I grew up hearing about my grandfather’s mother, Nellie, how she was independent and self-reliant. How she overcame losing her mother, Rosa, when she was ten years old and endured an acrimonious relationship with her step-mother; it is unclear if she ever had a good relationship with her father, Louis Brenne.
No one knows how Nellie met her husband, Paul Frohmberg. At first, I thought they met after he returned from WW1; however, it seems more likely that they met through their parents or through mutual friends at a German club/community center. Paul was handsome and apparently could be quite engaging. I’ve heard that his parents (or at least his mother) were overbearing, but I’ve also heard that they might’ve pushed Paul at Nellie to get him out of the house (if this was their goal, it failed miserably as Paul and Nellie lived with Lena and Ignatz for awhile after their marriage.
Grandpa never had much to say about his father, except through the lens of how wonderful his mother was. From an early age, I knew that Nellie had to be independent and self-reliant because she divorced her husband, Paul, after eleven years of marriage, in 1929, right at the beginning of The Great Depression. It was never stated outright, but I knew Paul did not contribute to his ex-wife or sons’ well-being.
Grandpa referred to his father, indirectly, as a deadbeat. He never told me why his parents divorced and in 1998, I discovered why:
In one of uncle Cliff’s letters, he revealed that even he didn’t know what the legal reason was for the divorce. He and Grandpa were not involved in the legal proceedings and didn’t even know when the court decisions were made.
I think Richard [my grandfather] is right, Paul was a nice guy, but only when he was sober. I remember seeing him choking my Mom one time, when they were fighting.
Another time I remember he came home after Richard and I were asleep and they were in the kitchen. I woke up when it got a little loud, and the next thing I remember, he was standing in the doorway to our bedroom with a piece of glass from a broken sugar pot in his hand. He swung his arm as if to throw it at me, and every time he swung, I pulled the covers over my head. He was laughing and seemed to enjoy it, Mom tried to stop him and as I remember it Richard slept through the whole thing.
It was later that night, or maybe some other night, that Mom got me up and we went by streetcar to a hotel. I guess she felt Richard would be safe at home or maybe Paul had left. There’s a lot of detail that I don’t remember, but that broken sugar bowl and the streetcar ride in them middle of the night and the hotel is still clear. That night must have been the time when she made the decision that enough was enough.
I remember being in the hotel alone one day when she went to work and another day when I had to go to her work after school rather than going home. I guess the divorce was in process then.
My grandfather recalled almost none of this, even when he had to stay alone or with his father while Cliff and their mother were staying elsewhere. I don’t know if he truly forgot, if he’d blocked it from his memory, or if he wasn’t being honest with me. I do remember his shock when I shared with him the above letter; it seemed he genuinely didn’t remember the abuse.
Uncle Cliff did not think that Paul’s drinking had anything to do with his experiences in World War 1. It turns out that Paul did go overseas, but probably never got any farther than a clerical job. He told Cliff that he couldn’t wear a gas mask due to his dental malocclusion – his teeth did not line up.
[Cliff wrote in the same letter] One thing he did tell me was that it was a harrowing experience getting onto the boat after the war. He said there were a lot of women on the dock with babies in their arms looking for the fathers.
[from same letter] I remember one time while he was still driving, we went somewhere in his car and when we got hack, the gas tank cap was missing. When he say that the cap was gone, he walked down the street until he found a car that had the same kind of cap, removed it and put it on his car and we drove off.
My dad [Richard’s son] said that, 30 years later, he was driving around with Grandpa Paul and something similar happened. He said they drove around town until they found a gas cap, Paul stole one, and they drove off.
One year after the divorce, Cliff told me, Paul wanted him to put a firecracker under Nellie’s bed to scare her. He got mad when Cliff refused to do it. Another time, when Cliff and Grandpa were going swimming in the pool at Woodland Hills Park, they saw his car parked on a street on the way to the pool. They checked it out and he was asleep in the back seat.
Grandpa and Dad told me that Paul never really worked steadily. I got the impression that he worked seasonal and part time jobs and immediately spent the money at the local bars. I think it was Grandpa who told me that Paul was more interested in drinking and playing cards and chess in the pub than working for a living.
Paul did remarry later, to a woman named Rose. I can’t find much information on her; I think Grandpa and Uncle Cliff only met her a few times as they weren’t married for long. Uncle Cliff recalled, in a letter dated March 27, 1998:
Paul’s second wife was Rose. They were married sometime in the early 1930s. Their marriage and subsequent divorce wasn’t much of an event in my young life; I have no recollection of when either occurred. As I remember, Rose spoke with a German accent.
I remember a conversation between Rose and a friend who also spoke with an accent. Rose asked me something about my dog. Her friend thought she said “duck” — it did sound like duck. They went round and round about dog and duck and finally concluded that I said dog, not duck.
Also, since she didn’t speak or read English very well, she would put the grocery cans on the shelf at random, but mostly upside down. It didn’t matter to her, but it really bugged Paul.
They lived with my grandfather [Ignatz; Lena died in 1934] in his house on E 110th Street. The only complaint I ever heard about was that my grandfather would fall asleep with a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. Then while asleep, he would sneeze and splatter tobacco juice on the wallpaper next to the bed. Also, my father used to smoke cigars and she objected to them and confiscated them. He would hide them around the house and solicited our help in hiding them on top of the moulding in the living room.
There were probably more because it didn’t last. She was out of the picture until years later, after he was here in California he mentioned receiving a letter from her – she was living in Florida.
I don’t know if Paul ever quit drinking. I do know that his ex-wife always included him in family functions, often picking him up and bringing him to holiday events, after he stopped driving. I do not know why he quit driving. Grandpa was always impressed by his mother’s ability to not speak ill of her ex-husband. In fact, everyone who knew her, seemed to respect her as a highly intelligent and kind woman.