Sunday, January 17, 2016

cold, change, mad russians, what if, what was, what is

A drop in temperature so I took pictures of the river every day for several days at about the same time from about the same spot.

Click the “i” to see date and temperature for each picture.

I had been thinking about change because of a passage I came across while reading Primo Levi.
If a man heads toward a fork in the road, and doesn’t take the one to the left, it’s obvious that he’ll take the one to the right; but our choices are almost never between two alternatives alone. Every choice is followed by others, all multiple, and so on into infinity; and, finally, our future also depends heavily on external factors, completely extraneous to our deliberate choices, and on internal factors, of which we are not aware. For these obvious reasons, we can’t know our own future or that of our neighbor; for the same reasons, no one can say what his past would have been “if.”
As I read this, I felt like telling Levi no, it’s not obvious that if a man heads toward a fork in the road and doesn’t take the right fork then he takes the left, because maybe he takes the spoon. And if not the spoon, the knife. You see what I mean: … our choices are almost never between two alternatives alone.

Then David Bowie died and I was hearing the song “Changes.”

As the temperature dropped, I was reminded how cold the cabin gets at about 10 degrees. It is nice, though, on the sofa in front of the woodstove, and it is nice in the loft, where the warmth gets trapped, and the kitchen can be OK if I have the oven going.

One day, in order to take our usual walk by the river, I stuffed Josie into a sweater and a double layer of socks held in place by rubber bands. In the snow, though, by the river, he lost all the socks but one.

Elliott’s prints on the upper deck, one not-so-cold morning.

I was procrastinating, so got a lot done, all those odds and ends, little things, and the desk, in the loft, swept clean. Then, out of the blue yonder, an email from a woman I do not know. Turns out I was hearing from the Heintzelman family, and there went my clean desk, buried under a flurry of orphan train story files and notes and 10,000 photos. The act, then, a day or two later, of getting all those pieces of the story into—finally—some kind of order, showed me the story, and it’s not so much the orphan train story anymore as the story of how my grandmother and her brother, in 1895, at ages 9 and 7, respectively, came to be on the train. They never talked about it, at least not to anyone I know, but nevertheless, a lot is known, and over the past several years a lot has been learned. Now I hope to learn more about a man named Israel White and more still about Lena Shapiro, my great-grandmother.

Nothing to do with anything.

All indications are, that back in Russia, Israel and Lena were known as Israel Solomayack and Hinda Saladuchow, two people married to other people, each with children. But, in Cincinnati, from about 1895 on, it seems they were known as Israel and Lena White, a husband and wife residing at 1529 Central Avenue. They had five children: Herman, born 1892 or thereabouts; Katherine, born 1895 or thereabouts; Jean, born 1899; Eugene, born 1901 or 1902; and Aaron, born 1904. They were a Jewish family, kept a Jewish household. Israel had a secondhand store and may also have worked as a paper hanger. Katherine married a man named Berman, and in 1939 they lived at 216 Rockdale Avenue, and in 1949 they lived at 939 Tennessee Avenue. In 1918, Jean married Eli Meitus and for a time they lived at 1617 Asmann. Aaron married a woman named Esther and worked for the Times-Star in the circulation department. Herman married Lillian Armstrong. He was a salesman and had two children, Rosalind Annette and Betty Jean. He drowned in the Ohio River in 1939. According to his obituary—which my grandmother kept in her Bible—Herman and his brother Eugene often fished together in the East End. At the time of his death, Herman lived at 345 Erkenbrecher Avenue.

Israel’s other family, the one believed to be left in Russia, included a wife (maybe ex-wife) and five children, and Lena had three other children: Ben, Daisy (my grandmother), and Joe. She left Ben in Russia with the children’s father and Daisy and Joe at an orphanage in New York City. The orphanage put Daisy and Joe on a train headed west in the hopes that they and the several other children on the train would be taken in, given homes by good Christian folk, and for Daisy and Joe, in Iowa, that is what happened. Daisy found a home with the Morrises and Joe found a home with the Heintzelmans. We know about Daisy and Joe and their Iowa families. We also know a little about Ben, the Russian brother, but only because he came to America in 1904 looking for his siblings. First, though, he found his mother. He raised such a ruckus over her new family that it made the paper, was in the Times-Star. And, funny thing—Israel’s ex-wife showed up about the same time and she raised such a ruckus it made the Cincinnati Enquirer. However, Ben, Daisy, and Joe did eventually get together in Cincinnati and this picture was taken.

So, maybe you see why I want to know more.

At times it has felt as if there’s this big crazy Russian Jewish family in Cincinnati that I am, or could have been, part of, except for the fact that some of the family got left behind. Maybe, even, at times, I wanted to be part of this big Russian family—imagine! A grandmother speaking Yiddish! At other times, though, I think it scared me.

What if.

But, too many what ifs. Now my interest is just in the story of these people, this time, these places, and in how things happened, how decisions piled up, how lives were lived, and how lives were lost. I would like to know what was. Because more and more I find that the only thing that makes sense in life is what is. This week, for the first time, I talked to a first cousin once removed, Joe’s granddaughter, and heard some great stories of my Great Uncle Joe, a man I never knew. In the photo above, he’s the one on the right.

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