Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Drunkard's Lone Child

When my dad's mother was put into a nursing home, her remaining possession's were split among her children. As part of my father's portion he received several old German books that had come down through his mother's family, the Jandt's. He was never really a great caretaker, and when he passed away and I got them they had been stored in damp, dusty conditions for a while, and when I opened the tin box they were contained in, I was confronted by what appeared to be a mass of black mold. Not willing to simply toss them away I put the box in drier, more secure storage, and only recently have had the will to face them again.

To my surprise the mold seems to have dried away, and the books themselves no longer present the appearance of papier mache bricks; in fact they are so thoroughly dried one can once again thumb through them page by page. They are, as I said, all in German, and seem to be mostly works of Lutheran theology. There are inscriptions by various members of the Jandt family, and the publication date of at least one of them is 1863; it is possible these books came across from Germany with the family when they immigrated. The books (of which there are 12) are still in no great shape, being brittle and crumbly, but they are fascinating familial artifacts.

Inside one volume I found the clipping above. It had yellowed so deeply it was almost brown; there is no way to date it that I can see. A little research reveals it is a version of a traditional Ozark folk song, lamenting the evils of drink. As you can see, whoever clipped and saved it pencilled in the word "hell" on it. Why did they do that, precisely? Was it something they feared, or something they knew about personally, or did the words "no mother, no friends, and no home" just sum up for them what constitutes a hell on earth?

My brother and I had just had a long conversation about the "unknown" qualities of our ancestors. While we can know their names and dates, so little of their personality is transmitted to later generations; we speculated on what traits we might have ourselves that were passed down the line from persons unknown. Suddenly opening this enigmatic little window to the past, so haphazardly preserved, put a very big accent mark on that thought. Whoever clipped this--were they struggling with alcoholism, or did they have pious objections to drink? Or was it for poetic, sentimental reasons? We'll never know now in this world.

1 comment:

John said...

It does make one wonder...This seemed to be a pretty common type of heartbreaking entertainment of the time, It was even spoofed in an old Mickey Mouse vaudeville cartoon. It also brings to mind that old drunk who so knowingly and horribly drank his family into ruin in Crime and Punishment...