My Grandpa Lamers

By William Lamers, Jr., Malibu, California
e-mail: lamers@earthlink.net

Now that I have held another grandson in my arms, I am suddenly aware of the passage of time and realize that our memories of ancestors are ephemeral. Unless written down, they soon vanish. Therefore, I want to write about my own grandfather, Grandpa John Lamers.

Grandpa Lamers was a gentle, quiet, handsome and well-mannered person. I associate the smell of cigars with his presence. It was not an unpleasant aroma, but is intimately linked with my recollections of this benevolent man. When he was young, he was involved with others in his family in making ('rolling') cigars. Later he joined with several brothers to develop the Lamers Brothers Shoe Store on Grove Street in Milwaukee. The handsome building with its marquee, 'Lamers Brothers,' still stands and is preserved as an historic site.

Grandpa's family came to Milwaukee in the mid-1800s from the town of Boxmeer in Holland (the Netherlands). His full name was John Peter Martin Lamers. My brother, John Peter Lamers, is named after Grandpa John Peter Lamers. Grandpa used to say with characteristic self-deprecating humor, "John is a horse's name."

Until I was about five years old our family (mother, father, my sister Mary Agnes, my brother John and I and eventually my brother, Ed) lived in the Lamers family home at 1223 South 10th Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was the time of the great depression and my father, who was a professor at Marquette University, could not afford a separate home for his growing family. As a result, I had daily exposure to my Grandpa John Lamers.

Grandpa left each morning to walk to the family shoe store on Grove Street. I would go to the parlor window and wave 'goodbye' to him. He would return each noon to eat the lunch my Grandma Lamers had prepared for him. After lunch he would walk back to work over a mile away, to return again each evening.

I remember sitting on Grandpa's lap. Sometimes he would sing to me. I remember the verses (in German) of several songs he sang to me. He would also play little games with me, like 'Patty Cake.' He often sang the song, 'East side, west side, all around the town.'

Because Grandpa Lamers was of Dutch ancestry, I was exposed to customs that I still find myself drawn to. For example, in anticipation of the Christmas holidays, Grandpa Lamers would bring home a wooden bucket filled with pickled herring. We would eat these over the holiday season. Later as I researched the customs of my ancestors I learned that, in pagan times, the Dutch abstained from fishing as the Winter solstice approached in hope that their sacrifice would convince the gods to make the sun rise above the horizon. They had preserved large amounts of herring in brine, vinegar and spices, which they consumed until fishing was resumed. To this day whenever I buy pickled herring I remember Grandpa and his Dutch ancestry.

Like many other Dutchmen, Grandpa liked beer. In the days before refrigerators, beer was kept cool in the icebox. The iceman came to our house several times a week to deliver large blocks of ice to replace those, which had melted. Grandpa also made wine in large glass crocks he kept in the basement. He made wine from elderberries as well as from grapes he would buy at Jahr's fruit market at the corner of Greenfield Avenue and South 16th Street. On special occasions, I was able to have a small sip of his homemade wine.

When I was a little boy, radio was a new phenomenon. Grandpa bought a radio set made by Atwater-Kent that stood over four feet high. He would sit next to it and listen to the news or to baseball games. I recall sitting with Grandpa and Grandma Lamers and listening to reports of the great flood of the Ohio River. Later, Grandpa bought a very fine Zenith radio with short wave capabilities. I recall sitting with him while he listened to Adolph Hitler, live from Germany. Even as a little boy I can recall the concern he had for what was going on in Europe.

Grandpa Lamers had a shiny, bald head that had one black spot on it. Whenever I asked him about the black spot he would say, "That was where the bullet went in." To my knowledge, he had never been shot. He was a gentle man. This was his way of making a joke.

Whenever I pass a construction site I remember that Grandpa Lamers used to take me for walks. We often went to construction sites where we would stand and watch men and machines at work. In those days, safety barriers were practically non-existent, so we had a clear view of all that was happening. On the way home we would almost always stop at a store that sold ice cream or candy.

Grandpa Lamers was always well dressed. I used to stand by the parlor window to wait for him to come home for lunch. He always wore a hat. His suits were all three-piece. He wore a gold watch chain across the front of his vest. The many miles he walked to and from work kept him trim and agile. Apart from his final illness, I have no recollection of him as sickly or complaining. He was always pleasant, kind, interested, interesting, generous and comforting.

During the summer, we stayed at our home on Wind Lake in Racine County, Wisconsin. While he was still working at the shoe store, Grandpa would stay in town during the week, but every Friday he would take the inter-urban (electric) train to Wind Lake. On Friday evenings we would climb into the Ford and drive to the train stop next to Highway 36 near Lake Waubasee. Grandpa always carried something in a bag for his grandchildren when he stepped down from the train.

Grandpa liked to fish. We would dig for worms where we scattered coffee grounds around the elm tree in the front yard. Sometimes we would go out at night with flashlights to catch night crawlers, slimy beasts that had to be grasped tightly before they could slither away. When it was time to fish, we would get into our rowboat. I would sit in the back as we trolled over areas where Grandpa assured me there were fish. We rarely caught more than a few pan fish. Grandpa cleaned with a fish-shaped scaler made with iron shoe pegs from the Lamers Brothers Shoe Store.

In 1937 my Dad bought an old Victorian house at 7832 Warren Avenue in Wauwatosa. I did not want to leave my home, so when the rest of the family moved to Wauwatosa, I stayed behind for several months with Grandma, Grandpa and Aunt Marie.

The house on Warren Avenue needed a lot of work. Grandpa Lamers used to take the streetcar to Wauwatosa and walk up the hill to our house where he helped with painting and carpentry. I was in grade school then, and would often see Grandpa when I returned home for lunch. In the late afternoon he would take the streetcar back to his home on South 10th Street.

Grandpa was a deeply religious person. I recall going to church with Grandma and Grandpa at St. Patrick's Church near their home in Milwaukee as well as to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Waterford, Wisconsin, while we were at our summer home. Grandpa saw that my father received a Catholic education at St. Patrick's School, Marquette University High School and at Marquette University. It is clear that Grandpa's character played an important role in my father's development. It is obvious that respect my father felt for my grandfather was central to the course of my father's personal and professional life. My father saw his own father as a model to emulate.

In the fall of 1941, Grandpa Lamers became quite ill with kidney failure and was no longer able to come to our new home. He received excellent care from Grandma Lamers, Aunt Marie and others in the family. I recall visiting him when he was very close to death. He died peacefully in his home in September 1941.

My father, who knew a lot of people in all walks of life, told me repeatedly that his father was the best man he had ever known. I know he was accurate in saying this.