Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Memories: a Double Context

Memories: a Double Context

                My Grandpa and Grandma Albert and Armina Borer had an attic that gripped my imagination.  They died in 1978 and 1982, but much of the miscellany that was stored in their attic devolved on me.  As the amateur historian in the family, bits and pieces of the attic’s contents were given to me.  Now that I am in my 50s and, knowing that these papers will never have the emotional grip that they do for me, even for my blood survivors, I am slowly passing them on to the Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University.

                Going through the papers, some of which I had not looked at in 30+ years, brought back some memories that I thought were worth preserving.  The material will be physically protected, but how to preserve the context of the material?  When I hold a photograph or a letter, it not only lets me know what a long-dead ancestor did or saw, but the memory of me finding it.  The recall of a memory has a much broader context.  If I look over my grandfather’s crop reports for 1937, it brings back not only his interaction with the U. S. Department of Agriculture, but my memories of sitting in my grandmother’s attic.  Smelling of cedar planking, the sound of filtered laughter of aunts and uncles and the slap of pinochle cards, and the feel of my father’s childhood cowboy outfit, memories have a double context.

                That double context is a will-o-the-wisp.  When the memory is gone, through death, senility, or the simple passage of time, the double context is gone, and reverts to a single context.  That is both unfortunate and inevitable.  But it explains to historians, and anyone else who cares to think about it, why people hang on to stuff that has no value to anyone, except for that double context:  the memory, and what brings back the memory.

                So, archivists and librarians, when you show off your collections, be friendly, patient, and helpful.  Make sure your reading rooms are pleasant, and offer copies.  I know most of you do that, but it doesn’t hurt to remember, you are creating a new double context:  the information, and their memory of how they were shown it.  Make sure that memory is a good one.

Boniface Saner, the Trickster

                The dark tintype, according to my grandmother, is of a man named Boniface Saner.  I have no idea who he was or how the family came to know him.  Apparently he was a friend of my grandfather’s maternal grandfather, Emil Borer.  

                Emil, who came to America from Switzerland after the Civil War, could not yet speak English.  Saner, who could speak German and English, was approached by Emil, who asked him what to say to an American girl if he was interested in making small talk.  Saner replied that the proper English phraseology was to say “Kiss my a**.”  The hundred-thirty-year old anecdote ends by saying Emil Borer spent a night in jail after trying Saner’s suggestion.

                To my surprise, Boniface Saner is relatively easy to track down.  Saner (1848-1922) was a resident of Fremont, Ohio, and was listed as a “retired mason” on his death certificate.  He married Apolonia, a girl from Poland, and they had at least five children, all boys.  He is buried in St. Joseph Cemetery in Fremont.

                I always remembered my grandmother’s retelling of this anecdote, although now I can add some context.  Saner and Emil Borer both lived in Fremont.  They were both from Switzerland, and both were workingmen.  Although I do not know for sure, I can see them, after mass one Sunday, or perhaps in their cups in a saloon, one tricking the other.  A long road for a memory to go, but that’s the story.

A Pony named Sparkle

                The picture was taken in New Riegel.  On the back for the picture, my grandfather had written:  “about 1924.  The old Band Stand in background.”  The Pony’s name, Sparkle, was included, along with the names of his riders, Erma and Al (Alfred) Huss.  Erma and Al were children of the owner of a village general store, Charles Huss.  Uncle Charlie Huss was in turn married to my grandmother’s older sister, Laura Elchert Huss.  My father remembered that Charlie Huss taught him to play pinochle, gasping and tut-tutting as Dad made mistakes or played poorly.

               But the context of this picture, one of them, is not so much about family memories, as about sound, or the lack of it.  Today we live in a crowded, noisy world.  In 1924, any sound would have been somehow out of place.  The occasional locomotive and church bells aside, this was a world so quiet that the nickering of a pony of a pony and the (empty) bandstand might have been the only sound noticeable.

                Like the context of a memory, the lack of sound amplifies sound.  In a small place almost a hundred years ago, even the ring of a blacksmith’s hammer or the sound of the door to Charlie Huss’s general store opening could become large and full of meaning.  Now with so much noise-clutter, insignificant sounds remain insignificant.

                Although I have not been in my grandparents house in New Riegel in over thirty years, I can still hear the squeak of the hinge on their back door.  In a day before personal electronics kept kids in, their back door opened and closed relentlessly when we visited and dashed from outside play to our coloring books.  That sound and sounds like them, such as the tinny slam of the hog feeder down the road, can still be heard in my memory.  When I am gone, they will go with me.  One more sound, that of the wreck of a crank telephone that once hung in Grandpa’s garage, I can still hear. I rarely do, but if cranked, the bell rings  It takes up too much room in my den, but I cannot quite let go of that old thing.  The sound it makes is part of my context.