Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Safecracker's Work

“My father and I are planning a day trip to Radom” began the email asking for some guidance for their trip.  She went on to note that she'd had difficulty finding much on her grandmother who came from there. 

Some years ago, I took on a volunteer task for Jewishgen, creating a website on Radom, Poland, my ancestral town. Now I often get emails from people planning trips to Poland to visit the town where their ancestors lived.  I advise them how to do research in foreign archives, of meaningful information on the site and often direct them to resource people in Radom.

Although it is a volunteer activity, it has paid many dividends over time. I met one of my closest friends through the project, a survivor from Radom, now in her 90s. I obtained source material to develop artwork on the town and later exhibited it in Poland, and of course, I learned how to do websites, a skill that I’ve drawn on many times. None of that would have happened had I not volunteered.

Along the way, I often help people solve their family mysteries. Truth be told, I like when I can solve a puzzle and this one promised to be a challenge.  The name was unusual and had many varieties, but I knew exactly where to look. Much to my surprise the name didn’t show up in any of the usual places. I began to wonder if this was the right town. I went to the naturalization document and verified that Radom was indeed noted as the town. My curiosity drew me in further and I did a search for the name in Yad Vashem. Again, a record came up under Radom, but when I went to the original testimony and studied the handwritten form, it appeared to be Radun, a city that was 243 miles away. There are often errors in transcription which is why it important to see the original document.

A few e-mail exchanges and a bit of research and I told my correspondent that the town was actually, Radun, a town in what is now Belarus, once in the Vilna Gubernia. I could see how the confusion arose as more than one of the records confused the towns. As the trip was fast approaching, I was asked to do some genealogy consulting.  Our starting point was the grandparents who came to America and got married in New York.  Our objective was to cross the ocean to find where they had lived and who their parents and siblings were. Quickly! 

Marriage records are the gold standard to crack such a puzzle. They have the names of those who married, but also their parents’ names. If I could find that, then I should be able to work backwards to the towns of origin.  Ancestry.com had the summary of the marriage record with the date and the certificate number.  That was sufficient information to order it, but that meant a wait when we didn’t have much time. Most searches have alternate paths and I decided to go in through stevemorse.org.  I knew his search engine tapped Italiangen for NY marriage records, but I saw it also offered a linkage to Family Search. I had used Family Search for many things, but I had never compared them to another source for the same item. To my surprise, the Italiangen site offered the certificate number, but Family Search offered a much richer record with both sets of parents’ names, everything that would be found on the document itself. I felt like a safecracker who just heard a satisfying release of the tumblers.  In addition to the marriage record, I pulled immigration, draft and census records to gather information that I could cross-check against European records to verify a match.

Now the names weren’t exactly consistent, they seldom are. One name read Sreida which I quickly surmised was probably Freida.  The Elowitz of the record was originally Ilutowich and Sadorwick was actually Slodovnik.  So how did I find that out?  My client was familiar with the married name of Ilutowich so that was my starting point.  We start with what we know and look for a bridge to what we don't know. I did a search for Nechama Ilutowich on Yad Vashem and lo and behold it came up with Nechama Ylutovicz nee Slodovnik.  Once again those tumblers released. I was in the vault.

Much of genealogy is about moving between different sources looking for bridges to the next data point. That's why familiarity with available sources and alternative paths is valuable.  Yad Vashem had given me the key, now I had to explore the names in the All Lithuanian database. Why Lithuania? Although Radun is in Belarus today, it was originally in the Vilna Gubernia. Part of that region is now in Lithuania and the rest is in Belarus. I knew from my own research in Belarus that many of the towns that were once in the Vilna Gubernia have records at the Vilnius archives. And about those records, you no longer have to go to Lithuania to get them.The Lithuania database is linked to the original records of the Vilnius region through Familysearch; however I was to learn that records are not always at the image number where they are listed. I put together a finding aid using stevemorse.org to learn what the names look like in cursive Cyrillic Russian. Then I used that to locate the missing records among pages of Cyrillic. You don't need to speak Russian, just be good at pattern recognition.

While I had found entrance to the inner data sanctum, I still had a few bears to battle in this quest. The groom's father in the American marriage record was Berel, yet he showed up as Dov in the Lithuanian database. Dov is the Hebrew name and Berel is the Yiddish and both mean "bear".Sometimes it is written as Berko and this was indicated in the Lithuanian records after Dov. I had run into something similar in another case with Areih and Leib, both mean "lion" and were used interchangeably.  Understanding the derivation of names and related names is valuable in working with European records. Without that awareness, it would have been easy to conclude these records weren't what I was looking for.

Several of the bride's siblings showed up in the birth records with both of the parents' names in the town of Radun, but where was the bride?  A quick look at the rtrfoundation.org site for the Radun records, told me that her birth likely preceded the period for which records were available. Knowing what is available can save you some time in fruitless searching.

The Lithuanian database is quite robust and includes birth, marriage and death records as well as revision lists which are the census of the time. They are revised periodically with updated information, which is likely how they got their name. If you're fortunate, you may find an 1850 revision list followed by an 1858 one and note how the families have matured in the intervening years. It feels a bit like a holiday letter across the ages as you watch children grow up, marry and have their own children.  Extended families frequently lived together and revision lists will show the head of the household and every person's relationship to him. It will also note each person's father. Many of the vital records show the subject, their parents and their grandfathers so revision lists are useful when you are building out a tree.

I concluded this project with almost 70 new relatives and a few remaining mysteries. Just in time for my client to head off on her travels.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Looking for One Thing, Finding Another

I wasn't planning on writing a Mother's Day blog, but something happened last evening that prompted this. It is the second year since my mother died, and in that time I have felt her presence every day. Last night I was looking for a file, trying each flash drive in my computer as I tried to remember where I had recorded it. In the process of looking for one thing, I ran across something else, kind of a metaphor for life, looking for one thing, finding another.

It was a folder titled simply Mom. Within I discovered a video that I had recorded of her with a memory jar I had given her long ago. Originally it had been a gift at a time when my mother's memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. She had once told me that she always tried to create memories for us, her children, to carry forward into our lives. It was one of the reasons I took her on trips to Europe, I wanted to return the favor and create memories for her. The memory jar was an amalgamation of both of our efforts, an acknowledgement of the value of shared memory. It was a litany of what I loved in her. 

The jar sat on a shelf, high on the bookcase, until I noticed it on a visit. I took it down and had her draw out each memory and read it aloud. Together we remembered. I've written about this before in this blog, but a piece of the story that I don't think I shared, was the fact that I recorded it. I was just beginning to acknowledge that my parents would not always be there and this felt significant. I knew I would someday, when my mother was no longer with me, cherish this recorded moment,  even though I could not fully conceive of a world without her.

I've told the story of the memory jar many times. Somehow watching this video felt different than the retelling. It was the first time I had watched it, six years after I recorded it, both parents now gone. In it my mother and I sat at the kitchen table, the familiar turquoise blinds of my childhood to the side and the wall behind her with just a glimpse of some memorabilia from our travels together.  My father sat nearby in the gold chair in the living room. That chair now resides in my studio. It was just my mom and me interacting together in a world of our own, my father at the periphery as was often the case. Her smiling face, her voice, all the expressions and nuances we take for granted in another person, the things that create their essence and the essence of a relationship. What struck me was that each memory was an offering, a love letter to my mother, not only mailed, but received and reciprocated. If I ever doubted whether I had let her know how deeply I cherished her, I had only to watch that video.

It was 2011, both my parents together, but the cracks in memory had begun to show. My father had been losing memory for a long time, but we were just coming to terms with the fact that my mother was as well.  At the time, I remember being shocked when she could not recall some memories that I would have expected to be deeply embedded. Now as I viewed it with hindsight, I felt her largely intact, just a few gaps beginning to show. 

As her memory loss progressed over the years, I again went through the memory jar with her. She no longer remembered the story behind it and now gave me that sweet apologetic smile that indicated she really didn't have a clue, this was all new to her. Nonetheless she was happy to play along if I wanted her too. Fewer memories struck a chord the second and third time through. That meant I told her more of the story, reminding her of our shared history. "Thank you for helping me remember," she said. 

I understand much more about memory now than I did then. I understand how someone we love can be housed in our vision, in our heart and in our understanding. I understand how they can become part of the fabric of our being even in their physical absence. I understand how the mere act of writing about them can cause my eyes to fill with tears, not of sadness, but of deep gratitude.

I've included a very brief excerpt from my video.  I encourage you to try a similar exercise as a gift for a parent with or without memory loss.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lightening Up

I was always a serious person. You know, one of those people who always looks lost in thought and forgets to smile on cue. When I was younger, people I didn't know, usually men, used to pass me on the street and admonish me to smile. I'd always be a bit surprised, shocked out of my reverie. I wasn't unhappy, I just wasn't focused outward. I wondered why it would matter to them. When you get older, unless you are a woman running for President, they pretty much stop telling you to smile. It is one of the many advantages to getting older.

Early in my career I was often interviewed on the news. My mother would watch and tell me to smile. Now, mothers can do that. With them it comes from a good place. They genuinely think our smiles are lovely. I replied to her, "I can smile or I can speak intelligently. Which do you want?" Remembering to smile took brain cells I needed to deploy elsewhere under pressure.

My sister is the funny one in my family. She is the youngest and it seems to me that the youngest often has the most humor and wit, perhaps they hone it in the sibling competition for attention. Middles don't compete on humor.  We have other talents. I'm married to a youngest and he too is quick-witted. I suspect we're together, in part, because I appreciate his humor. I've acquired a touch of wit just by living with him for over twenty years, but if I manage to get a zinger in I'm likely to hear, "leave that to the professionals."  For a funny guy, he takes his role seriously.

I tell you this, because after years as a serious person, I've finally discovered how to tap my lighter side.There is nothing wrong with being a serious person, but if you want to engage others you need to learn to lighten up. For some people it comes naturally, not so much for us serious souls. At this stage in my life everything I do has to do with engaging other people, writing, artwork and presenting. I do a lot of public speaking and I've gotten enough feedback over time that I think I can fairly say, I'm good at it. I wasn't always. I used to be terrified of getting in front of people. Somewhere along the line, I grew into my own skin, yet another benefit of getting older. I discovered that being informal and letting an audience really see me, was OK, and in fact desired.  There is a connection that happens when we let ourselves be truly seen. It's like when we read a book where the inner dialogue of the character echoes our own thoughts. It's a shock of recognition that we share something in common. We feel understood.

With this awareness, I began to assume a conversational tone when I spoke and to talk to an audience the way I would a friend, albeit with a little cleaner vocabulary. With friends, I am often energetic. I have strong opinions and don't hesitate to express them. That kind of energy is useful when you have the microphone. You need passion and energy to be good in front of a crowd. Now I still cannot claim to be quick-witted, but I know how to engage. I study other speakers as I try to figure out what makes the good ones good. I think the trick is to not hide behind a serious demeanor or be too pedantic. Instead you need to bring your natural energy and the openness you would offer to a friend.

The same thing that works for public speaking, also applies to writing. I've been working on a book based on oral histories that I did and have written several versions in several different ways. Because it involves history, I first began writing it as one would a research document. I learned lots of interesting things researching and it was filled with facts, but they began to drown out my voice, not to mention those of my interviewees. One of the things I've discovered in writing this blog is my voice. My yardstick, as to if things will interest you, is whether they interest me. I set aside that first version, even though lots of it was good. I realized it was a different kind of book than the one I wanted to write, or to read. I started over from scratch and wrote in the way I write here. I worried that it might be too informal, as if once I put a book jacket on it, I had to dress up a bit and be more formal. In the end, I wrote it the way I would want to read it, in my comfortable yoga pants.

We all love a good story and within my oral histories I had many of them. My challenge was to not smother them under a heavy sauce of facts, but rather add facts as garnish, something to intrigue the reader enough to explore further. Even though this book involves history, it was written for a broader audience. It wasn't written just for historians nor designed to be scholarly, but rather to let my interviewees form the same connection with the reader that I try to form when I speak. I wanted their humanity to come through.

I doubt I'll ever be noted for my quick wit. More often, I will come up with the perfect zinger the following day. Instead I will be happy to engage an audience through story, be it spoken, written or visual. I hope to form a connection grounded in something common between us, to tell stories that engage us in recognizing ourselves in each other.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Stepping Into The Chrysalis

In my last post, I wrote about the concept of liminality, a period of transformation arising from disruption.  I had decided I was going to do a painting on that theme, but where to begin? 

Starting is always challenging, especially when you don't know quite where you are going. I've learned over time that the destination usually emerges once I begin. People often ask me how long a painting takes, a productivity perspective that has little to do with creating anything that doesn't come with a set of instructions.  Painting is itself a liminal process, a series of thresholds to cross and transformations that are often difficult to predict or to time. So, let me take you through the process to illustrate that statement.

 I had picked up three canvases that I thought might be interesting to work with, each was one foot wide and three feet high. In thinking of liminality, I thought I might do a three part piece with the central piece representing liminality.  To kick myself into gear, I did an abstract image on two of the panels using my favorite colors. It looked like a landscape except that the blue along the inside of each canvas resembled a figure which I then pulled out a bit giving it volume. Hmm, looks a bit like someone burning at the stake. While that may relate to our theme of otherness, it wasn't where I wanted to go.

Instead I moved on to another  image it evoked, that of a cocoon. It was through this path that I began to explore one of the ultimate liminal beings, a metaphor unfolding before our eyes, the butterfly.  Its transformation is not an easy road. First that caterpillar must shed his skin, destroying his being to begin anew. It is through imagination, actually a scientific word imaginal discs, that he reshapes himself, forming wings that were always hidden deep within. 

A figure overlaid
Chrysalis gestating
My figure turned into a chrysalis on two of the canvases. I was  still contemplating a middle section that would represent the in-between of liminal space. In the final stage of a chrysalis you can actually see the wings through the chrysalis. There are gold spots on a chrysalis that add a decorative touch which is also believed to be functional in its development. It makes a chrysalis seem both mysterious and precious. In fact, the word chrysalis comes from the Greek word for gold. I never could quite decide what to put on that middle panel, but I kind of liked that chrysalis so I set it aside to gestate against the wall of my studio.

One day I painted a figure across the panels converting into a winged form (above right). Then decided it would look too divided across two canvases and pulled it back to one. The figure looked like it was opening a door in the middle so I created a door to the chrysalis, feeling a bit like a cartoon character who paints a door and then steps through it. In keeping with the caterpillar to butterfly progression, I dressed the woman in a long caterpillar dress, her feet bracing against the canvas edge as if she were climbing up the chrysalis.

I opened the two panels as if they were doors, contemplating what might lie behind them. I was no longer thinking about an exposed middle section, but rather a hidden section behind the doors. I was intrigued by the words imaginal discs. These house the beginning of wings, antennae, legs. They are the building blocks of a butterfly.  I looked up images of them and decided to fill the panel behind the doors with an abstract of imaginal discs, a caterpillar soup out of which butterflies grow.  

I painted them on a  36"x24" canvas that would be covered by the two canvases of the cocoon. Then I realized I needed a back for the two front panels if I was to make a triptych and allow it to open.  I painted an extension of imaginal discs on masonite that would slide behind the original two paintings.  It is a triptych covered by a diptych, but I anticipate showing it with the doors slightly open. An unanticipated synchronicity, it resembles an ark that would house a Torah, something that also addresses passages to transformation. 

Now my husband has the task of framing this odd structure.  Fortunately for me, he seems to like these challenges. We anticipate framing it with a gold frame with a very thin edging dividing the two central panels.

I like the idea of something hidden, gestating, preparing for transformation. This piece is about stepping into the chrysalis, that cauldron of change, where we strip ourselves down to become someone new, drawing on qualities hidden deep within us.