It was such a long time ago on the Benefit Street trail. It was Judy Beckman, with her skills and interests in genealogical trees, who found the addresses of my grandfather and great uncle and their wives. “The ghosts, the phantoms, of the lives of our forebears, our ancestors, ancient or even quite recent, they vanish into vapor so quickly, their footsteps erased by the passage of a few years.” Anyway, I think she said something like that as she handed me, among the fine tea and slices of apple, the 1917 papers filed as the nation entered World War I. Harry Harris Fink was then 37 and dwelt with his new, second wife Clara at 65 Bowen Street. His younger brother Zelig Hyman Fink, 30, lived around the corner with his wife Rebecca and their four children at 14 Benefit Street.
I drove my very familiar route from Prospect to Congdon and Bowen and down to Pratt, hunting for evidence of the homesteads first established as the Rumanian brothers, both registered as “upholsterers,” must have gotten off the ships moored at India Point and made their way thence northward toward Main Street, seeking places for their mutual business and for their families.
Sixty-five Bowen Street no longer exists as such. There is a gap from the site of the statue of Roger Williams downhill, and it is nicely overgrown with trees and a crooked pathway of accidental stepping stones, just rocks half sunk into the ground. I climbed upward and downward in quest of the tenement, but alas, it was quite gone into history.
Zelig’s residence, however, still stands. It is a double building, rather like the houses in Montreal, and it looms over the steep Moshassuk valley and river. It was a mild late winter morning, and my tiny twisty trek made me feel like an explorer in another land, a voyage not across a distance or ahead into the future, but merely into the past, nearly a full century ago.
I told Judy Beckman as much as I could muster, by the big window overlooking her small, neat, shady garden, about the lost branches of my family. Both grandmothers had died before I was born. I don’t know where they are buried. I don’t know for certain the last names of their birth families. I grew up with the remnants of a patrimony. My brothers and I were named for these lost grandmothers.
Charles for Charna, Michael (me) for Mira, and Edward, the first-born, for an aunt in New York who took our dad in when his mother died ... in London? Over the decades, a cousin may send a letter, attend a wedding or a funeral, and then go back ... to Detroit, to Toronto, to Montreal. Mostly, I find the facts and the fable intimately and locally. Thank you, Judy, for your efforts, your words, and the lovely teatime in the cordial and pleasant company of your white French poodle, Frances, age 12.
“I am not Jewish, but nevertheless I have picked up my husband Ralph’s Jewish custom of lighting yahrzeit candles to entertain the spirits of our loved ones. It’s a superb custom. I find it not only comforting, but a perfect metaphor for what we have been doing over our cups of Earl Grey!”
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at RISD.