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.

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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

Alene, or Lena.

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.

Lena

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.”

Lena and girls.jpeg

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.

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.

Schandel Finkle.

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.

Ida Schoendel Brodsky

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.

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.