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It’s been a pleasure over the past few years to acquaint total strangers in cyberspace with people who were dear to me.

It’s also been interesting, from time to time, to acquaint myself with people in my family I never really got to know — as in this entry from a few years ago, and this one and this one as well.

We’ll do that again this week, as we step back in time 46 years to the funeral of a relative I wish I could have met.

March 13, 1969.

March 13, 1969.

Bob Kidd would have been my great-uncle, had we lived at the same time; but he could have been my grandfather.

Back in the ’30s in Springfield, Mass., Bob dated a young lady named Corine Wambolt. Then he decided that Corine’s more outgoing older sister Eleanor was more his type, and transferred his affections.

Corine went on to marry a draftsman named Bill Blumenau — the guy who kept the calendars — and, years later, became my grandmother. Bob Kidd and Eleanor also got married, had two sons, and settled in the Springfield area.

Bob and Eleanor on their wedding day, November 1940.

Bob and Eleanor on their wedding day, November 1940.

My dad’s description of his uncle:

Bob Kidd was a fun-loving, athletic, bright, truly funny man. Had kind of a New England nasal way of speaking. Self-made man. Worked for Holyoke Wire & Cable (I believe). High school graduate; was at one point a time-and-motion study person (forerunner of an industrial engineer), and ended up as a vice-president.

(Ancestry.com tells me that Bob’s Scottish-born father, Charles MacEwan Kidd, entered the U.S. from Canada in March 1911 through Rochester, New York — a city that would pop up again in Blumenau family affairs 55 years later. Coincidental, but interesting.)

The Blumenau and Kidd families spent time together fairly regularly when my dad and aunt were growing up. My dad still holds fond memories of those days, and of his funny, fun-loving uncle:

He and Eleanor were a great match; two of a kind. It was always fun to get together with them and our cousins.  Nice, decent, grounded Methodist folks, just a heck of a lot livelier and more fun than the Blumenaus!
The only time my father had beer was with Sunday dinner and whenever we got together with the Kidds.
Bob Kidd hula-hooping, 1958, at 1107 Hope Street.

Bob Kidd hula-hooping, 1958, at 1107 Hope Street. Can’t say whether beer was involved.

Nice, nice people. (This is my dad talking, again.)
Eleanor and Bob Kidd at my parents' wedding, July 1967.

Eleanor and Bob Kidd at my parents’ wedding, July 1967. Jeez, don’t they look happy?

Unfortunately, by my dad’s telling, the stresses of a vice-president’s job wore hard on Bob; my dad describes him as “more high-strung than he used to be” in his last years. Like most men of his age and time, he also smoked.

Both of these things might have contributed to his early death. On March 10, 1969, Bob Kidd died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 54.

My grandpa took it hard. My dad, who still remembers the phone call, has a few regrets regarding his passing as well:

I will forever feel guilty for not making that funeral; I had a bad cold and my ’66 Mustang was acting up with carburetor problems and I apparently had my priorities in the wrong place.  Uncle Bob was a great guy!

Clearly, from his calendar entry, my grandfather, grandma and aunt (who was in college in New Haven at the time) attended the service. He was not so grief-stricken that he couldn’t keep track of his mileage; but I don’t take that as a sign that the day was not meaningful to him.

My great-aunt Eleanor is still alive at 102, and has had the pleasure of meeting grandchildren and, I think, great-grandchildren as well.

I am sure she still feels her loss of 46 years ago. But, if it is any consolation, her husband is fondly remembered by those who met him.

And some who didn’t.

Several of my co-workers are Catholic; and a few days ago I heard them discussing Lent.

One said she had given up beer for Lent, but would likely switch to vodka. It didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice … though this person has given more time and attention to the church than I ever will, so I am not one to judge.

It seems like most discussions of Lent I hear have a somewhat farcical edge, like the one above. Few of them ever seem to involve real self-denial. Perhaps that has gone by the wayside. (Or perhaps I do not travel in deeply religious circles, which is the most likely answer.)

My grandparents, as previously discussed, were not deeply religious either. However, Lent made its way into their consciousness each February. Or at least it did in a couple Februaries for which I have calendar entries, covering the full 15-year scope of my grandpa’s calendars.

February 12, 1975.

February 12, 1975. Presumably the start of Lent was not contingent on Mertz calling.

February 27 and 28, 1964.

February 27 and 28, 1964. “Lenten sign” was presumably one of the pieces of signage my grandpa created for his church.

February 15 (up top of George), 1961.

February 15 (up top of George), 1961.

This raises an interesting question for me: What would my grandparents and great-grandma have given up for Lent?

Their lives were pretty plain-Jane, and not long in indulgences to begin with. Perhaps my grandfather gave up saying “damn,” or eating sauerbraten, or drinking the half-beers he used to split with my great-grandmother.

Or maybe, by my dad’s telling, they gave up nothing at all:

I have no recollection of anyone giving up anything for Lent.  If anyone did, it would have been Grossee, but I don’t remember anything being different at mealtime or any other time during Lent.  No one ever went to any sort of Ash Wednesday service (don’t think Springdale Methodist had one).  

I suppose it’s possible that my grandfather put Lent on his calendar out of some sense of civic obligation. But, I still can’t help but wonder whether he actually did make a commitment to give something up.

If I really had my act together, I’d check his calendars 40 days later and see if he left a record of reveling in anything. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do that, though.

I dunno. I guess I’ll leave the topic there and go indulge in one of the fleshly sins I give in to year-round.

I’ve written a couple times about my grandpa and grandma going out for a restaurant meal, and I’ve always wondered what they ordered.

In their day and age, a night out to celebrate usually meant a steak of some sort, and I’m sure my grandpa enjoyed more than a few of those.

There is one dish, though, that I know my grandfather enjoyed at home and at restaurants, when he could get it.

I know this because — you guessed it — he expressed his fondness for it on his calendar.

Exhibit A, from January 29, 1966, involves a meal out:

January 29, 1966.

January 29, 1966. Hugo’s used to be a German restaurant (don’t see many of those any more) somewhere in Fairfield County. I ate there once myself, in the spring of 1981, as part of a huge family gathering to celebrate my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It’s possible I had the sauerbraten, but I don’t remember.

And Exhibit B, from almost exactly the same time the year before, features a meal at home.

January 26 and 27, 1965. Some people look forward to Shark Week, others to Sauerbraten Week.

January 26 and 27, 1965. Some people look forward to Shark Week, others to Fashion Week, and still others to Sauerbraten Week.

Despite being fairly handy and experimentative in the kitchen, I’d never made sauerbraten. The thought had never even crossed my mind.

But when I saw these two calendar entries, I knew I would have to give it a try. My grandpa would expect nothing less.

To the kitchen, then.

# # # # #

Sauerbraten, for anyone not familiar with the concept, is an old German recipe in which a beef roast is marinated for several days in a mix of vinegar and spices before being cooked pot-roast fashion. The marinade cooks with the meat, and is then thickened to serve as gravy.

It’s solid, stick-to-your-ribs fare, perfect for wintry nights … but not bland or lacking in nuance, like some such dishes can be.

Unfortunately, I do not have my great-grandma’s sauerbraten recipe. So I took my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking in hand and went to work.

The principal ingredients.

The principal ingredients.

The beef prepares to enter the fridge, ensconced in a soak of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, onion powder and maybe a trace of nutmeg.

The beef prepares to enter the fridge, ensconced in a soak of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, onion powder and maybe a trace of nutmeg.

Joy says sauerbraten should soak anywhere from two to four days (Wikipedia suggests as long as 10, but that sounded long to me.)

I gave my beef about three-and-a-half days, turning occasionally, which seemed like a good amount of time. And when it came out on Saturday afternoon, it looked like this:

German food is -- how does one say this? -- not the sexiest of cuisines.

S-e-x-x-y.

The next step was to brown the meat on all sides while warming up the marinade in a separate pan:

101_7766

Then, everything went into the oven for about three-and-a-half hours at 320 degrees. (In the interim I did some laundry; shoveled off my deck; napped on the couch; and started making spaetzle, Teutonic mini-dumplings that go nicely with just about anything German.)

At the appointed time, I took the meat out of the oven and admired my handiwork and … well, I’m pretty sure I screwed it up.

See, all the pix of sauerbraten I’ve ever seen show it as conventional slices of beef, like a pot roast looks.

But the beef I had had the breaking-down texture of barbecued beef or pork — more suitable for pulling into long strings.

So that’s what I did with it. Who am I to blow against the wind?

101_7773

After doing that, I strained the remaining marinade and combined it with a bit of light cream and some crushed gingersnaps — an old cook’s trick to add both body and spice to the sauce.

How do you say "secret ingredient" in German?

How do you say “secret ingredient” in German?

For the final touches, I served some applesauce as a side dish, and poured the sort of light American pilsner that would have been common in my grandfather’s time.

101_7779

How was it?

Well, I’m still not sure I made it right — I don’t think real sauerbraten is supposed to break down into strings. (Joy suggested several different cuts of beef, but the one I chose may not have been the same cut most commonly used by German cooks.)

But it tasted pretty good — considerably better than it looked. It was pleasantly puckery without being overbearing, and the gravy added a nice sweetness to the meat and the spaetzle.

In between the vinegary tang and the moist, sweet sauce, it came out almost like a German twist on barbecue.

My older son and wife ate heartily, and even my younger son — who usually assumes a high-handed Statler-and-Waldorf contempt toward my cooking — ate a good amount and suggested I make it again.

I think my grandpa would have enjoyed it as well … though at first glance, he probably would have asked me what I did with the sauerbraten he’d been waiting three days for.

“Hoping that our youth may be persuaded to love and imitate the virtues of the men whose great names they have been accustomed, from the cradle, to lisp with veneration, I have long coveted to set these virtues before them.”
- Mason Locke Weems

This week we find ourselves in the retrospectively sunny world of JFK’s New Frontier, face to face with one of America’s enduring myths.

When first I looked at the calendar entry for February 22, 1963 — nine months to the day before Dallas — I squinted at the dotted apparition in the center.

What in the fresh hell is that supposed to be? I thought, sipping my Ward 8. There’s no plant or tree that looks so vibrant and alive in February in Connecticut. February is too late for holly berries, and too early for apples. What IS that?

And then I remembered a certain American legend involving an axe, and a fruit tree, and an honest little boy who grew up to have a federal holiday proclaimed in his honor.

February 22, 1963. Axe and boy not shown.

February 22, 1963. Axe, boy and ham dinner not shown.

Mason Locke Weems, the author who gave the world the cherry-tree story, is known today — to those who remember him at all — for never letting the truth get in the way of a saleable bit of hagiography.

The snippet of “biography” that gave the world the cherry-tree story can be read at Weems’ Wiki page. Project Gutenberg, meanwhile, gives us the texts of Weems’ biographies of Francis Marion and Benjamin Franklin.

(The Franklin bio is titled, “The Life of Benjamin Franklin. With Many Choice Anecdotes and admirable sayings of this great man never before published by any of his biographers.” Reminds me of the remarkable, unprecedented access Clifford Irving had to Howard Hughes.)

Here’s a choice bit from page one of the Franklin biography; I’ll buy a cherry pie for anyone who can stand to read the whole book:

Some men carry letters of recommendation in their looks, and some in their names. ‘Tis the lot but of few to inherit both of these advantages. The hero of this work was one of that favoured number. As to his physiognomy, there was in it such an air of wisdom and philanthropy, and consequently such an expression of majesty and sweetness, as charms, even in the commonest pictures of him. And for his name, every one acquainted with the old English history, must know, that Franklin stands for what we now mean by “Gentleman,” or “clever fellow.”

I find it interesting how a scrap of fiction, apparently made up out of whole cloth as Weems dipped his quill, could become an entrenched bit of national lore known to every generation of Americans.

Nowadays, everyone knows the cherry-tree story isn’t true. (This is not a recent development; I’m sure my grandpa knew this in February 1963.)

But everyone knows the story anyway. Even in the skeptical 21st century, when warts-and-all is the rule and presidents have feet of clay, this antiquated, hopelessly sunny legend still goes around.

Just to verify that schoolkids today still hear the cherry legend, I went upstairs and asked my kids, aged 14 and 11. They hastened to tell me it wasn’t true — but they’d both heard it. (Neither of them could quite remember when and where, which suggests it was some time ago.)

No matter what you think of the relative virtues of truth and falsehood, the eternal resilience of the story is kind of charming.

America’s stock of shared lore is like a patchwork quilt — Paul Bunyan in red plaid over here, steel-drivin’ John Henry in stark gray and black there, Johnny Appleseed in russet dapple in the corner … and a little boy with a white-flowered cherry tree right in the middle, one of the oldest and best-stitched patches of all, as if affixed by some wizened, winsome national grandma.

Taking the cherry tree out of the quilt now would just about require unraveling the whole thing. And Americans, even in the darkest of times, have never bought into that idea.

So Mason Weems’ bald-faced lie will probably outlast us all … as it outlasted our fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers.

I wonder whether any legends of our current crop of presidents — or any truths, for that matter — will last as long.

One of the two calendar items shown this week is still current, while the other is faded and gone.

I don’t know if, given the choice in 1974, my grandfather would have predicted which would be which.

February 5-6, 1974.

February 5-6, 1974.

The CPI inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website says 55 cents in 1974 has the same purchasing power as $2.64 today.

Two dollars and sixty-four cents is well more than the current price of a gallon of gas where I live — and that’s not including the discounts you can get by buying through grocery stores or discount clubs.

Just the other night, my wife used a whole bunch of piled-up gas discount points that were about to expire, and ended up filling her tank for roughly $1.25 per gallon.

Whether this run of low gas prices is a good thing is debatable … and it certainly isn’t going to last forever.

Still, if you dropped my grandfather into 2015 and gave him an inflation calculator to work with, he would recognize the gas prices of the moment as roughly akin to what he used to pay in the Seventies.

(His underline of 55 cents suggests he maybe wasn’t thrilled about paying that price. So he wouldn’t necessarily be happy. But he wouldn’t be shocked, either.)

On the other hand, the days of using phone books are going, maybe even gone — never mind the days when one left oneself a note to remember to start using the latest edition.

There was only one phone book then, I’m fairly certain. That’s not like today, when we seem to get two or three different versions a year and we don’t need any of them.

Once in the bluest of moons, I will take out a phone book and look something up. Usually, it’s when I need someone to perform a service I don’t need very often, and I’m too lazy to go downstairs to Google it, and the phone’s charging so I can’t look it up on that, and I’ve forgotten to ask a co-worker for a recommendation. This happens maybe three or four times a year, and the number dwindles as the years pass.

It’s interesting: Running an Internet search for, say, barbers in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania will still turn up a lot of dead-end links, false-front pages and general crap. It’s not a perfect process by any means.

And yet, most people I know prefer the online search, hassles and all, to the familiar, time-honored method of looking in a phone book — to the point where the print lookup is pretty much obsolete.

(I should watch my words, I suppose. I’m sure the phone book still has its loyalists, all of whom probably read Hope Street and will let me know in no uncertain terms that they still prefer the old ways. Phone books are still good for propping up stuff that needs a little more height, too. And they burn a while, if you’ve got a fire pit in the yard.)

Small-town phone book meets its maker, Keuka Lake, N.Y. I still think there's at least one great story in this image but I don't know what it is.

Small-town phone book meets its maker, Keuka Lake, N.Y. I still think there’s at least one great story in this image but I don’t know what it is. Maybe if I look under “W” for Writers, Fiction …