Lillian.

Today, you’d be 101 years old.

watercolor by Jennifer Maurice

Last year I drove to your gravesite for the first time since the day we buried you five years earlier and taped a silly silver HERE’S TO 100 YEARS birthday card to the marble bearing your name. I didn’t know what it would feel like to sit there face to face with your name and Grandpa’s, how it would all come tumbling up. In my day to day, you are with me everywhere — from my scarves to my rings to the black and white photos on my wall, and I think there’s safety in remembering you young, in greyscale, looking like me, because it obscures who you were to me when I knew you, when you were the greatest love in my life. Your red hair, your soft skin, the blue veins on your hands, the way you smelled of kasha and soap, your Tallulah Bankhead voice and the way you said my name.

It is so hard to sit here at 33 and wish you could know me now, a little less scared of everything than I was at 27, that I could share my grown-up life with you, my work, my travel, my heartaches and poems.

Every day I am grateful that I came from you. Today I sink into the celebration and grief of you.

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The ghosts in us.

Sometimes the past reaches up and taps me on the shoulder, asks me not to forget. Tonight I was at my desk working late when I suddenly thought of my great-grandma Rose, the mystery of her story, who her people were. I began searching for variations of her surname Sherman on Yad Vashem and KehilaLinks and remembered that I was told by an elderly relative, Gordon Gelfond, that she came from Kalinovka, so I went looking for the story of Kalinovka, a page I’ve seen before — the brief and agonizing horror of the ghettoization of the Jews of Kalinovka who were rounded up and murdered on May 30, 1942.

May 30. I looked at my calendar and shivered. 76 years ago this very day. The ghosts are still reaching out, asking us not to forget what became of them.

Whether or not you are my blood, I remember you.

Mothers’ day.

I remember the hundreds of mornings my own mother brushed the tangles out of my hair as I look at this photo of my grandmother patiently plaiting my mom’s curls. I think of the mothers before her and the ritual of taming girls’ hair and of those moments together in the morning, of watching my mother’s face behind me in the mirror — the patience or exasperation or concentration knitted across her brow — and of all these quiet, quotidian practices we take for granted as the duties of mothers.

Today on Mother’s Day I am filled with gratitude for my own mother, and for my beloved Grandma Lillian who I miss every day, and for my Grandma California June who I never met, and for all the mothers who suffered and loved and brushed their children’s hair on countless mornings because that is what mothers do.

A Reznikova mystery.

Grandma Lillian’s mother Clara was a Reznikov, or Reznikova, the female version of the name. We know she came from Elisavetgrad, which was renamed Kirovograd in 1939. Clara was born about 1894, and had a much older brother named David Reznikov who was born around 1872. She also had a sister whose name we do not know, and possibly a brother named Rubin, who may have traveled to South America and was killed in a May Day parade — or so the story goes. We do not know if this is true.

Clara’s sister had four children. We think this sister (whose name could have been Minnie) died of tuberculosis in Russia. Her husband brought the four children to New York to live, where he apparently remarried and had another child. If I could find out her first name or better yet her married name, that would open up a whole new limb to the family tree, as I might be able to trace her four children: Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey. Gertrude married and she and her husband went back to Russia in the 1930s for political reasons; my grandma assumes they were killed. I have a series of photographs from 1928 when Clara and at least three of her children, including my grandma Lillian, went to visit these nieces and nephews before visiting her other nephew in Rochester. This nephew was Jack Ross, the son of David Reznikov, who changed his name to Ross when he arrived in Canada. More on them soon.

There is some hint that perhaps Clara’s sister’s married name was Drubachevsky but I have never been able to trace this and do not even know where this came from. It’s my hope that one day, I will be able to find out their last name and trace the descendants of Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey.

What I do have is an incredible photograph of Clara’s sister and mother along with the children. I see the family resemblance strongly in both Clara and Clara’s mother, whose bone structure is similar to mine.

Reznikova Sister + Mom
Clara Reznikova’s mother, sister and sister’s children, probably Elisavetgrad, during the nineteen-teens

 

Here are the photographs from 1928 of Clara visiting her sister’s children in New York. Do you recognize these faces?

Reznikov descendants, 1928, New York
Clara Reznikova Brodsky with her sister’s children, New York, 1928. From left: George Brodsky, Morris (last name unknown), Clara, Helen (last name unknown), Gertrude (last name unknown). Seated: Anna Brodsky, Joseph (last name unknown), Lillian (Leah) Brodsky.

 

Note: In writing this post, I have discovered that just last year, Kirovograd became Kropyvnytskyi. According to Wikipedia, Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko signed a bill “banning Communist symbols on May 15, 2015, which required places associated with communism to be renamed within a six-month period. On 25 October 2015 (during local elections) 76.6% of the Kirovohrad voters voted for renaming the city to Yelisavetgrad. A draft law currently before the Ukrainian parliament would prohibit any names associated with Russian history since the 14th century, which would make the name Yelisavetgrad inadmissible as well. A committee of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) chose the name Inhulsk on 23 December 2015. This name is a reference to the nearby Inhul river. On 31 March 2016 the State Construction, Regional Policy and Local Self-Government committee of the Verkhovna Rada recommends to parliament to rename Kirovohrad to Kropyvnytskyi. This name is a reference to writer, actor and playwright Mark Kropyvnytskyi, who was born near the city. On 14 July 2016, the name of the city was finally changed to Kropyvnytskyi.”

Annie who was Anna.

My great-aunt Annie, born Anna Brodsky, became Levine in 1941 when she married Harold, an enchanting, handsome lawyer whose family ran a booming luggage company. It was a faerie tale for the littlest of the Brodsky-Reznikova clan who, according to legend, didn’t speak a word until she was six. But just a few months into their marriage, a bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor and Harold clamored to do right by his country. He joined the Marines and went off to training in San Diego before he was shipped overseas to the Pacific.

Annie and her sister, my grandma Lillian, moved in together in Chicago, with their two young daughters, Susan and Robin. The details of their everyday lives are recorded in the daily letters my grandma sent to my grandfather, who was stationed in the south: what they fed the girls for dinner, when they could afford new bed linens, which grandparent they visited with over the weekend. As anxious as both women must have been with their husbands away, I can’t help but think how wonderful it might have been for the little girls to have each other and for the sisters to go through it all together.

But the faerie tale had no happy ending for Annie. On July 22, 1944, when his daughter was 16 months old, Harold Levine was killed on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from home. Annie received the news on Monday, August 14. No one would believe it. Not his parents, not his wife.

Harold’s death lingers in our family. It feeds a story of lost love, of lost hope, of neverending grief. It’s hard to explain what that generation in my family was like — my grandmother, her brothers, her sister; my grandfather and his brothers. All of them, and all of the children, and all of their parents, would vacation together, would supper together, would trade kids for the summer and go on road trips. Harold’s death must have felt like a hole drilled in her center, for her whole life. She married twice more, and her third husband was an extraordinarily kind, gentle soul who was with her until the end. But the work she had to do, compared to her sister, must have felt unconquerable.

When I was growing up, my great-aunt was a fanatic for health food and yoga, long before it was en vogue. My favorite memories of us are on the wide deck of my parents’ backyard under the mulberry tree, cross-legged on towels, her always dressed immaculately in draping white, teaching me to straighten my back and telling me over and over again to breathe.

Honoring our ancestors.

Today I visited my great-aunts Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died in childhood.

Agnes & Margaret, 1910

They are buried in the children’s graveyard at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The sea of graves crowned with cherubs and lambs broke my heart, and I read every name as I walked through the rows searching for my girls. I met a man who feeds the cemetery’s feral cats and is followed by a murder of crows — birds so black and glossy they look cartoon. I told one stalking me to at least be useful and lead me to my O’Connell babes.

Finally I found them, a few rows away from where the nuns are buried.

OConnell girls
Untouched for 105 years

The engraving was unlike any other I saw and I wondered if my grandfather, who was an artist in addition to a lawyer, had done the lettering himself, decades after his sisters died.

I spent a solid twenty minutes with a spray bottle and a toothbrush, uncloaking the stone of its chartreuse lichen and giving the lamb back its face. I don’t know who last visited their resting place, and my father has never seen it, but it’s been a good thirty years, if not much much longer.

When I visited my family in Ireland last year, cousin Ted told me it’s family duty to clean family graves. So here I am, in 2017, carrying on the Irish tradition of my ancestors in a Catholic cemetery in California.

OConnell babies
After a little love & soapy water

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.