Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Book of Me, #19: Who Do you Miss?

This is my entry prompted by The Book of Me, Written By You project created by Julie Goucher of the Anglers Rest blog. The concept: a series of blogging and writing prompts that help family historians capture their own memories and write about themselvesGo to for more information.

This week's assignment:

The continuation of the 15 month, weekly writing project about my life and memories, created by Julie Goucher
This week’s prompt (Prompt 19) is – Who Do You Miss?

Having just gone through the Festive season our thoughts turn to those not with us. 

Whether that is people who live elsewhere and that we will not see over the festive season or

People that have passed away.
Who do you miss?
Why do you miss them?
Them as an individual
Something specific to them

I have already spoken at length about my grandfather so I will choose someone else for this assignment.

When I started down the path of researching my family tree, I didn't have any real expectations as to how it would impact my life.  I had a tumultuous childhood and my relationship with my parents did not improve when I reached adulthood.  You'd think I wouldn't want to research a family that left me with a bunch of emotional baggage that I continue to try to unload.  But there have been some surprises and true blessings that have come from it.
My Aunt Elaine and my father, cir. 1932
Copyright ©2014 Linda O'Donnell All Rights Reserved

My father and his only sibling, my aunt, had an eight-year age difference (he was younger).  I remember spending time with my aunt and uncle and six cousins when I was young.  I always had a good time and even spent a week there while my parents took a vacation.  My dad, always difficult, had a falling out with my uncle and I was cut off from the entire family for about 45 years, until this past summer.  While doing my family research, I discovered my aunt was still living, and I contacted her, nervously, afraid she might reject my request to reconnect.  I was so surprised when she wrote back, with a sweet letter.  Next, the six cousins all followed suit, with emails that were so warm and welcoming that I couldn't resist their invitation to join them for their annual Fourth of July celebration in the Chicago area.

I was nervous before making the trip.  What if they were strange?  What if they didn't like me?  Would it be awkward?  Well, it turned out better than my highest expectations.  They are all wonderful, funny, intelligent and loving people who made me feel so welcome, I found myself in tears in response to their overwhelming welcome. I have an aunt!  I have cousins!  They are nothing like my parents! They truly are great people and I feel so blessed to have had the chance to reconnect.

So now, living about 600 miles away in central Arkansas, I find myself longing for more.  I want to get to know my cousins' spouses, their kids, their grandkids, and spend as much time with my precious aunt, who just turned 90 (and is in better health than I am!) as I can.  I want to hear about their childhood memories, how they met their spouses, their kids' lives, everything.  While I have a wonderful husband, daughter and brother and their families, I miss my newly-found family and crave spending time with them.

It won't be easy, as I have major health issues right now and cannot really travel, nor can I afford to.  (Medical bills really take their toll on one's budget!)  I'm hoping I can improve enough to make the trip again this summer, and introduce them all to my husband.  In the meantime, several of us are now Facebook friends and they can't escape because I know where they live....haha.  I miss them, and can't wait to get together again. 

Did I mention I have an aunt and six cousins?  It's very exciting.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks #2 - Loving Someone I've Never Met

Amy Johnson Crow from NoStoryTooSmall is setting up a challenge: 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.
52 Ancestors in 52 WeeksThe challenge: have one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It could be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem — anything that focuses on one ancestor. Not only should this get me blogging more, but also to take a deeper look at some of the people in my family tree.

How can someone you never met have an impact on you (other than the obvious physical contribution of advancing the family line)?  My maternal grandmother, Eva Brandl, died before my parents got married.  So of course, I never had the chance to meet her.  But I've learned so much about her, I can't help but admire her and I know I would've loved her dearly.

Eva was born in Austria, in the now-defunct area called Galicia, which has historically been referred to as a kingdom and a province.  Its ownership changed hands but ultimately it has been most associated with Austria and Poland.  Eva's father died when she was very young, and her mother, Suzanna, another woman of great character and strength, made the courageous decision to leave her homeland and come to the United States with her children.  Suzanna and Eva arrived at Ellis Island on June 18, 1910 when Eva was only 9 years old.  The day after their arrival, they boarded a train for Chicago, where Suzanna's brother was living.  Imagine all they'd been through--they'd lost their husband/father, left all things familiar--culture, language, surroundings--as well as most of their belongings.  They'd made what was most likely a very unpleasant voyage, traveling in steerage and enduring conditions most of us will never see, then, at Ellis Island, withstood both physical examinations and lots of questions that stripped many people of their last shreds of dignity.  Then they had to find a place to spend the night, with a meager budget, before their train ride the next day.

June 19, 1910--Suzanna and Eva board the train bound for Chicago.  Perhaps at this point, Suzanna and Eva were breathing a sigh of relief, thinking the worst was behind them.  Suddenly, they heard a huge noise--the train had crashed.  Eva would recall the sight of an engineer running up and down along the tracks, holding his head in his hands at the horror of it all. Thankfully, there was not a large number of casualties, and Eva and Suzanna were unhurt.  They made it to Chicago and started their new life, joined by Eva's three siblings.

Suzanna remarried 18 months later.  I have no idea what her new husband was like as a stepfather, but there must have been some adjustment needed for young Eva.  5 more children joined the family, so it must have been close quarters in their home.

When Eva was 16, she made a decision that was, at the time, very controversial and stirred up much dissent within the family.  She decided that she no longer wanted to be Catholic.  The entire family was Catholic, and they were appalled at her decision.  Eva said she was bothered by things within their theology that she could not reconcile or accept, and so she became a Protestant.  Quite the scandal for its day!  I applaud her courage to follow her heart, despite the criticism and threats of eternal damnation she endured.  You rock, Grandmother!

Copyright 2014 Linda O'Donnell
All Rights Reserved
Photo From
I have no idea how Eva met my grandfather.  Based on my personal experiences with him, I would describe him as self-centered, mean-spirited and kind of a slacker.  But perhaps at the time they met, he was different.  They married when she was 21, and my grandfather sporadically held a variety of jobs, losing them due most likely to his lack of ambition and/or interest.  Eva opened a neighborhood grocery store, the type of little shop you might see in the 30's and 40's, offering basic items and Eva's home-cooked goods, like pastries, salads, casseroles and sandwiches.  By this time, my aunt and my father had come along, and Eva made sure she was always home when they came home from school. She must have been an excellent cook, and my dad would later try to recreate many of her recipes, with me and my siblings as his taste-testers.  

Eva was the practical one in the family.  Despite my grandfather's inability to commit to long-term employment, she handled their finances, and paid all their bills even if it meant he couldn't go to the bowling alley for a few weeks.  She was strong, self-assured, loving and practical.  My father didn't talk about her much (or anyone from his childhood, for that matter,) but when he did, it was with love and admiration.  Eva was obviously the one who instilled in my father a strong worth ethic, the abiity to distinguish between right and wrong, and a generous spirit.  (If only he'd gotten all of her traits...but that's a different story.)

When my father was drafted during the Korean War, Eva was not feeling well.  It was determined that she had colon cancer, and my father was allowed to come home when she was dying.  My grandfather went crazy with grief, and fled the Chicago area for California, leaving behind my grieving father, who had to return to combat in Korea after the funeral.  It must have been a horrible time for all of them, and my father and grandfather's relationship remained strained for the rest of their lives without Eva there to smooth things over.

My father is gone now, too, taken by the same disease that claimed Eva.  I take comfort in knowing that he and his mother are together, both healed from physical disease and emotional hurts, and that I will see them one day.  Eva's legacy to me is her story of strength, survival, courage, endurance and above all, love.  She was a role model to me that I have tried to emulate, though my obstacles have been far different from hers. Eva, you are a heroine to me, and though we've never met, I love you.

To my paternal grandmother, Eva Brandl Barski (1901 - 1952).
Copyright 2014 Linda O'Donnell
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Book of Me, Week 17: Toys & Games

This is my entry prompted by The Book of Me, Written By You project created by Julie Goucher of the Anglers Rest blog. The concept: a series of blogging and writing prompts that help family historians capture their own memories and write about themselvesGo to for more information.

This week's assignment:

The continuation of the 15 month, weekly writing project about my life and memories, created by Julie Goucher.

This week’s (week 17) prompt is – Toys & Games

Can you remember your first toy, or game?
Do you still have it?
Who did you play with?
Did you play board games?
Have you inherited any of your family games & toys?

I'm female, and as a child I was very girlie.  So, as you might expect, the first toy I can remember is a baby doll named Sally.  I don't know that there was anything special about her to anyone else but me.  She met her demise when I left her out in the rain in my neighbor's yard, when I was about five.  Just in time to move on to....

I don't remember Ken looking so blah, or Barbie looking so b-itchy.

Midge--Always the best friend
BARBIE!  Oh my, how I loved Barbie.  One Christmas, my mother had clothes made for my Barbie, and "Santa" (Dad and Grandpa) assembled the "Barbie Model Playhouse," where there was a stand for Barbie that moved her from backstage to the front of the runway (via a motor).  When Barbie got to the front of the stage, she made a 360 turn, then returned to the back of the stage.  I loved it, but my dad joked about it being the most difficult Christmas gift he ever had to put together.
Skipper- I related to her the best

I had Barbie, Ken, Skipper and Midge.  My brother got GI Joe, and we would sometimes play together, loading the dolls onto his Tonka trucks and letting them take rides around the living room.  We even took them to a friend's house to play.  I traded my brunette Barbie for a blonde one, since my hair was light, but I regretted it because I never thought the blond was as pretty as the

We were lucky enough to have an enclosed porch--it was called a "Florida room," with the walls entirely made up of windows.  On rainy days in the summer, we'd play Monopoly, Life, Parchesi, card games and and occasionally put together a jigsaw puzzle.  It was so comforting, somehow, to be protected from the rain, with the feeling of still being outside, and playing games with my brother and friends.  (My brother was notorious for his cheating, tho...little stinker.)

I have nothing left from those days except for a few little trinkets.  My sister, being 7 years younger than me, was still at home when I moved out, so what became of the games is a mystery to me.  I'm always envious when others talk about their family heirlooms, pictures, etc., that they treasure, and I don't even have much in the way of pictures.  But I do have my memories, and no one can take them away from me.

Friday, January 3, 2014

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: #1 - My Grandpa

Amy Johnson Crow from NoStoryTooSmall is setting up a challenge: 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.
52 Ancestors in 52 WeeksThe challenge: have one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It could be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem — anything that focuses on one ancestor. Not only should this get me blogging more, but also to take a deeper look at some of the people in my family tree.
I have to begin this project with the person who had the most positive influence in my life: my maternal grandfather, Carl Johnson.  To me, he was "Grandpa," and I adored him.  He was the kindest, most thoughtful and loving man of my childhood.  He was the beacon of hope for a future, the sanctuary I could run to, the wise old owl who gave sage advice, and could aways be counted on for a game of Monopoly, cards, or just some really great quiet times with lots of hugs.  I remember the scent of his after shave, that he liked Schlitz Beer, and loved his Chicago sports teams--the Cubs, the Bears and the Blackhawks.
Carl was my mother's father.  He and my grandmother, Esther, married in their twenties, and had their only child, my mother, in their thirties, and settled down to life in Chicago.  It was a stormy relationship.  Esther was a spoiled, vain and self-centered woman who really didn't want the life she had.  Carl was the opposite: unselfish, hard-working, patient and non-confrontational.  I'm told their fights often included episodes of Esther throwing things, such as dishes or other glass objects, at Carl, while he remained calm and tried to smooth things over with her.  Finally, when my mother was only about five, Esther moved out.  She eventually remarried and moved from Chicago to Shreveport, Louisiana with her new husband, leaving her only child with Carl.  You can imagine the message this sent to my mother, and it remains evident to this day that she felt abandoned and unwanted by her mother.  (more on this in other posts.)
For me, once I was old enough to understand the meaning of divorce, it was a bitter pill to swallow.  How anyone could treat my sweet Grandpa that way was beyond me.  My father, who adored Carl more than his own father, abhorred the sight of my grandmother for the rest of her life.  All I know is, Grandpa was always there for us.  He worked at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago (although he worked for the Chicago Transit Authority as an accountant), and he would often buy sample dresses and clothes for me when the fashion lines came out.  I had an amazing wardrobe as a little girl, and it was always because Grandpa knew what size I wore and had this unquenchable desire to dress me up beautifully as an expression of his affection.
Christmas time was always special because of Grandpa.  We moved out to the suburbs when I was a toddler, and my brother arrived when I was 3, and my sister when I was 7.  Each Christmas, my dad would either drive into the city to pick Grandpa up, or he would take the train in, and his arms were so full of bags of gifts for us, it was mind-boggling.  Not only did he shop for each item himself, but he wrapped them lovingly and beautifully, and we knew that he had put a good deal of thought into each and every gift.
Grandpa always helped "Santa" on Christmas Eve, drinking the milk and eating the cookies we left, and lending a hand for any last-minute toy assembly.  Then, no matter how late he'd stayed up, he was up with us at the crack of dawn, oohing and ah-ing with us over each gift as we opened it.  He'd patiently play our new games with us, take pictures of us in our new clothes, and tell us how wonderful we looked in those new outfits.  He'd share in our big Christmas dinner, and finally, Dad would take him back home. He could have stayed with us always, if it had been up to me.
The last time I saw Grandpa....I remember it so vividly.  It was the Fourth of July, 1970.  I was 12.  Grandpa had come out for the weekend, having just retired from his job at the CTA.  We kids had a new game, lawn darts, and he sat outside in the sunshine as we played and Dad grilled.  I remember distinctly that when he was leaving, I ran out to give him an extra hug and kiss.  I'm so glad I did.  A few days later, on a Wednesday night, I was lying in bed and heard the phone ring.  My mother screamed, "Oh no!" and my brother and I knew in our hearts something bad had happened.  We were both too scared to go downstairs and find out, but we knew...Grandpa had suffered a massive heart attack and was gone.  I am crying as I write this, 43 years later.  My advocate, my protector, my precious Grandpa....was gone.  I was inconsolable.  I kept having dreams in which he would call and say it was all a mistake; it didn't happen and he was still fine.  But it wasn't fine, and he really was gone.
As I write about other family members here on this blog, the significance of Grandpa's role in my life will become more evident.  My father was a lifelong alcoholic who was prone to violent outbursts and often beat us; my mother started out as a caring parent, but dealing with her own emotional baggage, my father's issues and my baby sister's serious illness turned her into a irrational woman who was inconsistent at best in her motherly duties and worsened as the years went by.  Grandpa never raised his voice to me, never raised a hand to me, and never criticized me.  He offered affection, encouragement and safety, which were in short supply in our household.  
After Grandpa died, my father's drinking increased, the level of tension and unhappiness grew, and our little family unit became the epitome of dysfunction.  I'm sure Grandpa never knew what a stabilizing influence he was, but it is a fact that life was much more lonely and unhappy after he died.  I visited his grave this past summer, for the first time since his death (I now live in the South), and it was an interesting experience.  The cemetery is huge, with over 65,000 souls interred there.  My best friend Carol and I went to the office, got a map, and some mumbled instructions on how to find him.  We found the general location, but the markers were so overgrown by grass that we didn't see them.  So, we decided to divide and conquer.  Carol went one way and I the other.  I encountered a young man sitting under a tree, and he asked me who I was looking for.  I told him I was trying to find Grandpa's headstone.  He asked me his name.  When I spoke the words, "Carl Johnson," a huge wind instantly arose, almost knocking me off my feet, blowing leaves off the trees and creating a tiny whirlwind tornado right in front of me.  The young man replied, "I think he knows you're here."  We determined that the marker was on the other end of the area, so I met back up with Carol to drive around to the other side.  When I mentioned how odd it was to see such a strong gust of wind on a cloudless day, she replied, "What wind?"  She had not seen or heard a thing, yet she was only about 25 feet away.  By the time we found Grandpa's marker, I was sobbing, telling him how much I missed and loved him, but I knew he knew that.  Whatever that wind was, I don't think it was a coincidence.  It was affirmation, from beyond, that Grandpa still loves me.
Dedicated to my beloved Grandpa:
Carl H. Johnson (1903 - 1970)
Me, age 3, & Grandpa, cir. 1960
The dress was sage green with white embroidery, a gift from him
Copyright 2014 Linda O'Donnell
All Rights Reserved