Family Stories

Family Stories: Swoon 47

Does your family have certain stories that get told and retold? Lore that is based on some bit of fact…but who knows how much is true.

There are a few tales I heard again and again growing up. Some have photographic evidence, which makes them a bit more accountable, but all are dear to me. I fear I repeat them to my kids as much as my parents repeated them to me.

My grandpa Leo arrived from Egypt as a young Armenian itching to become a true American. He and his buddy Percy got off the boat and headed to a photographer to have their pictures taken, as “real New York cowboys”. Then they hopped freight trains headed for San Francisco, so they could drive tourist rickshaws at the 1915 World’s Fair. My grandpa was 23 when he left his family and the “old country”…and somehow the picture survived his entire American journey…and that blows my mind. While traveling across the country (on numerous freight trains), living in a boarding house, traveling back to NY (after Percy gambled away all their money), finding work as a watchmaker (he was not a watchmaker, but he was a bit of an imp and a hard worker), ordering a bride from Turkey (my grandma), designing and building his own home in Yonkers, and raising a family…through all of this…he kept the photograph safe. I lose my phone between rooms of the house. I fret that my 24 year old Californian might be sad he is missing the Easter basket hunt (due to restricted travel…by plane…with extra room seats). Is it possible we missed out on the genes from my grandpa?

My other grandparents owned a liquor store in Queens until Prohibition, when they turned it into a “Malt Shop”. Their home was just a few blocks away, with a basement for entertaining (wink wink). A two family home, my dad and his parents in the top floor apartment, my uncle and his parents in the ground floor apartment…and a communal basement for partying. As I remember the basement it had an amazing red checked floor, a piano, a pool table, a bar with barstools that were about 6 feet high. Behind the bar there were naughty napkins of ladies in bustiers making kissy faces, drink stirrers in the most beautiful opaque plastics, and coasters with advertisements for local hardware stores and beers that no longer exist. There was a back kitchen with a stove from the 30s, it was ivory and mint green, and even at 10, I knew it was something to be cherished. This basement had an energy, much goodness happened there…it was a set designer and Ebay collector’s dream. One story was that my grandpa would play the piano and sing with…Mae West…who we were told was also my dad’s honorary Godmother. No picture proof, but I believe it to this day, it would be a pretty bizarre thing to make up. Swoon.

My in-laws have their own lore. Greg’s dad, one of 17 kids, and mom one of 9 kids, grew up on farms in South Dakota from the depression through the mid 60s, stories that to this New Yorker are beyond belief. His great grandparents lived on the prairie in sod houses and lost loved ones to rattlesnake bites. This is not a Little House book, this was their life.

I think about these stories and wonder, what stories will my kids pass on? My mom grew up babysitting and taking dance classes, my dad had a paper route and paid for college with the money he earned. Maybe that is a story, will they be shocked that we could go to a private college for $7000. a year… all in? Will they talk about how we told them they could be anything they wanted to be and to dream big…because we lived in America? Will they tell stories about how their family dealt with the world changing overnight? About how health care workers were asked to save lives while risking their own? Will they share how they never got to say goodbye to loved ones, or spent months alone making bread and working remotely on the same countertop, or about falling in love with someone at a pandemic Zoom party? What stories will they tell?

Percy (left) and my Grandpa Leo looking very American. Patent for “Muenchner Brand Malt Extract” from 1923.

Published by Kat

A mom, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a graphic designer. I am flawed... but I try.

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