The Photograph Album

Gram was always in a hurry. When I took her grocery shopping at the Albany Public Market in the corner of the Westgate Shopping Center in 1972, she ran faster than I did, even with a 60 year age difference. Her skinny legs dashed about the supermarket where she ran to the meat counter to buy hamburger, ground twice, a ring bologna, some liverwurst and a pork roast; then scurried to get saurkraut, then flour for spaetzel. “Gram, why are you running so fast? You don’t have to run now,” I called as I ran to keep up.

She had to get home to put the meal on the table for Grampa – 12 noon on the dot for lunch; 5 pm for dinner, not a minute after, even after Grampa passed away.

That was the old German in him, exact, stern and absolute. Deep down, though, there was a soft spot, you just had to look for it. It was sometimes there when, as a little girl visiting them in their little box house on Lyric Ave, he taught me to play rummy. He sat patiently in his wheelchair helping me make the plays while he puffed on cigarettes. Next to the chair was a table built with his own hands; on it, a glass ashtray full of butts, each smoked to the exact-same length and stacked like little cannon balls.

Grampa died first in 1966 of a heart attack. Gramma died some ten years later of a stroke which kept her in a coma for nine months. I had a hard time going to visit her at Villa Marie. She was curled up on her bed and her short, salt and pepper hair became long and white…not like the Gramma I knew. When she finally passed away, I was glad for her.

Grampa was always in his wheelchair, getting up only to walk to the kitchen table or to bed, using a wooden cane. Gramma was eternally wearing her “gramma shoes,” as I remember them, plain black laced up shoes with a little stacked heel; I never saw her without them on her feet. Every Sunday, we would walk into the little house for a pork roast dinner with the smell of sauerkraut assaulting us as we entered. Gramma taught me how to make spaetzels and apple kuchen while we listened to her dark brown bakelite radio tuned to WGY. I never knew either of them any other way…

Until I received a treasure trove of photos kept by Grampa. They became mine after Gramma passed. It’s plain black cover revealed pages of neatly mounted photos of grandparents I never imagined.  Joseph, in his army dress uniform with sharp-shooter medals, his blonde hair slicked back and standing next to a petite, dark-haired Margaret wearing a starched white blouse and long black skirt, hair braided encircling her head and dark, wondering eyes.

There they were in 1916, he an already wise 25 and she an innocent 16. It was their engagement photo taken before Joe would go to the Texas-Mexican border to hunt the enigmatic Pancho Villa, who murdered unsuspecting travellers aboard a train in Columbus, New Mexico.

As I turned the delicate pages, I saw a world I never knew existed: pictures of Margaret pining for “her Joe” at the feet of Moses in Washington Park; a young, viril Joe passing time along the border with his buddies, living in pup tents in the hot, dry borderland. Captions were painstakingly written in white ink to describe each photo providing a narrative of their time apart. Further on, the album revealed life on Albany’s Second Avenue and the additions of my Aunts Elizabeth and Mae and later, young Joe, “Sonny” as he was called.

I think of Gramma and Grampa often now as I approach my own autumn. When I pass by Moses in Washington Park, I envision Margaret there, tulip beds around the fountain and Joe in his army dress. I wish I knew them then during the swirl of Albany’s German South End with the smells of roast pork and sauerkraut wafting into the street on a Sunday afternoon. I wish I knew Joe then when the hot, dry desert let go of its tumbleweeds  as the soldiers waited for the chance to catch the Villista.

I miss you both Gramma and Grampa.