A Dayton Family Story
Visiting my family history in a town we no longer call home.
They are names to me. Stories. Sim and Gussie. Daddy Henry. Pinny and Lester. Mollie and Max. I’ve heard about them my whole life. They’re the family I come from, and the majority of them reside in a small cemetery near the Miami River in the town where my grandparents met, fell in love, and raised their family.
I come from a family of characters. My great-grandfather Lester would frequently disrupt dinner parties by balancing a plate of food on his head and eating the entire meal by reaching his knife and fork up to it and bringing the food down to his mouth. When my grandfather was courting my grandmother (Lester’s oldest child), Lester spent their introductory meal eating from the top of his head, probably to gauge my grandfather’s reaction. My grandfather responded by writing a series of songs on the piano for everyone in my grandmother’s family. He didn’t have any money, so that’s how he won them over.
Both Lester and my grandfather are buried in that cemetery, and for all of my family history that pours out of this once-large Rust Belt town, I find this is the primary reason I come back. To stop and pay my respects to all of this family. Primarily, though, I come back to visit my grandfather, Sidney, whom I always referred to as “Zaz.”
He came to this city during the time their whole generation refers to as “The War.” My grandfather was a serviceman and found himself stationed in Dayton. In those days, it was common for families to invite soldiers, particularly officers, over to their homes. My grandmother’s family gave a party and invited him. My grandmother was in her room, getting ready to come downstairs, when a friend popped her head in and informed her that there was “the most handsome young lieutenant playing the piano downstairs.” My grandmother put on something particularly flattering and came downstairs, where they were introduced. The first words he ever said to her were, “Sing something for me.”
They were married in 1944 and spent their honeymoon at the famous Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills, a haven for Jews who were restricted from membership at other resorts around New York. The marriage lasted 67 years.
A couple decades ago, when my father was visiting Dayton, a longtime friend of my grandparents confessed that he’d always been pissed at my grandfather. When my dad asked why, the man said, “Because every guy in town wanted to marry Jeanne Betty Rothenberg and he got her.”
My grandfather came from poverty. When he was ten, his father Max was confined to a sanitarium for tuberculosis. My grandfather went to work to help support his family, playing piano in clubs throughout New York during the Great Depression. By the time he was a teenager, he was making enough money to support himself, his parents, and his sister. He continued playing through college and graduate school, continued playing in the army, and continued playing until he couldn’t sit at the piano anymore. A few years before he died, I took up the guitar, and by the last year of his life, I was able to sit and play with him, strumming along the rhythm while he played the lead on songs like “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” He even taught me some of his old Catskills material, songs that are almost entirely lost to history like “Far Rockaway.” That I learned to play guitar in time to play music with my grandfather is one of the great accomplishments of my life.
The cemetery where he, and so much of my family, is buried sits in a sunny spot near the University of Dayton campus. On my most recent visit to Dayton — during a drive from Chicago to New Orleans — I went directly to the cemetery, afraid that the place would be closed before I could pay my respects. I would have hopped the fence for a visit if necessary, but I didn’t want it to come to that.
It was the second consecutive summer I’d visited the cemetery. When I came out the previous summer, I brought flowers and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, my grandfather’s scotch of choice. I walked up to the headstone and fell to my knees and cried for about five minutes straight. It was my first time back since the funeral, and the enormity of that hole in my world swallowed me up. When I came out of that grief, I sat there and talked to him for a long time, giving updates on the family, telling him about my life, remembering our time together. I took a shot from the bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, poured a little out, then left it there, aiming to replenish it next time.
But on the more recent visit, I came out empty handed. In my haste to make it out before closing time, I hadn’t given myself time to arrive with a gift — which would have been another bottle. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. The somewhat weathered bottle of scotch from the previous summer sat there on the stone, just as full as when I left it.
I broke out laughing when I saw that. I’m not sure why it was so unexpected. I doubt a lot of drunks prowl cemeteries looking for a freebie, but it meant a lot to me that this little token was still there a year later. There were also a few American flags around, just like last time, left there I’m sure by the local chapter of the VFW. And there were a few rocks left on top of the headstone by others who paid their respects, an old Jewish tradition. The man still has visitors. I’m glad to know that.
I spent about an hour in the cemetery, leaving stones for each of my family members. Then I called Steve Miller, my grandparents’ old neighbor, to see if he wanted to join me for dinner at the Pine Club, a famous Dayton steakhouse that my grandfather always made a point of bringing me to. It’s an extremely dark and comfortable place, thick with the air of a bygone time. The bartenders wear ties, and the manager knows most of the customers by name. It was the first place I came after my grandfather’s funeral.
That night, when I ordered my dinner, I ordered two Johnnie Walker Reds, on ice, with the soda served on the side. That’s how Zaz drank them. He’d take a long sip of the scotch, then add the soda and drink slowly through the meal. When the waiter brought the drinks, I set one down on the other side of the table for Zaz, raised my glass to him, and left his untouched while I quietly enjoyed my dinner.
I did the same this time, at least until Steve arrived to join me. We had our dinner together and caught up. Then we went to the beauty parlor where his wife Debra was having her hair done. The Millers were absolutely wonderful neighbors to my grandparents during their last years in Dayton, and it was a pleasure to see them. When all your family is gone from somewhere, only the friends are left to remember the stories. In that way, they become part of the family history, too.
It’s a strange thing. For over a century, Dayton, Ohio was an anchor point for my family. Generations were buried there, and I spent many a summer in town visiting my grandparents. But the immediate family is all gone. My sister is probably the last member of the family that will ever be born there. For all the old pictures and old stories, this is a place that seems more and more distant to me, part of a collective memory, but a place I still manage to pass through without spending the night. I imagine older generations of my family must have thought the same thing about Europe. There must have been a point when they realized that all of them were Americans, that no more family members would be coming over from the Old Country, whatever country that happened to be. We’re creatures of the modern world now, my family, and as such are scattered around the continent.
But I can still come back here and see old friends like the Millers, family by another name. I can still sit in a small cemetery on a hill and know where I come from, that my life would be impossible without this town, and without these people I never knew, never saw in person.
Leaving the city, I drove over the Miami River. I’ve been told that one member of my family committed suicide on its banks. So strange to think of a branch of the family being cut off like that. What other family might I still be able to reach out to now? Where would they have gone? Would they have been the last holdouts in the city? Or, like me, would they have kept flowing away, outward, pushing the geographic boundaries of our ever expanding story?
The story goes on and the next chapter always comes. I wonder what we’ll write on those pages.
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