Joey’s button by
10
(11 Stories)

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

Not the same button that Joey wore–but these are the same faces his button sported, and that triggered my Grandma.

The first button I associate with Joey during his college years bore the slogan, “Grinnell Sucks.” But that’s not the button I want to discuss.

I knew Grandma Geitel as a seamstress, a maker of chicken soup with knaidelach, someone who drank hot tea in a glass with sugar cubes, and someone who liked to gossip about her eight sisters and their lives and times.

Joey was one year ahead of me in school, same as my brother Leon. There was a loose-knit group of boys, mostly Jewish and all in my brother’s grade, whom I thought of as “the intellectuals” during my late adolescence on the north side of Indianapolis. Their “brand” (as today’s youth would call it) included academic success, support for civil rights, anti-authoritarianism, and an interest in arts and films that were as far as possible from the run-of-the-mill fare favored by more typical Hoosiers. They weren’t that into the Beatles, for example, during the early “She Loves You” days. But once Lennon and McCartney began crafting deeper lyrics and more complex melodies—Rubber Soul!—they could sit around and analyze it to their hearts’ content. They would rather go to an obscure foreign film, the kind that were shown in a one-screen theatre in an edgy part of town, than to the mainstream commercial movie theaters with their beckoning candy counters and their safe and well-lit parking lots.

They left for college in 1966—all choosing to study outside the state of Indiana. It was fun times when they would get back together during their college years, and our home—with my mom always ready to dice up some apples, roll out some dough, fleck in some bits of butter and put a strudel in the oven–tended to be the favored spot to reconvene. It was at one of these gatherings, probably during the very first Christmas break of their freshman year, that Joey was sporting the “Grinnell Sucks” button.  Not that he didn’t like Grinnell, a liberal arts college in Iowa: I think the button was just part of the continuing anti-authoritarian posture.

It would be a couple years later, during a similar informal mini-gathering at our house, that Joey would wear the button I want to discuss. But to appreciate why it was important, and why it still sticks in my mind, you have to know about my maternal grandparents.

Grandma was the youngest of nine sisters who arrived with her parents in Toronto, Canada, from Russia, at the age of five. Grandpa arrived on his own in New York City from Lithuania (which was also part of the Czarist empire) at the age of 17. Eventually, they would meet in Toledo, Ohio, and marry. My mother was the second of four children and the only girl.

Grandma worked on sewing machines in factories when she was younger, but by the time I knew her, she was a self-employed dressmaker, taking in sewing work at home. Grandpa was a “junk dealer” who had a truck when I knew him but had begun plying his trade with a horse and cart. Factories would pay him a fee to pick up excess or waste material off their shipping docks, and he would seek buyers to whom he would resell the material. Each time we visited Toledo from neighboring Indiana, we came home with piles and lengths of scrap fabric, so I guess some of his customers must have been clothing factories.

More germane to the story of Joey and his button than the way they made their living was that Grandpa and Grandma believed in Revolution. Not just the Russian Revolution in their native lands, which took place after they each emigrated, but the worldwide and universal concept of revolution. Until the day that Grandma spoke up about Joey’s button, however, I had never heard her identify with this part of her past. I knew from my mother that they had a framed photo of Lenin (of Russian Revolution fame) on the piano, and that she found herself in an uncomfortable position when she was asked to vote in her elementary school’s mock Presidential election. That was because William Z. Foster, the Communist candidate her parents supported, was not included on the school’s version of the ballot. My mother had also told us proudly that when she was about ten, her parents took her to rallies to “Free the Scottsboro Boys,” nine African American teenagers, ages 13 to 19, accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a freight train. The young men turned out to be innocent victims of falsified testimony but most served at least six years and several considerably longer. At the time, the defendants had few allies besides the adherents of the Communist Party, USA.

Grandpa made his perspective plain. When our family visited Toledo in the summer of 1967, before I left for my first semester of college, he was eager to show us the evidence of the recent black community uprising that had taken place in July. This was the same summer that nearby Detroit and over 100 other urban areas experienced similar events. The violence had not left him with the fears that were so prevalent among so many other white people after these uprisings. Instead he seemed animated. He drove us around and showed us some properties that had been damaged and said, “they got to throw a lot more rocks and bottles.” He recounted how, back in Russia, there were different perspectives toward change. In his thick accent, he explained that for some people it was all about “just get rid of the Czar.” But then the people did “push out the Czar” and that left them with a “fellow named Kerensky.”  And the problem was, if they didn’t “push out Kerensky,” it would “go back.” Because the real problem was “the profit system.” It was important to go all the way, to put an end to the profit system–to have a revolution. And that kind of thinking, he implied, was what Black people in the United States would need, if they truly wanted to attain equality. “They got to throw a lot more rocks and bottles.”

I never heard any such talk from Grandma Geitel (Gertie to those who Americanized her name). I knew her as a seamstress, a maker of chicken soup with knaidelach, someone who drank hot tea in a glass with sugar cubes, and someone who liked to gossip about her eight sisters and their lives and times.

When the members of my brother’s circle gathered at our home during what was probably their senior year of college, Grandma and Grandpa happened to be staying with us. Joey, it turns out, had become active in the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth branch of the Socialist Workers Party, whose members viewed themselves as followers of Trotsky. On his lapel, he was wearing a button bearing the name of the party and the faces of both Trotsky and Lenin. I introduced him to my grandparents, and he proceeded to mingle with my brother and the other guests. Grandma and Grandpa were perfectly courteous, mainly leaving the young guests to interact with each other—and to indulge in the roast beef, the strudel, sides of olives, and the cookies that mom was likely to have provided.

But when Joey and the others left—boy, did I hear a mouthful from Grandma!  “Did you see what he had on his button? I didn’t want to be rude so I didn’t say nothing.” You mean the button for his political organization? What was wrong with it? “Have you ever seen something so crazy?” What do you mean, Grandma? “Lenin, with Trotsky? That’s like if I’m putting a picture of Moses on a button, and then somebody puts—I don’t know, Jesus! They don’t match up!” (A reader needs to understand that in the mind of someone Jewish, even someone like my Grandma who was unaffiliated with a synagogue, Jesus is definitely the one—like Trotsky–who didn’t “match up!”)

My Grandma Geitel as a young woman

Later I would learn that Grandma had been a fiery street-corner speaker at the age of sixteen (in Yiddish), and authored a dozen or more articles in the local Yiddish-language Communist newspaper–about working conditions, organizing drives, and strikes in Toledo and the surrounding areas.  But she had long submerged these past activities well below the surface of her daily life. I am thankful that for a few precious moments, I got to witness the flash and fire of my grandma, the young activist and ideologue! It was entirely thanks to Joey’s button.

Profile photo of Dale Borman Fink Dale Borman Fink
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    Absolutely fabulous, Dale, how you weave in the button and the 1960s with the wonderful detail about your grandparents’ political activities and their backgrounds. Your story is a good reminder that political intensity wasn’t invented in our present times! Plus, I can’t help commenting on how parallel some of your specific memories are with my Lithuanian-Russian paternal grandparents. My grandmother drank tea in a glass and put a sugar cube under her tongue. On my mom’s side, there was a lot of “Red” activity in the US in the garment factories. My mom’s cousin’s husband fought in the Lincoln Brigade and was honored many years after the fact. Thanks for restoring these memories.

    • I appreciate all of your comments, Marian.
      Isn’t it funny how we go through our lives, thinking we are individuals or families making our own trajectories through life’s vicissitudes? And then it turns out that we are actually participants in a much more collective (not so separate and individualized) social, cultural, and historical phenomena: everything from our choice of beverage and the way we drink it, to the industry or occupation in which we make a living, to the political ideas or ideals we adopt. The human animal is complicated.

  2. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Dale, full of rich descriptions that brought all your characters to life. I totally recognized that group of boys your brother Leon hung around with (he wasn’t named after Trotsky, was he?). I particularly liked the observation that they disdained the early Beatles, but from Rubber Soul on, they could analyze to their hearts’ content. Your grandparents are vividly drawn, and seem a lot like my grandparents.

    I have to wonder though, who was the audience you were envisioning for this story? Your parenthetical comments after Lenin’s name and after the Moses and Jesus quote suggest that you were writing for high school or college students, not a bunch of sophisticated baby boomers.

    • Suzy, I learned from a good “composition” teacher in high school to always consider audience for any piece of writing, so you asked a pertinent question–and I always do think about that. The answer is that I always imagine a wide audience when I write on this site. People on this website, one hopes, pass along links they like to others, of different ages and backgrounds. I want my work to be accessible.

    • P.S. No, my brother Leon was named for our paternal grandfather, who pre-deceased us, not for Trotsky. In any case, my parents (in spite of mom’s background) were solid mainstream Democrats, not socialists or radicals and would not have considered naming for one of the patriarchs of the left.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, Dale. We came from similar backgrounds, and my grandfathers were tailors. But one of my grandmothers, a very bright woman, had radical views similar to yours as did my Great Aunt, who wasn’t as quiet about her political views as my grandmother. Like yours, mine ended up in the midwest (Detroit) and drank their tea in the same way. While my parents were liberal, they learned to suppress any socialist leanings to fit into American society.

  4. Dale, thanx for sharing this story about your friend Joey’s political button, and your spunky Russian grandma Geitel.

    I too had a spunky paternal Russian grandma Esther who also drank her tea in a glass. She and my grandfather came to this country from Ukraine in 1905, and eventually ran a small Catskill hotel. Esther ran it almost single-handedly as my grandfather was sickly and apparently would spend most of the day sitting on the hotel porch reading Yiddish newspapers and what my dad called political tracts.

    What lives that immigrant generation led!

    • Funny! My grandpa (not the one i the story but the other who pre-deceased me) also left my grandma many days and hours to run their shoe/and/clothing store in small-town Ohio!. But he wasn’t reading political tracts, he was fishing.
      I love that several of us had grandmas who drank hot tea from a glass and put in (or put on their tongues) sugar cubes while drinking it. See comment above to Marian.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Dale, as others have commented, you story is so alive with wonderful details about your older brother, his friend Joey and their “brand”, from not liking early Beatles, to their affinity for revolution and Russian Communists, without truly understanding which players played what part in that drama.

    Your description of your Toledo grandparents was of particular interest to me, as my maternal grandparents came from Lithuania to Toledo, but earlier than yours. They escaped from Tsarist Russia in 1906 after terrible pogroms. They were already married with two babies and barely escaped with their lives. The traveled to Rotterdam, came through Ellis Island, then on to Toledo. My grandmother was the oldest of 9 children. They had two more children in Toledo, my mother was their youngest and I am the youngest of the grandchildren. My grandfather died when I was 11, my grandmother passed a month before I turned 15. I don’t know if they favored the revolution, in fact, I don’t remember ever hearing them speak of their native land. So yours is an interesting perspective for me. Thank you.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    I loved this story, Dale. You developed all the key characters — your grandparents and Joey — richly. and you made clear how much you admired Joey for his sophisticated political cynicism. However, when then juxtaposed with your grandparents’ exposure to real revolution (and revolutionary “heroes”) — not simply the stuff we got to safely play with when we were in college — it put Joey’s activism in proper perspective. And, as noted, all of this turned on Joey’s button, thus making this an ideal story for this prompt.

    For the record, my grandfather ran for mayor of Milwaukee in the 1930’s on the Zionist-Socialist ticket. Per my father, he was hardly a Zionist and being labeled a Socialist there and then was no big deal. My father also reported that my grandfather captured all but about 97% of the vote.

    • Too bad about those other 97% of ill-informed voters, but yes, I knew the voters of Milwaukee did elect socialist mayors for decades.
      Thanks for comments on the way I developed the narrative: I put a lot of work and generated several drafts so it’s nice to get that affirmation.
      Meanwhile, my brother Leon has sent the link to Joey, who lives in New Mexico now. I doubt he ever heard of the ruckus his button stirred up and I hope to hear that he enjoyed story. (THE RISKS WE ALL TAKE WHEN WRITING NONFICTION.)

  7. A colorful, interesting, and beautifully composed story, Dale! I wish I had something to add to the many positive comments that have already been made but all I can do is agree with them, minus the similarities to relatives on my Jewish father’s side (my mother wasn’t Jewish) with whom I had very little contact, and because of which I’m the perfect audience for some of those parentheticals.

    What a warm picture you paint of your home, right down to the preparation of the apple strudel — I can almost smell it baking. I find myself wondering about you in this scenario, about how you fit in. Your brother and his friends were only a year older than you. As the kid brother, did you look up to them? Were you included or excluded in their conversations, or did you hang back, assuming fly-on-the-wall status? Did they influence your own tastes and observations? Another story, mayhap?

  8. Barbara, I’m glad I successfully conveyed the atmosphere of the home and that the details about the strudel helped to bring the scene to life for you. And you’re right: there’s more to explore about me and my reaction, just being slightly younger than these high-powered intellectuals. In an earlier draft, I wrote of being mocked by one of these boys for praising the film, “The sound of Music!” And I can also tell you, I did not share with them how closely I followed the top-40 pop charts at the time. They may have known their Rilke and Kafka but they didn’t know their Ray Davies and the Kinks like I did!

  9. Deborah says:

    Remarkable how so many memories are triggered by that one button and how skillfully you weave them together in this moving narrative. Actually it contains so many descriptions that trigger my own memories–here is a simple one that I find amusing in that so many people can relate to it: the sugar cube under the tongue: My grandfather also drank tea in this manner and I well remember how when sharing this story my mother always reminded me that I shouldn’t try this because it was not good for one’s teeth!

Leave a Reply