The House Rules

“It may only be four walls and a couple of nail kegs, but it will always be home to me.” ~ Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

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“If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.” ~ Erma Bombeck

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It doesn’t take many years of living before you realize that everyone has some unique aspect to their personality.  Whether you call that trait an idiosyncrasy or a quirk, it is some small characteristic that seems perfectly normal to oneself, but it will drive others insane.

Houses can be a lot like people  They also have unique personalities – and those quirks that come along as personality baggage.  In fact, houses have rather forceful personalities – you abide by the house rules, or else.  That’s the only way a house will work.

The house in which I grew up, and where my parents still live, has plenty of unique little oddities.  If walls could speak, the other houses on the street would have called ours names.   If you got to know our house’s personality, you would have definitely called it a “freak”.   The house had several things about it that were strange, but because we lived with these weird things and got used the house’s behavior, its peculiar personality seemed quite normal to us.

For example, the oven wasn’t like “normal” ovens, but it was through no fault of its own.  The house, which was built in 1961, had a gas wall oven.  In those pre-digital days, the temperature was controlled with a round dial.  One day, sometime during the 1960’s, my father decided to be helpful.  (Ladies, we all know what happens when men try to be helpful.)  Dad was determined to clean the kitchen, and he chose a rather powerful cleaner (likely ammonia).

My father proceeded to wipe once around the oven’s dial to clean the surface.  By the time his finger completely circled the dial, he noticed that he not only removed grease, but the ink that labeled the dial with the various temperatures.  Which is why I grew up without the knowledge that ovens had actual temperatures; I thought you just turned the knob until it got hot.

Because this original oven stayed with us until I was an adult, the question when baking something was never “What temperature?” but “What time?”  My mother’s answer would be “twenty of” or “half past,” for we imagined the dial as a clock to determine the approximate temperature.  Of course, we never really knew for sure if “twenty of” was really 300° or 350° since we were relying on my mother’s memory of the original, unmolested dial, but that never stopped us from cooking.

Over the years we’d always muse that we could simply go to a neighbor’s house and make a tracing of their dial to ensure we had an accurate reading, for all of the houses on the street were built with the same appliances.  But I suppose it was much more fun to take a wild guess.  And since my mother was an excellent cook, her memory of that dial must have been rather good – we never burnt anything in the oven!  But, now that I mention it, almost every time we used the oven, the smoke alarm would go off – just another little personality trait of the house.

Our kitchen was strange in other ways, too.  The electrical system for the entire house seemed to be located on one circuit breaker – the kitchen’s.  In the summertime, we had one air conditioner in the kitchen window and one in the living room window to cool the first floor.  There were rules associated with the use of those air conditioners – not parental rules or the laws of thermodynamics, but house rules.  For instance, using the air conditioner while the television was on meant that you couldn’t make a piece of toast without turning off something first.  Using the microwave?  You’d better hope that there weren’t clothes in the dryer or you would have to wait.  Using the toaster and the microwave and the coffee pot all at the same time?  Dear Lord, do not flip that light switch on or the whole house would go dead.

Looking back at these things now, I can’t believe we lived with the idiosyncrasies that could have been easily fixed.  In the same house today, there’s a new oven with a spiffy digital keypad where you can actually set the required temperature.  The house also now has a central air conditioning unit, which required a new circuit breaker system, so the entire house is no longer routed through the kitchen.  But where’s the fun in everything working as it’s supposed to?  The house may no longer be called a freak, but without the goofy oddities it also lacks charm.

Now I live in my own house, with its own creaks and sounds and issues.  I know what the temperature is for the oven, but after all these years I still have light switches that work something but I know not what.  And please, if you visit, don’t dare flush the toilet if someone’s in the shower!


Even God Laughed

“There is hope for the future because God has a sense of humor and we are funny to God.” ~ Bill Cosby

My memory for today’s edition of “Memory Monday” is forever linked with the feast of Pentecost, which is celebrated in Christianity next Sunday. Not that this memory actually happened on Pentecost – I can’t even remember when exactly this event happened.  But every single year I sit in church on this feast and listen to the readings.  And every year, I can’t help but break out into a huge grin during the first reading.  The smirk is unstoppable; I just can’t help it.  This is the story of my secret smile.  To some this story may seem irreverent, but I’ve always thought God has a sense of humor.  And if He does, He was likely laughing along with me all those years ago.

When I was between the age of 20 and 24, I had a certain group of friends.  We called ourselves a “prayer group” and we were a mix of single and married 20- and 30-something Catholics.  Each Saturday night, we would gather in each other’s homes for an evening of singing and charismatic prayer, which was followed by socializing and fellowship that cemented our friendships. We were a loosely defined group of 15 to 25 people.  Some people came and went, some were always there, and occasionally invited guests or friends would expand us into an even larger group.

One Saturday night, one of our larger crowds gathered in Debbie’s basement apartment.  We usually spread ourselves around the room in a circle, using all available sofas and chairs as well as the floor. Fortunately, Deb’s living room was large enough for at least 20 of us to gather comfortably.  There was no agenda to our meetings; sometimes we would sing – several members played the guitar for accompaniment, sometimes we would read from the bible or share a story, sometimes we would pray loudly, and sometimes we would sit in silence.  Usually we would do all of these things in the course of our “meeting” – as the spirit moved us.

This particular evening, a quiet came upon the group and we all sat in silence either praying or thinking.  In this deep silence, one member of our party – I will call him Harry (not his real name) – had the embarrassing misfortune to…  Well, there are a lot of ways to say it – “broke wind” or “passed gas” –  he farted.  Rather loudly, and the surrounding silence made the sound seem even louder.

Harry was clearly embarrassed, and he apologized to the group as he blushed a deep shade of red.

To our credit, we remained silent.  After all, we were adults.  But, while silent, we were each desperately trying to keep our eyes on the ground and away from each other.

The sheer humor of the event was simply too much for our friend Sue. She could no longer stifle a laugh and let out a loud cackle.

One laugh was all it took – the entire group exploded with laughter.  As it turns out, farts are as funny to adults as they are to toddlers, and the fact that we were all supposed to be “seriously” praying made it even funnier.

This group had several people with what I call “contagious” laughter – if you heard their laugh, you’d laugh even harder.  We laughed until we all had tears streaming from our eyes.  Every time we tried to settle down, someone else would begin laughing again.

The waves of laughter continued for several minutes.  As the group began to calm down, one man spoke up – Tim.  Tim had a wonderful sense of humor and a penchant for story-telling.  Although he had been laughing along with everyone else, he suddenly had a rather serious expression on his face and was holding an open bible in his hands.  He spoke loudly: “I’d like to share a reading.”

A shocked calm settled over the group.  I, for one, was surprised that Tim, of all people, would bring us back into seriousness and lead us back into prayer.

In the newfound silence, Tim cleared his throat and began to read from the bible, choosing the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles.  He proclaimed: “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were…”

He had us at “wind”.  We laughed until our sides hurt, and the “prayer” meeting was officially over for the evening.

Thanks to Tim – and Harry – for making me smile every year at Pentecost!

The Number You Have Reached

Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.” ~ Ambrose Bierce

The telephone was born in 1876.  Despite some minor modifications, the technology generally remained unchanged for more than a century.  Then, without warning, phones became…different.  Nothing makes you feel older than realizing a technological change that occurred in your own lifetime.  Suddenly you can “remember when” and people ten or twenty years younger than you cannot.

In last week’s “Memory Monday” about our address book, I mentioned telephone exchanges – the first two letters of a word that was used for the number-equivalent (Pennsylvania 6-5000 was PE6-5000, or 736-5000).  But I was surprised at how many other things related to telephones that are different today.

For example, I recently watched a movie made in the late 1980’s.  Since I was in college at that time, I wouldn’t necessarily consider a movie from that time period to qualify as a “classic” film, but one aspect of the movie made it seem more outdated than things in films from the 1950’s.  In the movie, the main character was trying to navigate across the country to meet a deadline, and he continually had to call and check-in as he met obstacles along the way that delayed him.  Because cell phones weren’t prevalent back then, he kept stopping at pay phones and phone booths to make the calls.  Today I couldn’t find a phone booth if I tried!

Donna on the telephone, 1979

When I was in 3rd grade (1975-76), the telephone company – for there was only one, and her name was Ma Bell – sponsored a contest for students to design the phone of the future!  We had to draw a picture of it and briefly describe its features.  The majority of our designs focused on one of two ideas: a phone that you could carry with you, and a “video-phone” that allowed you to see who you were talking to and vice versa.  I can’t remember who won or what the prize was, but we had fun designing these future phones.  Imagine taking a phone with you in the car!  It was pure science fiction.  It is amazing how far we have come in such a short time with mobile phones and video-teleconferencing over the internet.

But it didn’t happen overnight.  Take, for example, my very first “mobile” phone in the late 1980’s.  I didn’t really want or need one, but my mother was fascinated by the concept of being able to call me and discover my whereabouts wherever I was.  Thank God GPS tracking came into being well into my adulthood.  So, she invested in a mobile phone.  Well, the word mobile is relative.  It could be carried with you, but definitely not in your pocket.  The phone was in a very large carrying case (around 8”x10”x4”), weighed at least 5 pounds, and the receiver was connected to the heavy base with a cord.  I felt like a Secret Agent with a spy phone, but an agent that was too low on the totem pole to get the good Bond-esque equipment. But it worked, and it was a novel idea at the time.

That first mobile phone seems as ancient today as rotary phones did in my childhood.  My very first paying job was working in the church rectory answering phones and the door in the evenings.  In the beginning, 1981, the rectory had a rotary phone.  I don’t remember if we ever had one at my house, but I had to have used one before since I knew how it worked.  What I wouldn’t give to have one installed in my house and ask my 14-year-old niece to dial a number for me…her exasperation at the slow dialing pace would be priceless!  The phone also had a cord, so she would find it unbelievable that I had to get out of my chair to answer it (I won’t even attempt to explain life without a tv remote to her).

Funny! They still make toy rotary phones! This is my nephew Luke, Christmas 2009, wondering what the heck it is.

I guess even the fact that I had a job answering the phone would be a quaint idea today thanks to answering machines.  In my childhood, an “answering machine” would be defined as someone other than the person you were calling writing down a message.  The only machine-voice I remember hearing on the telephone was when you would call the official number at the phone company to hear the correct time or the weather.  I wonder if they still have these lines operational now that the internet has taken command and control as our sole information source.

One technological improvement that took some fun out of the telephone was Caller ID.  The suspense is now gone – we know who is calling before we answer the phone.  And someone knows when we are calling.  This feature has taken away a fun pastime of our youth – making prank phone calls.  I never made such calls myself, but my brother and his friends made some hilarious calls to unsuspecting strangers.  Today, they would be busted thanks to Caller ID.  So would scores of lovelorn souls who would get up enough nerve to call the boy or girl of their dreams only to hang up when the Dreamboat actually answered – or Dreamboat’s father.

I’m not that old but I remember when you got a busy signal because there was no call waiting, all phones were “landlines”, and there was no need for a “Do Not Call” list.  But I’m young enough to remember my parents talking about changes in their own lives that involved the telephone.  The biggest change?  Neither had a telephone in their house while growing up.  My father remembers that the only telephone in the neighborhood belonged to the corner drugstore.  When it rang, the owner would send him or another boy to run to the house of the call’s recipient.  The boys would sometimes get a nickel as a tip, but the calls were often “important” news such as a death in the family, so it wasn’t a fun task to report the news of a call waiting.

You are at least my age or older if you remember:

  • calling the phone company for the correct time or the weather
  • rotary phones
  • pay phones and phone booths
  • telephone exchanges
  • phones with cords
  • Ma Bell
  • “mobile” phones that you couldn’t fit in your pocket
  • no “answering machines”
  • busy signals instead of call waiting
  • no need for a “Do Not Call” list
  • all phones were “landlines”

You are probably older than me if you remember:

  • party lines
  • talking into a receiver while holding the earpiece up to your ear
  • asking the operator to dial the number
  • not having a phone in the house
  • phone numbers with less than seven digits

You are probably younger than me if you’re scratching your head wondering what all of these things are.  To find out, Google the terms on your G3 mobile device and text the answers to your blog or Facebook.  Or you can actually pick up the phone (please, not while driving) and call one of your old relatives to find out!

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[ I borrowed the “Memory Monday” concept from Greta, and I believe that today she will also post a telephone-related memory.  Read about the Texas Telephone Call here! ]

[ I guess I am getting old, because after I wrote this I realized I already used some of these memories in a post from 2008 called When Times Change! ]

The Address Book

“There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book.” ~ Carson McCullers

If you use the term “address book” today, people immediately think of that “thing” in their email program that stores email addresses.  Or maybe they think of that other “thing” on their cell phone that stores phone numbers and names.  I’m young enough to use the latest technology, but I straddle the gap between “now” and the seemingly old-fashioned generation of our parents.  So I’m also old enough to remember when an address book used to be a real bound book full of people’s home addresses and phone numbers.

The address book was actually a great source of humor in our house.  Not when we first began to use it  – what’s so funny about a book of full of phone numbers?  But the humor came later.  Much later.  You see, we started a family address book when I was young – and although we updated some of the information over the years, we never really updated the entire book.  Fast forward to 20 or 25 years later, when my mother would retrieve the book to find a phone number.  As she paged through the book, a particular name would catch her eye.  “Who’s Julie?  Or Ralph?” she’d ask.

“Julie or Ralph? I have no idea,” I replied.

“They’re right here – in the book,” my mother would insist, as if being in the book would mean I automatically knew everything about the person, akin to your “permanent record” in Catholic school.

“Well,” I said, “whoever they are or were, I don’t know them now.”

“Jim!”  My mother would now yell to my father.  “Who’s Julie at 632-2713? Or Ralph listed under ‘H’?”

Naturally, my father would have no idea either.  In those cases of Unknown Individuals Listed in The Book, we had to assume that someone entered our home while we were out, found the address book in the kitchen hutch, and entered Julie and Ralph’s names and numbers as a joke.

I suggested calling Julie or Ralph to find out who they were.  “We can’t do that!” my mother replied.

“Why not?  Someone in this house knew who they were at some point!”  But we never called the mysterious strangers listed in “the book” – none of us were curious enough to find out who they really were.  Because if we found out, one of us would have to admit to forgetting who these people were.

But we knew most of the entries since we did enter the information ourselves.  Sometimes my mother would ask about someone and I wouldn’t recognize the name, and her reply would be, “Well, this is your handwriting here.”

“Let me see,” I’d say and review the mystery name.  “Mom, look at the handwriting – it looks like I wrote this in when I was 10 years old!”

“And you don’t remember who it is?”

“Sure I do – a girl from 5th grade that I haven’t talked to in 25 years!”

“Well,” my mother would say resolutely, “I guess we can cross it out.”

Many entries would get crossed out over the years, but we still kept the same book.  After all, it still had empty pages to fill so it was perfectly usable.  My mother wasn’t always the questioner either – sometimes I would look through the book and ask her if a number was still needed.

“Mom, Dr. Roman’s been dead for at least ten years – maybe this one can go.”

“Why?  The doctor that took over still has the same phone number.”  She had a point.  Of course, we knew the number by heart after calling it over the years, so there really was no need to write it down in an address book because we never needed to look it up.  Contrast that scenario with the present, when we never actually dial a number because they’re programmed in the “speed dial,” which makes it difficult to remember even the most frequently called numbers.

Sometimes entries were crossed out because the person had died.  It always felt rude to cross the name out in the book, as if by leaving the entry as-is you could still call the person to chat.  It seemed better just to leave it there, and for many years we did – a reminder of old friends.

Many of the older entries in the book had “old time” phone number exchanges in which letters were used for the first two numbers.  In my neighborhood, the phone numbers began with either 632- or 637-, but instead of “63” we’d say “NE” which was phone-code-speak for “Neptune”.  I’d always laugh when my father would recite a phone number as “Neptune 7-1234” or “Mayfair 4-9876”.  It amused me because it seemed so old-fashioned, a la Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”  But now that we don’t use those exchanges anymore I miss them!  Today there are so many phone numbers that you have to dial the entire 10-digit number including the area code just to call within the city of Philadelphia.

My grandfather, Henry Pater, in the 1950 Philadelphia City Directory. His telephone exchange was "FIdelity".

As its name implies, the address book also contained addresses.  These were primarily used for Christmas cards, birthday cards, or invitations as well as the occasional letter.  The striking thing about this is that the addresses and phone numbers never needed to be updated.  My parents’ friends lived in the same houses throughout my entire childhood – and they all still live in those houses and have the same phone numbers today.  My own address book (yes, I still keep an actual book) has many scratched out addresses and arrows drawn to new entries as friends move or marry.

The entries all take up much more space now as well.  We no longer have a single phone number, but a number for home, cell, work, work cell, as well as email addresses for home and work.  The ways to reach someone seem endless, yet it is rare today to talk to someone on the phone when they aren’t busy doing something else at the same time.  The irony is that there are many ways to reach out, but you never actually make the connection.

One day when I was in my mid 30’s, we decided that “the book” was ridiculous since 85% of the entries were for businesses that no longer existed, people who had died, or friends we “unfriended” years ago.  Not to mention the papers and business cards stuffed inside of it that either my parents or I were too lazy to record in the book.  So I did something I never dreamed possible – I gave my mother a new address book.  It seemed a shame to throw the old one out unceremoniously after all the years it had spent living in our kitchen hutch, but, in the end, that’s what we did – only after the “good” numbers and addresses were dutifully transferred.

Too bad that old book couldn’t speak to us.  If it could give some final words before departing our lives, we would have finally found out who Julie and Ralph were!

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[Join me next week for another telephone-related memory on Memory Monday!]

More on Telephone Exchange Names:

The Walk Home

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” ~ Robert Frost

If you had the opportunity to walk to and from school as a child, chances are you remember that walk quite well.  My house was located rather close to the church and school – just about a quarter mile away.  As a young child, my mother drove me to school.  But as I grew older, I was allowed to walk all by myself.  Since the school was within a reasonable walking distance to all of our homes, we walked home for lunch, then walked back for the rest of the day.  The walk was seven minutes at a reasonable pace (longer when my legs were shorter), four times a day.

The satellite view of my walk home from Point "A" - my grade school - to Point "B" - the Pointkouski home. Courtesy of Google Maps (street names removed).

Even in high school (a slightly longer walk at one mile), I still walked back and forth to the grade school to either hang out, help out, go to church, or work at the rectory.  The distance may have been close, but during those years I must have walked the equivalent of hundreds of miles repeating that simple quarter mile.

The walk wasn’t especially scenic – just a bunch of other houses of various shapes and sizes.  Despite the relative simplicity of the walk, or perhaps because of it, my mind is occasionally flooded with fleeting memories of that walk home.  We always remember the important events in life, but how often do we take time to remember the mundane,  everyday, ordinary things that are part of our lives?

The bag was dropped along the fence, but that's a lot of fence! (The building in the foreground was not there back then, but the fence was.)

I have two favorite memories of walking home during winter.  The first was when I was around 12 years old and in 6th grade.  Back then I only wore eyeglasses for looking at “the board” in school (I was tall and always seated in the back of the room) and for watching television.  One cold day I must have fumbled with my eyeglass case – in part because some girls in my class passed by and teased me about something or other.  I remember dropping it, then quickly picking up my belongings and running the rest of the way home.  Later that night, I put on my glasses to watch tv , and a lens was missing!  I remembered where I dropped them, so my father decided to walk back to school with me to find the missing (and costly) lens.

By now, it was after dinner and very dark outside.  It started snowing as we walked to school.  “Where did you drop them?” my father asked.  I replied, “Somewhere along the fence!”  It was true – that’s where I dropped my school bag.  But the fence was about the length of a football field…or two!  My father patiently shined a flashlight as we searched and searched in the falling snow, but the lens was never found.  We laugh about it to this day!

Years later, my friends Louie and Joe walked me home after evening Mass on another snowy, winter night.  For some reason we were quite exuberant that night, and we did something out of the ordinary as we walked the quiet, deserted streets – we sang at the top of our lungs.  I don’t remember the song, but we had quite a ball singing our out-of-tune melodies walking arm in arm through the falling snow.

Snow wasn’t the only weather-related walk home that made an impression on my memory.  One summer day I was walking home, probably from helping out at the summer day camp, when it started to rain.  Not just any rain, but a summer torrent as if God turned on a fire hydrant.  About half-way home I ran into my neighbor from across the street – he was walking home from the bus stop after work.  We began running together.  After about a block, we both stopped and started laughing…we were soaking wet.  Realizing it was futile to try to outrun the rain, we just laughed at the situation and strolled the rest of the way home.

My favorite season of the year for the walk home was spring.  I don’t have any specific memories, but when I think of “the walk home” I remember spring, when everyone’s windows were open to let in the fresh, warm air.  What I remember were the sounds I’d hear as I walked: dishes and silverware clattering as dinner tables were set, voices talking or yelling, children playing, babies crying, and televisions or radios broadcasting.  Sounds of families, sounds of home, sounds of life.

As I searched my memories, I realized that most of my remembrances were of the walk home from school or church, not the walk there.  Home!  My mother was always there – and my grandmother, too.  Dinner was always in process – and we always ate together as a family as soon as Dad got home from work.  It was always warm – especially in the winter when my glasses would fog up going from cold to warmth.  The cat was always waiting for me,  although he wouldn’t dare show it.

There is a saying which says you can’t go home again, but I think you can.  One day this spring when I visit my parents, I’m taking a walk up to my old school – just so I can walk home again and remember how wonderful that feels.

Do you remember your walk home from school?

[For this post I am taking the lead of Greta’s Genealogy Bog and her wonderful “Memory Mondays”.  Greta, thanks for the inspiration to share my own memories!]

2009: A Look Back

Dear 2009,

Well, it’s that time again…time to say good-bye.  Last year, I said good-bye to your cousin 2008 and called you a “new friend” that was knocking on my door.  You did knock me around a bit, so I’m not sure if “friend” was the right word for you!  You went by so quickly that my memories are blurry, and it’s hard to remember even the good gifts you gave me.  But I will try, for I am grateful that I got to spend the year with you.  After we reminisce a while, don’t let the door hit you in the behind!  It’s time I “unfriend” you, my friend, and make room for my new buddy, 2010.  I’m sure you will understand.  Let’s toast to all the good times we had together before you leave!


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Is it just me, or does everyone have a hard time remembering events of the previous year?  Each December 31st, I seem to have a hole in my memory, particularly when it comes to the months of January and February of that year.  I must hibernate during those months and later try to forget the bitter cold days without sunshine.  Once again I shall attempt to relive the year – thankful for the good stuff, hopeful that the not-so-good stuff was meant to be for a reason, and joyful that I get the opportunity to begin another year.

In the world of genealogy, my one significant find was the marriage record of my great-grandparents, Jan Piątkowski and Rozalia Kizoweter.  As a result of this find, I learned the names of four more of my great-greats!  Two other genealogical finds occurred this year that I have not yet written about – stay tuned in 2010 for stories about my cousin who died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz and my cousins who died fighting in the so-called “Great War”.

Speaking of cousins, as a result of this blog I “met” several new cousins this year!  These cousins are on both sides of the family – Frank and Carl (dad’s mother’s line), Joe and Marlene (mom’s mother’s lines), and Vickie and Jackie (mom’s father’s line).  A few of my cousins are now my Facebook friends, and at least one might actually have photos of my great-grandmother!

In March, the world and I said good-bye to actress Betsy Blair – although I did not see her often, I have missed her greatly since her passing.  The absolute best “personal” genealogical news was the birth of my second nephew, Luke, in April.  He has given me much joy in the last eight months!  His older sisters and brother gave Aunt Donna much joy as well.  Natalie grew into a beautiful young woman – and grew taller than her aunt (how did that happen?).  Ava’s stories make me laugh more than any comedian’s, and Nick’s smile still melts my heart.  Luke is already showing them who’s boss even though he’s the “baby”.

In March, two of my German Bergmeister cousins visited me in Philadelphia for a fun dinner.  I finally met one of my second cousins for dinner in her hometown, and since then she has become my new big sister.  As the year closed out, I became an honorary aunt when my best friends welcomed the birth of a daughter – I will take my auntie responsibility as seriously as I do for my other nieces and nephews.

I was fortunate enough to travel a bit this year for both work and pleasure.  Some of my best memories of 2009 happened while traveling, including a birthday beach day in Luquillo, Puerto Rico; visiting old and new friends in San Diego; and traipsing through the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France.  Unfortunately, I repeated a 2008 mistake and only saw the local beach once this past summer…and once again I resolve that it will not happen again!

I enjoyed many good times with family and friends this past year.  Some big family events included my niece’s confirmation and 8th grade graduation, and baby Luke’s baptism.  One of my best friends was installed as the pastor of a parish, and another priest friend was named Monsignor.  My brother turned 50 while our father hit 75!  I tried to savor every dinner with friends.  Thanks to Facebook, I re-connected with old friends and classmates.  A bunch of us who went to grade school together had an enjoyable mini-reunion in October, and I made some “new” friendships from those “old” names from my past.

It didn’t seem possible, but the Phillies made it to the World Series for the second year in a row!  Even though the outcome was different than last year, the ride was fun – watching those games are high on my list of favorite memories from this past year.

Two of my personal dreams died this year.  I’m still mourning their loss, but I am slowly learning that it is possible that new dreams may take their place in my heart.

I tried to stay entertained this year, though as usual I was far from being “current” with my choices for reading, music or movies. Favorite reads this year: 1599 – A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, The Doomsday Key by James Rollins, and the Brethren trilogy by Robyn Young.  Among dozens of other books, I re-read an old favorite: Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.  Favorite albums this year: Release by Sister Hazel, Cradlesong by Rob Thomas, Ali E Radici by Eros Ramazzotti.  Some old favorites got increasing airplay on my personal playlists by the end of the year: Feeling Strangely Fine by Semisonic and Congratulations, I’m Sorry by Gin Blossoms.  I was fortunate to see Reilly & Maloney in concert – their music has resonated with me for over 20 years now, and they still sound great!  I can only remember seeing one movie in the theater this year – fortunately it was Star Trek, which was awesome.

After years of reading about Montségur, I visited in September and climbed to the top.  While catching my breath, drinking some wine, and enjoying the view, a man hiked by and commented in accented-English, “You really know how to live!”  I accepted his kind remark as a compliment, and I hope I learn how to live even better next year.  One of my personal goals for this past year was to make every day count.  Many days I forgot to do that, but I am slowly learning to sit back and enjoy the ride.

A Different Kind of Bling

BlingEach month footnoteMaven hosts a wonderful carnival of old photos called Smile for the Camera.  Despite the fact that I do not own a plethora of ancestor photos, I have participated every month except for one topic that completely stumped me.  And it looked like I was about to be stumped again this month when I saw the topic for the 16th edition: Bling, Ancestor Bling!  Maven wrote:

I am always drawn to the beautiful jewelry worn by our ancestors in old photographs. The locket that was your Great Grandmother’s treasure, the pocket watch proudly displayed by a male ancestor, the beautiful crosses of old, and the children with their tiny bracelets. While not many of our ancestors were wealthy enough to own multiple pieces of jewelry, there was the one good piece that held sentimental value. Some of us have been fortunate enough to inherit those treasures. Show us a photograph of your ancestor wearing their “Bling,” or photographs of the pieces you have inherited.

I have shown some photos of my great-aunt showing off some bling, but I wanted to use a new photo, never before seen in public.  There’s just one problem with that…my ancestors really weren’t “bling” kind of people.  Or, they were too poor to own any bling!  My mother and I were never really interested in jewelry, and she did not inherit any from her own mother or grandmothers.  So, this carnival will highlight many serious photographs with other’s ancestors displaying wonderful old-fashioned sparkling jewelry.  And then there’s me…  May I present a different kind of bling –

Now that's some serious bling!

Now that's some serious bling!

Ten carnivals ago I showed a photo of my father and his friend, Frank, all dressed up as ballerinas and explained that they participated in parents’ shows at my brother’s high school when I was a child.  This photo shows, from left to right, my mother and father and their friends Lil and Frank.  They are in costume for two numbers in the Archbishop Ryan High School (for Boys) Mothers Association show, Happy Holidays, which took place on November 19-20, 1976.  The show followed the calendar year with skits and dances revolving around the various holidays.

The ladies are dressed for the show’s opening chorus line number to the tune of Happy Holidays and Winter Wonderland.  The fur hats and matching muff look chic extraordinaire and fooled all but the ladies who made them – and myself, who helped.  The hats were made of the bottom of plastic milk cartons covered with cotton!  But doesn’t it look great?  Speaking of great, look how wonderful my Mom looks in her miniskirt – she is 40 years old in this picture!

Displaying far more bling than the ladies are the guys – er, well, the one guy and the guy-playing-the-lady.  They were the hit of the “February” sequence as they transformed into Elton John and Kiki Dee.  The pair lip-synced and danced to Don’t Go Breaking My Heart for Valentine’s Day.  My Dad, as Sir Elton, the king of bling, sports huge heart glasses, some neck-bling, and lots of sequins.  Not to be outdone, Frank gets in touch with his inner comedienne as Kiki – check out those heart earings and the feather boa!  What isn’t revealed in this photo is his plunging neckline and the dress slit “up to here”!  Even in comedy routines, the very masculine Frank always managed to look classier dressed as a woman than some of the women did!

[Written for the 16th edition of Smile for the Camera: Bling, Ancestor Bling!]

The Innocents Abroad

Everyone remembers their first time with a certain fondness, even if later times surpass the first experience in any way.  I am referring, of course, to vacations.  Do you remember your first time?

My family could not afford to take vacations.  I remember a trip or two to the Jersey shore, and one trip to the Pocono Mountains.  As a teenager, I had some weekend trips to a mountain home that belonged to our parish priest.  But that was the extent of vacations during my youth.  Unfortunately, I never had the quintessential family vacation experience.  Despite this deprivation, or maybe because of it, I somehow developed the wanderlust.  My first real vacation experience did not involve my family, but a newly-formed family of friends. It was July, 1985; I was eighteen years old.  Our destination?  Rome, Italy.

Too many years have passed to remember all of the details about how it came to be, or why Rome was our destination of choice.  My partner-in-crime throughout high school was my friend Lou, who was like a brother to me.  He had plans to enter the seminary after high school, and he talked about one day visiting Rome.  I’m sure his enthusiasm rubbed off on me, but I must have also had an interest in Italy of my own since I chose Italian for my language requirement in junior and senior year.

The idea must have begun between Lou and me, but I took the lead to make it happen.  My history teacher was Mrs. Campbell, a fun-loving, wise-cracking lady who loved to travel and loved to teach her students about those places and their history.  Towards the end of junior year, I remember asking her, “So, Mrs. C., how about taking a bunch of us to Rome after we graduate next year?” She looked at me for a few seconds, then smiled a sly grin and said “Why not?” If it wasn’t for her, our trip would not have happened!

Our entire group in St. Peter's Square - July 9, 1985 - Rome, Italy

Our entire group in St. Peter's Square - July 9, 1985 - Rome, Italy

Our merry band of travelers began to form.  The group consisted of eight teens and four adults.  First, I asked two girlfriends from school, Sandy and Mary Frances.  Lou asked one of his classmates, Dennis, who I also knew from grade school.  Mrs. Campbell obviously asked her husband.  Also included were their daughter, Mimi, who was two years younger than the rest of us, and their niece, Alexis, who was the youngest of the group at 13.  Mimi asked her friend Lisa, whose mother Liz also came along.  Finally, Lou and I asked an adult that we knew from our church, Tom, who readily jumped at the chance to visit Rome (apparently because Lou mentioned something about a private audience with Pope John Paul II…fifteen years later the now-Father Lou gave me that opportunity, but unfortunately Tom wasn’t on our second trip!).

And so it happened that my very first plane ride was transatlantic.  We had turbulence nearly the entire time.  Since I had never flown before, I thought it was all quite normal – similar to riding a bus on a bumpy road.  We were all giddy with excitement – especially those of us sans-parents because of the feeling of adventure and freedom.  We didn’t necessarily know what to do with that freedom, but the mere thought of having it seemed monumental at the time.

“Can’t you try it for just one night?” ~ Marinella

If events were only judged by their beginnings, our trip was doomed from the second we arrived.  Whatever could go wrong, did.  Our group booked the trip through a company that specialized in student tours, and they joined us with two other similarly sized groups – one from Connecticut, and one from New Jersey not too far away from our home in Philadelphia.  When the large group arrived at the hotel, I guess you could say they weren’t quite ready for us.  Our first few hours were spent waiting in the hot Roman July sun outside of the hotel’s lobby.  Eventually we were assigned rooms, but the rooms were inoperable and in some cases still under construction!  We spent hours waiting for the adults to sort out all of the issues.

“We pulled up to this dilapidated graffiti-covered dive called the Hotel G—–.  We all just looked at each other and laughed.” ~ Donna’s trip journal

It was advantageous that Mr. & Mrs. Campbell were our leaders – a building inspector for the city of Philadelphia and a high school history teacher were used to dealing with surly, uncooperative people on a daily basis, and their experience helped us resolve many of the problems. But that first day, after a very long journey and no sleep on the plane, it did not feel like we were in Rome at all.  In fact, we were quite miserable.  This is what we looked forward to for so long?

“So far, Rome is truly dismal.” ~ Mimi’s trip journal

The next day, our group began the official tour.  Our first stop was the Colosseum .  You can read about how big the Colosseum is, and you can see photographs or videos.  But until you are standing next to it (or driving by it), it is difficult to comprehend its sheer size.  When I saw it for the first time, it hit me – we really were in Rome!

Lou, Mimi, Donna, and Lisa inside the Colosseum

Lou, Mimi, Donna, and Lisa inside the Colosseum

We spent nine days at a rapid touring pace including one day in Florence.  The highlights were many: St. Peter’s basilica, the Wednesday audience with a young Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s square, the Sistine Chapel, Piazza Navona, St. John Lateran, the catacombs, the Duomo in Florence.  The Eternal City embraced my soul – and it has not let go since.  I fell in love with Rome, with Italy, with travel.  Not to mention Italian food, the hotness of Italian men, the buzzing passionate pace, and a nice little thing called asti spumante.

“By Tuesday, Lexi’s Marinella impersonation was perfect, and she had become our mascot.  By Thursday, she had thrown away her shell, probably somewhere near the ‘Wedding Cake'” ~ Mimi

In addition to the wonderful and historic sights, we had a beautiful sense of camaraderie.  Mostly, we laughed.  I think I laughed more in nine days than I have laughed in the last nine months.  Most of the laughter involved the problems and issues we encountered, whether it was our incompetent “guide”, Marinella, who seemed to know less about her city’s history than we did and only took us to guides or restaurants in which she’d get a commission, or the strange bellhop at the hotel, nicknamed Quasimodo, whose job seemed to involve silently lurking in the hallway and leaving large bundles of laundry on the stairs.  Whenever Marinella led the bus tour, we were sure to drive past the Victor Emmanuel monument, also known as the “Wedding Cake”, at least six times…regardless of what direction we were supposed to be traveling.

“Let me get this straight – she’s Italian and doesn’t know the Pope has a Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square with thousands of people?” ~ Lou

Because we were so young and the trip was so monumental, it became larger than life in our memories.  We reminisced afterward – and still do as if the trip only happened last year. Remember the time Louie was late for the bus?  Remember when Tom serenaded the old Italian lady?  Remember how happy we were to survive that taxi ride?  Remember when Marinella asked Mrs. C. if the Pope could change the audience so we could go to Florence on Wednesday?  Remember the songs we made up?

“Hey, they’re talking Italian on my Walkman!” ~ Dennis

Ever since, this 1985 trip became not just my first vacation, but the vacation to end all vacations.  I’d have fun on other trips to other places, but the memories of this one held a prominent place in my mind.  Did it take on this significance because it was my first real vacation?  Or was it the location that made it so special?  Perhaps it was the group of people I traveled with?  Or merely the fact that I was eighteen and it showed me a whole world existed outside of my tiny life?

In front of Bernini's Foutain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona: Dennis, Sandy, Donna, Lexi, Lisa, Mimi, Mary Fran, and Lou

In front of Bernini's Foutain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona: Dennis, Sandy, Donna, Lexi, Lisa, Mimi, Mary Fran, and Lou

Despite the wanderlust it awakened in me, I didn’t take another real vacation again for seven years, and I didn’t go to Europe again for thirteen years.  Not for a lack of desire, but either a lack of means or traveling companions.  But since that second trip to Europe, travel is a regular, recurring, and essential part of my life.  I’ve been fortunate to have visited many of the world’s cities: London, Munich, Prague, Warsaw, Paris, Brussels, Seoul. I’ve enjoyed them all, but my favorite city always shall be my first true love, Rome.  I’ve been back to Rome three times in the last nine years – sometimes I visit sights I have not seen, and other times I return to my favorite places.  Every trip to Rome has been special and memorable for different reasons.  But the most memorable trip of all was the very first.

We left Rome and headed back home on July 14, 1985.  We were exhausted but refreshed, complaining yet laughing, sad to leave but happy we went.  We left Rome twenty four years ago today, but the experience of that trip has never left me.

[Written for the 76th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: How I Spent My Summer Vacation]

Chicken Soup for My Soul

Mom and Me, 1968

Mom and Me, 1968

I’ve been wanting to write a tribute to my mother now for quite some time, so when it was announced that the topic of this edition of the Carnival of Genealogy was mothers, I was thrilled.  But then “something” came up, as usual. Blogging, and life in general, has been non-existent for the last two weeks because I’ve been sick.  As in feeling-awful, missing-work, doctors-don’t-have-a-clue, everyone-please-stay-away-from-me sick.  But I also had what you might call writer’s block caused by the subject matter, not my clogged brain – what do I write about that sums up my mother and how much she means to me?

Mom and Me, 1975

Mom and Me, 1975

It’s not that there’s a lack of material – there’s so much to say!  Do I write about how I almost lost her (that is, she almost died) three times in my life – including the day I was born?  Or how she taught me everything I know about my faith in God?  Or how her beliefs and illnesses shaped my views on health?  Or how she’s without a doubt the World’s Greatest Cook?  Or about her extreme generosity? Or her talents as a dancer?  Or her unfulfilled dreams that could have used her other talents?  Do I talk about how she met my dad?  Or how hard it was for her to simply become a mother and the sicknesses she endured after giving birth?

I simply have too much to say about my mother, but I felt too sick these past two weeks to say any of it.  I even missed Mother’s Day itself last week.  But the  COG deadline is today, and I am finally feeling better.  I realized I can fully introduce my readers to my wonderful mother with one simple story.  While I was home sick, she brought me chicken soup.  Twice.  I’m not talking about that stuff they call “soup” that comes in a can – no, this is the real deal as only my mother (and deceased grandmother) could make it.  Oh. So. Good.  I’ve tried to duplicate this magic; I’ve failed.  To put this act of charity in perspective, I’m not a child sick in my room upstairs.  She’s 73 years old, but she drove twenty minutes to come to my house (dragging along my dad, also recovering from a bad cold).  She came because she knew it was the only thing that would help me get better.  And it did.

But I have a theory on that…I don’t think my cure came 100% from that delicious chicken soup.  No, not entirely.  I have no doubt it came from my mom’s love.  You see, she’s my chicken soup for my soul.  Who could ask for anything more?

Mom and Me, 1997

Mom and Me, 1997

[Written for the 72nd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Mothers]

Uncle, Uncle!

My dad's Bergmeister uncles: Joe, Max, Julius, 1938

My dad's Bergmeister uncles: Joe, Max, Julius, 1938

Both of my parents had several uncles.  My father had four – his father had one brother and his mother had three.  Uncle Joe Perk, his father’s brother, was the only uncle who was not born in the U.S.  Born Jozef Piontkowski in Warsaw, Poland, he opted for the shorter surname “Perk.”  The three Bergmeister uncles were Joe, Max, and Julius.  He saw these three uncles more frequently growing up, especially Uncle Max who owned a candy store.  As you can imagine, having an uncle with a candy store made my father the envy of most of the neighborhood children.

My mom's Uncle Stanley

My mom's Uncle Stanley

My mother had six “natural” uncles – four from her father’s side and two from her mother’s (and three more through marriage!).  Her father’s brothers were Louis, Eugene, Water, and Victor.  Uncle Victor was my mother’s favorite, and she was devastated when he died at a young age.  My mother was only 15 years when he died in 1951; he was only 32. Her uncles on her mother’s side were Uncle Charley and Uncle Stanley.  Though they were brothers, they also used different surnames much like my father’s father and uncle.  Uncle Charley used his actual name, Kazimierz or Casimir Zawodny.  His brother Stanley changed his last name to Zowney.

With Uncle Ken, 2002

With Uncle Ken, 2002

Hearing my parents talk about their uncles always made me want to have one, but both of my parents only had one sister each.  I don’t have any “natural” uncles!  But that doesn’t mean I grew up uncle-less – fortunately, both of my aunts provided me with uncles through marriage.  Uncle Ken entered my life when I was 11 years old –  I’ve already told a few stories about him in a tribute to my aunt.  Uncle Ken was everything I could ask for in an uncle since he had a great sense of humor and was always ready to have an interesting conversation with me.  We shared many fun times with my aunt, especially on my visits to their boat when we’d cruise along the Delaware River and enjoy sunny days and each other’s company.

Uncle Stan and Aunt Jean, 2006

Uncle Stan and Aunt Jean, 2006

My Uncle Stan married my Aunt Jean before I was born, but much to my regret they were not much a part of my life until I was in my 30’s!  We try to make up for lost time though, and he is always ready to help me in any way he can.  He’s also ready to share advice, good stories, and a bottle of wine – in short, another uncle with all the qualities anyone would want in an uncle!

With Dad and "Uncle" Frank, 1978

With Dad and "Uncle" Frank, 1978

Besides uncles related by blood and those related through marriage, there is also another category – uncles by circumstance.  Such was the case with a man who was a big part of my childhood and teenage years, Frank.  Regular readers have already seen a photo of my dad and his best buddy Frank, so you know that this was a guy with an extraordinary sense of humor.  I never referred to him as “Uncle Frank” – in fact, I called him “Mr.  S*****” until I was an adult.  But he and his wife were such good friends with my parents and I saw them so often that I think of them as my uncle and aunt.  Besides keeping me me laughing for so many years, my “uncle” Frank also taught me much about our Catholic faith and how to live a faith-filled life.

Even though neither of my parents had a brother, I’m grateful to my aunts for giving me uncles and to my parents for giving me an adopted uncle.  I’m proud to have had these three great men in my life!  Everyone needs an uncle, so if you don’t have one through birth or marriage, find a great guy to adopt as your uncle – you’ll be glad you did.

[Written for the 70th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Uncle, Uncle!]

I Remember Betsy

Today it was announced that actress Betsy Blair died on March 13 at the age of 85.  Unless you are a fan of classic film and/or Gene Kelly in particular, you might not recognize her name.  Her obituaries seem to highlight two main facts about her life: she was the first wife of Gene Kelly, and as an actress her most memorable role was her  Oscar-nominated performance in 1955’s Marty with Ernest Borgnine.  For me, the news of her death was more than just a headline because I had the opportunity to meet her on three different occasions.

In late 2001, I was contacted by Gene and Betsy’s daughter, Kerry, concerning a benefit showing of Singin’ in the Rain.  My Gene Kelly web site, The Gene Scene (1994 – 2012), was about seven years old and had a large enough following to be of use in promoting the event.  I asked Kerry a rather bold question: “I’m traveling to London in a few months…would your mother meet with me?”  I knew Betsy resided in London with her second husband, filmmaker Karl Reisz.  To my surprise, I received her phone number and the instruction to call her when I arrived.  I did, and I was further surprised with an invitation to her home for tea.  I wanted to meet her, but I didn’t expect such graciousness to a stranger.

Visiting Betsy Blair in 2002

Visiting Betsy Blair in 2002

Betsy Blair was always described in magazines or biographies as the plain “girl next door”.  When she invited me into her home, she became the “grandma next door” and immediately made me feel welcome.  As we chatted, I was a bit starstruck – here was a woman who, at the age of 18, was married to one of Hollywood’s hottest emerging stars and was the friend and hostess to many of the biggest film stars of the 1940’s and ’50’s.  Did it seem surreal to you, I asked, to have Judy Garland, Phil Silvers, and Lena Horne sitting around your living room on a Saturday night? She smiled and paused, as if thinking of how to describe it.  She finally shrugged and said, “It was all so normal – at the time, it was so new – I didn’t realize there was anything unusual about it!”

Betsy had the unique ability to immediately make me feel as if we had been friends for years.  She became as interested in my life as I was in hers.  I didn’t ask questions as if I was interviewing her; we merely conversed.  She understood that I admired the man who had once not only been a Hollywood star, but also the love of her life, and it was almost as if our mutual (if different) love for Gene bonded us together for that brief time.  We talked about many things over the course of an hour, including the old studio system for making movies, her current work, movies today, Gene’s widow, Stanley Donen, and Gene’s reputation as a perfectionist.  She told me that while filming On the Town, Frank Sinatra didn’t really want to rehearse the dancing, so he’d joke and fool around.  Gene and Stanley would pretend the cameras were rolling so they’d get some practice time in!

The Kelly Family, 1942

The Kelly Family, 1942

A few months after my trip, I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet her once again – this time with her daughter in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the benefit showing of Singin’ in the Rain.  At a dinner before the showing, it was Betsy who sought me out and rushed across a crowded room to say hello as if I was an old friend.  More of her “down to earth” personality emerged throughout the evening as she shared a smoke with fans outside the theater and answered questions from two young Gene fans.  One rather young fan excitedly asked a rather personal question, “What was it like to kiss Gene Kelly?”  She smiled in my direction and gave a rather eloquent answer to the child: “When you love someone, it’s very special to kiss them – no matter who they are.  Gene and I were married and in love, so it was very special.”

In 2003, Betsy published her memoirs, The Memory of All That.  She told me about it during my first visit with her – including that the title was not her first choice.  Her favorite title was Lucky in Love but since the book wasn’t only about her love life, the editors “didn’t like it”.  She said, “I’m not sure who’s really going to want to read it anyway – there’s no scandal in it!”   I met her again at a book signing in New York City, and again it was like a family reunion.

Betsy’s modesty is apparent even in her name – she wasn’t Liz, a flashy star’s name, but plain and simple Betsy.  She was born Elizabeth Boger in Cliffside, NJ.  After taking dancing lessons for years, she went to New York City at the age of 16 to get a job as a dancer.  She met Kelly when she auditioned for a show at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe.  There she mistook him, the show’s choreographer, for the busboy; he hired her anyway.  Gene was, at the age of 28, twelve years older than Betsy.  She appreciated his sophistication, and he became smitten.  Over the next two years, Gene advanced from choreographer to Broadway star to a Hollywood contract, and their relationship also grew.  The couple married literally on their way to Hollywood.  In 1942, their first and only child was born, Kerry.

In the late 1940’s, Betsy appeared in some films.  But her most famous “role”, at least according to news reports, seems to be the accusation that she was a communist.  It almost lost her the role in Marty, and she became blacklisted moreso for her support of others who were blacklisted rather than any involvement in communist activities herself.  Gene and Betsy divorced in 1957, but she never had anything bad to say about him afterwards (nor did he about her).  She later married Karel Reisz and continued to work in films in Europe.

This weekend, newspapers and film sites will remember Betsy Blair as Gene’s wife, Karel’s wife, Ernest’s co-star (despite other film appearances, that was her most lauded role), and more.  What you may not read about is her unassuming and gracious nature, her intelligence, and her wit.  I wish I could have known her better, or longer, but I am grateful that my life was able to brush hers briefly.  Good-bye, Betsy – I’ll miss you!  Requiescat in pace.

Memories of Aunt Joan

Joan Pater, 1932

Joan Pater, 1932

Joan Delores Pater was born on August 30, 1932 in Philadelphia, PA.  She was the first born child of Henry and Mae Pater.  Their family was made complete three years later with the birth of a second daughter, Anita Jane, who was born in 1935. Despite their closeness in age, the two sisters did not get along from the time they were children.  Each had different interests and hobbies from their youth through to adulthood.  Both, however, had a great sense of humor!  For several years, the Pater girls and their parents lived on Mercer Street with their maternal grandfather, Joseph Zawodny, until his death in 1944.

Joan's wedding portrait, 1949

Joan's wedding portrait, 1949

Anita Pater, Henry Pater, Joan & Richard

Anita Pater, Henry Pater, Joan & Richard

In 1949, Joan married at age 17 – the third generation of Pater’s to do so.  Both her father, Henry, and her grandfather, Louis, were 17 when they got married – both to slightly older women.  She married a boy from the neighborhood, Richard.  Although they were happy while dating, marriage was not what she expected.  Her husband’s personality seemed to change overnight, and he became verbally and physically abusive.  Despite these difficulties, the couple had a son, Richard, on August 22, 1951.


My cousin Ricky

Baby Ricky became the joy of their lives, but he also brought great sadness.  Ricky was born with a heart defect, and he never properly matured or learn to talk or walk.  He was a happy baby, and he loved to flirt with ladies!  His short life ended on December 9, 1952.  He was only fifteen months old.  His entire family was devastated by the death — his mother Joan most of all.  After that experience, she knew that she did not want to have any more children because the pain of losing one was too great. Joan and Richard remained married, but their son’s death added to their marital problems.  The couple split up about five years later.

Joan began to work as a secretary at Anheuser-Busch in Philadelphia – much to her family’s amusement for she lacked the two skills essential for secretarial work, stenography and typing.  Joan simply made up her own style of shorthand, and she must have learned how to type because she remained with the company for several years!

Aunt Joan holding Donna Joan (that's me), April 1967

Aunt Joan holding Donna Joan (that's me), April 1967

Joan’s sister, Anita, married in 1956 and had two children, Drew in 1959 and myself in 1967.  We gave Joan a new job: Aunt Joan.  She relished the role of aunt; we became “her kids”.  When Drew was very young, Joan lived with the family for about two years.  Even after moving, she visited on weekends to “play”. When I was in kindergarten, Aunt Joan accompanied my mother as chaperones on a field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.  One day several weeks after the trip, she came with my mother to pick me up from school.  One of my classmates who had been in our group on the field trip recognized her.  The girl shouted loudly, “I know you – you’re from the zoo!”

Another memorable recognition, or more appropriate, a mis-recognition, occurred years later.  In 1978, my mother had surgery.  Aunt Joan went with my brother and I to pick her up from the hospital.  As we all stood with my mother waiting for her discharge, a nurse brought over a wheelchair.  Wheeling past my mother directly to Aunt Joan, the nurse asked her to get in.  “It’s not for me! How bad do I look?” she yelled as we all laughed.

Joan and Ken Silvers, 1993

Joan and Ken Silvers, 1993

In 1978, Aunt Joan became re-acquainted with someone she knew from the neighborhood where she lived as a teenager – Ken Silvers.  Ken had also been married and divorced, and he had two preteen daughters.  Joan and Ken fell in love, and this time the marriage was forever. Ken was a former Navy submariner who had served on the USS Tusk. That experience, as well as time spent as a commercial tugboat captain, gave him a love for boating that he passed on to Joan.  For many years, they belonged to the Wissinoming Yacht Club in Philadelphia.  Despite the name, there was nary a yacht among the members’ boats, which were mainly powerboats, sailboats, or cruisers – which is what my new Uncle Ken owned.  On their small boat, Uncle Ken’s seat was labeled as “the Captain’s Chair” – but Aunt Joan’s was labeled as “the Admiral’s Chair”!

Ken served as “Commodore” of their yacht club for some years, and he occasionally wore a “Captain’s” hat.  Once, around 1978-79, the pair took the boat down to Atlantic City for the weekend.  While at a bar at one of the brand new casinos, they couldn’t believe how nice the bartender was and how they kept getting free drinks.  Later that night, they realized why – Captain & Tennille” were playing at the casino!  While my aunt & uncle did not necessarily resemble the singing duo, a huge hit at the time, my uncle’s mustache and captain’s hat were enough to confuse the bartender!

Aunt Joan and Aunt Donna on "the boat" with Natalie, 2001

Aunt Joan and Aunt Donna on "the boat" with Natalie, 2001

As I grew up, I tried to visit Aunt Joan when I could.  At a minimum, visits would take place for birthdays and other holidays.  My favorite visits were during the summertime when I would not visit their house, but the boat instead.  Occasionally, my uncle would take us for a ride on the Delaware River.  Other times, we’d simply sit on the boat at the dock.  We’d always have food – with my aunt trying to get me to eat as much of it as possible.  This became a much-loved ritual.  Often, Uncle Ken would grill lobster tails on a little propane grill.  Alternately, we’d have steamed crabs or even steak.  As we enjoyed the food, Uncle Ken would smile, wink, and remark, “What are the poor people eating tonight?”  It became our signature comment every time we feasted on the boat.

In 2004, I visited on August 29th to celebrate Aunt Joan’s 72nd birthday, which was the next day.  It was a great visit!  The weather was beautiful – sunny, but not hot, with a cool breeze.  We took the boat out for a short ride on the river, then returned to the dock for a meal of crabs and beer.  And birthday cake!  It was relaxing and fun, and I remember talking with my aunt about how good she looked for her age.  She commented on how good she felt.  Looking back, I wish I had stayed just a little longer to visit.  My last memory of my aunt is her waving good-bye from the dock as I drove away.  She died suddenly six days later from a heart attack.

I realize now that there are a lot of things I never got to know about my aunt’s life.  But, after her death, I realized one thing for sure – I was loved – truly, deeply, unconditionally.  I didn’t always give her the respect or love I should have, but I loved her – just probably not as much as she loved me.  Since I am also an aunt without any children of my own, I now understand her in a completely different way.  I hope that my nieces and nephews will know how much I love them like the way I know Aunt Joan loved us all.  I miss you, Aunt Joan!

frame2In Loving Memory

Joan Delores Pater Silvers

30 Aug 1932 – 04 Sep 2004

[Written for the 68th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Tribute to Women]

The Discontent of My Winter

Once upon a time, growing up in Philadelphia, I enjoyed playing in the snow.

Building a snowman, circa winter of 1970-71

Building a snowman, circa winter of 1970-71

Brother Drew, Lou C the cat, Shona, & Donna

Winter of 1976-77. Left: Donna and friend Shona Ferguson. Right: Brother Drew, Lou C the cat, Shona, & Donna in my backyard

Sledding, circa 1978

Sledding, circa 1977. The hill became the parking garage for Frankford Hospital.

Then, I grew up.  As a grown-up, snow became rather unpleasant for two reasons.  First, I had to shovel it.  Since being cold and physical exertion don’t fall anywhere on my top 100 list of desirable things to do, you can only imagine how much I enjoy that activity.  Second, I had to drive to work in it. To educate all of the snow-lovers out there that think I’m a wimp because of that statement, the street I lived on in Philadelphia never saw a snow plow until I was in my 30’s.  Places north of us that routinely get twelve feet of snow have efficient procedures in place for its removal.  My city did not.  The main roads are plowed and salted, of course, but the “secondary” roads were not.  My parents’ street must have been a “tertiary” street, because it was left behind even when the city got around to the secondary streets (I am happy to say this has since been corrected since the late 1990’s).  As a result, once a significant snowfall occurred, our street would become a sheet of ice.  My past experience navigating a vehicle in these conditions would qualify me to drive a zamboni®.  To drive to snowless roads, one had a choice between going around a curve and up a hill, going down a steep, icy hill, or maneuvering a bit out of the way on icy but flat streets.  The latter route became my favorite – and at times I considered parking my car on the clean street and walking the 3-4 blocks to my house.

After extreme-shoveling and driving on ice, snow lost any appeal it may have once had in my youth.  Even though Philadelphia does not usually get much snow during winter, we have had our incidents.  The most famous of all was the Blizzard of 1996 which took place from January 6-8.  Although the blizzard hit most of the East Coast, Philadelphia had the distinction of receiving more snow than anywhere else.  The offical snowfall total was 30.7 inches, and of that, 27.6 inches fell in a 24-hour period – a new record.

My parents' backyard after the Blizzard of '96.  Compare to the Winter 1976-77 photos above - it is the same fence.

My parents' backyard after the Blizzard of '96. Compare to the Winter 1976-77 photos above - it is the same fence.

With that much snow, the city had difficulty plowing even the main roads – there was no hope for neighborhood streets.  There was simply nowhere to put all of the snow, so they dumped it into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, which later caused flooding problems.  The main concern for my family was how to eventually drive off of the street.  In fact, my mother and I were scheduled to go to Florida the following week – the only time we’ve ever traveled anywhere together.  We were convinced we’d still be snowed in by then.  But, fortunately, a miraculous pick-up truck with a plow attached came down our street.  We still had to shovel about five feet of the street to get to that lane, but it was better than all of it!

Besides the occasional 2-3 feet of snow, even more spectacular was the Ice Storms that occurred frequently during the winter of 1993-94.  At this time (as well as the Blizzard of ’96), I had a 22-mile commute to work down I-95, a road that can be deadly even on sunny and dry days thanks to Philadelphia drivers (and this was before everyone had a cell phone stuck to their face).  Pretty?  Yes!  Fun?  You’ve got to be kidding.

As for winter sports, I skied.  Once.  The best part about it was coming in from the cold to a warm place and having something hot to drink.  It’s just not for me, probably because my body is colder than average and it is just uncomfortable to be below sixty degrees.

This is the story of my discontent of winter.  Why do I live in Philadelphia?  I ask myself that question often.  It’s home.  It may not be forever, but for now it’s home.  The “fun” part of winter got left behind with my childhood, never to return.  Well, maybe it will return some day…if I get to spend winter somewhere warm.  The photo below was taken in December, and I was  finally content during winter!

Bellows Air Force Station, Hawaii, December 2002

Bellows Air Force Station, Hawaii, December 2002

[Written for the 64th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Winter Photo Essay.]

Essay title is a play on Shakespeare’s famous line from Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” (also used as a novel title by John Steinbeck.)

2008: A Look Back

This time of year you can’t read the paper, watch television, listen to the radio, or peruse the internet without tripping over a “Top Ten” or “Best of” list.  It’s fun to hear other people’s views on the best and the worst and argue with friends on your personal lists.  I always enjoy New Year’s Eve as a time to not only look forward to the new year, but also look back on the one that has just past before the door slams shut forever.

I don’t keep a diary or a calendar, so looking back is usually a challenge and a memory exercise.  It always seems that “not much happened”, which usually sparks a long list of “gotta do this” for the upcoming year.  But, if you reflect on it long enough, memories come back to you, both good and bad, that helped to weave the tapestry that became 2008.

In the world of genealogy, the most significant event for me was starting this blog in January (more to come on that in about a week!).  From it, I’ve gained ideas for articles, encouragement to write more, creative inspiration, and a lot of people I have never met that I now think of as friends.  The most significant event with my family research this year was discovering the naturalization papers for my great-grandfather, Jan Piontkowski, which in turn led to his previously elusive passenger arrival record.  Finding my grandfather’s Poland-born brother’s baptismal record was a thrill, because now I have a definite location in the city of Warsaw to search for the parents’ marriage record (on my to-do list for 2009).  I also connected with some cousins and as a result received some photos of my Pater great-grandfather’s sisters.  Bergmeister cousins in Germany also found me as a result of this blog.

In more personal genealogical news, my father’s first cousin died, we welcomed the news of a nephew’s birth in 2009, my cousin added a daughter to the family in September, and my niece and nephew gained a new cousin in September!  I also said good-bye to a dear friend, Deirdre Mullen, who died in October at the age of 87 years young.  I hadn’t seen Deirdre’s smile since we met on a trip to Italy in 2000, but I received her smile at least twice a year in the form of birthday and Christmas cards.  Continue to pray for me, friend.

This year I tried to spend more time with family and friends – but it never feels like enough, despite some memorable dinners and events.  I finally put a name on something that had tormented me for a while – diverticulitis!  But, I also found out the one food that seems to cause the problem for me (peanuts, oh how I miss you…).  My travels for work were almost non-existent, but my vacation took me to Venice, where I learned it’s not always sunny but still beautiful, and Croatia, where I learned that you can’t get there from here, there are few vowels, and they make great wine.

Despite some great, and therefore unusual, summer weather locally, I somehow only made it to the beach once.  That mistake will not happen in 2009.  I said good-bye to my beloved, beleaguered car after seven years.  After waiting for 28 years, I finally saw the Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series!  My connection to other “world news” was when I watched my retirement money quickly disappear by leaps and bounds, and I finally developed an interest in politics – only to suffer the agony of defeat.

I’m usually behind when it comes to music, books, and other forms of entertainment, so my “best of” lists don’t necessarily include anything that was actually released in 2008.  Favorite reads this year:  Forever by Pete Hamill, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, Replay by Ken Grimwood, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  And hundreds of others I can’t quite recall! In music, I loved Sister Hazel’s Before the Amplifiers: Live Acoustic, found and adored the Foo Fighers’ cover to Band on the Run, and enjoyed my iPod enormously.  I remembered how much I love Indiana Jones, but wished my memory would have been preserved as it was without The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to defile it.  I relished the fact that Lost got way better, then was disappointed when it disappeared for months.  There’s always a new show I “kill” by liking it – good-bye New Amsterdam – you were a genealogist’s delight!

Finally, the best things about the year were falling in love with my nephew Nicholas’ smile, my niece Ava’s beauty and wit, and my niece Natalie’s maturing grace and beauty.  My beau and I laughed uncontrollably while on vacation, remembering how good it is to just be stoo-pid and relaxed.  I enjoyed listening to my parents’ stories and spending time with them. I toasted to life with my best friends.  All in all, I’d say it was a very good year.  See ya later, 2008 – there’s a new friend knocking on my door!

When Times Change

The other day I learned of the death of an old friend – the VCR.  A news report told me that VHS tapes are no longer being produced.  While that does not come as a complete surprise, it still shocked me.  Why? Because it means that I am getting old.  When inventions of your childhood are replaced by newer, better inventions and you start to reminisce about the “good old days”, you’ve become a relic yourself!

SYSTEM, Video Home.  Died 27 December 2008 after a long period of declining health. Mr. System, called VHS by his friends, was the son of the late Mr. & Mrs. Betamax.  He was thirty-two years old and was predeceased by his spouse, VHS-C.  VHS is survived by children, DVD and HD-DVD, and grandchildren Tivo and Blue-Ray.

Several years ago my parents began to reminisce about their childhoods.  After listening to them wax poetic about the ice chest, ice deliveries, wood burning stoves, gas lamplighters, horse-drawn wagons, radio programs, and incoming phone calls to the store down the street, I jokingly asked, “What century were you guys born in?”  I knew they were born in the 1930s, but the things they remembered seem so far removed from my own life that surely they were kidding.  But then my mother posed an interesting response: “Look at all the changes that have happened just in your lifetime and you’ll see what we mean!”

She was right, of course – mothers always are, and it suddenly dawned on me that the future was now.  When I was in the second grade, the phone company (or rather, The phone company since there was only one back then) sponsored a fun contest – design the phone of the future. For kids reading this today, realize that phones had cords back then.  I’m even old enough to know what a rotary phone is – and to have actually used one!  So, we all designed fabulous phones that were more akin to science fiction than to reality.  One of the most popular designs was a phone to go in your car…just imagine!  A phone in your car!  Others tried to imagine a way to know who was calling.  My design was a “video phone” where you could actually see the person you were talking to on a little screen.  We all had fun with that contest, but I don’t think any of us imagined that most of our dream phones would be a reality by the time we were 30.  They became reality, and then some.  Cell phones, caller ID, VoIP? My first cell phone was barely worthy of being labeled a “mobile” phone – it was a ten pound clunky box with the receiver attached by a cord.  Today’s cell phones are smaller than we ever thought possible, and they do things that would simply astound my grandparents, like take photos and play movies.

There have been many other inventions since my youth.  The ATM is an amazing concept – really, kids, you used to have to go inside of a bank during working hours to get some money. Over the years I’ve said good-bye to vinyl and cassettes and I’ve embraced CDs and MP3s.  Digital photography took longer to gain a hold on me, but now I can’t go back to my once-beloved film.  But the VCR and its VHS tapes was simply one of the most magical inventions of my youth.  When the Betamax appeared, I begged my parents for one.  I loved television, and the thought of being able to watch my favorites whenever I wanted to was intoxicating.  But, the price tag was much too high – similar to today’s “flat screen” tvs – and it was out of the question.

We finally got a VCR in 1985, rather late to the party.  Amazingly, that same machine still works after hundreds of hours of recording and many more of playback.  While I prefer my movies on DVD now for quality, I continue to use a VCR to tape tv shows I want to watch later.  But apparently not for much longer…

Is this how my parents felt when record albums went away? Or how my grandparents felt when that last horse-drawn delivery cart came down the street?

I can’t even begin to imagine what devices will be part of my nieces and nephews lives 30-40 years from now.  All I know is that, back when I was their age, if you would have shown me a DVD player that you could hold on your lap in the back seat of the car, I’d have been dumbstruck.  You see, back in the “good” old days, all we had for entertainment on car rides was looking out the window, conversation, and fighting with siblings.  Well, at least they still have that…

Which generation is living the good days?  All of us! What do inventions have to do with genealogy? While reminiscing about them won’t help you find any ancestral names, realizing we are all a part of history is important – even “historical” things we take for granted like telephones and televisions.

Good-bye, VHS.  I will miss you.  But, all things must pass.  And, in time, we’re all replaced by the next generation!

A Letter from Santa?

Well, not quite…  Just before Christmas, 1975, when I was eight years old, one afternoon the mailman delivered a curious letter marked “Special Delivery”, “Air Mail”, and the most exciting mark of all – “North Pole”!  Was it really a letter from Santa addressed to me?  No, but it was the next best thing – a letter from one of Santa’s elves, Ziggy!  The letter read as follows:

North Pole – 9 Days to Go -16 December 1975

Dear Donna,

Santa is very busy.  He asked me to write this letter because I am assigned to Philadelphia in the U.S.  Twenty years ago I worked in Spain.  Now I only work the U.S. since I learned how to read and write English.

Santa says all the kids want the same toys this year.  He promised to do the best he can do to give you what is on your list.

Do you still have that black & white cat?  Was your First Communion Day a nice one? Don’t tell any other kids about this letter because I don’t have time to write any of them and they’ll be jealous.

Felice Navidad.  No!  No!  I mean Merry Christmas!


The letter was printed in block lettering that looked suspiciously like my father’s.  The signature, however, did not resemble my father’s handwriting.  I was confused.  I was convinced he wrote it, but that did not diminish my belief in Santa Claus one bit!  I remember thinking, even at 8 years old, that it was nice of my parents to do that for me.  At the same time, I wondered if it was real – what if?  The black and white cat was Lou C (see “Cats Ruled This Family”).  The reason he asked about my First Communion Day was because it had only been about two weeks earlier. [Our parish priest decided our class was “not ready” in May, when First Communions are usually held.  About 160 mothers nearly had a stroke when he told our parents the new date in December.  They had visions of us freezing in our white dresses and suits.  But God and our mothers’ prayers prevailed…on December 6, 1975, the temperature in Philadelphia was 57 degrees, 20+ degrees warmer than usual.  But, I digress…]

I bet you didn’t know that Santa had an elf named Ziggy.  My parents told me long before that Ziggy accompanied Santa on his visits, so it wasn’t a surprise to see the name.  Looking at the letter today with older eyes, I see a few other things.  Like it appears that Santa is running a corporation of some sort with elves assigned to different parts of the world.  He’s too busy?  Doing what – shopping?  The elves are the ones making the toys, right?  He promises to do his best? I thought you sent your letter to Santa to get what you wanted!  Apparently Santa is a slave-driver, because poor Ziggy is too busy to even write to any other kids.  And it’s a good thing he learned English, because his memory of how to say Feliz Navidad is a little rusty!

With my old(er) eyes, I guess I’ve been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age” but like “faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance” it’s the wonderful things parents do for their children that “make glad the heart of childhood”. And that is what I see clearly!  Thanks for the memory, Ziggy.  I hope you’re not retired so you can pay a visit to my house this year.  I moved since then, and there’s no cat to welcome you, but I have a feeling you’ll visit anyway – if you’re not too busy!  [Quotes from Francis Church’s letter to Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897.]

Being Traditional in an Untraditional Family

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.  ~ Gilbert K. Chesterton


My family has a tradition for the holidays that seems to be unique among all of the wonderful and varied customs that society has come to label as “Tradition”.  You see, our tradition is — we’re rather untraditional.  For me, one who greatly values customs, ritual, patterns – TRADITION – this fact was rather hard to accept.  After all, traditions are passed down through the generations.  So, where did I get my love for all things traditional when my own family really doesn’t have any traditions?  Or, is our very “untraditionalness” [sic] a tradition in and of itself?

I can’t say we’ve never done the same thing twice, because we have.  But, nothing we’ve ever done is so set in stone in the traditional sense that it meets the definition of “tradition”.  I think those of us who value traditions find comfort in them.  With traditions, we know what to expect.  There is no fear of the unknown, no fear of change.  Traditions or rituals are comforting to me for these reasons.  I was always a tradition-oriented person.  But I don’t know why, because one would think that a person develops a love of traditions from experiencing them.  In my case, that’s not true.  It’s not that my family didn’t care for traditions, they just didn’t care about them enough to adopt or preserve them.  Which left me longing for traditions!  I was jealous of families in old movies that celebrated the holidays with special foods, events, or items passed down from generation to generation.  In my family’s case, we may have adopted some customs for a few years, but it was never so dependent, so essential to the holiday that gave it the required “tradition” label.  So my memories of the holiday traditions of my family seem a little schizophrenic!

For Thanksgiving, we had a tradition of the big meal with all of the great Thanksgiving foods like roasted turkey, Mom’s stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuts, etc.  I suppose that this feels like the most “traditional” of any holiday meal to me.  But, we were not so strict about where we celebrate, or when.  For two years, we celebrated by going downtown to see a show instead of our usual meal, which we probably had, with all of the trimmings, on another day of the week instead.  Some years my brother didn’t join us, other years one of his friends or one of mine did.  One year, my parents, their friends, and my priest-friend’s mother celebrated Thanksgiving in his rectory, because it was his first holiday as a priest and he was “on call”.  Some years we ate at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, and one year at her parents’ house.  For the last few years, I have had the meal at my house.  And every other year, my oldest niece celebrates with her mother’s family, so we usually have two Thanksgiving meals so we are all together at some point.  While the food may be familiar, the locale is most decidedly not.

Christmas is the holiday most associated with traditions, but once again my family never really decided on any one thing to “adopt” forever and ever.  Meal menus changed every few years.  Sometimes gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve, and sometimes on Christmas Day.  For several years, we’d have a Christmas movie marathon. (But not the “usual” Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life – we watched Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and Christmas in Connecticut.)  Sometimes the tree was up and the house was decorated, and sometimes it wasn’t.  For several years, my parents’ street adhered to strict decoration requirements, and the street looks fabulous as everyone had the same lights and design.  But, none of these things stayed for more than a few years.

What always stays the same?  The reason for all of the celebrating – the religious meaning of Christmas.  We’d always attend Mass, but there was no tradition as to whether it would be the Vigil, the Midnight Mass, or on Christmas Day.  Going to church was the important part, not when.

I’ve developed a few traditions on my own over the years – certain songs must be listened to, ornaments are collected as I travel, and the holiday season must be celebrated with family and friends who are like family to me.

So, we don’t do the Seven Fishes, or Wigilia, or gather around the piano to sing carols while chesnuts pop in the fire place, or bake tons of cookies every year.  All of those traditions sound like a lot of fun, but I have fun anyway in spite of not celebrating in traditional ways.  The holidays used to make me sad – perhaps I put too much stock in fancy traditions and what I did not have.  But by remembering what I have every year, and remembering the Love that makes it all possible, the Christmas holidays are truly joyous.  That is my tradition!

[Written for the 61st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Traditions!]

Things I’m Thankful For on My Genealogical Quest

As the country celebrates Thanksgiving this week, we’re more aware than usual of how much we value our family and friends.  With regard to genealogy, I decided to write about the things I am thankful for on my genealogical journey.

logoflp1. The Library – Back in the days before the internet (No, Virginia, it did not always exist!), it was the library that allowed me to learn about genealogy – how to get started, where to go, what was available, etc.  The rest is history!

2. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) – I haven’t been to my regional branch in years, but visits there were essential in the early days of my research. Besinarades, you had to visit – no records were available online anywhere!  I’m glad that NARA exists and has safeguarded these documents that have helped so many of us find our roots.  I have fond memories of soundex codes and cranking microfilm machines.  Once I even visited the National Archives in Washington, DC.  If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it is truly impressive and well worth the visit.

familysearch3. The LDS – millions of records filmed and stored away in some NORAD-like cave, just waiting for people like me to find some obscure town in Europe to research?  Who knew?  I still don’t fully understand the “why” of what they do, but I don’t need to.  I am so grateful that I can read old German and Polish records in the comfort of New Jersey.

priest_collar4. Catholic priests – I’m thankful for all of the priests that took the time to pull out their old record books to help me.  One local priest thanked me for the opportunity to look through the old books, because it reminded him of his role in the continuity of the Church when he saw the notations of those who served in the parish years before he was born.  A priest in Poland invited me and my translator into the rectory as he tried to find a record in a book from the 1820’s.  And it was my friend Fr. Lou that helped me start the journey overseas – it was a baptismal record he found that finally confirmed a town name in Germany as my immigrant’s point of origin.

rootsweb5. Rootsweb mailing lists – Before everyone had a web site and a blog, mailing lists and message boards were a way to learn from each other.

1step6. Steve Morse – Mr. Morse’s code enabled me to finally find some of my more elusive immgrants!  The man is a genius.  Thanks to his “one step” searches, I continually have more reasons to thank him.

hands7. Helpful strangers – In addition to the priests and list members above, I think all genealogists have – at one time or another – been helped by the kindness of strangers.  Here’s a thank you to all of those librarians, cemetery record-keepers, funeral homes, and residents of towns foreign to me that took a moment to help!

facebook-gene8. The genea-blogging community – I wasn’t sure about all this blogging business, but who would not be encouraged by such a warm welcome from a bunch of strangers?  I now call them friends, and I learn something new about genealogy every week from them.

9. My ancestors – Many people wonder why genealogists spend so much time digging up the past.  I hope that by finding the name of some ancestor from centuries ago, a name literally not spoken on this earth in years, I can bring some form of honor or respect to their names.  They can be remembered.  Thanks also to my great-grandparents for making that long journey from your homes that has allowed me to call the United States of America my home!

easter08110. My nieces and nephews – You are too young to show any interest in Aunt Donna’s papers, charts, and books right now, but I hope that some day you’ll take all of my work and pass it on.  Thank you for making my personal history full of fun, love, and laughter!

Loving the Phillies…It’s in My Genes

We’re nearing the end of a competition between two tough opponents.  It’s red vs. blue, but my hometown is seeing only red.  Wait – I hope you don’t think I’m talking about the election!  It’s all about baseball, America’s pastime.  More importantly, the fuss is about the “fall classic”!  The Philadelphia Phillies are poised to win their first World Series in 28 long years…and their second ever since the club was founded.  Considering that they were founded in 1884 and are the longest one-city one-name club in baseball history, that means Phillies’ fans have endured a lot more defeats than wins – which is why this town gets so excited when we have a winner!

I am definitely not a sports fanatic, but I really enjoy baseball and, occasionally, hockey.  When you come from a city that loves sports as much as Philadelphia, you can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of it all.   (Well, except for football…I think if the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl I’d go out shopping that night since there wouldn’t be any lines.  I just don’t like the sport and can’t get excited about it.)

Watching the games for both the National League Championship Series and the World Series has brought back a lot of memories – surprisingly, a lot of family memories.  Sporting events of historic proportions, at least those for the teams you root for, burn into your memory.  The act of remembering where you were when the team won becomes similar to remembering when JFK was assassinated or the Challenger exploded or the Towers fell – everyone seems to have a memory.

My family isn’t as crazy about sports as the rest of the city, but we do love the Phillies.  My grandfather used to take my father to see the team play at Shibe Park in the 1940‘s and ‘50‘s.  My mother as a teenager in the ‘50s was smitten by Richie Ashburn and the Whiz Kids.  One of the most striking stats of this entire World Series has been the revelation that several of the Phillies – and most of the opposing team, the Tampa Bay Rays – were not even born the last time that the Phillies won the Series in 1980!   I was thirteen years old, and while I do not remember my family watching a lot of baseball in general during my childhood, I have specific memories of watching the NLCS and World Series that year.  The team included such greats as Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, Pete Rose, and Larry Bowa.  I remember the excitement when they won!  Little did we know that it would be a long wait to feel that sort of excitement again.

In 1993, my parents and I once again became infected with the baseball bug – only this time much earlier in the season, not just fair-weather fans at the end.  We became hooked by the spunky “Fightin’s” and watched every game that season.  Unfortunately, this made their ultimate demise even harder to bear.  But let’s not spoil the memory…  The 1993 team had the image of being loud, dirty, and obnoxious.  But not to their fans!  We loved the hairy, drinking bunch because they could play ball so well.  Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk – you couldn’t make those sorts of characters up in a movie.  My favorite wasn’t quite the “bad boy” as the others, right fielder Jim Eisenreich.  The best part about that year was how the team worked together as a team…you never knew who would become the hero of the game, or the villain.  For the championship series we beat our nemesis, the clean cut boys called the Atlanta Braves who were unanimously loathed by this city despite their ball-playing talents.  The World Series that year had many memorable moments, but none as devastating as the loss of the series – the moment closer Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams gave up a homer to Toronto Blue Jay Joe Carter.  Recall the moment to anyone in Philadelphia and they’ll react with either a sad sigh of what might have been or some interesting curses involving Mitch’s parental makeup.  But, what a ride it was…that year’s team is still much beloved.

In fact, the 1993 team is so loved that the new kids on the block – our present team – is actually sick of hearing about them.  Tonight I hope our 2008 team will jump up a step in the city’s regard by doing what the 1993 team could not – win the World Series.  I hate to admit it, but this year I’m a fair-weather fan.  I stuck with the Phillies for several years after the ’93 defeat, watching every game on tv and some at the Vet.  But, one can only take losing for so long.  I gave up (losing cable contributed, since the games are mostly broadcast on a cable channel).  This year I jumped on for the NLCS, hesitant to get invested in another loss.  How wrong could I have been!  A team with good pitching?  Good relief pitching?  In Philadelphia?  When did this happen, and why didn’t anyone tell me?  I’m in love with the new Phillies and excited to watch history in the making.  Cole Hamels reminds me of the legendary Steve Carlton with his poise and his pitching.  Ryan Howard, Jimmie Rollins, Shane Victorino…what’s not to love?  They play hard, and just like my old favorite team someone always steps up to the plate (pun intended).  So, I feel fairly confident at tonight’s winning combination – Cole Hamels, home turf, and a team that finally started hitting last night (here‘s hoping the wind dies down and the rain goes somewhere else until tomorrow). I can’t wait to hear Harry Kalas, the Phils’ legendary “voice”, announce the win (when Harry announced the starting line-up last night for Fox, one of the broadcasters remarked, “If I had that voice, I’d sit around the house all day talking to myself just so I could hear it.”)

When the 2008 Phillies take the field, they aren’t alone…the hopes and dreams of past teams, the city, and our ancestors who rooted in the past are with them.  Go Phils!  We love you even if most of you guys aren’t old enough to remember the 1980 championship!

From a Far Country

They have called [me] from a far country — far, but always so close through the communion in the Christian faith and tradition…

October 16, 2008 marked the 30th anniversary of Karol Wojtyła becoming Pope John Paul II – the first Slavic Pope ever and the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th Century.  In 1978, this was a remarkable event.  It was the beginning of a papacy that would not only leave a lasting imprint on the Catholic Church, but on the entire world.  When John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, 27 years after the conclave that elected him, billions of people around the world would mourn the loss, regardless of their own faith or creed.  He may have ruled over the Church, but his message and the love he shared was for all people.

For Polish-American Heritage Month, I wanted to write about a Pole that I admire, and John Paul II is definitely my favorite Pole.  But much has been written about the Pope; instead I wish to focus on the Man Who Would Be Pope, Karol Wojtyła.  To understand Karol, one must discover Polish culture and history.  For the cardinals may have taken Karol out of Poland, but no one could ever take Poland from his heart and soul.

Karol was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920.  The town today appears to be relatively quiet, small by American standards – one might even use the adjective “quaint” because of its Old World European charm and its bucolic setting among the rolling hills of Ślaskie province.  But Wadowice was far from a “backwater” town even back in the 1920s – it was actually a “hot spot” for Polish culture, literature, and theater.  Polish culture so permeated young Karol’s life that its ideals and philosophy influenced him for the rest of his life.

Yesterday I wrote about some of the authors of the Polish Romantic movement.  As a youth in Wadowice, Karol first learned and loved Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, and Słowacki.  Their view of history and its spiritual dimension greatly affected the future Pope.  From them, he learned about the ideals of freedom and truth.  In addition to developing a love for Polish literature, young Karol was exposed to the theater.  Wadowice had a very active amateur theater which performed everything from Polish classics to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare.  Karol decided on his vocation in life…to become an actor.  He was very well regarded as a performer, and he began to write plays himself in addition to poetry.  It was the second love of his life behind the love he had for God.

At college, Karol continued his studies of language and literature, still intending to become an actor.  Hitler interrupted his plans.  As the Germans advanced into Poland, Polish life changed.  University professors were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, but the intelligentsia that remained decided to operate the college covertly, which allowed Karol to continue his studies.  During that time, he and his friends founded the Rhapsodic Theater.  The theater group was essentially a resistance movement, albeit one that resisted the Nazis with culture instead of weapons.  For Polish cultural expression was forbidden in Nazi-occupied Poland; participating in cultural or religious activities was a capital offense.  Chopin’s music could not be performed, and libraries were destroyed.  The goal of the Rhapsodic Theater was resistance through culture – they sought to save Polish culture from extinction, and by keeping that flame burning they believed that Poland as a nation would survive.

Such a non-violent form of resistance may strike some as odd, but it was as daring as a more overt or violent expression of resistance.  Under the Nazis, it did not matter whether a gathering of people in someone’s home were occupied with reciting Polish poetry or assembling incendiary devices, for the result was the same: all would be arrested.  The group of young actors and playwrights prepared productions and practiced in hiding, avoiding military patrols, after they had worked all day at various “hard labor” jobs such as Karol’s job at a stone quarry.   Their clandestine rehearsals and performances were all with a purpose: to save Polish culture from extinction, and to restore the very soul of Poland so that it could one day recover.

It was also during this time of war that Karol realized a calling to the priesthood – since the Church’s activities were curtailed with over 3,500 priests imprisoned in concentration camps, his religious training was in an “underground” seminary.  It is a fascinating period of Karol’s life, and if all you know is “the rest of the story” and where his priesthood eventually leads, I encourage you to read more about his life.

Of course, Karol didn’t just read and recite poetry; he wrote his own.  His poetry is deep, moving, emotional.  One of my favorites is one that he wrote in 1939 at the age of nineteen in which he reflects on the death of his mother who died just before his ninth birthday:

Over this, your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?
Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.
Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
a prayer:
Give her eternal peace–
–“Over This, Your White Grave”

To know Pope John Paul II is to know Poland, but do not think that he was exclusive or closed to others.  The opposite was true.  Polish culture defined who he was, but also imbued him with an openness and a love for other cultures that made him loved and be loved the world over.

The author meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, March 6, 2000

The author meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, March 6, 2000

I met him face to face in 2000.  In an all-too-brief moment – one that I purposely rushed in an attempt to give my traveling companions a brief chance to touch him as well – I held his hand in mine.  In the years since I have tried many times to write about it, but I can not find the words to adequately describe this meeting.  To use the adjective “surreal” seems like a stereotype, but that is the word in my mind as it happened.  To sum up the feeling: I have never been in the presence of someone that radiated love like he did.  I can’t explain it.  You “felt” it.  A scripture quote that I often think of in connection with this memory is “Were not our hearts burning within us?” [Luke 24:32] when the disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  I do not mean to imply that meeting JP2 was like meeting Christ, for the Holy Father himself would be the first to agree that he was merely His servant.  But, I felt my soul on fire as I stood near him that day, the fire of Love.  There is simply no other way to describe it.  Over eight years later, I still feel the burn, and the love he had for all.

Read an interview with Tennessee poet Lynn Powell about John Paul II’s poetry.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]