The Blood Detective, Personal History & Me

1A137 is quickly recognized as a reference to British genealogy records. I'll not reveal more.“Like a potato plant, the best part of family history lies below the surface. By digging deep, the stories of the dead, silent through the years, could be told once more.”

–       Dan Waddell, The Blood Detective

As a personal historian and member of the Association of Personal Historians, we like to say, “we save lives … one story at a time.”

The work of collecting family stories and combining them with photos in a book is a passion of mine. I love connecting the generations in personal, family, organizational and business histories. It’s inspiring and powerful for the families and inspiring – not to mention fun – for me. It helps generations to appreciate where they came from and to recognize the resiliency of previous generations.

I never really considered myself a crime solver, however, a reason that I love a book called The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell. I stumbled across the book at the library. The story is centered on genealogist Nigel Barnes helping British police officers solve a murder.  (Could the name, Nigel Barnes, be any more British?) It is apparently the first in a series about the crime-solving family historian.

I knew I had to write about it because it touches on my personal history passion. I also kicked myself for not coming up with the idea of the personal historian solving crimes through historic documents. After all, crime-fighting detectives have been found in novels based in quilt shops, in bakeries and in the minds of cats (easier than herding the cats).

Waddell’s words, “By digging deep, the stories of the dead, silent through the years, could be told once more,” sent me instantly to my laptop. They ring true in both fiction and nonfiction.

I am not a genealogist, per se, although I do dig into records. What I appreciate most are listening to stories and also finding newspaper articles and other records to support the stories I hear. My work allows those who have died to speak.

It also is a way to teach history. I sneak in the ‘back story” (historical events of the time) to support what clients say in interviews. And, when I do the research for the history behind the stories, I continue to learn and appreciate what I heard and read.

I have never thought of the potential of being a crime-fighting/solving personal historian. But Waddell is showing the potential of using the past to assist the present and inspire the future.

I gotta get back to the book. Oh, I’m available to uncover your family mysteries.

The World Cup & Me

This photo taken on that day, but possibly still in Austria or Lichtenstein shows me with a band of musical folks that we spotted one day. My dad's caption was, "Susan makes friends everywhere." I think this was a long suffering photo op, the kind I would definitely do to my kids.

It’s only been 44 years since I last paid attention to the World Cup.  I’ve been busy since then.

We happened to be in Europe (yes I was spoiled/lucky) in 1966 when the world’s biggest sporting event in the world was held in England. I think we were amused that outside of the United States, soccer was called football.

On July 30 1966, my mother’s trip diary showed we had been to four countries that day of the final match.

Here’s what she wrote:

4-Country day: new record – great day! Drove Zurich to Lichtenstein – run by Baron Von [she left this blank spot] – real promoter. Sue called him Baron Von  “Moneymaker” – tourist  shops, etc., us, too! Through Austria to spend night in Lindahl, lovely small German town! Got last room in town  – large, 16 x 16, 4 beds – real togetherness!!!  Hilarious – a real lark!“

Our family being Jewish and it being just two decades since the end of World War II, Mom never wanted to go into Germany, East or West.  Somehow, Dad talked her into this brief trip and then we had that getting-a-place-to-stay challenge. She was comfortable enough during that short visit that she was willing to g back for a longer visit to Germany the next year.

The next day, we were on our way back through Austria. Mom’s diary noted,

“Hurray! England won World Cup. Beat Germany 4-2 in overtime. Heard news in Germany – exulted quietly – til we were over the border!”

We also may have gone into Germany because we had some extra time on our hands. Five U.S. Airlines – United, Transworld, Northwest, Eastern and National – all went all on strike July 8 that year. We flew to Europe on PanAm and eventually got a flight back on Swiss Air.

I must say that we did enjoy watching soccer while we were there and the World Cup was going on. But the family of my youth in St. Louis was more interested in being Cardinals baseball fans and following my brother Andy’s high school basketball games.

When I had kids, sports did not stick much. Maggie loved and played tennis, but Michael was not interested.

We did introduce him to soccer as a 4 year old, but he told me, “I don’t want to quit soccer. I want to skip soccer.  The only kind of soccer I like is skip soccer.”

I understood why he felt that way. Michael went to a childcare center from the time he was a little guy. One of the most important messages that they gave kids was to share.

Sharing is not a soccer value. Players steal the ball and don’t take turns. Michael then and now has a strong sense of justice.

So am I watching the World Cup this year? I flipped the channel to it Saturday night, but didn’t stay with it. It simply wasn’t a lark.

But I’m happy that the USA tied its first match against England, which lives and breathes soccer. Clearly, the US and England learned sharing.

Me & Me

& Me, before I was aware of & Me.

I’ve been meaning to speak to you about me, or more precisely, about & Me.

Particularly if you found this blog by accident, you might wonder about this & Me person. Surely, anyone who writes a blog in which every post headline ends in & Me must be a raving maniac and/or the most self-centered person on the planet, give or take a few.

Is it my ego that forces everything to be & me? Or is it just a clever means of writing headlines? Or, perhaps more accurately, are they not-so-clever headlines?

This whole & Me thing began innocently enough with my first writing about my diagnosis of breast cancer, when I wrote about Tevye & Me. The concept was that I wrote about the higher risk of Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent (eastern and central Europe) have a great risk of breast cancer. Tevye, the father figure in Fiddler on the Roof, speaks to God about the

And I didn’t know that. Tevye and Me was just the start. There was Clint Eastwood & Me, which described my “are you feeling lucky” fears going into surgery. And then there was Madonna & Me, which described my decision to have a double mastectomy for my emotional wellbeing.

It’s gone on from there. I’ve brought everything except the kitchen sink to & Me, including many more cultural icons.

I’m paraphrasing the early blog post headlines, but the concept was all this crazy stuff in my head. Sometimes, I have gone on a rant; other times I use & Me ironically.

Anything and everything becomes fodder for my blog posts. When things happen, such as the environmental products piece that I posted June 10. I am very willing to poke fun at myself, which frankly, is very poke-funnable. That’s why I can get away with & Me, who can be pretty absurd in her – my – buffoonery.

This blog, whether it’s read daily by 500 or 12, has been the best thing I’ve done for myself during treatment and beyond. It’s kept my brain sharp (or less unsharp) than it might have been during chemotherapy, etc.

And it’s been fun, particularly when folks mention it via email and in person. Dick and I were out walking the other day and an old friend passing in her car yelled to me that she read it every day. Thanks, Linda.

I used to say that I write when I find work, which I do, and would like even more. But I also write tis blog  for my own personal sanity. I think it’s good that increasingly I’m writing about sometime other than cancer. It means there is life after cancer.

Sometimes, though, I need to be protected from what I might write. Thank you, Maggie and Dick, for stopping me from posting one piece written at 2 a.m. this week when I couldn’t sleep. It would have been greatly misunderstood.

The rule now is that if I write something in the middle of night, I need to run it by my panel working to protect me from myself (& me).

Precious & Me

So not me ...

We have an expression in our family that I coined: “Precious doesn’t like to sweat.”

I am Precious, although I am not in the least bit precious. The expression refers to my feelings about the heat. And it’s meant to be a tad ironic as sweat and precious don’t usually go together.

Although I write this in air conditioning and not in January or February, I prefer winter to heat. I love to wrap up in a blanket. I hate heat, which means summer days do not appeal to me.

I come by it naturally. My mom used to talk about what life was like in St. Louis before air conditioning. People desperate for sleep tried to catch a cool breeze in Forest Park because they knew they could not sleep at home. Or, they slept on fire escapes.

After she moved to La Crosse, Mom said periodically, “You gotta thank the man who invented air conditioning.” She’d then ask who it was. One time I actually did the research and learned it was a guy name Carrier. And La Crosse, where I live, had a big hand in air conditioning through the Trane Company.

But I digress, as usual.

I’m really writing about an advertisement on Facebook for the Precious Moments breast cancer figurine.  I am a sap in many ways, but I am never to the level of Precious Moments, although I realize for some it and others in the line have great meaning.

The idea that there is now a “special collectible” figurine for breast cancer seems like  jumping on the pink band wagon.

Here’s how this product is described by Precious Moments:

Share in the hope for a cure with this special collectible Precious Moments® breast cancer figurine, a Hamilton Collection exclusive! Depicting two girlfriends participating in a breast cancer walk-a-thon, it truly honors the spirit of loving, caring and sharing because a portion of the proceeds from its sale will be donated to help fight breast cancer.

If you look at the figurine, both of these girlfriends participating in a breast cancer walk-a-thon are absolutely flat – they must have already had double mastectomies. I am embarrassed to have noticed that.

And I know that I should be grateful and I do enjoy a good walk-a-thon with my friends especially the one in La Crosse called Steppin’ Out in Pink. But I do not want a figurine celebrating it.

Incidentally, if all the products that claim to give a portion of their proceeds to fighting breast cancer did so, I’m sure we would have cured it in the last couple years alone. Wait, maybe we should all buy that figurine. Many of them.


I need to add a final note. That moniker, Precious, once became fodder for amusement by my friends at a second hand book sale at the elementary school where my kids went. In pawing through the books, one found a title called Who Killed Precious?

I hate to say it, but after hearing me whine about the heat for years, they paused for a moment wondering, why not this Precious.

But I’m still here.

Facebook, the devil & Me

Image is from, which encouraged high school students to use Facebook carefully. SAT slayer said what they write could have an impact in some cases on their college applications.

A dear friend of mine told me Thursday that she quit Facebook. She said a relative of hers had called her to say that she had to stop because it was akin to working for the devil. The relative heard it in church and pleaded with my buddy to stop being on Facebook.

For the devil in me, I cannot agree, although I understand and respect her decision.

I, for one, will continue to be on Facebook, which I believe has good and bad elements as anything else does in life.

I decided to Google the devil and Facebook to see what is going around the web. I found a site on something called Hubpages by shibashake that begins: “On the surface, Facebook may seem like a simple, and useful application for staying connected with your friends and keeping them updated on your life. But there is a devil lurking behind Facebook’s placid facade. Is Facebook the Devil in disguise? Why?”

Shibashake, who does not capitalize her name, responded to four charges:

1. Facebook lowers the productivity of our nation or even that of the world

While the Syndney Morning Herald reported Facebook may be costing Australian businesses $5 billion a year, she said the “same arguments were used against electronic mail and instant messaging. Now, they are touted as tools for increasing productivity. I suppose the verdict will be out until the next innovative idea/scapegoat comes along.”

2. Facebook exposes our children to smut

“The price of freedom of speech and information is having to deal with things that we may not agree with, may not like, and may not deem appropriate. Smut has been around since time immemorial – before Facebook, before HubPages, before the internet, and before television.” She (I think she’s a she) said protection for children will come from  parents, teachers, and other responsible adults in the child’s life. Spend quality time with your child on the internet and direct them towards constructive pursuits; there are many.

3. Facebook disconnects us from the real-world

Some folks are uncomfortable with all technology, she wrote. “From my own experiences with Facebook, Hubpages, and others, participating in these online communities actually help with social disconnect issues. For example on Hubpages, many users talk about facing alienation in real life. Sharing their stories, and getting support from an online community, helps with that alienation,” she wrote.

Any technology can be misued, but “Just because some bad can happen, does not mean we should stop using it. Car accidents happen a lot more frequently, but last time I checked, cars are still in use.”

4. Facebook exposes us to stalkers

Facebook is stalker heaven. “To share in the benefits of a community, we must share a part of ourselves,” she wrote. “If we use sound judgment on what information we publicize, the danger of an online stalking, which is already small to begin with, becomes negligible.”

Are we fully protected? No, she wrote. Just as we are never fully protected in real life. But that does not mean we should become social hermits. The benefits of belonging to an online community, such as Facebook, often outweigh the dangers.

If you do not feel that is the case, you are free to not participate in Facebook, electronic mail, and the internet in general.

You can read the whole article at:

But I agree with shibashake. I think we have the ability to control our own reactions and activities. We can turn it off, something that I admit is hard for me when I play Scrabble on Facebook.

Life is about risks and about choices. I say lighten up about Facebook, folks. It’s a free service, that allows us to connect and reconnect with folks across the planet.

During my cancer treatment, I had support from all kinds of folks, including those I have not connected with for decades. I had folks immediately available to encourage me and entertain me. It was touching, exciting and just plain fun. I needed to connect with folks especially during chemotherapy. Thanks folks for being there for me.

Of course, that may mean the devil has taken control of me. But was that before or after I joined Facebook?


Oh, let me share a quote about the devil from Helen Keller: “It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.”

Feel free to be my friend on Facebook.

Aesop, the Golden Egg & Me

Take care of that golden egg.

I love a good moral as much as the next blogger. So when daughter Maggie sent me a photo of this golden egg, it got me thinking.

“Will you ask Dad if this noisemaker is his?” she wrote. “We found it and don’t know whose it was.”

Maggie. Maggie. Maggie.

This is no noisemaker. This golden egg is a music maker, a fine rhythm instrument. It’s the kind of musical instrument that even your mother could play. Or, maybe not. This mother, who shall be nameless, does have that pesky rhythm problem, after all.

Let me give you an illustration. When Michael was in middle school, there was a tradition of inviting adults to join students in playing with kids in the last concert of the year.  It was meant to be for parents or grandparents who actually knew how to play an instrument. I did not. So I signed up for the triangle. How hard could that be?

One day Michael came home with music for percussion – I was to play a drum. The suggestion was that I practice before this concert so I’d have the rhythm. Poor Michael. Teaching me to keep a beat was beyond the capabilities of anyone, let alone a son. But, if I had any questions, the teacher would help on the night of the concert.

Hah. That night,  as I tried to pound away on a drum, she took one listen to me and said, “Do what ever you want.” So I pounded away, drowned out by many others. But I had a blast. I thought I missed out on band, which might have led to a career for me as a triangular.

Back to the moral of this golden rhythm egg shaker, which we left in KC the last time we visited. Aesop and I both know you can’t tell an egg by its color, a lesson from his fable of the Goose that Laid a Golden Egg.

A man and his wife had the good fortune to possess a goose, which laid a golden egg every day. Lucky though they were, they soon began to think they were not getting rich fast enough, and, imagining the bird must be made of gold inside, they decided to kill it. Then, they thought, they could obtain the whole store of precious metal at once; however, upon cutting the goose open, they found its innards to be like that of any other goose.

Aesop & me - just like this.

Now, Aesop and I are like this. He includes morals with his fables; I have lessons that are learned that go with the stories I write about people’s lives. Thus, the name of my personal history business is Lessons From Life. (

So what are the morals of this fable? Wikipedia suggests:

  • Greed destroys the source of good.
  • Think before you act.
  • Those who want too much lose everything.

I’d like to add one more. Anything and everything is fodder for my blog.

Graduation(s), a Yiddish lesson & me

The trio, from left, Jenny, Maggie and Michael in a borrowed graduationhat.

I didn’t attend my college graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I made up for it this weekend.

Back then in 1975 I was already working at the La Crosse Tribune as a reporter.  And, being the rebellious person at the time, I didn’t see the value of going through such a ceremony when I was already living my dream of being a newspaper reporter.

A generation later, we had double duty – opportunity – this past weekend.

Maggie in front of a photo of an old newsroom, presumably of the famous Kansan journalist, William Allen White.

At 8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 15, we attended the Maggie in the hood ceremony for our daughter at the University of Kansas. That hour-long commencement ceremony was for master’s degree students and undergraduates of KU’s William Allen White School of Journalism.

A hooding ceremony goes with a master’s degree, which Maggie earned while working full time in communications for Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas. She has no plans to leave that terrific job.

After the hooding and handing out of undergraduate journalism degrees, we took photos, ate brunch in Lawrence, Kansas, and then hauled the rear portion of our anatomies about 430 miles north to Minneapolis. Maggie and her husband and his parents joined us on the next step on our academia odyssey.

We arrived about 9 p.m. and met Michael, his girlfriend, Jenny, and her family for ice cream before calling it a night.

The next morning I called to confirm there would be two cakes for the graduation party – one for our Kansas graduate and one for the Minnesota graduates. There was a mix-up. The store I called had no record of our order that I already had paid for over the phone. They transferred me to the bakery for the chain and they had no record of our cakes, but were willing to decorate one that morning.

The cake: one instead of two and with the colors for both universities - Minnesota and Kansas.

I had the wrong store, as it turned out, but the company offered to refund my money for the unfound cakes.

Michael’s commencement, more than twice a long as Maggie’s, was for a bachelor’s degree the University of Minnesota in cultural studies/comparative literature with a minor in linguistics.  Michael will go on to Emory University in the fall in comparative literature.

No hood for him from Minneapolis.  And no cap for him, either. At the end of the ceremony, he assumed everyone would throw hats in the air. Only a few did, including his, which went forward enough that he couldn’t get his back as he joined the recessional out of the Northrup Auditorium.

After graduation and photos, we joined the party with Jenny’s family at her apartment. It was great fun to meet more of her extended family.

And as someone who loves photo ops, it was wonderful to get joint pictures of the three graduates, including Maggie who I insisted wear her recap, gown and hood for pictures. I am an evil woman.

And now it’s time for your Yiddish lesson: kvell.

That’s exactly what I’m doing. Kvelling is a Yiddish word for beaming with pride and pleasure, as a Jewish mother does over her kids’ achievements. Of course, they aren’t exactly kids any more; both are graduates of the University of Minnesota plus in Maggie’s case that master’s degree (with hood).

As we were driving back to La Crosse, I read an article about Boston University inviting back its class of 1970 for the commencement it never had. Students were sent home early because campuses erupted after the shootings of students on the campus of Kent State University.

About 300 of the 3,000 in the class came, wearing peace symbols on their caps and gowns. One of those interviewed was Kit Coffey, who said it was “a hoot” to remember her origins as a rebellious college student.

“How did I become a suburban housewife?” she was quoted as asking in a New York Times article. She described the era as “hard to explain to people … You look back at this time and think, wow, what was that all about?”

I graduated high school that year, not college, but I wore a peace symbol in the form of a God’s eye over my gown. What a rebel.

I’m sorry, Mom and Dad, that you missed out on kvelling at my college graduation. As Coffey said, “What was that all about?”

A tribute to Mom

Mom & Me at my confirmation in 10th grade at United Hebrew Temple in St. Louis. Don’t I look deeply spiritual?

When I was a young reporter assigned to write what we used to call a feature obituary, I was terrified. And also bored.

I didn’t get it.

Then one day I ran into the  daughter of someone about whom I had written. She told me how much that obituary helped her family.

It changed my whole perspective. Death – at least writing about it – became less scary and even important.

It’s become something that I do as a profession, as a gift for friends experiencing a loss and something I’ve written for my mom and my first son.

“Last writes” tell the story of the person who has died, paying tribute and letting folks know what they missed if they didn’t know the person. As a personal historian, I believe each life has a story and should be told. I don’t mean just the whens and wheres of a life but what shows the essence of that person.

I was lucky enough to have a mother who loved me unconditionally.  This being Mother’s Day, I am going to rerun what I wrote about my mom when she died in 2005.

LA CROSSE/ST. LOUIS – Lee (Goldberg) Hessel, 88, of La Crosse and formerly of St. Louis, died Dec. 28, 2005, at Bethany Riverside Home in La Crosse.

Born in Allentown, Penn., to Louis and Nettie (Itzkovitz) Goldberg on March 21, 1917, she grew up in St. Louis, graduating from Soldan High School at age 16 in 1933. Lee had a real gift for words but not numbers.

Because she skipped grades, she ended up in the same grade as her older brother Maurice, who helped her through algebra and geometry. “If it weren’t for Maury helping me in math, I’d still be at Soldan,” Lee often joked.

After finishing high school, she attended Margaret Hickey’s School for Secretaries.

Lee could pound away on a manual typewriter at more than 120 words a minute – anything faster, and the keys would jam. She also took shorthand at more than 130 words a minute in her prime and, boy, could she organize an office (a skill her daughter did not inherit).

It was while she worked at Famous Barr Department Store in St. Louis that she met her husband, Milton Hessel.

They married April 1, 1944, and had a wedding planned in a week in the midst of World War II. It may have been April Fools’ Day, but they sure weren’t fooling. They spent the remaining wartime in San Francisco, where she worked for the American Red Cross. Dad died in 1979.

In later life, she worked for Brown Group and Associated Services, both in St. Louis.

Lee is survived by her children, Andrew (Lynne) of Portland, Ore., and Susan (Richard Mial) Hessel of La Crosse; six of seven grandchildren, Meagan, Aaron (Sharon), Evan and Jacob Hessel of Portland, Maggie Hessel-Mial of Kansas City, Mo., and Michael Hessel-Mial of La Crosse; one great-grandchild, Luke Hessel; and one brother, Harold Goldberg (Margy) of St. Louis.

Lee was preceded in death by her parents; her husband; a brother, Maury; a grandson, Matthew Hessel-Mial; and many family members and friends in St. Louis.

To give you some idea of what Lee was like, she and her husband had a weekly and sometimes twice weekly games of Scrabble with their lifelong friends, Bart and Bertie Passanante.

Anyone who knows the game knows how valuable it is to lay down all seven tiles in a single play. As the story goes, Lee once refused to play all seven in one turn because it required her putting an “S” in front of “HIT.”

In later life, she laughed she probably would.

A brownie baker extraordinaire, Lee’s brownies were never forgotten by anyone getting a pan from her, and many did. In fact, the staff of her St. Louis dentist even told the staff of her first dentist in La Crosse that they were lucky to get her and “she makes great brownies.”

A kind woman, Lee excused crabby waitresses or sales staff by saying, “Maybe her feet hurt.” In other words, she cut them – and others – some slack. As a wife, mother and grandmother, she offered unconditional love to her family.

Lee, who moved to La Crosse in 2001 to be closer to family, never met chocolate ice cream that she didn’t love. “This could be habit-forming,” she said each time she had a bowl, which was quite often.

In her final years, laughter remained Lee’s greatest treat, and she continued to have a wonderful sense of humor practically until the end despite her troubles. On a good day she’d say, “We did some good laughing today, didn’t we?”

Here’s hoping that wherever Lee is, she’s laughing with family and friends. In the meantime, have some brownies, eat chocolate ice cream, laugh in her honor and, please, play your Scrabble tiles wherever they must lie.

A few years ago, I picked up a Mother’s Day card that was perfect for my mom. On the outside it said something like, “Mom, you taught me to laugh at adversity.”

Inside it said, “Mom, I’m hysterical.”

Here’s to my mom, your mom and moms everywhere.

And naturally, if you want help writing about your mom – or dad – or another friend or loved one or yourself,  I’m here to help. (This would be the self-serving part of my blog post today. But it is Personal History Month.


Mom & Me pretending to fight over our family treasure – the bottle opener of our youth that I put in a shadow box. It is hanging in my kitchen so that when my brother comes to visit, he sees I have it. Hah!