Luminous people chanced our lives, people who seemed to live richer, and not just materially. Two that come to mind are as different as the sun from the moon - the Brenner's & Aunt Mary. The Brenner's were ethnic and I loved ethnic because we were as plain and ordinary Americans as there ever could be. I hungered for myth, for family histories and old graves, for stories of the old country or Civil War veterans. We had none, zero, our family tree evaporated inside three generations like a slither of ice in the sun. Grandpa’s dad died in the flood of 1913. Our ancestors came over from Ireland due to the famine. One line stories, no faces, no names. The great myth of Irish storytelling seemed lost on my relatives. We were now utterly Americans, invisibly middle-class, everyman’s man. We ate hamburgers and hotdogs, belonged to the majority religion, spoke without accent, went bowling, read the local newspaper, watched the local news.
The Flood of 1913 was the only history anyone cared about, and it riveted me. Every time I passed the river into Hamilton I would imagine the waters turned surly, nasty, angry. These boringly benign waters were once Killing waters! I noted the high watermark and then tried to conjure it higher, nearly wishing another flood.
The Brenner's may’ve been as American as we were but they pretended otherwise, & I lived it too. Their parents were German immigrants, they had been to Germany, had living relatives there. They sent mail to the Communist East, and the thought of officials censoring it thrilled. They told of “Checkpoint Charlie” and the horrible Wall where people tried tunneling, ballooning, anything to get over it and usually failed, shot in cold blood. I imagined ways I would try to escape. I dreamt of going there, visting West Berlin and trying to escape into East Berlin, and wandering into the East German countryside, hiding there because I was good at hiding. I was small and thin and thought myself clever.
The Brenner's lived like Europeans - they went to the opera, to plays, to the symphony. They traveled, made and drank wine out of dusty ancient bottles, and rattled off words in German. Mary Ann taught me the song Give My Regards to Broadway with a Brooklyn accent. I thought it was the coolest thing and never forgot it.
Aunt Mary was the opposite. She never traveled, never drank, and though she read I couldn’t remember a thing except a spiritual book or two. She lived in an old part of town. Everything about her life was different from ours. Her house was old and deathly quiet, with quaint furniture and books behind class cages as if they were too dangerous to let out. She had a basement - something we never had - and the creepy downstairs fed the imagination. She served different foods from us - like hot cereal. That was exotic to us. She served strange dishes on old plates. Mary made even spinach taste good. But nothing, at no time before or since, tasted like city chicken. Served on a kabob it woke me up to food as something more than just something to do before going back out to play. Food as the main entertainment. Poor aunt Mary was always hobbled and one would think would have little to offer a child. She lived a simple lifestyle, and it going to her house was like going on a retreat. Like a monastery, her house was spare of words, spare of ornament, and the morning chants were sang by whipporwills which I listened to in rapt atttention. Aunt Mary and the Brenner's showed two sides of life. Life lived restrained, disciplined and bereft of ornament or one rich, baroque, full of travel and wine and art. Simple vs complex, nature vs city, active vs contemplative.