|I was vacuuming my bookshelves,
which are burdened with more than just books, and I knocked off the
Mettlach stein. In slow motion, this beautiful ceramic descended to the
floor. It was layered with intricate designs of browns and tans and
embellished with an array of small blue beads. The lid was a matching
design framed by a pewter ring. A jolt ran through me, the electrical
sense to react, yet my body could not get the complicated instructions
for my hand to release the vacuum hose, my knees to bend, my arm to
project, in order to intercept the stein in time. It crashed against
the floor and, forsaking symmetry, burst into a hundred irregular
For a brief spell, I felt it ought to be possible to reach back into time and grab the stein away from its fate; after all, it was the mere distance of a fraction of a second. But time was not like space and no matter how narrow the gap, you cannot reach back over time. The gap continued to grow into a full second, then several seconds, eventually minutes, and rescue felt more and more remote, until I had to finally accept the loss.
That gap has now spread to over forty years wide. The once precious stein is no longer precious to anyone but me. Nothing of the body of the stein remains, but I still have the inlaid lid attached to the thumblift and shank, which is still joined to most of what's left of the handle.
My parents found this stein in an antique shop in the early 1950s. They both liked it, but my mother couldn't see spending so much money on a beer mug. My father bought it anyway, convinced as he was that it would be a collector's item one day.
This week I took up the remains of the stein thinking it was time to be rid of it. But as you can see, I have started writing about it instead, and now I think I shall keep it longer. If the stein was to be spared, something else had to go. I was in the mood for a little - what would you call it; housecleaning, life-editing, memory-triage? I decided to attack the drawers and see if I couldn't make room in them for the next day's clutter from a continuing life.
The first thing I brought out into the light was original sheet music for The Big Apple, a hit song in 1937 when performed by Tommy Dorsey and his Clambake Seven. It was signed to my parents by the composer, Bob Emmerich, whom they had met from time to time at parties held in the apartment of the artist Antonio Gattorno. I could not think of a reason for keeping it, but a haunting value persisted in making it something of consequence. I wanted to give it to somebody else and make it their responsibility, but to whom?
Next into the light came my souvenir program for Fiddler on the Roof. In 1968, I accompanied my parents on a trip into Manhattan to see Zero Mostel, a gloriously funny man, as Tevye. Afterwards, during the long drive across New Jersey back home to Pennsylvania, I learned the story of how my mother had danced with Zero Mostel.
In 1944, my parents had been invited by a friend to the Newspaper Guild's Page One Ball and Zero Mostel was their entertainment. Unfortunately, Mostel was suffering from a case of laryngitis, so he performed entirely in mime. It came to a moment when he had to perform a dance and for this he dragged my mother, who has always been a very beautiful woman, from the audience. He began swirling her around until my father leaped forward and stopped the dancing. My father whispered into Mostel's ear and Mostel gingerly escorted my mother back to her seat. The audience was clueless as to what had happened, so Mostel pointed towards my mother, rubbed his belly, and then mimed cradling a baby in his arms. My mother was pregnant with my older sister.
I wrote a letter to Zero Mostel asking him if he remembered that moment and included my souvenir program, asking him if he would sign it.
"To Bruce - You see how nice I was to your older sister. Love, Zero Mostel"
The thought then came to me that I could send many of these items to my sister in California - better still, to my sister's daughter! I had before me all the paraphernalia that was to be her destiny to inherit and I know how more intrigued with family my niece is than I am. Wasn't it for the family's descendants that I had rescued this stuff in the first place? Yes, rescued -
There are memories broken by accident, like the Mettlach stein, but there are also memories broken on purpose. Vilifying my father when she left him, my mother had discarded the mementos of her marriage, the wedding portraits, theater playbills, even eschewing the memories of events that could conflict with her adopted notion that she had never been happy with him. Disposing of memorabilia was perhaps for her a ritual cleansing. It was left to me to rescue such items from the trash.
After years of storing the stuff in my study, I began preparing a package of artifacts and ephemera to mail to my niece, the evidence of happier days to which her grandmother is never likely to admit. So many playbills, but then my mother was never especially keen on going to the theater. She would have preferred if they had saved their money for trips, like a couple of weeks at a Catskills resort meeting people. My niece shall have all these playbills and programs.
My niece shall also have these wedding pictures (La Ruth Studio, Bronx) and portraits of her grandfather (Kaiden-Kazanjian Studios, New York), even the love letter her grandfather wrote her grandmother, and this menu for the Miller Brothers, a famed restaurant in Baltimore that was torn down in 1963. It also carries a story.
We were living in Wilmington, Delaware when I was six and my sister twelve. My father went to Baltimore on business and my mother accompanied him. In Baltimore, my father suggested they eat at Miller Brothers, "The Place to Eat", famous for its Genuine Fresh Diamond Back Terrapin a la Maryland, a favorite of H.L. Mencken. It was the 16th January 1958 and this dish was $3.25, the second-most expensive item on their menu, the pheasant being more. My parents did not indicate on the menu they brought home what they chose to eat, and it isn't the food my mother remembers fifty years later. What she remembers of that Thursday night is the large restaurant (it sat 450) being mostly empty when a man walked in accompanied by a woman and my mother swore the man looked like Edward G. Robinson.
It was Edward G. Robinson, and the woman, though my mother couldn’t know it, was Jane Bodenheimer, a New York dress designer who used the name Jane Adler in business. They had that day been secretly married in Arlington, Virginia. My mother didn't know at the time and wouldn't learn about it until days afterwards. That evening, at my father's urging, she approached Mr. Robinson, who admitted he was indeed whom she thought, and it is his signature that decorates the front of the menu I am now sending to my niece.
As to why they had married in secret, it could maybe have been to escape the obvious comparison with the character Robinson was then portraying on the National Theater stage in Washington DC. He was on the road in Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night playing the part of an aging widower marrying a much younger woman. Robinson was sixty-four at the time and Jane Bodenheimer was thirty-eight.
So I pondered the fading significance of the menu. Had I not written about it here, no one but my mother and me, and maybe my sister if she has been told the story, would have known that the famous actor signed it on the night he was secretly married to his second wife. It went into the oversized envelope with all the other fading memories that will now belong to my niece. That envelope is, as I write this, presently stuck in the deposit slot at the Langhorne Post Office.
I had used the automated system at the Langhorne Post Office at eleven o’clock at night, when there were no lines to deal with. In the Post Office lobby is a large slot that accepts packages, but for reasons unknown to me it seemed to be locked closed. My envelope, although oversized, appeared to just fit the regular mail slot. In it went, smoothly enough, but then it stopped, jamming the door. I could no longer open the slot wide enough to retrieve it and it resisted being pushed in any further. I had to leave all those precious memories wedged half in and half out of the mail slot. In the morning they will probably be roughly manipulated by an annoyed postal clerk trying to get them unstuck. So those of my family’s memories that are yet unbroken, will surely arrive creased and bent to their destination.
This essay is the most
a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr
Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"