Family History

Kehl and Bodersweier July 31

Wednesday, October 25th, 2023

The Hotel Regent Contades seemed like an appropriate staging area for the most anticipated event of our trip, a visit to the ancestral home of my paternal ancestors to which we had been ceremoniously invited by Karl and Hannah Britz, as reported in the background introduction to this chronology.

Our hosts had sent instructions for travel by tram to Kehl, the small city opposite Strassbourg on the German side of the Rhine.

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On the bridge, I recalled my grandmother’s tale of her husband Rudolph’s swim across the river to Strassbourg with my father on his back, much to her dismay. (more…)

Halloween 2022

Monday, November 7th, 2022

On Friday the 28, Jan and I visited the Reis Family Mortuary on Nipomo Street to complete the pre-arrangements for “immediate burial” in the gravesites we purchased last June in the SLO Cemetery. This is the bottom of the line selection. It includes transport and storage of the remains until the grave is dug, delivery to the cemetery, cotton shroud, cardboard box and death certificate for $1845 each, in keeping with our choice of green burial.  One option we added was permission to have a witness at the interment for an additional $250. Had we gone with the mortuary affiliated with the cemetery, the price would have been $3250.

The mortuary is located near the center of town in an attractive neo-colonial building.

LisaMae, the amiable Salesperson, made the lengthy process of filling out forms, upbeat and casual.  As it concluded, we were greeted by a gentleman in jeans and suspenders with a missing lower tooth, who introduced himself as Kirk, the son of the former owner. Though we both felt heavily in need of afternoon naps, Kirk insisted we tour  the museum his father had created. He led us down two flights of stairs, not into a dark crypt but  a riotous display of memorabilia–newspaper front pages going back to the 1930’s glued to the walls, collections of hash pipes, dolls, model trains, and bumper stickers–stored in three rooms connected by vault-like refrigeration doors, relics of the dairy operation which had occupied the site in the early 20th century.

Over the weekend, Jan’s brother stayed with us, two weeks after the memorial in Long Beach for his wife, who died recently after a year’s ordeal with brain cancer. I drove him to the RR Station at 5:00 am on the 31st and then went to the farm to tend the new lambs.  I came back home with a pumpkin and felt an unexpected need creeping over me to do something for the holiday. I emailed friends living nearby with an invitation to stop by for a drink while trick-or-treating with their kids and  set to work carving the pumpkin with the saw on my Leatherman, stuffing a warty squash in the hole for a nose.

As the afternoon darkened, I felt an urge to visit our burial plots just across the freeway. Since I expected she’d never been there, I invited my co-worker, K., to join me for a Halloween excursion. Hesitantly she agreed.

On the way, I delivered what had become my spiel about the place: its location between Central Coast Brewery and the Sunset Drive-In adjacent to a littered hobo highway, its use extending back to the Civil War, its inclusion of many SLO City notables, its Jewish and Muslim sections. We parked on Elks Lane and walked down the main thoroughfare toward the bizarre Dorn pyramid. I pointed out the sites close to it that Jan and I had purchased in January.

At the top of the serpentine outcrop on which it perched, I recounted the tale of  the husband who built it as a memorial for his wife and daughter after they died in childbirth with the intention of eventually joining them but soon afterward moved to San Francisco, started a new family and never returned.  I recollected being there 30 years earlier with students in my Shakespeare class who had chosen it for the location to video their performance of the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet.

Walking back to the car, I declared that this place felt comfortable to me because at my age death seemed  a natural and sometimes welcome prospect rather than the tragedy of dying young.  I’ve had the time to live out my opportunities and choices.

On the return drive, K. was quiet. I worried that my pressuring her to go there might have awakened the pain I remembered in her voice when she spoke about her father, who died when she was a teenager.

Back at Citrus Court the setting sun put on a florescent pink lightshow. I set the jack o’lantern onto the transformer in the front yard, moved up the slider bench for a ringside seat and poured wine for Jan and me.  As the streetlights came on, the Court awakened with costumed revelers.  First were our immediate neighbors, dressed as ’70s hippies, carrying their 2 year old, severely autistic child, who made an instant of smiling eye-contact, then turned away.  Then a group of costumed young couples and children paraded by carrying their own drinks. Other families, including a laughing grandma in a wheelchair, stopped to say hello.  Older kids dressed as media characters I couldn’t recognize, filled both sidewalks. The joyful street life recalled trick-or-treating in the poor New York district we lived in until I was eight.

Next morning at the Farm I was greeted by Miss J., the Waldorf outdoor school’s teacher. She asked me to look at the altar she’d created inside their little geodesic dome to observe November 1, Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead.

Her bright display of flowers and food, colored cutouts, and photographs of departed family members brought a shock of recognition. I’d forgotten that this was the holiday of jolly mourning, the mood which  stirred me into activity yesterday afternoon.  I’d forgotten that in the corner of my study I kept such an altar year-round on an antique washstand containing the ashes of my parents.

The 1950’s wedding portrait of Miss Jewel’s grandmother and and grandfather completed the epiphany:  combining festivity and grief, we find a bit of what’s beyond our grasp.

Postscript

Thanksgiving Day morning November 24.

Getting up early after a wakeful night, I look for something to do before it gets light enough for my holiday farm chores and randomly browse this blog.  Noticing “Lund Retreat 2007,” an unremembered occasion, I open the 7-entry set, and take some pleasure in the prose and the awakened reminiscence of that autumnal solo excursion to the place which, fifteen years ago, I still regarded as my true home.  The third entry is dated October 31 and chronicles a visit to the Uhlman’s house, where Ronnie said she assumed I knew the answer to her question about the proper Jewish ritual for unveiling a gravestone the first year after interment.  Slightly shamed I told her I had no idea and changed the subject.

Back at Knoll House I happily answered Jan’s phone call.  She mentioned she’d been grieving for Henry on this Jahrzeit of his death in 1995.  With a flash it came back: Halloween in the nursing home, the staff in costume, the arrival of the mortuary attendant who identified himself as “Neptune,” and all that followed– an event recorded twelve years earlier so as not to be forgotten, but nevertheless forgotten on that very day.

Reading that as the light comes up this morning, there’s another flash.  The memory that was lost a few weeks ago, despite the mysterious impulse and visit to the cemetery and contemplation at the shrine behind me and despite the next day’s surprise recollection–that purpose of the Jahrzeit was still unrealized…until now.

Lost and Found

Friday, August 19th, 2022

Hi Alexander

I came across your film as accidentally as you came across my Shakespeare at Swanton website.

As part of general downsizing efforts, a couple of weeks ago my wife, Jan, sent a beautiful Afghan dress she acquired in 1972, when we homesteaded in the woods of British Columbia, to a friend born and still living there, who took a photo of it, worn by her daughter riding a ropeswing on the property their family leases from us.

Seeing it reminded me of another woodland use of the dress in 1999 at Swanton Ranch. So I googled the old website to download a picture of it worn by  a student playing Hermia in scenes from A Midsummernight’s Dream that the class filmed there.

I was amazed to find the link to your “Shakespeare at Swanton” video and astounded to watch it.

I’m still pulsing with the world wide web of connections it activated. Parallel surprises of happening upon a relic in the course of searching for lost treasure—lost through fire and aging and through the digital loss of “bitrot” and software updates.

And parallel grief for the losses of Time: 1960’s back-to-the-land hippies turning 80, ’90’s English majors now in their ’40’s, a 2021 forestry student graduated and out in the world.

And the transformation of it all, through memory and art, via the alchemy of Shakespeare.

Lund Retreat/Transitions 2021

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

The “Atmospheric river” is still flowing.  The drum solo of rain on the roof hasn’t stopped since arrival here yesterday morning.

 

Before departure from the South Terminal, the agent announced that unless the pilot found a hole in the clouds to allow visibility the flight would go back without landing.  But the young captain with delicate wrists and blond hair flowing over her epaulets brought us in smoothly to the cinder block shack of an airport that hasn’t been improved at least since our arrival here in 1970.

IMG_1473I haven’t yet stopped loving this weather.  The compensation for drought in SLO, the heightened coziness of the wood fire, friendly cats and house’s silence, the 14 hour night and half-light of day inviting intermittent sleep, the absence of stimulation and obligation permit words to flow from thoughts and thoughts to flow from words.

This trip has been intended as a retreat to allow processing of recent events that are taking on the appearance of a life transition. “Retreat” has several associations with this place: its mythic remoteness at the end of the road and the time and expense it takes to get here, the initial retreat from war and society that brought us here from New York in 1970, the  summers of 1996 and 1997 holed up to start and finish my book, “Shakespeare and the Bible,”and the writing and meditation retreat on Cortez Island I attended in 2010.

Meditating hasn’t yet happened here, but this journaling may better serve my purposes.

Life transitions are times when the future seems undetermined, subject to the vagaries of chance and choice, when the present holds promise and danger, when the past reopens.  This one was brought on my long-anticipated retirement from the position of Executive Director of City Farm SLO.  The result of the successful accomplishments of our two young staff members, Kayla and Shane, whose salaries were financed by generous new supporters, it became clear that finally the organization could survive and thrive without me.

At the advice of a canny professional fund-raiser, a campaign was planned to mark the changeover in leadership with a public celebration targeting people of means and influence.  The admission price was $50 along with discreet requests for additional donations. Using a well-tried method for non-profits to generate support and money, the theme was to be a tribute to my past dedication. Kayla focused publicity on her photo of me tending our sheep that recalled the literary archetype of the old shepherd I’d explored 40 years ago in my doctoral dissertation. I sent personalized invitations to all the friends and relatives for whom Jan and I had addresses. (more…)

On the Edge

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

July 21

I hear the toilet flush every few minutes.

At dinner tonight, Jan seemed out of sorts and only picked at the meal I’d prepared. She said she’d been having intestinal discomfort all afternoon. When I’d finished, she asked if I could clean up the kitchen so she could lie down.

I went back to the bedroom after I was done and she told me she had bad diarrhea and that she’d looked it up.  That was an initial symptom of Covid 19.  Of course it could be just a stomach flu or food poisoning, since she’d had so little contact with people and was always masked and distant, but who knows.  It was best for me to sleep in my study.

I went back there and read that though not well known, this is a relatively frequent first symptom, especially among the elderly, and that  sometimes it signals a very mild case though sometimes its a prelude to the more serious respiratory symptoms. We will call Dr. Hanson in the morning and try to set up a test.

In the morning I have an appointment to meet Jeff W. at the farm and receive a check for $25,000, the first of two installments of a donation to City Farm by Larry C., whose promise has made the last two weeks some of the most joyful in my life.  They have been filled with plans and prospects and exchanges with all the people associated with the Farm about how this donation, and the possible additional support it can leverage will allow for a campaign to make the place live up to its vast potential within the next two years.  During the same time we have taken on a dynamic new tenant and received word from another quarter of a donation of the money and work to add a 40 tree orchard, along with promises of weed abatement from our neighbors and the City, the commitment of Jen, a highly capable consultant to lead business plan strategizing and a commitment from Josh to help organize a charette for ambitious site development. Also the announcement we were  awarded a  grant from the City Human Relations Commission and the submission of an application for a renewal of our Sprouts Foundation grant.  Also contact from Cheryl at NRCS indicating that she will put in for several EQIP grants for appropriate Farm Projects.  As a result of the concerted efforts of Tree, Shane and me, the vegetable garden has come to full fruit and blossom such that everyone who shows up is astounded. The closest to this I can compare was the news in 1988 that I was hired for the tenure-track job at Cal Poly, a logical, wished-for and seven-year-deferred opportunity to take control of my future and build some long term accomplishments. I’ve been working full time as a volunteer at the Farm an equal amount of time hoping just for this to happen.

But accompanying the excitement has been a  undertone of foreboding.  With the sadness and fear that’s come over the world since last February, how is it possible that I could be so blessed?  With the  powerlessness felt by so many, how can I dare to feel so empowered?

It’s still possible that Jan’s condition could be a false alarm. But unlikely. If not, the grand new changes will be overshadowed by others.

I remain in this space: http://www.stevenmarx.net/2012/06/biopsy/

July 22

Jan sleeps all day and doesnt eat. I make an appointment for COVID test for both of us, for the next day at the Vet’s Hall.  Last time our results were negative.

I’m at Farm on and off.

July 23

Jan wakes up feeling better, but still strange.  We drives separately to the Vets hall for the test. No results available for 4-6 days.  Neither our primary physician nor her nurse is available. Jan sets up protocol whereby we approach only at 6 foot distance, both masked.  She has me set up table beside bedroom door where I leave her food and other stuff.  We communicate mostly by text and email.

I write a thank you letter to Larry outlining plans for use of his donation, ready to send as soon as the check is deposited. Jeff meets me at the farm with the check, I deposit it and send letter, and correspond with Connor about the Tuffshed barn. Jan’s students are submitting their masters’ theses about which she and they have fretted for months. She’s deeply gratified by the results.

July 24

I finalize the Tuffshed order–alot of poor communication with the salesperson. Corey gives me a hard time when I tell him we’ll need his front acre starting January 2021.

I pick 12lbs of peaches at Cal Poly.

I experience slight dizziness, which get me scared.

July 26 8:00 a.m.

Jan organized a Zoom birthday party for herself yesterday and led it from the bedroom, still in quarantine.  Attended by Joe, Amy, Abel, Ethan, Mark, Sonia, Travis, Hana, Dahlia, Claire, Lucas, Gregg and me.  Claire supplied balloons, bday cake and banner.  A lovely time, but a little anxious.

I woke this morning to an email with my test results: negative.  Big relief, especially after hearing yesterday’s Sci-Fri podcast about the long term after-effects of infection.  I’m impatient to hear Jan’s.  She sleeps for another two hours, gets up but her results not sent. We maintain distance.

July 27

At my bathroom run at 2:30 A.M. I see light under the bedroom door where Jan is quarantined.  I dont knock but wonder what’s happening. When I come out at 5:00 she’s still asleep, but as I drink my coffee in the arm chair her door opens and hear her glittering voice: “I got the results.  They’re negative.”

Shelter at Home

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

[for our  53rd anniversary]

In the living room within these walls
Snug we sit on the softened sofa
And watch the dance of pixels on the screen
Replacing our extinguished hearth.

I recall the cozy chesterfield
Where we cuddled in front of the fire
While the storm roared in the hollow,
Our future but a threatening swirl.

Could we then have seen ahead
Our joy and comfort half a century hence,
Before the plague began to rage,
That moment might have lost its treasured worth

Like this perilous time’s, when every minute counts
When 25 million precious minutes since
Cannot be taken from us
By whatever now our future holds in store.

 

Reminders of the “Good Old Days”

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

[Updated June 30 2013]

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Soon after their move to San Luis Obispo in 1989, my parents, Lise and Henry Marx, presented Jan and me with a gift they’d been working on for several years: a collection of German proverbs they had learned from their parents and grandparents.

I remember continually hearing these sayings from my earliest childhood until their final days. Each time one was uttered there was a moment of satisfaction”the speaker pleased to have found a way to make familiar sense out of some new experience and the hearer gratified to grasp the connection.  Growing up as a first generation American, I reacted to these old-world pieties with boredom and embarrassment.

(more…)

Louise Marx–Obituary

Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

Louise Marx  of San Luis Obispo,  died at the age of 94 on Wednesday January 19 2005 at a San Luis Obispo Care Center after several years of failing health. She was a devoted and loving wife and mother.

Louise (or Lise) was born in Stuttgart Germany September 6, 1910, daughter of Adolph and Mathilde  Gruenwald.  After the early death of her mother, she was raised by her father and stepmother Paula, who bore three siblings,  Hannelore, Gabrielle,  and HansPeter.  She attended public  and private schools in Germany and Switzerland where she learned English,  French and Spanish, and she also completed two years of business college.  During the early 1930’s she moved to Berlin to work for a sheet music publisher and to be near her fiance, Henry Marx, businessman.  Because the Nazi regime outlawed Jewish marriages, she and Henry married in secret in 1934.

Louise and her husband emigrated to New York City in 1937 and after one year brought his mother from Germany to live with them.  Her father, stepmother and siblings fled Germany to Sao Paulo Brazil, where the family continues to reside.  She worked as a secretary and then parttime as a masseuse after their son Steven was born in 1942. Besides serving as a Den Mother for the Cub Scouts, she was active in Hadassah, the Jewish women’s service organization, and was one of the founders of the Riverdale Bronx Chapter.

When their child left home, she worked  as a secretary for physicians,  scholars, the Jewish agency and the Leo Baeck Institute.  Later she tutored elementary school students in Harlem and attended to veterans in hospitals. In 1972 Louise and Henry retired to Denver Colorado, taking full advantage of its opportunities for hiking and skiing. She volunteered and took several Community College courses. In 1989 they moved to San Luis Obispo to live near their son and his family.  Here she continued  to do volunteer work and to take college courses, now at Cal Poly.  Her husband of 63 years died in 1995. Shortly before he died,  she completed  a memoir of her life experiences that spanned most of the twentieth century.

Louise Marx is survived by her sisters Hannelore and Gabrielle,  her son Steven and daughter in law Jan Howell Marx, her grandchildren Joe and Claire,  and her greatgrandchildren Ian Fisher and Ethan Marx.

The Day My Mother Died

Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

Louise Marx: September 6 1910”January 19 2005

I wake up at 3:30 am  praying for Lise’s smooth passage, knowing the end is near.  When the alarm goes off at 5:30 I feel weak and vulnerable from a lingering cold that  I suspect results from teaching anxiety,  stage fright about two presentations last week,  and unconscious stress from the impending end.  Instead of my regular swim,  I  take a hot bath to relax tense muscles and  reduce sinus pressure.  I decide to wear a white shirt, tie and sport jacket and carry a cell phone to work in case the call should come today.  My morning meditation brings a burst of tears when I think of Jan and the transiency of life.

I give my all to the morning composition class and a lecture on Shakespearean  tragedy. When it’s over at noon, I’m drained but exhilirated.  As students leave the room, the phone rings in my pocket.  A person at the nursing home reports that Lise has just died.  I say I’ll be there soon.  I phone Jan while walking to my office; she’s just pulling up to Cabrillo to check on Oma on her way to the gym.  I tell her the news and she comes to get me.  I reluctantly decide not to try to get back in time for my 1:30 class and ask the secretary to run a videotape of Othello for the students to watch.

We enter Cabrillo for what may be the last time, the odor more pungent than usual.  Josephine, the reserved  nurse’s assistant who tended my father Henry in 1995 and who has been with my mother for the last four years,  is tearful and gives me a hug.  Curtains are closed around Lise’s bed.  She lies flat, skin silken smooth, facial bone structure,  nose and closed eyes in fine relief: a perfected mask.  There is still color in her cheeks and warmth  on her brow.   She feels receptive to my stroking and comfortable with my presence for the first time in many years, the ever- thickening wall between us now departed along with her spirit.  I feel free to start replacing the resistant body and resentful soul that it irked me to call Mom with  memories of the delight I enjoyed in her presence as a young boy”the one she called “Schlumbie.” Those memories have been recalled lately when  I am with  Ian,  our three year old grandson.

We sort through the closet and nightstand, selecting the few items to keep, the rest to leave in the communal  pool of nursing home laundry, hearing aids and spectacles.  Long ago we’d liquidated Lise’s condo and then her unit in the Assisted Living facility at Garden Creek. While Jan takes a load to the car, I go to the storeroom to find the scissors I used to cut the stem bottoms off the flowers I brought every week.  I clip a lock of her white  hair, which is still thick and wavy.  The empty hearing aid box I place it in slips into my pocket.  By 1:15 we  leave  through the main lobby making no eye contact with  those remaining.

At home,  I collapse on the bed, sleep for an hour and then walk to Cal Poly for my 2:50 office hour.  Thankfully nobody shows up, and I meet Jan at the Benefits Office at 4:00 for a long planned conference with the retirement  counselor.  We spend an hour figuring out how to maximize the monthly sum we will receive until our deaths.  Neither of us mentions that we have just come into an inheritance.  Right now,  loss means gain.  May it be so too for Lise.

We walk home and I nap again,  then call our son Joe.  He knew this was coming,  and finds words to amplify the positive that  we  no longer need to think of her as the presence in the nursing home, the wraith awaiting transport across the river, but as someone we can remember fondly.  There will be no funeral or memorial,  though he’d be willing to come  for one.  He suggests a scattering of ashes on a mountain  in the Rockies, which she and Henry made their own, when we visit in March.

I phone our daughter Claire, who has asked about Oma at one of our infrequent encounters.  I leave a message suggesting this might be an occasion for her and Jan and me to get together for the first time in a year.

As evening comes on I feel briefly energized for the task of remaking Mother,  of undoing some of her last ten years.  It was at the memorial for Henry in November 1995 that she said her life was over.  A year before that she concluded her autobiography, “My Story.”  I will go back to it, add some scanned photos and print a second edition.

Jan and I go to Tsurugi’s for Sushi dinner and walk in the dark along the creek downtown.   We share our sense of the solemnity of the day, of our own mortality,  of the awareness that gain also means loss. Recent long-needed rainstorms have caused the creek to crest and wipe out a large chunk of the bank.  The fence protecting the natural riparian vegetation will have to be moved  back.

When we  get home there is a voice message: Ethan, our two year old grandson in Idaho, warbles  “Hello Boppa, Hello Boppa, I love you.” It’s the first time he’s spoken to me on the phone.  This is followed by expressions of sympathy from Amy his mom.  A few minutes later,  Claire calls and agrees that we three should meet.  We are,  as always during these conversations,  halting, guarded, over polite.

I open the packet that had arrived in the morning from British Columbia.  It’s Steve and Juliet’s Christmas letter and photo calendar loaded with pictures of  Lund folk– including three generations of Marxes–and news of deaths and grandparenthood among our contemporaries.

I dig in the closet and find the pictures that Jan had put together for Lise and Henry’s sixtieth anniversary showing them in their twenties and eighties,  radiant in both pairs.  I set them on the bureau and get into bed with “My Story,” which I havent  looked at since editing and typing it with her.  For an hour, I read and marvel  and pity and laugh.

Louise Marx: Eulogy for Henry Marx

Saturday, November 11th, 1995