Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Katja, age 3
Katja says she remembers hardly anything about her childhood. That can’t be entirely true because she’s told a lot of anecdotes over the years. Last week we sat down and chatted about her recollections in more detail. Here’s the picture that Katja provided.
I always thought of Katja as a Southern belle, and it turns out there’s a kernel of truth to that.
She was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in the late years of the Great Depression. Her mom, Helen Werrin, was 25 years old and had graduated from Temple University with her degree in nutrition and diatetics. Her dad, Milton Werrin (henceforth Buck), was 30 and had received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Penn. His job for the U.S. Army took him around the state of Virginia, inspecting meat at military bases to make sure it wasn’t infected.
Katja, 17 months, in Roanoke
The family lived in a beautiful white house in Roanoke. They got together regularly with family friends, the Pressburgs, who had two small boys about Katja’s age. The children played lots of baseball, and one of the Pressburg boys smacked Katja in the forehead with a baseball bat. She still has the scar above her left eye.
Buck’s and Helen’s families lived in Philadelphia, and, homesick, they decided to return in 1941. Buck bought his brother Nate’s veterinary practice and house at 408 S. 20th Street in center city. The animal clinic was on the first floor, and Buck, Helen, and Katja lived upstairs. As a young girl, Katja loved the 20th Street neighborhood. She was allowed to be out on the street by herself, and it was very exciting. There were tons of kids, lots of different kinds of people, the streetcars ran right by, and something was always going on. Her mother disliked 20th Street though – the city heat, the smells coming upstairs from the animals, the noise, the shabbiness of the neighborhood.
408 S. 20th Street (today)
When Katja was four, her parents enrolled her at the Settlement Music School, a famous community school and daycare center. The children were introduced to music and the arts through lots of rhythm instruments. Katja’s specialized in playing the triangle. She went to school every day and completely enjoyed it. In fact, until she got to high school, she always loved school -- the whole idea of going off to school and being part of a place.
In 1942 Katja started kindergarten at Spring Garden School, a couple of miles away at 12th and Parrish streets. Getting to school required a trolley ride, and Katja began doing this on her own by first or second grade. Occasionally Buck would take Katja and her friends – Joanne Soloff and Charlotte and Judy Kaplan – to school in the family Chevy. The children loved riding in the rumble seat, even though Joanne had a propensity to get carsick. Once there, Katja’s favorite subjects were English, History, and Music – just about everything as long as it didn’t involve arithmetic.
Spring Garden Public School, 12th Street
Katja’s siblings, Ami and David, were born during her early years of grade school. The family home was a few blocks away from Rittenhouse Square, and Helen would take the three children to the Square on outings. Katja got to push Ami and David in their double-decker baby carriage, and Helen called her “my little mother.” There was a bronze statue of a goat with little horns at the center of Rittenhouse Square, and the children’s favorite activity was climbing on the goat. As they got a little older, Katja would take the two kids on outings to Rittenhouse Square by herself. David was a cutie-pie, though he often suffered from his eustachian tubes being inflamed. Katja remembers Ami as being mysterious and very organized. When they later shared a bedroom, they’d get into fights because Ami wanted Katja’s side of the room to be as clean and neat as her own. Katja did have lots of responsibility as a child. She took the bus, trolley car, and/or subway to school by herself, and at home she cleaned up the house, did the dishes, and helped with the laundry.
In their 20th Street neighborhood most of Katja’s playmates were young African-American girls. The children’s favorite activity was double-dutch jump-roping. While Katja participated regularly, she was awed by the abilities of her fellow rope-jumpers who did triples, somersaults, and all sorts of fancy moves. She summed up, “They were great!” At home Katja spent a lot of time curled up by the radio, listening to the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, Fibber McGee & Molly, the Green Hornet, and Superman.
Around third grade, Katja started helping her dad in his vet practice after school. She’d feed the boarding animals, play with them, and try to quiet the animals down while Buck was working on them. Her most significant task was holding puppies or cats in a blanket while Buck was castrating them. He’d explain, “It’s all over in just a minute. Just hold them around the head in the blanket so they can’t move.” The puppies and kittens were usually just a few days old, and they didn’t seem to mind it much. Katja said about her vet assistant duties, “I loved it.” Buck in turn helped Katja with her homework. Everything except math, which was his worst subject too. In general, Buck was the more lenient parent; Helen, more strict.
Buck and Helen (circa 1970)
Helen’s father, Samuel Brooks, owned a custom tailor and dry cleaning shop in Germantown, a Philadelphia suburb where he and Katja’s grandmother lived. Helen’s biological mother had died when she was only three, and her father remarried Dora, who Katja knew as Grandmom Brooks. Katja went regularly to her grandparents’ house for the weekend. She was very close to her grandparents, and her love of opera traces back to her visits with them. Mr. and Mrs. Brooks kept a kosher household, so the only thing that they did on the Sabbath was to listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. When Grandmom and Grandpa Brooks came to visit at 20th Street, her grandfather would always pull a candy bar out of his pocket to give Katja. She remembers him taking her to her first movie, The Dolly Sisters with Betty Grable and June Haver. Grandpa Brooks liked to take Katja and her siblings places, but he was very poor and money was always in short supply. He had excellent taste, but never any extra money for luxuries. He was very proud when Helen completed college.
These childhood years on 20th Street weren’t an easy time for the family. Buck’s veterinary practice was a struggle, and there were always money woes. Helen was working as a substitute home economics teacher in an inferior public school, and she was unhappy there. Her salary was $5 a day – better than nothing, but very low pay.
Katja’s Grandpa Werrin (Michael) and Grandmom Werrin (Anna) were Russian immigrants who had met and married in America after their arrival around the turn of the century. Grandpa Werrin had an egg candling business on Water Street. He imported eggs from Vineland, New Jersey, then distributed them to local grocery stores, making daily decisions about how much to pay and how much to charge for the eggs. He loved to play cards and won a seashore hotel in Wildwood, NJ, in a card game. He and Anna operated the hotel in the summer for many years. Grandma Werrin cooked and ran the hotel. Customers would come for a week, month, or the entire summer, and their room price included three meals a day. Buck met Helen there when she applied for a waitress job. Years later he sent Helen and the three kids to Wildwood each summer to protect against polio in the city. Usually they would stay in Wildwood with Grandpa Brooks, but Katja also stayed in the Werrin’s hotel on occasion.
“The Vampy Scamp” (Katja, age 8, at Wildwood)
Grandmom Werrin had a reputation as an excellent cook, and the entire family would gather at their West Philadelphia home on Friday nights. Because Anna wasn’t allowed to cook after sundown on Friday evening, a live-in maid did the cooking on Friday and Saturday nights. They’d have bagels, cream cheese, and lox; smoked whitefish; smoked sable; bialys; Manischewitz wine, and some hard liquor as well. Katja remembers those meals as much like scenes out of The Godfather, Part 1. Michael and Anna had five children: Doris (who later married a wealthy chicken king from Chicago), Beatrice (married to Joe), Nate (married to Sophie), Milton (with Helen), and Miriam (married to Moe). Grandpa Werrin had an explosive temper. He could be loving and warm at one moment, then yelling and throwing things seconds later. Buck and Nate had inherited some of that volatile temper themselves, so Katja describes extended family gatherings as very noisy. There’d be lots of fighting and uproar; then everybody would get over it and get back together. Helen often felt caught in the middle. After the meal was over everyone would gather around the tiny TV and watch boxing.
Katja was always told by her dad that she had inherited “bad blood” from his side of the family. Once when a friend came over for a tea party, the little girl broke one of Katja’s toys, and Katja pushed her down the stairs. Another time she got in a fight with one of her little boyfriends, and she went to his house and hit him over the head with a sock full of potatoes. The boy’s mother called Helen and said Katja was forbidden to ever play with her son again. These incidents seemed to confirm the bad blood hypothesis.
Ami (left), unknown friend, and Katja, age 8, on the Jersey shore
One year Helen took a summer job as the dietician at Girl Scout camp, and Katja got to go along for free. She wasn’t enthusiastic about sleeping in a tent, and, because Helen was on the camp staff, Katja had to dig latrines to avoid being labeled a “teacher’s pet”. She had a much more enjoyable time during the summers of 1947 and 1948 at Camp Galil, a Zionist youth camp in Buck’s County. Katja loved Camp Galil and acquired her first boyfriend there, a good-looking boy named Jules Cohen. It was the time of the War of Independence, and weapons were hidden on the camp’s grounds for shipment to Israel. Buck and Helen also took the three kids on a big trip one summer to Maine, Montreal, and Toronto. The kids spent the whole time in the back seat reading comic book tales about Emma and the Cement Mixer.
Katja’s family always had dogs. Buck gave Katja her first dog, a little dachsund which was to be her own. Katja loved the dachsund. A week later her dad said he had to take it back because the previous owner’s daughter who had polio missed it so much. Katja was heartbroken. The family also had a beagle that was completely untrainable. Their beloved boxer, Tammy, who was really Ami’s dog, died of cancer, and everyone felt very sad.
Katja, age 10, and David on a hayride at Farm School
Starting at age 12, Katja took piano lessons after school once a week. Her teacher was Miss Theresa, a heavyset woman who had been blind from birth. Katja’s not sure whether Miss Theresa lived alone, but there was never anybody else at her house. She lived in Little Italy in South Philadelphia, and Katja travelled there by herself on the hour-long trolley car and subway trip. Miss Theresa was very nice, but the piano lessons themselves were boring. At home Helen played the upright piano in their living room. Katja did too, though she didn’t like to practice.
One of Buck’s veterinary clinic clients, Mrs. Scott, took an interest in Katja and gave her books and a subscription to the London Illustrated News which was full of articles about royalty. Katja became very interested in British royalty. Mrs. Scott also talked a lot about going to France, and that became one of Katja’s major goals. Katja says she always wanted to go away and have adventures from the time she was a little girl.
So those are some of the highlights of Katja’s girlhood. Her Philadelphia world and family life were pretty different from growing up in Menominee in the U.P. That’s what makes for the spice of life.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
Katja with J’s flowers (5-11-13)
The delivery man just brought a beautiful Mother’s Day bouquet for Katja that J sent, and it made her beam with delight. J has always been thoughtful about these things. I wish I’d done more of that when I had the chance. My mom died on April 24, 1986, at Marinette General Hospital. We had some advance notice, and my siblings and I came in from around the country. Peter and I were in her hospital room when she said her last words: “I’m grateful.” That’s how mothers are. My mom was by no means perfect, and I was difficult as a son. A loss of one’s mother, though, is a powerful experience that takes a long time to recover from. There’s such a primal connection between mother and child, and, I suspect for most people, there’s no one in one’s life who has such a deep attachment and lifelong sense of caring and concern. There are many things I wish I’d expressed to my mother and many questions that I wish I’d asked. However, we make do with what we do and try to learn from it. Here are some of the wise, interesting, and/or humorous things that people have had to say about mothers:
- "Every beetle is a gazelle in the eyes of its mother." (Moorish proverb)
- "It's not easy being a mother. If it were easy, fathers would do it." (From the TV show, The Golden Girls)
- "Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all." (Author Unknown)
- "Mothers are all slightly insane." (J.D. Salinger)
- "Whenever I'm with my mother, I feel as though I have so spend the whole time avoiding land mines." (Amy Tan)
- "My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it." (Mark Twain)
- "Sweater, n. Garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly." (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)
- "She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn't take them along." (Margaret Culkin Banning)
- "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." (Ferrell Sims)
- "Don't ever tell the mother of a newborn that her baby's smile is just gas." (Jill Woodhull)
- "The precursor of the mirror is the mother's face." (D.W. Winnicott)
- "I felt my mother about the place. I don't think she haunts me, but I wouldn't put it past her." (Julie Walters)
- "I hope my tongue in prune juice smothers, If I belittle dogs and mothers." (Ogden Nash)
Our family, of course, has many wonderful mothers, and that goes on across the generations. Here are some of the mothers we know and love. Happy Mother’s Day to all!
My mom Doris with my sister Vicki (ca. 1949)
Katja with J at Mt. Airy Forest (ca. 1972)
My sister-in-law Margie with Jennifer and J (ca. 1973)
My sister-in-law Faith with Chris (ca. 1978)
My sister Vicki with Jacob (ca. 1973)
My daughter-in-law K with our grandson L (2012)
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Believe it or not, the world’s greatest collection of ventriloquist dummies is located across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky, less than ten miles from our back door. We’d known about if or a long time but finally got to visit it recently. The collection was amassed by a Cincinnati businessman and amateur ventriloquist nicknamed W.S. by his friends who bought his first dummy (“Tommy Baloney”) in New York City in 1910. Over the next half century W.S. accumulated a collection of over 700 dummies, along with photos, posters, books, and other memorabilia. Lacking heirs in his later years, he created a foundation to make the collection available to the public in perpetuity.
I didn't know it, but ventriloquism originated as a religious practice in ancient Greece. The word in Latin means "to speak from the stomach" (“venter” = belly; “loqui” = speak). Noises produced by the stomach were believed to be voices of the deceased, and the ventriloquist would interpret the sounds and use them to predict the future. By the nineteenth century Spiritualism had spread into stage magic, and ventriloquism became a performance art. The modern comic approach to ventriloquism started in vaudeville in the late nineteenth century. Famous vaudeville ventriloquists included Jules Vernon, Fred Russell, Arthur Prince, and the Great Lester. It was one of the Great Lester's students -- Edgar Bergen -- who (with the help of Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd) made ventriloquism extremely popular by the middle of the twentieth century.
As you can see from the photos below, the dummies are wonderful, many of them exquisite works of art. Our tour guides demonstrated their facial expressiveness, not only talking motions, but pursing their lips, wrinkling their foreheads, raising their eyebrows, wiggling their ears, bobbing their Adams’ Apples, winking, smoking, even spitting. Some dummies were able to walk or scratch their heads, and Baby Snooks could wet her diapers. Made of wood, paper mache, latex, or soft cloth, some figures look like cartoon characters; others are very realistic. With a little help, of course, the dummies have a lot of opinions about all kinds of things. None of them spoke to us during our visit, but who knows what happens when the lights go off. With hundreds of pairs of eyes focused on us during our stay, the scene was a little eerie. When we next get visitors to Cincinnati, we’ll have to do another trip.
Who are those dummies in the back row?
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Cocktail hour at the Gala
Katja has loved the opera since she was a little girl and used to listen to the Met on the radio on Saturday afternoons at her grandparents’ house. I doubt if I ever heard an opera as a kid, but Katja started getting tickets for us when we moved here as a young married couple. Back then the opera was held at the zoo, and the performers had to compete with noisy elephants and hyenas. After going to summer opera for many years with her mother or me, Katja joined the Opera League last year, a volunteer organization which does fund-raising, educational programs, etc. She asked me to join the League too, but, being more of a country music guy and pretty nonsocial, it made me nervous and I didn’t want to do it. Katja understood and said the only thing she wanted me to do was to go in the spring to the Opera Gala, a formal dinner-dance affair for opera lovers and supporters. I wasn’t enthused, but it was a long way off, and I reluctantly agreed.
We haven’t danced for a long time, so we signed up in late February for ballroom dance lessons at the university. The class meets on Tuesday afternoons, and there are about two dozen members, mostly novices. We’d taken ballroom dancing years ago, so this was a refresher. We started with the foxtrot and the rumba; then the waltz and the meringue and an introduction to swing. We also learned a Latin dance called the bachata which was fun though we’d never heard of it. After a few weeks we felt like we’d at least be able to foxtrot reasonably well.
The Gala was scheduled for late April. Katja started shopping for a ballgown a couple of months in advance, but she was disappointed in the stock in local department stores. She asked if I’d like to drive up to Chicago to shop for a ball gown there, but I responded by pretending to lapse into a coma. Finally she ordered a ball gown she found in a catalog from an exclusive department store in Texas. The gown arrived a week later, and it looked pretty elegant to me, but Katja wasn’t certain. She tried several bridal shops in the suburbs, but they said that they needed three months’ advance notice, and by then it had gotten too late.
Sometime in March we got a letter from the Opera League, describing details of the event. One line stood out to me: “for husbands, appropriate dress will be white tie and gloves.” I read the line aloud to Katja and insisted that I wasn’t wearing a white tie, and I definitely wasn’t wearing gloves. She just laughed and said that I could wear my gardening gloves. That was funny, but only slightly.
The week of the Gala rolled around, and they gave a short description of the event in the entertainment section of the newspaper. My heart nearly stopped when I saw that the tickets ran from $250 to $5000 per person. I worried for a brief moment that we’d spent $10,000, but that didn’t seem realistic. I was afraid to ask and decided I’d better make a serious effort to enjoy the occasion. Katja had bought me some new leather shoes for dancing, and I started breaking them in. She’d wanted me to get a tuxedo, but I said I would make do with the black velvet jacket and black slacks that she’d bought me ten years ago. On the day of the Gala Katja had an appointment with her hairdresser, Kevin. Kevin said he could imagine Katja at the Gala, but he couldn’t quite see me at it. I said Kevin was right on target. When we got dressed, Katja put on a luxurious multi-level pearl and gold necklace that she’d bought years ago and that she’d never had occasion to wear. She looked very lovely.
The Gala was held at a fancy downtown hotel. The cocktail hour started at 6:30, and we arrived at 6:45, leaving our car in the hands of valet parking. Roughly five hundred people had gathered in the hotel’s gigantic ballroom which featured 40-foot high mirrors and moving clouds on the ceiling. All the men were dressed in tuxedos. I only saw one or two white ties (mainly black bow-ties; a few red, a couple plaid), and I didn’t notice any men wearing gloves. The women were elegantly dressed in floor-length ball gowns, lots with gold or silver gilt and occasional corsages. By and large, it was an older crowd – mostly white haired – and it looked like high society to me. We met up right away with our friends, Molly and Charles, who we’d known were going. I’d been given an envelope when we checked in, and Charles said I should have two tickets for complimentary drinks. I couldn’t find them in my envelope so I went back to the registration table to correct the situation. The woman at the table asked what “level” I was. I said I didn’t know, but that my friend said I should have gotten two complimentary tickets. She politely handed me a pair of tickets for drinks, and I got a Manhattan for myself and a white wine for Katja.
At 7:30 we went upstairs to another huge room and sat down at a table for eight with Charles, Molly, and several strangers. Looking around, everyone seemed to be having a fine time – lots of smiles and animated conversation. Katja was chatty and fun; I was pretty quiet. The waiters were readily available to fill the wine glasses, and I had four or five glasses of white wine in the course of the meal. Dinner was good except for the sirloin steak entrée which was tough. Katja couldn’t cut hers, so we traded portions. I felt bad for the people who paid $5000 for tough steak. Just before dessert an opera star from the Met came out and did four songs, including “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady”. She wore a gold gilt dress, had a beautiful voice, and received an enthusiastic ovation.
When dinner ended, we went back downstairs to the ballroom for dancing. A DJ was playing music which a friend later explained was “club music”. It was very fast, very loud, and had a constant beat. Molly and Charles listened for a few minutes, then decided it was time to go home. Katja and I made our way up to the front of the room. Despite several hundred people being present, only a smallish group were dancing at any given time. The dancers were mostly younger people in their thirties and forties, doing free-style, no-touch dancing; also a few balding men struggling to keep up with their younger trophy wives. Katja and I waited for the DJ to play a foxtrot, but that never happened, nor did he ever play a waltz or a rumba. Given a mostly post-age-65 crowd, the hip DJ’s music selection seemed out of place. Finally we decided to try the bachata, which you can do to anything that has a steady beat. That worked o.k., though we were the only bachata dancers in the place. Then we did some swing dancing too. We danced for most of the next two hours, and we had as much fun as we’ve had in quite a while. The party was still going full force at 11:30, but we decided to call it a night. Katja said she hoped we’d go dancing again in the future.
When I went to valet parking, I gave the guy our ticket and said we’d been at the Opera Gala. He asked me if I had a complimentary ticket for parking. When I said I didn’t have one, he said the parking would cost $15. That seemed like a terrible mistake, so I went back upstairs to the registration table and told the lady that I hadn’t gotten my complimentary parking ticket. As she’d done earlier the evening, she asked what level I was. I said I wasn’t sure, but I thought that I was probably at the $250 level. Giving me a look that I interpreted as scornful, she said, “That’s why. You don’t get complimentary parking at the $250 level.” I think I must have appeared so forlorn that a nicer lady started looking around to see if they had any extra parking passes. Much to my luck, she finally found one and gave it to me. I thanked her profusely at least two or three times.
When we got home, Katja asked me to unhook her necklace. I fiddled with it for several minutes, but I couldn’t get the clasp undone. I thought maybe part of it had broken off. Katja tried for a while, but she couldn’t do it either. Finally she said I should just break it apart, and she would have it repaired. I proposed instead that she go to sleep with her necklace on, and we’d find a jeweler the next day. In the morning I located a mall jewelry store that was open on Sunday, and we drove out. The clerk at the store took a look at the clasp, pushed on it once, and it popped open. She smiled; we laughed, both of us a little embarrassed. I tried it myself while we were there with the clerk. It popped right open for me too. Driving home, I thought to myself that we’d managed to get through the Opera Gala unscathed. But I was happy to be back in reality.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
We’ve belonged to the Cincinnati Zoo for a long time. When J was a little kid, I’d take him there each Saturday morning while Katja was out doing errands, and it always was exciting. Now it’s a favorite destination when our grandkids come to town. The zoo was good back in the 1970’s, but it’s changed dramatically in the 35 or 40 years since. Nearly 80% of the current exhibition sites didn’t exist when we first started going. One of the most recent additions is the $3 million Cat Canyon. It replaced the former Tiger Grotto that had been built in 1934. The Cat Canyon is divided into several separate areas. The biggest, designed to simulate a tropical habitat, houses two white tigers: Akere, a male, and Popsuy, a female. White tigers, of course, are extremely rare – making up only one out of every 10,000 tigers that are born. Here’s how our handsome zoo pair looks.
The second Cat Canyon area is occupied by two six-year-old Malayan Tiger brothers, Taj and Who Dey. Malayan Tigers live in the wilds in Malaysia and southern Thailand, and there are only about 500 left in the world. The new zoo exhibit includes a pool in which Taj and Who Dey can cool off on hot days.
Three snow leopards live in a third area which is designed with the look of a rocky Himalayan riverbed. Renji, a three-year-old female, came from the Chattanooga Zoo. Nobo, a male, is two and a half, and Olga is an older female. The leopards are about the size of Old English Sheepdogs, live in high mountain areas of central Asia, and are an endangered species. Their diet in the wilds is mainly blue sheep and ibex. Now that spring’s in full bloom we’ll stop by and see these babies in the next week or two.