Saving Lives, One Story At A Time
For years I sketched the skeletons of my ancestors while constructing our family tree, but grew increasingly dissatisfied with the results. Sure, I found many facts about them from census reports, ship passenger manifests, and marriage records, but how did they meet? What did they think, what did they feel, what did they dream? Why did they leave their homelands, where were their homelands, and what were their struggles in this strange new country? These questions and so many more, lost to assumption and imagination. I wanted to know their stories, because the stories would flesh them out and make them more human, more alive, but it wasn’t possible. They left behind no diaries, and scant letters to family and friends.
But all was not lost. I turned to my last remaining grandparent and began asking questions, and writing it all down. I did not want our family to lose what she lived through and what she knew, because it’s from these stories that we begin to recognize pieces of ourselves, and learn from where we came. They are also nurturing, as it has been found that children who grow up with a strong family narrative, who know the most about their family history, have a higher self-esteem and sense of control over their lives. Learning how ancestors succeeded against the odds, or failed but kept going, teaches both perseverance and resiliency. And though it may seem that we don’t have the time for storytelling, living in this technocentric world does not have to suppress the voices of our ancestors. If cell phones are to make it into the dining room, why not put them to good use? Plop them in the center of the table and use the recording app to capture your memories and family history, because recalling and sharing these gems binds us to our past, and to our children and future generations.
I am grateful that I do know how my maternal grandparents met, as this is how my grandmother related the beginning of a relationship which became a sixty-three year marriage. “We were living in the Whitman house when I got married. This gal, Lillian, ended up introducing me to Lloyd. She took me and said, ‘Mildred, there’s somebody I want you to meet.’ I was fifteen, maybe sixteen. We knew Lloyd and his farm buddies were in town drinking so she took me to meet him. Well, he was shot to the gills! So I said, ‘Lillian, for Heaven’s sake. Forget him!’ But the next night, there he was by my gate. He had to come back and see me, and he said, ‘So you’re Mildred.’ Evidently, Lillian had been telling him about me. We went out and parked and gabbed away, and then he took me back home. And he never touched me. That’s what impressed me - that impressed me a lot.”
My grandparents were wed a year later, she seventeen and he twenty-seven. The age difference was never a factor, and my grandmother often said that at times it seemed their ages were reversed. The day after the wedding, with my grandfather’s mother in the back seat, they started driving west from North Dakota towards a new life in a golden state, and therein is half the story of how I came to be born in California.
There are many ways to preserve your family history, and in my next column I will share some of them. But I encourage you to start today. You’ll discover how fun it is, and your descendents will be forever grateful.
To Mom, With Love
I was four years old, sitting at the round dining room table with my mother playing Old Maid, when the phone rang in the kitchen. Mom went to answer and when she returned her face radiated that smile.
“You get to start kindergarten tomorrow!”
The smile should have been enough to reassure me that was a good thing, but the flash of uncertainty I felt must have shown on my face. I remembered not wanting to give up this time I had with her, just me and her alone for an hour or two while Dad was at work, big brother was at school, and little sister napped. She reminded me I was ready - I could write my name and knew my numbers and the alphabet - and the next day we walked the few blocks to school together. In recent years, she would tell me, "I held your hand while we walked to school, but as soon as we got to the kindergarten yard and you saw all the other kids, you dropped my hand and ran inside without looking back."
This was in the mid-sixties, in our North Hollywood years. Little square houses lined up neatly on both sides of our long block, every front yard with nicely manicured lawns and big trees, no fences or walls preventing our play from drifting onto our neighbor’s property. On late summer evenings, Dad would whistle when it was time for us go inside, but even then we’d continue our boisterous ways. But I remember one thing always stopped me short, no matter what I was doing. Our daytime mother transformed into an evening creature of glamour, capri pants exchanged for a dazzling cocktail dress, flats for spiked heels, hair teased high, and a drift of perfume intoxicating us all to silence. How could this be the same person who an hour before was so disagreeable about me eating my peas? I think she knew she had us in the palm of her hand on those nights, as she bent to kiss our cheeks and told us to mind the sitter, and left with our dad out the front door with a laugh.
That laugh. My siblings and I would be in the living room watching television, our parents’ voices drifting to us from the kitchen while Mom made dinner, when her laughter would carry to us and I couldn’t help it. I always had to know what she was laughing about, so I’d jump up and run into the kitchen with a ‘what’s so funny?’ Almost always her answer was the same, perhaps her way of getting a little bit even with her children for our use of the word. She’d sing out, ‘Noth-iiiinnnnggggg,’ again with that smile, and she and dad would laugh again.
I am a personal historian. My goal in writing this column is to inspire you all to share and record the stories of your family. I’ve written about gathering stories from your grandparents, and about your great-grandparents, but today I encourage you to focus on your parents. For the last two years, between other jobs, I have been working with my dad on a book about his life. That project is now in its final stages, and when it was finished, Mom’s was next. But that will now be a book pieced together from family and friends of what we already know, as she was suddenly, senselessly, unfathomably, taken from us much too soon. There is not always time...
Now, only weeks into learning how to continue in this world without her, I wonder at the courage of my four year old self on that first day of kindergarten. I wonder because the only thing I’m certain of now, 51 years later, is that I am not in any way ready to let go of her hand.
Sometimes it’s lonely being the family genealogist. I’m not talking about the hours spent pouring over census reports, city directories, birth and death records, or land plats. I want those hours to be lonely because it’s much easier to stay on the trail of the deceased when not being interrupted by the living. But when I finally track down an ever elusive fact, lift my head and arms in the air with a shout of ‘EUREKA!’ and share the victory with the breathing souls around me, the news met with ‘how long will she talk about this’ stares - Oh, the loneliness!
Case in point. The Norwegians. My maternal grandfather was the product of a mixed marriage as his father was Czech and his mother was Norwegian. This union was met with frowns, shaking heads, and raised eyebrows in 1901 North Dakota, but that sentiment diminished over the years. As my grandfather would say with a chuckle, ‘The Norwegians and Swedes were OK, but stay away from the Finns!’
Back to my detective work. For over three years I had been trying to find a marriage record for my mother’s Norwegian great-grandfather, Ole Simensen Huseby. We knew he came to America in 1882 with his wife, two year old daughter (my mother’s grandmother), and two older sons, but his wife died shortly upon arrival. These were the facts from my grandmother and from the obituary of the oldest son. Ole at some point before 1900 was remarried to Bertha Eriksen. This is the marriage record I wanted to find, and it really gnawed on me that nothing could be found. It also bugged me that on census reports Ole and Bertha were listed as having been married since 1864, which was when Ole would have married his first wife, and that Bertha claimed to be the mother of all the children. This, of course, could have been from misunderstanding from the census taker, or from a little fibbing from distrustful immigrants. I began to entertain the thought that perhaps Ole and Bertha had never married, as I had done searches according to Ole’s Norwegian name Simensen, knowing that Huseby was the name the family took from the farm in Norway where they originated. Still, no marriage with a Bertha Eriksen. Then it hit me. The name Eriksen had most likely been ‘Americanized’ - in Norway she would have been Eriksdatter. Erik’s daughter! And she could have been still using that name after arriving. I plugged in the names Simensen and Eriksdatter and BAM! There it was. EUREKA! A marriage entry in a Lutheran Church record for them dated July 20, 1886!
First, I shared the news with my husband, who listened patiently with that stare I spoke of earlier. But never mind his lack of excitement, I had to let my mother know I finally found the proof about her great-grandparents! I sent her an email detailing the find with a photo of the document for her to see, telling her how happy I was to have placed this piece in the puzzle. Perhaps I went on about it too much. Her reply, ‘Should I be worried about you?’ Mine to her, ‘YES! I am obsessed!’
And so, the loneliness, but I know some of you out there understand.
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Grampa Mike Goes West
It all began with the Italian.
With an explorer’s zeal, and wondering where the 2002 World Wide Web would lead me, I began researching our family tree with my dad’s grandfather, Michele Lombardi, my first target. I chose ‘Grampa Mike’ because I knew he came from Italy and that, at the time, seemed more exotic than delving into my North Dakota roots.
My family is fortunate that in 1969 Grampa Mike wrote what he called a ‘Rambling Episode Of My Life’. From this I was able to gather a few clues before plugging names into ancestry.com. He named the town where he was born in April of 1884, Pagliarone in the ‘Abruzzi e Molise’ region, and he named his parents, Caramuele Lombardi and Lucia Carmosina. He wrote, “My father migrated to America just a few weeks before I was born. I understand that I was born while he was crossing the ocean. I migrated to America with my mother when I was nine years old, in 1893. At that time the closest railroad to the town where I was born was twelve miles away, in Isernia. There were some fifteen people that formed the group (partenza) that left, and as I remember I was the only child. There being no other mode of transportation to Isernia, the belongings were loaded on donkeys and the people walked all the way to the station. Being the only child I was allowed to ride on one of the donkeys. We went by train from Isernia to Naples and from there embarked on a ship which took twenty-eight days to reach New York.”
What an adventure for a nine year old! He writes more about those days, but that will have to wait for another time. Armed with names and places, I set out to find Grampa Mike. Some information came readily - federal census reports from the 1910-1940 years and two draft cards - fun and interesting to see, but I wanted something more. I wanted to find the ship’s passenger list from when he and his mother first arrived! They arrived in 1893, one year after Ellis Island opened, so I was certain there had to be a record. I spent hours, days, and weeks scouring ship manifests from 1893 - all that tight, flowery handwriting making my eyes burn. All those Lombardis on so many ships - were there any left in Italy? But I couldn’t find Grampa Mike and his mother, Lucia.
Then I happened upon a clue. I read somewhere that when women and children emigrated from Italy to America, they were recorded under the woman’s maiden name. Lucia was a Carmosina in Italy, she would be a Carmosina on the voyage! I plugged in their names using Carmosina, and voila! There they were! Lucia and son Michele, traveling with ten others from the town of Vastogirardi, which was the closest large town about four mountainous miles away from Pagliarone where Grampa Mike was born.
This was the beginning of my love affair with constructing our family tree, and searching for the stories that made my ancestors who they were.
In the last fourteen years, conducting online research has become both easier and more fruitful. It is truly amazing what you can find while sitting in your own home. Websites such as ancestry.com (subscription after free 14 day trial), familysearch.org (free), and findagrave.com (free), all offer a wealth of information just waiting to be discovered. So I encourage everyone to let your fingers do the walking through time. You will not only find your ancestors, you will find great portions of yourself!
Hot Dogs and Movie Stars
“I always wanted to chronicle the family history with my mother. She was always interested in that. I wanted some researchers I’d worked with to talk to her, but my mother was a little antsy about it. I know she would’ve gotten into it. But I wasn’t forceful, and I didn’t make it happen. That is one regret I have. I didn’t get as much of the family history as I could have for the kids.” Robert DeNiro
I understand Mr. DeNiro’s regret, as I, too, failed to get my mother’s story in her own words. But that doesn’t mean a book about her life won’t be written. She left precious memories with everyone she ever touched, and these discovered treasures have been a source of comfort during the last year. Among the stories my mom’s friend, Betty, has shared, are these.
“Bev became my best friend in the 5th and 6th grade. She lived a few blocks from MGM Studios and we used to sit on her lawn watching the cars go by to see anyone famous. We went crazy one day when Clark Gable drove by in his Jaguar convertible with the top down. Some days we wrote letters to the studios asking for photographs of our favorite stars.
“On some Saturdays we went to the theater to watch a double-feature and when finished, we would head over to where my mother worked and she would give us money for a hamburger and a cherry or chocolate coke. My mother worked at a cleaner in a shopping center near Bev's house, and one time the owner took Bev and I to downtown Los Angeles to a costume warehouse, where we picked out majorette outfits to wear to distribute flyers for the cleaner specials. We were excited being able to see all the costumes, making our choices, and having a weekend job in our hot clothes.
“The end of 6th grade I moved to San Francisco. When we were a tad older we would spend a week or two together during summer vacation. During San Francisco summers, we went everywhere on the street-car for the sights. When Bev got a car in high school, it was finally to the beach, in a car!”
As fortune would have it, my mom wasn’t without a best friend in her daily life for long, as at the beginning of the new school year, Sharon came into her life.
“I met Beverly in 7th grade. I was new to the school, and I walked into the restroom and there was this beautiful platinum-haired girl, and we started talking. I asked her name and she said, ‘Beverly Ruzicka.’ I said, ‘Are you Mexican?’ and she just rolled over laughing! That was the beginning.
“One of our favorite things to do was roll a hot dog up in a Wonder Bread roll and sit at the table in her mother’s kitchen and look out at Culver City. The table was at the window in the kitchen and we’d sit there and watch people go by. Beverly loved Frank Sinatra and Robert Wagner. Robert Wagner was plastered all over her bedroom wall! We used to love it when the carnival came to Culver City. It made us feel wild! We could go there alone, even at night, and walk around.
“In the summertime we did everything. We took the bus to Venice and went to the beach all the time. There was a time when we were at a swim party at a friend’s house, and we started giggling while we were in the pool, and down we went! We didn’t know how to swim and they had to drag us out because we were laughing so hard. We were just laughing all the time.”
These are but a few of the stories that color in the details of my mother’s early history. So I would encourage Mr. DeNiro the same way I would each of you. Reach out to family and friends for what they held dear with your loved one who is no longer with you. You will reap a lifetime of riches.
“Every day is Father’s Day.”
So my mother would say with a wry grin. At the time I didn’t recognize a ‘wry grin’ so the comment perplexed my young mind, because it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t every day my siblings and I gave Dad handmade cards with clever poems; it wasn’t every day he opened thin boxes with a new tie hidden in a cloud of tissue paper.
Through the 60’s we lived in North Hollywood, and as was typical of those days, our father was not as intertwined in our daily lives as much as our mother. Dad was in the restaurant business, which meant long days and nights at work, but still he made time for us. As often as he could he’d make it home for dinner, his children greeting him at the door like a pack of excited puppies. Before dinner he’d subject himself to being our beast of burden, giving us ‘horsey-back’ rides or carting us around on his shoulders. After dinner I’d take advantage of a few moments to sit on his lap and slowly twirl the hair on his chest with my finger while asking for a special favor. He never let on that I was causing him discomfort - instead he took my hand in his and splayed out my fingers, telling me that one day I’d be a piano player because my fingers were so long. Alas, that was not to be, as my hands must have stopped growing shortly after his prediction.
We were fortunate that my father’s restaurant catered to the business crowd for lunch and dinner, as that meant it was closed on the weekends. On the weekends he belonged to us, and he took full advantage of the time. He taught us how to pitch and catch a baseball, ride bicycles, and perfectly stack briquettes in the bar-b-que. He coached my brother’s little league team and refereed squabbles with neighborhood kids. My first dance lessons were standing on his slippered feet, my head craned all the way back to look up into his face, while Andy Williams crooned ‘Moon River’ on the hi-fi. He’d make apple pancakes for breakfast, and we’d stand at his elbow waiting to be offered a slice of the tart fruit. The taste of that was only rivaled by his other morning specialty - pigs-in-a-blanket. Delicious crepes wrapped around little sausages and covered in syrup. I never understood how my mom could sleep all the way through those meals.
Every few months we’d take a trip to a place we called ‘The Ranch.’ It was in the High Desert, a 2 hour drive away in the small community of Juniper Hills in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Ranch was a vacation property owned by my grandparents, and consisted of a brick two-bedroom house, a detached garage with workshop, and 40 wonderful, wild acres all to ourselves. Dad taught us how to make forts, shoot b-b guns, and ride a motor scooter. We hiked gullies, learned to watch out for snakes, and kept quiet while the quail came in to drink at the little pond. There was a mile-high flag pole in the side yard and we learned how to raise and lower the flag, how to keep it from touching the ground, and how to fold it.
My favorite memory of those days at The Ranch was bedtime. My brother, sister and I shared the big room at the back of the house, which had two twin beds against one wall that my sister and I slept in, a sleeper-sofa that my brother used, and in the corner by the door, a fireplace. Each night in the colder months Dad made a fire before we climbed into bed, and as we settled down he’d push the reclining chair from the living room into our room. There in front of the fire he’d sit, staring quietly into the flames, until we fell asleep. I will never forget hearing coyotes howl in the distance, opening and closing heavy eye-lids to his silhouette against that orange glow, and feeling completely, abundantly, safe.
Being somewhat wiser now, I understand my mother’s wry-smiled comment, but for different reasons I agree with her. Every dad is Father’s Day. Every day is filled with thoughts of him, talks with him, and laughs with him. He is still our teacher, our counselor, our friend. He is our hero and our prize. He is ours, and we, forever, are his.