Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pandora’s Box

or jar…

    In Greek mythology, Pandora's box is the large jar(πιθος pithos) carried by Pandora (Πανδώρα) that unleashed many terrible things on mankind – ills, toils and sickness – and hope.
    After Prometheus' theft of the secret of fire, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create the woman Pandora as part of the punishment for mankind. Pandora was given many seductive gifts from Aphrodite, Hermes, Hera, Charites, and Horae.
    For fear of additional reprisals, Prometheus warned his brother Epimetheus not to accept any gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus did not listen, and married Pandora. Pandora had been given a large jar and instruction by Zeus to keep it closed, but she had also been given the gift of curiosity, and ultimately opened it. When she opened it, all of the evils, ills, diseases, and burdensome labor that mankind had not known previously, escaped from the jar, but it is said, that at the very bottom of her jar, there lay hope. (Source: Wikipedia)
    The key to this myth is curiosity and hope. I understand Pandora’s nature and how difficult it was to quell her curiosity. I was always the child that said, “Why?” However, I learned to say "Why?" to myself. Saying "Why?" out loud was discouraged. For different reasons, both my father and my mother presented me with a library of dysfunctional behavior during my childhood.
    The out of print book that I have been trying to purchase for several years about the Jews of Eger/Cheb was available from a university library. I received the book on an inter-library loan for two weeks. I was tempted to keep it. However, we, as a society, have to think about the conflicting messages we are sending to the younger set about behaviors and morals. I have sent it back.
    I speak and read English. Ordering a book written in Czech. was a gamble. My first goal when I received the book was to look up Paul Löwy in the index. Löwy is a common name, like Smith. In internet searches I have found several in the holocaust with the name Paul Löwy that are not related. My grandfather’s brother was a lawyer and a well-known puppeteer. This makes the search unique. My grandfather was a shop-keeper, the odds of him being published anywhere in the books about the Jewish in World War II Europe are slim. And as I suspected, there was my great-uncle in black and white, with his puppet.
    To see my great uncle, you can watch him in this movie. In the beginning of the movie, there is a puppet donkey introduction. At about 41 to 46 into the movie, there is a campfire like scene with people sitting on straw bales watching a puppet show. The puppet master is Paul Löwy. He was a lawyer and immigrated to Israel in 1939, spending most of his time working with his puppets that he built himself. The actual film:
http://w3.castup.net/spielberg/index.aspx?lang=en&id=282 from http://www.spielbergfilmarchive.org.il/kv/index.html
The bio on the movie “ OUT OF EVIL / MI'KLALAH LE'BRACHAH” is at
    Back at work on the book, I found that the Google translator is the easiest to use. I spent several late nights typing Paul's information and hitting the translate button. This was tedious because of the accents above the letters. There was not much information there that I didn’t know, but it was fun.
    The autumn of 1938 brought the Kristallnacht. In Eger/Cheb, the glass storefronts of Jewish shopkeepers were broken, the synagogue was burned, and old Jewish men were forced to crawl in the streets on all fours like dogs. In 1938, my grandfather gathered my mother, her brother, and his wife and fled Eger/Cheb, going to Prague. Later, my mother’s father (Friedrich Löwy) decided to take his family and head toward Holland while his brother Paul went to Israel. My mother and I have talked about her Uncle Paul and the little she knew about his life in Israel after he left them in Prague.

I let the book I was trying to understand sit. It was several days before I was to take it back to the library when I opened it again.

    I remember as a child when I visited grandfather, he would show me a box of large suit buttons. He would fondle them like a lost treasure. It did seem odd at the time. But, it was also understood that we shouldn’t talk about his life before he came to America to be a gardener.
    My mother’s grandfather was Eduard. She was eight when they fled Eger/Cheb. I probed her fractured memory. She knew that he was a rabbi, and also had a factory that made cloth. I now suspect that this is what supplied the shop that my grandfather was a part of and that the buttons he absentmindedly fondled as he showed them to me were for the suits he would have had tailored for his customers.
    Years ago, I had asked my grandmother about Eduard Löwy and the information I have is that he died in 1924. That is one of the few letters I saved from my grandmother, and I am looking at it again. It says 1924. I really do understand Pandora’s curiosity.
    Before bringing the book back to the library, I thought that I should scan the pages that I had ignored for any mention of Löwy beyond my great uncle's biography and translate the sentence later.

    As I scanned, the sentences mentioning Löwy turned into pages. I felt like Pandora, opening something that was not supposed to be opened. Was there something here that I was not meant to know, but like Pandora, I am curious. She did find hope. It is not a bad thing to admit that I am Jewish, it shouldn’t be a secret.
    So as I copied pages to translate later, there was my great-grandfather’s business card in front of me. I think, no it must be.

feintuch (fine cloth) –
u. schaf(sheep) woll (textiles) waren(merchandise, goods)- fabriksnlederlange (factory leather for a long time)
eduard lowy, eger
lieferant (SUPPLIER)

d. offiziers(officers) - : uniformierung des(university forming of the) : landwehr(land resistance) - infsnterie(INFANTRY) - regiments

eger nr. 6

And a picture of my great-grandfather with his sister Trude.

“Eduard Löwy se narodil podle udaju v kartotece zemrelych v Terezine a v matrice 2, ledna 1856, Jak vzpominky jeho vnucky pani, Lilly Pavlove tak zminky v nejruznejsich materialech dokladaji ze sve narozeniny slavil vzdy jiz 25. prosince (1855). Interview s Lilly Pavlovou ze 6. a 7 brezna 1998 v Chebu a SUA Praha, fond KTOVS, Kartoteka zemrelych v Terezine, Löwy Eduard”
    Edward Löwy was born, according to the filing cabinet of deaths in Terezin and the matrix 2, January 1856, as memories of his granddaughter Mrs. Lilly, Pavlov and mentions in a variety of materials evidenced by their always already celebrated his birthday on the 25th December (1855). Interview with Paul Lilly of 6 and 7 March 1998 in Cheb and SUA Praha, fond KTOVS, file lost in Terezin, Edward Löwy
    The fortress of Terezín was constructed between the years 1780 and 1790 by the orders of the Austrian emperor Joseph II in the north-west region of Bohemia. On June 10, 1940, the Gestapo took control of Terezín and set up prison in the Small Fortress. By November 24, 1941, the Main Fortress was turned into a walled ghetto. To the outside it was presented by the Nazis as a model Jewish settlement, but in reality it was a concentration camp. Theresienstadt was also used as a transit camp for European Jews en route to Auschwitz.
    A rabbi with a factory to make textiles and a sister named Trude, there can not be two with that biography. He didn’t die in 1924. Great-grandfather’s rabbi responsibilities are the focus of the next blog.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jewish Pirates

Yes, Jewish Pirates.

For practicing Jews and for those of Jewish heritage, the existence of the country of Israel is important. People of Jewish heritage have been without a homeland and this is what Israel represents. This book gives me a better understanding of why. They have been driven out of every homeland they have established. People of Norwegian ancestry can proudly point to the map to show where their ancestors came from. Japanese can point out their island nation. If you are of Jewish heritage, your homeland may be a steamer trunk and forged papers.

I am reading “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” by Edward Kritzler. Unlike the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”, this book is about real pirates, real Jewish pirates in the 1500 and 1600’s. The storyteller weaves a colorful tale. It is another chapter in the history of the Jewish people, but also a great story of maritime history. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this history, with struggles between England and Spain for control of the New World set on the blue seas of the Caribbean.

In the book about Jewish pirates, on the day that Christopher Columbus set sail for on his epic voyage, ethnic cleansing was the order of the day. The Royal Edict of Expulsion of the Jews mandated that 100,000 be expelled. The adventurous went on to the New World, those that remained hid or went to Portugal and became Catholics.

Jews were in Spain before there was a Spain. They settled in King Solomon’s trading post (1000 B.C.) and that became Sephard, an outpost of the Roman Empire. The story told is that Emperor Titus conquered Israel, burned the Temple, and expelled the Jews. But, the Jews of Sephard remained and flourished, as tenants. The Visgoths, then the Vandals, Moors, and Catholics, made it illegal for Jews to own land. However, the Jews were well educated, in feudal Spain they were a merchant class and had respected physicians and financiers.

In Spain, the Jews, unwelcome in other parts of Europe, prospered. Then there was the Massacre of 1391 fueled by a Friar who blamed them for atrocities from the Black Plague to killing Christian children and drinking their blood. Of the 500,000 Jews in Sephard, 100,000 died, 100,000 converted to Catholicism, and 300,000 hid until peace was restored a year later. The converted Jews were called New Christians and rose to positions of power. However, for the church, this created heretics, allowing another sore to fester until it burst. Even dead New Christians weren’t safe in the New World. Many times they were declared heretics after they died, their bodies dug up, burned, and their wealth taken away and distributed to others.

What has the world lost with this continual persecution? When my merchant grandparents came to this country, they changed their names, and my mother became Lutheran. Even in the safe harbors of New York, my grandmother turned her back on who she was and became someone, I am sure, that she didn’t recognize. The Bohemian town that they abandoned on the Czech-German border, Edger-Cheb, had been home to Jews since at least the 1300’s. Given recorded history, I am beginning to understand the paranoia that ruled the rest of her life.

Talking about life before living in the United States for my grandparents never happened. Admitting to Jewish heritage meant the possible risk of persecution. However, Rabbi Shira, who came to celebrate Shabbat with my mother, explained some of the nuances of being Jewish. She says that education is important to the Jewish people. She revealed that in the United States, over forty percent of our doctors are of Jewish heritage, as are forty percent of our college professors. I wonder where the world would have been without the persecution of the Jewish people.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Rabbi

Watching a house cat and a mouse is truly a wonder. Unlike dogs which just attack, cats make it an art. They bat the mouse around until they are disoriented and only slightly wounded, then they let the impaired mouse go. Thinking they might have a chance, the mouse runs. The cat will then switch their tail, wiggle their rear, and pounce again onto the dazed mouse. This game of cat and mouse will continue until the mouse is so injured he cannot run away, then the cat will usually just finish him off. On rare occasions, I have seen a mouse feign death early in the game. The confused cat is sometimes distracted enough so that the mouse has a reasonable chance to make an escape.

My mother surrounds herself with cats. I am sure it is because she sees something in herself when she toys with them.

I was the mouse that feigned death and then bolted when my mother was distracted. For over fourteen years, I was twenty minutes away, yet I hadn’t seen my mother or younger sister in all of that time. One night, my sister, my mother’s full-time, 24-7, caregiver, called from the hospital. She thought my mother’s fight with diabetes and kidney failure with all of its complications was coming to an end. I went to support my sister. Mom made a miraculous recovery. I continue to support my sister with weekly visits to my mom. It gives my sister a mental break to have someone else for my mother to toy with.

The other day, I received a phone call from my sister. “What do I need besides candles and a white table cloth for a Shabbat?” she yelled, exasperated. Since neither of us has ever studied Judaism, or been near a synagogue, she was talking to someone as clueless as she was. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church, dabbled with Nichirin Shoshu Buddhism for a number of years, read books to explore other religions, and spent five years as an Episcopalian, sitting on their education council for Western WA. Judaism was on my to do list. However, I wasn’t surprised by the phone call.

Mom has been making “jokes” about being Jewish for the past twenty years. Prior to that, we were the American family that topped the dysfunctional list. We went to the Lutheran church and did the Easter and Christmas events; depending on the circumstances we were sometimes involved with the church’s activities. However, my younger sister, my mother’s caregiver, missed out. Her father was an American service man home from Vietnam that my mother married within a week of his returning to our shores. They were married for a number of years before my sister arrived on the planet. She is nine months younger than my oldest daughter. Since I was keeping my distance between myself and my children and my mom; my sister’s childhood as an “only child” of a single, older parent was different from mine. She fielded all of the jokes about Jews. "All in jest," my mom says.

Because of a visit from a cousin (sixteen times removed) studying genealogy, who was crossing America looking for the puzzle pieces, I put together some of the history of my mother’s family. During my childhood, talking about my mother’s life before she came to America when she was eleven was not allowed. Her parent’s life began when they came here. They changed their names and their religion. Somehow, my mother became part of the Lutheran church.

I had some idea of who my ancestors were because the cousin sent paperwork, his research helped. When the jokes started, I got the mom message that there were people that practiced Judaism as a religion and that there were people that were only Jewish because their mother was Jewish, according to old customs we were Jews. I was led to believe that our ancestry was Jewish only because of heritage. After looking at the genealogy tree sent, I am sure that is not the case. As far as I can tell, one of the town’s rabbis was my mother’s grandfather. The genealogist’s information was that he was dragged out of his apartment and sent to a concentration camp and died the day he arrived. This would have been the same time my mother, her brother, and her parents fled to Prague, then spent some time running through Europe two steps ahead of the Nazis hunting them. They wound up in Holland, then were able to get passage on a boat to the United States where established relatives with U.S. Citizenship would be there to help.

We all have choices in life. The trauma to an eight year old girl, leaving both her home and a nanny that she was attached to more than her own mother is unthinkable. Arriving here at eleven, stripped of an identity, deposited in a school where the language was foreign is unimaginable. Still, many made do, they looked at the choices available, and thrived. My mom had, and still has, her own agenda.

My mother thought of my grandmother as the cat, and that she was the mouse that couldn’t escape. As much as she loathed her own mother, my mom has made her mark with her claws as well on everyone she is related to. The people that don't know her...that is a different dynamic. So, at the hospital where she gets dialysis three times a week, they asked if she wanted to talk to a priest. My mom is from an era where men are superior and women are second class citizens. She will do things for men that she won’t do for women, like being badgered for years to get a colonoscopy and walking into a new doctor’s office and the male doctor saying we are setting you up for a colonoscopy. She says, “Sure.” She laughed at them and asked them to get her a rabbi.The rabbi they sent was a women and this intrigues my mom.

Mom mentioned that she would like to invite the rabbi for dinner. My sister and I said that we would try to work something out soon. The house is not company ready, it needs a major cleaning. Mom had already been reminding me that my sister is not the best housekeeper, I tell her that with all of the 24-7 medical care that is required, there is not enough time to do everything. Not one to be put off, my mom cornered the rabbi at the hospital and invited her not only to dinner, but to a religious ceremony on Friday. The rabbi offered to have lunch at the hospital with her. That wouldn’t do.

My sister and I are trying to get the house ready for the rabbi’s visit. The rabbi doesn’t drive, so I will drive across town get her. She is bringing spinach lasagna. Since I am a vegetarian, that works for me. However, I have no clue what else needs to be done. If mom did practice Judaism, it was when she was eight years old. I don't know what the rabbi is expecting. A male rabbi, mom would cower, a female may become a new mouse to toy with. But back to cleaning the house, stripping the dusty curtains off the window. My mom collects wooden nutcrackers and figurines, we are talking hundreds, and stuffed teddy bears, my mother’s passion, these are knee deep around the house. I need to have stock in Johnson and Johnson, Pledge is my friend this week.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lost, Not Yet Found

My grandmother, my mother's mother, was lost. I see that now, I wish I had seen that when I was growing up. I feel lost as well. If Oma and I had been able to have conversations about being lost, she might have found herself and I may have a better sense of who I am. Finding myself is proving to be hard to do.

A clue to how lost Oma was? Oma wore her 1960 hair in the same hairdo she did in 1930. It was interesting to watch her comb her long hair in the morning and carefully roll it up around a hair form, a pile of hairpins at the ready to make it look like a horizontal French Twist. I didn’t understand the significance of keeping her hair in a style that was a reflection of her life before everything was lost in 1938… until recently.

I am someone who tries harder than they should at some things. Oma did the same. In helping someone write a lab report, I realized that I wasn’t only proofing and tweaking the data, as I was lead to believe, but I just had raw data and pictures with an outline wrapped up with an expectation that I would do it all by myself. Keeping my commitment, I started from scratch; the hardest part of the report was lining up the pictures. The report was sent off, then sent back to me for revisions, with the carefully arranged photos stripped of their placement and thrown around the report. With the revisions made, I started to painstakingly realign the photos, then remembered a lesson learned from Oma.

Oma made her living in the United States as a seamstress. She once had a household staff to manage before coming to the United States and now she was a seamstress. My mother doesn’t know where the sewing skills came from. Working in the upscale sweatshops of Beverly Hills, I remember one job site that I visited where they were making satin nightgowns. The material was thicker and nicer than I had seen in any department store. I think that Oma recognized that she needed to be content working in sweatshops with bosses that would tell her what to do and how to do it, their choices and decisions, not hers.

Oma didn’t want to work from home. She told me that she tried that once. A gentleman brought in a pair of trousers to be hemmed. She looked at the seams and after he left, she took apart the entire trousers. She worked all weekend stitching the pants because she didn’t like the workmanship. The customer picked up the pants, paying her for the hemming. There was no recognition of the careful reconstruction of the garment, and all my grandmother had to show for a weekend lost was a few dollars for hemming a pair of pants.

I sent the revised, corrected report back as a text file, with the words “photos” indicating where they should be.

Monday, June 29, 2009


I am breaking one of my sacred rules. Talking politics. I avoid politics, I think my grandfather, Opa, had the same temperament. There was no talk of his political life before immigrating to America and I don’t know anything about his views. The only memory I have of his political views was seeing him on the verge of tears when President Kennedy died.

Politics and environmentalism have had a long affiliation. I am an environmentalist. You wouldn’t want your home, that sat on the bottom of a hill for over eighty years undisturbed, washed into the river because a developer bent the rules and built a development on a slope above it that caused a collapse of the entire hillside when heavier rains than usual arrived. Those that chain themselves to trees and protest the bulldozing of entire tracts of land bring attention to the problem, but no solution. Those that harvest trees and denude the area of natural vegetation have those chained to the trees arrested, but offer no solution. It is a vicious cycle. Both sides lose.

In the environmental community and the development community, there are now some looking for a middle ground. They are communicating, sitting down together, and working on solutions. It is not about winning and both sides now realize that working together is a benefit. If you follow the rules, I believe that there is always a political middle ground that meets the needs of both sides.

I have been receiving messages from friends in the South about Obama and his politics that border on hate mail. These anti-Obama messages are unbelievable. Unbelievable to me that, in this day and age, that there are those who never will see the forest because of the trees. There is a naïve, almost childlike tone to these messages. I am concerned, these messages seem to try and divide us. We don’t need less government and we don’t need more government. We need a government that is for the people, by the people, and of the people. Yes, it is a cliché. But government has forgotten that the people and the government were formed as a partnership. Obama does have the skills to be a good president. Obama was not my first choice, however he will be a good president, as good as we make him. In this day and age, our presidents don’t preside, they are project managers. It is up to us to make sure that our representatives in Congress carry our message to Washington. It is up to all of us to stop taking sides and to sit down and look for common ground and work on solutions.

Solutions must have eluded Opa. My brother has always puzzled about why Opa and Oma left Europe late, just before the WW II implosion, and lost most of their wealth. They left Eger,Czech in October of 1938. Relatives and friends immigrated much earlier and seemed, monetarily, to be in a much better position than Opa and Oma. I can only speculate. Staying until it was almost impossible to leave may have been fueled by the political climate in Sudetenland.

Sudetenland was a historical region of the northern Czech Republic along the Polish border. Long inhabited by ethnic Germans, it was seized by the Nazis in September 1938 and was restored to Czechoslovakia in 1945, after which the German population was expelled. Formerly part of Austria, the predominantly German-speaking area was incorporated into Czechoslovakia after World War I. Discontent among the Sudeten Germans was exploited in the mid-1930s by the Nazi Party and its local leader Konrad Henlein. The inflammatory situation convinced Britain and France that, to avoid war, Czechoslovakia must be persuaded to give the region autonomy. Adolf Hitler's demand that the region be ceded to Germany was initially rejected, but the cession was later accomplished by the Munich agreement. After World War II the region was restored to Czechoslovakia, which expelled its German inhabitants and repopulated the area with Czechs. Just politics?

We have political opportunities given to us by enlightened men who founded this nation. As a “closet” German Jew, I can only imagine what Opa thought while watching, from America, his Sudeten homeland disintegrate. In 1940, the family made it to America and were safe with relatives, and after the war, there were no longer any political solutions and no chance to ever return home.

Immigrants made America a melting pot of cultures and races. George Washington's financial advisor and assistant was a Jewish man named Hayim Solomon. Hayim loaned a lot of his own funds to the cause. He is considered the financial hero of the Revolution. In 1783, after the war, a fraction of the money was actually repaid. Practicing Episcopalian Alexander Hamilton has at least half-Jewish in his ancestry. If we count Deism (and Unitarianism), there were some big names among the non-Christians -- Tom Paine, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The anti-Obama messages being sent to me hint of the man not being suitable for office because of his familiarity with Muslim culture, because he isn’t Christian enough to lead this nation. I could quote some scripture here, but I am on a political quest.

Our founding fathers gave us the political tools to develop solutions. How do we get our government back to the fundamentals? How do we make people see how far away from the principles that defined the beginning of this democracy we have come and to sit down together to look for solutions?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Back and Forth (2008)

By Ann Lee

Back and forth, up and down; this summer I am painting a long-neglected outbuilding. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I watch the carefully chosen color cover the white primer. Neither the small electric paint sprayer nor the roller gave me the result I was looking for, so brush stroke by brush stroke I work to curb my irritation with the slow pace and to appreciate the process. Little sound bites invade my thoughts.


Up and down, with each stroke of the small 2” wide brush I imagine a homeowner living in a time when houses were built in seven months not seven days. A time when they only way to paint was brush stroke by brush stroke. As a society we expect, no we demand, that things are done quickly. I wonder what we have lost.

Brush stroke by brush stroke, I recall school required reading that included literature of times long past. I recall literature that spoke of summer vacations spent white washing miles of fence. What child of today would have that patience, that focus? My own patience and focus is tested with the couple of hours a day I have reserved for this task.

Back and forth, up and down; the brush moves across the building as I climb up and down the ladder on an elastic bandaged knee that would have faired better if the building had been blasted with a spray gun. Dragging a bucket up a ladder is testing more than my fortitude, perhaps my sanity.

Brush stroke by brush stroke, I am reminded that half of my friends expect communication by personalized snail mail that takes days to arrive while the other half embraces the Internet and technology, confused when queries are not responded to instantly. Those in the snail mail genre would probably be fascinated by the painting of this building. I was born in a complex era. Stroke by stroke, I try to rationalize why a slow pace may be better. This building was long-neglected and my excuse was of a lack of time. Things to do, people to contact, work to do, the Internet to surf, I embrace technology, irritated with snail mail.

However, I now have time to paint, sip tea, and not worry about the pace that I have chosen for this project. I had always expected to leave Corporate America on my own terms. A reduction in force is what they called it. Corporate restructuring they tell shareholders. Increasing shareholder value is what my brother calls it. Two jobs and a three hour daily commute left no time for outbuildings. One job I left for personal reasons, the other soon after that because of “a reduction in force.”

To get my severance pay, I signed a waiver that I was not let go because of age. I received a federally mandated spreadsheet of the ages of those let go in my department and those remaining. Let go were a 38 year old first time mother who went to human resources and begged to be on the list, a 45 year old, the rest were in their 50s and 60s. Age discrimination had never entered my thoughts before the required waiver. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I focus on the paint filled bristles of the brush.

Up and down, side to side, the brush moves in a controlled rhythm as I try to control my impatience. I contemplate the irony of choosing to paint my building this way. As someone who kept their e-mail always open; expecting and giving immediate, instant responses, the method of painting this structure is the antithesis of my corporate life. And as a single woman in her fifties, I wait for the panic attacks that plagued me in my youth, but they show no signs of appearing.

A time out from the brush to visit my friend. Another displaced employee who is normally frugal, we went downtown to an uptown shoe store. With severance pay and confidence that a new position would easily be obtained, she picked out two pairs of shoes and left the equivalent of one month’s rent on a counter that would have only held the fingerprints of a daydreamer the day before. I think about coping strategies and return to my building.

Up and down, back and forth, for a couple of hours a day, my brush continues to travel across the building as the summer wanes. I am not checking my e-mail as frequently as I had at the beginning of the summer. Roommates suggest that a roller would be more efficient, I tell them this is therapy. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I think about the job boards I have resisted signing up for, the corporate sponsored classes that I am entitled to but have avoided, but mainly I think about former colleagues who are also disenfranchised. I worry about those that are challenged by technology, who have been left behind through their choices. Choices define us and the narrow 2” brush moves effortlessly across the building.
Brush stroke by brush stroke, I now know that the lattes that I buy on impulse when I am driving around will now be purchased only on special occasions. Up and down, back and forth, the brush layers Whispering Pine green over the white primer. I also realize that the primer is not being covered by the green, but is an important part of the process, a silent partner. Life is like the paint on this building, layered. What is underneath is important because the top layer is molded and shaped by the layer underneath it. I am still bothered by the waiver I signed, that I would not claim age discrimination as the reason that I was chosen to be part of the corporate restructuring.

My grandmother was old when she was in her fifties. I do not feel old. Choices. In the waning days of summer, with the building almost complete, I will make sure that there is wood for the winter. I will search for books collected over the years to befriend me over the winter. The next layer will not look the layer it covers, of that I am sure.

Back and Forth, Up and Down (2009)

I am approaching the one-year anniversary of my release from a corporate empire. It is interesting that, at this junction in my life, I am once again painting. My daughter and her tribe are packing and after living with me for two years, they are moving into their own home. I am painting the bathroom for her. Back and forth, up and down, the paintbrush goes just as it did a year ago. I wrote an essay about my adventures last summer and shared it in my New Year’s message to some of my friends. I am repeating it for those who are interested.

The house that I am painting has been around for more than eighty years. My thoughts frequently wander as I brush paint over cracked molding that has more paint layers than I care to count. I have let my imagination wander with each brush stroke, who put this first layer on in this tiny little cottage? Perhaps the “man” of the house, or the builder. I am sure it was not the “lady” of the house. From the books that I have read about home life in the 1920s, she would not done this work herself. If her husband was unable to do it, then she would have found a handyman to do it.

The 1920s and 1930s are a fascinating period. The British television versions of “Hercule Poirot” and “Miss Marple” by Agatha Christie on PBS showcase the best of the eras. I love old movies like “The Thin Man”. The style of the houses, the clothing, and the cars always captivate me. It seems like a simpler time with an invisible, hidden current of excitement and exploration underneath that facade. I wonder if I could have lived in a time that restricted women, but I do know that there were many women that worked around those restrictions.

Even now, we place restrictions on ourselves. It doesn’t matter if the influences come from outside pressures or from our own minds, how we restrict ourselves defines us and the result is the same. One of the many books I have enjoyed reading is “Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists” by Marcia M. Bonta. These women defied restrictions placed on them, but many didn’t receive the credit due to them. We have come a long way. I use the word we because I am sure that “I” have not come as far as I should have come.

Thanks to the Gregoire – Obama stimulus package, I do not have to worry about the overhead lights and the gas for my car at this time. However, there will be an end to that benefit and the day will soon be here when I will need to look at how and why I restrict myself. I need to appreciate that walking into a hardware store is something I probably wouldn’t have done in the 1920’s, but, thanks to women who rose above society’s expectations, I have the privilege to do it now and not to be embarrassed. There are many other opportunities that I should take advantage of. In an era when men explored the world and women stayed home and kept the home fires burning, one of the women naturalists I read about bought a huge Dodge truck, sixteen gears, loaded her lady friend and gear up and headed for Baja to do research. SHOCKING BEHAVIOUR by all accounts!!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The House

Our houses are large, with our consumption of natural resources paralleling the super sizing of our existence. Closets the size of 1920 bedrooms filled with clothes and master bedrooms that dwarf 1920 living rooms are typical. How much is too much? When is enough, enough?

My second daughter and her husband have bought their first home. They have been waiting to move in until it is painted. It is a mid 1920 bungalow that has had only a handful of owners and very little updating. A 1950 remodel left the bathroom with linoleum floors and grey blue plastic tile over the walls. There is an original back bedroom that has a narrow staircase leading to two bedrooms carved out of the attic. These attic bedrooms look like something out of a 1930 ski lodge, floor to ceiling dark, tongue and groove planks. The homes original front bedroom’s interior wall was removed to become part of the living room. The remodel was complete with popcorn ceilings in the expanded living room.

The previous owner had not lived in the house for years. She is her mother’s caregiver and the house viewable from the backyard is the mother’s place. Not needing to sell, but pushed by relatives to do something with the bungalow, there was no effort to even clean the house for sale.

The front bedroom will be reclaimed. The wall paper removal in the pass through bedroom revealed the imprint of a plate railing that had been removed. My daughter’s popping off of the bathroom tile created off gases and revealed thick globs of adhesive that quickly dried out. Under doctor’s orders to stay away from the house until the remodel is done because of her pregnancy, my project is to make the bathroom look nice.

For weeks, I chiseled dry globs of adhesive off the walls. We speculate that the layout in the small bathroom is not original. I wonder about the 1950 tub along the interior wall. Maybe there was a period tub under the window with an outhouse outback?

As I patch cracks in the old walls and tear out the metal 1950 medicine cabinet that the new owners do not want, the old type construction of lath and plaster reveals itself. There must be stories in the walls. This blue collar house in a blue collar neighborhood must have seemed like a castle to the original owner. Closets were just being included in new housing in the mid 1920’s. These closets are the size of broom closets. The entire wardrobes of the working class probably fit into a large suitcase. These small, functional bedrooms are the size of walk-in closets in McMansions.

Over the years, families have gotten smaller and houses have gotten larger. A rural Southern anti-bellium plantation in MS I visited survived abandonment and even became a shelter for hobos for years. It was lovingly restored and miraculously handcrafted plaster wall ornaments survived, but size wise, we would not think of this as the home of a wealthy business owner. On a business trip in the south years ago, I toured The Palace, Tryon, in New Bern. It was an exact reproduction of the British governor’s residence before we became The United States. The Palace is dwarfed by McMansions.

What drives us? Why do we need more than is required to exist? Why can’t we enjoy what we have? I am not suggesting a return to the outhouse, I am suggesting that we should be able to live simpler. Bedrooms for sleeping and bathrooms for bathing. Modern master bedrooms boast sitting rooms the size of living rooms. Bathrooms with oversized whirlpool tubs and a fireplace. With natural resources being consumed at an alarming pace, with environmental issues facing us, what impact does over consumption have our future?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Potato Pancakes

Food can define who we are. Many of my memories of my grandmothers, especially Oma, my mother’s mother, are related to food. My dad’s Midwest mother, transplanted to Southern California, cooked big old-fashioned family farm meals. Our time together was limited and I don’t remember much, however, I do have memories of sweet corn boiling on the stove. I am not sure if it was harvested from Grandpa’s garden. Oma’s cooking was European and dinner was an affair.

Oma and Opa lived in a small bungalow, maybe 1000 square feet, but she ran the kitchen like it was part of a manor. In a very small kitchen, with a horseshoe layout, sat a kitchen table. The table took up a lot of floor space. With no one seated at the table, you had to walk sideways to go around the kitchen. Opening lower cupboards and drawers was a challenge. Opa would sit with his back to the opening to the dining room, Oma would sit opposite with her back to the sink, and those that were seated on the side had to inhale to slide in-between the chair and the table. In the dining room area was a beautiful wood dining room table. Breakfast and lunch were typically served at the kitchen table. The dining room table was for a more formal dinner. And most evening meals were formal. The table was set with dishes, silverware and napkins at each place, Opa’s dining room chair had arms like a throne with Oma always sitting at the opposite end.

Prague postcard from Opa and Oma's pictures.

I now know that before my grandparents relocated to the United States, Oma managed a household that had two cooks. This makes some of her choices clearer. I am sure that she was traumatized because of the loss of everything her family had and could not let go of a lifestyle that she once had. I remember disagreements over breakfast. When I would visit, I would tumble out of bed first thing in the morning and stagger to the table. Mortified, Oma would insist that I dress and brush my teeth. I would argue that my teeth would get dirty eating breakfast, so I could brush after. However, I would not tumble out of bed and go to breakfast “as is” while staying at bed and breakfast inns I can imagine that living in a household with staff could be very comparable. Knowing some history could have steered us away from disagreements and misunderstandings.

There were no disagreements over Oma’s cooking, especially her desserts. I still remember the huge old Kitchen Aid mixer sitting on the counter. I remember watching liquid cream being drizzled in slowly and magically changing to whipped cream. My mother says that Oma didn’t learn to cook until she came to the United States. I find that hard to believe, she probably didn’t have a need to cook in Europe. A novice couldn’t make delicate, large white cakes no thicker than half an inch, smear it with whipped cream, and roll it up like a jelly roll with nary a crack.

Mother says that Opa was the baker and was known for oblaten, a crisp, subtly flavored dessert wafer. She says that Opa’s press to make oblaten was shipped under her uncle’s name, a Dutchman not bound in the late 1930’s to the confiscation of his assets by Germany. However, on its arrival in the United States, Opa sold it for much less than its worth. I will never understand why I never saw him bake or why he abandoned this business opportunity. Mother said that a company in Vermont still uses the press to this day.

My mother’s culinary skills were minimal. Perhaps this was part of her rebellion against her mother. She was content with TV dinners thrown in the oven and with letting us sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV. Mom could, however, make potato pancakes, one of the few things that gave away her heritage.

My younger sister shared a book she found at the library, “At Oma’s Table.” This cookbook, by top New York restaurateur Doris Schechter, is not only a cookbook, but a history book of a family’s flight from Vienna in World War II. Many of the recipes have a familiar ring to me. I am the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side, the first in the family born in the United States. My children and grandchildren have never understood the pleasure I get eating potato pancakes. For my youngest sister, who lives with and is the caregiver of our mother, I hauled over the ingredients to make Doris’ pancakes. I later shared it with my daughter and grandson. He enjoyed it, she didn’t want to try. Mother says that she only used potatoes in hers, but she certainly seemed to enjoy Doris’.

  • 2 lbs. peeled russet potatoes
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 peeled medium carrots
  • 2 peeled and trimmed zucchini
  • 5 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 extra large beaten egg
  • 1 cup flour
  • coarse kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste
  • vegetable oil, flavorless
  • sour cream (applesauce can also be a topping)
  • grate vegetables on the large holes of a box grater
  • combine vegetables with garlic, flour, and egg and stir
  • add salt and pepper to taste
  • place oil in a frying pan
  • while oil is heating, shape enough batter to fill the palm of the hand, press the batter to make silver dollar size pancakes
  • place pancakes in the frying pan for 2-3 minutes on each side
  • remove pancakes with a slotted spoon and place on a towel lined baking sheet to drain
  • serve as soon as possible with sour cream on each pancake

Sunday, May 10, 2009


My mother and her family had a great impact and influence on me, I identify closely with them. If I was being a pessimist, I would say that impact and influence gave me a lack of confidence, lack of optimism and no entrepreneurial skills. However, I am surprised at where this latest journey is taking me.

When I began this blog I called it "alostbohemian" and set up an e-mail account for this blog at bohemian@fairpoint.net
. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a Bohemian as a person with artistic or literary interests who disregards conventional standards of behavior. I have spent my life trying to adhere to conventional standards of behavior. A Bohemian lifestyle could be closer to who I imagine I would have been if I had made more enlightened decisions over the years. A sense of family and of family history would have given me skills to make better choices. However, looking back is not the way to look forward. Or is it.

I am a Bohemian. The other definition of Bohemian is a native or inhabitant of Bohemia. Isn't it interesting that in searching for a path forward, I have found myself looking back? My mother was born in Eger, Czech., now called Cheb, located in the far northwest corner of Bohemia. I knew where my mother was born and when she immigrated to the United States, but I know little of how they lived before they came to the United States. I could surmise why they came here from lessons learned in history classes. For my mother's family, their lives began when they came here, they even changed their names. There are Jewish people that were Jewish by birth and there are those that were by not only Jewish by birth, but who actively practiced their faith. I don't know which my grandparents were. From reading published biographies of Jewish World War II immigrants, I am impressed by their sense of family and history. My grandparents relocated to a community where there were other family members, but the sense of history and family didn't seem to be there. There was little sharing, little explanation.

Opa, the gardener, had had a shop. There were times that he would show me a jar of buttons that seemed important. I wish I had paid more attention. From recent discussions with my mother, Opa's shop sold tailored suits. Opa wasn't a tailor. Mother thinks that he helped his clients pick out the fabric and accessories for their suits, then had the suit sewn for them. He may have even manufactured the material for the suit. The buttons must have been an important part of the look. From what I have been reading in biographies, many Jewish people were shopkeepers, providing necessary goods and services. After the war, there must have been an incredible void in the fabric of European society.

The cousin who was tracing his family tree shared information with my mother from the granddaughter of Dr. Paul Löwy, Anat . Dr. Paul Löwy was an attorney and a successful puppeteer who immigrated to Israel in 1939. He was Opa's brother. I frequently read her letter and I am a little jealous that she has more family history than I do. However, I do have one piece of the puzzle that she doesn't have.

My mother had mentioned, once, that the family was planning on going to England if they needed to. There was a nephew in England who had a manufacturing business having to do with clothing. Anat's letter quotes , ""It is September 15, 1938. We are all in Prague. We heard that in Carlsbad, windows of Jews and Czechs were smashed, in Eger and the German provinces were bloody riots, it seems that the removal of the recognition of the German Sudeten area will happen soon. It seems that the marionettes have to find another place to live." Paul and Opa did not believe that something would happen to them because they were officers in the previous war. Anat says, "Until this day I wonder what was the logic behind learning waterproofing of raincoats and glove making, ending up in a hot place like Palestine." Paul was an attorney and his brother, my Opa, was a successful clothing store owner, it was the 1930's. Maybe they were thinking that if that had to leave for a while they would go to England and work with the nephew, then go back home. Shopkeepers and business owners are always looking for new opportunities.

Shopkeepers and business owners are envied by me. I have always worked for someone. In this latest downturn in our economy, having your own business may be the way to turn things around. Business owners must be fearless and optimistic. There must be an unshakable belief in themselves. While owning your own business seems to be scary, there must be a unique sense of accomplishment in having a successful enterprise.

There is a 1951 film "Out of Evil" at http://w3.castup.net/spielberg/index.aspx?lang=en&id=282 At the beginning of the film there is a donkey marionette, fast forward to about 41, 46 minutes and there is a campfire like scene with people sitting around on straw bales watching the puppet show. The man making the marionette's dance is my great uncle. Dr. Paul Löwy also carved the puppets. I look at his suit and it is very similar to the suits Opa wore and I wonder if that is a style that Opa had a hand in. I wonder about Opa's business skills, I wonder what he was like when he had hope and optimism. I wonder how he ran his shop and his business.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Concerns about immigration and both legal and illegal immigrants are everyday news. There is a lot of anger toward immigrants. People that have been here for generations feel entitled to their life. When recessions and depressions threaten that life, they look for someone to blame. Immigrants are easy targets. My grandfathers were immigrants, legal immigrants because they were fortunate enough to have sponsors. My grandfather Opa was a gardener. Many hired gardeners are now Hispanic. They are like my grandfather, trying to take care of their families by working at a dirty, hard job few are willing to take. Not only is empathy is lacking in our society, but a lack of gratitude for the lives we have in this country. For many of us, our lives were made possible by immigrants who sacrificed to be here.

Ever since I posted my last blog, I have been thinking about my grandparent’s immigration to the United States. Scandinavian immigrants were welcome with open arms because of a need to populate the harsh Midwest with people who understood the climate and could work with it. Opa immigrated because the alternative was death. My mother was only eight when she left her home with her parents. Talking about their life in Europe was not permitted in their house. I have many questions that would help me understand what path I am on and where I am going.

A few years ago, a man named Walter Klein contacted my mother. He identified himself as a distant cousin who wanted to share his search for ancestors with her. My mother, he said, was his cousin. He was trying to understand their link to each other. He discovered, in his genealogy research, a line that ran to her. He shared his family tree and pictures of destroyed European synagogues.

I knew growing up that Opa and Oma, my grandmother, had something they wanted to keep very quiet. My mother has, in her later years, been joking about being Jewish. They were Jewish, but I don’t think that was the secret. Walter’s papers have made me believe that the missing piece of the puzzle may be that they might have been Sudeten. There is now a wealth of information on the net of Sudeten’s trying to create their own homeland. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERsudetenland.htm Opa may have ignored the politics of the movement for independence because of his status in the community, only to realize that it was a Nazi supported movement that was not for Jewish Sudetens. They started their escape in 1938, going to Prague, then to Holland. This is just speculation on my part, pieced together from the small pieces of the puzzle I have. However, from their life in America you would not know it. Opa was a gardener, Oma worked in small sewing factories as a seamstress. My mother attended the Lutheran church.

My mother is now is beginning to talk about what she remembers about her other life. You have to weed through what you know is exaggeration and what is plausible. She harbors a lot of anger toward her parents even to this day. That shaped her youth. It also shaped her adult life and her relationship with her children (including me). I can make no excuses for her, but I can imagine what is was like for an eight year old girl of privilege, raised by a nanny, to go on an odyssey of running and hiding for more than eight months through Europe.

She related to me a story of standing at a table with her brother and parents with their papers in a folder to hand over to a German soldier that was checking them. She remembers tall, black, shiny boots. Another officer bumped their elbows, sending papers flying. Scrambling to gather them, the officer said for them to go. Mom said that there were good German soldiers. Then that little girl spent what seemed like an eternity on a ship trying to cross the Atlantic during the stormy season. She stills talks with anger about a mother who didn’t try to mother her until she was eight years old. A women who had two cooks and little time for her. For my mother, her mother was the nanny left behind. Clouded by spending her life trying to make her mother pay for that, my mother didn’t seem to have skills to mother her own children.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Carrying fresh flowers, vegetables, and herbs harvested from an overflowing pea patch into the house in a wicker basket has always seemed like a fantasy. I envy people who have vases of fresh flowers sitting on polished dining room tables. Gardening takes time, I haven’t spent time on myself and an over-extended schedule has prevented either scenario from happening.

However, since given the pink slip last year I am going to make a veiled attempt at converting the pink slip into a pink carnation. Carnations were one of the flowers that my grandfather, Opa, grew. Opa, Oma, Uncle Fred, and my mother immigrated during World War II. Other than that little tidbit, there was little history shared. Asking questions seemed out of the question. Without history, calling my mother's parents Opa and Oma at times seemed strange, but that was just the way it was. Opa took pride in his yard and his roses, carnations, and fruit trees.

Opa and Oma’s West Los Angeles small bungalow had a professionally manicured postage stamp size lawn. One of the professions my blonde haired, blue-eyed German grandfather worked at when I was a child was as a gardener. The other was counting screws and putting them in plastic bags with a label. I remember riding along with him when he dropped boxes of screws off at the manufacturing site. I didn't question. I wish I had.

A tired station wagon sat in the driveway of their house. When visiting, I would see two wooden planks leaned up against the back bumper and Opa rolling the lawn mower in. Then Opa would be off to tend to someone's lawn. My childhood memories are fragmented. I am jealous of people who can name their first grade teacher or the color of their birthday party dress when they were twelve. I do remember visiting the home of a very wealthy man with a Bel Air estate address. I went on a tour of this house and I remember that there were no doorknobs in this modern home. I have a ghostly memory of being trapped in the bathroom, but I learned that there were pressure points on the doors and cupboards that you pushed to open them. The relationship between Opa and this man seemed to be more than employer and employee. I didn't question. I wish I had.

Opa gardened wearing a pith helmet. I loved to wear his helmet and play safari. Rows of lawn chairs would be set up under the three fruit trees in his small yard and I would imagine that I was the bus driver taking the tourists through the African savannah. Opa had a roofed patio at the back of the house that was set up as an outdoor living room. There was plenty of furniture to set up my bus. I also took many naps on visits to their house on the patio's lawn swing, lulled to sleep with the smell of chives that were always growing to garnish cottage cheese.

My other Grandpa also had an accent. My memories of him consist of an old man who hid in a spare room or old trailer, drinking. He was not to be disturbed. He did, however, make sure that Grandma always had a garden to harvest.

I never had much of a relationship with my other grandpa. His physique was identical to Opa's, his accent Norwegian. Family stories were that he worked on a wealthy French aristocrat's farm in Norway. The Chamber of Commerce in the Midwest recruited Scandinavian farmers who could grow crops in the harsh climate of the Dakotas. My grandpa answered the call and in the late 1800s he landed at Ellis Island. His family name was common, Olson. When he landed at Ellis Island, he signed his name using the farm that he worked. That is why my Norwegian grandfather had a French name and why I do too. While cold climate farming lured him to the United States, he left the Dakotas and lived out his years in an old trailer behind his house in Southern California, drinking life away. Never the less, Grandma always had vegetables to harvest every year.

Playing in dirt is a legacy that was given to me by both of my grandfathers.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Crossroads and Life's Journey

I am at a crossroads. Searching the internet for inspiration and support, I could not find any travelers that shared a parallel journey. Consumed by the trappings of a conventional life (at least a feeble attempt at it), I had gotten lost. The obscure path that I tried to follow was not well marked and the map I had was not clear. The map started in the early 50’s. The current maps label a 50’s baby a Boomer. That label is not on my map. My graduation from high school in ’69 in California leaves many with the impression that I was a hippie. However, I missed that fork in the path. I lived in a family that could be the template for dysfunctional. My brother did give me an opportunity to live vicariously through him. This blog is a travel log for my current journey and an attempt to find those with a parallel journey. Perhaps we can help each other find and stay on our paths.