Friday, January 15, 2010

My Other History: Part One

As you're probably all too well aware by now, I am a self-defined fourth-generation Brooklyn Jew of European Jewish ancestry. It's the strongest association I have, the one with the most resonance, and when I see Leah in the mind's eye, she's superimposed over those generations of Jews, the old photos of the bearded ones and the Yiddish speakers. But there is another part of my past, as improbable in its time as a paw-paw tree in the arctic ice...

My father, Alexander Paul, was the son of a very unlikely union: a beautiful, volatile daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and a laconic Baptist scofflaw from Kentucky.

The story of that match is strange and sad, with a precipitous, romantic beginning and a tragic ending, and to think that it is in part my own story fills me with no small amazement.

My paternal grandmother Marion met a Southern boy, a Merchant Marine on leave: Leonard "Buster" Wilson. Where they met is a source of family debate. My mother claims the setting was a bar in NYC. I seem to remember something about a Long Island dancehall. But never mind. The fact is that they met, there was a kiss and a chemistry, and a romance. Marion was only seventeen. Buster was perhaps as foreign to Grandma as an American man could be, although I'm only speculating.

Grandma Marion, Oceanside NY, 1940s
click to enlarge

Grandpa Buster, insouciant slouch and tipped hat, Louisville Kentucky 1940s
click to enlarge

The initial meeting between Marion and Buster begat an inexorable chain of events: an unseemly pregnancy, a shotgun marriage by a justice of the peace, and, ultimately, my father.

My grandma, in love, made a trip to Kentucky to meet Buster's parents and his five sisters:

Grandma (#6) and the five Kentucky sisters, Russell Springs, Kentucky 1942
click to enlarge

What these born-and-bred Kentucky baptists must have thought of the Long Island Jew, a pregnant adolescent at that, I am not sure. They seem congenial enough, in the photo. They probably liked her, as she had an apparent sweetness and a definite charisma, even into her old age. She was funny and outspoken when I knew her, and she must have been that and more so as a girl. But still, she was a stranger in a strange land, in Kentucky.

Buster went off again with the Merchant Marines, Grandma Marion returned to her mother's house in Oceanside with my baby father in tow, and the marriage ended in divorce almost immediately. My mother tells me that Great-grandma Sadie, Marion's mother, had an order of protection against Buster, insuring that he could not come near his ex-wife or their son. Why? I don't know. But if true, it speaks to pain and turmoil, fights and anguish. Not a peaceful dissolution of a marriage, but a fraught beginning to my father's fatherless childhood...

to be continued in Part Two: wherein my family makes a secret journey to Russell Springs, KY to discover dad's past





My Kentucky Forbears:

My Kentucky-by-way-of-Scotland great-great grandpa Alexander Logan and great-great grandma Susan Josephine Wilson


Great-great grandpa Alexander Logan



Grandpa Buster, 10 years old




To see more wonderful photos and amazing ancestral stories of Sepia Saturday, I highly recommend a visit to News from Nowhere

33 comments:

savannah said...

i can't wait for part 2! i'll save all my questions until y'all are done, sugar! xooxo

Stephanie said...

Interesting. Looking forward to part 2.

faycat said...

I love your stories of your ancestors, they are captivating. I wish we knew more about our own family's past, and had such amazing pictures. I especially love when I can see your and Sissy's and Hedgehog's faces in these pictures.

Pat said...

The sisters could have brought her forward on the photo as she is the smallest - I'm thinking.

Tina said...

I find that a lot of people think of the past as a dead dry place, but I love to think of people, falling in love, fighting, worrying about the same stuff that we do, laughing and living. They say that death is just another room, but so is the past, just beyond us, but close.

Pat said...

P.S. Great forties fashion on Marion - turban, slingbacks and padded shoulders.

Hunter said...

Fascinating stuff, Leah. You're lucky to have so much history.

Poetikat said...

Wow! There's a novel in there, for sure. I really enjoyed the collection of photos telling the story, Leah. You do have such a fascinating family history—on both sides!

(That front step and arched doorway look very much like mine here at the Hyggehus.)

Poetikat said...

I must also say that the read is most enjoyable because of your expert choice of words. Buster, the insoucient, reminds me of Jimmy Durante.

Ronda Laveen said...

Life sure does get complicated doesn't it?

Intriguing part 1.

mapstew said...

Wonderful story and pictures leah. I love this, real history. Thank you for sharing.

xxx

Brian Miller said...

oh, i love family history stories...so intriguing...cant wait to hear the rest...

Megan said...

Can't wait for the next installment!

Martin H. said...

A great story, well told. I'm very much looking forward to part 2.

Betsy said...

wow...what an interesting story, both sweet and sad. It would make a great movie, wouldn't it!? And that 10 year old Buster is adorable! Can't wait for the rest of the story, Leah!

Baino said...

God this is fascinating. I don't think there's any scandal in my family at all we're totally tame! I do remember it being absolutely awful when my godmother was divorced. A devout catholic and incredibly beautiful woman she was totally shunned by the Church. . . .bring on part 2!

Leah said...

Sav: I am going to post it soon--truthfully, I ran out of steam and it was getting to be too long!

Stephanie: coming soon!

Fay: I'm so glad you've enjoyed these! it's funny, but I guess I didn't really realize how many pictures we had, nor how much I knew about the past, until I started scanning them for these posts. And I can see Sissy and Hedgie too! the weirdest thing of all? The relative I most strongly resemble is a cousin on my dad's Kentucky side. I mean, I am the spitting image of her...

Pat: actually, I had the very same thought. Why was she in the back there, as if they were sort of hiding her, or crowding her out? She wasn't a shy and retiring sort of woman.

Tina: what a beautiful comment. Thank you for that.

Pat: I know, I LOVE her outfit. She really didn't save any of her own things for some reason. That turban would be stylish even now...

Leah said...

Hunter: as I said to Fay above, I'm only starting to realize just how much of our family history I know about--it's quite a bit, as it turns out!

Kat: It's quite a story, small but in its way quite interesting, I think. And that doorway is typical of some of the very pretty older houses in Long Island, NY. I wish I had that house now!

And you're right--he does resemble Jimmy Durante--I was trying to figure out who he reminded me of.

Ronda: it was complicated--and the repercussions were felt into the next generations!

map: I'm so glad you're reading and enjoying. I've been having a good time digging around in the stories of my forbears, though it can be extremely bittersweet.

Leah said...

Brian: family histories can be incredibly juicy, romantic, tragic, fascinating. Sepia Saturday is my new fave bloggy pursuit!

Megan: soon, baby, soon!

Martin: I realized when I visited your blog that we both had a Part One! Looking forward to your continuation as well.

Betsy: I could totally see it as a movie! Buster at that age is the spitting image of our dad at that age--in fact, for many years, I thought that was a picture of dad.

Baino: it really is scandalous, isn't it? My grandma certainly had a past...

bindhiya said...

I can't wait for part 2..
♥ & ((hugs))
bindi

nick said...

Always sad when a relationship that started so romantically ends so painfully. Getting an order of protection sounds pretty extreme. Maybe Buster was one of those beguiling charmers who turned out to be rather less charming in a domestic setting.

tony said...

it's fascinating when you know The Story beyond Old Photos.She had a tough early life but it sounds like She overcame & nurtured .Looking forward to Part 2.

Karen ^..^ said...

Isn't it great when blogging leads to a cool visual family tree? Yours is fascinating. Very neat. She sounded like a very strong lady. It wasn't easy to raise a baby alone in those times. Or any times, for that matter.

willow said...

Oh, this is great fodder for a book, Leah. It's just begging to be written! Love your melting pot of roots. Looking forward to hearing more.

MuseSwings said...

What an interesting story! Glad I stopped by!

Cinnamon said...

Fascinating- i agree with others- great book material. Family matters in those days were not so openly discussed, I guess, hence not knowing the precise reason for the injunction. I am guessing also that Grandma Marion, in spite of her disappointment of divorce, was an inspirational and capable mother?

tattytiara said...

Okay this is interesting. Wasn't Grandpa Buster a cute kid!

Leah said...

Bindi: thanks, and happy birthday!

nick: you may be right about Buster being less charming after the initial romance settled into routine...or maybe my great-grandma had never approved the match to begin with?

Tony: she definitely had a tough few years, but it was all sorted for her in the end, I think.

Karen: my grandma Marion was definitely one strong lady. She had her mom to help her in those early years, but she certainly was a free spirit!

Willow: my background is a melting pot, but Hedgehog's even more so! She is Jewish and Lebanese and Greek, Christian and Scottish and Russian, Native American...the list goes on and on. It's pretty incredible! I'm thinking it means hybrid vigor!

Muse: welcome, and stop by anytime!

Cinnamon: I think Grandma was a mixed bag as a mom--but of course, she was only a teenager still when my dad was born, so I cut her some slack in retrospect...

tattytiara: thanks for stopping by! Buster was really adorable, I agree.

Megan said...

p.s. I will be using the word scofflaw in a sentence as soon as I can. :)

Alan Burnett said...

This is a wonderful story which matches the richness of the photographs. There are so many stories out there, buried by time, buried by life. These old photographs help tease some of these stories to the surface. Your post illustrates the process perfectly.

lettuce said...

laconic baptist scofflaw - you have such a perfect way with words sometimes

(always a way with, sometimes perfect!)

I need to find out more about these earlier generations of my family - some of you know much more than me about your ancestors.
The photos are wonderful too

Candie Bracci said...

I really enjoyed reading that one too.Fascinating.

FireLight said...

Leah, this is my first time to read your Sepia post....and what a story you have! I cannot wait to read Part 2! I like your concept of "hybrid vigor" too.