at his grandfather frank’s funeral in 1936, my grandfather bill remembers waiting for the hired cars to take him, his parents, aunt, uncles and cousins from the memorial service to the cemetery. (i don’t remember if this is actually part of the story, but i imagine it raining. i don’t know why.) when the cars arrive, a little old woman pushes her way in front of everyone and gets into one of the cars before anyone else. my grandfather’s aunt ruth (who once sat in a topless bar with my grandparents and my great-grandmother, discussing the nipples of the dancers, and is one of those relatives i really would have liked to know) confronted her, asked who she was to be pushing in front of the mourning family like that.
“what?” the old lady said. “you don’t know your tante zippre?”
i actually don’t know the rest of what happened – i assume some kind of vague embarrassment and recollection that yes, now that the old lady mentioned it, they did know their tante zippre, who (they guessed) had a right to ride in the hired cars to her older brother’s burial.
(caveat: this story is much funnier said aloud, when you can hear my grandfather’s old yiddish lady voice.)
tante zippre – or aunt celia – was one of my great-great-grandfather frank’s 3 sisters. she was married to a butcher named jacob buxbaum who died relatively young, after which she lived with her sister anna (tante chaje) and brother-in-law, sam (uncle blaustein), who was a grocer. there was also a sister named rosa, who was married to a chiropodist named joseph and died before my grandfather was even born. no one i know apparently remembers anything about them – not even their names.
these people and their stories live at a double remove from me: apart from my grandfather’s story about tante zippre, the cutter-in-line, these are not people he (or his cousins) really knew, but people they heard talked about. this is the reason why he knows the name tante chaje, but nothing about her. or the reason why our cousin alan remembers uncle blaustein living with them for a short time, but wasn’t sure how uncle blaustein was his uncle. they are names that largely circulate in memories of childhood, of overhearing stories while sitting on the floor of the screened-in porch with cousin bobby in summertime, while the adults talked.
this picture of tante chaje, a baby, and tante zippre is one that my second cousin alan emailed me several years ago. before he got in touch with me, he wasn’t really sure who these ladies or this baby were, despite their names underneath. he remembered there being an uncle blaustein in his young childhood but didn’t know how they were related, tante zippre and tante chaje were names he didn’t know, stories he hadn’t heard about – just as my grandfather remembers the aunts but not the uncle blaustein. now, knowing the family structure the stories and the photographs emerge from, childhood memories of vaguely related people and funny names begin to make sense.
the baby in this picture is still one face that doesn’t have an anchor in that structure i build behind the scenes. i don’t know which sisters’ baby she was – i assume anna’s – but i do know that she must have died very young – probably not too long after this photograph. she was born in between federal censuses and lived so short a life that neither sister ever told the census taker that they had once had a child that died (which is a question those census takers used to ask you, before the government sent people in person and not just forms in the mail).
my grandfather told me last night that it’s too bad i wasn’t there with him and cousin bobby, sitting on the floor in the screened-in porch, listening to the adults tell stories in the summertime, and i have to say: he’s right.
anna (chaia leah) fenning blaustein (1872-1932), baby cousin, and celia (tziporah) fenning buxbaum (1870s-1939)