My great-grandparents, Joseph and Edith Letwin

Some months ago, I wrote a post about my great-grandparents Harry and Tillie Kubrin, the forebears of our line on the Kubrin side. That post started out as a primer on family history craft, but something drew me inexorably to the subject of Harry and Tillie, and I quickly veered off-message. Great-grandparents must be inherently colorful. Just ask Russ Livingston, who recently wrote this post about his great-grandparents.

In any case, it’s time I wrote something about my other forerunners on the Kubrin side, Joseph and Edith Letwin. That’s Joseph above with the pinched homburg, narrow eyes, and broad, flaring Vandyke. I sense a fountain of mirth, barely suppressed. Those eyes shine with levity. One brow arches ironically towards his hat brim. The elastic mouth stops just short of a grin. His collar is wrinkled, his tie askew, hinting at a disdain for formal portraiture.

Women must have supplied the gravitas in those days. Compared to her husband, Edith looks positively regal. Her hair is neatly coiffed, her expression formal and serene. Looking directly at the camera, she regards the world with great reserve. Whatever she felt at that moment, she gives little of it away.

Joseph and Edith, I should mention in passing, illustrate my pet theory about assortative mating based on similarities in facial structure. Both have the same spacing between their eyes, the same fleshy noses and cheeks, the same wide, pointed chins. Of course, marriage was not then (and is not now) always based on romantic love. Sexual attraction, family ties, and economic factors also play a part. To this list, add simple resemblance. Put it at the top of your list.

Everything I know about Joseph and Edith, I learned from my Uncle Jay. Joseph retired early from whatever trade he plied, sidelined by a case of elephantiasis. Elephantiasis, if you do not know of it, is a disease of the lymphatic system characterized by massive swelling of the legs and, in some cases, the scrotum.  How Joseph would have contracted this sickness is beyond me. Elephantiasis is a tropical disease, transmitted by mosquitoes. Joseph was born in Russia and died in Pennsylvania. To my knowledge, he never visited the tropics.

Sidelined by this condition, Joseph took to a chair, where he held court for the men of his neighborhood. With his massive leg propped up before him, and his affliction borne with good grace, Joseph offered up nuggets of wisdom, acquiring in this way a reputation as a wise man and seer. Despite his illness, Joseph lived up to his conjugal obligations, fathering six children, of whom the fifth, Rae, became my grandmother.

Jay remembers Edith as a beauty with radiant white hair and elegant features. This is not merely the assessment of a besotted, lovesick grandchild. Edith sprang from a comely line. Her sister won a beauty contest in Philadelphia. Edith passed on her looks to her daughter, my grandmother Rae, who handed them down to my father, and so on.

After Joseph retired, Edith supported the family by working as a chicken plucker. It must have been hard work—hot and noisy, with feathers in the air and the smell of blood in her nostrils. But this work did nothing to dim her beauty. Nor did it dim her spirit. My uncle remembers his grandmother as a saint who coddled the children, handed out nickels, and took them to Saturday matinées.

Edith put up with her husband’s illness and a son who was a drunkard and an arsonist, meeting both situations with equanimity. She did not pass on her saintliness, however. We of the present generation are well employed and free of affliction, but we display none of our great-grandmother’s saintliness. We meet our obligations, but serenity and good cheer are sometimes in short supply. A different quality of soul, or self, is the norm nowadays.

Edith died when Jay was around five. Death was a more familiar presence in those days, and she lay in state in the parlor for a day or more, awaiting the services of Pittsburgh’s only Jewish undertaker. An occasion that is merely sad for adults can be deeply disturbing for children. Jay and his older sister, my Aunt Phyllis, entered into the room after the grownups had left for their own encounter with death. Tiptoeing before the coffin, the children had a raw, wounding confrontation that left lasting marks on them both.

After the funeral, my grandmother placed a photo of Edith on top of the piano. Wherever Jay entered the parlor, its eyes seemed to follow him around the room.

As I recall, the practical part of that earlier post on Harry and Tillie concerned the proper contents of a family history: what to put in and what to leave out. Family history—the triumphs, sadness, and everyday minutiae of ordinary lives—exists chiefly in memory and ceases to exist the moment a memory dies out. People, houses, the scent, touch, and glance of a man, woman or child: all these things tumble into a void with the passing of the individuals who remember them. For most of us, the world of our great-grandparents is as close as we can get to the antiquity from which we emerged.

Did you know your great-grandparents? What do you remember of them? What have you learned from others?

What can you still learn about your great-grandparents from those who remember them?

© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.