Me, the ghost of the future past

An amazing family photo: (standing from left to right) Ida Mayer Cummings with sister Yetta Mayer Rieder, her oldest son Jack Cummings next to youngest son, Leonard Cummings and youngest daughter, my grandmother Mitzi. Jack’s first wife Marjorie Strauss sitting with my great-aunt Ruth Rowland and her baby son, Steven Rowland. Date circa 1939/1940. Location most likely my great-grandmother’s home at 828 South Tremaine Avenue, Los Angeles.

Knowing what I know about my family, the good and the bad – thanks to the books, old newspaper articles, the fragments of overheard conversations or stories told to me – I still ache to be in that photo.

Oh, how I love this photo and wish for all the tea in China that I could step into it. Even if only as a ghost from the future, whom no one can see, but perhaps only sense, like a faint, swift change that comes when a cloud moves over a spot you were just looking at, entering your consciousness for a split second and changing your train of thought. I long to be in this moment where so many people I am related to are pulsing with life, laughing and smiling, and feeling their loved ones so close that the texture of their clothes can be felt as it swishes or brushes up against their arm or ankle.

Two links in my mitochondrial line are happy bookends for this family gathering: my great-grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings, who is standing next to her oldest sibling Yetta Mayer Rieder, and my grandmother Mitzi, Ida’s youngest daughter and probably a year or so away from her marriage to my grandfather Sol Baer Fielding. My direct link, my mother, is not yet born but this and seven decades don’t stop me from feeling like I could easily come running around the corner into Ida’s garden at 825 S. Tremaine Ave and call out: “Wait, wait! I’m here! Have you taken the photo yet? Sorry I was held up – by… 70 years. But I’m here now.”

As a ghost from the future, as much as I call out, no matter my smiling face and resemblance to everyone here, no one would turn around, no one would stop the photographer, no one would shuffle to one side or the other to make room for me in the shot asking me what took me so long. I am just a faint breeze on an otherwise fragrant early Spring day in 1939.

But here is my family and they seem so genuinely happy to be with each other. Here is my great-uncle Leonard aka “Sonny” – just an awkward kid looking schmick in his white pants, white shirt and a deliriously goofy smile – happily squeezed between his big brother Jack and sister Mitzi. My ghost me stands next to him, feeling impossibly maternal as he is my son’s age. But as I wrote in To Bury A Son, he will die far too young at just 44 years old in 1965 from the same disease that killed Ida and Yetta’s brother Louis B Mayer, eight years before. I want to say to Sonny, “Keep smiling, kid, keep smiling. Life is short.”

And I see my uncle Jack Cummings, prolific MGM film producer sitting proprietorially behind his first wife – the young, fragile and beautiful Marjorie, who several years after this photo he will divorce and the former Miss Strauss will drop off her daughters to her mother’s home, go back to her own apartment and leap from the window to her death.

I see the joyously happy Ruth Rowland, Ida’s oldest child, who composed music and wrote scripts at MGM, showing off her baby son Steven Rowland, who one day will become an actor and run with the brat pack and later become a pioneering music producer (you will have seen him in the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man). Of the eight people in this photo, Steven is the only one still alive; he is my living bridge to this day and, in fact, shared this photo with me. His father, Ruth’s husband director Roy Rowland, is absent from this photo; perhaps he is on set somewhere and has called ahead, apologizing that he won’t make it after all. Only the family business – the motion picture business – could have kept him away.

The biggest surprise of this photo is Yetta. For years I have searched for her and her descendants, with no luck (2014 update: this family line has now been found). The only image I have ever seen of Yetta shows a formidable older daughter in her late teens in a precious group photograph of Sarah Mayer (nee Meltzer) with her surviving children: Yetta (1876-1963), Ida (1882-1968), Louis Burt (1884-1957), Rubin/Rudolph (1888-1951) and Gershon/Jerry (1891-1947). For whatever reason, my great-great grandfather Jacob is not in this photo (see below).

Twenty years after standing next to her nephew Jack, in her sister’s garden, Yetta would sue Louis B Mayer’s estate in relation to property of Rudolph’s, which she would claim were wrongly held in LB’s assets at his death. I don’t know what the end result was, but one of the defendants she took action against was Jack.

Of course, they all came to be in the garden in LA, thanks to the family’s patriarch Louis B. Mayer, who became the anchor who would bring his brothers and sisters to sunnier climes than Saint John, New Brunswick where their parents had settled in the late 1880s and had more in common, at least weather-wise, with the old country – Belarus. After Jacob Mayer and his family immigrated from Belarus to England, for reasons unknown, he traveled to Ireland while the rest of the family sailed to Long Island, New York and then it appears, on to Saint John where they eventually started a scrap metal business.

Perhaps it is these early hard times that were the ties that bind. Or maybe it was just being family in a time when families could be separated by murderous pogroms, or travel across the seas, never to be seen again? The Mayer clan seemed to place a premium on sticking together. Family members would also travel back and forth to Saint John and Montreal. And these were the days of train travel and perhaps later, plane trips, but what mattered was family. When Jacob Mayer came to his last years, Sarah having passed away long ago in 1913, he left Canada never to return again and moved in with Louis and his family until his death in 1930.

Were they always wonderful to each other? No, of course not. There were feuds, angry words, control, even law suits. There was also love, support, loyalty and shared grief. And, as this photo shows on one glorious day, several of my family stood together, perhaps to mark the first birthday of a fat, healthy baby boy with glowing blonde locks, the golden essence of their adopted city and nation, and the herald of the next generation and those that would follow.

Knowing what I know about my family, the good and the bad – thanks to the books, old newspaper articles, the fragments of overheard conversations or stories told to me – I still ache to be in that photo. The closest I can ever get to it though, as the ghost of the future past, would be to stand on that patch of grass. If only I knew the exact coordinates in space and time I would close my eyes, perhaps rock back onto my heels, tilt my chin up to smell the fragrance of this garden and hope to feel the fur of my grandmother’s cape brush against the hairs of my arm, hear the far away echo of Sonny’s chuckle and the sound of the photographer as he says, “OK, everyone ready? 1, 2, 3!”

Sarah Myers (became Mayer) with her five children - Yetta, Ida, Louis, Rubin and Jeremiah. Location and date unknown.
Sarah Myers (became Mayer) with her five children – Yetta, Ida, Louis, Rubin and Gershon. Location and date unknown.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.

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