Thursday, October 16, 2014

That Which Remains

I call my mother every morning to help her launch her day. She is in her late 80s and her memory is flagging. I answer the same questions many times in the course of our phone call. She retains the answer for a nanosecond and then it is gone. I answer calmly again and again. I am often an impatient person, but I enter another zone when dealing with my mother. Impatience serves no purpose and would only distress her.

Earlier this week I reminded her that I'd be coming to visit her. She squealed with delight. Then she said, "maybe it's good that I forget things because I get to get excited all over again when I remember." Now this is optimism at its finest. There are many jokes like this about Alzheimer's, but I'm here to tell you that they are true.

Before I encountered memory loss close up, I thought of it as an on-off switch. You either had it or you didn't. Now I realize it is far more complex. We tend to think about the extremes, when a loved one no longer knows who we are or retreats into silence. I often have people express concern about my mother, projecting their experience with the disease. People who knew my mother's active curiosity about the world are most dismayed, aware of what has been lost. I want to remind them that there is still much that remains. There are many faces to Alzheimer's and they don't all need to be coupled with distress. Sometimes we get so focused on the loss that we fail to appreciate what is right in front of us.

If I only had my phone calls with my mother, perhaps I would feel the loss more deeply. They have shrunk in content. What was once a rich relationship, filled with confiding and the occasional book review, now revolves around reminders of pills and which aide will arrive when. I have found that our relationship is best conducted face to face. With a stretch of time to talk, different sides emerge.

I come to visit her every few months and stay for a week. It is a different quality of time to have a week. My sister, who lives in the same state, comes in weekly for an overnight visit. It is the highlight of my mother's week, but is filled with hair appointments, grocery shopping, the functional needs of everyday life. I have a longer stretch and it allows for things to bubble up.

I think about what I can bring on my visits that will enrich her life. It is all a bit of an experiment. On one visit we did family history collages together, on another she heard me do a talk on genealogy for a local organization. Sometimes I introduce her to a new food with mixed results. We go to museums, 3-D movies, trolley rides and botanical gardens. She doesn't have much physical energy anymore so I need to tailor what we do to her capacity, but the act of showing up seems to be deeply satisfying to her. I used to take her on rather intense trips to Europe, filled with activity and stimulation. The stimulation from what we do during my visits triggers a residual memory for her. "We have a special relationship", she says. "We understand each other. We always traveled well together."

I was the traveling daughter who exposed her to the world. My sister provided the grandchildren. We speak to different sides of my mother. We each feed different aspects of her memory about herself. I tell her, "you always enjoyed exploring new things. You just needed to be with someone you trusted who would lead the way." That feels right to her. "You know me so well," she replies.

My mother was always a reader, but can no longer retain the thread of a story. I decided to try something different with her on this visit. I've been taking an essay class so have been writing personal essays. I read her some of them, thinking perhaps a short story with some familiar elements that was read to her would be somehow more accessible. She listened intently, absorbed in story. I realize that my touchstone in this terrain is my knowledge about her and the things we shared.

 

 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Avocado Memory

You may notice some differences in this blog's layout. Since I cover a variety of topics, I've set it up so you can use the labels at the top to pull blogs by topic. I will be continuing to add to it over time as new topics develop. In addition to topics, I've also provided a link to my art/genealogy website as well as to those blog entries that seem to get the most hits. Hopefully this will make it easier to access the content you find most of interest.
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I always feel a bit remiss when time goes by without me writing in my blog. It has become a ritual in my life. Often I use it to remember some detail of my life, a bit of a public journal. I have been taking an essay class and all my writing juice has gone towards the weekly essays that I write which are too long for a blog post.

I have had a few realizations in this class. One is that when one writes essays they are by their nature personal. I suspect I will know my classmates well. There is an intimacy to essay, a sharing of self. As a private person, I sometimes struggle with that and yet that is the power of essay. It allows us to connect with others through the personal which much to our surprise is often universal. I am also aware that some of my best material will never exist in the public realm as it is too raw, too revealing. In some cases I protect another person. To write of them would be a betrayal of their public self, no matter how accurate in the moment of time of which I write. It is still only a moment seen through one person's eyes. Like the blind man and the elephant, I can never capture the totality of another person, just glimpses.

At each class some of us are asked to read our essay. This means our teacher liked our work and felt it captured the approach we were exploring. I must confess to feeling some relief when she approached me before class to ask me to read my work. I thought my essay was strong, but it is easy to be too close to your own material. Even when I read my work to my husband, I really can't get an outside perspective. He knows my stories, my way of thinking so he is not really an arms-length listener. Reading is an opportunity to test your material on a new audience. I've read poetry aloud to an audience, but never an essay of my own construction on a topic that is by its nature personal. Nothing encoded to decipher, just out there, exposed.

This essay was to take the approach of a whorl of reflection, circling, spiraling around a subject. This approach is quite true to my natural process. My mind goes in circles around a topic. I have often described it like a dog circling before settling in. I wrote an essay around memory, the topic of my current explorations. Although I wrote about my mother's experience with loss of memory, I started with the way I remember people through food and how spatial sense is so key to memory. I find I am liking the process of entering a topic, finding a doorway in through some random thread that then leads into meatier content.

Here's a brief excerpt of the lighter part of this essay, the introduction to the topic of memory.

I eat a spinach salad every day. I fill it with all of my favorite foods, toasted pecans, roasted asparagus and fennel, feta cheese and dried cherries and the coup de resistance, four slices of avocado. Every so often I find one that is perfectly ripe. It is then that I think of my friend Carol who introduced me to the avocado.

Carol was the spouse of a co-worker of my then-husband. We were young, in our 20s. They were our couple friends, a construct that seldom worked for me, much too hard to have everyone like each other, but Carol I liked. She had an intelligence about her and a curiosity.

I remember Carol holding out an avocado to me as we stood in her kitchen. "It's a perfect avocado" she said as she cut into its soft, creamy, yellow-green surface. She set the pit aside to join another in a bottle on her window, held in place with toothpicks. It was just beginning to root.

I had lost touch with her soon after we moved to Minnesota 35 years ago. My daily avocado often elicited her memory. Periodically I searched for her, but she had a common name. I assumed she'd split up with her then spouse. We were all too careless for relationships to survive, at least in their original "til death do us part" form. We still believed in second chances so were far too cavalier with life and love.

Once when I got together with my ex-husband for one of our birthday lunches, a tradition we've continued for the 30+ years since we split up, I asked him if he knew where our old friends were. He too had lost touch with them.

As it turned out I was the first to hear from them or at least from Carol. A few weeks ago she contacted me on Facebook. A different married name appended, a different location than those I had searched. We exchanged a series of messages to catch up on our 35 year separation. One of my first comments to her was "I think of you whenever I eat an avocado."

The essay then goes on to address how little we use our capacity for memory and recollections about family members who lost memory. I describe my grandmother who lost her memory early and lived with us for a time when I was a child.

I think a lot about memory these days as I watch my mother's fade. We spend the first part of our life collecting memories only to lose them at the end. My mother lived her life in fear of losing her memory. Her mother lost her's early, beginning in her 60s I think. No one was too sure of her exact age until I began researching family. She lived with us for two years when I was a child. I remember her twisting the buttons on her sweater. She had what I thought of as an old people's smell. She used to sweep our carpet with a broom. "No grandma" we'd say, gently taking the broom from her hands. She only spoke Yiddish. I remember her sitting in the kitchen polishing silver. It gave her comfort and calmed her restless hands.

When she lived with us she used to do the Sabbath blessing. It was the only time it was done in our house. Some years ago I did a painting of her doing that blessing. Memory of blessing, both hers and mine, filtered through my mother. When I worked on it, I sent it back and forth to my mother, trying to capture the image, waiting for my mother's blessing. "Her hands need to be more work-worn" my mother said. I tried yet again. Finally she replied, "Yes, I see her!" When I stood before the painting, I stood to its side, assuming my place at the table of my childhood.

I'm having fun with this. No idea what I do with these as I polish them, but the mere act of writing is richly satisfying, even more so when classmates respond so warmly to what I read.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Discomfort of Something New

Recently I told my mother the litany of activities I had this week. Among them was a writing class at the Loft, our local writing center. "What do you need that for?" she asked, "you already write well". Clearly she spoke as a mother.

The class I am taking is on essays and fulfills a promise I made to myself earlier this year to deepen my skills. Years ago I took a writing class and was much too intimidated to read anything I wrote aloud. After five years of blog posts, almost 300 essays, I am hoping I'll be a bit braver.

Now I decided to take a class in essays because that seems to be the format that best fits me; observational, thoughtful in nature and based in reality. I figured I better go with my strengths. Years ago an old boyfriend who was partial to women who were flirty and light said to me that while not flirty and light I was "intelligent and thoughtful". It seemed a bit like a consolation prize at the time. I was never going to be this frothy confection he sought. The boyfriend became history years ago and I have since learned to appreciate who I am.


In the first class the teacher gave us an exercise that reminded me of this exchange. To introduce ourselves we were to say what we were not. We each presented a paragraph or list of traits identifying what we were not. So my version, slightly reworked into a more playful form, goes something like this...

Not Me

I am not passive, wishy-washy,
Nor frothy, flirty, light.
Not lacking in opinions
Nor the words to give them flight.
I'm not a slow reactor,
Not slow to act, to move, to speak
Not murky, unclear, hazy.
Nothing is oblique.
Most certainly I'm not lazy.
Not good at kicking back,
I'm not of one-dimension
That's definitely a fact,
I'm not unfocused, nor blasé,
Bored with life I'll never be,
Those are just a few things
That certainly are not me

It actually is an interesting exercise in defining oneself. In a sense it uses negative space just as one does with artwork, identifying what one isn't to identify what one is.

The class has an intriguing approach. It uses an article by Timothy Bascom that examines six story arcs for essays. Each week we examine a different arc through both reading and then writing an essay that uses that structure. The reading that exemplifies the first style was published in the New Yorker, The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Anne Beard.

Unlike a blog which I try to keep under 1000 words, an essay can be quite a bit longer. That greater length allows an opportunity to interweave different threads. My first attempt of 4000 words allowed me to experiment with a more complex approach.

I'm both slightly intimidated and intrigued by where this class will take me. The others in the class seem much more adept at producing clever responses at a moment's notice whereas I need the time to marinate in thought, letting things bubble up in their own time. And so I shall marinate, not trying to be something I'm not, yet pushing myself beyond comfort. It occurs to me that when we take on new things we need to be in a state of readiness, to feel that growth is possible, but it is the actual discomfort of something new that pushes us forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Deepening Understanding

After dumping a bucket of water on my head for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I was glad to see social media move on to a project that was more in my sphere. Recently I was tagged in the exercise to list the ten books that most influenced me. I soon discovered that this was a difficult task and I had to set some ground rules. After reading a book I have a tendency to file it under liked or disliked and then promptly forget its content. I decided that for something to influence me, I had to retain its thread. That eliminated much of my early reading. I also found myself listing books I had read recently and decided I was unduly influenced by very recent reading and began to evaluate those books through a more critical lens. Sometimes a book has to survive some passage of time to really test its influence.

I could have gone further back to my childhood and added The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and of course Exodus and Pride and Prejudice. Those latter two were romantic stuff to a teenager. There was a time I wanted to join a kibbutz and of course I identified with Elizabeth Bennett and the tension of her developing romance with Mr Darcy. What bookish teenage girl didn't? But while those books influenced the youthful me, I focused on those that surprised the me of today.

For the past seven years I have recorded the books that I've read. I write a sentence about each book to jog my memory and rate it. I also categorize it as fiction or non-fiction and sometimes by topic. While 40% of my reading is nonfiction, 60% of my list of ten were non-fiction and even those that are fiction are based on historical events. Some of my reading parallels my explorations in artwork and my interview project of elders within the Jewish community. So here's my list:

A Hole in the Heart of the World:Being Jewish in Eastern Europe -Jonathan Kaufman

The Greater Journey- David McCullough

Ester and Ruzya: How my Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace- Masha Gessen

The Great Escape-Kati Marton

The Invisible Bridge-Julie Oringer

Half of a Yellow Sun- Chimamanda Adichie

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher-Timothy Egan

The Warmth of Other Suns-Isabel Wilkerson

Night in Shanghai -Nicole Mones

Time and Again-Jack Finney

The books that found their way to this list often left me somewhat chagrined, wondering how I could have gotten to this stage of my life and not been fully informed about history and political events that surrounded me. While well informed about the Holocaust, I began to realize that I knew little about the experience of Jews who remained in Eastern Europe after WWII. My education on this deepened with my interviews of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but two books expanded on what I was learning. A Hole in the Heart of the World and Ester and Ruzya began to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and echoed and validated the stories I heard.

When I travel I try to read topical books. Our 2010 trip to Budapest caused me to discover Kati Marton, born in Hungary to journalist parents who survived the Holocaust, were imprisoned in Budapest after the war and finally were able to bring their family to the US. While one of her books addresses their story, it was her book the Great Escape that affected me most deeply. In it she follows the story of nine Hungarian Jews who fled fascism and anti-semitism to find renown in their fields and create a significant impact on the world. I was struck by the creativity that was fed by the engine of being "the other", a theme that speaks to me on many levels and recurs in many of the books I've selected.

The Invisible Bridge is set in both Budapest and Paris and spans the pre-war to post-war period and the events of the Holocaust. While fiction, it brings the reader into the experiences it explores and into the psyche of its characters, allowing for a deeper understanding of war-time events because you care deeply about the characters. It explores both the pre and post war period to better allow you to appreciate the lives that were disrupted and often destroyed by that middle chapter that often becomes the sole focus.

When I read The Warmth of Other Suns, I again realized I had an embarrassing hole in my knowledge. I knew little about the Great Migration of American blacks. I found I had some reference points and considered the book as a story of immigration for that was largely an implicit theme even if the immigrant never crossed a national boundary. The Jim Crow laws reminded me of the laws the Nazis put in place for Jews.

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones addressed an aspect of Shanghai and the black experience with which I wasn't familiar. Of course I knew about the Jews who escaped to Shanghai during WWII, but I didn't know of black jazz musicians who found a temporary haven from prejudice there, with the exception of the American concession. I was naively shocked to read that America carried race laws to Shanghai, unable to recognize our own bigotry even as we later fought an enemy who created an ideology built on bigotry.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictionalized look at the Nigerian-Biafra war. I remember photos of starving Biafran children but had no understanding of the story behind them. I was a teenager at the time and skimmed the surface of this conflict. This book took me deeply into it through strongly developed characters.

The Greater Journey looks at the many American artists and other important figures who lived in Paris in the 1800s. I am always fascinated by the role place can play in cultural ferment by bringing people in contact with each other. Understanding interconnections and influences allows for a greater understanding of the world.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher looks at Edward Curtis and his role as both photographer and ethnographer of Indian tribes at a time when their culture was being quite intentionally destroyed. There were several aspects of the book that informed and influenced me, 1) the intentional destruction of Indian culture by the US government, 2) the interrelationships between key figures- who knew that Edward Curtis and Teddy Roosevelt became good friends after Curtis photographed Roosevelt's family?, and 3) the amazing reach of someone with a passion and commitment that supersedes credentialization. Curtis developed an expertise because of his passion and drive, not because of formal education. The world became his classroom and his knowledge of Indian tribes far surpassed that of many of those educated at fine universities.

Lastly I had to include Time and Again, one of the best time travel novels there is. I am fascinated by such subjects because of my interest in history and genealogy. I love thinking about what once existed in a particular location as well as mentally stepping into photographs of long-gone people. This book invited me into New York City at a time long past and collapsed the barriers created by time and perception. We so often think of people from another time as very different from ourselves when in fact I suspect they are far more similar than we expect.

Perhaps that is the take-away of many of these books that remove the false boundaries we erect between ourselves and others. Our boundaries may be that of time, race, religion or geography. Good books collapse those boundaries and let us into another person's experience. Many of these books explore the experience of an outsider whether it be an American in Paris, a person stepping back in time, a Jew in Eastern Europe, a black jazz musician in Shanghai or a black American who immigrates from South to North. Through outsider eyes they offer a fresh perspective, allowing us to view the familiar through an unfamiliar lens.

 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Private Face

I have written about my mother and her growing loss of memory with some hesitation. It took me a long time to put words to this and even longer to share them. My mom is a private person which argued for me keeping this challenge private. My sister is on this journey with me and we have discussed the issue of privacy. Is it better to confront the stigma of Alzheimers by sharing one's story? And what exactly is behind this fear of being public about something that has touched the lives of virtually every one I know.

I think part of it is about our public face and a reluctance to show our loved one at less than their best, to preserve their dignity at all cost. There is also perhaps too much sensitivity to the discomfort of the external world where most are ill-equipped to deal with those who are in this awkward stage of life. Many people begin to retreat from the world when their memory falters. Aware that something is off, they cut back on social encounters. My late father also lost memory, but was not one to retreat from anything. He made his rounds each day to his familiar haunts. Some people were quite gracious as he retold his litany of stories for the umpteenth time, yet I often felt that others expected him to retreat. Perhaps they felt it was a bit unseemly, preferring that he preserve the image of himself at his career pinnacle, like an aging movie star who drops from public view to preserve the myth of eternal beauty. I knew what my father would have said to that and it would not have been polite. Sometimes I thought it on his behalf.

In this world of blogging I write about what I encounter and as an artist I go one step further and paint and talk about those encounters. I use my artwork as a way to better understand my world and to create a dialogue with others. That makes it hard not to address these changes in my mother, the person who has been my hero and role model for much of my life. My sister was the first to shatter that barrier in her blog aptly called Alzheimer's Sucks, But It Is What It Is.

"It is what it is" - a phrase we often repeat to each other. My sister and I share a pretty matter of fact attitude as well as a deep love for our mother. I figure given that, anything we say comes from a place of love and confronts the realities of life. With that assessment I too decided to dive in.
I've been asked to participate in a video that is being done for a caregiver's conference. There I will exhibit this body of artwork which I am planning. They have posed three questions to me to contemplate prior to filming.

1. What is the most challenging part of having a loved one with dementia?
2. What is the most challenging part of care-giving for a loved one with dementia ?
3. What is the most rewarding part of care-giving for a loved one with dementia?

And so I've begun to contemplate this experience. Our relationship with a parent is complex. Often we are still working out issues with them when suddenly things change and they need us in ways we never imagined. I've watched friends with unresolved relationships struggle with a sense of duty towards a parent who frequently made them grit their teeth. My relationship with my mother has always been comparatively easy. We share interests in art and literature. We have some similar threads in our make-up and understand each other. Because of that I have always felt a sense of empathy for her and she for me. That causes me to join her on this journey, to feel for her deeply when she is confused or fearful, to appreciate the parts of her I still see within. And yes, to feel the loss of what we once had even as I don't want to diminish what we still have.

Suddenly this competent thoughtful woman is reliant on me. It is a switching of roles between parent and child as I gradually lose the person I knew. We used to have discussions of books we read. Now she can't retain the thread of the story. We traveled together on many trips to Europe. Our first trip followed my breakup with an old boyfriend with whom I had traveled. In its wake I decided I wanted to build and share memories with someone who would always be a part of my life and I reasoned what better person than my mother. It never occurred to me that she might not be able to retain those memories at some point in the future. So one of the challenges is the inevitable loss, both hers and perhaps selfishly mine.

One of the hardest parts of caregiving is not knowing what comes next. You know it doesn't get better, but there are plateaus. You don't know how long you get before things worsen and you don't know exactly how it will worsen. I don't want my mom to feel fearful, to worry about this loss she lives with daily. She reports to me that she is "farmisht" (Yiddish for mixed up), aware that things are not working quite right. I want her to enjoy her remaining time, to feel connected and supported and productive. And so I call her each morning and fly in often to see her. I do what I can do from many miles away. I don't take anything for granted. That is the rewarding part. It forces me to recognize that life as I've known it is fleeting and I better do everything I can do to appreciate and support her while I can. I won't get a second shot at this so I better show up. At the end of the day it is the relationships that matter.

For me it is not only my relationship with my mother, but also my sister. I am fortunate to have a sister as a partner in this. For much of our lives we followed different paths meeting up annually around the Thanksgiving table. At crisis points we talked more frequently, but for the most part we were both busy with our very different lives. Because she lives closer to my mom she takes on a lot, a weekly visit which enables my mom to live in her home. We divide other responsibilities, I deal with finances, she deals with health. I trust her completely to always do what is best for our mom. Just as I commit to my mother, I also have a commitment to my sister. We're in this together and I do my best to hold up my end of things. In the process I have learned to appreciate my sister on a whole different level. That is one of the many gifts my mother's circumstances have bequeathed me. It occurs to me that someday my mother will become memory, made of that very ethereal substance she finds so hard to retain. My sister will be one of the few people with whom I will share that precious memory.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Into the Wilderness

"I’m confused", my mother reports when I call her in the morning. "Where is everyone? I feel like I’m all alone. Has everyone forgotten about me? It's like I’m in a wilderness".


"I haven't forgotten about you", I reply. "Here I am with your morning call and Sally will be there soon". 

Every morning I coax her through her day. "What day is it?" she asks. Time is a slippery devil, it keeps changing, never standing still. On top of the refrigerator is a large digital display with the day and time in red.
She reads it to me. "Monday, 8:35" I remind her to take her pills and she goes to her pill box. "Is today Monday?" she asks. We again establish that it is Monday and she takes out the Monday pills."There are an awful lot of pills", she says, the same statement she makes every day. "Who is coming today?" she asks again. I remind her that is it Sally. It is a short list, the same person virtually every day except when my sister arrives. I repeat myself many times matter of factly. I have long ago moved past irritation. It is what needs to be done. Each time she asks, it is a new question for her. "I’m so glad you help me to know what’s coming in my day," she says gratefully. "I couldn’t live alone without that".

My mother is losing memory. I try to pinpoint where it began. Five years ago she was fine. My late father's memory loss was more severe and perhaps overshadowed her more gradual diminishment. She has been on a plateau for a long time, not great, but not terrible either. My sister and I had adjusted to this new normal when suddenly the ground beneath us shifted abruptly, the floor of a crazy fun house dropping suddenly, our stomachs lurch with it. We evaluate what we need to do to support this change. We worry about her being afraid, but take comfort in the familiar person still there in the middle of this. The core remains despite these changes.
 
I am intrigued with her description of her experience, a wilderness. I am surprised that she can identify her confusion, perhaps a stage along the way until she is lost in that wilderness and the confusion that it represents. She is an intelligent person and has the vocabulary to put words to what she experiences. I am beginning to think through a series of paintings that capture this experience and I ponder this wilderness, this new and confusing world that she is entering. What would she take with her, what does she see and hear?

We talk about her cat, a special companion to my mother. When we returned from a trip, I was worried about her reorienting, settling back in. When I heard her speaking to her cat in the night I sighed in relief. Her cat is her companion and gives her comfort, another living, breathing creature. Her cat would accompany her into this wilderness. My mother writes a lot of notes to herself. Not always logical, she writes down times that five minutes later will be obsolete. It is the act of writing that helps fix her reality. Today I reported how long before her companion would arrive, 20 minutes, 15, 10. She writes this down as if to capture time, to make it stand still for her like her oven clock, stuck at ten after eight for countless years. 

I picture a path of yellow post-it notes, a yellow brick road of sorts with her cat leading the way, her shadow behind. A thick and tangled forest in front. The red flash of time through the trees. And my phone call reverberating in waves, an anchor for her as she stands before this forest. Into the Wilderness. I often know the title before anything else. I can picture this wilderness with its echoes of noise and light, her following her cat into the unknown. I add it to my to do list of paintings on the theme of memory.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Validating Instincts

As a genealogist, I have learned to trust my instincts. They often lead me to pursue what might seem like a tenuous link to some, perhaps merely a coincidental confluence of facts, but for some reason they call to me. My challenge is to validate the connection through records to confirm that it is more than a coincidence, to prove or disprove my hypothesis.

In my latest project I was asked to identify the towns of origin for both sides of my client's family. My starting point is what I know which in this case was very little except for grandparents' names. This is a fairly typical beginning point. This client reached out to other family members who offered some rumored ports of arrival, all helpful information if applied wisely. While I use this in my search, I am always careful not to let it blind me to other possibilities. Often family members immigrate separately or in small groups so while I assumed at least one family member followed the route of family folklore, I also explored alternate routes.

As always I began by searching for census records on ancestry.com which tell me at least the approximate year of arrival so I can narrow my focus. With that information, I turned to stevemorse.org which allows me to search for immigration records on many variables. After a number of searches I found some immigration records for each family which revealed the towns of origin. Mystery solved, but wait a minute. One record noted Warsaw as the town of origin. I've learned that many immigrants will note a nearby large city rather than the smaller town in which they live. My grandfather's marriage record notes he was from Warsaw when in fact he came from a town an hour away. I wondered if this might also be true in this case.

I did a search on JRI-Poland.org with the given names of both husband and wife along with the married name. I was searching for Leon and Bella, but first I converted Leon to Leib and Bella to Bayla, the non-Americanized versions that they went by in Poland. Only a few index entries came up and the most promising was a marriage record for a town about 80 miles from Warsaw. The entry had the correct surname and the given names of Szija Leib and Bayla Brandel. Close, but no certainty, still very much in the realm of hunch.

This was just the index and I wanted the actual record. Records can be located in one of three ways. Some records are held at the Family History Library in Utah. The JRI-Poland site will often tell you the film number or you can search the FHL catalog on-line to learn whether they have the film for the year or town in question. You can order a film to review at one of their church libraries or if it is an isolated record for which you know the precise coordinates you may ask them to send it digitally.

If not at the FHL you can contact the appropriate arm of the Polish Archives to order the record, sending them a wire for the cost involved. Needless to say this is the most cumbersome means with potential language barriers to navigate.

The third way is fairly new. The Polish Archives are beginning to digitize records and in this case the index advised me that this specific record was on-line and provided a link. It took a while to navigate the all-Polish site, but with the year and record number I was able to ultimately locate it.

The record was in Russian so I deciphered enough to believe it was still a possibility. I decided to cross-check my translation by posting it on Jewishgen's Viewmate translation site in hopes that a kind and fluent researcher might translate it for me. After a few days I had received my translation.

To verify this record I needed to know one more detail, what was on their tombstones. Jewish tombstones have the Hebrew names of the individual and that of their father, the same information that is in a marriage record. I circled back to my client who sent me photos of the tombstones. Then I began to see how the information matched up.

So what did I find? The record showed Szija Leib's father as Mechil and Bella's father as Izak. Their tombstones showed Menachem and Yitzhak, a pretty close match in the art of tombstone matching. I then looked at the Hebrew tombstone names. Leib's appeared to be Joshua Arieh and Bayla's was Bayla Brina. I knew that Szija is derived from Isaiah which comes from the same root as Joshua. I soon learned from baby naming sites that they all translate to God is salvation or God saves. Similarly Areih and Leib both mean lion. Bayla's name in the marriage record was Bayla Brandel, not far from Bayla Brina.

My hypothesis has strengthened, but still reliant on comparable names, not a perfectly clean match. How else can I prove this out? I decide to return to immigration records, but this time using the town's name from the marriage record I had discovered. Searching with this new piece of information I found the immigration record of Bayla and several of their children. There are two pieces of data on which I focus, nearest relative in Europe and who were they going to. In this case I had a perfect match as she named her destination with her husband's name and town. Even better she gave her mother's name as nearest European relative, a perfect match of both given name, surname and town to the marriage record.

So what's next? With a firm foundation, we can begin to look for related records. On JRI-Poland I find indices for birth records for both Leib and Bayla, a marriage record for Bayla's parents and a death record of a Leib with the correct last name just one year before the younger Szija Leib's birth. Given the time proximity it may well be his grandfather after whom he is named. I order the records from the Family History Library and settle in to await further discoveries.

And there we have it, puzzle solved.