Saturday, March 11, 2006

Clara Brunck: 1915? - 1968

"Dutch uncles" seem to have gone out of style these days, those men who weren't really relatives, but were such close friends of the family that children were encouraged to call them "Uncle So-and-So." Well, Aunt Clara would have been a "Dutch aunt." She lived next door to us when I was a kid, she and her husband and her father-in-law. She had two sons, too, but one was in high school when we moved there, and one was in the Navy; and shortly after, the younger son left to do his two years in the Army (there was a draft back then). So she and "Uncle Pete," her husband, and "Old Mr. Brunck," her father-in-law, were left to themselves.

In other words, she was full in the throes of the Empty Nest Syndrome.

I never really liked going over to her house; it was always a mess, very untidy, probably because she spent so much time outside of it. She went shopping a very great deal, and while I don't think any of her purchases were ever extravagant, they certainly kept her from having to confront that empty, quiet house, in a time when women didn't work outside the home, especially German women -- and Aunt Clara and Uncle Pete were emphatically German. I can recall walking into her house on a Sunday morning and smelling Sauerbraten, and it almost made me sick to my stomach -- now, I love Sauerbraten, and German cooking in general.

One of the things Aunt Clara did to try to fill up her time was to start a Girls' Club for the neighborhood girls. There were four of us -- a classmate, two cousins of mine, and me -- and she taught us all how to cross stitch. I don't know if it ever stuck with any of the others, but as for me, every time I pick up a piece of cross stitch, I give thanks to her and for her. She has helped me fill my own empty nest with an activity a lot more productive than shopping.

She did more for me than that, though. I never fully understood her relationship with my mother, or with me for that matter, until one day when the three of us were going shopping, probably for Easter dresses. I was someone who could never do anything right, as far as my mother was concerned, and on this particular occasion she lit into me as soon as the car was in motion -- something about my stockings, or my coat, or some trivial idiocy having to do with my general disregard for haute couture. Suddenly Aunt Clara said, "Eileen," in that tone of voice you use when you're warning someone of something. And my mother stopped cold. Was I floored?! I was sixteen, and that was the first inkling I ever had that anyone actually noticed what a misery my life was, and would actually dare to say something to the chief cause of that misery. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had hope. (And now you know why I didn't post anything about my mother on the anniversary of her death in December -- still working on that one.)

As time went on, and her sons came home and got married, Aunt Clara seemed to grow more and more discontent. She would often visit my mother, and while I have no idea what they talked about, it was pretty obvious than Aunt Clara was vastly unhappy. I know that a considerable portion of her time was devoted to complaining about her daughters-in-law! Then Uncle Pete died quite suddenly -- he developed lung cancer, and this being in the days before chemotherapy, he was gone within six months. I remember her saying that at night, she would just pretend that he was away on a fishing trip with his friends, but how far can that take you? Gradually she sank further and further into herself, and one day, after she had stopped answering her telephone, my mother and her sister got in touch with her son and got into the house. They found her still alive, but with a bottle of pills next to her, and she said to my mother, "Eileen, I took Pete's pills"; and a day or so after, she died.

Only a year after that, I was married and living in Germany, and how often I wished she had hung on just a little longer -- it would have been so much fun to write to her and describe what I was seeing, and trade recipes, maybe even speak a little German with her, though I don't know how much she knew. I know that as a staunch Lutheran, she would have appreciated hearing about our visits to Worms and Augsburg, site of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession.

She's someone I keep in my prayers. She was so much more important to me than she ever knew.

John Walter Paige: 1899-1981

I did think I would get back here before now, especially since last Saturday was an important day to mark, the repose of both my grandfather and an important family friend. Blood is thicker than water, so I'll start with Grandpa.

If I have just one regret in life, and of course I have many, but if I could have just one, it would be that I never really got to know my grandfather. It wasn't till I was grown that I understood why my mother and aunt had gone to such pains to keep their kids from him: Evidently, when they were small, he was one of these very harsh fathers who would beat them for the slightest infraction, and they didn't want their kids to come under his disapproval. When I knew him, though, he had mellowed considerably, and I always liked him.

It helps to know that he was widowed with six young children when he was just 33 years old, and that the only reason he got to keep his kids was that his mother-in-law lived in the house -- otherwise, the family would have been broken up, and all the kids sent to orphanages, as was common in the 1930s. It also helps to know that when he was 10, his mother died, and his father fell apart completely, so that his family actually was broken up, and he was the only one left to live with his father -- who fell to drink, got behind on the rent, and was evicted, so that the two of them ended up sleeping on park benches. All this I learned from my mother only in the last few years of her life, and it explained so much to me about why my grandfather was so disciplined in himself -- that was his key to keeping his life from ever falling apart like that again. And then, with the death of his wife, it almost did, anyway.

By the time I really got to know him, he was living in a very nice apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He never learned to drive, so every day he walked a mile to his parish church for daily Mass; and when he wanted to visit his daughters, either my aunt or my stepfather had to drive to Bay Ridge to pick him up and take him back home. We never minded, we enjoyed the ride, and we enjoyed Grandpa, too.

When I was a teenager, he began to let me borrow his records. He had a very eclectic collection, but what stands out in my mind now was how much of it was classical, and I wish, now, that I had grasped how much he and I had in common. I bet he would have loved to go to concerts with me, and I could have learned so much about the music he enjoyed from talking to him. He even suggested to my mother, often, that I take the train into Brooklyn to have dinner with him. But that would have been like travelling to a foreign country for me! I could handle the train into Brooklyn all right, but how I would get home from there, was a complete mystery to me (I've always been a little slow on the uptake). So I never went, and that's my biggest regret of all.

When I did actually go to a foreign country, it turned out that my grandfather, who never called anybody that I was aware of, called me for my birthday, and my mother had to tell him that I was in Germany. "GERMANY!" he exploded. "What's she doing in Germany?!" (It must be remembered that he fought in World War I!) When my mother explained that I was visiting my boyfriend, whom I hoped to marry -- we got engaged that Christmas -- he responded, "Well, that's what I always liked about her, she's got a mind of her own!" And even then -- it just didn't occur to me how very much we had in common.

Not making that connection is my single biggest regret.