Tuesday, May 31, 2011


My mom unearthed a box of items that belonged to her maternal grandparents. It was full up with old tax papers and deeds and miscellany. I was immediately entranced.

I do not know exactly when Stefan and Phillippina Seifert immigrated to the United States, but they both listed "JugoSlavia" as their country of origin on their Certificates of Naturalization. I suspect they were actually from Germany, which was not a very popular admission in 1938/1939.

When I picked up my great-grandfather's keychain and wrapped my fingers around it, the experience was at once grand and small. The keys hold a handful of mysterious secrets. The keys are the zenith of utilitarianism. The keys are personal and quiet. The keys jangle. I long to know every single thing this collection unlocked.

Look at my great grandmother's pin cube.

If I were to extract a pin from it and prick my finger, a red dot of blood--in part Phillippina's--would bloom. How many times did she curse one of these pins for that very offense? Did she utter German oaths? Imagine her positioning the fine wire of her spectacles over her ears. Touching them overwhelmed me.

It is always these details that command your heart and your tears. It is always always always these tiny things.


Some advice: Live the right way. Imbue the things around you with honest energy. Your inane particulars may one day resonate with someone who hasn't been born yet. Your things will leave an impression. They will say something about who you were. Your things may one day make someone reconsider the word tangible.

Our residual energy lives on forever.

Higher resolution copies of these photos are available here. Those uncropped versions include the entire Certificates of Naturalization and my great grandfather's shaving things.

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Vince said...

Germanic settlement in what was the Hapsburg lands was ethnically cleansed between 1820 and 1940. These settlements were in the main along the Sava river in Vojvodina and all along the border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But they were in Slovenia also. There they would have been as a organic movement from the Alpine regions. Of course there is the Germanic regions in Italy.
Anyhoooooos, your people were very lucky indeedy to get out of Serb controlled Yugoslavia. Those fuckers didn't lick their savagery off some stone in the 1990's. They were happily dishing out this stuff with the active connivance of the UK government between the wars also.

Vince said...

Typo- between 1920 and 1940

Leslie Morgan said...

I use a phrase, a designation, for certain items of special importance - "venerable things". Such items require a little age, a little emotional significance and more. Your treasures here trump many.

I am most touched by Great-grandmother Phillippina's eyeglasses and Gramps' Stefan's (though he signed himself "Stephen") shaving items. They touched these items daily. They used them right up close and personal.

What a wonderful sharing today! Thank you.

swine said...

Fantastic; you are my people; I've always known it. There is Germanic heritage in Northwestern Romania as well...recent Nobel Literature prize went to Herta Muller, a Romanian writer now living in Berlin. Viva!

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks for the info, Vince. I sure wish I knew more about my peeps ...

Venerable items indeed, Leslie. I also have Phillippina's bread board. LOVE THAT!

Swine: I am one miserable mutt. Mom's Hungarian and German. My Dad was Irish with a dash of French Canadian, although his maternal line dates way back into Ohio.

I am a fifth generation Northeast Ohioan. Vaughn Road between Highland and Riverview in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park was named after my ancestors.

Hence, when I say my daddy pulled me out of the banks of the Cuyahoga River, I ain't kiddin'.

Erin O'Brien said...

Further reading on my Cuyahoga Valley roots.

Laura Maylene said...

This is simply amazing.

dean said...

In the words of Inigo Montoya: "Let me esplain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

I (heart) O'Brien.

Anonymous said...

Very cool.

P.S. I've been called many things. Now, being of a certain age, I fear I may soon be called "venerable."

"Don't he look good Edna? He was a "Venerable" fellow.


rraine said...

there is magic and mystery, the present and history contained in those objects, all of which reverberate in you.
very cool.

Kirk said...

"securely and permanently affix photograph here"

I wonder who those instructions are for? The lady in the photograph (your grandmother) or some government clerk in charge of issuing the document. More likely the goverment clerk, though it's odd that the instructions should appear right on the document itself. Nowadays, I imagine they can make the photo part of the document, part of the actual piece of paper, rather than having to "affix" it.

The past always fascinates.

DogsDontPurr said...

Those are wonderful things to find. It's like you can just dip your hand into the past and almost touch your ancestors.

I inherited some boxes like that from my Grandfather who died before I was born. The boxes were mostly filled with old receipts and stuff that was probably meaningless at the time. It was kind of like somebody had finally decided to clean out the "junk drawer," throw it all in a box and put it in the garage to save, just in case.

Buried among the detritus, I found his aviator glasses and three small lockets. The pictures had long ago been pried out of the lockets. Love gone bad? Oh the stories these pieces could tell.

I love that you have those keys. Each one has a million stories, how ever mundane at the time, now they are magic.

philbilly said...

Beautiful, Erin.

I have to look, I think my grandfather's razor is identical, Solingen Razor Co., worn cardboard box and all.
You had to be brave to shave then.

Phillippina doesn't appear to be a pushover, either. Her name has a pleasant ring, doesn't it? Heh.

If the Siefert's still lived on E.92, so would I.

Bill said...

And, 'business girls and housewives' are still slenderizing and spot reducing. some things never change.

Judy said...

What a set of keys!! Like you, I want to know what they opened...

Erin O'Brien said...

I am so happy to see this post resonate. Thanks for everyone's comments.

Anonymous said...

...This is a beautiful and evocative post. Thanks for sharing...Mike R

Dave Levingston said...

Wow...interesting...I read this post and decided I had to comment. I was going to say, "This is a beautiful and evocative post." Then I scrolled down through the other comments and came to the last one...weird. But it's the truth. Very well written and very well felt.


philbilly said...

Possibly the greatest single -sentence analysis of Balkan madness
ever penned;
"Those fuckers didn't lick their savagery off some stone in the
I thought immediately of the
Tin Drum and
this guy, albeit wrong historical savagery.

The Sieferts and other immigrants knew well what the downside was. At one time for some it was the journey here.

Be grateful evryday.

My Gilette Fusion razor blades cost an obscene $3 each, for I am a wuss.