Keep These in the Family

Keep These in the Family!" was the great-grandfather's admonition to his descendants, long after his death, whether it concerned his tea service, way of life, friendships, or family connections--for a conservation of values. The descendants, for their part, have to find their peace amid the cross-currents of modern life.

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". . . Everything about me, from my birthing on, is in Mom's file cabinet in Columbus," Jane Cummings told Jan Rentsill. "Mom has been the only constant in my life. You know, she doesn't live on the Reservation. She and Dad bought side-by-side grave plots a long time ago, there in the army cemetery, but it was another life." Jane's flat honesty was an endearing quality. "My reserves of wanderlust are pretty well used up."
Jan stopped twirling her hair. "But you're coming up here, aren't you?"
"You better believe it," Jane assured her. "How are things treating you?"
"Okay. Stephen's been fairly busy lately, so we don't get in each other's hair too much. I was driving the car way too much and had to force myself to let the kids carpool more. That gives me time to read and relax. I've thought about doing editing work or tech writing--stuff I could do here. Other than that and a few housekeeping gizmos, nothing exciting going on."
Jane could be so irritating--that incredulous smacking of the lips. "I bet you could pull strings in Nashville. Faculty always remembers its PBKs. Why don't you go there?"
Jan fretted over what to reply. Jane thought she should move to Nashville and involve herself with Vanderbilt for greater opportunities? Should Stephen bother to go with her? "I'd need to wait till the kids become more responsible," Jan said in a level voice. "Anyway I barely remember a schist from a loess."
"Really?" Jane chuckled.
"Don't rub it in," Jan muttered inaudibly. Her eyes were half-closed in self-reproach. So what if her personal assets were declining? Her kids needed her. Stephen earned a living for both of them. She had everything she wanted.


. . . Sue Baird wondered if other marrieds had a problem similar to hers. She only had her parents' example in a comparably intimate setting: when her dad came home from work, he relaxed; when her parents took vacations, they relaxed; sometimes they travelled during a vacation, but they relaxed. That was such a contrast to Jon who hated vacations and seldom relaxed.
Things came to a head the previous year when Jon decided to put on Godspell in anticipation of Rally Sunday, to draw the children into regular attendance of services. They would, in turn, drag in their parents; and of course Jon would play “Jesus.”
He overextended himself as rehearsals intensified during the late summer and began dragging himself wearily to meals, belching as he ate, his innards churning audibly. Sue Baird was touched at how quiet and polite the children were at the dinner table, until she heard them later, snickering over the funny sounds their dad made, even cruelly mimicking the sounds.
During the Godspell performance, Jon's wide-open smile and spirited singing carried a hint of desperation that scared Sue Baird a little. Keeping her nerves steady, she commented, "If you weren't a priest, you could act; I'm serious."
"The ministry has elements of theater," Jon replied, matter-of-fact as ever.


. . . In the old photos Mom passed around, none of the ancestors smiles or carries any needless weight. They look like scarecrows in their dark, funny clothes, reflecting on high-minded behavior. Did the ancestors really sit stiffly and virtuously in Victorian parlors? Are there no sins of the fathers to even things out?
For  instance, Mom told us poor old Mr. Penton really adored Great-grandmother Starr because she was such an honorable person. He never got married after she turned down his proposal because he could not find another person he respected as much. But didn't I ask you about Mr. Penton? I thought you said he had too much blue blood, was infirm, or a misguided Huguenot bachelor.


". . . Of course, we all suspected an invasion from the Russians commencing in the East after the Normandy invasion in the West by the Allies had begun; and so it was. We will remember those days until our last hour on earth. Early on New Year's Day, Betti woke me and said, 'Come to the window and listen!' Mutti joined us and stood shivering beside us in the dark, listening to muffled sounds of artillery. They were quite easy to hear in the quiet of dawn. The Kaiser Wilhelm Platz lay covered in snow.
“'Perhaps the Russians are only seventy kilometers away,' Betti said. 'Forget what the Gauleiter said. We must depart from Königsberg, now. An invasion by the Russians may be imminent, a matter of days!' She urged us back to bed, but we could sleep only fitfully. Then we woke and packed a few things for our journey--mainly warm clothes. It was futile to believe there was room for much else. The children's toys, our family pictures, nice china, and silver--everything had to be left behind in our orderly home. Betti had packed before the rest of us and pedaled to the Deutsch-Reformierter Friedhof to take photos of our beloved Papa's grave, as she believed we would not see it again. . . .
"Betti said it was urgent that we escape," Lieschen continued, "but it was the depth of winter--madness to flee nearly on foot, for we did not know where we would go, except across the Frisches Haff, which had frozen solid. You did not tell us where we were going," Lieschen chided Betti. "Betti was only concerned to see us leave. She also bravely visited our father's parents to ask for use of their horse and carriage. To ask anything of that old pair was too furchtbar!"
“They agreed to let Betti have the horse and wagon but then demanded she let them come too. Oma wanted to take her many mementoes. Opa objected, and shouting began. Oma was spent and disconsolate and gave in. Like us, they left their many nice belongings behind. When their wagon arrived early in the morning, it contained only a few heirlooms they wished us to have.
"We could see that Opa would not survive the wintry cold very long," Lieschen continued. "He was kolossal, fantastic, berating his poor nag night and day till we reached Pillau, where we evacuated by ship to Stettin. Opa was inward and only replied to our questions with a curt nod. . . .”


. . . The big event this year was the wedding, June 15. Rumors it might not happen kept the mood subdued during the waiting, but in fact the sun shone the whole time, and the service itself went off with dignity and polish to spare. The relaxed clergyman read the liturgy, and it seemed like the real thing to me. Billbo and Dawn both seem happy. Nothing portentous happened that should scare anybody.
We have a stack of left-over wedding invitations. One is the spare bookmark in the kitchen dictionary, in there at random for the moment. It's been a spare coaster, too, with interlocking coffee-cup stains, like “His" and “Hers.” Both are “His,” of course. “Hers” takes only herb tea, which stains lighter.
I've used another invitation as a scratch pad to calculate the cost of doing the kitchen over without bankrupting me. My girl copied my dollar signs. My boy's squiggles aren't legible. Their artwork turns up in the craziest places.


. . . Next week, Priscilla invited Anne and Booth Hollingsworth for drinks. During supper, Anne explained that she had a problem. She and Booth had acquired porcelain birds for each of their three daughters, but one had broken. The two oldest had already gotten theirs. "Cindy got Momma's porcelain bird," Anne said. "Holly got some Finnish bird plates we've had a long time. That kind of spoils it for Luly. She knows she's going to get a bird, but she doesn't want me to just go out and buy one. She wants one that's been handed down."
"We've got a porcelain bird," Priscilla said. "Tell Luly it's from us."
"You're joking!"
"It's Chinese Export. Let me show you." Priscilla got on her hands and knees to open the lowest drawer of her china cabinet and fished out a parcel wrapped in newspaper and tied with string. Dust sprang out in a cloud, making her nose twitch.
"Oh, no!" Anne cried. "You can't give me that!" It was only a bonbon dish with a nesting bird serving as a lid.
"Of course I can. I don't have room for half this stuff. It's just sitting in here. It's been wrapped in this paper for a hundred years--well, since August, 1950. That's the year for the newspaper."
"I'm so touched!” Anne sobbed.
“Save the paper,” Booth laughed. “Luly will be thrilled by it being wrapped in old newspaper. The mustier, the better!"


. . . When the time came to hand down the house to us, it was a different situation. Mom and Dad had been cast by the Depression and the war. Dad saw action in the Pacific, and he was sweet on us kids in a way Granny Nobles never was.
I remember how they behaved after a party they had given. Mom was at the kitchen sink washing, Dad at the piano plunking the notes for a song they had heard when they were courting. He had a cigarette in one hand and hummed smoke from his nose. Dad played so slowly, I didn't recognize the tune, but when he stopped, Momma called from the kitchen, "It doesn't end there. Play the rest."
"Naw, I play too slow."
"I can follow it." Mom too was coming down from the party high and enjoying a smoke. I don't remember if they ever fought. Having been married a while myself, I know this is not realistic. They must have rested their nerves with cigarettes and hidden whatever deeper feelings they had. Having seen the hell of war, they knew what a good thing it was to be alive. Some of their friends did not make it home.
But the absence of Granny Nobles could've left a problem. I learned that after Dad passed away. To settle his estate, Mom sat down with me and Peter in the lawyer's office and told us she wanted to give the house to someone. She took a passive approach in order to let us participate in the decision-making.
Fortunately, Peter had started working in the engineering department of the University of Michigan and did not think owning a house so far away was "feasible." Louise's husband and daughter were too wrung out after her death to get involved. So Bobby and me sailed into the house as if destined to own it. Otherwise we could have argued each other to a standstill.
The lawyer told Momma it's normal for children to fight over stuff they are going to inherit. He really let the cat out of the bag. We fought tooth and nail over everything else in the estate, to Mom's great chagrin. The lawyer also was pained at the scene we made and cried all the way to the bank; but we kids were feeling our oats, so it's unlikely we would have left anything at a standstill. Humanity with all its fears and all its hopes for future years needs some initiative, if freedom is a given.