[img_assist|nid=821|title=Oscar Kahn|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=195]He was not the one disfigured in youth, the one who rose to fame, the one whose story has been told in books and film. He was not the celebrated architect, Louis I. Kahn. He was Lou’s brother, Oscar, a man whose unsung life was unexpectedly cut short, a man I never met but for whom I was named. He was my grandfather, and after all these silent, shadowy years, his faded image is starting to clear.
I never wondered much about my grandfather. The snippets I had collected here and there told me all I needed to know: he was an artist, a composer, an adman who died of a massive heart attack at forty-two. Black and white photos depicted a dapper figure who shared a sweet smile with my mother and looked nothing like the rumpled, impish, white-haired uncle I’d occasionally see at family gatherings.
As far as I was concerned, my grandfather was an opaque ghost
of the past. It was enough to know that his name, like mine,
began with an O. But some ghosts can only remain quiet for so
long. Restless and aching, they break through the veil and seek
a voice, a means of relaying what they couldn’t or didn’t have
time to say.
When my grandmother died at the age of one hundred, she left
behind a packet of fifty or so letters dating from 1942 to 1945,
the year of my grandfather’s death. Most were sent to my
grandmother, Rosella, from Stockton, California, where my grandfather
was starting a new business. A few were addressed to his son,
Alan, a Navy midshipman who was serving in the Pacific theater.
All reveal a man of intelligence, wit and startling passion.
An idealist sobered by the war. A poet who, unlike his brother,
chose family over art.
I began to notice my grandfather’s traits as I traced
his delicate script with my fingers. The scrolling black ink
was as refined as the face in the photographs. Evenly proportioned
though somewhat constrained, each word began and ended with a
soft, looping flourish. The elegant, forward-slanting hand suggested
a delight in the very act of writing combined with a sense of
resignation that also threaded through the content of the letters.
In a letter to Alan, for example, my grandfather tempers his
anxiety with pragmatism:
Your telling me not to worry doesn’t work so well—it
seems that I am constantly thinking about you—where you
are and what you are doing… The fact remains—we
are at War—and you are in it up to the neck, which I hope
you will use to balance a head which in turn will house a brain
clear enough to control a fighting heart—a steady hand—or
pair of hands—and by no means should you let those flat
feet of yours get you into trouble or lead you away from helping
your fellow mate.
[img_assist|nid=822|title=Clockwise from Top left: Oscar and Rosella; Oscar and Rosella’s wedding day; Ona Russell, Oscar’s granddaughter|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=200|height=167]
Here, too, is an example of what I came to see
as my grandfather’s
characteristic humor, a purposeful, linguistic playfulness
that no doubt served him well in the advertising business.
The family has always maintained that Oscar invented the commercial
jingle, at least in Stockton where he wrote for Crispy Potato
Chips and Gallo Wines. In any case, he certainly seemed to have
a knack for the genre. When I was a kid, my mother taught me
one of his songs, and I’ve never forgotten it: “You’re
my sweetie, sweetie, sweetie, sweetie, sweetie-pie, you’re
the apple, apple, apple, apple, apple of my eye, you’re
my funny little honey bunny and that’s why, I’m in
love with you.” The other verses go much the same, and
the poems that pepper his letters are of a similar ilk. To Alan
again he writes: “We’re both going around in circles,
wonderin’ how you are, wishin’ for sure unknown miracles
to bring you from afar.”
No, the poetry is not complex, but my grandfather bore the sensibility
of a poet. Amidst the quotidian concerns he expresses to my grandmother
is the introspection which defines that sensibility:
Here I am again and just a little more on the blue side—or
is it lonesome or what is it? To try and describe how it feels
would be next to worthless. You just can’t find words for
it—it seems to bear down on you and wear you out. I am
empty and it is not for want of food.
So here I am—enough time on my hands—surrounded
by movies and such—but I find myself—alone—among
a turmoil of people who keep rushing by—Really, I didn’t
think that there could be so many people whom I didn’t
Although some of the passages are downright silly, with stick
figures and other child-like sketches standing in for words,
even these and the countless dashes in the letters suggest his
poetic side, his search for a symbol to best represent the idea
he was attempting to express. Ultimately, his overarching mood
is that of a thinker-poet seeking the ever-elusive meaning of
As I read of his quest, I felt for him, wished I could see into
his soft, brown eyes, reassuringly touch his long tapered hand.
Did he ever feel cheated? Resent that his talent was underappreciated?
Did he feel that his smooth, unscarred face ironically made him
a son less favored? Perhaps. But I have no doubt that my grandfather
found what he was looking for, if only for a short time. Not
in his jingles, poems or drawings, but in his children, and especially
in my grandmother: “And how I miss those kids. I don’t
believe it of me—I didn’t realize how much I would until
now—I’m really human and fatherly at last… My
darling—all the money in the world isn’t worth one
hour of separation—but only after you’ve been away
do you realize it.”
The distance between them seemed to clarify his feelings for
my grandmother in particular, to whom he had been married for
nearly twenty years. Oscar repeatedly expresses his unabashed
passion for her both philosophically and sensually. In one letter,
he writes, “A wife to me is an inspiration to share my
grief and to expound unto her the glory I find in a sunset—the
rapture I see in the outline of a mountain range at dusk—with
its peaks, cloudy with snow.” And in another,
The thrill of sharing the indescribable ecstasy of body with
body, of thought with thought, of soul with soul in a treasured
few moments of physical love—and then the heavenly calm
in each others arms afterwards, knowing the sweetness of each
other till the break of another day and to look forward to another
moment together—my heart or my arms could clutch you, as
near as my hands, my finger tips-touch you.
Some of the letters are so personal, so intimate, that I felt
a bit of a voyeur, not to mention envious of the attention my
grandfather showered upon his wife. I have always considered
myself a hopeless romantic, entranced as I am with 1940s melodramas
and brooding love songs. Maybe, I thought, I have finally glimpsed
the source. The genetic code runs deep.
But my grandfather’s epiphany about the importance of
my grandmother also seemed tied to his prescience about an early
demise: “The only thing that is certain is death,” he
writes, omitting the part about taxes. “But fate—Darling—you
figure it out—the way things begin—the way they develop—the
way they materialize—all like a pattern set and meant to
be—regardless of what we do—what we want or what
we feel is right—It just happens.”
And then, too, my grandfather repeatedly talked of his life
in narrative terms, possibly a way of distancing himself from
his intuition that the end was near:
Loneliness is a word I’ll never know to its fullest meaning
with our story—our story lives with me—every moment
it’s like a friendly hand touching my shoulder.
…You do love me darling, don’t you—? Never stop telling me—over
and over again until—
Until their story ended when Oscar died one New Year’s
Eve in my grandmother’s arms.
It ended, but my grandfather will not been forgotten. For wedged
among the letters was a telegram with a brief, strange, commanding
plea: “Remember my story.” And so I have.
His brother built soaring edifices, but my grandfather built
a family. His brother is known far and wide, but now I know Oscar.
And knowing him as I do, I feel much as he did when he wrote
to my grandmother all those years ago, telling her what her letters
meant to him:
To take them apart—I can see your writing them word for
word and thought for thought. Each little emotion is set just
like a precious stone in a rich setting—and they come to
Ona Russell holds a PhD in literature from UC San Diego. She writes and lectures nationally on the topic of Literature and the Law and is a published novelist.Her new historical mystery,The Natural Selection, will be released this spring from Sunstone Press. She lives in Solana Beach, California with her husband and has two grown children. For more information, please visit www.onarussell.com.