January Theme: Foundations
I’m assuming this assignment excludes pictures of my grandchildren, which would be, naturally, my first choice.
No lengthy teaser or lead up. Here is my favorite:
I almost overlooked this picture when flipping through photos looking for contenders. Almost – because it is so familiar to me, It gets an “oh yeah” instead of an “oh wow.” It was one of my first “ancestor pictures,” displayed prominently by several relatives when I was a child. And yet, I never grew tired of looking at it. Fascinating to see children I only knew as “old people.” It’s like reading the end of a book first, knowing how it turns out before it’s barely begun.
Their father, George A. Kuebler, was a difficult man. (These are my relatives; I’m trying to be nice.) He was a butcher in Omaha, NE, but the family was quite poor. The whole family moved to Erie, PA, when their father’s uninsured shop burned down in 1901. (His wife’s father and stepmother lived in Erie.)
The oldest son, George W., (1884-1961) and his father did not get along. GW got a job on the railroad and moved out as soon as he could. He married a woman much older than him, and had no children.
Next came Mayme (1887-1968). Mayme was the only child NOT born in Omaha. The family was “back east” visiting her maternal grandfather in Erie, PA, when she was born. She married, had a child, and divorced. I think it was a country boy / city girl issue. Think “Green Acres.” She was a concert pianist who lived with us for a few months prior to her death. By then she was quite large, 6 feet tall, bald, and nearly blind. I could never figure out how, when I was practicing piano, she knew exactly which note I’d missed, and what I should have played. “C sharp!” she’d bark. How did she know?
The next sister, Mabel (1890-1983), was a live wire with a couple of “irregular” marriages, each producing a son. But she carried herself above the fray, confident, resplendent in mink and pearls, oblivious to other’s opinions.
Then came Katie (1891-1949). My grandmother. Katherine to her mother’s Catherine. She died when my Mom was in college, so I never knew her. Perhaps that is why photos of her entrance me. Katie is the one seated in front beside the baby, the little girl with the innocent, wistful expression. I used to stare at the picture, wondering at the trajectories her life would take, and if she had any inkling. Trying to know her through her photo.
Katie also played piano, but I don’t think it was at the level of some of her siblings. (Music is one thing that has been passed down in our family. I spent 20+ years teaching piano myself.) She was nearly 30 when she married. Her husband was an immigrant from Switzerland, and there are curious undertones in some of the papers left behind, suggesting the union was less than ideal. Did she trade one bad home situation for another? Or was she just living out the kind of life she’d been raised to expect? Maybe she only wrote letters when she was in a bad mood. Many pictures, though, show her laughing, having fun, enjoying herself and her family. She fiercely loved her children and ended up raising three intelligent and accomplished daughters. She died before any of her daughters were married and never knew her eight granddaughters.
The baby in the photo was Grace (1894-1966). Grace has a heart-breaking story. She fell in love, and everyone knew she and Edward would someday marry. Instead, her young man, age 26, died of tuberculosis. Forty-two years later, she married a divorced man 17 years older than her. He died eight years after that. She and Aunt Mayme shared a duplex. She was upstairs, Mayme was downstairs. My older sister and I spent occasional overnights with Aunt Grace. We loved to see her take down her braids, which she kept wrapped around her head during the day. She made us sleep with a hankie under our pillows. And she gave us wonderful presents – simple items from the dime store. She would put them in a bag, tie strings to them, and let us pull a string every day for a week. She did this for all of us, on every birthday. That is, we all got a bag of presents every time ONE of us had a birthday.
Two more sons were born after the picture was taken. My favorite discovery about them was that they were alma maters of the same schools my sons attended. John earned a degree from Juilliard, as did my middle son. Frank went to the University of Pennsylvania, as did my oldest.
I knew great-uncle John (1896-1976). We kids called him Giant John. I think he was 6’3 or something like that. I learned to play piano on the piano he got as a boy. I remember playing a duet with him (Barcarolle) and reminding him to take the repeat. My mom nearly died of embarrassment, but he was very gracious. He had an incredible bass voice, worked as a “voice doctor to the stars”, an organist and choir director, and acted in off-Broadway musicals. He never married.
Frank (1899-1925) was a prolific letter writer, especially during his college days. He lived at the YMCA in Philadelphia. In addition to a scholarship, he took lots of odd jobs to help pay for school. His father’s brothers also sent him money, as did his brother John. (His father did not.) His mother died while he was away at school. I don’t know if he played the piano, but he was apparently quite good on the violin. While at school he was sick a lot, and he wrote of professors impatient with his infirmities. He took a job as a teacher with the intent to save for graduate school. But while teaching, he was diagnosed with some sort of “nerve trouble.’ His letters to his sister Grace, with whom he was especially close, show him becoming sicker and sicker, with what his family called “sleeping sickness.” He finally came home to stay with family the last months until his death at age 25. His death certificate cites “chronic encephalitis” as cause of death.
Despite their hard lives, tragedies, and poverty, the seven children were very close to each other, and very loyal. I look at that photo of them and feel the camaraderie. The “You and Me Against the World”. I also look at what was passed down from them – such as our deep love for music. The taller members of our family (not me!) got their height from this side. Guessing our rampant ADHD has a genetic component from here as well.
Genetics are interesting. Pulling this picture back out of my files, I now notice that my granddaughter has a strong likeness to my grandmother. So in a way, I get to use a grandchild picture anyway, by proxy.