My *zayde *Harry died long before I was born. In photos, he is tall, skinny, handsome. He wears jaunty hats and sharp suits. He has my uncle Michael’s bushy eyebrows; wide, kind brow, and laugh lines. His mouth is often pulled sideways in an ironic grin.
My bubbe Olla died when I was 13. She lived in Sharon, Mass. When my brother, my cousins and I were little, she favored us with dramatic readings of “The Poky Little Puppy” and chased us around while holding her false teeth in her hand, clacking them maniacally. I remember how she loved the daffodils that filled her garden in the spring. She bought us black raspberry ice cream cones at Bliss Dairy and took us swimming in Lake Massapoag every summer. I leaned against her as we watched “The Lawrence Welk Show” on a rabbit-eared TV set; I can still feel the way my thighs stuck to the plastic slipcover on the plaid sofa. I remember how she called soda “tonic” and brought us half-moon cookies, nestled in old shoeboxes between layers of waxed paper.
But as I get older, my memories of her are less happy. When my parents went on vacation, she baby-sat us. One time, after I’d gone to bed, she felt my toothbrush to see whether I’d brushed. It didn’t feel wet enough, so she woke me up and, despite my sobs, made me brush again. Another time, I caught her kicking my cat. I remember sitting, frightened and uncomprehending, at her kitchen table while she screamed at Uncle Michael. By then, her narrow shoulders seemed perpetually hunched and miserable, her lips pursed.
My mother desperately wanted me to name Josie after Olla, but I didn’t want to. I thought of Olla as a cold, unhappy person. We compromised: Josie’s middle name, Olive in English and Elisheva in Hebrew, is for Olla. Maxine’s middle name, Annabel in English and Aharona in Hebrew, is after Harry (whose given name was Aaron). But those names were really for my mom. I didn’t know Harry, and I didn’t respect Olla.
Then everything changed. My mom gave me a small metal box. It was full of yellowing, crumbling envelopes; telegrams, birthday cards, and faded letters written in pencil, in spindly crabbed handwriting. They were Harry’s love letters. Olla had saved them, dozens of them. They were so passionate, I blushed as I read them. (My mom and aunt had begun reading one, then stopped, put it back and handed me the rest of the box. “Too intimate,” Mom said.)
But for me, these letters were a thrilling introduction to people whom I quickly wanted to know. Harry vividly came to life: He was funny, insane about his clearly fragile and temperamental young wife, always anxious about money. The contents of the box let me trace my grandparents’ courtship — from a birthday card in 1932 to a hokey valentine in 1934 to a series of letters from the summer of 1935. Olla was staying at Novick’s Farm, a Catskills-style retreat in Millis, Mass., where wealthy Jews summered. (Today, the property is a Sikh religious complex and yoga center.) Harry was beyond smitten. In one letter, dated “Blue Monday,” he wrote: “It’s not right. It’s not fair. I have work to do and I can’t do it. I have bills to pay and I can’t think. I short changed the Greek fifteen dollars this morning and he must know about it by now. After this note I must call him up. I let myself get short changed out of a dollar by another. Olla, what have you done to me?” In letter after letter, he worried about her health, urged her to take care of herself, imagined laying his head on her shoulder. He hinted at an impending proposal: “The papers are full of the swellest furniture ads you ever saw. Of course, I’m not insinuating anything, but they sure are swell ads!”
And sure enough, the metal box holds a receipt from the New Yorker Hotel, dated May 10, 1936. Room 2177, where he and Olla spent their honeymoon, cost $6 a night. They stayed four nights and paid $24 cash. A little Googling told me that the hotel, at 34th Street at Eighth Avenue, was a glamorous Art Deco showplace. According to amateur historian Jim Naureckas’s New York Songlines, a wonderful walking tour/history of New York City’s buildings and parks, the New Yorker was then the largest hotel in the city, with 2,500 rooms, 150 launderers, 92 telephone operators, 42 barber chairs, 20 manicurists, five restaurants and the nation’s largest private power plant. The Brooklyn Dodgers stayed there during the 1941 World Series. Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers played there. It gradually fell into decline and was bought by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church in 1976. But in 1994 it reopened. (The ballroom scenes in Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” were filmed there.) The picture of the hotel on the Ramada Web site looks exactly like the one on my grandparents’ bill. Room 2177 still exists, but the receptionist said it now contains two twin beds. Given the tone of his letters, I doubt that would have worked for my grandfather.
On the 10th of every month for the first year of their marriage, my grandfather sent my grandmother an anniversary telegram. Some excerpts:
DEAR MADAM YOUR SHIPMENTS OF LOVE AND AFFECTION FOR THE PAST FOUR MONTHS HAVE PROVED TO BE HIGHLY SATISFACTORY SEND ANOTHER FULL ORDER OF THE SAME HIGH GRADE IMMEDIATELY VERY TRULY YOURS= HARRY KREPON INC
I AINT NO POET SO I CANT MAKE IT RIME I AINT NO PERFESSER SO I CANT MAKE IT SOUND HIFALUTIN GEE WHIZZ HOW CAN A FELLER TELL HIS WIFE HOW HE FEELS WHEN THEY ARE MARRIED FIVE MONTHS RESPECTABLY YOURS= HARRY
RECEIVED PAYMENT IN FULL FOR RENT OF ONE HEART FOR YEAR ENDING MAY TEN 1937 STOP YOUR LEASE IS EXTENDED FOR NINETY NINE YEARS ENDING MAY TEN 2036 STOP MAY WE BOTH FIND THE LEASE AS SATISFACTORY IN THE FUTURE AS THE PRESENT STOP HARRY KREPON
Suddenly I was thrilled that Jonathan and I had chosen May 10 as our own wedding date. My mom had been happy about it, but until I saw how madly Harry loved Olla I didn’t much care one way or the other. Maybe one day we’ll spend an anniversary in Room 2177 of the New Yorker Hotel. (We’ll diet first, so as to fit simultaneously in a twin bed.)
The little metal box also offered up a 1940 telegram sent to the hospital where my mother was born. (Clearly it was a different era: New fathers weren’t at the hospital, let alone in the delivery room!) There are definite hints of my grandmother’s temper: A 1941 card shows a boy and girl huddled under an umbrella, with the script inside reading: “Dear Mommy, As you can see by the cover, we are waiting for the storm to abate. We are so sorry, Mommy, honest. We will be good, believe us. Daddy + Carol.” Hmm. But humor prevails. In 1943, there’s another telegram to the same hospital, where Olla was in labor with my Aunt Belleruth: THE WORLD WAS CREATED IN SIX DAYS. IT TOOK LINDBERG 30 ODD HOURS TO CROSS THE ATLANTIC. GONE WITH THE WIND WAS FINISHED IN TWO YEARS. HOW LONG IS THIS GOING TO TAKE YOU? LOVE HARRY.
There are letters on tissue-thin memo paper from the Watertown, Mass., arsenal where Harry worked in 1944 during the war. (He jokingly reported that a klutzy friend was “still working for the Axis. He ruined another torpedo head today.”) Harry wrote: “How are my children? I get a little chokey when I think of them. Is the little poopsickle really walking yet? Does she remember her ah-dah?” In 1946, he sent Olla an anniversary card that he’d signed with little stick figures labeled Carol, Bell Ruth and “???.” The final little “???” stick figure has long hair and a dress, like the other two. Did he not dare hope he’d have a son? What joy must he have felt when Michael arrived!
In 1956, Harry placed an ad in the local newspaper: “Public Notice: I am more than happy to provide for the woman who has born and raised for me three wonderful children, and with an over-abundance of love and care has made the past twenty years of married life the most wonderful of my life. On this, our 20th wedding anniversary, May 10, 1956, I wish to publicly express my gratitude. Harry Krepon.” Three years later he was dead of kidney cancer, perhaps contracted in his work with heavy metals at the arsenal.
Despite the sad ending, I loved the treasure hunt of opening these crumbly, disintegrating envelopes. I loved the insight into my grandparents’ relationship: My bubbe must have been a romantic! She saved his letters! She married someone who clearly eroticized her! Did she write him love letters, too? I bet he loved taking care of her. I saw her as a more interesting, nuanced person; I wished more than ever that I’d known Harry.
And oh, telegrams! I love telegrams! The thrill of those capital letters! Will Josie’s children one day read Jonathan’s and my e-mails with similar excitement? We have an electronic archive of our courtship, back to the very first e-missives we sent each other. Will my granddaughter one day get off her hover bike, remove her dose-metered ozone suit and read those ancient texts? Will she wonder about a long-gone time when her crabby, wizened bubbe was a purple-haired, overalls-wearing girl falling madly in love with her zayde?
Write to Marjorie at email@example.com.