CARS did not exist when Albert Charles Louis Goldman was born. Neither did radio broadcasting. His family had to make do without a vacuum cleaner. He was five when the Victorian Era concluded without a bang, except for those of the guns fired at Victoria’s grand funeral. For a time, Albert knew the queen’s great-grandson, Edward, from the days they spent at an East End pub owned by Albert’s grandfather.
When the world went to hell in the teens, young Albert enlisted in the army. Beneath his officer’s hat, he wore an eager, earnest smile that looked, with his longish nose, like mine. Or, perhaps more accurately, mine looks like his. That smile probably wasn’t available when the time came to spring from a muddy trough and make a go at the Germans. Helmets on, guns in hand, and mud caking their olive uniforms, the Brits crossed their barbed wire to the relentless crack-crack-crack of machine guns and the booms of heavy artillery making whole humans disappear. Albert conquered a trench that day — or, perhaps more accurately, the men he led took it. He was shot through the lung in No Man’s Land, dragged back to own his trench, and eventually shipped back to England, where he landed in a hospital along George V’s morale-boosting tour.
“I can only admire your bravery,” Queen Mary would have said with the utmost regality. I picture her leaning over his bed, her large hat not budging an inch. “I do hope you get well soon.”
For his troubles, Albert got a little trophy and medal from the king. Perhaps more importantly, losing an entire lung never slowed him down.
Life calmed after the bloodbaths of France. He got into the insurance business and switched allegiance from Leyton Orient F.C. to mighty Arsenal. A day at Lord’s Cricket Ground or The Oval to catch Middlesex or Surrey play was a special day. Whenever “God Save the King” (and, later, “God Save the Queen”) drifted from the radio (and, later, from the telly), he’d stand at attention. He was neither religious nor an ideologue but voted Conservative.
The next time the whole world went to hell, he wasn’t in uniform, but the German fire still found its way to him. To complicate matters, Albert was now married with a young daughter. When I imagine him deciding to send his nascent family to his wife’s native New York during the Blitz, I don’t see the British Army captain but the genial gentleman of the black-and-white photos. In my false memory, he and his wife are standing in their tiny, black-and-white kitchen in their little, black-and-white flat in small, black-and-white Hendon.
“I know this will be very, very hard, Fay,” Albert says, nervously squeezing the trilby hat in his hands. “But I couldn’t bear risking your or Phyllis’ safety.” Fay sighs, rubs her forehead, and gazes out the rain-spattered window. Phyllis digs a hole in her porridge with her spoon. Albert takes in the rain, too. “I’m a partner now at AF Pocock. And if I don’t pay the rent here, there could be nothing to come back to.”
The following week, he’s tearing up on the dock in Southampton, but the stiff upper lip keeps the little drops in place.
That dam no doubt broke, though, when news came from New York that three-year-old Phyllis had died. The war hadn’t yet ended when Fay talked her way onto a military ship, braved the lurking German subs, and showed up in London. Albert only found out when she phoned from Southampton, but I like to imagine her walking unheralded into the flat as he’s spreading jam on his toast and skimming the paper. The knife clatters to the floor, and he nearly spills his tea as he leaps up for a long-overdue embrace.
“I’m terribly sorry to bother you,” he says into the neighbor’s telephone, “but I won’t be coming into the office today.”
It was also during this second global war that Albert developed a true admiration for a man he never met, but whose bearing in life he looked up to: Edward’s brother, King George VI, who had gone by the name “Albert” before his accession and who had refused to leave or hide during the Blitz.
THE dust had hardly settled when Albert’s first son arrived, and then came Dad. Several years later, Fay, a smoker, died, too, and Albert never touched tobacco again. Never again would there be another woman in his life. The bar had been set too high.
There’s a color home movie from the early 1960s — when The Beatles still played skiffle without Ringo Starr — of Albert, an old man by now, strolling the balcony of Clive Lodge as his sons and their mates made mischief below. He appears stern behind thick glasses and with his bald head. You can’t blame him; he’s been shot in war and lost the people closest to him. “He was a great worrier,” Dad says. He was also old fashioned. An iconic lyric from that time — “She loves you yeah yeah yeah!” — was “absolutely awful.” “He was so Victorian in his outlook on life,” Dad says. Albert himself would quip that he should have lived during that era. But worst of all was swearing. “When he heard my brother or I swear,” Dad says, “he would have a tizzy fit.”
Later in the home movie, we see Dad standing in front of Albert on the balcony, pretending to suddenly notice a camera’s on him, hastily patting down his neatly combed hair, edging saucily toward the cameraman. Dad turns to the side, and I briefly see my own profile. Albert’s amused. You can’t blame him; his sons turned out well — if not a bit cheeky. The man’s greatest delight — more so, even, than finishing the Daily Telegraph crossword or reading Sexton Blake novels — was a room full of friends or family. And the more laughter, the better. “He was a great one for puns,” Dad says.
In that same little flat, now in grainy color in my imagination, I see a living room full of chatting relatives. Someone mentions their own flat is suffering a bug infestation. Albert cranes his neck to catch the cousin’s attention. “What did one earwig say to the other earwig as they were about to jump off a cliff,” he calls over. “Earwig go!” For better or worse, the pun-loving gene hasn’t diminished over the generations. “He would laugh at his own jokes sometimes,” Dad says, “even when other people didn’t.” Boy, can I relate.
EVENTUALLY, as kids do, the two sons grew up. Uncle Bob left to secure a Ph.D. at Harvard and Dad had his eyes set on sunny Southern California. That left Albert three options: live alone in dreary London, hop the pond to chilly Boston, or retire to the beautiful climes of SoCal. He was not about lose — even just geographically — more children, so Santa Monica it was.
Settling in a new country didn’t come without its stumbles. Early on, Albert and Dad found themselves in a grocery store checkout behind a woman buying a pair of honeydews. She turns her head at hearing Albert’s accent and silently eyes him. How awkward. “Well,” Albert offers, “that’s a nice couple of melons you have.” The staring darkens. Dad, you do mean these honeydews, right? “Of course, of course!”
Those were the days when an old guy from a working-class background could afford to live on Ocean Avenue. Those were the days I imagine in the faded tints of ’70s amateur photographs. In a few such photos, Albert wears a tan, professorial cardigan with twin white stripes circling the cuffs and along the front edges where the cardigan parts. Slap that on a charming old Brit, and, well, you can imagine the kind of attention that stirs in a retirement home.
“Albert,” I imagine a kindly woman saying, straightening her posture. A cool, salty breeze plays with the edges of the umbrella covering their table. “Have you ever thought about…well, you know, remarrying?”
Albert finishes stirring his tea, taps the spoon delicately on the cup’s rim to flick off the last drop of milk, and sighs good-naturedly. “I’m afraid not.”
But swimming laps in the retirement home pool with one lung wouldn’t have curbed any more of that curiosity.
ALBERT lived to see his first grandchild, but not his younger son’s wedding, which, like his own, involved an American girl. He survived the trenches, the insurance business, the Blitz, the loss of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and a 5,400-mile relocation. It took a stroke to finally bring him down at 90.
Seven years later, Dad and Mom made grandchild No. 2. Unlike his paternal predecessors, Samuel Albert Goldman went to college, where — among other, arguably more-important takeaways — he received a couple sweaters, which still hang in his closet. Hanging beside them is a tan, professorial cardigan with twin white stripes circling the cuffs and along the front edges where the cardigan parts. Only a few threads keep the tag — “dralon: A Bayer fibre” — attached.
Only a few threads seem to connect Albert and me: the cardigan, faded photos, an anecdote here or there. But then I blurt out a pun. I fist-pump at a finished crossword. I worry. I avidly follow my teams and have more than my fair share of gaffes. There’s the equanimity. Maybe I catch just the right glimpse in the mirror. Albert was born before plastic and died at the dawn of the PC. Or, perhaps more accurately, only the physical side of the man died. Dad’s a thread. I’m also a thread.
When we’re perusing old family photographs, Dad will look admiringly and a bit longingly at ones of his father. He’ll tap the edge of the photo, and, without looking up, will say, “You would have liked him, your grandfather.”