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
. 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 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. 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.