Nothing defines who we are as individuals more than the essence of our natural mothers and fathers. We each come into this world preceded by one father, one mother and two grandfathers and two grandmothers who also influence our being. The lucky ones among us descended from men and women of fine character and ability. Those of us fortunate enough to have truly known and experienced all six of these key individuals while maturing into adulthood are additionally blessed. A few weeks ago, I was combing though some family photographs and came upon this one, a scarce image of my paternal grandmother, Martha Koss Kubitz. I possess few images of her and this is the most personal of those, taken late in life.
I “knew” and remember both sets of grandparents, but only through the gauzy veil of childhood memory given that our family of four left its Chicago roots in 1948 when we moved to California. I was then eight years old. Gazing at my grandmother’s image both fortified my distant memory of her and caused me to contemplate, yet again, the fleeting nature of our existence on this earth. Our own four young grandchildren have no real knowledge of Martha and her husband, Elmer, my grandfather. Nor are they likely ever to express the degree of curiosity which cares to know what kind of people their great-great grandparents were. It seems almost certain that today’s third generation removed will not be interested in their family roots beyond their own grandparents – and that seems such a shame. The connection between one’s own grandparents and grandchildren, a separation of four generations, seems palpable and significant to many of us in the middle of that generation span who are now in the later stages of life. I can see personality traits and physical resemblances that are recognizable across those four generations, but I know that once my time is up, those connections could easily be lost forever unless recorded somewhere. Martha and Elmer Kubitz would typically become merely names on census rolls and other archived documents in the years ahead. This written blog post about my grandmother Martha is my humble and personal attempt keep her memory alive in a medium separate from the vanishing recollections of her descendants. It was only within the last twenty years that I learned the bulk of what I know about Martha. Nancy, my childhood Chicago cousin, furnished much of that information via her handwritten letters from the East Coast.
I had earlier heard conjecture that Martha Koss emigrated to America from Hamburg, Germany which turned out to be partly true. Once here, she eventually found her way to the Chicago area where she met my grandfather, Elmer Chester Kubitz. Through internet perseverance, I was able to locate the immigration paper documenting her family’s arrival in New York aboard the ship Moravia on March 10, 1890. The ship’s ledger lists her father Anton Koss, her mother Marie, sisters Mathilde and Pauline, and brothers Auguste and Franz. Martha is the middle child at age 4. This document lists her hometown in Germany as Bolchau, not Hamburg, but the Moravia’s port of embarkation is noted as Hamburg/Kerre.
A 1910 U.S. census report from Chicago shows Elmer and Martha Kubitz residing with four-month old first child, Elmer Junior, and living next door to Martha’s parents and her brother Frank (formerly Franz). I have a photo-copy of Martha’s certificate of marriage to Elmer C. Kubitz in Michigan, dated July 17, 1909 – courtesy of my cousin Nancy.
Such documents gleaned from the internet that illuminate the family’s history are very special to me. There are no letters, original documents, or mementos of any kind in my possession that relate to my paternal grandparents save a few notes from my grandmother sent to me from Chicago in the 1960’s, long after my father was transferred to California by United Air Lines in 1948. Even during a time when sentimentality, a sense of personal history, and the luxury of introspection and perspective often played second fiddle to the urgencies of getting on with daily life and living, the dearth of things-saved with respect to both sets of my grandparents is sadly unusual.
My grandmother Martha was a dutiful wife and mother, raising four sons and one daughter while eking out a living in a small West Chicago storefront which was divided into a candy/toy store run by Martha and Grandpa Elmer’s radio repair shop. My grandparents lived in the back of the same building, just behind the storefront curtains, in spartan quarters quite devoid of natural light as I recall. It was only last year that I came upon a photo of that Diversey Avenue storefront circa 1950 with Uncle Elmer Kubitz Junior standing out-front, thanks to second cousin Mary.
I wish I had known my grandmother and grandfather better. There are so many things I would like to know. Throughout my youth, my father always spoke well of them both given the underlying tone that life was not easy for the family of seven. My grandfather was reportedly an intelligent, amiable man with a great sense of humor and an innate honesty. Despite his amiability, Grandpa Elmer believed in discipline when appropriate for his children. My father, and consequently I, both were raised to respect adult authority. My grandmother was a stoutly-built, caring woman who stood by her husband’s side through thick and thin during some very hard financial times. Doctor’s visits to the Kubitz household were virtually unknown due to the lack of money: Home remedies were the order of the day for any ills. Warm Castor oil in the ear was administered by Martha when my father had one of his frequent severe ear-aches. One of these bouts left him with a punctured ear-drum. I recall that my grandparents often retired to a local tavern after the day’s work was done, their way of dealing with life’s demands. I can picture the scene with Elmer calling out to Martha: “Hey Mart (he called her that), let’s go down for a beer!”
My dad, Alfred, attended only one year of high school at Chicago’s Austin High in order to work and contribute to the family’s support during the lean depression years. Despite Dad’s meager early education, he became the quintessential life-long learner who studied his way to a long and successful career in mechanical engineering at United Air Lines.
Dad’s mother was barely literate in the written English vernacular as evidenced by the few letters I received from her during my college years and after graduation. This language challenge was palpable despite her life-long residence in the United States after coming to America at age four. Nevertheless, my grandmother’s offspring all did well for themselves as career-oriented adults with families. Somehow, my grandparents managed to pass the torch of opportunity and achievement to their children despite their own humble beginnings. While writing this blog post, I retrieved from my files the cache of four items sent to me by my grandmother which I have fortunately retained. This excerpt from one of the letters she wrote to me in 1966 sums up my fondness and respect for my grandmother. Using some license in translation, page three reads:
“…that sweetheart of yours [my young wife, Linda] sure is pretty. You sure know how to pick them. I am glad that you like her…Linda looks to be a very nice girl. You bet she is pretty. So you had a good time together [in Hawaii]. This place here [probably her daughter’s house] was so dry – no beer, only Nehi Root Beer. Well, you can keep sober with that. Your Mother-Dad-Karen sure is a family to be proud of. I have four daughter-in-laws. I like them all: They’re are all good to me and they’re all good-looking. My sons know how to pick ‘em. Well, Alan, a simple letter: Really isn’t very much, but when it’s so sincerely said, it has a special touch and when it goes to someone who’s very dear to me.”
who loves you
and always will
What can I say? Thank goodness that I have a few such letters in my possession which shed light on the earthy and perceptive lady who was my grandmother. They, my dim recollections, and letters from cousins who knew Martha well are my sole substitute for all the years of isolation from my grandparents and other Chicago roots.
Despite my grandmother’s limited ability with written English, her son Alfred, my father, was surprisingly fluent with the written word given his truncated early schooling. This ability of self-expression was complemented by his fine aptitude for engineering and things mechanical. I still retain several tautly written letters by my father eloquently expressing displeasure over poor service or unreliable products he had encountered as an adult. One of these was addressed directly to Roger Smith, the past CEO of General Motors, expressing displeasure over some negative aspect of Dad’s Oldsmobile that was not adequately addressed by previous letters to GM’s lower management. Dad was very good at going right to the heart of the matter at hand and succinctly stating his case, reminiscent of an experienced attorney but without the legalese! Alas – predictably, Dad never heard from Mr. Smith… which frustrated him no end! I still marvel at his ability with the written word, and I wonder where in the world it came from and just how it blossomed in him as he matured. I wonder about that and so many other things connected with my grandparents and ancestors. As I write this, there is currently much discussion in the United States about “merit-based” immigration into this country – a policy which would give heavy preference to those applicants who already have resources and a solid education. While the proposal has some merit, I cannot help thinking that so many multi-generation success stories in the United States had their roots in seemingly unexceptional immigrants who came to America in crowded shipboard steerage with little to their name. Most likely, that was the case with Martha’s father, Anton Koss, who is listed in the 1910 U.S. Chicago census as a “hod-carrier” working on “new buildings.”
I sum up my feelings about my grandmother, who I barely knew, as follows: Martha, you and Elmer did good – real good – in passing the torch of opportunity to your offspring despite the great difficulties you both faced along the way. This is my acknowledgement of same and my personal tribute to you. Rest in peace…you are loved and remembered.