Life in a Frame

The Bride Wore Lace – original artwork © M. Weisel; photo © J. Woo


1Two large picture frames, that’s all she was able to bring back on the boat. And a couple of oversea crates with linen and clothing and a few photographs. Bring back?

2She had no recollections of the old country that she and her younger sister had left when they were toddlers. They still spoke the Swabian dialect with Mama and Papa, but the East Village was their home and English her and Clara’s preferred language. You could pay her parents, and they wouldn’t go back. They had done well, invested the money from the sale of their bakery in a Delicatessen, and when the business grew, so did the apartment they had all lived in together then, away from the tenements. She loved her busy neighborhood. Though it felt like a small town, the East Village connected to the large landscape of the big city which was full of promises -and dreams.

3And yet, here she was, packing her life up into a couple of oversea crates. Should she wrap up these two big, heavy wood-framed pictures? They would take up so much space, and the glass might even break on that long journey. Mama and Papa had given her the first picture when she got married to Henry, and the second after Lilly’s birth, her beautiful little girl. Lilly whose grave she would never visit again, her parents whom she was leaving behind as well and even Clara, her sister. They had become somewhat distant after her marriage, and when Clara started to travel so much with her lady orchestra, they hardly saw each other.

4Mama and Papa valued a good education for their girls, and her sensitive brown haired sister had been allowed to take private music lessons. After she had heard Camilla Urso play, the famous French-born violinist when she was only ten years old, Clara couldn’t be stopped. The summer she had finished school, she had asked Papa to enroll her in the National Conservatory of Music in America on West 25th street which admitted female students, even Blacks, amateurs and aspiring professionals. First Papa had hesitated. But since the Conservatory didn’t charge tuition, he had given his consent. How proud Mama and Papa still were of her disciplined musical sister, though playing the violin was still considered not exactly lady-like; and how hard Clara had worked, practicing every day for hours. But it paid off: She had joined a group of female musicians and turned into a successful violinist, almost like Camilla Urso. And now she even earned money, her own money, by touring the country with this famous female orchestra. Her sister got to see the hustle and bustle elsewhere. She missed her, but there was also a little envy in her heart.

5She herself was not very musical, but she loved to draw. As a girl, she had often wondered if she was as gifted as Clara. It was the hustle and bustle right here, in front of her house that had inspired her sketches, the market stands, the people, the horse carts and the occasional motorcar driving though the busy street. She had dreamed of traveling to draw what was beyond the big city and often walked down to the pier to sketch the boats being loaded and unloaded. There it had been: the promise of future travels to far-away places, a promise only partially – and ironically fulfilled eventually. Then the world had been coming to her, all the immigrants pouring into the city, connecting with communities and family already here or venturing off to go west. She had spent hours putting her sketch book together and thought about enrolling in art school. If only she had done so, she thought when wrapping the photographs of Little Henry in her linen towels. Going back might apply to Henry, but certainly not to her. And yet, that’s where she was going together with Little Henry. She had no choice.

6What would she have done, she wondered, if she hadn’t met Henry? Papa had known him before she had because they sang in the same Gesangverein. She had first spotted him when they had performed at one of the neighborhood festivals. His bright blue eyes, the waxed mustache and the way he wore his hat slightly tilted to the right, his well-tailored suits and dimpled boyish smile on his round face obviously still made him a favorite with the ladies, though he now was a bit heavier, his hair a bit thinner. Back then a group of factory girls had been standing in front of the band stand trying to draw his attention. But he had only looked at her. Henry loved music, had a deep voice, carried the tune faultlessly. He was one of the leading voices of his choir. Their eyes had met, and Henry had made sure to be introduced to her, Elizabeth, his fellow choir member’s beautiful daughter.

Big Henry Posing © M. Kohl
7Henry had arrived from the old country a few years before, all by himself. He had left in kind of a hurry, because he had thought he had killed somebody in a beer brawl. Insults had been exchanged when his temper took over, a temper she hadn’t witnessed during their courtship, but later during their marriage. This hot wave of anger which surged right out of his belly into his head. He had hit the other boy hard, too hard. He wouldn’t get up. Henry had panicked, run home, grabbed a few things and made off on a Rhine bark towards Amsterdam, and from there on to America. He almost hadn’t had time to say good-by to his mother, the only one who really cared about him, who had called him mein Schatz, still did in her letters, which she found odd because he was a grown man.

8Henry was a good storyteller. He had described to her the slow boat trip down the Rhine valley taking him further than he had ever been, painfully reminding him of the beauty of the place: green vineyards clinging to the slate rocks, small rivers feeding the old stream, medieval castles topping impossibly steep cliffs, and eventually fertile flat fields giving way to the North Sea. She had made some sketches imagining the scenery he had described, just to make him happy, because even then in their courtship days, she had sensed that Henry was a torn person, adventurer on the one hand, deeply rooted on the other like the vines on the hills around the old village. He could have gone back. A few months after he had found a place in New York, a letter had arrived from his folks urging him to return: The fellow hadn’t died after all. But by that time Henry had become fascinated by the big city. He made friends easily. He had found a job in one of those numerous little tailor shops before setting up his own, and shared a place with one of his colleagues nearby. Before he had met her, he would roam the streets of Manhattan on Sundays, walking all the way to that bridge built by a German whose name he had forgotten and which reminded him of gothic church towers back home. He had often wandered up to the big park built to allow the city folks access to some nature, and he still did sometimes. There, he would sit on the grass and dream about going back home to the Rhine valley as a rich man and show them all – eventually.

9Elizabeth folded the bed linen and Henry’s night shirts and placed them carefully on top of her own.

10What had she seen in him back then when he had courted her? A free spirit, no doubt, somebody who expressed his opinion strongly and became the center of attention quickly. He had a fine sense of humor, was a charmer. He had called her Lisa with a soft “s” the way it was pronounced in German, brought her flowers and sweets and a beautifully embroidered shawl. He had made her laugh with funny stories about his customers, and had often talked about the future when he could afford a trip home, just to see if his folks were doing well and to show off to the farm boys. Maybe they could go there together, he had suggested.

11Henry was a talented tailor, and because he had been lucky to come with a modest sum provided by his father, he didn’t have to start at the bottom in his new city. He had been smart enough to scout out the neighborhood, talk to the local business owners, and when one of the stores had been listed for rent in his street, he had managed to set up his own shop. John, a young man from Ireland he had befriended, had joined him. Henry was the boss, of course, and they both had worked hard, still did, but knew how to have a good time as well. Henry always enjoyed being part of the German immigrant community with its all-male choirs, sports and bowling clubs and crowded beer places. This was his link to the old home. And this is where they had met during that neighborhood festival.

12She had loved spending time with him. She remembered that Papa had liked the young German but thought him a bit irresponsible, especially when Henry had had a few beers and entertained them with tall tales and witty remarks. Papa hadn’t been too keen on welcoming Henry into their family. When Henry’s kisses had become more passionate and his hands too busy under her coat there on the park bench in the dusk, she had pulled back – reluctantly. Mama had warned her to be careful. So she had told him what any good Catholic girl would say, that she would only give him what he wanted if he was serious about her. Maybe she had wanted to test him, she now wondered. Just to find out how deep his feelings had been for her. She remembered being a little surprised when Henry proposed. But by that time she had deeply fallen in love with him. Hadn’t she talked about going to art school?, Papa had asked. But he couldn’t talk her out of it, nor had he tried too hard, because he had never seen her so happy. Nothing had seemed more important at the time. She had been ready to embark with Henry on the biggest adventure of her life, a life full of passion and love, maybe travels, too. What a romantic she had been. For a while she had forgotten about art school and her envy of her studious sister who was wedded to her beloved violin. At least she would get married, have a family of her own, be the daughter who would give her parents grandchildren, something Clara wouldn’t, she had told herself.

13Maybe the narrow escape after the beer house brawl was just one of Henry’s tales he had made up to entertain her, she wondered when placing a few of Little Henry’s toys in the crate. Maybe he had simply escaped the boredom and poverty of his village. The future there was entirely predictable, and progress expressed itself in plans for train tracks running through the small main street of the town to connect the train station three miles south with a fashionable spa three miles north. Trouble was the train, small as it was, would take up all of Mainstreet, which was pretty much the only street in and out of the village, and the farmers’ carriages and the occasional car would have to wait until it passed through. Guests would hardly get off in the small village which had nothing to offer for city folks. With two bakeries, a butcher shop and a handful of “rustic” restaurants frequented by the locals, there simply wasn’t much to explore. The only department store didn’t deserve the name, according to Henry, as it was a narrow, dark shop stretching over just one floor. Compare that to this neighborhood, she thought. He surly would miss daily routines, getting the “Staats”, his beloved newspaper, from the paper boy around the corner and picking up his favorite cigars at McKinney’s tobacco shop, just as she would miss her parent’s Delicatessen or the window displays in the fashionable stores she enjoyed so much on their strolls to the park.

14She wondered how Henry would be able to support their family in the old village. After all, how many suits would a villager own in his lifetime? One for work, one to go to church and get married in, and if he didn’t gain too much weight, to get buried in as well. There had been no place for a second tailor, and Henry’s own father hadn’t been ready to leave the business to his son back then. The vineyards the family had owned for generations had been sold over the decades because his father showed no interest in wine-making, and the few remaining were farmed by their neighbors in exchange for 100 bottles of wine annually. 100 bottles! Those were gone quickly, she was sure of it. The old barn on the open side of the three-winged farmhouse had been sold off, and a brick wall separated the lots now. The stable in the side wing had long been empty, and so were the two deep wine cellars – except for those 100 bottles with the limited shelf life. Henry’s three sisters had received a nice dowry after the sales, and he had held on to his share which turned out to be enough to get him started here. With too much time on his hands for lack of customers and a strict father whom he could never please, Heinrich, as he had been called then, had dreamed of another future in a different place.

15That fight – a simple shouting match, a bit of wrestling perhaps, had he really knocked out that fellow? One crate was already full. She would have to leave the red velvet curtains behind, they simply were too bulky. She really liked how they made the living room look comfortable, or did until she took them down this morning. Maybe Mama would want them to replace her bedroom curtains or use the fabric for a dress. Reluctantly, Elizabeth put the long shawls on a chair.

16After the wedding, Mama and Papa had helped them move Henry’s shop to a better location with a good-sized apartment on the second floor, large enough for a young family. That’s when they had given her that special wedding gift: a large framed picture of an elegant couple on their wedding night. They were embracing passionately, but fully clothed, of course, in front of a stately poster bed. White curtains blowing gently in a summer breeze added a dreamlike atmosphere, the husband in his dark wedding suit gently held her in his arms, their lips almost touching. The dark-haired bride looked shy and pure in her gauzy white dress, yet ready to return his kiss, enjoy sexual bliss and a life of fulfillment with the love of her life. This was the life she had imagined for herself and Henry when she had placed that picture over her own wedding bed. What a happy couple. It was probably just a common print fashionable at the time, she couldn’t tell. But the light brown frame of carved rose vines embroidered with little pieces of mother of pearl gave it a stately look.

17Life had been good, for a while. Henry’s business allowed for small luxuries like Sunday dinners in a restaurant after their customary walk in the park to parade their modest wealth. And when she had been expecting, her happiness couldn’t have been greater. Lilly had been born in January, and Mama and Papa had given her a matching picture with the same light brown carved frame she had hung over her bed: the same couple, with the young wife dressed in black, as any respectable woman would, but with a bit more weight on her delicate frame, and a baby in her arms, a little doll whose face was peeking out of an abundance of lace and frills. She still couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. The husband, stately, mature, yet affectionately looking at his little family, was placed in the middle of his elegantly furnished living room, which looked a bit dark because of the wooden paneling and the dark-brown cupboards. Everything appeared as it should be: solid, secure, respectable, and with a quiet dignity.

18She remembered pulling out the nail which had centered the picture over the bed and moved it further to the left to make room for its twin. She had tried to have them both at exactly the same level, but since she never had the patience to measure before hanging anything on the wall, there had been a slight difference. Henry had noticed it, of course, and kept complaining about it. But he never pulled that nail or picked up that hammer himself to make it right.

19Starting to fill the second oversea crate, she paused to look at these framed versions of married life leaning against the sofa. There was the couple frozen in perpetual passion-to-come on their wedding night; and here they were, proud parents to a little bundle of joy, probably nine months later, because in a story, even if it’s framed, everything is meant to be perfect. A framed life in two still pictures. How did their story continue?

20Lilly hadn’t survived her first birthday, and there was nothing she could have done to prevent it. Lilly’s heart hadn’t been strong enough, beating too fast like a little bird’s, and her own had almost broken. She had become pregnant again, and again – seven times over the years, seven miscarriages, and nobody knew why. Every time she had been so full of hope and Sehnsucht to hold that little being in her arms and never let it go. But Lilly had been the only baby she ever held, and with each failed pregnancy her world became smaller, darker. They had almost given up hope, when number nine, the final one, was born – and meant to live.

Baby Henry © M. Kohl
21Little Henry, a miniature version of his father with bright blue eyes and golden hair, was a timid, sensitive child. She worried about him a lot, worried he could harm himself, fall, be run over by a carriage or catch this dreadful fever that had killed some of the children in the neighborhood. She doted on him, and whenever Henry talked about turning him into a “real boy”, she protected Little Henry. He had become the center of attention, the love of her life. How much she enjoyed dressing him up in beautiful costumes, turning him into a little man wearing a fine dark-brown suit or a little blue military jacket with brass buttons and a high waist, a Russian hat and warm coat for harsh Manhattan winter days. She had his picture taken, the ones she was about to slide between one of her scarves in crate number one, over and over again in Henry Schoerry’s Studio down on the corner of Avenue A and Third Street.

Little Henry—Model Child © M. Kohl
22Here he was, Little Henry looking proudly and seriously into the camera performing for his mother and trying to hold that position a minute or more for the bulky camera to snap that perfect picture. The cardboard photographs had decorated the house and the shop, where they served as advertisement for children’s outfits with Little Henry as the model child. Big Henry had sent them to his folks in the old country, his son, Little Henry, so well dressed and good looking, just like his father. After the photo shoot, she often rewarded the boy’s patience with a walk to Grand Central Station, which wasn’t far away, to watch the trains come in or leave. That’s when she remembered her childhood dreams about travels to far-away places and told Little Henry about them.

23Life was good, for the most part, with Little Henry being the joyous center of their lives. But there were dark days as well. The pregnancies had taken much of her strength and energy away, she sometimes felt sad because she blamed herself for not giving Henry the children he wanted and for not having been able to keep Lilly alive. Why did they never talk about it? At first their grief had been too strong, made them numb. But with each failed pregnancy she could feel their relationship changing, become distanced. They were polite, maneuvered everyday life like a well-functioning couple. And yet, as much as he tried, Henry just couldn’t make her laugh again. When he came home at night and wanted to tell her about his day, what his pompous, well-off customer had demanded of him, she often turned away without even noticing it. Had she perhaps neglected Henry? Did he feel excluded from the close relationship, the deep love she shared with Little Henry?

24Elizabeth wrapped two brown woolen blankets around each heavy picture frame covering the sensual couple and protecting the joyous family. She placed them on the bottom of crate number two. Perhaps she could wrap them in her velvet curtains instead, she wondered. But, no, she would certainly need blankets in the drafty old place she would live in. The curtains would have to stay behind.

25She suspected Henry had his own way of dealing with the tragedies in their life. Hiding the pain deep in his heart, he was taking his time coming home after closing shop for the night. He often stopped in the beer bars, drank with men from the old country who told each other stories of their youth and their dreams of a grand future. A future that would never happen, she was sure about that.

26Sometimes Henry lost his temper, could be impatient with folks around him. When Martin, the fourteen year old boy working in the shop learning to become a tailor, didn’t thread that needle fast enough or dropped the scissors, Henry would throw anything in his reach, sometimes the needle box. The boy then had to pick them up, one by one, scattered between the pieces of fabric on the floor. Henry was particular, took good care of his tools, kept the scissors sharp and embroidered with great patience the button holes and cuffs of a new coat. Often, when she came down to the shop to bring him lunch, she would find Henry lost in his work. She detected a melancholy in his eyes, and felt her heart contracting. She remembered how much she had been in love with him back then on the park bench in Tompkins Square Park, and part of her still was. The Sehnsucht in his eyes, a deep longing, for what she wasn’t sure, somehow did not include her. What was he thinking about sitting cross-legged on the table, embroidering that fancy velvet vest? Maybe about his old home with its peaceful, ordered landscape of rows and rows of vines climbing the hills that he had described to her over and over again? Things had changed with all the dead children between them. Sorrow had crept into their home and heart and kept them from talking. They focused on Little Henry instead, the subject of their love and care.

27And then there were those letters from home urging Henry to come and visit. His father had died a few years ago, but they had never been close. His mother was still alive and missed her only son. How would she feel if Little Henry lived so far away from her? And how would her parents feel if she didn’t live around the corner, but across an ocean. They were getting older. Would Clara be able to take care of them? Henry’s mother wanted to see him one more time reminding her son that he had been talking for years about visiting the old home, taking Elizabeth and Little Henry to meet his folks. And when Henry was invited to a cousin’s wedding, he finally decided to go – almost 20 years after he had run off – alone. Henry was to travel by boat from New York to Bremerhaven, and from there by train to his home region on the Rhine river. He planned to be gone for a month or two and gave instructions to John on how to run the shop properly, as if he didn’t know, and to look after her and Little Henry. He didn’t want them to come along, shunned the expenses for all three of them. Elizabeth wondered if he also felt he had to go on this trip alone to find out where he belonged. She had packed his light linen summer suit, a couple shirts with replaceable collars and his silk handkerchiefs: He put on a traveling suit made of light grey wool with a matching hat. He was ready to impress.

28Henry’s letters arrived irregularly, but they were surprisingly long and detailed. He wrote about his long trip to the old country and how excited people were to see him again. There was a tone that alarmed her. What he hadn’t been able to say, he now wrote about, it seemed.

29Henry wrote that the old friends found him changed, bigger, mature. Quickly they reconnected telling each other stories about past school days. They wanted to know all about the busy life in the big city, the many attractions and if life was easier there. Henry probably exaggerated his income just a little bit, but she knew he looked so fine in his grey woolen suit and silk hat that they believed anything he said. He had always been a gifted storyteller. Each evening, he wrote, he would go to Else’s little wine place on his street to find laughter and comradery. Why had he ever left, he wondered? Sure, the village was still a small place with now three bakeries, two butcher shops and that same dark department store where people could buy anything from pots to underwear. Mainstreet looked even more narrow with the train tracks now laid, and everything seemed smaller than he remembered. But then he would walk out into the countryside, look from the hills down to the old river, sit by the Rhine watching the barks go all the way to the North Sea. He loved the geometrical design of the vineyards, row after row giving structure to the landscape.

30Henry confessed that he worried about his New York business, about having fewer customers. He and John hadn’t really talked much about it, but both noticed it. Big factories with hundreds of sewers, mostly recently arrived immigrant women who made pitiful wages, had opened up north. Cheap clothing started to flood the department stores in the city. He only knew how to sew. What would he do if business got worse? Before too long, he wouldn’t be able to pay John and the boy their wages. Could he keep the business open on his own? He was known as a meticulous tailor who only worked with fine fabrics. But his customers, the one’s he had served for many years, were getting older. Would the younger folks still need a tailor, or would they go to the big department stores on Fifth Avenue? They wouldn’t have to wait for their suits and coats to be ready. In his letter, Henry told her that before he left he had actually gone to one of those stores to look at the rows of suits displayed in the showrooms. Sure, they weren’t tailored to the customer’s needs and body. The button holes had not been carefully and accurately embroidered by hand but quickly, with a sewing machine so that a few loose threads were showing. But the department stores offered to alter suits right there if they didn’t fit properly and for a good price. They even guaranteed to do it within a day and deliver the suit to the doorstep. Customers could choose among sizes and colors and take their new piece home right away.

31What if he decided to stay in the village, in the old country, she had worried at some point. Nobody in his village had ever left, well, maybe a few, but they were never heard of again. Most farm boys had married a girl from their own or a neighboring village, worked in the vineyards and fields from spring to fall, and in the cellars in the winter. They never went anywhere. He had told them stories about the big city, the cars replacing the horse drawn carriages, the immigrants from all over the world, the German and Italian neighborhoods and his rich customers. Maybe the tourists taking the small train to the fashionable spa three miles north of his home village would find the successful tailor from New York an attraction, get off that train, visit his shop in the old farmhouse or ask him to take their measurements in their fancy hotels and place an order with him?

32How much did she still mean to him? She pushed that thought aside. Who in his right mind would go back to this backward place, this village that never changed, where everybody knew each other and nobody ever forgot anything? Wasn’t that one of the reasons why Mama and Papa had left their home town? Because her Catholic father had married a Protestant girl, and even though Mama converted, none of the two congregations in their town approved of it.

33Henry was gone for almost two months now, but she really didn’t mind that much. Actually, she enjoyed that little bit of extra freedom, time to spend with her parents and with Little Henry. Lunch didn’t have to be on the table or taken down to the shop by noon, and nobody told her how to run her household or raise her child. She wasn’t worried about Henry staying out too late after work, drinking too much and spending his hard earned money in the pub.

34She put down the underwear she had been folding. When did this start? When did he stop being that charming, witty fellow, always ready to tell a funny story, adding a bit here and there to make her laugh? When did he turn into that quiet, brooding person, never touching her any more, not even kissing her when he left for work or came home? Only when he played with Little Henry or took him out for a Sunday walk did his dimpled smile appear and light up his face. He never looked at her with that warm expression any more. What had gone wrong?

35She noticed that even Little Henry acted as if some weight had been lifted off his small shoulders. As much as he loved his father, he always felt like he had to perform for him, make him happy, impress him with…something. She knew that Little Henry made up stories about being the fastest during the sports lessons in the Turnverein or scoring a winning goal during a soccer match. Little Henry hated his sports lessons. He was neither the fastest nor the strongest kid. Nobody wanted him on his team when they played soccer. But she never told on him. Alone with her, she let him draw and daydream as much as he liked. Though enrolled in elementary school, Henry, a frail child, often stayed with her, and she enjoyed having him close. Now he had plenty of time to sit by the bay window and watch the busy East Village street, go to the market with her and watch the coaches and cars go by. Maybe he would go to art school eventually and become a teacher.

36John, finally in charge, would check on them every day, flirting a little with her in his good-natured way. He had a wife and six kids to feed, no danger there. John always complimented Little Henry on his drawings. She felt that he, too, was relieved that his boss was not around to correct his stitches and criticize his work. Though they had started the business together, Henry had always made sure that John knew he was number two. Henry worked only for the best customers who ordered several suits and shirts per year. John could deal with the ones who had to save their money to pay for one good suit, perhaps for their wedding. You would leave several inches in the seams to let out so they could come back years later to have that suit altered when they got heavier with age. John was the one to work with these smelly old clothes that were only brushed off, seldom washed.

37This summer, life had a tranquility she had never experienced before. But this blissful time was not to last. A short letter arrived turning her life upside down:

Dear Lisa (he hadn’t called her that in years, preferred “mother” instead),
I have come to a decision. I want you to sell everything we own. I’m sure, John will buy the shop. He has long wanted to be a full partner, anyway. I’m not coming back. Sell everything and take the boat with Henry to join me here. I know this will be difficult for you, leaving the world you know and your parents behind. And should you decide to stay in Manhattan, I understand. But please know that I will never give up my only son.

She, of course, obeyed. How could she not? Legally, she had no rights to her child when the father demanded him. Giving up the one person she loved so deeply and sending him to live in a country he didn’t know, without a mother?

38Though Papa wept when she showed him the letter, he told her a wife had to stay with her husband, go wherever he wants her to go. Her religion told her the same. Even if she took Little Henry and tried a life on her own, she had no money, no skills, and her parents, even if they wanted to, were not able to support them both. They had hired a cousin to help out in the store, Alfred who had suffered from polio as a boy and nobody else would give him a job. Even if she wanted to work in the Deli, she would push him out because Papa couldn’t pay for both of them. Clara might be able to help, but they hadn’t seen each other in more than a year, and then only briefly when she visited for Christmas. Clara had always been suspicious of Henry, never cared much for him and thought it a mistake to get married at such an early age.

39She decided to swallow her pride and write a letter to Clara who was performing in Boston for a few weeks. Anxiously she was waiting for her reply which arrived within a week:

Dear Elizabeth,
I so much would like to help you. Yes, I’m making my own money, but though we are concert artists, we don’t make half as much as our male colleagues. It might sound glamorous that we play in the most distinguished concert halls. But we often perform in beer halls and restaurants as well to be able to make a living. But I do what I love most, playing the violin, and it does give me a certain independence. I’m saving for old age because I don’t suspect that any dashing fellow will come along and take care of me. Even if this happened, I probably would have to give up my current life, which I simply couldn’t. No, this isn’t meant to criticize you, but I’m afraid you made your choice. I’m sorry that you will live so far away, but I promise to look after Mama and Papa. I’m hoping to travel to Europe with our orchestra, and if I do, I will visit you. Please write often and take good care of Little Henry. This won’t be easy for him either, but at least he has you – and his father. Life takes funny turns, so don’t give up hope.
Your loving sister Clara

40She couldn’t take much, not the furniture, nor the pretty cups and plates or her red velvet curtains. She had finished wrapping everything up, Henry’s set of scissors that he insisted she bring, the cardboard photographs taken in Henry Schoerry’s Studio, the two large pictures now wrapped in brown woolen blankets to protect the carved frames and glass that Mama and Papa had given her. The first after the wedding, the second after her little baby girl Lilly had been born.

41She closed the second crate. She had wrapped up her dreams – of a happy marriage, good schools and maybe even art school for Little Henry, and a comfortable life in this big, exciting city near her parents. The next day she and Little Henry would go on that trip crossing the vast ocean. Not to pursue adventures she had dreamed about as a girl, but to travel to a home and a country that weren’t hers or her son’s.

She never forgave Henry.

Returning © M. Kohl

43The wood framed pictures are all that remain of Elisabeth, and a few photographs, handed down to the following generations. One of them is a group photo taken on the Pennsylvania sailing back to the old country. It shows a woman in a white blouse and skirt with an abundance of dark hair and a little leather purse strung across her chest. She is standing close to her boy, the best dressed little fellow of the group. Both look straight into the camera, a bit too serious, perhaps, but people didn’t smile in photographs back then.

44The train tracks though the village were torn out in the 1930s, more than ten years after Elizabeth’s death who did not live to see Little Henry get married and have kids of his own, a boy and a girl. Tourist numbers had long dropped by then, and space was needed for cars. Else, the owner of the little wine pub on their street where Big Henry, and Little Henry, who continued the family tradition, would go after work, recalled Elizabeth many, many years later. She was “the sad woman from New York, Henry’s wife, who didn’t even own a winter coat, just a woolen shawl although her husband was a tailor.” She wouldn’t part with her son who would always be called Henry, the “Ami”, in that small village not far away from the banks of the Rhine.

When Life Was Good—Elizabeth © M. Kohl


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“Life in a Frame” is printed with permission by the author, Martina Kohl. © 2019 by Martina Kohl.

As a default, articles in the American Studies Journal come with a CC BY licence to foster reuse and wide dissemination. This issue, however, contains several articles and images that require a less liberal licence. Together with the editors and contributors we have agreed on the exception to publish ASJ 67 without a licence to reuse. You may download and print this issue for your private use. Please cite according to the applicable intellectual property rights legislation. Should you want to reuse or republish parts of ASJ 67, please get in touch with Göttingen University Press to negotiate an individual licence.

Suggested Citation

Kohl, Martina. “Life in a Frame.” American Studies Journal 67 (2019). Web. 22 Jun. 2024. DOI 10.18422/67-06.


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