Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mrs. Seraponas Dreamed in Chicago

Natasha Solomons's lovely first novel, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, is the latest book read by the From Left to Write Book Club. The title character Jack Rosenblum is a mensch, an irrepressibly optimistic Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who escapes with his wife and daughter to England in 1937. In love with his adopted homeland, Mr. R. desires nothing more than to naturalize completely and become a proper English gentleman. He becomes convinced to best way to do this is to create his own perfect golf course, never mind his near complete ignorance of the game nor his inexperience with landscaping manual labor. The first day he begins work to fashion his course from sixty acres of rocky hillside, Mr. R. wipes his hands delicately after each shovel of dirt. Such is the gentle humor of this sweet book, that by its stirring ending, had me cheering on the would-be duffer.

Author Natasha Solomons cites her grandparents' rural Dorset cottage as an inspiration for the book. The writer still lives near the former home of her grandfather and grandmother in rural southwest England, and fills the book with the charms of the county's folklore, with odd characters written in rich dialect who call our hero "Mr. Rose-in-Bloom" and with glorious depictions of the Dorset countryside.

By happy accident, I finished Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English this week, around the same time I completed reading my maternal grandmother's diary of the year 1933-1934.

My strongest memories of my mother's mother, Amelia Seraponas, are of her regal bearing and the beautiful white hair that she wore in a soft bun at the nape of her neck. Reading her diary for the first time, I have the chance to see her as a young woman, a twenty-eight year old with a new baby and a sick mother to care for, newly married to a man with an insecure job and mood swings of dark to light and back to dark again.

Set in gritty Chicago, rather than the bucolic hills of Dorset, England, my grandmother's diary tells a fragment of the hardscrabble story second generation Lithuanian-Americans lived during the cold heart of the Great Depression, yet omits the satisfying and triumphant climax of Mr. Rose-in-Bloom's epic undertaking.

In the winter of 1934, my grandfather Tony had left a milk delivery job to sell cookies door to door for an outfit with the deceptively sweet name of Mama's Cooky Company. Times were tough and sales were so slow, Tony had to add his own savings to keep up the appearance of meeting his sales quota.

Grandma tended my infant mother, Bernadette, cooked herring and eggs for Lenten dinners, cleaned the house, sewed and ironed, and worried about money. Her goal was to save $4.00 a month.

On a Thursday in April, Amelia writes of taking the baby to the grocer to pay $2.00 toward their bill, then to the coal company to do the same and order more heating fuel. Tony came home that night to tell her his bosses had been fired and that he would be laid off in a week.

After four months trying to sell cookies to households as strapped as his own, Grandpa Tony, along with twenty other salesmen, was fired the Saturday after Easter, 1934. "What are we going to do now?" writes Grandma. "Heaven only knows." My mother was five months old.

The next day, Amelia took the time to write the diary's last entry.

"What a beautiful day. Tone went out to look for a store. It seems Al Segreti is fired for being caught drunk, but he was still working on his milk wagon." So Grandma didn't write her happy ending, but she did fashion one with grace notes of hope. Perhaps her young husband would start his own business. Maybe he could snatch up Al Segreti's job. Even with the despair of Tony's firing, it was still a beautiful day.

I am left in suspense, but only because I want to read every day of the Seraponas's climb to self-sufficiency and safety, not because I do not know it happened.

The happy coda for the story of my grandparents lies in my treasure of memories of visits to their home when I was a child. Grandpa Tony went back to work as a milkman and he and Amelia had a second daughter, my aunt Joan. They saved enough money to move out of the city to Clarendon Hills, a western suburb with curving streets and enormous elms whose roots split the sidewalks into angled slabs. Aunt Joan remembers feeling as if they had moved to the country. Grandma worked at a nearby Montessori school.

To me, their home was as magical as the idyllic picture Solomons paints of the Rose-in-Blum's thatched roof home in the Dorset countryside. Grandma and Grandpa's front door with its dark wood panels and rounded window seemed the entrance to a fairyland cottage. My sister and I swung from the tire swing in the side yard and explored the musty basement where a homemade doll house hid under a white sheet. Grandma had made the back yard into a verdant paradise of raspberry and gooseberry bushes, mature fruit trees, and lush peonies. One day she showed me how to cut a giant stalk of rhubarb from the garden border, then set up a work space in the sun porch where I could cut the purple stem into bite-sized pieces with a paring knife. I washed the rhubarb pieces one by one in a small bowl of water, then dipped them in a bowl of sugar, and bit into their sour-sweet wet crunch. A taste of goodness, as full of love as the simple lunch Grandma made for me from a boiled egg with butter, salt and pepper next to a sweet glass of tickling Fresca.

Remembering the love infused into these simple foods takes me back to the other story line of Solomons's book, that of Jack's wife, Sadie, who initially does not share his enthusiasm for all things English. She sees his eagerness to assimilate as a betrayal of those loved ones left behind. To remember her father, mother and brother, lost in the Holocaust, she bakes recipes from her mother's old cookbook. In a bit of magic realism, the cakes turn out four feet high and those who taste them feel Sadie's sadness. This sharing of Sadie's grief gives her comfort.

The publisher of Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English sent me a copy of the book with no obligation.


Thien-Kim aka Kim said...

You are so lucky to have such a detailed piece of your family's history!

Emily said...

Beautifully written post. How blessed you are to have your grandmother's diary!

I wrote diaries, stopping in my late 20's and plan to pass them on to my granddaughter, hopefully. I don't think I would want my son to read them! I lived somewhat of a wilder life than your grandmother!

Emily said...

What a treasure those diaries are! It's so rare to know how people lived their lives long ago and to be able to imagine your grandmother as a young wife and mother -- priceless!

Lisa Hanneman said...

How wonderful to have your grandmother's diary. Just think, one day your daughters's daughters might have your blog to look back on and use to learn about you.

Great post!

Natasha Solomons said...

I love the photograph of your grandparents' house -- so evocative.

My grandmother didn't keep a diary but a recipe book. It charts her journey of assimilation in food: Baumtorte and German cakes gradually turn into English recipes for marmalade and Victoria sponge. I used her book for Sadie's recipes in 'Mr R.'

Hannah S. said...

Hello. I've been looking at this page every once in a while when I look up my last name. Being pretty much unknown here, I was a little startled to see this book here. I've been looking online for this book, not much though...

~Hannah Marie Seraponas

Hannah S. said...

Do you know anything else about your family? I've been trying to go back and collect information on my own, as I want to know my origins. Thank you!

My last name is actually Seraponas. Proud to have it too.