Haunting the House of History

Monday Morning Musings:

“We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.”

–Maya Angelou

He was 59 years old, 5 ft., 6 inches tall, with grey mixed hair and grey eyes. But there is probably no one left alive who remembers this great grandfather of mine, the father of my mother’s mother. My mother only remembers that he was Orthodox with a long beard and that he worked at a fish store or counter. His naturalization papers say he was a butcher in 1921. Born in Russia, he arrived in the Philadelphia on a ship from Bremen, Germany, in 1913, demonstrating that life’s journeys often take a circuitous path. His wife and children—minus the two eldest who were stuck in England—arrived in 1914. They left their homeland shortly before it was ripped apart by revolution, and much of the world was swept into a war. By the time of the 1920 census, after WWI, the household consisted of my great grandparents, their eight children, and four cousins, including the artist Abraham Hankins. They spoke Yiddish, and they owned a radio.

I’ve never understood the worship of ancestors or the feeling of superiority some people have because their ancestors “came over on the Mayflower” or because they are descended from some notable person of the past. I mean, it’s interesting and it’s cool, but it doesn’t make you a better person. After all, if you go back far enough, we all came from Lucy or someone like her. Laudable figures of the past can have descendants who do horrible things—just as horrible parents can have wonderful children. Our surroundings and our genes may affect us (“Oh, that’s where my grey eyes came from,” said my daughter), and influence us, but they do not rule us. Yet discovering information about these people who lived in the past is fascinating. I don’t know if these ancestors of mine were good people or not, but just like immigrants today, they faced difficult, even life-threatening conditions in their homelands. They bravely boarded ships—taking a leap of faith that their lives would be better in America. It was a journey of both body and mind, a voyage to a new world, leaving old ways and old ties behind. Perhaps it is enough to know this about them.

My mother’s mother was here with her family. My mother’s father left his parents and sisters behind in Russia, and he never saw them again. My mother remembers when her father received a letter telling him that his father had died. That was the only time she ever saw him cry.

My older daughter was with us for a couple of days this past week, visiting from Boston. It was windy and raining outside, the almost nor’easter, but we were snug inside the house. (OK. I’ll be honest– it was cold in the house because I didn’t turn on the heat.) Sitting across from one another at the kitchen table, armed with our computers, and fortified with apple-chocolate scones (based on these from Smitten Kitchen),

Roasted Apple and Chocolate Scone

Roasted Apple and Chocolate Scone

my Mandelbrot (aka “Mommy Cookies” discussed in other posts), coffee, and tea—because mental journeys require sustenance, too–we used the technology of the present to tackle the mysteries of the past. Wrestling with online documents, trying to read odd spelling and handwriting, and knitting together broken timelines, we created and expanded our family trees. She worked on my husband’s family, and I worked on my parent’s. We labored companionably, occasionally punctuating the silence with “listen to this” or giggling over an odd phrase. A woman who was divorced early in the twentieth century fascinates us. We’re both slightly obsessed by another of my husband’s ancestors, a 15-year-old factory girl who was murdered—shot—by a jealous suitor.

This daughter then went on to spend an evening with her sister and a dinner with my mom. It was definitely a weekend of family, present and past.

Present and past, love and family, are themes in Coming Home, the movie my husband and I saw yesterday. It opens during the Cultural Revolution in China. Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a former professor, has escaped from the re-education camp he’s been sent to. His wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), called “Teacher Yu,” attempts to meet him at a crowded train station, but their teenage daughter, Dandan, hoping to gain a prize role in a propaganda ballet, has alerted the authorities. The scene at the train station is tense and exciting, but it only sets up the movie for what happens later. When the Cultural Revolution ends, Lu is sent home. Yu, however, does not recognize him. She was traumatized, physically and emotionally at the train station. She loves her husband, but her love of him is rooted in her image of him in the past. He, in the present, attempts to reactivate her memories, to bring the past love to the present moment. It is touching and incredibly sad. The movie also can be seen as a commentary on politics—that nations often forget the painful events of the past, even though its citizens may be traumatized. Yet, both people and nations have to find a way to accept and move on.

After the movie, my husband and I went out for Chinese food. I craved steamed dumplings and tea, both featured in the movie. This was the “fortune” in my cookie.

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I don’t believe that a piece of paper in a cookie can predict my future, but it seemed a fitting note to end a week that had been spent haunting the house of history, catching a glimmer of the ghosts of the past, and storing them for the future.

“What the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we lived. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.”

–Ellen Goodman

It Was a Fine Day for a Picnic

Monday Morning Musings

It was a fine day for a picnic—

The little bit of rain at the end doesn’t count.

An outing in the country for my mom

Who lives surrounded by the concrete

Of the city.

“I’ve never been to winery before,”

she said.

Well, she’s almost 93,

So it’s about time,

Don’t you think?

So I packed a picnic,

And since there were three of us,

I packed enough for 6,

Maybe 8,

Because what if there isn’t enough food?

A sandwich for my husband

And one for my mom,

And then–

Roasted red pepper hummus

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

Cheese, Manchego and Gouda

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Because I couldn’t decide.

Cut up vegetables, olives,

And,

The wine!

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I think I chose well,

The Cabernet Franc

Was delicious.

Of course

I’m not an expert,

But nobody complained,

And the glasses got refilled–

More than once.

So I guess they liked it,

And it went well

With the food.

There was also

My Mandelbrot,

My “Mommy Cookies,”

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Because every meal needs chocolate,

Doesn’t it?

And so–

We sat and talked.

While the clouds rolled like waves

In an aerial sea,

The white breakers

Tinged with gray.

Monroeville Vineyard and Winery

Monroeville Vineyard and Winery

And the bees danced

To their secret melodies

As they dipped into

The clover at our feet.

Vultures,

First one,

Then two, three, and four

Turned in graceful circles

Above us.

No, not quite above.

There was something farther afield,

Probably much tastier.

Well, tastier to a vulture

I suppose.

But then, I’ve never asked one,

Have you?

All was peaceful,

Just us, the food, and the wine–

And the soft buzzing of bees.

Friend Kelly stopped by,

But I forgot to take her picture.

You’ll have to trust me

That she was there with us.

She texted me later,

“Your mother is awesome.

Next time I’ll have to bring my mother-in-law.

They would really get along.”

I hope there is a next time.

But if not,

We had today.

Family, friends,

Food, and

Wine.

It was a fine day for a picnic.

A few hours of relaxing

In the open air.

An outing for my mother.

And the bit of rain didn’t matter

At all.

My mom and I--wine glasses in hand!

My mom and I–wine glasses in hand!

“Time it was and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you”

–Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, “Bookends”

Mother’s Day: Celebrating as a Mother and as a Daughter

 I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,

Four cocks were there, and Hens the rest.

I nurst them up with pain and care,

No cost nor labour did I spare

Till a the last they felt their wing,

Mounted the Trees and learned to sing.

–Anne Bradstreet (ca. 1612-1672), “In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659,” Full text here.

 Monday Morning Musings

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, at least here in the US. The holiday began as efforts to help poor mothers, fight injustice, and oppose war. Anna Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia fought to bring sanitation facilities and clean water to people in parts of Appalachia. In 1858, she organized Mother’s Work Days. After the Civil War she gathered mothers and soldiers from both sides of the conflict in a Mother’s Friendship Day. Her daughter–also Anna–wanted to continue her mother’s fight. After Anna Jarvis, the mother, died in 1905, her daughter wanted to organize a Mother’s Day celebration to honor all mothers and the sacrifices they make for their children. She lobbied politicians and wrote letters to newspapers, and finally President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation in 1914 that established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. Jarvis became outraged by the flowers, candy, and greeting card commercialism that the holiday assumed. She ultimately disowned the holiday entirely. (Historian Ruth Rosen discusses the activism and antiwar origins of the Mother’s Day here.)

I certainly understand those who decry the artificiality and commercialism of the holiday. At the same time, I like it. I recently thought about my very first mother’s day as a mother. On my way to my mother’s, my husband and I stopped at a friend’s house to show off our new daughter, who was about 3 months old. I, of course, was madly in love with my little girl, and I thought she was the most beautiful creature in existence, bald head and all. Our friend’s mother, made a big fuss, told me to sit down and waited on me. She said to me, “This is your first mother’s day, and you should feel special.” All these years later, I still remember that. And I did feel special.

Over the past few years, our mother’s day tradition has been to gather at my sister’s house. We have brunch or lunch, and then take my mom clothes shopping. Last Mother’s Day, she wanted to buy an outfit to wear for my older daughter’s wedding; this year, she wanted to buy an outfit to wear for my younger’s daughter wedding. It is a bit of an ordeal to take my mom shopping—she can’t move or see very well—but with four of us, my younger daughter, my sister-niece, and my sister—we got the job done. We had to help dress her in the dressing room, which actually led to many laughs. When I think about it, it seems only fair that we help her dress. After all, how many times did she do it for all of us? Happily, she did find an outfit to wear.

My mom and me. I'm about 3 years old.

My mom and me. I’m about 3 years old.

Before we left for the mall, my sister and sister-in-law fortified us with pasta, salad, and bread—all delicious. My sister-in-law, “the men,” and children remained behind at the house. After we returned from our long shopping expedition, we had dessert—a chocolate extravaganza. Did you doubt this? I get my love of chocolate from my mom—so I baked a flourless chocolate cake topped with chocolate glaze and sea salt and my Mandelbrot cookies, which are called “Mommy Cookies” at my house. (I have several posts dedicated to this, my favorite cookie. Just do a search.) I kind of had to bake those, didn’t I? My sister added 2 boxes of chocolate to the dessert feast, just in case we didn’t have enough. We sat outside on my sister and sister-in-law’s deck and enjoyed the warm weather and evening breeze.

During dessert we attempted to FaceTime chat with my older daughter, but it didn’t work too well. Still, I did get to talk to her a bit. My younger daughter made me a wonderful Super Momma card that made me feel special—and some baking pans. Chocolate and baking genes run through the generations in my family!

When my mom is no longer with us, Mother’s Day will certainly be different. My siblings and I will no longer have a reason to get together for it, just as we no longer get together on Father’s Day. Although we might grumble about taking my mom shopping, I will miss that tradition and the crazy dressing room antics.

Mothers and Daughters

Mothers and Daughters

International Women’s Day–Make It Happen

“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”

— Hillary Clinton

“If you’re beautiful, you’re led to believe that you can’t also be smart. But you can be fun and fit and social and be really smart. And the smarter you are, the more capable you’ll be to handle whatever challenges come up in life.”

— Danica McKellar

Monday Morning Musings

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day 2015. I had intended to have this post ready then, but other projects and the change to Daylight Savings Time through off my schedule. (Can I just say how much I hate time changes? Forward or back, it makes me miserable and takes me days to adjust.) It is now March 9, but I don’t think the world has changed overnight.

While driving home from visiting my mother-in-law on Saturday, my husband and I listened to a program on the Baltimore NPR station. One segment of the show featured three female surgeons at different stages of their careers. All three had contributed to an anthology, Being a Woman Surgeon. All of them discussed their lack of role models as they began their studies, and even after they became physicians.

The story made me reminisce about my own graduate school days. When I started my graduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, there were only one or two female history professors in the department. (A few years later, a female history professor at a large Midwestern university would tell a group of women at a dinner meeting that I attended that when her department was finally about one-third female, some of the male professors started complaining about all the women in the department.) There were no women in my department who covered my fields of study when I began grad school. After I began work on my dissertation, there was a female professor who I asked to be on my dissertation committee. She was a wonderful scholar who always attempted “to prime the pump” as we discussed my work.

It’s funny, but when I first began grad school, I didn’t really think about the lack of women professors in the department or the lack of role models. My father had received his Ph.D. in history at Temple only a few years before. The same professor chaired both of our dissertation committees. There were other women grad students who became my friends, and there was a cohort of slightly older women who had successfully defended their dissertations and had jobs in the field, although some were temporary. I had role models in the generation of female historians who had written important articles and books that influenced the course of my work. These women dared to write about women in history, recognizing the obvious fact that both men and women lived in the past, as well as the present. They also wrote on social issues such as divorce and birth control.

Looking back, I think what I lacked were female role models who were professional scholars and parents. I remember one well-know historian, a brilliant scholar and someone I admire, saying that she arranged her pregnancies so that she gave birth in the summer during break. She seemed to imply that women who didn’t do so were somehow lacking in foresight. But delivering a baby during a break between terms only covers birth and the short time after that. What happens after that?

I held a one-year position at a nearby college. My younger daughter was about seven months old then, and I was still breastfeeding her. Fortunately, she began drinking from a cup at six months, so my daycare provider could give her a bit of formula and food. I would nurse her, take the girls to the sitter, and pick them up a few hours later, the benefits of an academic schedule. The two other women in the department had children, but they were older. The one time I called out sick because one of the children was sick, I realized I should have said I was sick. Being a mother was okay, but having childcare issues was not. And breastfeeding is still an issue. Female breasts can be seen in movies, but not when feeding infants. Breastfeeding is still something that must be hidden.

One of the female surgeons in the radio interview acknowledged the same problems of childcare and breastfeeding—although her schedule was much more grueling than mine had been. She described secretly pumping breast milk in a closet, her motherhood something that could not be acknowledged.

Of course, childcare is a parental issue. Mothers and fathers should be able to have parental leave to be with their children. Obtaining quality childcare should not be such a difficult issue.

Later, after my one-year position was over, I taught some courses here and there—always late in the afternoon or at night or weekends, when my husband could take care of the girls. One time a friend arranged for me to teach a course. He didn’t tell me in advance, but simply announced it to me as a fait accompli. I told him that it was too difficult for me to find someone to watch my younger daughter or pick up the older one from school. I had tried it the previous semester, and it was awful. All of the work to prepare for a course, the half-hour drive there and back, leaving my child unhappy, and the actual cost of the care—it wasn’t worth it. I don’t think he understood at all, and he was annoyed at me for turning down the offer.

I’ve been bothered lately by people who think feminism is a bad word, or a word that has to be qualified. Feminism means women and men should have the same rights. Do you believe women have the right to be educated? To get a job? To vote? If not, you probably don’t want to read my blog.

All over the world–including the United States–there are people who think women do not deserve to be educated. There are some who believe it is fine for girls as young as nine or ten to be married. There are many who believe that any woman who dresses in a way they do not consider appropriate or modest enough, or any woman who ventures outside her home unaccompanied by a man is asking to be raped. There are horrible reports of global sex trafficking, rape, and abuse of women. Rape is used as a tactic of war, as it has been for centuries. (For a brief report see this. Also see the Women Under Siege Project.)

I’m am fortunate to have had strong women as role models—my mother, my immigrant grandmothers, and my mother-in-law, among them. I also had a piano/music teacher who was a single mother and a singular free spirit. She helped to boost my confidence during my shaky, emotional teenage years, and then became a friend. Both of my parents believed I could do anything, be anything I wanted to be.

I have not been much of a marcher or organizer. I haven’t given speeches, or rallied the troops. I did not continue with an academic career. I’ve occasionally heard that my books have inspired others, and I’ve been asked to chair conference sessions and write letters of recommendation. But my husband and I have done something right. We have two strong, wonderful, brilliant, talented daughters. They are proud feminists, as am I.

“Extremists have shown what frightens them the most: a girl with a book.”

– Malala Yousafzai

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I’ve never thought being a feminist means I can’t enjoy cooking. My gender has nothing to do with it. I don’t cook because I’m a woman and that’s my role. I cook because I want to cook. Here’s a recipe that I’ve written about before. I made these cookies for archivists while working on my dissertation, which became my first book, Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830. The cookies are called “Mommy Cookies” at my house because they are my favorite. Enjoy!

Mandelbrot

3 ¾ cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 cup oil

2 tsp. baking powder

3 eggs

1 tsp vanilla and a little bit of almond extract (maybe about ¼ tsp?)

dash or two of salt

Chocolate chips (I use a whole bag of Ghiardelli bittersweet chocolate chips.

Some people might prefer less, although I can’t imagine why)

Finely chopped nuts (I use a mixture of walnuts and almonds. Maybe about ¾ cup?)

Cinnamon and sugar mixed together to sprinkle on top

Beat eggs with whisk; then add sugar, oil, vanilla/almond. Add dry ingredients. Add chocolate chips and nuts. The dough should be able to form loaves on a cookie sheet. Add a little more flour if necessary.

Oil your hands and lightly oil 2 cookie sheets. Parchment paper lined sheets help. Shape the dough into 4 “loaves” on the cookie sheets. I make these cookies all the time and my loaves are never the same. Sprinkle the loaves with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar—thoroughly cover them and try to get the sides, as well.

Bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour. Then cut each loaf into slices. Put slices back in the oven for about 10 minutes, turn and put them back for another 10 minutes.

Love and Marriage, Part 3–Food

And so it’s done. My little girl, my first born, is now a married woman. I am still teary-eyed, but happy and content to know my daughter is married to the woman she loves.

She and her lovely bride were married this past Sunday in a beautiful, tender, loving, and funny ceremony at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. The brides were beautiful—my daughter wore my wedding gown, now known as “our gown.” The weather was perfect, and the aquarium setting was striking. Shark tanks inside and the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline outside—what could top that? Only the love in their eyes as they gazed at each other.

In the days leading up to the ceremony–which of course were filled with last minute chores to do and items to pick up, drop off, and assemble—we all tried to find ways to relax and de-stress. On Friday night, my daughters and soon-to-be daughter-in-law and I went for a long walk through our town and along the river. My husband then joined us for a family movie night as we watched “Frozen,” a movie none of us except my younger daughter had seen. The tears and laughter during the movie were a prelude for the wedding symphony to come.

Of course, over the days leading up to the wedding we ate and ate. On the Thursday before the wedding, I baked the brides-to-be a pre-wedding challah. We tore chunks of it off to eat with cheese, as we sat outside at a local winery on a beautiful summer night. Bread and wine—looking back it seems symbolic and perfect for a pre-wedding feast. Plus, I’m all for eating bread for dinner.

Challahs cooling on the counter

Challahs cooling on the counter

Food is often an important feature of holidays and special occasions. In my family, food is always a feature, a necessary and expected part of such celebrations–if not the most important part. Why should weddings be any different? I baked many batches of cookies to give to those who attended the rehearsal dinner. After all, I wouldn’t want anyone to get hungry in the middle of the night!

Because food is so important, I made it the subject of my toast at the rehearsal dinner. I hope the brides will not mind if I share an edited version of that toast:

Tonight I’d like to discuss what’s really important in marriage. That, of course, is food.

When two people marry, they bring their pasts with them—and this often includes family quirks and traditions. They attempt to meld or accommodate different ideas about proper meals—when and what to eat. Vegetarians and meat-eaters; picky eaters and adventurous eaters; those who like formal dinners and those who prefer casual dining—it can be a challenge to make these differences work.

When Doug and I first started dating—way back when—he had never experienced the joys of a full Jewish brunch—lox, cream cheese, “yum yum” fish, bagels, and everything else. Nor had he been exposed to the spicy, “exotic” foods of India, Thailand, and China. But he willingly embraced it all. (He also was not used to people blurting our wildly inappropriate things during holiday dinners—or people who cry at everything–so I will try my best not to do either, but instead stick to the subjects of food, love, and tradition.)

Many of our family traditions involve gathering around a dinner table. Food is a source of gustatory delight and memories—the strawberry shortcake dinners we ate after picking strawberries, for example– but it also a source of comfort and tradition. During holidays we eat foods that represent particular thoughts or events. We savor the round challah at Rosh Hashanah (made from my Aunt Sima’s world famous recipe) and enjoy it with honey for a sweet year; we devour way too many fried latkes and donuts at Hanukkah in remembrance of the oil in the temple; and we eat the matzoh, charoset, and other foods at our Passover meal that symbolize the ancient story of the Jews fleeing Egypt and slavery.

When Megan and Sheryl were growing up, I baked lots of cookies, including Doug’s favorites, which became known as Daddy Cookies, and my favorite, which became known as Mommy Cookies. Daddy Cookies are Welsh Cookies, a type of tea biscuit cooked on a griddle. They are popular in the Scranton, PA. area, and I got the recipe from his grandmother. Mommy Cookies are my version of Mandelbrot, which I describe as Jewish biscotti. These cookies are totally different—in shape, texture, and ingredients. Yet, they are both sweet and delicious, and Megan and Sheryl grew up eating both types. Doug and I are very different, but even though we prefer different types of cookies, we can appreciate the other’s favorite. We share many mutual beliefs, interests, activities, and love. Megan and Clare are also very different people with different backgrounds and tastes who have come together because of their love for one another and their shared interests–including food.

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Welsh Cookies, aka “Daddy Cookies”

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Mandelbrot, aka “Mommy Cookies”

Megan and Clare –it makes my heart sing to see you together. I am so glad you found each other and that you’ve chosen to share your lives together, and that we here are fortunate to be able to share in your celebration.

Doug and I are pleased that we can gather together with all of you tonight over a fine meal and share food, love, and traditions. We’ve prepared a little gift bag of symbolic goodies for each of you, which includes Mommy Cookies and Daddy cookies. There are also some sweet and salty fish-shaped treats. Fish, obviously, symbolize the aquarium site for tomorrow’s nuptials. Sweet and salty represents the happiness and tears that come in marriage.

Please raise your glass now and join me in toasting my daughter and my almost daughter-in-law. To Megan and Clare—may you enjoy many delicious meals together. May your lives be filled with sweetness–and may you cry only tears of happiness. I love you. L’Chaim!

 

 

© Merril D. Smith