The Rochs Side
I never set eyes on the single most significant clan ancestor in my life: Dr. Arthur Rochs, my mother’s father. He took on a mythic quality in my mind. Other cultures might well have said that his soul had entered my body. It did in fact, if you accept my idea of a secular soul. My mother was the most important influence on me and he was the most important on her; the continuity is clear. It didn’t hurt that when I was a small boy all the people would exclaim that I looked just like Doktor Rochs – to the extent that my first, and by no means worst, pun on record is saying that even the chickens said “doc, doc, doctor Rochs.” (In the guttural German it sounds much more like chickens: “duk, duk, dukter ruks.”)
My mother talked often and with great affection about her father but if her mother ever appeared in conversation at all, it was in a subsidiary role, as when telling of her father’s dislike of that newfangled instrument, the telephone, and justifying this dislike by claiming that his wife was always yakking on it. Or the time when Teddy Roosevelt, then organizing the Rough Riders, came on a street car in which she and some friends were riding and they carried on in German about his appearance. As he was getting off he stopped and bowed to them, saying, “Guten Tag meine Damen, ihr Rede hat mir sehr vergnügt.” (Good day, my ladies, your talk gave me great satisfaction.) Henrietta Rochs appears to have been a good German Hausfrau obedient to her husband’s wishes, with no education and a lot of superstitions. Mother seems to have inherited her good German cooking for my body but nothing to pass on to my soul; Oma Rochs is a blank page.
Let me see what my life owes to the grandfather I never saw. He was born in the 1857, earned a doctorate in philology from Halle with a dissertation on the Romance of the Violet (a German counterpart to the Romance of the Rose), and came to the United States, ending up in San Antonio as editor of Die Freie Presse für Texas.
Of course Opa Rochs did not spring out of nothing. He was the grandson of Paul Gamm, a German manufacturer — of soap, I believe — whose portrait, painted when he was a prosperous Burgher in his thirties, hangs on my wall.1 As the story goes, he had a daughter who was something of a termagant or otherwise not readily marriageable, for whom this prosperous nouveau-riche acquired an army officer husband (and status) in hierarchy-minded 19th century Germany. The story is embellished with the tale that when this young bride brought home a replica of a statue of the Kaiser, her snobbish young husband pooh-poohed it as a piece of kitsch. Miffed, she replied that she had bought it with her own money. He refused to talk to her for weeks and they never again spoke of vulgar money matters. There must have been reconciliation, for she produced two sons, both of whom received university educations. The son, Paul, sensibly followed a practical course and ended up with the title of Engeneur and became a Stadtsbaurad, while the son, Arthur, pursued a discipline for which there was no possible practical use. This ancient event was echoed in 1934 or thereabout in my papa’s response to the announcement that I had decided to be an anthropologist with the exclamation, “Ach, sohne brotlose Kunst!” (Such a breadless art!) .
This bartered bride lived on until 1929. My remembrances of her are connected with a sense of envy when my brother received an intriguing looking package covered with German stamps; an envy that soon dissipated when it was opened to reveal a dismal gray thing in Gothic print, a prayer book or New Testament sent by this pious old woman for a confirmation that never took place. My brother and sister had been baptized as Lutherans when they were babies, I presume in order to retain a claim on such heritance as might remain in the estate of the prosperous Paul Gamm. By the time I came along, either the heritage or the hope of sharing it had dwindled and I was not subjected to such klimbim, as Opa called such religious nonsense. On the other hand, I had been circumcised. Because of some urinal obstruction, my mother explained, but I later teased her for hedging her bets, with one son baptized and the other circumcised.
There is one other legend that belongs to the Rochs background. Tex has it associated with the Gamm grandmother, but since she was seen in other contexts to have been devout, this may be mistaken. From my perspective it matters not; I am more interested in the implicit message in these myths than in such historic niceties. So whether it was Marie Gamm or her mother, the story is that when she was on her death bed and the priests were called in to perform the last rites, she raised herself up and wagged a wizened finger at them, shouting, “Get out of here! I have done without you blackbirds all my life and I can die without you.”
About the time Opa Rochs earned his doctorate around 1880 he apparently knocked up Henrietta Rohrmann (or so my mother believed, though she didn’t put it in this way) a Catholic girl of no social standing, and married her. This must have been a triple whammy in the Rochs household, a university degree in a totally unprofitable area of knowledge, a liberal and anti-clerical outlook and an illegitimate child and Catholic bride in the home of a social climbing Protestant Burgher’s daughter and a ne’er-do-well snobbish father of upper class pretensions. It was not a ménage that was well suited to a poetry-writing intellectual pursuing knowledge of no possible use, burdened with a superstitious Catholic bride and a daughter of doubtful legitimacy. They were apparently urged to leave and after some abortive effort to make it in France, were given money with which they embarked for the United States (when the product of their earlier indiscretion was about three) with $5,000 in pocket. (That is the explicit sum as I learned it, Tex has it more inflated, but at any rate, it is just figurative.) The story goes on to say that on board ship was a man of great charm who had some land in Florida that, as it happens, could be had for $5,000 and so Doktor Rochs und Frau ended up in the United States penniless. Somehow (one may presume either by pre-arrangement or through acquaintances) he came to be a reporter or free-lance stringer, sending dispatches to Germany. He ultimately arrived at the New Orleans Cotton Exhibition, There he was sought out by the publisher of Die Freie Presse für Texas and invited to be its editor and the young family settled in San Antonio in 1884, soon to be joined by a baby son, Paul Arthur. That is how my mother came to have an American education.