The pocket watch lay in Box 14 for the past seventeen years—and untold decades prior—in my grandparents’ cedar chest. I had assumed it was my grandfather’s watch, but didn’t know when he had acquired it. Its wide, crisply-numbered face and long gold chain made me wish I had a small pocket in which I could carry it, so I could take it out on occasion to look at the time, just like in the old movies. But that was impractical, if not impossible. I’ve come across this watch numerous times as I’ve revisited Box 14 to confirm a date, find a letter, marvel at all my grandmother saved. But recently I’ve discovered a previously unknown document that makes the pocket watch even more precious. More on that later.
Also housed in Box 14 is a collection of German song books. Embossed on the front of one are my grandfather’s initials (“J.G.” for Josef Gärtz). It is actually a church hymn book, for the title page reads (in translation): The Song Book of the Evangelical Community Church in the Siebenbürgen section of Hungary. But what has brought these items to discussion on this post is a connect-the-dots sort of discovery that imbues these objects with extra meaning.
I have written in a previous post (“Crossing in Winter”) that Josef had made his last diary entry about his trip to America, when he described the brutal winter Atlantic crossing he embarked upon on New Year’s Eve, 1910. But he actually did write in the diary again—two months later. After arriving in America on January 11, 1911, Josef traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, where he met up with a family from his home town of Neppendorf. He made one more entry, dated: Cleveland, February 20, 1911, a century ago. It was a packing list.
Given he had written it more than a month after his arrival in America, I can surmise one of two things from this list. Either he had carried these items along on the ship and decided a month and a half later to simply write down everything he had brought or, perhaps, he had shipped them separately and recorded them as he unpacked. I’m inclined to believe the latter because of the quantity of items and the weight. He was a carpenter, so it was essential to bring along tools of his trade if he were to earn a living, and this list proves he did just that.
Upon reading it, I had an “Aha” moment. Perhaps you, like I, can look at this list and try to imagine what you would choose to start life anew in a 5,000-mile distant land, probably never to return home.
Most importantly, that shiny gold pocket watch had new cachet because it is an artifact from Josef’s origins, a constant reminder to him of “home.” And although I knew the song/hymn book originated in Siebenbürgen, its pedigree and connection to our family’s past is made all the more real by seeing its inclusion on a list, written in his own hand.
Here’s the translation of Josef’s packing list, not necessarily in the same order, compressed for space.
5 shirts; 1 umbrella
4 work shirts; 2 pairs shoes
2 undershirts; 1 pair slippers
6 underpants; 1 pair rubber boots
8 pair socks; 1 pocket watch with chain
1 fur collar; 1 bed cover
1 cap; 1 hair comb
3 hats; 1 mirror
14 handkerchiefs; 2 song books
11 ties; 1 silver razor
2 Undercoats? (perhaps an extra layer—like a sweater)
2 pair pants
Separately, he listed “Werkzeuge”—Tools:
“press” (perhaps a vice)
4 chisels or crow bars
Now that Josef had his tools and was settled in a bit, it was time to turn his attention to persuading the love of his life, Lisi Ebner, to join him. Their 100-year-old letters, coming up, show us how it was done.