When my great-grandmother Taube Kurdabrin disembarked from the S.S. Finland on June 25, 1905, she carried her first-born son Schmuel in her arms. He was one year and six months old. Because small children lack agency, they generally make poor subjects for portraiture. I prefer instead to pick up my grandfather’s story in his middle years. We see him above with his third child, my Uncle Jay, who has just caught a fish. The photo is cracked and stained. The world it portrays has vanished. People work miracles now with Photoshop, but I don’t believe in retouching old pictures. Flaws appear in every image and every life, and they are worth noting. The patina tells a story all its own.
Sometime in his youth Schmuel Kurdabrin became Samuel Ellis Kubrin. He spent the first half of his life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the second half in Los Angeles. He married Rae Letwin in 1924 and they had four children. Sam worked as a sign painter and window dresser, then went into business for himself. For a time he owned a tavern called Henry’s Hideaway in McKeesport, Pa., a workingman’s bar that opened at 6:00 a.m. for patrons who started the day with beer and shots. Later he opened an advertising distribution business called the Walking Man, which employed Skid Row labor to distribute flyers door to door. Over the years, this business employed Sam’s wife, brother, and two of his sons, my father included. It still exists and is still held by my family. A cousin runs it today.
If I were to base this post solely on my own memory, I would portray Sam as the grandfather from central casting. That’s one of my father’s idioms, central casting, which I recognize only now on my nth rewrite of this piece. The imprint of the past is pervasive and subtle.
Sam Kubrin in his later years had snowy hair and a goatee, prominent ears, and a droll and whimsical manner. We see the whimsy in the photo at left as he dances with the bride at my Cousin Andy’s wedding. (Hi, Brigitte.) When I was a child, my grandfather would hold out the match after lighting his pipe, waiting for me to blow it out. Giggling, I would withhold my breath until the flame nearly singed his fingers, then extinguish it with a great gust. Pipe smoke followed my grandfather everywhere. I think of him whenever I catch a whiff of it. Papa Sam, as we called him, was also a master of the deadpan. He could issue or absorb the most extreme provocations with a flat, even gaze. Whimsy, deadpan, snowy hair, and goatee: the grandfather from central casting. He is well remembered for these gifts.
What I have learned about the man since his death is far less flattering. His children remember him as a passive, abstracted father—a breadwinner, mainly. Teaching, disciplining, consoling, and encouraging children were apparently not part of his repertoire. When sibling rivalry raged among his kids, Sam did little to dampen it. When his daughter became an object of scorn, he did nothing to shield her from it, to shore up her morale, or to teach her more useful ways to engage with the world. True, the parenting game has changed since my grandfather played it. It’s wrong to impose today’s standards on the past. Still, it’s hard not to see the limits in my grandfather’s interpersonal skills. He was pretty wooden in that role.
His firm prospered over the years, but not because of my grandfather’s acumen. He mismanaged the distribution business, running a lax enterprise that became a target for theft. Incurious about details, disinclined to supervise, he condoned a practice of overbooking that culminated in criminal charges and a civil suit that nearly wrecked the firm. Worse, as matters came to a head, he tried to turn the investigation aside with a bribe. The negotiation he conducted was clumsy and ludicrous. I know, because his words were recorded and preserved in a transcript of the court proceedings. Reading them, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I’ve stumbled on a key dilemma in family history, or rather, several of them. My relatives read this blog, and in the preceding paragraphs, they may encounter a patriarch they thought they knew, but didn’t. They might not like what they read. They might disbelieve my words. They might believe them but be angry with me for revealing these aspects of Sam Kubrin’s life. So be it. I have no wish to disturb the peace, but I’m prepared to accept the consequences of writing about family.
A second dilemma involves the difficulties of character study. How do I integrate memory with documented fact? How do I create believable characters out of the fragments I have collected? The problem here is not creating truthiness, as Stephen Colbert would have it, but rather finding the right amount of it. Utterly consistent characters are believable but lack depth; they are uninteresting, which in turn lessens their believability. Flawed, quirky characters are interesting, but they become unbelievable if you press these traits too far. The hard part is finding the sweet spot, in portraying characters who surprise you while confirming what you already know.
The third dilemma brings me back to memory, that quicksilver phenomenon. How do we come to terms with the dead? What do we make of their clumsiness, their breaches of faith, their shortcomings in business and family life? These last questions call on us to judge, not just those we hold in memory, but also ourselves. If we forgive our relatives too readily, we are overly indulgent; if we judge them too harshly, we are priggish, even arrogant. What we need is some adroit combination of detachment and love, a way of rejecting the lies while relishing the aroma of pipe smoke. The Sam Kubrin who offered a bribe—and did it so ineptly—makes me shake my head in dismay. But this new knowledge does not dislodge the sentiment and memory I’ve accumulated since childhood. I still cherish the grandfather from central casting.
© 2015, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.