“No,” his father said. “You already have a sweater.”
My ancestors were what the encyclopedia used to call “sturdy peasant stock.” I think this was a euphemism for poor people who toiled in the fields for rich people. The sturdy part probably meant they were the tough ones, the survivors.
All four of my grandparents came from Germany and/or France. My grandfather, David, the one who said my dad didn’t need another sweater, was born in Strasbourg, Germany, and came to America in 1886 when he was 15. His older brother, Isadore, was already here. In order to keep their sons from being conscripted into the army, their parents sent them to America as soon as they were teenagers, to seek their fortunes. Isadore had settled in Cincinnati, so that’s where David went.
Strasbourg is in Alsace-Lorraine, an area in the northeast corner of France. It must be a valuable parcel, because it was yanked back and forth between Germany and France several times during the last few hundred years. Whichever country won whatever war was being waged -- was rewarded with Alsace-Lorraine. It was German in 1871, French in 1919, German in 1944, then French from 1945 until today. Townsfolk spoke both languages. They had to.
My grandfather’s ruling on the letter sweater was overrun, thankfully, by my grandmother. My dad said she defied her husband (for once) and bought the sweater. “She probably did without a winter coat or something,” my dad said.
My dad claimed his parents were not poor because the family always had enough to eat and a place to live. “But there was no money for extras, for frills or fancy stuff,” he said. “No car; no exotic vacations; no exclusive schools; no memberships in private clubs; no money for a sweater when you already had a sweater.” He ate in a restaurant for the first time when he was in his late teens.
This letter sweater story has been passed down in the family. My dad told it to me and I told it to my three daughters and my grandchildren. It didn’t mean much to me when I was young (such a callous youth I was!) and it has probably sailed right over the heads of my children and grandchildren.
For now. They’ll remember the anecdote later on, when they’re older, as I did.
I like this bit of family history because it tells me something about my dad’s family of origin. My grandfather was the old-school autocratic German head-of-household. He was the breadwinner, the boss of the family. My grandmother was his subordinate. She was supposed to cook, clean, take care of the children and follow his rules. Children were also expected to follow orders without any backtalk. Grandpa’s word was law.
My grandmother was softer. She recognized the value of breaking a rule to honor my father’s achievement on the basketball court.
My father was not like his father. He was not autocratic or overbearing. He went to night school while he worked, then sought his fortune in Detroit as a commercial artist in the advertising business. He toiled long hours and worked hard all his life, and he was successful.
My children and I remember his frequent reminders, however. They used to roll their eyes and sigh when he asked them: “Do you know how lucky you are?” (I used to roll and sigh too, when I was younger.)
We had closets crammed with sweaters; dozens of pairs of shoes; all manner of dresses and skirts and pants and jackets. We had toys and bicycles and vacations and private lessons for this and that and just about anything else we needed.
We didn’t have everything we wanted. But nobody ever had to go without a winter coat so another family member could buy a sweater.
I need to remember – and so do my children and grandchildren – that my father is a good part of the reason for “how lucky we are.”