Package in mail unveils memories of N.Y.

Published 9:09 am Friday, February 10, 2012

Column: Notes From Home

There was an unexpected package in the mail for me a couple of weeks ago, a small package, wrapped in brown paper. An anonymous package. But it turned out not to be the kind you call the bomb squad for, which is always good.

No, ’twas not a bomb nor a pair of unmatched, fresh cut ears (obscure Sherlock Holmes reference). Nor was it a box of chocolate truffles, a present from she-who-must-be-obeyed. Unfortunately.

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My aunt sent it to me, out of the blue, and I am grateful at what it contained: Grossvater’s pocket watch.

This watch is a family heirloom, purchased by Grossmutter as a Christmas present for her husband back in 1931. It’s a very nice-looking Elgin, a windup, with one of those easy-open backs that show off the quietly whirring gears.

After Grossvater died, back in the 1980s, it went to his oldest son, my Uncle Paul. After he died, it was looked after by Cousin Paul and Aunt Val.

Then she put it in a box and sent it to me. I’m the oldest male grandson carrying Grossvater’s last name, so I suppose that’s the reason. At some point, I’ll pass it on to my son, the oldest male with the name in his generation of cousins. Yes, it’s sexist, but that’s the way this particular inheritance thing works, I think.

Grossmutter and Grossvater are my father’s parents. The German words for grandparents became their names (instead of Ella and Hinrich), like how other families use Bestefar or Abuela.

When I was very young — 8 or 9 — I spent a memorable week with them in their home in Yonkers, N.Y. One day that week I’d earned the special treat of sharing a day in New York City with Grossvater, walking the streets of Manhattan as I shadowed him during his rounds to offices, banks and brokerages.

At the time I thought that’s what all adult men did when they took the train to work: ride elevators in office buildings, eat lunch in restaurants, get money from the bank, get more money from people in offices and kvetch with everyone he met. (No, Grossvater wasn’t Jewish, but I think everyone in New York City back then knew at least some Yiddish.)

Now I know more about the working world of most adults, and realize he was up there in the 1 percent, making deals and collecting on investments.

As we walked, we stopped at his favorite bakery (Konditorei is what he called it) for Kaffee, Torte und Eis after we had hot sandwiches and cold glasses of milk at the Automat Cafeteria. He took me up to the top of the Empire State Building, pointing out the construction cranes and skeleton of the World Trade Center on the horizon. We stopped at a chocolate shop, and before we took the subway back to Yonkers (where he and Grossmutter lived), we stopped at a tiny music store where he bought me a Hohner harmonica. (It is a German instrument, after all, and an accordion would have too big.)

All day long that Elgin watch came out of its pocket in his vest as he kept to his schedule and got us home in time for Abendbrot with Grossmutter. Getting back home in time was vital, as Grossvater may have earned all the money that paid for the house, the lake cabin in Danbury, the Chrysler New Yorker, the annual trips back to Germany, but Grossmutter made all the important decisions from her throne room: aka the kitchen.

She was very tall, very Prussian in the aristocratic sense. He was more compact, a solidly built Prussian peasant farmer. There was peace in their home because they each knew their place, their roles.

My memories of these people are why I will treasure that pocket watch, just like with so many other memories connected to objects that litter our household. She-who-must-be-obeyed is not as sentimental as I am. She throws things away when they get old and useless — not people or pets, just things — but I just can’t. My role is to create chaos through clutter; hers is to quietly clear most of it away when I’m not looking.

The pocket watch will get to stay, I’m pretty sure.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.