A dramatic search for family history

Genie Milgrom on the street of her ancestral village in Spain. Genie Milgrom photo

Genie Milgrom had come too far from her birth in Cuba and in her spiritual journey from a devout Catholic in Miami, Florida, to being Orthodox Jewish woman. She would not be turned back from the truth now that she was in the ancestral village of her ancestors going back at least 15 generations.

Genie asked every person she met in Fermoselle, Spain, to show her where the Jewish people had lived in the village. “We have never had Jews here,” one after another told her.

Genie, whose first language was Spanish, kept going on and on until finally a man asked, “What was your family called?”

She thought and suddenly an image popped into her head of a family document on which an ancestor had written these words in Spanish, “The family was called  Bollicos.”


As if she had said the magic word, Jewish places in the village were suddenly opened to her.

In less than five days, I learned of three different spiritual journeys taken to find the truth about long-standing family histories. The first was Genie, whose talk was absolutely jaw dropping to me.  I had never given any thought to the Inquisition and what it did to Jews from that region.

Another journey was on the PBS program, Finding Your Roots, with Harry Louis Gates Jr. During last Friday’s program, three prominent African-Americans explored their ancestors’ slavery roots  – actor Samuel L. Jackson, Brown University President Ruth Simmons and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The third was also another former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose new book Prague Winter, tells the story of  how she did not learn until she was 59 that her family heritage had been Jewish and that 20 of her relatives had died in the Holocaust.

Why is it so important for us to know our family truths so many years later? It was 500 years later in the case of Genie, who I’ve spoken with on the phone and emailed since her talk a week ago.

So far, she’s been twice to Fermoselle, which is on the border with Portugal. She’s developed relationships with researchers that are working on the hidden history of Jews in that part of Spain. Her book, My Fifteen Grandmothers, is due out in about two months. This summer to make a presentation there about the Jewish history of the village.

On her second trip, a man who had been mayor 40 years earlier, opened up to her as did the other man when she uttered the word, “Bollicos.” He took her to where a great-uncle had lived in Fermoselle.

What struck her then was seeing a hidden place where her family had once prayed secretly. They knew that during the Inquisition any observance other than Catholic was answered with torture and death. Even those who converted remained at risk for the rest of their lives, a reason so many left Spain for the New World. And sadly, the Inquisitors traveled on to the Americas as well, continuing the trials of suspected non believers.

No one in Genie’s family talked about their Jewish roots and it is possible that some did not know they had them, but Genie always felt drawn to the Jewish faith. First there was the little girl at day camp who always brought her own food. Then in college she met a nun who sensed Genie’s inquisitiveness about the Jewish faith. Eventually, Genie converted to Judaism and remains devout.

Shortly after that conversion, her beloved grandmother died  on a Friday. Genie assumed she would be buried on Monday, but that is when Genie received another hint about her family’s Jewish origins. Her mother told Genie that her family’s tradition – a Jewish one in fact – was to bury relatives quickly. Her grandmother was to be buried the next day – a Saturday. Genie could not attend because as an observant Jew she could not drive or ride in a car on the Sabbath.

A grieving Genie assumed her family would never speak to her again, that she had lost all of them. But the day after the funeral, they all came to see her bring a box her grandmother said she be given to Genie after her death.

One of the earrings given to Genie by her grandmother. Genie Milgrom photo

“Inside, was an antique Hamsa [an amulet shaped like a hand that is used to protect from evil] and small gold earrings with a tiny Star of David in the Center,” Genie said. “Nothing else. No note, no commentary, just these two objects. I was overwhelmed at the significance.”

Suddenly she remembered decidedly Jewish traditions, including the shawl that was placed over their shoulders during her first marriage – a Catholic ceremony. It was so reminiscent of  placing a tallit (prayer shawl) over the shoulders of the couple in a Jewish wedding.

When her grandmother baked for the holidays, she always broke each egg into a glass first to check for blood – a Jewish tradition. If blood was found, that egg cannot be used. And everyone in her family always sweeps to the center of the room, again a Jewish tradition.

Most of all, Genie remembered after how worried her grandmother was about her converting to Judaism, saying it was dangerous. “I always thought she meant it was dangerous for my soul but realized only years later that she meant it was dangerous to be Jewish.”

The hand-shaped hamsa, the traditional amulet to ward off evil. It also was given to Genie by her grandmother. Genie Milgrom photo

Because of her research going back 15 generations in her family, Genie is contacted many times daily by people eager to learn more about their ancestors who were Sephardic Jews, meaning they lived in Spain and Portugal before being expelled from those countries.

“I am now in the process of documenting the Jewish History of Fermoselle, which has not been done to date. I want to set the record straight,” Genie said. “I want to be the voice that my ancestors never had. Most of all, I just want others to know that this search is possible. Given the resources available in Spain and Portugal today, it can be done.”

Genie Milgrom and me after her talk in La Crosse. Karen Sherman photo.

Genie was inspiration for me: I’m about to work with a Hungarian genealogist who is going to search for some records of my grandparents. I don’t think we’ll get to the 15th century.

I Wish I Knew More about Mommy and Daddy

The greatest honor or respect we can give to anyone—especially our parents—is listening to their stories. In my mind, the moon and stars must be in alignment if parents want to talk about their personal/family history at the same time their children want to listen.

It doesn’t happen often enough.

Dad and me during my ‘eye rolling’ teenage years. He still loved me.

When we are little, we pose childlike questions of our parents—like my asking Mom if she went to school in a stagecoach. (She didn’t.) Once we become teenagers or older, we might grow impatient with their stories, only half listening as we roll our eyes. (OK, me.) But then we hit middle age or beyond and discover how much we want to know. (Yepme again.)

With the exception of certain technology made by Apple, I don’t get jealous about things. I’m happy for others who love diamonds or have a bigger house or a better car (except perhaps in miles per gallon) than me. But what do tug at my heart are the questions that I never asked my parents about their lives, about their parents and grandparents. I have what I call, “I wish I knew” syndrome.

I wish I knew if this is a photo of my mom with me or with my brother. I have no one to ask.

I can no longer ask my parents these questions. Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate as a personal historian about collecting and writing the family and personal stories for other people.

If your parents or grandparents are still around, you don’t have to become part of the “I wish I knew” group. The only issue is in finding that great harmony of asking questions at the time when they want to talk.

You might discover that your parents no longer want to share their earlier lives. They may have suffered losses or decided their stories were not important because they did not cure cancer or bring about world peace. Few of us have had that great mark on the entire world, but each of our stories still has value. By learning about our parents and what they went through, we actually learn about ourselves. Their resilience through tough times gives us resilience when we have difficulties.

Where do you begin? Naturally as a personal historian, I suggest you find a member of theAssociation of Personal Historians to help you. We are trained and experienced in the art of pulling out stories from even the most reluctant subjects. We know how to place the photos of a lifetime into a book or video that becomes the most personal and treasured gift of all for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day—or any day.

You don’t have to suffer from the “I wish I knew” syndrome. You can start asking questions and learning more about your parents’ lives. How do you begin? I’ve found certain topics easily bring out stories:

  • What got you into trouble as a kid at school and/or at home? And, what happened at home if you were in trouble at school? (This usually gets them laughing.)
  • Tell me about the first car you ever owned. How did you get it and how did you use it? (Usually, this brings out pride, especially in men, but also in women.)
  • What were the big news events that occurred in your lifetime? How did you learn about them and what impact did they have on your life? (Whatever they were–Pearl Harbor, the Great Depression, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landing, 9/11, the Beatles, etc., they will have stories about how they were affected.)
  • Who was the first love of your life? How did the relationship begin and end? (This could be tricky if it ended badly or if the person is not the same as your parent’s spouse. But it also can be a great way to reminisce about early life.)

Once your mother or father is comfortable talking about these topics, you can move on to more serious issues like losses in life, challenges at work and home, spiritual questions, and challenges of aging.

The important point is you must begin. Now. Don’t wait. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are coming up and these are a perfect time to start a discussion.

Mom and me on a family vacation when I was about 10. Note how dressed up we were. That's a vacation?

Note: this post was written for the Association of Personal Historians blog at http://www.personalhistorians.org/blog/?p=1683.

Angst, I am a grown up

What me awkward? Here I am on the last day of school in sixth grade signing an autograph book with something clever like. “I outa laugh, I outa cry, I outa sign your autograph book.” Or, “2 young 2 go for boys.”

I walked by an elementary school on my way to ice tea and oatmeal a couple of days ago. As I always do, I said good morning to everyone I saw, including a fifth grader at her safety patrol post.

Her eye rolls were more audible than her verbal response. And I heard a giggle after I passed.

She was, after all, with a friend. It wouldn’t look too cool to be too friendly with the GROWN UP who carried a pack with a water bottle. How very uncool.

Hah! You can laugh at me, young one, but I am a grown up unaffected by audio eye rolls from someone I don’t know. Oh, I’ve received my share of eye rolls from those I love and I’ve given my share, although I don’t know if they had been invented when I was little.  Who holds the patent on that classic sign of disdain?

Self consciousness is an interesting thing. When do we out grow it?

I have had two experiences as an adult related to my appearance that I laughed off initially but did leave me a tad less confident than before I had them.

The first was when I was picking out new glasses many years ago. The optician asked me if I wanted to do something about my “bug-eye problem.”

My bug-eye problem? I didn’t know I had one.

It turns out my prescription magnifies my eyes and there was a new and of course more expensive lens material to correct it. Like Pavlov’s dog, I responded to the ring of that cash register.

The other incident was an interview with a dermatologist about Botox around the time it was just gaining use for skin imperfections. He turned to me and said, “Want a free trial for your deep wrinkles? I’ll show you how it works.”

My deep wrinkles? I had no idea I had them. I apparently needed a new prescription of  bug-eye preventing lenses to see the wrinkles. I declined the good doctor’s offer, thinking what a jerk he was to do that.

And I never went back to that optical store.

I actually picked out new glasses Thursday with the help of a friend. The optician noted I had poly carbonate lenses and asked if I wanted them again. Of course. I didn’t want my bug eyes known again to the world.

You would think the first thing I would do after picking up the new classes was to check into my deep wrinkles, but I forgot.

As far as the safety patrol eye rolling, I probably was just imagining it. You never get too old to think people are looking at you, criticizing everything about you. Although, I know they are not. They are too busy worrying I am critiquing everything about them.

The girl with the real or imagined eye rolling has many more years ahead of real or imagined angst. And if her principal reads this, she was fine. She was just being a kid and I was just being a human of the neurotic grown up species.

What’s in a name, Part 2

Because I like you, world, I will continue the topic of what in the world should I call this woman? I.e. me.

I had two other name obsessions when I was a little girl.

1. I wanted a nickname for Susan. So even before the era of the Internet, I came up with a list of nicknames for Susan. Gasp, I had such an ability, which of course was pretty impressive to do that research.

Of course, now my fingers do the walking on the web. Here’s what I found today thanks to the miracle of copy and paste, not to mention Wikipedia. Nicknames for Susan include: Sue, Sue, Suie, Sukie, Sanna (or perhaps in my case inSanna), Suzi, Suzy, Subo, Suzie, Suz.

And let me add from Wikipedia, Susan is a form of Susanna,  derives from the Middle Egyptian word for lotus flower. Ah, shucks.

And the Hebrew word for lily and means “to be joyful, bright, or cheerful.” I think that applies to me except when I’m talking about politics, which I’m trying not to do so much so I can remain the definition of Susan (or Sue).

2. Yes, there is another name obsession. When I was little I frequently asked my mom what I would have been named had I been a boy. You may remember the S in Susan was after a great grandmother named Sarah (see previous post if you want to know what the S I’m talking about.)

Mom used to tell me that I would have been named Steven or Stuart. I must have asked one time too many because one day she told me I would have been named Saskatchewan.  Imagine Saskatchewan T. Hessel as my byline.

So in summary, you can call me Sue, but you don’t have to call me Susan or Saskatchewan.

Sue or Susan? What’s in a name?

I posed this on Facebook on Thursday: “World, please call me Sue.”

The response went like this:

  • Bob: Whatever you say Susan.
  • Bob: We could go by your middle name and call you Ms.”T” but you would have to buy a big gold chain to wear around your neck.
  • Marc: Good night, Ms. Hessel.
  • Anita: reminds me of the Johnny Cash song…
  • Maggie: Shessel?
  • Bob: Maggie that would be pronounced Sthessel. :)
  • Nancy: Hmm… A Girl Named Sue. That could keep me busy all summer. Could.
  • Jean: Not Charlie?

Why did I write that post on Facebook? I have always had this thing, well many things, about my name:

  1. I like Susan in print, or to be more accurate, Susan T. Hessel in print. I never want a byline to have Sue Hessel or even far, far worse, Sue T. Hessel. Never Sue T. Hessel (although I suspect there will be a bunch of Sue T after I finish this post).
  2. I like to be called Sue when people are talking to me. I don’t want kids to call me Ms. Hessel or Mrs. Hessel, Mrs. Mial (my husband’s last name) or Mrs. Hessel-Mial. I was born Hessel and never changed it.
  3. I love my ‘T.’ That’s why I use it in my byline. Why? I want people to ask me what the T stands for. Maybe a total of two people have asked the next question of what does the T stand for.
  4. The answer to the T question is Toby. When I was little I was afraid people would know it because of the circus character called Toby Tyler. Now I love Toby because there is a quirkiness to it that fits me. The best answer of the guessers was Susan THE Hessel. Most people guess Theresa, not exactly a Jewish name even without the saint.

And that takes me to the real point of this blog post: What’s in a name?In the Jewish tradition, you name a child after someone who has died. I had a great grandmother or perhaps a great-great grandmother named Sarah. I had a great grandmother, or perhaps a great-great grandmother named Toby. My first cousin, Joan, and I were given the middle name of Toby. Sadly, Joan Toby died in about 1998. And

So my kids. When our son Matt was born, we liked the name Matthew. My mom asked if he was named after her brother, Maury. Of course he was, I said. She was thrilled. You can just borrow the first letter of the person’s name who has died and get full credit.

Maggie was named after my father, Milton. And her middle name, Ruth, was Dick’s mother’s name. She was not Jewish so it was not a problem that Ruth was still living then.

Our son Michael had to grow up with a great sense of humor because we gave him the longest name possible. He was named for Matt, who had died a year earlier of leukemia, plus three other boys we knew who had died of cancer: another Michael, Phillip and Karl. Add in we gave our kids the combined last name of Hessel-Mial, and you can see how difficult his name is for him.

The midwife who delivered two of my kids thought what was important was that the name look good on a law school diploma on the wall. My kids did not become lawyers: Maggie has a master’s degree in journalism and Michael is working on his Ph.D.

(Every Jewish mother wants a son for a doctor, although Michael, who is studying comparative literature, will be able to fix my semi-colons, but not my colon.  That would be a bad joke. Did I mention that he had to grow up with a good sense of humor. So did Maggie, although the good sense of humor they apparently did not get from me.)

When Maggie was getting married, she did not want me to put the T in my name in the invitation because she said our names were long enough without adding my T. I took care of that when I created her wedding book, but Photoshopping in a T between Susan and Hessel. I am a cruel woman.

Would a Sue by any other name smell as sweet?
(I left out the rest of the invitation to protect the innocent.)

Now it could be argued that Facebook is a kind of writing, and thus would warrant a Susan instead of a Sue as in speaking to me in person. But to all my best friends in the world on Facebook, all 500+ of you, please call me Sue.

Communications: BF (Before Facebook) and AF (After Facebook)

This man, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is about to be worth billions and billions and billions and billions of dollars when Facebook goes public later this year. I hope he uses the money well to help others.

A message today from  Facebook:

It’s our birthday and we want to thank you for an amazing eight years. You cntinue to inspire us to provide a service that makes it easy for you to connect with the people and things you care about most.

Happy Birthday, Facebook! It’s only been eight years? It’s starting to feel hard to remember life Before Facebook (BF), or at least before instant communications – even in my own lifetime.

My major at Michigan State University before I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison was Communications – how we communicate and how the media in all its forms affected us. There certainly were fewer forms of communication in the early 1970s but already we were shaped by them.

It was fascinating stuff, but as I was getting perilously close to graduating without any idea of what I would do with a degree in Communications, I did the only thing I could think of – I dropped out.

After working in various temporary secretarial positions for six months, I was ready to go back for my degree. That was when my father suggested I find a practical application for my communications studies. It being the Watergate era, I said journalism. That’s when I transferred to UW-Madison and found this really was a great field for me.

Incidentally, I almost transferred to the University of Missouri, which also had one of the best journalism schools in the country, until I went to Columbia to find a place to live. Not only did the town seem drab to me,  I was told I had to turn the telephone dial slowly or the phone would not work. I just couldn’t do it.

I was always an instantaneous communications kind of gal even then.

So it was out-of-state tuition at the UW-Madison, which my parents agreed to pay. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

My track was newspapers – all other media seemed too shallow to me then. Newspapers were for those of us who wanted to dig deep into things, to investigate wrongdoing and save the world.

In one journalism class, we were designing  a mock front page based on actual news stories when we heard the Associated Press alarm announcing something very big had happened. It was that the kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst announced she would stay with her kidnappers. As journalism students, we had to remake that front page. It was thrilling.

I could not imagine doing anything else but write for a newspaper, although I wanted to be a columnist (kind of like a blogger today). After working for the student newspaper The Daily Cardinal and after a summer internship at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison in 1974, I didn’t even wait to finish my last semester in college. I was driven to work for a newspaper NOW!

I did at the La Crosse Tribune, starting in the middle of that last semester and staying there for ten years. I finished my degree – I just needed three classes while working full time. (My papers were lame, I admit it.)

Complications in life led to my becoming a freelance writer and a personal historian. But had I not had those complications, I suspect I would have stayed a reporter, although my husband and I likely would have moved on to a bigger city paper.

I most missed the immediacy of newspaper deadlines. I loved having to churn out copy with speed and intensity of those old newspaper movies like “His Girl Friday” and “The Front Page.” In one of them, the hard-bitten, fedora-wearing reporter demands, “Cigarette me!” as he pounded away on his typewriter on deadline.

I never smoked or drank coffee, so I could not have that exact experience, but I imagined shouting, “Diet Dr Pepper me!”  as I pounded the typewriter keys. Within months of starting at the La Crosse Tribune, we had computers – never enough for everyone – instead of typewriters. They were exciting but also took away some of the romance of the old Remingtons.

Today when I travel, I carry a technology case that holds my laptop and iPad – and sometimes a scanner as well. In my purse are my Blackberry (soon to be an iPhone) and my iPod Touch. I not only read and write email and check and post on Facebook on all of these devices, I can read books and listen to podcasts of my favorite NPR programs on them.

I have two blogs – this one which is for my personal history business, Lessons From Life, and another which has turned into my political blog (after having started as my reflections on the breast cancer I had in 2009 and hope never returns).

I have an instant publication of whatever I want to say – and sometimes shouldn’t – via Facebook. More people would  read what I wrote as a reporter, but people across the country and even the world can sometimes find what I say and share it via Facebook and my blogs.

The Internet and specifically Facebook – much criticized by some and yet much admired by me – are powerful forms of instantaneous communication  never imagined back when I was a student.

Its power was shown in the flurry of exchanges this week over the decision  by  Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and Planned Parenthood. When word came that Komen was changing its future funding – suspiciously because of pressure from the right – a firestorm began on Facebook and other places. In a day more than a $1 million was raised for Planned Parenthood and Komen lost support from many of its once ardent and now angry donors.

The next day Komen appeared to backtrack but its ambiguous apology did not satisfy anyone. Instantly, there was criticism posted on Facebook that continued the firestorm. I’m not arguing here for either side on this post, although I have elsewhere.

I’m using Komen as an example of the kind of immediate response possible only in the After Facebook – AF – World. Stories, blog posts, Tweets and much more filled Facebook, linking people who did not know each other in conversations about Komen and Planned Parenthood.

Of course, journeys on the Information Super Highway can also be journeys on the Misinformation Super Highway. Headlines can be skimmed and stories shared without really taking the time to understand what is being said.

Sadly, newspapers have declined in size, circulation and in number. But if you look at Facebook, many of the “shares” are newspaper articles. What is written in them still has credibility – or at least I hope so.

As media critic Marshall McLuhan most famously said, “The medium is the message.”

McLuhan, who died in 1980, invented the term “global village” and was said to predict we would one day be connected worldwide by  technology.

He elaborated on that comment about the medium is the message with:  “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

We can be manipulated and changed by media, including Facebook, in ways we simply cannot fully understand. As McLuhan also said:

“The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf.”

Who is afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? I think we will find out via that birthday baby, Facebook.

Steak n Shake n Vino

Steak n Shake, I wish you well in New York City with your new  highfalutin Steak n Shake Signature store.

I hear that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I live anywhere, a place where there are a bunch of people who would harden our arteries with you, I mean for you.

Yes, there are people here in Western Wisconsin who grew up on Steak n Shake and are willing to travel for hours in a car just to get a steakburger with lots and lots and lots of pickles and mustard, not to mention your fries and Tru-Flavor Shakes.

But we would prefer to travel less and TAKHOMASAK on a more regular basis than when we travel to visit our kids in Kansas City or Atlanta. We come by this honestly.

So here it is, my personal history of the Steak n Shake.

When we were little Steak n Shake on Olive Street Road was a drive-in with carhops  who came to our car in their spanking white uniforms with black trim. They took our orders on a pad with carbon paper between pages. They served our food on a tray attached to Mom’s window. About ten years ago, I bought my brother one of those trays on eBay. He told me that I was the only one who ever gave him one. I know he cherishes it to this day.

This is what Steak n Shake looked like when I was a kid.

My personal history with S N S includes the summer after my first year of college. I went with friends to Steak n Shake every day in St. Louis, so often that the manager gave me an In Sight It Must Be Right framed photo that still hangs in my kitchen.

When I first brought Dick home to meet my parents in 1975,  we were all eager to see his reaction to Steak n Shake. None of us ever forgot or forgave his response: “It’s a serviceable burger.” And I still married him?When he reads this, he will say what he has said for nearly 40 years now, “The bun was hard.”

He’s learned. He understands and is a true believer in the cult of Steak n Shake.

When we drive to St. Louis, we always plan to stop for lunch at Steak n Shake in Bloomington, Illinois. It used to be in Davenport, but we found a faster route. Eating at Steak n Shake “gets us in the mood for St. Louis.”

My order always is a “single Steakburger with lots and lots and lots and lots of pickles and mustard.” The long-cut pickles are better than any I’ve ever had.

Long after we were grown Mom and her friends used to go to Steak n Shake on Saturdays for what they called “Club Steak.”

Check out this post from our son Michael on Facebook the other night:

He continued with, “possible seasonings – definitely cumin and chili powder, perhaps mustard powder, and possibly a tomato, but this is unclear. and of course ground beef! this happy accident came from making refried beans. you can thank me later :)'”

A cousin of my cousin who was tagged in the Facebook post along with other family members wrote, “I love that this is the excuse for the emergency family meeting. :) And I love that you went to the trouble to determine all this about our beloved chili. And… now I’m craving the whole meal I took a picture of this summer all over again!!! Numnumnum…”

Jean, who lives in NYC but grew up in St. Louis, wrote, “Wow. The NY S n S doesn’t have Chili Mac yet. Otherwise I swear I’d be up there right now trying to deconstruct it. Thanks. So glad to be on you family meeting list!”

My brother wrote, “What a noble pursuit, humbling and inspiring. Can you work on the relish next?”

And when my brother came to see me in 2009 while I was going through chemotherapy, we drove about four hours to the Milwaukee area for the aforementioned burger for me and my brother’s order that I am sworn to secrecy to not reveal in case his wife reads this. I saw nothing, Lynne, maybe the diet plate with a single burger, cottage cheese with a pear half and a maraschino cherry.

And today when I Googled Steak n Shake images, Andy’s face pops up holding the jar of pickled peppers that has been in Steak n Shake since time immortal. I took the photo that time that he came to visit me and/or go to Steak n Shake in 2009.

And now our beloved S n S has arrived in the Big Apple with their fancy dance Steak n Shake Signature store next to the Ed Sullivan Theater where Letterman is taped. People waited in line for hours to be the first into the store.

Steak n Shake Senior Vice President of Marketing Jim Flaniken said of the new building, “From an architectural standpoint, the design is sleek, modern, exotic and inviting, but also still approachable,” Flaniken said. “It’s suitable for everyone’s enjoyment.”( http://nrn.com/article/steak-n-shake-hopeful-signature-will-drive-franchise-growth#ixzz1k9CWLqRh)

Everyone’s enjoyment except for those of us in La Crosse? I sure hope I don’t sound bitter here.

S n S is  big news in NYC because it competes with Steak Shack, which the owner admitted was inspired by Steak n Shake. I ate there when we were in New York last year and enjoyed it. But sir, “I know Steak n Shake. Steak n Shake is a friend of mine and you, Steak Shack, are no Steak n Shake.”

This New York City S n S is no ordinary Steak – it sells wine and beer in addition to burgers, something that no other restaurants among S n S’s  500 franchises do – for now.

Steak n Shake also has moved into other states in the southeast. But not La Crosse, although our downtown Fifth Street was renamed Fifth Avenue decades ago after the Avenue in New York City.

So, Steak n Shake, what are we in La Crosse, Wisconsin? Chopped liver?

Apparently so.

Getting personal with personal history …

In my family lore there is a story that goes something like this:

My grandmother, Nettie Goldberg, came to this country all by herself from Hungary when she was 12 years old. Somehow she connected with her older sister, who was already living in the United States. To make a long story short, she never saw her parents again. 

This experience is so outside my own world and even less a part of the experience of children today who practically cannot move from one room to another without adult supervision. And, certainly the move to another room would be well chronicled on Facebook.

It must have taken incredible courage for my grandmother to get on that ship to go to America. It must have taken even more courage and love from her parents to send her to a strange land even with the promise of a better life and freedom from pogroms – government ordered riots against Jews.

My grandmother died when I was barely three so I had no opportunity to really know her, let alone hear this story.

Grandparents born in late 19th Century in Eastern Europe grandparents never really wanted to talk much about the experience, the reason so many stories have gotten away from us. They were just so happy to be in the United States that they wanted to move on and become Americans. Perhaps they kept private about their sorrow for the relatives back home.

My grandparents, paternal and maternal, all came from places with constantly changing borders in Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather was from Srednike, Russia, which is now Lithuania. He evidently left Russia and traveled to Austria, where he met my grandmother. I thought she was Polish, but she grew up in Lemberg, Austria, in a place that is now Ukraine.  It was not far from Poland, however.

My maternal grandparents were from the same town in Hungary, Medzilaborce, that is now Slovakia, but apparently met in the United States after she immigrated in 1905 or so.

I pretty much was resolved I would know little or nothing about my family. I figured all those records in European communities had been destroyed by the Holocaust even if all of the family I knew about was in the United States since around the turn into the 20th century.

But a group has formed around the Hesselsohn family from Russia, the descendants of Meyer and Gertrude (Siegel) Hesselsohn and there is a  family tree going back to my great grandparents that arrived in my inbox Wednesday.

The person who sent it turned out to be a cousin I never knew growing up in St. Louis despite his graduating a year behind me in my very same high school. He had the last name Hess, instead of Hessel.

His grandfather and my grandfather were among five brothers born in Russia with an original last name of Hesselsohn or Hesselson. As I now understand this story, all Jewish sons – except for the oldest – were to be drafted into the Czar’s army for such brutal and long terms that they were not likely to come back.

“These decrees called for the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian Army. These boys were between the ages of 12 and 18 and were forced to serve for 25 years! During their army service, every effort was made to convert them to Christianity. Due to the horrendous conditions under which they were forced to serve, many of the boys who were conscripted didn’t survive, and if they did, few continued to identify themselves as Jews. As far as the Jewish community was concerned, either way was a death sentence. Some Jewish parents were so desperate they would actually cut off the right index finger of their sons with a butcher’s knife—without an index finger you couldn’t fire a gun and you were exempt from service. Other people would try and bribe their kid’s way out.” Source:  “The Czar and the Jews,” http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/the_czars_and_the_jews/

That prompted the name changes to Hessel, Hessel, Yoelson and Jolson so each son could be the first-born of his own family. They then left the country, finding their way to the United States.

In email going back and forth Wednesday, my long-lost cousin and I both wondered why we didn’t know each other having gone to the same high school.

That is the next mystery to uncover in our family – right after I learn more about how my maternal grandmother got here. Here’s hoping someone knows that answer as well.

I love this quote from Azar Nafisi’  second memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About:

“This is how the past comes to us, not neatly but like a knife, always unexpected. And it comes in fragments. You try to put the pieces together, but you can only understand it if you accept its irretrievable and fragmentary nature.”

Beatlemania and beyond

Screaming girls at the Ed Sullivan Show to hear "the youngsters from Liverpool," as Sulivan called them.

In a Write Your Life class that I taught a few years ago, we were working one night on how world and national events shaped our lives. On our list of the events were the usual: Kennedy Assassination, Civil Rights, Landing on the Moon, the Great Depression, etc. The Beatles also were mentioned in this middle-aged and older crowd.

“My father really hated the Beatles,” one woman said.

“Tell us more.”

“He was a barber,” she said.

That was the key to the meaning of that story that she has carried with her for decades. Finding meaning is one of the goals of life writing – it helps you understand who you are.

I’m guessing her father could have divided his career as BB and AB – Before Beatles and After Beatles. Before: barbers – not hair stylists mind you – made a good living giving men frequent haircuts. Many men had a little trim once every week or two.

And then those “moppets” arrived from Britain and business dropped decidedly. Certainly young men wanted to have “Beatle haircuts” – if they could get it by their parents. My brother began growing his hair and sideburns after high school, which I think embarrassed my mother as open-minded as she really was. She said many people told her that they had seen Andy and “He looks great.” She felt they were somehow rubbing it in that her son had long sideburns. It is pretty silly when you think about it.

Beatlemania shaped our lives in ways that the younger generation has not been influenced by a single musical group – or so I think.

Many fan magazines quickly were printed in the 1960s with all sorts of photos that young girls like myself and friend Shelly cut out and plastered all over our bedroom walls. The frequent talk was about which one was our favorite Beatle.

Mine was Paul but as a young adult many people told me I looked like John – go figure. I’m not sure it was a compliment, but let’s say it was.

And in the 6th grade talent show at Old Bonhomme Elementary School, I was supposed to play Ringo when we lip-synched Beatle songs. It was not meant to be for me to have that fake musical career. I dislocated my kneecap and couldn’t come to the show, let alone shake my head Ringo style. I’m told the substitute for me didn’t shake his head as well as I did as Ringo. We will never know. It is one of life’s might-have-beens.

On our walk this morning, I was talking about writing my parents’ story for future generations. It was a suggestion by another member of the Association of Personal Historians on the association’s Facebook page.

That got me thinking about historic events and their impact on our lives even if we are many hundreds of miles away. I told my friend, Sue, that story about the Beatles and the barber.

She had her own Beatles stories. When the Fab 4 first came to the United States and were to play on the Ed Sullivan Show on April 1964, she and her sisters planted themselves right in front of the TV to watch them.  Just as they began to sing, her older brother came into the living room with a cut up paper bag on his head modified to look like he had a Beatles haircut. He blocked their view of her beloved Beatles, which infuriated the sisters  at the time but she said makes a great story today.

And then when “Hard Day’s Night” played at the Hollywood Theater in La Crosse – the one she said that was then the modern theater – her sister was with her friends behind Sue and her buddies.  The ushers – yes there were such things then – had a tough time controlling the crowd in the theater before the movie began.

When her sister shouted something like “On with the show!” the ushers came down and threatened to kick out her sister, but somehow she provided to behave.  The show started and so did the screaming by La Crosse girls watching it.

Screaming girls were there wherever the Beatles played – in person and in movies.

Speaking of in person, my brother used to call me “a stay-at-home Charlie,” a term that clearly was right on the mark – I never close a joint. I just thought of that term today in connection with the Beatles.

When they came to St. Louis to play at Busch Stadium, I declined going to the concert. My brother Andy did and so did my friend Shelly and her younger sister, Cindy. I missed out on the concert of a lifetime, but hey that was me.

Andy was right. I inherited the stay-at-home Charlie gene from our mother, who like me, enjoyed being home.

And then the Beatles came back in popularity while our daughter Maggie was in middle school via the remastered Beatles Anthology. She even met her future husband at an eighth grade youth group event in Minneapolis because he was wearing a Let It Be t-shirt. She struck up a conversation and they became pen pals after that weekend. They wrote to each other until they were about sophomores in high school.

But when she moved to Kansas City, where she knew that Mike grew up, she decided to search him out and they got together. The week before she called he had just come across her letters from middle school and high school that he had kept. His, I later found, were also in her closet. (She gave me permission to find them.)

Maggie and Mike re-met the same night she called – each brought friends in case the other person was weird. They stayed just friends until it turned romantic. It is one of life’s great love stories.

Interesting enough another young woman from La Crosse married someone who also attended that same youth group event in Minneapolis. They did not meet at that event, however. Like Maggie’s husband, he also is from the Kansas City area.

My husband wrote a song for Maggie and Mike’s wedding that included these lyrics:

Well, the Beatles said love was all we need

Some folks don’t know that it’s true

But that one day in Minneapolis, the idea came shiningly through

Maggie came from La Crosse, Wisconsin

Mike came from Overland Park

When she saw his Beatles T-shirt, she went over to talk

(Chorus) All you need is love

That’s the message they gave

All you need is love

It’ll help you along the way

Yes, the Beatles had an impact on my life – even more so for Maggie – decades after the British Invasion in the United States.

Watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan via YouTube:


Carpal tunnel, cleaning & Me

I’m wearing a splint to prevent further symptoms of carpal tunnel as I play Scrabble. This is a weird photo taken with my Blackberry in my left hand. As far as my suffering for the game I love I say:  Oh, woe is me.

In the days before my kids came home for the holidays, I had a flare-up of carpal tunnel syndrome – a painful condition that comes from repetitive motions.

I was convinced that cleaning my house did it, but my friends called me on it. There is no way, they said, that I could have cleaned enough to cause carpal tunnel. They knew me that well.

They popped the bubble of my dubious opinion that I should never clean again, a logical response when faced with a painful medical condition.

Carpal tunnel is a pinching of the median nerve, which is housed in the narrow, rigid passageway of ligament and bones at the base of the hand. That nerve carries sensations from the palm side of my thumb through all the fingers except the little fingers.

Pain, numbness and tingling are symptoms when the carpal tunnel is compressed by thickening from irritated tendons or swelling. It is worse at night, even waking me up. People who spend a lot of time at the keyboard have this problem.

I have had carpal tunnel for decades. The first time was when I used to swim a half mile every morning before work. The repetitive motion probably caused the pain, according to my doctor who was impressed he could make a telephone diagnosis so easily.

A test confirmed it, but it was not severe enough for surgery. I wore a brace at night and that seemed to help.

Carpal tunnel disappeared when I stopped swimming every day. That trying to be healthy  can be hazardous to your health.

Carpal tunnel reared its ugly head other times, but I can’t remember the causes except for when I was using the treadmill and holding on to the handles. See previous comment.

I began doing carpal tunnel exercises, soaking my wrists for about 15 minutes at a time, alternating between very hot and cold water. That helped.

But it’s back, along with tendonitis in my left wrist. I was sure the cause was that cleaning. It came on suddenly in the days before the kids would arrive. Who needs a clean house when they aren’t here?

Pain wakes me up at night. I soaked my wrists  at 1:30 one morning, making a bunch of loud noises in the kitchen.

If the condition wasn’t caused by cleaning, then what was it? I realized today what has caused this most recent flare-up.

I have SICT – an until now undiagnosed and unnamed condition known as Scrabble-Induced Carpal Tunnel. It is caused by a repetitive Scrabble motion on the iPad.

SECT could be the disease of the month with support groups across the country. Once a drug is developed for it other than vodka, there could be commercials on television that come with warnings like, “If Scrabble persists for more than four hours, see your doctor immediately.”

I did wonder if there could be others with similar symptoms. Thanks to Google, I found this stream of conversation at an iPad forum:

Maybe a weird question but is anyone else getting RSI to their wrist and pins and needles in their fingers of the hand you hold the iPad with? I’ve noticed today – or am I being paranoid? Typical man eh?!

How long have you had your iPad? RSI usually takes some time to develop. ???

I had that happen to me…. just take a break. ???

I’ve had it happen to me too. You just need to step away from the ipad for a little bit lol. ???

I’ve had the damn thing for a little over a week and granted it’s gotten lots and lots and loooots of use, and I do find holding it quite uncomfortable, I think the worst thing I’ve gotten was sweaty palm syndrome. Cause you point… the whole damn time. And the rest of the fingers are bunched up against your palm that I find I have to open my hand every once in a while just to air it out. Waving it about works. ???

 Seriously tho, I had a bout of repetitive strain. You just have to find different positions to use it. Couch leaning, sitting, bed, kitchen table. The trick is to vary your joint positions. I’ve never had a problem with iPad use because I never stay long enough in one position.

I am not alone. I am taking steps to wear my splint during games.