Wednesday, April 30, 2008


My brother-in-law, Joe, came over to America from Switzerland when he was twelve years old, following his father who had arrived earlier to find a job and save enough money to bring his family over. Joe married my sister when both were very young, then went off to the Army, where he was one of Merrill's Marauders, a group that continued to meet at least once a year long after the war was over.

Joe was from the Italian canton of Switzerland and all I can remember him saying about it is that he used to watch the goatherd and he recalled the huge barrels of cheese made locally. When he was older, he returned to Switzerland with my sister and went up the mountainside to a barnlike structure that had been used by his grandfather.

The structure had a stone roof, which Joe had replaced with a safer one, and not far from the barn, he found a bottle that his grandmother had used to carry water to the farm workers, still intact after many years. He brought the bottle home with him and had it mounted on the wall of his home.

Joe is gone now, a victim of cancer, but he is still remembered in our family. A chef, he once prepared meals for Henry Ford, Jr. when Ford was president of the Ford Motor Co. He worked in a place called the Glass House, which was the executive restaurant atop the Ford office structure.

My favorite memory of Joe is a mental picture of him standing over the charcoal grill at a picnic ground, preparing hot dogs for the family reunion. Despite the heat and the clouds of smoke emitting from the grill, he enjoyed this task and enjoyed serving his specially flavored "dogs" to his relatives.

When I think of Italy, I think of Joe, who despite his Swiss background, was Italian to the core. He was the only foreigner in our family and one can give him credit for accepting this big, rowdy group that suddenly became his relatives.

My brother-in-law, Shippy, was a Jewish lawyer in Milwaukee. His given name was really Isadore and his friends called him Izzy, but we gave him the nickname of Shippy and never called him anything else. When I was eighteen, I went to live with Helen and Shippy in Milwaukee, where I went to school. On one special occasion, I was asked to babysit for the children of Shippy's boss. Since it was his boss, who didn't have the world's greatest sense of humor, Shippy cautioned me to be responsible and to act Jewish, since his boss thought Helen was Jewish and didn't know Shippy had married "out of his religion."

I did a fine job of babysitting and had no trouble at all until the next morning at breakfast. The boss'es wife kept staring at me and finally commented, "You certainly don't look Jewish!" Not knowing exactly what a Jew looked like, I didn't respond to her comment, but I felt very apologetic. Then, when I was given a bagel, I had no idea what it was. In all of my eighteen years, I had never before seen a bagel. I couldn't figure out what to do with this shiny, hard, round thing. Did one smear it with jam? Did you dip it in your milk to soften it? I decided to eat it down as it was and gnawed industriously, avoiding this woman's sharp gaze.

"Does your mother bake bagels?" she asked, as she loaded some strange, smelly concoction on her own bagel. I shook my head. "No," I replied.

"Most Jewish women do," she commented.

I thought it was time I defended my mother, who made biscuits every morning for breakfast.

"There's a good bakery in our town," I said.

"Oh, I see," she said. I could tell that she didn't believe a word I said, that my awkwardness with the bagel was obvious and that she didn't think I was Jewish at all.

Shippy's mother was the kindest woman I have ever known. She fluttered over me, mothered me, defended me, and sewed me many clothes. I loved her and depended upon her, because the truth is, I was very homesick, missing the farm and my friends.

So, when I meet a Jewish person, I always think of bagels and of Shippy's Mom. And when I meet an Italian, I think of Joe and his labors over a charcoal grill. It is strange how certain impressions stay with you. When I think of London, I think of all the gray, gloomy buildings, so old, so historic, and blending in to the gray overcast of the sky. Even Big Ben sounds doleful, and all of the people hurrying around with their umbrellas tucked under their arms are like a brigade of soldiers, unsmiling, intent, wrapped in their own thoughts.

I think of Joe returning to his mountain and it reminds me of the joy we all feel at returning to the scenes of our childhood. Even if you are brought up in a New York tenement, there is a certain feeling you get when you go back after years away. It is like returning home, becoming a child again. It is as though a certain part of yourself never leaves, but remains there to welcome you back.

This is why Joe carried an old bottle through customs and brought it to his American home, to proudly show it to visitors and friends and mount it for the wall. It was a fragment of his childhood, that 12 year old in Switzerland who had to leave the mountains behind and come to the flat, sometimes desolate, farmland of Michigan.

When I requested a passport, the request was refused. The reason was, they said, that my birth certificate was not issued until I was 14 years old and there was nothing to prove that I wasn't Mexican or Canadian. It was a struggle to get that passport and it involved asking for help from a state legislator, who made a few calls and managed to change their minds. The thing I remember is that they asked me to send them a family memento, like a family Bible or some sort of paper that would prove my birth in Michigan.

I had no family Bible. Mom and Pop had had their home destroyed by fire when they lived in the Deafendaller place. Every family heirloom, if any ever existed, was destroyed at this time. I've always loved that has a ring to it! I can imagine one of the Deafendaller children introducing himself...."Hello, I am Darryn Dwight Deafendaller!" See what I mean?

When I hear of the millions and millions of Illegal Immigrants in this country at this time, I always think of the problems I had with the Passport Department. May a camel defecate on their Easter outfits! They were rude, uncaring, petulant and difficult. Why is it that so many federal or state run offices lose the gift of common courtesy?

It is strange how we remember snippets of events and places, like bagpipes in Scotland, oranges growing round and bright in Florida in even rows, the twin pitons (mountain peaks) in St. Lucia, where I spent a week with a friend who owned a banana plantation there. Like Joe with his bottle, I cherish these memories and share them with people I know. A friend of mine remembers her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty when she was nine years old and came over from her home in Europe. Another friend has fond memories of her grandmother's quilts, carefully constructed and given to every newlywed in her family.

So we all gather these snippets and carry them around like precious trinkets to be taken out occasionally and remembered. Thus, every time Joe looked at his bottle placed as it was on the wall of his home, he could smell the wind blowing on the mountaintop in Switzerland and see his grandfather working in the fields. It took him back, if only for a moment, to the joys of childhood in a faroff land. This is what memories are, trips to the past, like mini-vacations, that take you away from this moment to another time. Scientists work hard to decipher time. We are fascinated by such stories as the Bermuda Triangle, where people supposedly disappear into limbo. However, memory does what Science cannot accomplish so far, take us away from the reality of today and plop us down in yesterday's world. So perhaps we are all time travelers, after all.