From the Night Factory
12. What was Lost and Found Again
During Thanksgiving, my sister flew in from Oakland, California. To make room for the inflatable queen-sized bed that was to convert my study into our guestroom, Ms Keogh, my more significant other, instructed me to disappear the several unopened cartons that took up floor space. We had been living in this apartment for a year and we still had not emptied every box we brought from the house.
I lifted out of those boxes an assortment of ephemera collected during a lifetime, mostly printed matter, pamphlets, booklets, photo-copied articles, and photographs. It was not hard deciding what to discard, to relieve posterity from any accidental waste of its time. I pulled a forgotten short story out of the box, some one-act plays, and my first novel, written when I was twenty-one. I threw them all away without hesitation, nevermore to be haunted by them, never again to worry that they would be discovered.
What was hard was finding very little else I could consider worthless. It meant finding places to put everything. There was so much stuff worthy of preservation, just not by me. As well as I could, I sorted and stored that stuff until such time as I might be able to find an appropriately loving home for it. This meant wedging items into the diminishing gaps in my bookcases or piling items ever higher on the topmost shelf of a closet, which required a small ladder.
It was slow going as many of the things coming out of the boxes induced memories, and memories have to be served; one must pause and out of respect allow them to repeat their old stories uninterrupted.
There was a book without a binding, Carmen and Letters from Spain by Prosper Mérimée. The book included ten monochrome watercolors by Maurice Barraud, a Swiss artist. They had been stencil-colored. Of the 595 copies printed on Rives pure-rag vellum, this copy was 565. The book was published by Harrison of Paris in 1931. Between 1930 and 1934, only thirteen titles were ever published by Harrison of Paris. They produced beautiful books, but this copy was worthless, having been severely disintegrated by Boris.
Boris was our Newfoundland dog, who lived to an old age, and he was somewhat ill-mannered and attention-seeking in his adolescence. We all made similar mistakes in our hotheaded youth. His mistake was pulling Carmen off a shelf, about five feet above the floor, and tearing off the binding to get at the glue. What was not digested, was thoroughly chewed. All that was left was a collection of loose pages, still readable, so I cannot bring myself to discard them. This damaged copy is now wedged against the ceiling in a closet, a decision on its final disposition postponed yet again.
I also found a nice supply of specimen sheets and booklets concerning typography, most of them coming from the Lanston Monotype Machine Company of Philadelphia. My father used to work for them. These I wrapped and sent to a friend, a librarian at Colorado College in Colorado Springs (and guest editor of this month’s Snakeskin). One I would have kept even if there had been only one copy, but fortunately there were two copies of New Series of the Centaur Types of Bruce Rogers and Arrighi Italics of Frederic Warde. Cut by Monotype and here first used to print a paper by Alfred W. Pollard.
Out of these boxes came a quantity of photographs. There were photographs in an album and others loose, portraits of my family dating back forty and sixty and ninety years. Here were grandpas and grandmas I had never seen firsthand, uncles and cousins who were younger than I ever knew them. Here, also, were my mother and father visiting places in Maine and Canada before either I or my older sister were born.
On an afternoon during my sister’s visit, I pulled out the photographs. My mother, my sister, and my spouse were gathered about the round dining room table and I spilled the album and photographs into a pile. The fading images brought wisps of memories to light. I selected the photographs one by one, very carefully dislodging those still attached to the decaying album. Using a Sharpie pen, I copied information from disintegrating paper onto the backs of the photographs, then passed them over to my sister. She presented them to my mother and we interrogated her for information. What additional information could be extracted was added to the backs. Ms Keogh, with her laptop, helped by searching for the correct spellings of place names and nudging my mother to fill in stories. We were increasing the lives of these photographs, preparing them to be enjoyed many more times.
For the last few weeks, I have been putting together a manuscript of the essays that I have written over the last dozen plus years. My wife and I were proofreading them, revising and editing. Essay #117 was about my grandfather, Harris Bentzman. After rereading it, I took a break to again search the internet to see if I could learn when, where, and how my grandfather died, which is a bit of a mystery. The internet is always growing and new information is always appearing.
To my surprise, I came across the name “Irving Bentzman”. I think there can be only one. He was my uncle and had died in a car accident long before I was born. More importantly, it was a record of Uncle Irving marrying. He had married in secret. The name of Irving's wife had been lost to family memory. No one alive remembered the name and a generation of relatives that once knew it have died out. But there it was, the name of Uncle Irving's wife! According to the Troy Irish Genealogy Society Project: Rensselaer, County Marriage Index Vol. 10, Irving Bentzman married a Joyce Litzky on 22nd February 1935. (No. 30027). Rensselaer County is not the Bronx, but how far might one travel to marry in secret?
At the time of Uncle Irving’s death, only my father, Irving's older brother, knew that he was secretly married. My father was born in 1911. When my father married my mother in 1942, the questioned was asked, "Were you ever married before." My father shocked everybody by announcing that while he hadn't exactly married, he was divorced. When Irving died, my father was by Jewish law made husband to Irving’s wife. He went through the appropriate rituals to secure a divorce.
I went searching the internet for Joyce Litzky – who knew, but maybe she was still alive? To my astonishment, I found her. “Several years ago, String Academy benefactor Susan Weistrop established a Piano Fund to honor the memory of her deceased mother, pianist Joyce Litzky Kurnow.”
Joyce Litzky was born in the Bronx. Her father was a cutter in the garment industry, just as my grandfather had been until he lost a thumb. Joyce Litzky had been a pianist of some renown, performing on the radio while still a teenager, playing concerts at Carnegie Hall, and she made a career of teaching piano. According to a short biography, “Until her last days, she would sit at the table in her wheelchair, moving her fingers across the table as if it were a keyboard.”
Still, to be sure that Joyce Litzky Kurnow had formerly been Joyce Litzky Bentzman, I contacted her daughter, Susan Weistrop, creator of the Joyce Litzky Kurnow Legacy Piano Fund.
Susan Weistrop, Senior Research Specialist in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Milwaukee campus of the University of Wisconsin, must have been surprised to have an email from me inquiring about her mother’s first marriage. She wrote back, "I do know that my mother was in a relationship with your uncle and was with him when the car crashed. We were never told that they were married but it was clear to all of us (and I am sure that my father knows all the details) that they were very much in love…." Corroboration most astonishing! I was startled that some remote family would have the name of our Irving Bentzman in their legends and that Irving’s wife was in the car when it crashed, for whenever the story of Uncle Irving’s death was related, it was never mentioned that his wife was with him. And Susan must have been startled to learn her mother had a previous marriage.
Then followed an additional email from Susan; "This is very interesting to us. It seems that my mother did share the secret of the marriage with my older sister Ruth when she was in her 60's…. All that I can add is that she said your Uncle was a poet. My mother was a pianist. When I started dating my husband, she said that he reminded her somewhat of your Uncle.… I am glad that you got in touch because my Mom had three girls and we all were very taken by this romantic but tragic interlude in her life and, though, we had no doubt that she and my Dad were very happy together, always wondered how she recovered from the accident and his loss."
There is a photograph, of Irving and Joyce together that I might yet see. For a few, the memory is still alive inside us from stories passed down. But what will they mean to generations in the distant future? Many photographs outlive the memories. I recall seeing photographs in a country auction box lot, images dislodged from their memories.
There are plenty of photographs around of me. After I have vacated existence, there will remain persistent images of me from when I was filling space and time. Will there be others applying to the eldest asking who was great-grandpa Bruce and what was he like? Maybe not. A day will come when a descendant will hold an image of me and there will be no one left who can remember this eccentric curmudgeon. The image will be handed over to the soil or added to the fire.
Mr Bentzman will
continue to report here regularly about the events and
concerns of his life. If you've any comments or
suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.