Milton and Gertrude on a date in Bad Kissingen. Photographer unknown. Date unknown. Who are these people? I would like to have known them at this moment. But that would have changed it all, me being there, present and accounted for even if uninvited, even if I might be waiting around the corner or in a hotel room or… Would they appear as carefree?
This is before. Before marriage, my siblings and me, and a transplant to the United States – culture shock in Los Angeles. Before breast cancer and dementia. Before career disappointments. Before marital difficulties. Before Kennedy and the Vietnam War. Before Watergate. Before the world I grew up in, which is now archived as history.
There was a before before this photograph. An archive I need consult to understand.
His father was a successful Jewish-Polish U.S. immigrant entrepreneur, cigar salesman, merchant, Packard dealer, investor. One day in 1932 all is lost. EVERYTHING. All property. All savings. Grandpa is a broken man. Grandma opens a sandwich shop. Dad drops out of college and goes to work. Runs numbers on Wall Street. Marries twice; divorces twice. Serves in the air corps of the army in World War II and translates in North Africa where he sees Josephine Baker perform. Gets slipped a Mickey at the Moulin Rouge. Reenlists to serve in occupying force in defeated Germany. Meets Gertrude, his Captain’s secretary, at Christmas party, 1945. Lives 95 years.
She, the second daughter of a Roman Catholic mercantile family, knew Aachen, and perhaps little else besides two World Wars and the Depression. At some time she married a man from Iran. At some time she divorced him. Which was the greatest mortal sin – marrying outside the faith or divorce? Something else not yet archived? Somewhere she learned English. Enough to get a job with the Americans translating; enough to make sure her mother, sister, son and daughter got one hot meal each day, courtesy of her work. Lives 74 years.
This moment that falls between before and after captures my imagination. Who thinks of parents on a date, like real human beings, curious about each other, wondering if this might be a right choice, letting go of pasts and futures for the tenure of a shared glance and smile? Where were they coming from and where were they headed? How long had they known each other? What were they hoping to find? They had three children. Were we the ones they wanted?
A prince kisses a princess and they live happily ever after until? He grows warts? She, a second chin?
I try to understand the strength of a generation that sorts though the threads of a fabric of life that has been torn asunder. Concentration camps. Bombs. Famine. Economic disaster. Catastrophes most of us have been blessed not to know. What makes one get up again the next morning? Why bother? What’s the point? What mind can remain intact when each moment brings a new uncertainty, aftershocks that continue for years on end, cease, and stir anew unexpectedly, just when you thought it was safe to leave the house? Pick up the pieces and make a mosaic, filling in the emptiness with new hopes.
World War II is over. Hitler is defeated. America is victorious. It is too soon to know that ‘never again’ are only empty words for future Chinese, Cambodian Slav, Argentine and Rwandan generations. Roads are rebuilt. Produce appears in markets and chocolate resurfaces. Winners publicize the faults and flaws of the vanquished, drawing attention away from their own sins of omission and commission. Until allies become enemies, and former foes friends, shared secrets are revealed, and we are forced to see our own reflections in racism, assassinations, environmental spoilage and greed.
But not on this day. On this day two people walk with hope, anticipation and pleasure in each other’s company. A wistful ‘perhaps,’ arriving early.
About the Author:
Dean Puretz lives in his childhood home in Van Nuys, California, with his partner of 24 years. He studied Psychological Anthropology at UC Davis and received his J.D. from Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He has taken writing classes at UCLA, UC Irvine, Stanford and the Gotham Writers’ Workshops. This is his first published work