This is a picture from my grandparents’ wedding.
In the middle, you see the happy couple. To the left, my grandfather’s family, the Leykamms. Most German last names have literal meanings, but I’ve never been able to determine what “Leykamm” means, if anything. What I can tell you, and what you can surely see, is that the Leykamms are having a blast.
The woman you see in mid-uproarious laugh is my great grandmother. When I was little, she used to steal my blanket and hide it, usually by sitting on it, because “you don’t need that thing.” She found this very funny, mostly because Little Kid Me didn’t think it was funny at all. She would eventually give it back, with the admonition that I “should learn take a joke.” That may seem cruel, but looking back on Little Kid Me, I know I was an uptight kid, too uptight for my own good. She thought she was doing me a favor.
My mom describes the Leykamms as “beer garden people.” Fun loving types. My grandfather’s father bartended at a local joint, the Eagle’s Nest, on the weekends. That wasn’t his regular gig; I think he did it partly for extra dough, but mostly for kicks. My grandfather used to say of his parents, “they never left us at home.” In other words, when they went out for a good time, they took the kids with them. Fun was a family affair.
On the right, you’ll see my grandmother’s parents, the Bauerleins. Bauerlein means “little farmer” in German. The Bauerleins appear very different from the Leykamms. They look a lot like little farmers, actually. Stoic. A bit uncomfortable indoors. Though they are smiling, it seems rather forced, almost through gritted teeth. My great grandfather’s suit looks old fashioned, even for the era. It’s closer to The Jazz Age than The Swing Era.
My great grandmother looks like it’s taking all her strength to smile. She had a tough life. Nowadays, someone like her would be treated for clinical depression. In those days, you were told you suffered from “nerves” and would also be told to just deal with it (especially if you were a woman).
My grandmother was a very loving, nurturing person, but there was an edge to her. Her favorite phrase was this too shall pass. She loved to ask you how much you paid for something so she could be annoyed by the answer. She had this syllable she would frequently intone–if I had to spell it out, I’d choose uy, though that’s a poor approximation. Basically, uy meant, Here we go again. Whenever she said something a little harsh or mean, my grandfather would say it was her Bauerlein coming out.
To be fair, there are extenuating circumstances to this scene. You’ll notice my grandfather is wearing an army uniform. He was on leave and would ship out overseas soon after this wedding. I know he made it home in one piece, but no one in this picture could know that. For all the Bauerleins knew, their daughter might soon be a widow. I’d have to think that has at least a little bearing on their expressions.
Then again, the Leykamms had to be just as concerned for their son, but you don’t see that on their faces. These were just two different kinds of people. The Leykamms couldn’t help but have a good time, no matter what. The Bauerleins couldn’t help but worry about what might happen down the road.
I’ve always felt within me this war between two impulses: the desire to laugh and crack wise and have a great time, and the tug of worry. I’ve never really been able to narrow down what I do and choose one thing in which to specialize. One minute, I’m writing something dumb and silly, the next I’m getting angry about the world or wondering what the hell will happen next. Whenever I’ve pushed one aspect of myself down, it just pops up, bigger and angrier, in another spot. At times I’ve thought this was a bold choice on my part, an unwillingness to be pinned down, man.
And then I look at this picture, and I think that maybe this wasn’t a choice at all. Maybe I had to be this way. And it’s not even due to my own upbringing, but the meeting of two people well over 60 years ago.
All of us like to think that we’re our own people, that we define our universes and chart our own courses. In reality, so much of what we are was set in motion decades before we were born through the union of two people, the clash of two viewpoints, the mingling of two sets of DNA.
The difference, then, is what you do with your raw materials in those tiny spaces that are only yours.