My Oma was a Nazi

My Oma

Up until recently, when someone asked me what my heritage was, I’d flippantly say, “I’m the female version of Hitler in a kilt.” My mother was born in Germany, and my father is of Scot descent (his grandparents on his father’s side were born in Scotland). The term used to fit as I could handle my alcohol as well as any Scot, and I wanted things my way. I don’t say that anymore as I think most people seem to have lost their sense of humor as well as the ability to understand satire (I also rarely drink and have learned to be more flexible and forgiving, but that’s a different story).

Americans now live in a polarized political divide.  We live in a society where many folks are again ostracizing ethnicities; many social media accounts are perpetuating an Us versus Them mentality that is feeding the fires of the disenfranchised, and neighbors, friends, and families are fighting about political stances often destroying and ignoring basic human connections and similarities.  Friends who went to school together suddenly threaten each other with violence for protesting police brutality.  People are beating each other up on airplanes for not wearing a mask.  Neo-nazi white supremacists have taken a brighter spotlight recently as many folks are either forgetting or misinterpreting events that led up to the Holocaust.  I’ve heard some crazy conspiracy theorists espouse that the Holocaust never existed.  (Seriously, what kind of person actually thinks this??).

Can a polarized society ever come back together?  I think so.  I think we need to look at history- from all different perspectives- in order to have a full view of where we all came from in order to find a path towards a better future.  Finding stories of connections from our own ancestors can provide illuminating guidance.

Sometimes, looking to the past, to my past, I can find hope for the future.  You see, my grandmother, my Oma, was a Nazi.  Her best friend, my Tante Hanna, was a Jew.  You can’t get much more divided than that, yet they formed a bond that lasted for over sixty years.   

My grandmother would often tell the story of how she came to this country with a small daughter, not speaking the language and with two dollars in her wallet on Valentine’s Day in 1954. “In fact,” she would say, “I owed money.” She was sponsored by her friend, Nadia, a Russian pianist and femme fatale. Oma hinted that Nadia was a double spy (Russian and German) which is why she emigrated to the United States before her. My grandmother and mother stayed with Nadia for a little while, and my grandmother got a job as a waitress at Kleine Konditerei, a restaurant on East 86th Street, at the time, the German section of New York City.

She and Hanna met within a few years of them both coming to this country. To hear them tell the tale, they didn’t like each other much at first, but as time went by and their paths crossed more often, they realized they had more in common than not. They both came from Germany with very little money, did not know English, and had to find work. They were both also very hard-headed and opinionated. Yet they enjoyed each other’s company, they visited each other often, they traveled together, and they eventually retired to Florida together, buying condos three doors down from each other. Their friendship would last until Hanna’s death.

**************************************************************************************

As most grandmothers do, Oma Eva doted on her three grandchildren.. She called me “Meine Suesse ganz alleine” (“my only sweetie”). When my sister came along, she was “Meine Suesse zwei alleine” (“my sweetie two alone”), and when my brother was born 14 years after me he was “Mein Suess drei allein” (“my sweet three alone”). Her favorite story of me that she would tell again and again was of how, when I was just two years old, we were crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, I looked out one window declaring “Look Oma! Wasser!” Then looking out the other window, I excitedly exclaimed “Look, Oma! Zwei Wasser!” She wanted to make sure we learned about our German heritage. She would tell us stories of the many adventures of her family and and friends from Germany. She taught us children’s German songs like “Auf einem Baum ein Kuckuck” and listened to German music – I remember listening to Heintje sing “Oma so Lieb” often, singing along in my not-so-in-tune tiny voice.

At her house in Bedford Hills, my sister and I would do typical kid things. We made mudpies and pretended we ran a restaurant “cooking” up mud-hamburgers, mud-pancakes, and mud-soup while Oma tended her multi-colored garden of pansies and petunias. On rainy days, we would concoct “soup” with an array of household spices Oma gave us, along with pots, pans, spoons, and measuring cups. At night, she would play games with us. Sometimes a card game, “Tausendundeins,” sometimes a board game, “Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht,” and sometimes, when my parents and company were over, a made up game “Arschful” (which literally means “assful”)-in which my sister and I would close our eyes and bend over, and then one of the adults in the room would spank us, and we’d have to guess which adult did the spanking. We’d have homefries and eggs for breakfast, German potato salad with lunch, and boiled potatoes and gravy with every dinner. She loved potatoes. I loved going to visit Oma.

I always looked forward to when Tante Hanna would come over. When I was a child, she was the only adult I ever knew who could swear and get away with it. The F-bomb was as much of her accessory as was the gold Star of David and golden Scrabble tiles H and K she wore proudly around her neck. And she was funny. She was a professional nanny to well-off Jewish families in New York City. She would tell me tales of “Little Blue Riding Hood -because Red Riding Hood was too conventional and boring.” She would have me straighten crooked imaginary pictures on walls. She was also a chain smoker who loved Scrabble. She taught me how to play and gave me my first “cheat sheet” of two and three letter words. She would give me an advantage of being able to use the “cheat sheet” and a dictionary, but if she could beat me, she would. “You, you little shit, will learn how to beat me fair and square,” she’d flatly state. And, she beat me every single game until I was in my mid-twenties.

Over the years, I heard Tante Hanna call my grandmother a “Nazi,” and Oma would call her a “Jew,” and afterwards I’d hear the clink of wine glasses and laughter. I didn’t really know what those terms meant, nor the implications of the words, I just knew that Oma and Tante Hanna were best friends. (For the longest time, I thought they were sisters, hence the “Tante” part, but along the way, someone corrected me.).

Don’t most childhood memories make you feel all warm and fuzzy?

***********************************************************************************

Fast forward to 1977. I’m 11 years old and in sixth grade. I loved reading and my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Santiago, introduced her students to George Orwell, Esther Hautzig, and Anne Frank. We read Animal Farm, The Endless Steppe, and Diary of Anne Frank. Vocabulary terms included fascism, totalitarianism, and altruism. School stuff I took with a pre-teenage moody grain of sand. To my 11-year-old self, Animal Farm was a bunch of crazy animals, some nasty pigs, a poor workhorse I felt sorry for, and a stupid horse named Mollie, who reminded me of some of the vain girls in my class. No big deal. Then came the tale of ten-year-old Esther, a well-off Jewish Polish girl who was sent to Siberia after being rounded up by Russians. Okay, that was a sad story, and I was very cold when I read it, but Esther lived to tell the tale, so I was okay with that. In both books, the people (and animals in the allegory) from Russia weren’t very nice. That’s okay, though, as I didn’t know anyone from Russia. But then I started realizing that these books were based on history. History I didn’t know yet. What’s World War 2? Why did the Russians take families out of their homes? Why were the Russians in Poland anyway? Why do people want to kill other people? Kill children? What’s wrong with being Jewish? Is Jewish a religion or people from a country I haven’t learned about yet? So far, the books just left me with questions; questions about human motivations, about history, and about religion, but questions that didn’t personally affect me.

The next book on our reading list, Diary of Anne Frank, did personally affect me. She was about my age when she wrote it. I liked her. I liked how she viewed the world and she wrote about issues I was currently struggling with too- problems with her sister, Margot (my sister has a similar name), liking a boy, and well, I just liked her attitude. But, there were those words again “Nazi” and “Jew”. And she and her family died because of the Nazis, and because she was a Jew. Her story resonated with me. I wanted her story to have a happy ending. Why did she have to die? I couldn’t let the nagging thoughts go.

I learned, through these stories, that Nazis, Hitler, Nazi-ism was bad. Hitler caused a world war. He and his regime murdered innocent Jewish children. Kids my age. I was livid. How could anyone do that to another human being? In my pre-adolescent self-righteous anger, I vowed that I would have helped Anne Frank and others like her if I were alive at that time. Innocent, armchair, vicarious, impotent altruism.

In my mind I was thinking of all the ways I could have and would have helped. I would have……..wait. I’m German. My mother is German. My Oma is German. Tante Hanna called her a “Nazi.” Is Nazi-ism a religion? Was I part of that group that committed atrocities against other humans? Then, I thought about Tante Hanna. She is German, isn’t she? She and Oma speak German, and something called Plattdeutsch, together. Yet, she’s a Jew who wears the Star of David around her neck. Oma didn’t wear any religious symbol around her neck. What religion was she? What did Oma do to help the Jews? Did she help any? Was she really a Nazi? No way, my sweet Oma could not be like the horrible Nazis I read about. If she were a Nazi, what about me? Boy, did I have a lot of questions. So, I gathered up some pre-pubescent courage and asked.

***********************************************************************************

“Oma?”

“Was, meine Süße?”

“Were you a Nazi?” Even as a kid, I was straight-to-the-point.

Oma stopped peeling potatoes in her immaculate kitchen. Her house always smelled a combination of onions, potatoes, baby powder, and freshly cut flowers. We were sitting at the round, marbled-grey formica table in her kitchen. I remember looking up at the round florescent light, thinking it was bright and kind of ugly. She put down her paring knife and looked at me with soft, clear blue eyes.

“I mean, in school, we’ve been reading lots of books about World War 2, and learning about Hitler and concentration camps, and, like, you weren’t part of all that, were you?”

“Everyone was a Nazi in Germany once Hitler came into power. You had to be. The government required it. Children were part of the German Youth Group, and it’s just the way it was.”

“Did you know Jews were being sent to concentration camps to be murdered, like Anne Frank?”

“No.”

“What do you mean, ‘No’? Weren’t there Jewish families in your neighborhood?”

“Most people didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, what was happening. All most of us knew was that we had jobs again. We had food in our bellies. We weren’t starving. The economy was getting better. Some families disappeared overnight, but we were told that they had gone on holiday. There were rumors of something more sinister, but who believed rumors? We thought those rumors were told by people who were against all the good that was happening for the German economy. I didn’t know what was going on until after the war ended.”

“How could you not know when those families didn’t return?”

“Hand me that potato and then go check on your sister. We’ll eat soon.”

“But, what about-?”

“Go now.” She smiled at me, somewhat sadly, and I knew to go check on my sister.

That day I learned a little about my grandmother’s life as a Nazi. Later that night, she told me “watered-down” stories of Nazi Germany to protect my innocence. My grandfather was a Nazi and was in the German Army (not SS soldier, but a Nazi soldier nonetheless). Her brother was a Nazi soldier, who was wounded in a battle and captured by the Russians. All Germans including children were Nazis.

I was quite upset. How could my Oma be part of the kind of people who killed Anne Frank? How could she not know what was happening to those Jewish families? How could she be a member of the party that killed all those in concentration camps? I didn’t visit her for a few months. I didn’t want to see her. I was horrified. And, I was young and ignorant. I wanted my family to be good, and I didn’t quite understand how good people could be blind to something so evil.

Over the next few years, I learned a lot about German history through the eyes of my relatives. Oma and I had many conversations about her life in Germany. I also talked with my maternal grandfather and his second wife, Oma Gerda, and Oma Eva’s brother, Uncle Heinz, about their lives in Nazi Germany. I collected stories from my mother, my mother’s family, and Tante Hanna. I wanted to know, I guess, if I was part evil. I also felt guilty.

***************************************************************************************

Oma Eva was born in 1922 in Malchin, a small town in eastern Germany, a little after the Treaty of Versaille, a peace agreement that ended the First World War. This treaty demanded that Germany pay reparations (I’m not sure, but I think Germany had to pay the United States, France, Italy, and England). The reparations were intended to make sure that Germany never had the finances, nor the military resources, to start another World War. Germany paid out so much money, that no money was left to take care of German citizens. The economy took a nosedive. There were few jobs to be had, very little food, and much anger and unrest in the populace. This treaty created economic havoc in Germany and enabled a dictator, Hitler, to manipulate his way into power, and primarily caused the Second World War.

Oma said that she remembered her childhood as being difficult. She was the middle child of three. She had an older brother, Heinz, and a sister, Thea, who was 10 years younger than Oma. Their mother had come from money, but as Oma’s father was a gambler, her family had very little money. The family had chickens and a garden for food. As a teenager, Oma would chop heads off chickens and then pluck them herself for dinner. Clothes, shoes, and other amenities were hard to come by. I also learned, that at one point, the family was so poor that my grandmother and her siblings were put into foster care for a little while.

Reunited with her family as an older teenager, around 17 years old, Oma went to school and had an internship in a warehouse in Malchin that supplied a department store in Lubeck. She made little money, but occasionally, the owner of the warehouse would give her leftovers of items they transported, such as linen napkins and bedding, some china, and clothing. Pre-World War 2 Germany, in an effort to curb inflation, had apparently started printing so much money, that the paper the money was printed on was worth more than the marks (German currency). She told me a loaf of bread would cost a wheelbarrow filled with worthless marks. She told me about how most needed items, like sugar and flour, were gotten through trading cigarettes on the black market. Most families bartered for their needs.

I learned how the Nazis partly ensured their “true German” race. Within a few decades of WW2, Germans who wished to be married had to show documentation that proved the parties’ German lineage could be traced back at least three generations, through the paternal lineage. Citizens had to prove that they had no “Jewish” or foreign blood in them, and had to prove they had no genetic defaults. My grandfather, Opa Otto, was born October 11, 1920 in Stettin, Germany, on the Polish border. This hamlet changed nationality changed due to different wars and the redraw of borderlines of treaties that ended wars. My grandmother always said my grandfather was a Polish Jew, an obvious ingrained bias on her part (perhaps enflamed due to his marital indiscretions). His last name ended in “-ski” which some family members changed to “-ske” and was pronounced “ska,” not “ski” all because of World War 2, and the fear of being ostracized by a last name that sounded too Jewish. There are many documents which show my grandfather’s last name ending in “sky”, “ski”, and “ske”.

Oma and my family also told me their own postwar explanations of the concentration camps. They claimed that the focus on Jews in Germany was motivated by money and the economy. Many Jewish people were the merchants, the bankers, the business owners. They owned real estate. Hitler realized that if the government took over their houses, their businesses, took their money, and incorporated the Jews’ wealth into the Third Reich, the government could better control the economy. The media blitzed against the Jews. Antisemitic, pro-Nazi propaganda appeared in movies, in newspapers, advertisements, and radio programs all aimed at hungry, struggling, out-of-work Germans who believed these thinly woven lies as long as their own living conditions improved. Desperate people will believe anything if it makes living easier. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels knew how to manipulate the media; they knew how to make rational people angry and build up political loyalty.

Towards the end of the war, the Russians invaded Germany. The soldiers rolled into towns and cities and burned them down. Hitler was hiding in Berlin, in a bunker with Eva Braun. He knew the Russians were coming and he didn’t want to become a spectacle for the Russians to display to the world, so he poisoned himself and Eva Braun and had his henchmen burn their bodies until there was nothing left but bones. Even in death, Hitler used media propaganda. He knew that if the Russians (the victors) used his hanged body as an image for the media, that he would lose his political base. By removing his own body, and Eva Braun’s body, from these images, he could maintain control of his most ardent base followers.

My grandmother was not left unscathed from the ramifications of the war. She told me the story in 1999 when I was visiting her after she had triple bypass surgery and had a pacemaker inserted in her heart. She told me of one night, right before the war ended, she and her girlfriend were walking home along a darkened, quiet street from a friends’ get-together. Some Russian soldiers were walking towards them. My grandmother and her friend kept their heads down and quickened their steps. To no avail. While my grandmother didn’t come out and clearly state what happened, “a lady doesn’t talk about those things”, she did say that her friend ended up in the hospital for a very long time, and was never the same after. Oma managed to live and move past the pain, burying the event deep in her memory. Flickering hope of a better life and sheer refusal to be beaten into submission fed my grandmother’s will to survive.

Post-war Germany was worse than pre-war Germany. At some point during the war, my grandmother moved to Lübeck to work in a department store. There, she met my grandfather. He was a soldier, and after the war ended, for a short while, he was a police officer. She told me of their wedding carriage ride through town. It was all very romantic, until my grandfather decided he wanted a wife and a girlfriend. His girlfriend was well connected in town, and somehow once she and my grandfather had a falling out, the relationship cost him his job in the police department.

Oma told me about the postwar housing shortages. Many houses were destroyed by bombings. Finding a place to live was difficult, and basic food supplies were limited. German citizens were given ration cards to buy food. Children and pregnant mothers were given extra food rations. My grandmother and mother were in this category. My grandparents divorced when my mother was very young, yet because of the housing shortage, my grandfather still lived with them. Oma told me he used to bring his girlfriends to their house. During this time, my grandmother contracted typhoid fever. The doctors didn’t think she would live. She weighed little more than 80 pounds and she lost all her hair. Oma lay on the couch, in and out of consciousness, semi-aware of her daughter who was in her crib eating her own feces out of hunger. As she told the tale, the motherly instinct to care for her daughter and the anger towards her ex-husband gave her the will to live. She willed herself to survive.

My great-grandmother, Oma’s mother, still lived in Malchin which became part of East Germany after the war. While the wall was not built yet, it was still very difficult for family from the West to visit their family members in the East. Once again healthy, my grandmother would often make trips to visit her mother, who was addicted to cigarettes. Crossing the border, my grandmother would strap money to my mother’s toddler body, smuggling much needed funds to her family in the Communist East. A few years after the war ended, Oma’s mother died of emphysema. With her mother gone, her marriage done, and very little opportunity to support herself, Oma decided to leave Germany with her daughter and set out for the unknown terrain of America.

In America, my grandmother learned English, remarried, and my mother learned English by watching television and listening to the radio. My grandmother also sponsored my grandfather and his new wife so they could immigrate to America (this part of the story is a bit complicated and deserves its own separate story). Oma and Opa Gus (my grandmother’s second husband) bought a cable-car diner, The Bluebird Diner, and were business owners for years. In this diner is where my father met my mother, and well, where my personal history began. My Oma assimilated into American culture and was living the American Dream.

At some point between 1954 and 1960, Oma and Tante Hanna met. They did not know each other in Germany. Because the diner was so close to Tarrytown where Tante Hanna lived, the friendship between the two women flourished. Tante Hanna was invited to every family function Oma had, and became part of our family. The two women were quite similar in their outgoing personalities and what they valued in life. Their apartments were quite similar, and they kept house the same. Their everyday glasses were encased in plastic, fresh flowers were in a vase on the table, and feet were never to be put on sofas. “These things are expensive! They must be taken care of!” and “Get your feet off the couch!” were sayings they played on repeat. They were frugal, well, cheap was more like it, probably because they lived so many years with nothing.

I remember, as a teenager dreading going out to dinner with them, especially to “All you can eat” buffets. When we would all go out to dinner, both women brought extra-large bags with them. Extra dinner rolls, desserts, any food that could carry well would be wrapped in napkins and disappear into these bags for “a snack for later.” If I happened to go to the ladies’ room after one of them, no paper towels or toilet paper would be found, and they never ran out of paper products in their apartments. One time, Tante Hanna’s iron stopped working, so she went to the store, purchased a new iron, removed the new iron, put the old one in its place, and promptly returned the “broken” new purchase for a refund. Needless to say, as a young adult, I was embarrassed to go anywhere with them in public.

Any time the women got together, they would have “kaffeeklatsch.” Tablecloths, linen napkins, homemade cakes, wine glasses, and fresh flowers were constant necessities. Once, when too much wine was served, the topic of German reparations to Jews came up. On this subject, the two women disagreed.

“You should not be taking money from the German government for lost Meissen dishes and golden silverware you never had. Your mother was a prostitute!”

“My mother may have been a whore, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have nice things, fucker!” came the quick reply.

“Oh! Your language makes my ears curl! Why must you be so uncivil at a nice kaffeeklatsch?”

Then my grandmother would laugh and change the subject.Tante Hanna was mostly mute about her history before she came to the United States. She and her mother lived in Berlin during the war. At 12, Tante Hanna was rounded up with others and loaded into a train car bound for a concentration camp. Somehow, she escaped the train and lived underground Berlin. I don’t know how old she was when she came here with her mother, but it was no secret that she had no love for her mother. When asked how her mother was doing, her pat reply was “The bitch is still alive.” I never understood that, but I instinctively knew not to ask her.

Oma told me a portion of her story. “When Hanna was younger, she and her mother lived together. Hanna met a nice boy and they got engaged. Once day, Hanna came home from work early and found her mother in bed with her fiancé. She swore off men and her mother from that day on. Don’t ever tell her I told you the story.”

Tante Hanna and I talked about many things, but she would not discuss Germany. “I left that hellhole, and I’ll never go back,” is all she would say. She avoided talking about politics, except to say, “I hope people remember history.”

In the Florida condo complex where by grandmother and Hanna lived, the two women cultivated many friends. They had weekly Kaffeeklatsches and participated in social events of the complex. Hanna was also the caretaker to many of the residents in the retirement community. She would go shopping for a couple who didn’t have a car. She would do Nair facials on women and bring them small surprises to brighten their day. And every time I visited, she would make time to play Scrabble with me.

Politically, Oma was a staunch Republican. She believed in traditional values and a strong economy. Money equaled choices, and without a strong economy, without jobs, there are no choices. A quick Google search of my grandmother’s name still shows that she is a registered Republican. My aunt, on the other hand, refused to get involved in politics. She would not “register” for anything. She said she’d been on one “registered list” too many times and stayed as far away from politics as she could. All her life, she worked for private families, paid cash for everything she owned, and did not owe anyone a cent. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she hid all her money under her mattress.

I would go down to visit Oma and Tante Hanna either for important birthdays like Oma’s 80th birthday when she invited her brother and his wife, her sister, and her cousin Sonja to help celebrate. I came down with my daughter, Anna, who was eighteen months, and we stayed with Tante Hanna. Tante Hanna set up a little table and chair for Anna and let her play with discarded egg cartons, spoons, and small lids to stack. There was no Playskool anything, no crayons, just odds and ends she found in her house, and Anna was quite content.

The last time Tante Hanna and I played Scrabble, I knew something was wrong. I beat her three out of the four games we played that day. We each had a glass of wine, but she had only one cigarette. “I have three cigarettes a day now. One in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. No more, no less.” Always thin, she seemed even thinner. “I lost ten pounds last month.”

She was dying. A few months later, she was in a nursing home, my grandmother her only visitor. My aunt never married and never had children. She was still close to the Jewish family she had raised years ago, but they were in NY, and not able to get to see her in time. Oma would visit her, bringing her fresh blueberries and cream, the only food she could get down. On the day she died, she told my grandmother, “I never realized how painful dying was.”

After Tante Hanna died, again Oma had no reason to stay in the country. Oma’s health was declining, and she had some choices to make. My mother was living in Weimar, Germany, and Oma wanted to go back home. She wanted to spend her last years with her daughter in her homeland. Once again, mother and daughter lived together and took care of each other.

The last time I saw Oma was in December 2008. She was in a nursing home near my mother’s apartment in Germany, and, for Christmas, Oma wanted to have kaffeeklatsch on her floor for the other residents. My mother put together cookie trays with chocolate and the nurses put on some coffee. Oma was at peace, at home, and lived a good life. She died like she lived her life, on her own terms, well, almost.

Remember how I said she had a pacemaker inserted in her heart? Well, her heart’s wiring was messed up, so the pacemaker would send out an electrical shock if her heart stopped beating. The pacemaker brought her back from the dead a few times. Germany has a law against euthanasia, or any assistance to help a chronically ill or elderly patient die, because of the holocaust. My mother and Oma wanted a doctor to remove the pacemaker, and no doctor in Germany would comply, even though Oma’s other organs were failing. Several times while in the nursing home, Oma’s heart stopped, and the pacemaker would jolt it back to life, lifting her body off the bed with each shock. Eventually, either Oma had enough pain, or the pacemaker’s battery finally died. Oma died on the same day Hitler did, April 30th, in 2008.

“I don’t think you’d be able to survive what I lived through” is what my grandmother told me one time I was being a spoiled teenager. Looking back, I think she’s right. Her story, my family’s story contained the best and worst of humanity in one lifetime. I’m not sure I would have survived what she, Tante Hanna, and my other ancestors did. I learned how sometimes good people are capable of living through evil, and how hope is the only thing that can keep people alive. I also learned that people who have differing political, religious, and social beliefs can still value and respect each other. My thoughts on the future? There is always hope.

Sapphire Tree

Eva woke up sore and cold in the same spot she fell asleep: behind a large log in the forest. The multi-colored soft leaves made for a nice bed, but she was hungry and weak from battling the mutants the night before.

Sapphire Tree

            Ahead in the distance, she heard voices. And she smelled baking bread.  She got up, quickly looked around, and headed towards the cabin she oddly didn’t see last night.

            What you need is not what you seek whispered an old woman’s brittle voice.   Find me. Eva quietly acknowledged the voice, and continued to the cabin.

            Upon opening the door, Eva looked around.  It was a cozy, popular restaurant/bar. Every table was full.  A family of four was in the corner booth, a toddler played peek-a-boo with his mother.  A few hunters in full camouflage gathered at another table, their bows propped against the table.  There was one seat left near the bar and Eva took it.  She plopped her backpack next to her.  A middle-aged barmaid came over, wiped her hands on her apron and said, “She’s waiting for you.  Go on over and sit with her, and I’ll bring you some food and drink.  You look hungry.”  And with that the barmaid left.

            Eva sat down at the back table with the cloaked figure previously unnoticed.  The figure removed her cloak hood, “You’ve traveled far, my dear, as have I.  We were meant to meet now and not before.  I have something you need, but it is not what you seek.”  The waitress bought over a plate of steaming scrambled eggs, bacon, and a fresh biscuit, with a side of pancakes and maple syrup.  She also placed down a glass of orange juice and coffee.  “Eat and drink,” the old woman continued, “And take this key.”

            Eva held out her hand and looked at the old woman for the first time.  She looked familiar.  “Don’t I know you?” Eva questioned.  “There is something about you…”. The old woman smiled, touched Eva’s shoulder, and said, “Remember me.  I am you, and you, I.  Unlock the door, and find what you do not need.”  And with that, she vanished.  Only the key remained.  Eva slipped the key in her backpack.

            Full and refreshed, and now on a new mission, Eva chose the trail through the forest that led to Mirror Lake where her friends were.  She took out the key and examined it.  It was old and made of wood, like the metal skeleton keys that fit in those old-fashioned doors.  “This really is old-school, but sure I’ll play along,” she mused.  Turning the key over, she noticed a blue sapphire gem in the shape of a tree.  

            She ran a little ways down the well-worn path feeling free.  She stopped in a random spot and lay down on her back to look up at the sky.  As a child, she loved looking up at the shapes of the clouds.  She imagined rabbits and dinosaurs and heads of dogs in those clouds.  This sky was different though.  It was fragmented; large jagged shards of red, black, and green punctured the blue.  Clouds in this sky were not white, but dingy gray and decayed green puffs that floated across the broken heavens.  It was beautiful, in a dark, deathly kind of way. 

            The virus changed everything.  It made her life go upside down.  Her grandmother died two weeks ago, in a nursing home, alone.  The last time Eva saw her grandmother was 15 years ago, in Germany.  She was old, even then.  She made cookies for Eva, big, soft, molasses cookies with a raisin in the middle, and told her that good things always happen to those who hold onto hope.  Eva remembered she’d look at her with soft, hazel eyes, and she remembered the necklace she wore.  It was blue with diamonds, in the shape of a tree….. “OH!!  I know where the door is!”

            “Eva!”  her mother yelled while rapping loudly on the closed door. “Eva!  We need to go now!  Get your mask. I have your suitcase.  We can’t be late for the plane to Germany.  Eva!! Do you hear me?”

            “I’ve gotta find a save spot for the game, and I’ll be right there!”  Eva yelled back.  She took off the VR headset and shut the console off.  

            There, on the floor, next to the console, was a sapphire necklace in the shape of a tree.

Take down that flag

Rebel flags do not represent independence or America; they represent a southern tradition of slavery that the Confederates started a war to keep. And they lost. Equating Confederate flags with a 1970/80 TV show about a car named after a Confederate general and an overly-sexualized short-short wearing Daisy Duke is pretty dumb, too. I liked Dukes of Hazard, too. But I was 10 years old and didn’t make the connections that I, as an adult, clearly see now.

I’ve always been for taking down statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers and moving them to a museum so we don’t “erase” history ( which, by the way can’t be erased by moving a statue, that’s just dumb). Statues represent ideas and people we value in a society. We value the idea of slavery in 2020? Remove the statues. Rename our bases. Remove any form of idolatry to a past that stood for the enslavement of a race. When we as a society, fly a flag, erect a statue, or name streets, military bases, or buildings that usually means the ideas behind the flag or name are valued and respected in a society.

In Germany, nothing pertaining to Hitler- no statue, no road, no base, no home, nothing that would give the appearance of worship or ideas to value exists in Germany or anywhere. On purpose. Does that mean he was forgotten? Or World War II? Or the nazis? Or the Holocaust? No. We know about Hitler and what he stood for without idolization. (Funny how white supremacists fly the nazi flag along side rebel flags. Coincidence? I think not. )

Guess what, no one will forget the Civil War either. We don’t need children playing tag in a park next to a 15 ft iron statue of Robert E. Lee to remember. We don’t need new recruits training at a base named after a general from the Confederate army to remember, and we don’t need rebel flags displayed in American homes to remember.

But, redneck hillbilly white folks who probably don’t bother reading history want to keep a rebel flag flapping in the wind attached to their motorcycles, flying in their front yards , and proudly displayed on the back windows of their pick up trucks. You’re not being a rebel, you’re being a racist. You just won’t admit it. Don’t go hiding behind a guise of patriotism, no one is buying it anymore.

I believe humans can and should be better. Society needs to be better. We need to take care of all in society.

It’s time to let go of old ways that no longer work. Cleanse the house of America. Marie Kondo America. What doesn’t bring us joy needs to be folded up, thanked for its presence, and put where it belongs- in the past, in a museum, or in a bin in storage. Slavery and the southern ideas of confederacy should no longer bring anyone joy. If they do, well, that is a sure sign of racism.

Butts ‘n Boobs ‘n Bags, Oh My!

Like every morning, I showered and dressed. After pouring what’s left of my once healthy B’s into my underwire bra, I glanced in the mirror. “Hey, Mom!” I said- as my mother was staring back at me. “Whoa!” was my next thought.

What a way to start a morning. When did this age thing happen? When did I turn into someone my mother’s age? Yesterday, I was full and perky, and today saggy and droopy.

After dressing, I did the “face ritual.” Wash with exfoliating stuff, wipe with toner, then dot “anti-age” wrinkle cream around my eyes, and moisturize the rest of my face with salicylic acid for my pre-menopausal outbreaks. I don’t remember having dark circles and bags under my eyes as a teen (they were only red from lack of sleep, but that’s another story….)or acne either. But, hey, I’ve got them now! Great!

Then, my 13 year old daughter, Anna, came in to use my brush, wearing MY JEANS! And, you know what, her butt looked better in them than mine did. Have you seen my butt? I’ve lost it somewhere and would like it back… I thought women’s butts just got lower as we aged; mine seems to have gone directly from me to my daughter!

I have officially entered Oz, and I’ve become the Wicked Witch of the West (minus the green skin…unless I have one too many glasses of wine….). My body has gone somewhere over that rainbow, and my kids think I’m the meanest mom in the world (they don’t understand why they have to unload the dishwasher….). How did this happen?

Time. Although my body isn’t anything like what I think it once was, my brain and soul are firmly in Kansas, okay, NY, but you knew what I meant. I like who I’ve become, body and all, and I wouldn’t trade my life for a 20-something. What, go through bad marriages again? Learn how to take the hard knocks of life and turn them into “learning experiences” all over again? No, thanks.

As I head into the next forest singing “butts ‘n boobs ‘n bags, oh my!” I will be dancing and following that yellow brick road into the unknown, happy to be on the road with friends and love.

PS- I wrote this ten years ago when I was in my 40s. I’m now in my 50s, post-menopausal (thank the universe, that phase really, I mean, really sucked) and ya know what? I’m still dancing and following that yellow brick road that I laid myself brick by brick. Oh, and my butt came back, bigger than ever. Mama’s got back. Life is good.

An Adjunct’s Story

This week, for at least the third time in my fourteen years as an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Plattsburgh, I got the dreaded news that adjunct positions were going to be cut due to a budget crisis.  In order to make up some shortfall, someone who crunches numbers for the college told deans and chairs that $178,000 needed to be cut from the adjunct budget.  This means that about 16% (or higher) of adjuncts hired by the college will be terminated.

Let me start off by saying, I am not writing this to argue for my job, or argue for a reasonable wage, or argue for better benefits.  While I could and should argue for those factors, that is not my purpose today.  I have been an adjunct for two colleges over my twenty-plus year teaching career, and I know the drill.  I am contingent faculty; my job is contingent upon many factors at a college: enrollment, budget, tenure faculty teaching requests.   I sign a contract every semester knowing that my schedule could change, and many times has changed, drastically up until the first day of classes, with or without a contract.  This is the nature of the beast.

I am writing this essay because the one thing that I want those who crunch numbers and those who decide who does not get a contract next semester to know is that each and every adjunct has a story; each and every adjunct values their contingent profession.  While the details of my story are uniquely my own, every adjunct has a story similar to mine.  Our contingent careers deserve the recognition and respect that tenured professors receive; our stories are not contingent.  Our stories deserve to be heard; we deserve to be valued as professionals, not hobbyists.  

I first registered as a non-matriculated, non-traditional student at SUNY Plattsburgh in Spring of 1988.  I came here a failure.  I failed in my marriage, I had failed in a half-hearted attempt at  a private college (for which I had to pay thousands of dollars out of my own pocket with nothing to show), I was severely depressed and underweight, and I was, to put it mildly, a mess.  I lacked self-esteem, direction, and purpose for life.  I came to SUNY Plattsburgh to re-invent myself, to start over, and  to become who I was meant to be, whoever that may be.   Little did I know then that SUNY Plattsburgh would be an integral part of my life for over three decades, without ever having been hired here in any full-time, permanent capacity.  The only time I was ever here under the term “full-time” was when I paid the college for my education. 

My first adviser suggested I become an Elementary Education Pre-K- 6 major because I had told my advisor I like children, and I was female.  I had no idea what I wanted “to be”, so I went along with the program and took the required courses.  I knew I had somewhat of a brain, but I didn’t consider myself anything remarkable or worthwhile (major self-esteem issues before “self-esteem issues” were a thing).  Then, in the Spring of 1989, Dr. David Mowry, who had recently established the Honors Center, talked to me after an Introduction to Philosophy class.  He said I stood out to him and would I want to be part of the Honors Program.  Me!  Wow.  That moment changed my life.

I joined the Honors Program and changed my major.  I was suddenly recognized for my brain.   I had something of value, me and my ideas, that I could add to the world.  I changed my major from Elementary Education to English, and I ended up double majoring in English and Philosophy.  

My undergraduate journey was filled with some wonderful professors, some of whom are no longer with us.  I was one of those students who, to paraphrase Tom Morrissey’s eulogy to Bruce Butterfield, sat outside Dr. Butterfield’s office “counting rosary beads.”  I sat in a frustrated, disillusioned, ready-to-retire, Art Newgarten’s summer 200-level philosophy course filled with students from the hockey team, and listened to him tell us “everyone gets a ‘B’ whether you show up or not” speech (which by the way, I did show up every day to his class on Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.   Dr. Newgarten was a genius with a wonderful sense of humor); I studied and analyzed  Shakespeare in classes taught by Alexis Levitin, accompanied by his dog, Shep; I studied Paradise Lost as  taught by Anna Battagelli; I attended courses taught by Paul Johnston, Peter Corodimas, and the late Dennis April; I sat in Honors courses where Daphne Kutzer shared her own lesbian poetry with the class; in Tom Morrissey’s classes where he brilliantly brought mythology and Lord of the Ringsto life with relevant lectures about current society; I listened to Janet Groth read from Jane Austin novels in her mellifluous voice; well, you get the picture.  I grew, I learned, and all these professors helped me find value in the world, and value in myself.  I valued the liberal arts program.

During these years, the academic environment was different.  There was a bar on campus where students, the Plattsburgh community, and professors could freely mingle.  Professors weren’t afraid to invite students to their homes or out to dinner.  Society was different.  The Point, the campus bar located in Angel Center, was one such place.   Many nights I discussed philosophers and authors , abstract ideas, the meaning of life, with professors who would come in and have a beer, shoot pool, or play darts with students. I even met the man I would eventually marry (and later divorce) at the Point. Professors from the English department held holiday and end of the year get-togethers and invited students.  The Honors Center held picnics and trips for students.  Some professors even invited small groups of students out to restaurants to discuss literature.  What a wonderful community SUNY Plattsburgh was, and I am thankful for those memories.  The college community shaped the course of my life.

I graduated college, and the plans I had to go away to graduate school didn’t materialize for a variety of reasons.  I didn’t get the score I wanted on the subject GRE, and I didn’t retake it.  Instead, I enrolled in a graduate program at SUNY Plattsburgh.  I was working towards a Master’s in Education so I could teach high school English. I got married. Right before I was to start  the Student Teaching block, I was offered an adjunct position at Clinton Community College.  I was pregnant with my first born, and I needed to make money.  In 1994, my life as an adjunct had begun.  I changed my concentration, and earned a Master’s of Liberal Studies degree, with a concentration in English Literature and Reading in 1995.  The English department stopped offering that graduate program shortly after.  Apparently, I’ve been told, my degree is not that valued in the academic community.  

For me, however, I am a product of SUNY Plattsburgh’s educational system, and I did the work, wrote a thesis, and as a bonus, I learned how to teach.  I took courses in Education on how to create tests, how to evaluate students, studied different methodologies and pedagogies that work for students, how to manage classroom behavior and create a positive learning environment.  Many tenured professors, while experts in their specific disciplines, have not taken many, if any, education courses and have not learned how to impart their knowledge effectively to students.  I learned how to write, I analyzed literature, and I learned how to teach.  I value the education I got from SUNY Plattsburgh. 

When my children were young, I chose to stay home with them, and I postponed my teaching career.  I opened my own daycare because I didn’t want to miss the first tooth, the first broken arm, the first time my child said “Mama”.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, I stayed home and recovered, while still running a daycare.  When my children started school, I decided to teach again, as an adjunct as no fulltime positions were open.  After my divorce, I needed health benefits, so I applied to teach at SUNY Plattsburgh.  I worked three jobs: I taught at two colleges and I became an accountant.  I taught English, prepared taxes, did payroll for companies, and parented.  Over the next fourteen years, I have worked one, two, and three jobs at a time in order to support myself and my three children.  My passions lay in parenting and teaching.  Two careers with lousy pay.

Being an adjunct over the years has had certain benefits: I never missed any plays or concerts my children were in; I was able to drop off and pick up every day; I was able to spend time with my children.  I made my choice: my children came before my career.  And now my children are grown, and my career has not grown.  I am still contingent faculty.  I would not change my life decisions.

I made decisions that have had  life-long consequences.  I chose to stay in a profession that offered me no stability, no livable wage, for over twenty years because it is what happened.  I may lose my only profession I am passionate about, in an institution that has been a part of most of my adult life (it’s been in my life longer than some marriages…), because of choices I have made, and because, in part, of the lack of respect, recognition, and the complete exploitation of people who may not have any other choice.

If you know me, you know I’ve said, “I’m good at two things in my life: parenting and teaching.”  That is who I am.  I am a professor and a mom.  I’m damn good at both. I am proud to tell my students that I am a product of the college that they chose to attend.  

 You know, when I was a kid, teachers and high school counselors would often say, “What job would you do for free?  Whatever your answer, that’s the job for you.  That’s your passion.”  Teaching is my passion, although I would rather not do it for free.  Navient is still expecting my student loan payment from my years at SUNY Plattsburgh.  Yes, another topic for another day.

Part 2: June 1872

Researching ancestors sometimes leads to brick walls, so that’s when imagination takes over.  

https://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/35787/20180314/north-country-at-work-when-eggs-were-money-and-the-store-came-to-you

            The iron-mining industry boomed from 1860 to 1870 in Black Brook allowing the Allen family to move up in the world.  In 1865, just as the Civil War ended, Franklin Allen bought a small one-acre farm that sidled up to a crook in the stream called Black Brook.  Not too far from the house, the brook pooled where an adult could wade in waist high.  Franklin, Dinah, and their five children lived in the newly built two-story farmhouse with a large front porch on which Franklin liked to take his Sunday afternoon nap.   “It’s God’s day to rest, so it may as well be mine too!” he’d often say.

            The first floor had a large kitchen with a new cast-iron potbellied stove that had a fire burning in it year round; a dining room and parlor; even two closets, one upstairs and one down, and a cold pantry that eventually would house an ice-box; and on the land was an outhouse, a shed for the chickens, and a small barn for the one horse.  A 20-foot by 20-foot vegetable garden was ploughed on the east side of the horse barn.  This was quite a big step up from the small rented house they had in the early ‘60s.  Franklin enjoyed the prosperity; after all, he knew he deserved it.

            The morning before Ruby gave birth, Franklin took his two sons into the big town of Plattsburgh to get their portait taken and to get the week’s supplies from the J & J  Rogers’ company store.  He got a bonus slip and some cash from the iron company, the same company that built and owned the store, and this weekend was a good time to go, as Dinah told him Ruby was close.  Now, two days later, he was back home.

“Ruby, stay here and keep the baby quiet,” Dinah whispered to Ruby who was nursing the baby on the cot in the kitchen.  Dinah went into the dining room to meet the boys and told them to leave the wares on the dining room table.  She’d bring the supplies to the pantry.  “Esther!  Elizabeth!  Come and help your brothers bring supplies into the house.”

            Dinah smelled the cigar smoke before he opened the front door.  “I’m changing outta my good clothes before unloading the wagon.  Wait’ll you see what I got, Dinah!    The boys had a good time in the city.”  He let the brand new screen door slam behind him. “Frank and Lyman, start unloading, eh?” he called over his shoulder.  Then upstairs he went.

            Frankie entered first, his arms filled with flour sacks and cans.  “Ma, we brought you some jams, crackers, flour, and sugar!  Rogers’ store got in a new shipment, and ‘ol Mr. Disco gave us a good price for the eggs and potatoes we brought him.”  He gave his mother a brushed kiss on her cheek as he passed her into the kitchen, completely ignoring her earlier request.  Lyman was right behind him, uttering a smooth “Hey, Ma” on his way past.    The family got busy putting away the supplies and chatting.  They all ignored Ruby and the baby.

            Dressed in his faded corderoy overalls and clean white shirt, Franklin came back downstairs and went straight to the outside to the wagon and unhitched the horse.  He did some more chores outside and talked with his sons until dinnertime.  

            Dinah, Esther, and Elizabeth set the table in the dining room.  Cloth napkins were out, dishes of hot beef stew and fresh rolls were plated for each person.  In the middle of the table, a plate of steaming trout and carrots served as the centerpiece.  The Allens weren’t an overly religious weekly church-going family, but Dinah made sure everyone said a quick “Thank you, Lord, for providing for us” before anyone took a bite of food.   One chair, Ruby’s, was moved away from the table and placed off to the side against the pale pink painted wall. 

            “Elizabeth, I brought you some ribbons.  Don’t go losing them at school now. And, Esther, I brought you some calico for you to make a new skirt.  How is Mr. Mooney feeling?  Shame ‘bout his lame leg.”  Franklin glanced up at both daughters around the table as he said her name, guaging the response.  In the kitchen, the baby started mewling.  Franklin continued, “That Mooney boy gets a pension from being hurt in the War.  Don’t do anything stupid to muck it all up, hear? So ya won’t bring shame on my good name, unlike some in this house.”  The baby’s cries were getting louder.

            “I’ll get some more rolls.”  Dinah went into the kitchen.

              In the humid June air, the kitchen was hot and sticky.  The sun was still up, so the kerosene lamp in the middle of the table was unlit.  The one window near the back door was open, but the heat from the stove mixed with the humidity made breathing difficult.  The evening sunrays bathed the half-swaddled squirming crying newborn in the bed.  Ruby wasn’t in the room, and the back door was slightly ajar.  

                        Dinah picked up the baby. With her left hand on the back of the baby’s neck and the right holding her bottom, she walked to the empty outhouse.  No Ruby.  She looked in the barn.  No Ruby.  “Where can that girl have gone?”  Dinah went back to the kitchen and lay the baby, who had gone back to sleep, back down in the middle of the bed, out of the sunlight.  

            “Franklin!  Ruby’s gone!  You and the boys need to go find her.  Girls, go see if she’s with Aunt Mary next door.”  The tension in Dinah’s voice woke the newborn back up.

            Franklin scooped more carrots onto his plate, not bothering to look up.  “I’m not done with dinner, and I’m not going to look for nobody tonight.”  He stopped talking to pull a fishbone from his mouth, and then pierced Dinah with his steel grey eyes: “If Miss Queen Ruby wishes to run away, good riddance.  Damn tramp is dead to me anyway.  And make that bastard stop crying!”  

            All but Franklin and Frankie got up from the table.  Frankie was the mirror image of his father.  He was tall, lanky, could flash a winning thin-lipped smile at will, and a mop of sandy-brown curly hair topped his chiseled face. “Can you pass the water pitcher, Pa?”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Lyman found Ruby, clad in a corset, white cotton poplin skirt, lying down, face up, her long brown hair bobbing around her in the middle of the brook.   Her good shoes were side by side in the grass next to the brook. “It’s not any of my funeral what you’re doing here, but Ma’s worried sick about you.  Get up.”

“I want to die.”

            “Oh, bull.  Get up.”  Stepping on the few large rocks not under water, Lyman made his way out to Ruby, standing over her. Lyman had black eyes like his mother.  There was a softness to them, that belied his words.  Ruby grasped his proffered calloused hand.  She stood up and fell into her brother’s arms and hugged him. They sat down at the edge of the brook, her head on his shoulder.  “I don’t want it. I can’t stand looking at it. I didn’t think this could happen.”  She sobbed into Lymans shoulder.  “What am I going to do now?”

            The sun was going down, and because it was so humid, the mosquitos were out in full force.  Some crickets were chirping in the distance.  The brook gurgled as it rushed over rocks and some trout of frog blooped in and out of the water.  Lightning bugs flickered around Lyman and Ruby as they sat there.  A few crows flew overhead, caw-cawing to each other.  Swatting his neck for the tenth time, Lyman uttered, “Ruby, we have to go back now.”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Ruby stayed in the kitchen for the next few weeks until one day her cousins came over to say good-bye.  They were moving to Williamsburgh, a town about 10 miles away.  Seeing her chance to get away, Ruby packed her best dresses, her ribbons, plaited her hair, and donned her prized Dolly Varden hat, and left in the wagon with them going north.  That was the last time Lenora saw her mother, not that she remembered it.  

            From that day on Dinah became Lenora’s substitute mother.  Every night, Dinah would rock Lenora to sleep softly singing the same song:

            I gave my love a cherry that had no stone

            I gave my love a chicken that had no bone

            I gave my love a story that had no end

            I gave my love a baby with no crying……

            ….. Story to continue next Tuesday…..

Nora Allen- Hobgoblin of Black Brook – Part 1- Black Brook in 1870s

Irwin Farm on the Patent

From the late 1960s to early 1980s, every summer without fail, my sister and I would stay with our grandparents in Peru, New York.  Exit 35 off the Northway, milemarker 144.  Once or twice a week, my grandparents would bring us “up to the farm” or “up to the Patent” where my father’s mother, Martha (I called her Oma) was born and where her mother, Grammy Irwin, Anna, as Oma called her, still lived.  Here we filled up jugs of water, “good water”, from the sink in the dining room.  We then watched Somerset, Edge of Night, and Guiding Light  in the parlor of “Gram’s part” of the house.  We talked about crocheting, cooking, and the characters on the soap operas as if they were real people.  

            During the drive to The Farm, I listened to my grandparents reminisce over who lived where, who died and when, and, oddly, what the hair textures of former residents were.  “Arch, remember Barney who lived here?  Barney’s sister- what was her name again- had the curliest hair.  Very pretty.  Boy, could Barney dance.”  Or, “That’s where Senator Stafford grew up.  He was adopted, you know.”  Or, “Down that road over there is the farm your family worked at years ago.  Poor Beth.”  Sometimes, I would listen intently to the life stories of family and strangers; othertimes, I’d look out the window and quietly sing “Cat’s in the Cradle” over and over again.  Who knows why.

On Sundays, we would make our weekly trip to the Peasleeville cemetery.  I was introduced to geneaology here, and I didn’t even know it.  At the cemetery, we would all get out of the car.  That’s a practice most families don’t do anymore, at least I don’t.  A lost pasttime: cemetery visitation.  Anyway, I wasn’t much of a fan of the cemetery- the black flies and mosquitos were annoying.  And the gnats. Ugh.  But, it was what we did.  My grandmother would first go to her father’s grave.  “Here’s Dad,” she’d say.  She’d weed around the gravemarker.  And then we’d move on to other family members.

Holice and Anna Swinyer are Anna Irwin’s paternal grandparents (My grandmother’s great-grandparents)

            “Here’s the old part of the cemetery.  Gramma Irwin is over here.  She came from Holland.  Brought a rocking chair, a chest, and her own burial stone. She and Ruth always got along,” she’d tell us, or maybe herself, I’m not sure, as she pulled a few weeds from the ground around the stone.  “I should talk to Ray about how long the grass is here,” she’d say.

            From these visits, I learned that her mother was adopted, that Anna’s parents had died when they were very young, that “Gram’s family” was from a place called Swastika (for the longest time, I had wrongly assumed she meant Swastika, Vermont, but, no, it was Swastika, New York), and that genetically, my grandmother was part Irish, English, Dutch, and perhaps Native American, as well as “who knows what else.”  There was no 23andme back then- only Bibles and stories handed down from one generation to the next.

1856 Map of Clinton County
https://tile.loc.gov/image-services/iiif/service:gmd:gmd380:g3803:g3803c:la000484/full/pct:12.5/0/default.jpg

I bet most folks have never heard of Black Brook, New York, nestled snugly and quietly in the Adirondacks. Swastika, New York, was at the upper right- hand corner of Black Brook, near the Peru border.  Swastika had its own post office until 1953, but has since been incorporated into Black Brook, and Black Brook is part of Ausable Forks today.  Over the years, hamlets have been renamed, borders have been redrawn, and residents have moved on.  Today, in 2020, Black Brook  has about 1500 residents who go to work and school, who decorate for the holidays, who, at this time, are probably figuring out whether they will cook dinner or go out to eat.  Most if not all of these residents I do not know personally, although in this town is where my story begins.  

My story, rather Lenora E. Allen Swinyer’s story, begins in 1870s, in the heydey of bustle in Black Brook, the town that mined and smelted iron in Catalan forges.  90 percent of the 3,561 town’s inhabitants settled in this area specifically for the iron industry.  Families moved here from Canada, England, and parts of New England to find jobs and new beginnings in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  

            Lenora was born in June of 1872, to Ruby J. Allen (1854-1930), daughter of Franklin and Dinah (Watson) Allen.  According to the 1870 census, Franklin (47) and  Dinah (45) lived with their five children, Lyman, 21 (although Lyman is also listed as living with Martha Banker’s family whom he married in 1872), Franklin (19), Ester, (18), Ruby (15) and Elizabeth (13)  in a farmhouse valued at $200, and personal property valued at $450.  Franklin and his two sons were bloomers in the iron forges. They lived next to Dinah’s sister, Mary (Watson) Johnson, and other family members whose surnames include Blackbird and Hanmer.  On the same road, people listed teamster, milliner, blacksmith, carpenter, and a collier as occupations.  As you can see, in 1870, Black Brook was a fairly active little community.

A picture from Martha Irwin’s photo album. I believe this to be Franklin Allen with his two sons, Franklin(L) and Lyman (R) circa 1870

“PUUUUSSSHHHH, Ruby!” 

Dinah held onto both her daughter’s hands and pulled Ruby towards her.  They had been in the kitchen for four hours, and the baby’s head was crowning. 

Along one wall, the stove was smoking from the burning wood  and a cast iron pot containing a beef and vegetable stew was simmering on top.  On the floor next to the stove was a bucket with clean rags. And next to that bucket was an empty bucket. Along the adjacent north wall, in front of the cool pantry door, a cot was placed on which Ruby lay.  

“At the next pain, one more, and the baby should be here.”  Dinah looked at her daughter’s sweat-drenched face once before addressing her other daughter, Esther.  “Get some wet cloths and bring in some clean ‘appin, eh?”  Dinah’s Yorkshire accent creeped into her speech in times like this.  Childhood habits always come back.

Esther kept staring at her sister, mouth agape.  “Esther, I’m talking to you, girl.  Close that mouth and do as I say.”  Esther darted a look to her mother, then left the kitchen, leaving her mother at one end of Ruby, and her Aunt Mary, at Ruby’s head.

Mary, anticipating the next pain Ruby would have, handed Ruby the leather strap to bite down on.  With one last agonizing muffled groan, the baby entered the world.  Ruby lay back down, eyes closed, silently crying. 

Dinah held the newborn upside down and gave it a small swat.  The baby squirmed, coughed, and started crying. She then placed the baby, covered in a whitish waxy coating, belly down on Ruby’s stomach while she cut and tied the cord.  “Mary, clean up the poor bairn.”  She placed the baby in the towel in Mary’s hands.

“A little more pain, Ruby, and then you can rest,” said Dinah, as she kneaded her daughter stomach and grabbed the empty bucket.  Meanwhile, Ester had come back into the room with the fresh bedding and towels. 

The women cleaned mother and baby, the bedding, and cleaned up all the blood.  Mary handed the swaddled infant to Dinah. “Who would’ve thought my first grandbaby was gonna be old Mother Shipton?  My, you’re a beautiful lass.”  She then turned her attention to Ruby, who was looking out the window at a flock of crows circling overhead.

“Ruby, girl, you’re going to rest for a few days and take care of this wee bairn.  That’s your job.  Now I’ll help you best I can, but you must keep the baby quiet and out of your father’s way.  In a bit we’ll figure out what next to do.”  Dinah placed the infant in Ruby’s arms.  “Has she a name?”

Ruby shifted her gaze from the birds to the bundle in her arms who started to squirm.  “Lenora.  Lenora…” she looked around the room, “Lenora….. Elizabeth” she whispered.  “I’m tired.” Just shy of her eighteenth birthday, an unwed Ruby J Allen gave birth to Lenora. Ruby would not be long in Lenora’s life.

This ends Part One. Next week, I’ll continue the story of Lenora, or Nora, as most records show as her name. I’ll tell the story of her childhood in Black Brook, how she met her husband, Charles Swinyer, and how she died. I hope you’ve enjoyed this so far, and I look forward to reading any comments you may have.

3 of Lenora Allen's children: William, Anna, and Claude
William, Anna, and Claude- 3 out of 4 of Nora’s children

The best stories have no ending and no beginning

A few weeks ago, in my quest to get genealogical information on my mother’s side of the family, after four years of not seeing her, I traveled to Florida from New York to visit my mother. She is the only woman who can relay any of the stories, and she alone holds the documents and knowledge of who is who on her side of my heritage. You see, she is an only child. Her parents are deceased, and her father, my grandfather, was also an only child. So, my mother holds the keychain to the doors of half my genetic past. Are you sensing a story here yet?

My mother asked me, “Why are you so interested in genealogy?”

My immediate response, “I want to know their stories. I love stories, and knowing who came before me helps frame where I am in my own story. I want to know Her-story.”

My hope with this blog is to give weekly stories of my ancestors. Mostly my female ancestors- you know the ones whose stories you can’t find on gravestones, in immigration passenger lists, or by researching on Ancestry.com. Sure, I can find facts, but breathing life into those facts is what I’m passionate about. I hope you follow me on my journey, where stories have no beginning or ends……

In this blog I will follow the ancestral lines mostly of my paternal grandmother’s line- the Irwins, McCords and Swinyers, the Watsons and Allens; and my maternal grandmother’s lines- the Feilckes, the Grosinskis, and the Gloedes. The women in these stories defied poverty, war, famine, persecution, and survived long enough to pass on genetic codes and patterns that live in me, and will live on long after my tale ends.

There are so many stories in my head as I write this, I’m not sure where to begin. Do I start with my story first, my mother’s, or a great-great-great grandmother’s? A World War 2 story that takes place in Germany or the United States? A love story? A story of survival? A farming story? What do you think? Where should I start?

Left to right: Ruth, Raphael, and Martha Irwin (my grandmother)

I started my genealogy research over 20 years ago with FamilyTreeMaker. At that time, I gathered stories from both my maternal and paternal grandmothers. Unfortunately, that computer crashed years ago, and the 3 1/2 in disk that held the backup was lost in one of my many moves. Yet, the stories they told remained in me.

And now the women’s voices in my head are getting louder and I have to let them out. My great-great grandmother’s story of love, loss, and survival in a small Adirondack town wants to be heard. Another woman’s voice of war-torn Nazi Germany, of fortune telling and fortune making beckons. A beautiful woman who was lost her children to war and poverty wants to live again. Where does her story begin?

It starts here and simply, I guess. So, the basic facts of me. In 1965, I was the firstborn of three children to Renate (18) and William (23), and entered the world in Tarrytown, New York. My sister was born in 1968, and my brother in 1979. My parents are both only children, so I didn’t grow up with uncles, aunts, or cousins. But, I did have three sets of grandparents, which was pretty cool. My mother’s parents divorced when she was a child, so I thought having three sets of grandparents and no cousins was normal. Divorce was normal. Yes, yes, I’m digressing.

Stories do jump around a lot, don’t they? Kind of like life. One minute you’re eating poached eggs and toast and watching Grape Ape on television before having to go out and mow the lawn, and the next you’re hanging onto a railing in a hospital hallway waiting for the damn contraction to stop so you can get to the delivery room, to the next lying on a daybed, on New Year’s Eve day, typing about dead women’s voices in your head. Life is weird, and no better way to go through life than to tell and read stories. Quite magical, huh?

So, I’m looking for a little guidance and input. What stories are you interested in? My goal is to write another post next Tuesday, January 7.

Martha Elizabeth

            On June 4, 1922, Martha Elizabeth was born during prohibition on her parent’s farm in Peru, New York.  She was the youngest of three.  She always said she was the black sheep of the family, as both her brother and sister had blond hair and blue eyes, and here she was with brown hair and brown eyes.

            Martha, or as I always called her “Oma”, enjoyed farm life. Although she would often help her mother with sewing, canning, cleaning, and baking, she much preferred being in the barn tending the animals.   She had a horse named Daisy, and a pet duck named Lucy.  She would help with haying and helped nurse sick cows and horses.  I think if she had been born a boy, she would’ve become a vet. All her life, she loved caring for animals.

            She met my grandfather at school.  He was friends with her older brother, Ray.  My grandfather played basketball and tennis, and had blue eyes, a welcoming smile, and a gentle soul.  I imagine he was a calming presence to my grandmother, who, I’m sure, was quite the spitfire.  

            In May of 1941 they married.  I think I have a picture of their wedding day, but she is not in a flowing white dress, and there was no big to-do over the whole thing. Oma was a practical woman, and one who didn’t like to be the center of attention.

            In 1942, they welcomed my father, William James, into this world.  From the moment he was born until the day she died, he was her world.  Life for them was quiet and basic.  A typical small town life.  Archie worked as a woodworker in a mill, and my grandmother had several different jobs, keeping books in a liqour store, working in a restaurant, and mostly working at Georgia-Pacific standing long hours in the factory making paper products.  My father spent many days at his grandparent’s farm with his cousin Tom getting into all kinds of mischief.

            Life continued on, Bill grew up, and moved away. He got married and had three children: first me, then my sister, Margarete, and then Matthew.  Oma was the perfect grandmother.

            I spent many holidays and summers with my grandparents. Oma would tell my sister and me to write letters to Santa and mail them to her, with our wish list.  We put everything we wanted on those lists, and Oma would get every last toy, barbie, and baby doll on that list.  She made Christmas.  In the summer, she would pack us up lunches, and take us to the beach. She always sat under the trees, out of the sun, and never went in the water.  Somehow, though, she was always came home more tanned than either my sister or me.  She’d say it was because she was the black sheep.

            Oma loved her boys.  Girls were okay, she’d say, but her boys, well, they are special. For many years, she raised my brother Matthew.  She made him his breakfast every morning, made sure he changed out of his school clothes into his regular clothes, and made sure he had plenty to eat. He also had his own “snack drawer” which contained his special treats: chocolate bars and Swiss Cake Rolls.  And, she had a thing for striped shirts.  She dressed him in only striped shirts.  Whatever she did, it worked.  My brother never missed a day of school, and he was the healthiest kid out of the three of us.

            In 1999, just shy of their 60thwedding anniversary, my grandfather died.  My grandmother sold her house she lived in for about 50 years.  My grandfather’s tools and machinery in his woodshop were sold. And a little after that, she moved in with me.  That’s when she became my best friend.  

            Oma lived with me and my children, Anna, Ali, and Jonathan.  The girls, she loved them.  She was the only one who could buy Ali just the right outfit.  But, Jonathan, well, he was the boy.  Oma had a special snack drawer, filled with chocolate and Three Muskateers, in her room just for him.  Every morning, Oma would share her breakfast with the two cats we had.  Oma had a need to feed and nurture all living creatures.

            Oma lived her life with certain mottos:  “Say what you mean, and mean what you say”; and “You attract more bees with honey than vinegar”.  I think the first motto was for her, and the second one was for me. She knew I was a more vinegar than honey kind of person, but she kept trying to correct me.  

            On August 19, 2019, Oma breathed her last.  My cousin, Susan, and I were with her.  Oma fought to live to the very end.  She was always physically very strong (I remember once that she beat my dad at arm wrestling- don’t mess with Oma), and she kept that throughout her 97 years.  Recently, my other cousin, Mary Beth came to visit.  At the end of her visit Mary Beth said, “You know, Aunt Martha, you are an amazing woman.”  My grandmother looked at her, and laughed, and said “I’m a hell of a woman.”

            Yes, you are, Oma.  You are a hell of a woman, and my best friend.  I will miss you terribly, and I’m awfully glad I got to share my whole life with you.  I love you.

Crabbiness is underrated

This morning, on the Today Show, Harry Smith interviewed a 99 year old happy artist named Carmen Herrara. Throughout the interview, she smiled and laughed and painted, and said lovely little quips like, “Anyone can have what I have” when she responded to the question, “How are you so happy?”.  When asked what she wanted to do on her 100th birthday, she said, “I want to dance.  Why not?”  How inspiring!  So, today, I decided I was going to be happy.  If some 99 year old can do it, why not me?

Why not? Well, because …life. I’m having one of those days. I tripped going up the stairs. I wanted to work on a piece of writing I had started a few years ago, well, “Cannot open file. Restore previous format” error stopped that from happening- four times, with four different files. Bag that idea. I was chilly, so I tried to turn on the fireplace. Batteries were dead in the remote. No extra batteries. I found the fireplace switch, and manually turned it on. And then a picture randomly fell off my living room wall. Time to change my perspective and come up with a new day plan.

So, go to plan B: go on a walk with the dog. I wanted to take my crazy German Shepherd for a walk. Found some earbuds, but they were broken. No music on my walk. Not the end of the world. I get Atlas (my dog), and put on her harness and grab the leash. She jumps at the door to go outside. We make it to the end of the driveway and turn the corner and, lo and behold, another dog is walking our way. Cue barking. I turn around to walk the other way, and …yap! yap! yap! the neighbor’s dog across the street is out. Great! My dog wanted to eat the other dogs, or at least bark them to death, and wouldn’t listen to any commands, so back inside we went.

I am human. I’m having a bad day, and there is no way in hell I’m as happy as that 99 year old artist. Sure, I have moments of happiness, but, overall, things bother me. Loud chewing drives me nuts. Someone being rude makes me angry. Not putting dirty dishes in a dirty dishwasher drives me to the edge. Superfluous, empty conversation annoys the crap outta me. And I wonder, am I the only one who feels this way, because it sure seems so.

So, I’m on plan C. Write- write in my blog about how overrated happiness is. In my bathroom, I have a sign “Choose happiness” all in pretty flowing font. Sitting on a throne having a good bm can certainly induce happiness for lots of folks. And, yes, I can choose happiness in moments, in minutes, but, overall, I think fluidity of emotion is more of a realistic approach.

Happiness is not a constant, as much as social media perpetuates the idea that happiness is the only way to go through life. It’s not. Crabbiness is underrated. We all get crabby sometimes, and as long as we don’t take it out on others, as long as no one else is affected, I say, acknowledge the crab, and let it out. Let it play for awhile.

I know how to be me and how to be human. When I am having a bad day, I go with it. I cry, I take a nap if my emotions get the best of me, I get annoyed or angry, and then I refocus my energy. I let the bad happen, so later I can move on and enjoy the good that life has in store- when the batteries work, when the dog sleeps, when pictures stay on the walls, and when technology works. As bad as I feel now, I know that it’s temporary. And that’s okay.