How Young Paul Got His Name

One day I plop down on the couch near a woman and her family because they look like they are having a riotous conversation and I want in.

The woman is having tea with her former boss and her children. She cackles at my idea of him as the father of her children. “He’s actually the son I gave up for adoption many years ago.” Ah! That was my other thought, the significantly older brother to Jennifer’s teenage children. But no he’s not, he’s just her old boss. When Aaron, the old boss gets up to use the bathroom, Jennifer tells me, “I don’t know if you’re seeing anyone, but he’s available.”

Jennifer and her kids live in North Prairie. I ask, “Where’s that?” It’s in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee. Her daughter, Joy says, that when they took a cruise of the Mediterranean she just told everyone that she was from a place near Chicago. “Overseas all people know about America is Chicago and New York,” Joy says matter-of-factly. Jennifer looks with surprise at her daughter, “Not L.A.? Don’t they know about L.A?” Joy says no, she knows what she knows. She’s been around the world and is well-read. She wants to write young adult half fantasy half sci-fi novels when she grows up. Jennifer pipes in, “Post-apocalyptic so your mother will read them!” Joy doesn’t want to write post apocalyptic, there is enough of that already. “Why not pre-apocalyptic?”

To me, pre-apocalyptic means non-fiction coverage of current events, just like I am recording in my notebook right now. “Maybe one day you will be the Pfister’s Narrator too.” In response Joy says something very non-sequitur, she says, “I think the world is based on Hindu philosophy, resting on the back of four elephants.”

Paul, Jennifer’s other kid is very different from Joy. “Paul is very mechanical,” explains his mother.   Paul was named after Jennifer’s Austrian grandfather, Pius (pee-use) who hated his name. He was always the only one around named Pius, so he changed it to Paul at the start of his American life. He got a job at a shop on Mason street right by the Pfister. He sold wigs, cut hair and gave permanent waves. “They charged $1 a curl. That was really good money. Women would get 80 curls and that was rent back then,” notes Jennifer.

Another thing of note about Paul’s great-grandfather Paul: he pretended to be French when he moved to Iowa because it sounded classier. Classier than to be from Austria where he remembered a loaf of bread literally costing a bushel of money. At one point Paul’s cousin in Austria was captured by the Americans and transported to captivity in the states. Paul visited his cousin until the war was over and his cousin was allowed back home.

The conversation turns to explore Jennifer’s artistic streak, “I think I got it from my Uncle Paul who was a carpenter. He made signs and polished stones.” He learned how to polish stones shortly after joining the army. “He also got married right away so that he could get a toilet to himself. He couldn’t poop with the open toilets.” Jennifer went to art school at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design back when it was in a different building. “They had an elevator that would get stuck once or twice a week for like an hour because those Otis guys were sloshed.”

Jennifer, her boss and children consent to me taking a group picture.

Promenading Through History

Everyone spotted them immediately (and I hope I don’t embarrass them by saying so). The young couple, and he matched her with a colorful vest and tie under his tuxedo, she was in the most amazing shade of teal green. Her dress fluttered against the floor and I was in complete agreement when the photographers posed them on the stairs to highlight its length and ability to cascade (it’s not too often in life you have the opportunity to wear a dress that “cascades” down the stairs).

It was prom night and after all the up-dos and gowns were assembled and the corsages (matched wonderfully, good job, boyfriends), the Pfister was the backdrop for the essential parental photo shoot. Two moms, armed with digital lenses, were squeezing this adorable young couple into every corner, every angle and every stairway they could find. The pair was truly promenading through the lobby. I was particularly fond of the impromptu shot taken on a luggage rack, squeezing the teens in close together. Camera clicked, photo taken, and the gentleman’s trusty cell phone came out and texting began. The scene was perfect.

I had to make sure my guess was right—the photographers were the mother of the girl and the mother of the boy, respectively. When I asked, they both agreed, though they took little time to talk to me as the students had just found a new perfect location and a photographer’s (mom’s) work is never done.

A few minutes later, more teen red-carpet readys came down the steps and now commenced group shots—with more moms.

I remember being photographed for my school dances—by both families. I remember feeling awkward and angry that it was taking so long. I remember wishing they’d be done with it already, the corsage was itchy, the boning in my dress felt strange and there was uncomfortable couples dancing (aka “swaying”) to be done. I smiled as I watched the young dates go through the same process—only the backdrop wasn’t a recently vacuumed living room, but rather a historic hotel. I wondered if I would have liked my photo sessions any better had they been at the Pfister. I wondered how many of the girls secretly thought “maybe this could work as a modeling shot?” I wonder how many will return, having made this memory. Tomorrow they won’t remember the hotel or the pictures as much as the dance, the dates, the snacks, the drama…but later, looking back, which part will stick? The grand staircases? Their mother’s excitement? The boyfriends may come and go, but these photos will be dragged out frequently. Their fiancé will see them; their children will take a look. The dresses won’t be in fashion anymore (though of course, once pulled out for their grandchildren, the style will surely have come around again), hairstyles will get a chuckle…but the Pfister will be the same.

I’m jealous of the girls who were being photographed on perhaps the most beautiful night of their lives so far. It was like a movie to watch them descend the stairs while the shutters clicked. I’m just as jealous of the mothers, though. They knew what they were doing. They know how to treasure a moment because they’ve had so many more than these young men and women. They didn’t feel awkward or embarrassed taking over the space. They didn’t mind telling the teens just where to stand. They knew just what they were capturing and years later, they’ll be thanked for it.