~ Family Resemblance ~

Summer Guest Blogging

This summer, I did some guest blogging for the blogs Home Front Girl and Food. Family. Ephemera. Susan Morrison and Gena Philibert-Ortega’s blogs both focus on history–Susan through her mom Joan’s wartime diary and Gena through food. I love looking at the past through different lenses. There are so many new stories to be found when you look at a familiar subject through another angle.

Susan and I co-wrote a piece on our respective relatives’ thoughts on war-torn Asia. Susan’s mom and my grandfather both describe frightening incidents. Joan references the Nanking Massacre and my grandfather depicts a long, dark night traveling through minefields. Though they’re talking about different wars, places and events, their descriptions are strikingly similar.

For Gena’s blog, I wrote about the food-related passages in  my grandfather’s memoir. I was surprised how much I learned just from his thoughts on food. The passages told me more about his living conditions, cultural identity and religious beliefs. It was a fun writing experiment, and I realized a lot of historical subtext is hidden in what we eat.

And now, time for another picture of my grandfather!

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How My Mom’s Death Changed My Definition of Family

In my head, I’ve always placed my family into one category and my ancestors in another. My family members are my parents, my brother, my aunts and uncles, first cousins and grandparents. They’re the people I grew up with, the people I know too well, the ones who inspire the deepest and longest eye rolls.

My ancestors are the people I want to learn more about. They’re a mystery I want to solve, their lives influencing my own in ways I’ve only recently begun to discover. They’re finished stories with birth dates and death dates, offering lessons that come with the benefit of hindsight.

Then my 60-year-old mom died in July and the lines blurred.

Her death has changed me and the way I look at life. The constants in my life aren’t the same, and a lot of my expectations and assumptions have to be altered.

Every time I want to call my mom and tell her something, I start reaching for the phone. And then I remember.

From now on, my dad will be the one who answers the phone when I call my parents’ home. (My mom always answered the phone first. She’d rather run to the phone than let the answering machine pick up.)

When I’m shopping and I see something she might like, I think about how much she loved chocolate and the color turquoise. And how strange it is to know that I won’t be buying her anything anymore.

I have to revise some of my ideas about the future. I assumed that when I got pregnant and had a baby, my mom would come over and help me for the first week or so. I expected to see my mom grow older and reach the ages of 65, 75, 80. I assumed her mom would pass away before she did.

I also never thought of my mom as an ancestor, but now she has both a birth date and a death date. Future relatives won’t have the chance to get to know her first hand. They’ll be relying on the people who knew her and the things she left behind to get an idea of what she was like. Just like I’ve been doing with my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and cousins, just like future generations will eventually do with me.

Now I realize there were never two categories, that we were always one family. We may be separated by time, geography or language, but we share family pictures and stories and genes. In general, we are all more alike than we are different. We all have a limited amount of time to live, share and pass down our stories.

On the left, my grandmother, Ruth Goldstein, and my mom, Rosalie Stillman. On the right, my mom and me in 2011.

On the left, my grandmother, Ruth Goldstein, and my mom, Rosalie Stillman, in the mid-1970s. On the right, my mom and me in 2011.

Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?

Ft. Custer, Michigan
February 19, 1951        

Dearest Ruthie:

My first day at my new post, Ft. Custer, Michigan, is at an end and I’m tired, tired, tired. The bones, muscles, skin—even brain and little toes—are protesting. I must have walked thousands of miles and wandered into every building ever erected by man. Then missing you crushed my spirit, made me feel lonely despite intense activity.

Where did my unwilling legs propel me? It seems that the army wanted me to “sign in” at five different places just to make sure my twin brother (no such character—one’s enough) doesn’t get in the act. Then there was travel pay, uniform pay, and pay in general. I was urged fairly often to “sign here in duplicate” and I heard the aggrieved and shocked words of the clerk, “What, you don’t have a middle name?” For such derelict an omission I expected at any moment a harsh bureaucratic response.

Anyway, I dashed to the Quartermaster for several officer’s uniforms, a dress hat, and an Eisenhower Jacket, rounding out my dashing wardrobe at the Post Exchange with five sets of First Lieutenant bars.

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Just as I was about to search for stationery and stamps (to write to my beautiful wife, of course), my staff sergeant wanted to show me the dispensary, followed by the colonel wanting to say hello, followed further by the tramping feet of privates wanting to track down a room for me. Everybody wanted to do something and I just wanted to rest!

After all these feverish stirrings, I learned that five hours had gone by, and no kidding, I was so tired that I actually wondered how it would feel to collapse inside a mud hole to fit the occasion.

ODDS AND ENDS AND STUFF –

(1)  The army has acted resoundingly: my official name is now Sidney NMI Goldstein—NMI stands for No Middle Initial.

(2)  Working hours are from 8-12 and 1-5 weekly and 8-12 on Saturday. That means I’ll head for Detroit every weekend, providing I don’t draw OD (Officer of the Day). Wouldn’t that be a delicious treat?

(3)  I’m supposed to be the battalion surgeon in charge of 1,500 men and 1,000 of them will receive typhoid and tetanus immunization shots tomorrow. I dare say another weary day is in the offing.

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(4)  The Colonel and the other officers have also stated I am due to stay here a long time. How do they know? I just got here. “Heh, Sid,” I admonish myself, “don’t be a killjoy. Just believe.”

(5) Since I have rooms in the BOQ (Bachelors Officer’s Quarters), I’m guaranteed a date with a pretty nurse every night. To be more specific, I have a male roommate together with a bed, desk, closet, clothing rack with hangers and a wash bowl. Now, if I can only find a mirror, I might even shave in the morning.

While writing this letter between 6:40 and 7:40 p.m. I heard a familiar chant outside my window – “Hut, two, three, four.” At this late hour some soldiers were actually marching through all this mud. Come to think of it, I better not complain too much.

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Now that my long tale is almost over I’ll say: I miss you and love you very, very much, and multiply that by twelve.

You know that moment when someone walks in the room, and in that microsecond before your brain catches up to your thoughts, you murmur to yourself, “Hey, he’s pretty cute” or “There’s something special about that one,” before realizing that it’s your husband or good friend or some other person you know really well? Usually this happens when you’re not fully paying attention; you look up too quickly and suddenly you’ve transformed a familiar person into a stranger. And because he’s a stranger, you size him up anew—the gait, the shape of the face, the eyes, whether you think he’s attractive (hopefully you do if it’s your spouse). Then just as quickly, you realize who it is, and as the familiarity returns, you’re surprised, amused. Of course it’s your husband, your friend! Who else would it be?

That’s kind of what it’s like when I read my grandfather’s writing. At first I slip into the story like I would with anything I’m reading. In this particular passage, I get caught up in hustle-bustle of the action and the details that make you feel a part of the narrator’s day. I like the way the pacing of the writing moves at a frenzied speed while still allowing for reflection.

But the voice is so familiar, so characteristic of my grandfather and family, that just as quickly I recognize the narrator. Ahh, of course it’s my grandfather, I realize, as his humor and flair for the dramatic pop up. No matter how mundane the event, he sets the scene like a novel. “I must have walked thousands of miles and wandered into every building ever erected by man.” Of course he’s “tired, tired, tired” rather than just plain old tired. It’s not enough to mention his protesting bones, muscles and skins, there’s also his brain and little toes too.

Because I’m his granddaughter, I also know that while he’s poking fun at the inanity of the process (my favorite part is the middle name debacle), he was genuinely aggravated. He hated when something seemingly simple became a hassle, an attitude he passed down to my mom, and to a lesser degree (I hope), me. And he certainly didn’t like being surrounded by commotion. Driving in San Francisco with him was not a pleasant experience for anyone. The combination in itself was probably enough to make him tired, tired, tired.

Then there’s the grandpa I didn’t know; it’s these sentences that are often the most exciting. Had he not thought about me, or at least the potential of a me, I would never have known how sweet and lovey dovey he was with my grandma. This is not to say that they weren’t sweet to each other when I knew them, but they weren’t lovey dovey, at least not in the way you are when you’ve only been married three years.

In some ways, they remind me of me and my husband when we were first married (particularly the nauseating part, my friends like to tell me). But even we never multiplied how much we missed and loved each other by 12. It’s cute and silly even though it makes my grandfather sound like a 13-year-old girl.

I suppose no matter how well you know someone, there’s still room for surprise, unfamiliarity. Though most of the time, when the surprise dies down you realize it’s not quite the aberration it appeared to be. It was always your husband turning the corner, it was always your grandfather with the dramatic turn of phrase and irascible wit. On the other hand, sometimes your grandfather turns out to be a 13-year-old girl. But only in the best possible way.

 

Huell Howser: California’s Golden Boy

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Huell Howser loved California. And when I say loved, I mean he was borderline crazy for California. It didn’t matter how small the story or little the detail he was highlighting in his show California’s Gold, he thought it was amazing. For a taste of what I mean, let’s review some of his most often used sayings, shall we (check out this Huell Howser-inspired drinking game)?

“It just doesn’t get any better than this!”

“Oh my gosh!”

“That’s amazing!”

“Wow!”

“Oh boy!”

“Here I am standing on a big old pile of horse manure!”

Okay, you got me, that last one was a joke. He didn’t talk about horse manure enough for it to become a familiar catchphrase. Oh, did you think I made up the quote? No, the quote itself is very, very real.

Suffice it to say, people liked to poke fun at him. But they did it with affection because despite his sometimes annoying quirks, he was a likeable guy. When he asked people a question, he genuinely wanted to know the answer. He spoke with an endearing Tennessee twang and had a child-like enthusiasm for life. He was passionate about history, historic preservation and storytelling. For 20 years his show covered all kinds of subjects and places, even the seemingly mundane, because he believed good stories stemmed from everyday life and could be found in even the smallest of details. As a personal historian and lover of all stories great and small, this is something I’ve always taken to heart.

On his website, Huell said, “We operate on the premise that TV isn’t brain surgery. People’s stories are what it’s all about. If you have a good story, it doesn’t have to be overproduced. I want our stories to reveal the wonders of the human spirit and the richness of life in California, including its history, people, culture and natural wonders.”

So when I found out he’d died early Monday morning, I was shocked enough to yell “What?!” at the radio as I was pulling out of the Trader Joe’s parking lot. He’d retired from his show rather abruptly last November, but he didn’t say anything about being ill. Turns out he had been making some preparations. According to a Huffington Post article by Anna Almendrala, in 2011 he donated all of his California’s Gold tapes, 1,800 books on California, and one of his houses to Chapman University. He also funded several Chapman University scholarships. His friend and producer Ryan Morris has since confirmed that he had been ill for the last three years, declining to elaborate any further.

What surprised me even more than his death was how sad I was—I am—about it. I don’t think I realized how much I liked Huell and California’s Gold.

My family didn’t have cable so it wasn’t unusual to find the TV tuned to Huell Howser on the weekends. Our state always seemed a little more interesting after watching his show. Sometimes we’d even explore one on his recommendations (a trip to Anza Borrega Springs to see the poppies became an annual expedition). Throughout the years, whenever he came up in conversation (it happens when you live in California), I spoke of him with amused affection. In 2005, I was excited to have him pop up on the The Simpsons in the episode “There’s Something About Marrying,” in which they feature a character named Howell Huser trying to find some “gold” in Springfield. I was so proud of him. You know you’ve really become a part of American culture when you’re mocked on the The Simpsons.

Howell Huser

It’s always a little strange to recognize the role a person you didn’t even know played in your life, but I think somewhere between watching California’s Gold with my family on lazy Sundays and bad impersonations of Huell’s Tennessee accent, he became someone I admired, even emulated. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the stories I cherish most are the everyday tales, the ones that take delight in the little surprises, the ones that if I didn’t already encounter on a regular basis, I’d chase anywhere to find.

Now when I think about how ridiculously interested in everything he was, I get a bit of a lump in my throat. His over-the-top enthusiasm may have inspired a lot of eye rolls, but his excitement was really just a testament to his joy for life, and when you think of it that way, it doesn’t seem quite so silly anymore. Well, unless we’re talking about horse manure.

Don’t Let This Happen to You: How Twilight Almost Tainted a Family Tradition

Rod Serling

I have never read any of the Twilight books or seen any of the movies, but on principle I don’t like them. I’m sick of plots that revolve around a woman needing to be rescued, and I don’t understand why people think Robert Pattinson is attractive (note: “What do you mean? Just look at him,” is not an explanation). Still, I didn’t go out of my way to dislike the series. I was indifferent at best. That is, until Twilight started calling attention to itself.

You see, I am a Twilight Zone fan. In the past, when I provided people with this information, it would lead to a very pleasant discussion on our favorite episodes. But an increasingly disturbing trend has emerged in recent years. I’ll be in the middle of saying something completely innocuous like, “I love the Twilight Zone,” and I’ll be interrupted with, “Yep, you and 50 million other girls.”

What? I know Rod Serling was pretty sexy (because in addition to being handsome, he was a talented writer, snappy dresser and had a great speaking voice—and that’s how you explain someone’s attractiveness, Twilight fans), but I don’t think that’s the show’s primary fan base.

Oh wait.

Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. They think I like Twilight. They think I want to have a conversation about Twilight.

Which leads to another scary thought—have some people not heard of the Twilight Zone? Has the Twilight Zone faded that much from American culture?

I grew up watching Twilight Zone holiday (July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s) marathons. It was one of my favorite family traditions. No matter whose house we were at, year after year we’d gather in front of the TV to watch a gremlin taunt William Shatner from the wing of a plane and Burgess Meredith accidentally smash his glasses over and over again. And it never grew old because, for the most part, the stories had a timeless quality. Ultimately, they were about human nature and strange things happening, subject matters that will always be applicable.

Talking TinaEven at a young age, the stories were relatable. So many of them were about feeling powerless and frightened, something any kid can identify with. It was reassuring to hear other people struggle with doubts and uncertainty, to know that other people shared the same thoughts. The show introduced me to irony and fostered a love for dark, psychological tales. And even when a story scared me, I felt safe surrounded by my whole family. (Well, except for the Living Doll episode. I still make a beeline for the door the second I spot a doll in the room. You never know when one is suddenly going to want to kill you.)

I’ve recently discovered that most of my extended family grew up watching and loving the Twilight Zone too. I like to think this is because my family is genetically predisposed to probe beneath the surface and search for the deeper meaning in life. Or maybe they just have good taste. Whatever the reason, it is something I am happy to have in common with them.

So my point is, when I say Twilight Zone, I mean the TV series with Rod Serling that aired from 1959-1964. Twilight Zone, as in another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. The Twilight Zone that remains relevant and will outlive the pop culture references, teenage angst and popularity of Twilight. Yep, that Twilight Zone.

Getting To Know You

In early 1951, my specialist training in internal medicine came to an abrupt stop. The army wanted me. They had paid for my education and it was time for me to uphold my end of the bargain.

I was seized with mixed emotions. One moment I convinced myself the experience would be good for me; the next instant I didn’t dare contemplate the future.

Then I had an inspiration. My wife Ruthie and I had already agreed to write frequently. In addition, I asked that she placed each of my letters in a loose leaf book immediately after reading them.

I warned her that I was going to write minutely, accurately, truthfully. If I felt irritable, disgusted, hopeful, happy—no matter what—I was going to jot it down, and someday posterity might read about me, my strengths, weaknesses, foibles.

True to my word, I wrote every day, and in that time I accumulated at least 1,000 pages of my innermost thoughts. Call it a diary, if you like. I fought a constant battle against boredom and anxiety. I dealt with many subjects, some of them nonsensical, many trivial, others heartrending, all of them composed of the stuff that confronts our lives daily.

-Introduction from Dearest Ruthie: Letters Written to my Wife During the Korean Conflict

Within the last five years I’ve switched careers (from journalist to personal historian), become interested in family history, organized several genealogical trips, discovered previously unknown relatives, gathered new family photos and stories, and gotten to know myself better. At the heart of all this sits my grandfather’s Korean War memoir.

Sidney Goldstein

My grandfather, Sidney Goldstein, practicing his “Poor Yorick” routine.

 It’s been a series of slow realizations ever since I read it. Initially I was just glad that I had another chance to get to know my grandfather, who had recently passed away. But as I became more immersed in his voice, I began to see his Korean War memoir as a part of several larger stories.

The most obvious is his personal war story as a representation of the overall Korean War experience. His tales, from the patients he treated (most often for venereal diseases, though there were some with serious injuries) and the dangers he encountered (driving through minefields in the dark) to his determination to find joy in the little things (a good meal, books, letters from my grandmother, a week of R&R in Japan) even amidst overwhelming boredom, all hint at the bigger picture.

Beyond the Korean War, it was a snapshot of my grandfather as a young man. This Sidney Goldstein wasn’t just my grandfather; he was a peer in the same stretch of life. So it was easy to identify with his enthusiasm, curiosity and impatience.

What surprised me was how much of myself I saw in him. How alike our observations, opinions, and worries were. How similarly our thoughts were structured and our writing voices crafted—all things that I thought were singularly unique to me. Knowing that I shared these things with my grandfather made me feel closer to him, and less alone.

Fannie Goldstein

My great-grandmother Fannie Goldstein (she’s the one directly in back of the baby), her siblings and parents in the Old Country. I’ve been contacting their descendants.

It was this mini epiphany that started me on my current trajectory. I fell in love with people’s personal stories and family histories. I became a personal historian so I could help other people save their life stories. And just this last year, I decided to take a broader look at my family tree.

The information I gathered on distant relatives (all descended from the same two ancestors) through visits, research and an extensive 30-page family tree, had me thinking about the traits we pass down, whether genetically or environmentally, and the qualities that we only find in ourselves.

 In my family, there are a lot of doctors and writers. Quite a few play instruments. Some speak fast, some are religious, some (okay, most) are worriers, some travel a lot.

What’s the point? Well, eventually, I plan to make a big family history book. But mainly it’s about getting to know the history as it relates to me and the other Goldstein descendants. Or put another way, the more we know about our origins, the better we can understand ourselves. And that sounds pretty good to me.