A care package, of sorts – part two

For part one of this story, go here.

The thing about getting a package from Grandma was that I never had a clue what would turn up inside, but I knew it would be odd – something neither I nor any other person on the planet would buy.  Clothes were never her strong suit, but on the off chance she sent me something I might wear, I could count on a note safety-pinned to the garment if she hadn’t yet washed it.  And not just any note, mind you.  Sometimes she ran the sticky note through her typewriter instead of writing on it by hand.  When I called to  thank her for a crazy T-shirt that hung down below my knees (I think maybe it was meant to be a sleep shirt), that came with no note, she explained on the phone that she’d already washed it, but she assumed I knew that since she didn’t pin a type-written sticky note on the front.

As a small kid, 4 or 5 years old, I went with my mom to bars now and then.  I entertained myself by playing dice with the bartender.  Family legend has it I was pretty good.  A couple of years ago, my grandma sent me an antique dice cup, to commemorate my young passion for playing Liars’ Dice and her passion for antiques.  The hand-made cup is dark brown leather, slightly misshapen, a bit weak at the seam stitched up the side.  The leather, though smooth, is hard as tack, but a simple wavy pattern circles the center of the cup where the maker likely used a sewing machine to punch a bit of decoration into it.  An old yellowed newspaper clipping is curled up inside that tells the story of the demise of the bar from which the cup apparently came.  The clipping was from a 1981 newspaper – one of those ’50 Years Ago Today’ bits.  It reads:

50 YEARS AGO TODAY – FEB. 12, 1931

With the interests of the old people at the Reiss Home for the Aged and the future expansion of St. Nicholas Hospital in mind, Hospital Sisters of St. Francis have acquired the Acker property at the southeast corner of the intersection of N. Tenth Street and Superior Avenue.  The Acker site is 120 feet square. On it is a double two-story building occupied by the Joe Acker saloon and boarding house, and a barn (ausspannung). Part of the main building was formerly occupied by the Bruder Radio Company. … With the purchase of the Acker real estate, the Hospital Sisters now own all the land in the block in which the hospital is located except a small house and lot in the southwest corner.

I like that the paper tossed in just a single German word in that little article.  Weirdly, though, the translation seems to be ‘relaxation.’  It’s unclear whether one would seek relaxation in the boarding house or in the barn.

Check out the dice – I love that they are stamped like playing cards, not the boring old pips I expected to see when I tossed them out of the cup.  There’s no way to know if this cup actually came from the Joe Acker saloon, but Grandma is convinced, and old objects always seem cooler when they come with a story, so I’ll stick with it.

A care package, of sorts – part one

I recently got a package in the mail from my grandmother.  It was actually just an envelope, but it was stuffed with so many things I feel justified in calling it a package.  The contents aren’t what you might expect when you think “care package” and “grandma” in the same sentence, though.  I tore into the envelope as soon as I saw it because there is no mail I like getting better than mail from my grandma.  When I was younger, she sent me things a bit more frequently, but she doesn’t get out as much these days, so there are fewer opportunities for her to find the oddities she used to.

I’ve lived in California since 1995, and even after just a year here, I can say with conviction that I did not feel like a tourist.  For some reason that isn’t totally clear to me, my grandmother began to send me anything that had anything to do with California after I moved here.  I have probably received a dozen cookbooks that had some kind of California theme – the best are those from the 60s and 70s, complete with handwritten notes in the margins from whomever tried to tweak that recipe for Peach Waldorf Salad.

If it said San Francisco, there was no chance she would pass it up.  My grandma is a thrift store shopper.  If there were thrift store shopper jobs, she’d have made a very successful career of it.  Before she retired, she worked in Downtown Sheboygan, within walking distance of three different thrift stores.  She visited each one weekly during her lunch hour – St. Vincent’s on Monday, Goodwill on Tuesday, and so on.  Between the downtown stores and a couple she’d hit on her way home after work, she went to one thrift store a day, every day of every week.  When I was a kid, we occasionally donated clothes to Goodwill.  We soon realized we needed to tell Grandma ahead of time, though, or she would buy back the things we’d just donated and they’d be waiting for us the next time we visited her.

I had a small ceramic planter in the shape of a cable car, a book or two about Alcatraz (in fact, if I remember right, even an Alcatraz cookbook), a set of coasters with pictures of famous San Francisco scenes – Lombard Street, The Painted Ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge.  She sent small wooden cable car Christmas ornaments painted garish shades of red and green, a copy of Tales of the City, and the occasional San Francisco or Yosemite calendar, and a cribbage board with a picture of the Golden Gate.

In the past few years, I’ve also started to receive obituaries – a zillion of them.  The genealogy bug bit me a couple of years ago, and Grandma is the biggest fan of my detective work.  I have traced her ancestors that emigrated from Germany to Wisconsin, and found her 3rd great-grandfather living in an insane asylum in the 1910 census.  She is always eager to hear any random tidbit of news I find, and I just wish I had more time to spend on research now that I know how much she enjoys it.

The latest package, which prompted this post, was all about my genealogy research – well, almost.  First was an article about an upcoming PBS series about genealogy, then came two horrific stories from the local paper about a relative that attacked his wife because she wouldn’t give him cigarettes and the garage door remote control.  As I said, not your typical care package from Grandma, but since I started all the genealogy work – the family dirty laundry is no longer left hidden…  Finally, there were four obituaries, each with a hand-written sticky note attached.

Any key points of interest in the obits are highlighted in yellow to aid me in following who these people might be.  The note attached to one obituary for a woman whose last name I didn’t recognize, read “Louis is brother to Grandma Emma.”  It took me a second to find Louis highlighted in the newspaper clipping and then I recognized his last name as the maiden name of my grandma’s maternal grandmother.  Another obituary was for someone who was related by marriage, and the note read, “Robert – Married to cousin of Grandpa – Jake & Clara daughter.”  Another was for the wife of a cousin to my great-grandmother.  The one I like the best, though, is for a woman whose married name appears heavily in our ancestry.  The note reads “Don’t know if Walter is family.”

Oh, I almost forgot – she also slipped in a recipe for crab-stuffed portobello mushrooms.

Genealogy and Family Secrets

Depression is one of those plagues that weaves its’ way through generations in families, sort of like alcoholism.  My mom was depressed, her mom was depressed before her, and my sister struggled with depression even as a teenager.  I was depressed in my early twenties, and it hit me hard again when I began to have anxiety attacks in my late thirties. When I began researching my family’s history, I found there was some serious depression that ran in my family in earlier generations, too.

Some of these stories had been whispered about in my family for years, but if I openly asked about them, I was shut down in a second.  My grandparents are still from a generation where family secrets are just that – secrets.  Nonetheless, I set out to validate each taboo story and try to learn more about the details of each situation.  My  grandma’s mother, or my great-grandmother, was born in 1915, the youngest of three children.  Her oldest brother I’ll call Max and the middle child, Eric.  Their father died when they were all young, which would be only the beginning of a great deal of suffering and tragedy for the family.

As an adult, Max left Kiel, where they had grown up, and went to Milwaukee.  He worked as an auditor, and seemed to enjoy city life.  He wrote his mother regularly, and occasionally his little sister, too.  He told stories of the people he met in the city, described his efforts at finding a job, and one of his letters to his sister described a girl was quite smitten with.

Dear Sister,
I still have 20 some dollars in the bank.  If you can get it, I will send home the checkbook and you can withdraw it and pay your debts.  And, for God’s sake, have your tooth fixed.  I will send home some money if I can.
Give [Eric] the flannels, I don’t care.
[H] and I have been out all last week.  We have put in about 20 applications.  We are going out tomorrow again.
Well, sister, last Friday I had my first date.  I took her to the Wisconsin.  She is from Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  Her dad is mayor, vice president of a bank, and he owns a construction company.  He also has something in a paper mill.  She is the nicest girl I have ever met and she likes black wavy hair.  So, there you have it.
Write as soon as you get this so that I can send the book home.

Max

P.S.  I tried to have her teach me how to dance, but she can’t because she stays with 4 aunts and 4 cousins.  If you can get the money, pay my insurance.

Max had black, wavy hair.  At some point, he ended up in the service – the Army, I think.  No one in my family is sure why he joined, how long he served, or what he did, but he hated the experience.  He complained in his letters home to his mother.

Fort Sheridan, Il.
August 16, 1938

Dear Mother,
Monday and Tuesday we were at the rifle range, but I did not make marksmanship.  My shoulder was blue a little from shooting.  Next Monday and Tuesday we hike to the Great Lakes Naval Station, a distance of about ten miles, coming one day and going back the next.  We have to carry thirty-pound packs, rifle, mess outfits, and cartridge belts on the way.
Please write soon! Tell [G] and [E] to write too.  I have only gotten one letter so far from [S]. That’s a heck of a business. Some men are getting as many as three letters a day and I just have to sit there.  This is the address.  Don’t forget some of it as they get letters up here without even names on them or without the company.

Yours,
Max
C.M.T.C.  Co. F
Fort Sheridan, Illinois

He was discharged at the age of 29, near the end of 1941.  In early 1942, right after he turned 30, he received a telegram instructing him to report again for duty immediately.  He hung himself instead.

Although I didn’t doubt the truth of this story, I found newspaper articles that confirm the details.  In my grandma’s stack of papers, I found a Western Union telegram that was sent by the authorities in Milwaukee to the authorities in Kiel, giving them the details to pass onto his mother.  The family was devastated.

From the Milwaukee Journal:

Former Kiel Man is Found Dead

Milwaukee (AP).  [Max], age 30, an auditor, was released from the army last November because he was over 28. Wednesday he received notice to report immediately for further military service.  Yesterday his body was found hanging in his rooming house.  Police said he formerly lived in Kiel, Wis.

Death Notice by Telegram

This sad story makes me grateful for my life – grateful that in my many periods of darkness, I have never wanted to end my own life.  It also makes me grateful that those close to me in my family who have battled with depression never went so far as to write their own endings.  My grandma remembers little about her uncle, except that he was a sweet man.  She was eight when he took his life.  Whenever he came home to visit, he always had a small present for her.  Unfortunately, after his death, he became a family secret.  No one discussed him or his life any longer.  Perhaps it was because they felt shame about what he’d chosen to do when faced with a major obstacle in his life.  Perhaps it was because the pain of losing him was so deep.  Perhaps it was because they understood the temptation themselves, and knew it was best to keep it at bay by refusing to acknowledge it.

Diversity or lack thereof

I grew up in an area of the Midwest that had little diversity in its population. I don’t think there were any non-white residents of Sheboygan Falls when I lived there. There is a concentrated community of Asians in Sheboygan, though. When the United States fought in Vietnam, our government recruited many Hmong natives from neighboring Laos to assist in a secret part of the war being waged there. Various historical accounts debate what promises were made to the Hmong, but the general consensus was that we would assist these people at the end of the war. When we left, however, we abandoned the Hmong, who were then persecuted, victims of intended genocide by the Vietnamese and Thai. Eventually, we granted many Hmong refugee status in the United States in a feeble attempt to make up for our misdeeds.

This was a people from southeastern Asia, though, and why our government chose to settle them primarily in Wisconsin and Minnesota is absolutely beyond me. Their adjustment to life in the United States would be hard enough – why place them in a harsh and bitterly cold climate that couldn’t be more different than the tropics they came from? Large communities of Hmong were settled in cities like Sheboygan and Kenosha, but they were persecuted for their different cultural beliefs, and viewed as incapable people that were only here to live off of welfare. They were ridiculed openly, and still face discrimination today. I never personally knew any Hmong people, but they do reflect one of my earliest senses of cultural difference living in an area full of white people of mostly European descent.

The only other cultural subgroup I knew of while growing up was the Indian. There is a rich history of Native Americans in Wisconsin, and many of the towns and cities carry Native American names, such as Menominee, Winnebago, Waukesha, Kewaunee, Waupaca, Manitowoc, Ozaukee, and Oconomowoc. There are two rivers with the name Kinnickinnic, which referred to a blend of tobacco and other plants, or literally, “what is mixed” in Ojibwa. Sheboygan has Native American origins as well, though many scholars debate the correct translation of the name. These names roll off my tongue with ease, but whenever I speak them aloud to others that are unfamiliar with them, I often have to repeat myself and even spell the words for people to make sense of the sounds.

I learned at a young age I wasn’t supposed to talk about Indians. I didn’t understand why it might offend someone. There are eleven federally recognized Native American tribes still in Wisconsin, but unfortunately, people like my grandparents and great-grandparents were not far enough removed from their ancestors that they had forgotten the clashes between the white man and the Indian. Still, there has been some effort to preserve sacred burial grounds, and there have been some significant archaeological finds, too. There’s a park on the south side of Sheboygan called Indian Mound Park. It contains effigy mounds created by the Native Americans. They were burial sites, and mounds of earth were built over graves in the shapes of animals the Native Americans held sacred – deer, turtles, panthers. Effigy mounds can be found outside of Wisconsin, but the largest concentration of them is in Southern Wisconsin.

There’s also an old family homestead, owned by the Henschels, which operates a small Indian museum. Their property near the Sheboygan Marsh, once a glacial lake, is the site of Wisconsin’s oldest red ochre burial ground, and dates somewhere between 600 and 800 B.C. The ancient burial site was accidentally discovered when a farmer was plowing and his horses fell through the ground into a big hole. A number of Native Americans were positioned, seated in a circle, and buried together in what was surely an ancient ritual practice. I found I am related to the Henchels by marriage in my genealogy research. The farmer whose horses fell through the hole is the uncle of the husband of my second great-grand aunt. This family is said to have co-existed with the Indians in the mid-1850s, and their museum is full of artifacts found on their property.

Many of the people I knew in Wisconsin took all this rich history for granted. I didn’t begin to appreciate it until I had been away for more than a decade, myself. I never understood all the prejudice against anyone that wasn’t white and German or maybe Nordic, but we were never confronted with much difference, either, so like many people, I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I got older. I realized at a young age that I had a real interest in other cultures. I’d always wanted to travel, but never thought it would be possible. Almost no one I knew of in my family had ever travelled far. It was a big deal to go to out of state – most people rarely leave the immediate area, let alone travel outside the Midwest.

I did eventually figure out how to get out of the Midwest, and I’ve traveled internationally some, though not as much as I’d like.  I’ve been to Thailand, Costa Rica, London, and Amsterdam.  My genealogy research has set my sights on Eastern Europe.  I have had a hard time digging up information on my father’s grandfather, the stowaway from Romania, before his life in the states, so I hope one day to go to the village he came from to see what I can uncover about his family. Of course, living in the Bay Area, I’m surrounded by diversity now, and that’s a good thing.

What were some of your early lessons about diversity? International travel experiences?

A funeral in winter

A more somber post today. The writing prompt that struck me in Old Friend from Far Away was “Tell me about a funeral you attended in winter,” so I went for it. For those of you who have read my previous post, Memories with my grandmother, this story is not about her – it’s about my other grandmother, my father’s mother.

My grandma died in 2004, in January, just days after the New Year. Few of us had come home for the holidays that year. Not me or my cousins; not my sister, her kids, or my uncle. It was a smaller gathering than normal at Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think she minded. She was proud of all of us for the lives we lived in faraway places she’d never seen, doing complicated jobs she never understood. She’d lived through The Great Depression, some of her childhood spent in an orphanage when her widowed mother couldn’t raise enough money to provide for her and her brother. She understood that people didn’t always have money to spare, and never wanted us to feel badly on those years we didn’t make the trek back to Wisconsin.

We minded, though. We minded a lot. We had been too busy or too broke to come home just a week and a half earlier, yet here we all were, travelling for a funeral instead of a holiday. It seemed fitting punishment that we experience her death in the darkest, windiest and most wickedly cold days of the year.

In the first couple days after her death, my aunt was a wreck, unable to decide what to put in Grandma’s obituary, afraid she’d left someone out of the “survived by” list, but by the time we got to the wake, she’d stopped torturing herself and decided she’d done the best she could.  The mood at the wake was somber, but not excessively so. She was 90, had lived a long life, and she was ready to go. In many ways, she had been ready since the day her husband died thirteen years earlier. We were sad, but we knew her last days had been full of joy, despite some of us missing the festivities.

I remember being astonished at the vigor in her voice when I called her on Christmas Eve. We talked for a half hour, about everything and nothing. She told me about the latest electronics my aunt bought her, laughing her infectious golden laugh at how she’d never be able to figure out how to use them. She chuckled that still no one visiting could outlast her in the evening.  For years, she’d kept late hours, watching TV and doing crossword puzzles until 4am, sleeping into the afternoon.  She was eager to hear anything I could think of to tell her. I spoke with my dad after we finished. “She sounds great, Dad! It’s like she’s ten years younger! She hasn’t sounded so good in such a long time. I just can’t get over it!” He agreed, with a smile in his voice, and I hung up a minute later to sounds of laughter and music in the background. They say that happens for some people right before they die – they feel wonderful and alive and healthy for no reason anyone can point to. It’s the body’s way of sending you off with a parting gift. I hope that happens to me.

The day after the wake, we held her funeral. We drove in a few cars to the cemetery and gathered in the snow next to a dark and frozen hole in the ground. Everything was gray that day. The sky, the bare trees, the casket, the light, my father’s face. I don’t remember what words were said. I don’t remember who stood where. In those moments, in the punishing cold, surrounded by my family, I was alone with only my thoughts, and even they were fleeting. I simply stood and existed in the whipping wind and desperate cold for what seemed like both an instant and a day all at once.  The wind went through me and I didn’t fight it.  I just felt it in every bone in my body.

After the funeral and lunch at a nearby restaurant, we all gathered at Grandma’s house, determined to deal with her things as a family, as a team, so my aunt wouldn’t have to handle it all alone.  Everyone was encouraged to find something of Grandma’s they wanted to keep, whether for practical or sentimental reasons.  We packed boxes of bedding and dishes, marking them with the name of whoever it was that would take them home.  Her furniture and jewelry was split among family members, and her clothes packed away to give to Goodwill.  After everyone else had claimed what they wanted, I chose a print that I’d always admired.  It was a Picasso print, something that stood out in my mind when I thought of her house.  It hangs on my dining room wall now, a happy reminder of my grandmother that I look at every day.

Piles of papers had to be reviewed and lists made of who needed to be contacted with the news that she was no longer with us.  Social security, a realtor to list the house, her credit card company. As I rummaged through odd notes and papers in Grandma’s bedroom, I found an obituary she’d written for herself.  When I realized what it was, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.  I couldn’t comprehend writing my own obituary.  I read it a few times, slowly, imagining her lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, jotting a few paragraphs in a pocket-sized notebook, writing her own brief summary of her life.  It was simple, not very wordy, written with pride about those she would be leaving behind, and focused mostly on the idea that she’d gone to be with her husband.  Though I don’t believe in heaven, when I read her handwritten notes, I sincerely hoped I was wrong, and that she had found Grandpa again.

Stowaway from Romania

When I started working on my genealogy research, I was particularly interested in my dad’s family because I knew so little about them.  Members of his family emigrated even later than those in my mom’s family, so you’d think we’d know more, but we didn’t.  His ancestors came from Eastern Europe, fleeing from communism and other kinds of oppression.  They were desperate to assimilate into American culture to forget the repression they’d left.  They didn’t yet trust in the place they’d come to, and they had left large parts of their families behind.  It was painful to talk about the past, and harder to forget it if they did, so they buried it and tried to make new lives here.

One family legend was that my great-grandfather, Simon, had emigrated from Romania as a stowaway on a potato boat.  People in my dad’s family love to tell this story.  It was just after the turn of the 20th century, and the Romanian government was forcing boys into the military, apparently as young as age 12.  Simon’s parents saw World War I coming, and didn’t want to see him get killed, so they tried to convince him to leave the country, but he didn’t want to.  He wanted to stay with his family.

Sometimes when my dad tells the story, Simon was drafted, but ran away and came back home.  In this version, the military found him and put him in military prison, and he escaped again.  By then, he agreed with his parents that he had to leave, so he stowed away on a ship.  Sometimes my dad says Simon escaped and was captured repeatedly.

Other times, my dad thinks he never was in the military at all, and was convinced to leave before they could draft him.  His status as a stowaway was never a question in the story, though.

Simon must have been a fairly lucky guy, because he stowed away on a ship that happened to have a hold full of potatoes, which he could eat on the trip across the ocean and still remain hidden from the crew.  When the ship eventually docked on the East Coast, story has it that he got off and panicked.  No idea where he was, and not able to speak a word of English, he went back down into the hold of the boat.  The boat then left again, travelled through the Northwest passages, and ended up in Chicago, where he decided to brave it and venture out into the world.  He was 18 and it was 1907, and that’s how my dad’s family came to be from Chicago.  So far, I have not been able to validate any of the crazy details that would confirm Simon was a stowaway, surviving on potatoes, but I’m still working on it.  All I know for sure is that he is from a small village in Romania, he ended up in Chicago in 1907, and I happen to like potatoes a lot.

Genealogy

When I first began writing about my life, genealogy didn’t figure into the picture.  I’d been doing some serious research on my family’s history for some time, but it wasn’t until later that I saw how the two subjects fit together and provided an additional framework from which to view my own experiences.  It was the show, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ that sparked my genealogy obsession.  The show was really an ancestry.com marketing project – each episode a short documentary that showed a celebrity’s experience tracing some branch of their family tree.  Of course, on the show, each celebrity finds some amazing information with seemingly no more effort than typing a name and birth date into a website.  They travel from city to city, or even from country to country, and have genealogy experts waiting for them at each point to tell them amazing secrets about their ancestors.  That’s not what it’s like in real life.  You can easily spend a lifetime trying to build stories around the names you can find in your family tree, especially if you come from a broken family or a family that doesn’t believe in airing its dirty laundry.  But the show inspired me to start my own research, nonetheless.

I had also been writing a little bit about my life around the same time.  At some point, it occurred to me that writing about my life could potentially save some random relative a few generations down the road from pounding their head on their desk trying to figure out what my life and my family was all about.  I also began to think about the stories of my ancestors – their triumphs and tribulations – the tragedy and stoicism – the good luck and the bad luck – and how they may have influenced me.  Many traits pass themselves down through the generations – some good, some horrible, and I started to see patterns emerging.  The idea of weaving in stories of my ancestors into my memoir struck me as having some additional value, so that’s what I’ve done.  I’ve made some amazing finds, and I’ve run into rock solid dead ends, but the research is fascinating.  I’ll share a few of my genealogy stories shortly.