have been made out of all gold. I'm not sure if they used porcelain to replace front teeth back then but it was very common to have gold front teeth also. If porcelain was used, it was probably very expensive. When the bridge was finished, it is tried in, the bite adjusted and then cemented with a dental cement. The procedure must have been somewhat uncomfortable because they did not have high speed drills and the slow speed drills produced a lot of heat which could cause pain, even if you received Novocain.

Update: My mother says that my grandmother always had trouble with her bridgework and eventually had it removed in favor of a dental plate. She also points out that Papa probably wrote "I just won't call you next door on the phone" because my grandmother may have been sharing a phone with a neighbor at this point due to her family's recent financial reversals.

2 - Observant Jews like Papa say Kadish, the prayer for the dead, at several intervals throughout the year, most notably on Yom Kippur (a.k.a. the Day of Atonement), just after or on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and on a few other occasions. Papa wrote this letter on the fourth day of the eight-day Passover holiday, which is not normally a day of mourning (correct me if I’m wrong, dear reader) so perhaps he said Kadish for a member of his family, a member of my grandmother’s family, or even a fraternal brother. (Papa was a member of B’nai Zion, a.k.a. Order Sons of Zion, a Zionist fraternal order and mutual support society which, like many organizations of its kind, guaranteed its members a proper Jewish burial and the attendant mourning rituals.)

In any event, Papa did not mention any deaths in the April 17th entry of his 1924 diary, so whomever he prayed for in 1930 almost certainly died in the intervening period.

3 - I assume that Papa, who had an old-fashioned respect for grammatical rules, capitalized and enclosed in quotes the phrase “Beautiful Chippie” because it was in popular circulation in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, but then again he may have just been having fun with a nickname he came up with for my grandmother. I’ve been poking around to see if it might be a reference to a movie, book or celebrity, but so far I haven’t come up with anything. Stay tuned.

4 - Papa wrote many of his 1930 letters from a retail store where he moonlighted as a tailor and attended to his correspondence between jobs. I suppose, had Papa’s co-worker Archie glanced at this letter, he would have thought Papa was freshly captivated and excitedly planning a future with his “beloved.” I’m sure Papa didn’t reveal, even on slow nights when he and Archie had nothing to do but chat and smoke and watch the clock, the difficult six years he’d spent courting my grandmother, his painful efforts to overcome her and her family’s indifference to him, or how reluctantly she’d finally agreed to marry him.

I think Papa would have had more to reveal than appropriate had he tried to explain to Archie his commitment to my grandmother. Would he have mentioned how displaced he felt years before as a young man in America, how attached he remained to his family and memories in Eastern Europe, how hard he found it to meet a woman, fall in love, start a new life if it meant letting go of the old? Would he have even recognized the urgency with which he fell in love with my grandmother in the aftermath of his father’s death, furiously compelled to start a family of his own as if he’d suddenly awoken from a spell? Could he have explained that his own endless wellspring of empathy and self-sacrifice could flow into no more appropriate vessel than my grandmother’s own bottomless dissatisfaction and neediness?

Perhaps Archie once met my grandmother, perhaps he noticed the difference between Papa’s happy glow and her dour expression, perhaps, at a moment when he felt his relationship with Papa was turning from something incidental into a genuine friendship, he tried to find out, without seeming overtly puzzled, why Papa had put so much effort into courting my grandmother and winning her hand. “She’s a lovely girl,” he might have said, “but tell me, Harry, how do you romance such a serious person?”

Papa surely would have understood the confusion behind Archie’s question, but he would have known how to answer because, in fact, there was only one answer he could give, a simple and sincere answer, an expression of a desire he had nursed through his whole youth in exile, through all the years of solitude and cramped quarters and sewing machines and nights alone with his radio, through all the activism and baseball and opera and visits to Coney Island, the synagogues and subway rides and distressed letters from the old country, the dating and disappointment and expectation, the train trips to the mountains and the occasional motor car rides, the diaries and letters, the whole intimate epic of his life in New York.

“Archie,” he would have answered, “I just try to make her happy,” though he would never have known if Archie understood.

No comments:

Post a Comment