The flight from Washington to Mobile was mercifully smooth. My first time here, and yet it was a return of sorts. Five generations ago the first of my family, the Gups, came here with what was dear to them -- a Torah, a samovar, some needles and thread, and pictures of those left behind. My father had spoken of Mobile as if it were a place of magic, not the fast-food strips and convenience stores I passed from the airport into town.
My father has been dead a decade now. My grandfather, 30 years. Great- grandfather, 43 years. Great-great- grandfather, 83. Beyond stretch biblical eternity. They are all one and I am a part of them. I was reaching out to them where memory and records would allow, searching for something as simple as common features and as elusive as identity. I know what I have found, but not yet what I am looking for.
In the morning I went to see 56 Dauphin St., where my great-grandfather Marcus had his shop. In 1901, the sign had read: "Gup The Tailor." His last surviving son, now 83, remembers the kat-a-katta, kat- a-katta of the sewing machine and "Papa" sitting in the window for all to see, legs crossed, forefinger and thumb undulating with the needle, beside him, always, a glass of tea. His was the narrowest shop in all Mobile -- six paces side to side. The Yehuda, the Jews, would squeeze in here each day for counsel and gossip. Papa presided. He spoke Yiddish with a southern drawl. Upstairs, great- grandmother Anna, sparrow-like, raised her daughter Miriam and her four sons who slept two to a bed.
Nothing is left. Only an empty lot and stores long since boarded. At the edge of town, the family home has been leveled, a warehouse of tobacco and sundries there now.
I search thphone book for Gups. There are none. An American diaspora has tossed their descendants like so many crumbs from the table, their blood mixed now with Goldman, Tarozzi, Cappello, Brown and St. Amand. Over a lunch of gumbo and crabs, Roland, a grandson, lays Papa's tailor knife on the table. The bone handle is chipped. Two golden threads still lie pressed against the blade. So many trinkets. For an ordinary family not graced by fame or large fortune, time has been mischievous.
I had driven across this town many times in my mind, imagining willows and wrought-iron gates and myself at the family graveyard. Now finally I pass beneath the pale blue archway with its golden Stars of David and its Hebrew letters. Stretching before me, my ancestors sleep.
Like Gershom, they were strangers in the land. "Luftmenschen," some called those who made their livings out of the air. Their long beards and caftans marked them as immigrants less from another land than from another time. All the more so here. At the turn of the century, Mobile was a cotton port with Spanish moss and columned porticoes. Flambeaux lit the night. Those, too, are largely gone. Today the north wind carries the fetid smell of paper mills to the cemetery.
Only the city's bureaucracy seemed to record the family's presence, preserving the documents of marriages, births, deaths, census reports, citizenship records, taxes and suits. Mice scatter as the door is unlocked in the basement of the Mobile County Court House. I pull down a leather- bound volume and search for names.
I have already picked clean the memory of elders, patiently waiting in nursing homes, hoping for a single anecdote. A few cry, remembering. For others the past has left little more than a familiar taste on the tongue.
In the evening, after supper, I pass around a paltry gathering of deeds, bills and yellowing obituaries for my distant cousins to read. They are grateful, and share with me the tales -- some true, some apochryphal -- that they inherited. Then it is my turn:
From Vilna and Constantinople they came in steerage, tailors all. Long before I knew their names I felt their presence. Even as a child, they called me into the attic to rummage through steamer trunks for old photographs and letters bound by string. Their wanderings shaped my own taste for gefilte fish and grits. They stood as shadows in my father's clothing store. Wielding a wide broom there, I swept beneath the tailor's bench, gathering the cuffs and bits of chalk, the threads and buttons, into a dustpan. It was a chore that was mine a hundred years before my birth.
Great-great-grandfather: Shmul Gopp sits in a crude wooden chair, his gnarled fingers curled around his cane, his wizened eyes staring forever into the black box and wide lens of a French photographer. Beside him is a book. The year is 1902. The studio is in Vilna, Lithuania. History and family have already left him behind.
He lived and died within Russia's Jewish Pale of Settlement, one of 5 million Jews restricted by law to living within the confines of the Pale.
His picture surfaces in a drawer. To my present-day kin, his ancient face, his black skull cap and oversized coat are an embarrassment. Some are annoyed that I ask of him. To them he is the Old World, a maelstrom of pogroms and ghettos a century and an ocean away. To me he is the patriarch. In the weeks before my marriage I feel the first inexplicable need to know of him.
Here I find a photo of Rachel, Shmul's wife -- my great-great-grandmother. Her eyes are almost oriental, her shoulders broad.
I can feel the sediment of years filling in around Rachel and Shmul, deepening about their sons and daughters, obscuring their features, wearing away memory. Shmul belongs to the Old World, figures whom I once believed never lived. In my vanity, I believed the past was an invention devised to account for my own existence. Shmul belonged to that past, almost biblical, peopled by my other great-great-grandfathers whose names were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Now there are moments when I can almost hear them speaking to me, urging me on. I lean into the oval mirror and see them looking out through my eyes -- their eyes. I grow more like them daily.
The names weave in and out with the generations, as in the book of Numbers: Shmul (Samuel) Gopp begat Marcus who begat Samuel Marcus who begat Theodore Marcus who begat me, Theodore Samuel Gup.
Great-great-grandfather: A green cloth book with red corners sits on a shelf in a Mobile mortuary. Turn to Dec. 7, 1901. The entry is under Abraham (Abba) Levenberg, my great-great grandfather: Five foot six. Lived at 261 St. Louis St. Funeral costs: $48.50.
A life of consummate color reduced to chilling sparseness. But the pathos: His descendants remember and tell the story of Abba to each succeeding generation.
From a dusty tome in the temple called "The Book of Death," I find his birthplace: Kerch, a small Crimean seaport, then part of Russia.
The story of his exodus has been handed down without revision: Abba was a tailor, living in a village not far from Tbilisi in the Georgian Caucasus. He had contracts with Russian officers to make buttons and epaulets. The officers fell behind in their payments. Abba pressed them to make good on their accounts. Instead, the officers invoked a long-forgotten law setting a limit on the number of Jewish families allowed in town. Abba and his family were given 48 hours to leave. He could take with him only what he could carry.
From the Old World, he brought with him the Torah, the holy scroll he carried among the Jewish soldiers who fought in the Crimean War. And he brought his second wife, a green- eyed child bride named Cecile Zbjarjinski (phonetic). She was 21. He was 66. By his first wife he had fathered Anna, my great-grandmother and wife of Marcus.
Together Abba and Cecile arrived in New York City in 1891. They stayed three months. Then Abba heard that a Mobile menswear store named Spira and Pincus needed a tailor. A grandchild remembers.
From court records I learn that three years later, on Jan. 15, 1894, Abraham and his son-in-law Marcus stood before the clerk of the city court of Mobile to declare their intention to become American citizens. Abba had been a resident of Constantinople, he told the clerk. He renounced his allegiance to Abdul Hamid II, the sultan of Turkey. It's all there in the records.
Abba died in 1901. The city death certificate, dated Dec. 9, 1901, notes the cause of death: "Asthenia from senility and bronchitis." His body simply gave out. His white marble headstone is in the family plot, on a lawn edged with oak and magnolia. For his 31-year-old widow, Cecile, and her five young children, the ordeal was just beginning.
Cecile was left penniless. She took her two sons and three daughters to New Orleans. She tried to provide for them. One aging grandson remembers his mother telling him that the children wrapped burlap around their shoeless feet. The older children sold apples at the train station. On Jan. 16, 1902 -- five weeks after Abba's death -- she placed her five children in an orphanage, the Jewish Children's Home on St. Charles Street. The youngest, Miriam, was 2 years old. It is recorded in the orphanage's black and red leather volume, "The Biography Book."
Cecile struggled, selling sheet music and secondhand musical instruments. In time she saved enough to open an antique shop in the French Quarter. One by one she took her children out of the orphanage and back into her home. On April 16, 1909, the last of her children, Dora, then 15, left the orphanage.
Cecile died in 1933, a woman of means. She owned property throughout New Orleans, properties she purchased at tax auctions. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery on Frenchman's Street in New Orleans. Her two sons, Alexander and Jacob, disappeared after returning home from World War I and were never heard from again. A tracer of missing heirs tried for years to locate them. Cecile's three daughters have long since died.
Great-grandfather: Marcus was my great-grandfather, the son of Shmul, the husband of Anna. I feast upon the little details of his life: His Russian passport, dry and tattered, shows he left his home in Vilna on Dec. 16, 1892. A stamp from a border town called Eydtkuhnen records his crossing the East Prussian border on Jan. 10. In a dim corner of the fourth floor of the U.S. National Archives, I search ship's passenger lists. I look for his name from among those who landed in the port of New York. My eyes glaze over the scribbled names. Miles of microfilm, an endless wave of immigrants.
Two hours later I come upon it. My hands erupt in a clap. There it is. The passenger list of the schooner S.S. Maasdaur out of Rotterdam, arriving New York harbor Jan. 25, 1893: "Marcus Hopp. Age 35. Tailor. From Russia. Last residence Wensil, Prussia. Intended Destination: Mobile. Number of pieces of baggage: three." With him are his wife Anna, 19; a child, Naftali, and a 3-month-old infant, Miriam.
Behind, in the Old World, Marcus left his father Shmul, his mother Rachel, and the grave of his first wife, Miriam. She died in 1885, giving birth to Naftali. Six years later he married Anna.
To everyone in Mobile he was known as "Gup The Tailor." To the family, he was "Papa." He is remembered leaning against the sideboard, slipping a coupon from his cigarettes into a drawer, and sipping his single shot of rye before bedtime. He was a dapper dresser. In his vest pocket was an oversized thimble.
Each of his five sons -- Meyer, Gabriel, Naftali, Samuel and Harry -- were given his name, Marcus, as their middle name.
"Isn't it funny the little things we remember?" says the last of Marcus' children.
The needy would come to Marcus in the middle of the night knocking at his door at 811 St. Francis St., seeking food or shelter. "Recite the Shema," he would tell them, and if they knew the ancient prayer of the Hebrews, he would provide for them.
In his tiny tailor shop he altered the costumes of the court for Mobile's Mardi Gras -- the knights and kings and ladies.
Even the most ordinary lives continue on and on, in ever-dwindling half-lives. Passing through the great portals of the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue, I am amused to think a mention of my kin could be found in so grand an edifice, under the same roof as the Constitution. There it is in the census rolls of 1900. Volume 43, Sheet 4, Line 98. Great- grandfather Marcus' name. Born 1860, Russia. Wife Anna born April, 1874, Russia. Emigrated to the U.S. in 1893. Trade: tailor.
In the Mobile County Court House I search the probate records for his will. I find his name within the massive index book. It refers me to Drawer 562. There in a gray steel drawer stuffed tightly between a dozen other wills is that of Marcus Gup. The brown set of papers neatly bound with a pink string has been undisturbed since it was filed July 19, 1942. His will was written on March 13, 1934. But seven years later he wrote a special codicil to dispose of a single household article: "I give and bequeath to my son Meyer M. Gup, of Pensacola Florida as a remembrance, my Russian tea samovar." Today the samovar is with Meyer's son in Pittsburgh.
Tonight I sleep in Mobile in the home where Miriam, the infant passenger, once lived. Now her daughter Janice lives here. At the Queen Anne table of walnut where Marcus ate, we have chili and beer.
Grandfather: "One p.m. Bulova watch time, WABC New York," says the announcer. It is Sunday, Oct. 17, 1937. Rabbi Samuel Marcus Gup, grandson of Shmul and Rachel, the ancient ones left in Russia, steps to the microphone before his congregation. The organ fades.
"Shema Yisrael," he intones in chiseled syllables. The 78 is badly scratched. The three records, lost for decades, are found tucked in an old Tchaikovsky album. He is on the air, his faultless voice as it was that morning 47 years ago. The program is "Church of the Air." The sermon, "Common Ground."
"The people of our country have high incentives for living in a noble and happy fellowship, for here have they come whether in former generations or in more recent years, undaunted of purpose and aflame with a great hope. In this blessed land they are citizens -- Catholics, Protestants and Jews -- enjoying equally the incomparable benefits which our republic offers."
His voice reminds me of my father's voice. Deep and deliberate. The needle races across the thick plate. I close my eyes and imagine myself again locked between his knees. I remember his mustache that covered the scar -- the price he paid for playing with the tailor's iron. Jade grapes on the table. His gold medal for oratory -- 1909 -- from Barton High in father's cuff link box. The miniature Bible in a gold jacket hanging from his watch fob. Waiting in the hospital lobby. Searching for his grave. A life reduced to disparate images. Haiku.
I consider the day. In the temple archives that morning I found dozens of letters, a 1918 photo of the temple in Natchez, Miss., the rabbi's first congregation, and letters from each of his subsequent congregations -- Providence, R.I., Columbus, Ohio, and back to Mobile. His tax return. His grade school report card of Oct 1, 1908, signed by Marcus. And there are dozens of letters between Sam and my father. Post cards home from camp. From Harvard. From Navy flight school. All forgotten, left behind in a drawer 40 years ago.
I read the letters from my father and know how rare it is to hear one's father speaking as a child.
It is getting late. I prop the pillow up and read one final sermon of my grandfather's, "Life in Death." The year was 1934. " missed, because thy seat is empty,' the book of Samuel. " . . . We are drawn into this reflection concerning ourselves: When the shadow of finality will have closed our own eyes in lasting sleep, will we be missed? . . . Will those whom we have left behind hold us long in consecrated memory? . . . Let us ask ourselves frankly and directly -- how can we live so as to be missed? What need we do to be borne in loving remembrance?"
I imagine those who may come after me, about the empty seat I will leave behind. I wonder what the dusty records, the fading photographs, perhaps even this yellowing magazine, will tell those who come in search of me -- and what it will tell them about themselves.