My mother was 16 when she came to this country, arriving from Germany in 1927 with her parents and three siblings, aboard the ship George Washington. Her father, John Gelien, known simply as Opa, was a chef for the steamship company. Forever away at sea, Opa was like a phantom to his own family.
Gertrude, his eldest daughter, was an unconventional child. A tomboy, she never liked other girls, took no nonsense from anyone and didn’t get along with her siblings.
It was a lonely, loveless existence, made tougher by the botched tonsillectomy she’d suffered in Germany. The doctor damaged her vocal cords, leaving Gertrude with a horrible stutter. Ashamed, she communicated by means of a pad of paper she carried everywhere.
Opa admired his daughter’s fierce, independent spirit. Ida Gelien, however, displayed a different attitude toward the child. Gertrude’s refusal to act more like a “girl” earned her mother’s wrath. When Gertrude came home five minutes past curfew from her first date, her mother locked her outside overnight in the snow.
I have no idea how or where my mother met Charles Kelm. But he wasted little time in tying the knot with this stubborn and strong-willed woman. She jumped at the chance for a new life.
Memories of my New York childhood are sketchy but mostly miserable. I remember my sobbing mother washing clothes; Kelm beating her. When Opa learned how bad things were in our tenement walk-up, he orchestrated our escape. He bought new jackets, shirts, ties and short pants for Walt and me, and we were shipped with our mother to San Francisco. Using his connections, Opa got Mother a job as shipboard stewardess with Matson Lines. He even found an apartment and covered the first two months’ rent. We reclaimed the family name, Gelien.
Mother gradually mastered her stutter. She never lost the husky Teutonic accent, which, combined with her Dietrich-like features and demeanor — perfect posture and a reserved elegance — gave her the appearance of a foreign agent in some spy serial.
Eager to better our station, she studied in her spare time to be a nurse. The bump in pay allowed her to enroll Walt and me in private school. Nothing was more important to our mother than a good education: “What you learn,” she declared, “no one can ever take away from you.”
Mother tried to make the most of our limited time together. Once, she took us to Pier 35 to watch the Lurline sail for Hawaii — cheap entertainment during hard times. I was 7 and thrilled by the pomp and pageantry, the brass band, colorful streamers and billowing waves of confetti. We got as close as we could to the gangplank, where I stared at an adorable little girl with shiny blond curls and huge dimples. Photographers swarmed around, flashbulbs popping like crazy. All this fuss over a kid my age — I couldn’t believe it.
But then, I’d never seen a Shirley Temple movie. “She’s a famous movie star,” my mother explained. It was the first time I’d ever heard of such a thing. On the way home, I wondered how a kid like me could become a famous movie star.