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Posts Tagged ‘19th century’

Hermann and Gretchen were married in 1904. After a luxurious honeymoon in Mexico visiting with papa’s former business associates, they bought a house at 315 Adams Street, on the fringes of the prosperous German neighborhood not far from the house mother had grown up in.1 This was my place of birth, and was home for each of us children until we successively left for college and the pursuit of our careers, and mother’s home until she sold it in 1962. Papa had died in 1938. Built in the 1880s, it fit the mold of the German American community, a broad front porch with a gingerbread banister, behind which were floor-to-ceiling windows, true brick construction in the front part, Germanic, substantial, but not fancy or, for that matter, not really adequate for a family of five. Its best feature was a lot 110` x 120` that extended to the street behind, which was back alley to us but not to the residents there. The well-heeled newlyweds furnished it with a heavy “mission style” dining room set, an 8-piece bird’s eye maple bedroom set, glass-fronted bookshelves with Das Grosse Brockhaus, the collected works of Shakespeare along with modern books in the parlor we always called the library. There was bric-a-brac from Germany that included miniature busts of literary figures and, in the dining room, some oils on wood painted by a Mexican artist. The front part had a kind of Germanic Victorian (shouldn’t it be called Bismarckian?) elegance that deteriorated as one moved to the back. When I was a boy the Mission-style sideboard contained the remnants of the refinement with which it had once been filled, such as fine German hand-painted fish plates and platters, and the matching glass Schrank that held elegant tinted long-stemmed Bohemian (Czechoslovakian) wine glasses and gold-inlaid liquor glasses and carafe.
These artifacts speak of middle-class opulence with a German accent that was long gone by the time I was a sentient member of the ménage. They bespeak entertaining the families of the old L.U.C. crowd and new business associates. There was a gardener-butler of English descent who probably also doubled as syce. Old Balderson was the hero of one of my mother’s stories; one that amused us as children but now tells me as much about mother as it does about papa. One day she came home to find a big pile of dirt right in front of the front door. Mother called him and said something that would now be rendered as “What the hell goes here?” to which he replied, “Well, ma’am, the master will find something to complain about when he comes home and he might as well be done with it right away.”
This prosperous life was interrupted by the death at birth of their first child in 1906. They went on what was always referred to as a second honeymoon, which netted more grainy fading pictures of Mexican scenes and friends in the family album. The boy had been named Hans, as in Hansel and Gretel and my sister, Dorothea, after Hermann and Dorothea (though always called Thea), born in1908, bespeaking both their Germanic and their literary slant. Arthur, who had the nickname, Buntz1, the etymology of which is unknown, was born in 1910, just as a disaster befell. A large shipment of coffee from Mexico that had been signed off on in error was waylaid by insurgents during the Diaz uprising in that year and the loss was devastating. This was followed with another tragedy, coincident with my birth in 1913, the fire of an uninsured lumber mill in Louisiana; a loss that apparently was the final blow to papa’s San Antonio business venture, for soon afterward they rented out the house and moved to Fredericksburg, where we remained until 1918. I never heard papa mention these matters once, having learned them only from mother. She once told me how the loss in Mexico happened. As it was in revolutionary times, I thought it just one of those things that happen, but it seems that she had signed off on the bill of lading herself, and she assured me most insistently that papa had insisted that she do that. I can’t entirely rid myself of the feeling that “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” We will never know and inasmuch as I now find that this loss was, to me, a blessing, however well it was disguised, there are no recriminations in my heart.
The response to the second disaster was a move to the little town of Fredericksburg, a community that had been settled in the ‘fifties, I think by peasants, lying some 80 miles west of San Antonio, a distance that was a full day’s trip even then because of the terrain and the roads, though now it is an hour’s drive. Fredericksburg is a story in itself, a cultural enclave that seems to have been taken from Europe peasant by peasant, like Hearst castles were taken brick by brick. Though now but an hour’s drive and a tourist attraction, it was then a remote village of German peasantry, a full day’s travel from San Antonio, in which most businesses as well as the schools, were conducted in German. Whether this move had been made, as my brother says, for papa’s health (Fredericksburg is in the cooler “hill country”) or because he needed work, or both, I don’t know. He went as a wholesaler of grocery supplies, a kind of internal importer, I presume, and moved into an old stone mansion that could have been the set for The Addams Family. I arrived as a child in arms and left at five and have few memories of life there, but it served as a rich source of family stories. The tone of these memories is one of pleasant bemusement at the local peasantry, I think it was a relatively happy time for them, who, being more urbane and more educated than the natives, took on leadership roles from the outset. There was the story of papa’s Solomonic solution of a troublesome local issue. There were two moieties in Fredericksburg, die Oberstadt and die Unterstadt, each with its own public services, including the very essential water wagon to wet down the broad, dusty main street. The town square with the post office was neutral territory and neither moiety would operate its water wagon on it (to universal discomfort). Papa, the neutral, supplied the solution: alternating days.
But the favorite story gave us a quote from Lena, mother’s peasant Dienstmẩdchen, who replied to mother’s asking if she had had a good time at the party, saying: “Ach ja, Ich war die shaenste und die shmartzte und konnt auch die beste tanze” (I was the prettiest and the smartest and could also dance the best). Forever after, when any of us came home feeling satisfied with some social or academic performance, we would quote Lena. Then there was Buntz’s brag that he spoke three languages, English, German and “Katolisch,” referring to the local Bauerndeutsch. The subliminal message is one of class superiority without disdain for the less educated. Mother, the only woman with a college degree having children in school, was immediately elected president of the PTA, and initiated an institution that remains today. Fredericksburg was known to world travelers since early in the 19th century for having the best food anywhere in the Texas culinary desert. Mother established a project for the school girls to record the recipes of their German peasant mothers. It was not an easy task, as the women never considered measured amounts, but used handfuls, pinches, bunches and the like so the girls had to stop them to measure the amount. They took to the task and the Fredericksburg Cookbook was born. Mother was honored at the 50th anniversary, when a new edition was published, along with a facsimile of the original. It is now something for the tourists to buy.

I don’t know why we left Fredericksburg. We had moved out of the big house some time before, perhaps as an economy measure or because an earlier effort to move had aborted. I don’t think mother and papa were unhappy there for they reminisced about Fredericksburg with pleasure and visited there frequently. Perhaps they saw no future for them there. Earlier plans to move back had been frustrated because papa was an “enemy alien,” never having finished his citizenship application, and this forbade them from living within a mile of the arsenal. A re-measurement at 315 determined that the bedroom was beyond the one-mile line and the refusal was rescinded. A tale of misplaced wartime fanaticism. The anti-German propaganda during the war was atrocious, as I could see when I leafed through the scrapbook my father had masochistically made, and Tex says in his oral history that he had nightmares over the fear of the knock on the door. I did not have such memories.
All of what has been said so far is background – my cultural heritage. Those first five years of my life in Fredericksburg are really as mythical to me as my great grandmother’s vilification of the “blackbirds” or my grandfather’s Horatio Alger beginning.  I have very little memory of Fredericksburg, just fleeting scenes cut into my mind: when I found the dog our neighbor had poisoned; the hot afternoon we chased after a plane people thought was coming down, the nightmare that drove me into my parents’ bedroom and a vague scene or two at the Charles Addams house. That is why I have included this section with my ancestral beginnings rather than with the life that I knew after we got back to San Antonio.

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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.

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