Editor's note: This story concludes a series by Andrew Ramer about the deep roots of family legacies and the impact of early childhood experiences on the adults we become. You can see all stories by Andrew Ramer at https://3200stories.org/authors/andrew-ramer.
The tribes of ancient Israel wanted to be like other people. They wanted a king and persuaded the prophet Samuel to choose one. He picked Saul to be the first Israel’s king, and his reign began with promise. But when we encounter Saul near the end of the book of First Samuel, he’s old and battered. Desperate for information, Saul slips away in disguise to visit to a woman known as the Witch of Endor, and asks her to summon from the land of the dead the spirit of the prophet Samuel. The witch is fearful, for Saul had outlawed people with her gifts, but he persuades her that she’ll be safe and she calls up Samuel, who delivers this news to the king: “God has turned away from you.” Injured the next day in the midst of a losing battle, Saul died by his own hand.
I understand this impulse, to summon the ghosts of the dead. For more than fifty years I’ve been thinking about a Samuel of my own, a stern figure in a small framed photograph that hung over a wall thermometer in the hallway of my father’s father’s tiny apartment in Brooklyn. Till I was almost thirteen I didn’t know his name. He was just, “the man in the top hat.” But as I was preparing to be called to the Torah for the first time, as the son of my father – no one called boys by their father’s and mother’s Hebrew names then – I became curious about our lineage, sat down with Grandpa, and asked him what his father’s name was. “Samuel. You call him the man in the top hat.” I was stunned – that that forbidding figure was one of my ancestors. I asked Grandpa what his father’s name was. “Elias.” Imagining a chain going all the way back in time, I asked for his father’s name. But Grandpa didn’t know and could only add, “Either he, or maybe his father, was from northern Italy. That’s where our family comes from.”
Italy? My little Yiddish-speaking grandfather’s ancestors, and mine, came from Italy? It was 1964, I was twelve, had no idea that there ever were Jews in Italy, and can forgive myself for not asking what I would surely ask now – “When did your father die? What kind of work did he do? Did you like him?” All that I knew about him was that he wore a top hat and lived above a thermometer in the hallway, across from the bathroom.
When I was little my parents liked to write stories that my father would illustrate and my mother would read to me and my younger brother at bedtime. One of my favorites was about a man named Temperature Jones. Now Temperature Jones was tall and very, very thin. In fact – he was a human thermometer – who wore a top hat! Alas, I cannot recall anything about him or any of his adventures, but when I think of Temperature Jones I know that my father too was thinking about his father’s father, who hung in the hallway of his parent’s apartment all though his childhood and into mine and my brother’s.
Grandpa died in 1974, and everyone else who might have known about our ancestors died years ago too, so for years I’ve been sleuthing – as the witch of Endor did to find out if the man who came to her was safe – sleuthing to find out more about the man in the top hat. I hunted online with no success, and only began to learn a bit about the past when I went to a few meetings of the Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, where I was guided to the Ellis Island website. There I discovered that Grandpa, ("Menashe, Max, age 15") arrived in 1904 with his younger brother, who I vaguely remember as Uncle Abe. Eight days later the man in the top hat arrived with Grandpa’s younger brother, who I also remember as more a name than a person – Uncle Izzy.
It’s no surprise, given the times, that one of the questions I never asked my grandfather, was about his mother. By the time I was old enough to ask, there was one no left alive who knew, and I remained puzzled. Nothing about her showed up at Ellis Island, nor at any of the other sites I went to. Someone else at the Genealogical Society suggested that I send away for Grandpa’s Social Security application, and weeks later, in the spring of 2009, an envelope from them arrived in the mail.
My hands were shaking as I opened it. Inside was a photocopy of a document dated 11/30/1936, filled out in Grandpas’ familiar block letters, his handwriting as much 'him' to me as a photograph. My eyes raced down to the blank line over FATHER’S FULL NAME that he filled in with SAMUEL RAMER. Beside that, above MOTHER’S FULL MAIDEN NAME was – DORA GELLER – which opened the floodgates of my eyes, as I walked up the stairs with the page in my shaking hands. For a moment, conjured merely by her name, she -- someone, my great grandmother --stood beside me on the stairs, in a tan dress down to her ankles. Dora. Dora Geller. No photograph and I still don’t have one. The one of Samuel a gift from my cousin Larry, who ended up with the original and made me a copy.
'There is power in stories. They live on. Combine and recombine, in unexpected ways.'
Italy. Austria-Hungary. Poland. Brooklyn. San Francisco,where a sixty-four-year-old Jewish man sits at his desk, hands on a keyboard in his lap. He is staring at a small glowing screen. From time to time he looks up and out, out the window over his desk, looks out to the Norfolk Island Pine grown tall in the yard. To the right of the window, a small outdoor thermometer hangs. And he looks inward, deep into his genes. There, ancestors dance long intricate snake dances. And here, before your eyes, letters dance. A story. For there is power in stories. They live on. Combine and recombine, in unexpected ways. I laughed years ago when I learned how Samuel and the Witch of Endor were reincarnated as Samantha and Endora in “Bewitched,” a sitcom that ran from 1964 until 1972. And I laugh as I think about my great grandparents, Samuel and Dora, the man in the top hat and the woman on the stairs – permutations of names and genes dancing inside me, half a world away from the Stanislaw they once called home.
Feature image "Saul and theWitch of Endor" by Matthias Stom is in the Public Domain.