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.
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.
Meet my great-grandma Alene, or Lena, or even sometimes Aileen. Born to the Wallace family in Essex, Ontario, Canada, in 1877, she and her sisters pursued medicine; her sister Margaret was one of the first female doctors ever, but more on her later.
Alene was a nurse in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when she met my Irish great-grandfather Will O’Connell, recovering in a hospital after more than a decade of prospecting and silver mining in the Yukon, Colorado and Utah. They eventually settled in San Francisco, at 588 Jersey Street in Noe Valley, and had two beautiful little girls, Margaret (b. 1907) and Agnes (b. 1909). But tragedy struck, and both girls died in childhood. My great-grandfather never recovered from the loss, and his son—my grandfather William Wallace O’Connell—felt haunted by the absence of his two sisters.
In a recorded history he made for me in those precious few years between my birth and his death, my grandfather said:
“My mother had a more philosophical mind. Of course it was a very great loss, a great sadness to her, but she had a child to care for — a son. And she also had a nice sense of fun. So I grew up in a cheery enough household, as far as my mother could keep us together…and keeping a stiff upper lip.”
It is also largely due to Alene that I have so much information on her side of the family, as she kept notes on birth and death dates, catalogued photographs and letters, and wrote names on the backs of photographs. I like to think she knew I’d come along sixteen years after she died and pick up the story where she left it.
Happy Friday from my great-grandma Jessie Mabel West!
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.
This is my maternal great-great grandma in Russia around the turn of the last century. She carries her history in the lines of her mouth. I’ve seen my own mother make this exact face.
If you look closely, you can tell her pupil has been inked over; in the one other photograph I have of her, it looks like she may have lost an eye completely.
Her son Abraham Lazar Brodsky was the father of grandma Lillian. We are not absolutely certain of her name, but the death certificate for her daughter, who died in Chicago in 1981, lists her mother as “Schandel Finkle.” My grandma Lillian once said she thought her name was Ida Schoendel. We believe she lived in Kirovohrad (Elizavetgrad) which is whence my great-grandparents came when they left for Canada around 1911. Her husband was Lazar Brodsky and they had at least three children — Abraham Brodsky, Miriam (Mary) Brodsky (Lord) and Lillian Brodsky (Rubin). I imagine she was born some time between the late 1850s and early 1870s, as my great-grandfather was born in 1887.
Abe traveled first to Canada where Clara joined him. After their children were born, they moved to Dayton, Ohio, where his sister Lillian had married a Rubin man. Both families eventually moved to Chicago, along with sister Mary who — legend has it — divorced her Russian-Jewish husband and married an Italian gangster, last name Lord.
I do not know if they wrote to their mother, or if their mother would have been able to read their letters. I do not know when she was born or when or how she died. I do not know if she survived the pogroms or if she lost an eye in an attack by the cossacks. I can only think how incredulous she would be to see her descendants alive and lucky, a century after this photo was taken.
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.
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.