Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Obers and Corwins

My father's father, Michael Ober, was a constable (a server of subpoenas) in Boston in the 1920s. He had an office on Milk Street and feigned a convincing Irish brogue, despite his Jewish-Hungarian roots. He was the oldest boy in a family of twelve brothers and sisters, the children of Joseph Ober and Celia Klein, who emigrated from their home in Kisvarda, Hungary to Boston around 1885. The three oldest—Rose, Mike, and Ethel—were born in Kisvarda. The rest were native Bostonians: Sam, Eddie, Jenny, Helen, Harry, Gertie, Bertha, Mildred, and Emil, born between 1886 and 1906. My dad, also named Emil, had a lot of aunts and uncles.

Around 1900, Rose, a talented artist and milliner, married Samuel Corwin, an enterprising engraver and printer who had emigrated from Russia in '82. Thus were joined two remarkable clans who have grown up together through one century and into the next.

Thanks to my late cousin, Bobby Ober (Eddie's son), I have a large black-and-white photo of Obers and Corwins at a family reunion in Nahant, Mass. It's the summer of 1920. They are all crammed into a broad portico of a large white house. That's Sam Corwin at the upper right, hand in jacket pocket and cigar at a jaunty angle. To his right, looking remarkably like Sam, is his lanky son, Emil, age 17. And sitting on the front steps is a gaggle of restless-looking kids. Among them are Bobby Ober (age 7), Norman Corwin (10), and his sister, Beulah (6). I'm not sure where their teenage brother Alfred is.

I've been thinking about Obers and Corwins lately, for different reasons. Obers, I'll wait until my next post to go into. Corwins, because this time of year—late April and early May—is a time of Corwin birthdays. To paraphrase Orwell, some birthdays are more equal than others. On April 28, Emil (left photo) turned 107. On May 3, Norman turned 100. I spoke to them on the phone and they sounded as courtly as ever, each in his own way waving away the hoopla. Norman had a bit more of it to endure. His fame as a radio dramatist in the 40s is unparalleled. Nor will I try to sum it up here. But I will provide a link to a nice radio piece NPR did on his birthday. And another to Norman's website.

And I will add that one of my favorite recent memories is having dinner with Norman at his favorite Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, and having him sign my copy of Dog in the Sky, the peerless novel he wrote based on his radio play, "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones." From which I will quote one paragraph. (A bit of context: Runyon, age nine, has been journeying through the Cosmos to find his late dog, Pootzy, now in Curgatory. He's just taken a space train, the Hyperbola Superbola, to the Skjellerup Tree at East Feffy Foofy, per the instructions of a Giant.)

Runyon alighted from the train when nobody was looking, and the conductor waved and said, "Flig kazam vuz," a homely local blessing meaning "May you have a long and happy life (flig), attended by many worthwhile progeny (vuz), and be safe from the depradations of cosmic rays, and the blight of the blim smut." (kazam)
To Emil I merely owe my existence. While he was a student at Massachusetts Agricultural College (later U. Mass.) in Amherst, Emil often ate at the boarding house of Ida and Meyer Novick, who attracted many Jewish students by serving kosher. He got to know their daughter, Betty, quite well, and thought, "Here is just the girl for my cousin, Emil Ober." He was right.

Finally, one cannot dwell on Corwin longevity and nobility without honoring Sam Corwin. Remember Samuel Corwin, the engraver with the jaunty cigar who married my great-aunt Rose Ober? He made it to 110. His lifelong collection of positive aphorisms might have contributed. As well as the daily glass of sherry. A toast:

Flig kazam vuz!

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