Saturday, September 8, 2012

Helen's Story

As I was thinking about writing today's blog, I had to ask myself if this was the right thing to do.  The story isn't very flattering to our ancestors.  I could just stick to stories that are funny, charming, and shed a positive light on the family, but how unrealistic is that???  So, I've decided to tell this story because it reveals something about the attitudes within our family three and four generations ago, but mostly because it's just a pretty good story. It is about my Aunt Helen Metzner McCarthy Kramer (1897-1984), the daughter of Louis Metzner (1872-1930) and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Reiter Metzner (1874-1958).

Lizzie Metzner holding Paula, with Albert (right) and Gordon, 1954

My first memory of Aunt Helen was when I was probably 3 or 4 years old.  I remember a trip to her house in Chicago, but it wasn't Aunt Helen that made an impression on me that particular day. What I remember most distinctly was an old woman sitting in the living room looking very stern.  I have never forgotten that woman's face -- it's etched in my brain.

No one told me at the time who she was. It wasn't until I saw a picture of her years later that I figured it out. She was my great-grandmother, Lizzie Reiter Metzner.  It was the only occasion that I consciously remember seeing her, and I probably never saw her again. She died in 1958. I imagine she had an incredible impact on Aunt Helen's life based on the story I'm about to tell.  Let's start with a little background ...

Helen Kramer, 1954

Aunt Helen and Uncle Al Kramer moved to Grand Rapids some time in the 1960s.  They became a fixture at family events and I have to say that I enjoyed Aunt Helen's company, even though most of the older generation described her as, you might say, "a piece of work." Aunt Helen had a great smile and laugh.  I loved her, and Uncle Al, too.

I didn't know much about Uncle Al.  What I did know was that he was Jewish. Having been raised Christian (Lutheran to be exact), I thought it was pretty special to have someone Jewish in our family.  Funny though, no one ever talked about it, and neither did Uncle Al.  I have no idea how I found out that he was Jewish -- it seems like I just always knew.

Uncle Al died in 1969.  It wasn't until Aunt Helen  passed in 1984 that I heard this story from my Uncle Bud Metzner. I just sat on it until last year when curiosity got the best of me.

Uncle Bud said Aunt Helen was married to Uncle Al twice.  On the occasion of their first marriage (Nov. 13, 1924, in Muskegon, Mich.) she was told by her parents to have it annulled. They didn't approve of her being married to a Jewish man.  So, as a dutiful daughter, Helen divorced Al on July 11, 1925.

I was a bit surprised to hear that that kind of attitude existed in our family -- it wasn't one that I was raised with.  But I was especially bothered to hear the next part of the story.  According to Uncle Bud, Aunt Helen had a plan to be so rich that no one could ever tell her what to do again...and once she was rich, she'd remarry Uncle Al. Ahhh...the plot thickens.       

Uncle Bud continued the story, telling me that Aunt Helen found a rich man to marry, inherited all his money, then went back and remarried Uncle Al.  And that was the end of the story, at least from Uncle Bud.   

Last year I decided to get to the bottom of the story. How much of it was really true? I started digging and found that the facts were true. Now, whether or not Aunt Helen ever proclaimed that she was going to get rich so no one could ever tell her what to do again...that I can't say for sure. But knowing Aunt Helen, it certainly sounds plausible.  She didn't take any "guff" (so to speak) from anyone.

Based on a few tidbits of information found over the last year, I can tell you that Helen moved to Cleveland, Ohio soon after her 1924 marriage to Al. She is found in the 1925 Cleveland City Directory listed as a bookkeeper; and 11 months after her divorce was granted from Al  (on July 11, 1925) she married a very wealthy Cleveland-area businessman, Charles Thomas McCarthy, on June 11, 1926.  McCarthy was about 20 years Helen's senior. He owned an electrotype factory and, according to the 1930 U.S. Census, he and Helen were the wealthiest residents on their street -- their property was valued at $50,000 while surrounding neighbors were between $8,000-$12,000.

Marriage Record for Charles McCarthy and Helen B. Metzner, June 15, 1926

What happened after 1930 is not clear.  Charles died around 1935-1936 (record of his death cannot be found on-line) and by 1937 Helen is no longer listed in Cleveland-area city directories.  A second marriage record for Helen and Al has not been found, but I suspect the couple reunited in Chicago around 1937 and married shortly thereafter.

What this story says about Aunt Helen is that she was a very determined woman, even though her way of achieving her goal was, in my opinion, less than stellar.       But she was, obviously, deeply in love and wasn't going to be stopped.  Good for her... I think.

The story also reveals an attitude of anti-semitism that existed in our family a century ago.  Of course I'd be naive to say "not in OUR family." Then, as now, it is a prevalent and unfortunate attitude. I'm happy that I don't see it in our family today.  Maybe Uncle Al's presence in the family helped those generations before us change their perceptions of Jewish people and not pass it on to their descendants.

That really is the end of the story. But I wonder what affect Helen's second marriage to Al had on her relationship with her mother, Lizzie Metzner. It's clear that Helen "got rich" to spite her parents. But the fact that Helen and her mother are together in photographs after Al and Helen "re-united" in marriage, indicates that Grandma Lizzie must have finally accepted Helen's relationship with Al ... or did she? Could that stern look that I remember so well have been the face of disapproval? I surely hope not, but we'll never really know. 

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