Gertrude, his eldest daughter, was an unconventional child. A tomboy, she never liked other girls and took no nonsense from anyone. She didn't get along with her siblings. Her brothers she branded the Spineless Wonder and Wishy-Washy. Sister Charlotte, nicknamed Lottie, was barely tolerated. Not that Gertrude was around any of them much. As soon as the Geliens arrived on these shores, she was put to work, doing housekeeping and odd jobs around Manhattan.
It was a lonely, loveless existence, made tougher by the botched tonsillectomy she'd suffered in Germany. The doctor damaged her vocal cords, leaving Gertrude with a horrible stutter. Ashamed, she communicated by means of a pad of paper she carried everywhere.
Although he was rarely around to offer any Liebe, Opa admired his daughter's fierce, independent spirit. Ida Gelien, however, displayed a different attitude toward the child. Gertrude's refusal to act in character -- more like a "girl"-- earned her mother's wrath. When Gertrude came home five minutes past curfew from her first date, her mother locked her outside overnight in the snow, to teach her a lesson.
Gertrude learned fast: she got the hell out.
I have no idea how or where my mother met Charles Kelm. It wasn't something she ever discussed. We weren't even sure what he did for a living. But he wasted little time in tying the knot with this stubborn and strong-willed working woman. She jumped at the chance for a new life.
Memories of my New York childhood are sketchy but mostly miserable. I'm on a sled, being pulled along the sidewalk during a snowstorm. I tumble into the gutter, screaming and crying.
I remember a sobbing woman washing clothes in a sink by candlelight. I assume it's my mother. I can still see, too clearly, Charles Kelm beating a woman in a dank apartment. I know that was my mother. My brother and I, too young to do anything, could only plead for it to end.
When Opa learned how bad things were in our tenement walk-up, he orchestrated our escape. He bought new jackets, shirts, ties, and short pants for Walt and me, and we were shipped with our mother to the opposite end of the country -- San Francisco, the Promised Land. Using his connections, Opa got mother a job as a shipboard stewardess with Matson Lines, for which he now worked. He even found an apartment and covered the first two months' rent. We reclaimed the family name, Gelien.
In a way, I owe everything to Opa. I can't imagine what life in New York would have been like if we'd stayed. More misery, for sure. Murder, maybe.
Almost immediately, the relationship Walt and I had with our mother started to mirror what she'd experienced with her father. We wouldn't see her for weeks at a time, as she went to sea to earn her salary. Imagine a single woman trying to raise two boys during the depths of the Depression. Imagine the emptiness she felt, able to see us only when her ship returned to port.
We never doubted our mother's love and devotion, but we saw more of our caretaker. We lived in a rented room in Mrs. Kelson's Divisadero Street apartment. Mother was away so much it made no sense to rent a place of our own. Always draped in a long fur-collared coat, cloche pulled down low on her head, Mrs. Kelson was a dour figure, like a ghostly image in a Depression-era photograph. I liked her gap-toothed smile, but we didn't see it often enough.