My fertile imagination began to create possible scenarios. I’d now fixed my grandparents in time and place, in a wild and fast-changing New York City in the 1920s. Thanks to my grandmother’s portrait, my mental image of her was clear, right down to the color of her eyes and the decoration on her hat. To imagine my grandfather required a bit more creative license.
I knew Mr. Fischer was a young man when Mom was born, not yet thirty. Although impossible for me to guess what he looked like, not even the color of his eyes, I liked to believe they were blue, like my mother’s. I envisioned him as a man of short stature, or just average perhaps, since Mom was barely over five feet tall. I wagered he was a looker in his day, since in this, my version of the story, he’d apparently attracted the attention of an older woman. Quite a bit older. Minnie was sixteen years his senior.
I imagined he caught her eye because he spoke to her with those pale eyes. Perhaps it was because he wore a uniform, arresting attention, commanding respect with a cocky stance, leaning on a pillar in the subway station on some busy Friday evening. Or it may have been at the bus stop, on some lonely afternoon in late June, when the scent of fresh-cut grass in the park blossomed summer into something much more promising. I wonder if it was she who approached him. Perhaps Minnie was returning from work, tired and lonely. She may have asked him to join her for a drink, since prohibition ruled those times. Women found it difficult to access speakeasies alone.
The bars were dark, smoky and crowded, and the two probably sat close in a back booth, as he offered to light her cigarette. She would have leaned in close to him, beckoning him unabashedly with expressive green eyes. Conversation, playful and bright, carried them from the pub’s dim light to a more private place. She may have mesmerized him with her practiced charm. I’m guessing all she wanted was a good time. For him, it may have meant much more. Maybe not. In any event, I know they spent a night, or at least part of one, together. Alone.
All of the creative details live only in my imagination, but one certainty is this: nine months after one evening in Queens in the summer of 1921, a new life drew breath from the meeting of a young soldier and the woman in the portrait. Sadly, by the time the baby girl made her entrance into the world, all that remained for her to inherit from Mr. Fischer was his name.
It is now nearly a hundred years later. The young man in uniform is long dead, and the older woman in the cloche hat has been dead even longer. And the baby girl? She’s dead, too. The brothers and the sisters, the aunts and the nieces and nephews—everyone who knew even one of the pair who marked a small history that night—are gone. Then there’s me, a persistently curious granddaughter on whose mantel sits a portrait of a flapper.
I stood in the August sunshine in the middle of Long Island National Cemetery surrounded by a sea of identical marble markers set in uniformly comforting concentricity. I’d accomplished my goal. I’d found Granddad. But now more questions than could ever be answered haunted me. Anyone who might answer them, if they even would, was long dead.
I started with the facts I had in hand. An address. 152 Fisk Ave., Winfield, Queens.
Winfield. A Google maps search didn’t locate the town. MapQuest couldn’t find it either. I checked the spelling and tried again, but Winfield did not turn up on any New York State map. A broader Internet search yielded a webpage called, “The Lost City of Winfield.” Lost city?
My mother’s city of birth sat right at a crossroads for new railroad lines that, in the early 1900s, rapidly gridded the fast-growing borough of Queens. Somewhere in the shuffle of progress, Winfield became an early twentieth century Atlantis.
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Ever look at your kid & think, "Where did she come from?"
I was fifty-two years old & had it all—my health, a loving husband, three successful children, a satisfying career. So why did I still feel like half a tree?
My maternal heritage was a mystery, an enigma, a subject my mother had never wanted to talk about. And by the time I began my exploration, there was no one left to ask. Both parents were gone, as well as the only other maternal link, my mother's "half-sister." The woman I'd known as Aunt Charlotte.
Charlotte was seventeen when my mother was born.
An exploration of my ancestry took me back to 1920s New York, where Charlotte had grown up embracing the attitude of the flappers. I uncovered more questions than answers. Could Aunt Charlotte really have been Grandma?