Let me tell you something about Jerry. (By which I mean, good luck stopping me telling you something about Jerry.) Jerry was a good man, optimistic, curious, always seeking culture and betterment, always willing to put in an honest day’s work and to believe the same of the next fellow. However, as a man of relatively high achievement in a relatively small and isolated town, he may have sometimes developed a distorted view of his own expertise in some matters. Furthermore, he did like to express himself and leave his mark. Sometimes that took the form of moonlighting as a local radio announcer or bursting into song at the merest prompt, and sometimes it just meant… well….
I scrambled the numbers and masked the background color, so I hope you can’t steal anybody’s identity here
featuring my grandfather’s name, signature, date of birth, and eight numbers with two hyphens. It’s his social security card, with heavy, voluptuous typography and a self-professed issuance date of early December 1936 (the cards first having appeared in November of that year). So that’s pretty awesome evidence of, if nothing else, Jerry’s social security number.
But I really don’t need direct evidence of that number, in light of all the corroborating evidence I have lying around. Now, with a recent package from mom of choice items from her folk’s home, I’ve got even more of them. And what they are, is things with Jerry’s social security number stuck on them.
At some point, well into his mature years when you’d think he’d know better, Jerry somehow picked up the idea that one’s social security number was an appropriate and convenient way of identifying ownership of one’s personal possessions. Who else would put *your* social security number on anything? Nobody! So he got him a roll of white medical tape and, for some items, he’d attach a generous piece of tape to the reverse side and write his number on it with a permanent marker. By the time any of these knickknacks and tchochkes (“knichkes”) came to me through his estate, these self-adhesive identifiers had become so stained and soiled that the digits he’d scrawled on them were effectively unreadable and the tape itself was peeling off, leaving only a patch of stranded stickum standing witness to his efforts at preserving his dominion. It’s a ghost of an identifier, for a ghost of an identity.
However, his other means of identification was less prey to the ravages of time, schvitz and friction. For even back in the day, a malefactor might peel away a tape label, might even replace it with a different piece of white medical tape with a different social security number on it. People can be unscrupulous.
So sometimes Jerry made a label that no one in the Elks Club cloakroom could obscure or change: He used an electrically-powered diamond-tipped inscribing tool, bought special for the purpose, and he’d carve his social security number directly into the plate silver or pewter or whatever elemental substrate commanded his attention. His uneven hand gouged out the numbers that we now know can be used to empty bank accounts and steal identities, and these figures remain to this day where he left them. I have his old wristwatch; he had the numbers there carved on the bezel professionally, presumably by a professional bevel-carver. Jerry wouldn’t stint when it came to this.
You might wonder what Zerline thought of all this. She was a powerful woman – canny homemaker, strong-willed mother, intense competitor on the courts, perennial social fixture. She and Jerry presented a united front but Zucky was undoubtedly a woman with her own mind about things. How was she with Jerry’s wholesale, undiscriminating sharing-out of his most precious personal digits?
I can’t be sure how she felt about the open-sourcing of his social security number, but available evidence indicates that she was perfectly fine with his general approach of defacing things. By “available evidence,” I mean a scrap of illuminated manuscript, about seven hundred years old.
It’s from the Book of Esther, hand-inscribed, lovingly highlighted with vines and gold details, a small polychromatic capital brushed-in at the top of a chapter – and at the bottom of the page,
my grandmother’s writing, firmly marching across the vellum in number-2 grey, explaining that it is just as I just described it to be. It’s hanging on my mom’s wall now, more a cherished keepsake than a piece of liturgical history. When she celebrates Purim, she does not read from that page – but when she wants to remember her mother, she can always read her handwriting there.
I think the page was a gift to Zerline, from the local library where she’d volunteered for many years. Why did Nana write a label on this precious gift? Zerline knew how to respect a library book – keep it clean, bring it back, and don’t write in it. But this was not a library book, it was part of an exceptional writing from the dawn of our civilization, a story of subterfuge and comeuppance, a fable of feminine wiles and human frailties, the only bible book that never mentions God. Older than typography, older than memory, a story that belongs to humanity; a page painstakingly prepared by a sworn servant of holiness to glorify the supernal majesty who has imbued all creation with his numinous quintessence. This page was a labor of love, created as an act of worship and cherished as the divine word revealed on earth.
That’s how it started, anyway. How it ended was as one of Nana’s possessions, like her silver serving set or her Scottish gong (both of which were inscribed with her husband’s social security number). Where she was from, a person stood for himself or herself, and spoke up when asked about it. You didn’t write on things to deface them, but to include them into an expanded self in which personal identity is invested directly and visibly into material belongings. A name becomes greater than itself, enduring even as Esther’s name endured. It’s not quite the same as carving your social security number onto the hood of your lawnmower, but the same inspiration motivates both acts.
As for me, I’ve written 10,000 pages of blog – but have I left any actual mark on the world?
POST EDIT: My brilliant dad took the time I apparently did NOT take, to read the gorgeous word at the top of Zucky’s MS. It’s not Esther, it’s Maccabees – maybe I got that tangled up with “megillah” in my sorry excuse for a brain? anyway the message persists even if the writer got some of the details wrong. Maccabeus is noncanonical, appearing in the Catholic bible but not the Jewish. It’s still millenia old (or just about), predates printing, and speaks of ageless truths – faith, strength, and being true to yourself. If that’s not shorthand for Jerry and Zerline right there, then I don’t know. Obviously.