Gold rush grandma.

Happy Friday from my great-grandma Jessie Mabel West!

Mabel West 1890s

Mabel, as she was known, was my father’s mother’s mother. Born in Willits, California, in 1879, she was a true gold rush girl. In all photos of her, she exudes an almost maternal warmth and her eyes convey a sense of humor and whimsy. She married my great-grandfather John Gooden Curts and gave birth to four children: Jack Sylvester, Homer, California June (my grandma) and Wilda Frances.

Mabel’s father, Sylvester Preston West, was born in 1846 in Dubuque, Iowa, the son of a doctor. In the 1870s, he and his wife, Alwilda Shanabrook West, made their way west and settled in Mendocino County. Sylvester was a telegrapher and linotype operator.

It is believed the West family descends from the younger brother of Thomas West, commonly known as Lord Delaware, though I have yet to find genealogical evidence of this. We are also thought to be related to Benjamin West, an eminent American painter in the late eighteenth century.

I am without a doubt related to Leoti Leni West, a fascinating pioneer who made her way west and became the first high school teacher in the state of Washington. More on her soon.

The photographs in this wonderful series feature Jessie Mabel West and a favorite cousin, E.S. Sampson.

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Red lips, gold mirror.

My grandma loved style, and she had loads of it. Knowing how poor her family was, I marvel at how put together she always managed to be, without exception. She was a huge fan of lipstick and wore it until the day she left us at age 95. I still have a gold tube of her favorite in later years — Estee Lauder’s Candy.

My family always remarks on how much I look like Lillian, but it’s only when I put on a dark red lipstick and catch myself in the mirror that I freeze in my tracks, thinking I’ve just seen her face instead of mine.

My grandma, the human computer.

In the 1960s, grassroots organizations across the United States began to form as a result of the hideous treatment of Jews by the Soviet Union. My grandmother was no stranger to Russian mistreatment of Jews: her parents had fled Russia in the first decade of the century as victims of pogroms. Her mother Clara suffered from undiagnosed PTSD her entire adult life after witnessing brutal murders in their shtetl.

When her closest friends Selma and Hal Light and Rose and Ed Tamler began the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews in 1967, my grandma was fully on board. She devised a magnificent filing system documenting thousands of Refuseniks and held names and faces in her head. The note at the American Jewish Historical Society (where my grandma’s papers are archived) reads: her system “became a resource for BACSJ and other Soviet Jewry organizations in the United States. Foreman helped connect Jewish families in the US and USSR with special projects such as Adopt-A-Family and Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning. She visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s and met with many Refuseniks and Prisoners of Conscience, including Ida Nudel and Leonid Slepak.”

Hal died tragically in 1974, but the BACSJ continued to thrive. Often overlooked by historians is the enormous impact of women driving this movement. During Natan Sharansky’s prison interrogation, the KGB itself derided the American Soviet Jewry movement for being mere “students and housewives.” But what power these students and housewives held! In the Bay Area, my grandma Lillian Foreman and her dear friends Regina Waldman, Rose Tamler (nearly 100 years old as I write this), Natasha Kats and many more, led this oft-forgotten revolution.

In the 1980s, my grandma became president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews. She traveled to the Soviet Union multiple times, smuggling in goods that could be sold on the black market to raise money for Jews and other Refuseniks to escape the oppressive USSR. The KGB had a file on her. She put her life on the line to save strangers. My grandma’s integrity, empathy and courage inspire me every day.  

Monday, Monday

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Mondays! Grandma Lillian worked as a bookkeeper at the Easy Washing Machine Company at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. She changed her name from Brodsky to Brodsly on her resume to get the job, saying she was a Christian Scientist instead of a Jew.

When it was built in 1930, the Merchandise Mart was the largest building in the world. In her nineties, Lillian would talk with such excitement about her time working there, taking the train to work, walking through the snow in her silk stockings, finding out that her boss was having an affair with a secretary — and she took her first-ever plane ride on a business trip to upstate New York.

This was her only time as an independent professional woman. Later, after her children were born, she did bookkeeping for my grandfather’s business, and made a name for herself as a volunteer and activist in San Francisco. But I could always tell this moment in her life was precious to her as a young woman supporting herself and her family by the way she talked about it.

September 1942

Pregnant Lillian 1942

This is my maternal grandma Lillian Leah Brodsky Foreman on Friday, September 11, 1942, in Chicago, pregnant with her first child, my aunt Robin, who will be born two days later.

The war is on. My grandpa is now or soon will be stationed in the south. They will write letters each day, sometimes twice. I have every single one.

Clara with child, c. 1918

This is my maternal great-grandma Clara Reznikova Brodsky, pregnant in Canada, some time in the nineteen-teens.

Here is what we know: She and my great-grandpa Abe fled the pogroms in Elizavetgrad, Russia (modern-day Ukraine) and took a boat from Germany to Canada. They settled in Hamilton, Ontario, where she gave birth to six children — three boys and three girls. One girl, Miriam, died an infant.

In this photo, she may be holding my grandma Leah; however, it was common in that era for male infants to wear gowns, so it may be one of the boys. But given Clara’s age in the photo and a gut instinct I have about that child’s face, I’d say this is Clara around 1918, holding Leah and pregnant with Annie.