Wednesday, September 9, 2015

All Roads Lead To Yankel

I should say that all branches start from Yankel, at least that’s what I learned over Labor Day weekend when I attended a Millman/Melman/Kravitz family reunion in Ewing (New Jersey). Yankel Melman was my great, great, great grandfather. Yankel begot Hirsh, who begot Abraham, who begot Isaac, who begot my father Meyer, who begot me—our own book of Genesis.

My middle name (Ina) is after my paternal grandfather (Isaac) and grandmother (Ida). Until this past weekend, that’s about all I knew about my father’s family. Well, that’s not quite true. I knew his sisters Mollie, Katherine, and Dorothy, and his brother Robert. In fact, Russell is named after my Uncle Robert. Robert was a sweet, gentle soul, mentally challenged, who lived with my Aunt Dorothy’s family. He never married, and died too young. I liked the idea of honoring him and my father by naming my firstborn after Uncle Robert.
Great Grandfather
Great Grandmother
When I was young, we traveled to south Jersey to visit cousins about once a year. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and found my parents’ wedding album, with a card signed “Love Your Brother Harry,” that I even knew my father had another sibling. Harry, my mother told me, warning me not to talk to my father about him, was the family black sheep, an itinerant who died in a tenement fire that he apparently started while smoking in bed. In the paperwork we found in the files after my mother died, I discovered that despite everything, my father had paid for Harry’s funeral, and he is interred with the much of the family in Trenton.
For whatever reason, my father also never mentioned his aunts and uncles, his cousins, or even talked at all about his parents. I have found only one photo of them, which appears to have been taken at my father’s college graduation. Truthfully, I never much thought about my father’s relatives or why we didn’t know or hear of them, that is, until my mother died two years ago.
Me, Beverly & David Weinstein
Esther Melman Kravitz (Great Aunt)
Samuel Kravitz (Esther's husband)
Joseph Melman (Great Uncle)

My Parents
Garie & Meyer Millman
That’s when Bruce and I discovered a letter from my father’s first cousin—Nathan Melman—along with a family tree that Nathan had put together, along with his daughter Beverly. Imagine our surprise to learn there were many branches to that tree. Imagine our surprise when we learned that my grandfather was the only one in the family to spell the last name as “Millman” instead of “Melman.” Had he changed it, and if yes, why? Or had some official misspelled it because of a heavy accent? We’ll never know.
Fast forward to about a month ago, when I received an email invitation from Beverly, inviting us to a reunion. Beverly had continued the family tree compilation that her father had started, and thought it would be a great idea to gather the leaves of that tree together. I’m so glad she did.
While many of the 50+ people who attended were distant relatives at best, and none of them knew my grandparents or my parents (except Beverly, who had met them at the cemetery), it was exciting nevertheless.
Benjamin Melman
(Great Uncle)
So, what else did I learn? That my grandfather and one of his brothers may have been the only Jews in the Cossack army. They were selected because they were excellent horseman and excelled in the martial arts, and were responsible for guarding the Czar’s train in Siberia. And me, afraid of horses…not an inherited skill, I’m afraid.
I learned that Mollie, Robert, and Harry were born in Russia, not in the United States as I thought. And, even more fascinating was to learn that my grandparents also begot two girls before Robert, who I had always thought was the eldest of my father’s siblings. They died before the family emigrated from Russia. Wow!
Best yet, I ran into an older first cousin, Miriam, at the reunion, who said she had some pictures of our grandparents that she could send me. I wonder if I look into their faces if I will see my father, or even myself. While I’ll never know who they were, it’ll be nice to know what they look like.
Note to self: Share all the family stories (both good and bad), histories, and pictures with my children. It has made us who we are, and, indeed, them who they are. What a great thing to be able to pass along.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Memory of My Mother-in-Law Matilda

Matilda looked great in red!
I have been thinking a lot about death lately. Not in the morbid sense (well, perhaps a little), but in the OMG, I can't believe how many family and friends have died in the last two years. And naturally, one begins to think about the time limits we all have. I used to think I had all the time in the world to do all the things I dreamed about—writing that book; becoming a choreographer; learning how to draw/paint; traveling the world; watching my children get married and have their own families. Now I am more realistic. I know my time is limited, and honestly, that makes me very sad because I'm not ready. Yeah, I know; nobody is.

August 1953 with Doug
This Sunday, we will have an unveiling for my mother-in-law Matilda. I miss her. Several pictures of her are in my office. I take great comfort in surrounding myself with my loved ones, and I confess, when work throws me a question, I look at one of those pictures and start talking to it. (None has answered—yet!)

I miss the messages she would leave on our answering machine. Unlike my mother's "Hello; it's your mother" (as if I would not know her voice?), my mother-in-law never identified herself. Her message always began with "Are you people there?" For some reason, she always referred to Doug and me as "you people." I wasn't sure if it was because she saw us as a unit, a huge mass, or if she wasn't quite sure which one of us she wanted to talk to, so she lumped us together. Of course, she did that in person as well. "What did you people do this weekend?"

Reading with Russell
I miss her knowledge of politics and world events. She loved to watch CNN and CSPAN and read Time and Newsweek. She was always up-to-date on who was who and what they were doing. While I didn't always agree with her opinions (and yes, as demure as she seemed, she had some very strong ones), I always admired that she had them. She was not shy about letting us know what politicos she thought were doing a lousy job.

Visiting with Perri at MICA
I miss her sense of humor. It's hard to believe that this petite proper lady loved watching old Marx Brothers movies. But she did, and her laugh was infectious. That she shared that love with Perri makes it even more special. There were many sleepovers at Grandma Matilda's where after a dinner out, they'd be in their pajamas watching A Day at the Races or a Night at the Opera.

I miss her cooking. Doug and his sisters did not grow up on canned string beans like Bruce and I did (probably why I have such an aversion to them to this day). Nope. Matilda cooked real vegetables, and they tasted great. Her lentil soup, her creamed spinach, her artichokes, and yes, even her string beans were the best. I'm honored that she even shared a few of her recipes with me.

I miss our conversations. She shared stories about her parents and growing up in Paterson; she conveyed her worries about her daughters; she expressed pride in Doug and, indeed, all her children; she talked about movies, and politics, and (my favorite) her grandchildren. We shared many tears and many smiles together.

So this Sunday at her unveiling, instead of thinking about death, I will think about her life, about her accomplishments, and about the greatest joy she gave me—her son.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Piled Higher and Deeper

Two weeks into construction, and there is not a spot of clean in our house. Oy! But I can now see that the vision that Doug and I had when we started this project is slowly coming into being, and that is very exciting.

The laundry room, front hall, and den tiles have been laid and grouted, as has the kitchen floor. We have a new sliding back door to our porch, with a lock that actually works (no more bars in the track to keep out intruders) And no more stickies on the door to prevent someone from accidentally walking through the glass; there's no mistaking there's a door here. A new storage closet in the den has been framed out.

A pocket door is in the works to hold a stained glass door that we took from my mother's and father's house. When closed, the door will separate the front hall from the den. Years ago, my mother commissioned an artist to do a door in grays and white, with a red cardinal—my father's favorite bird. The door led from our dining room to an enclosed porch. I could not bear to leave it behind when we sold their house, and now it will become an integral part of my own!

The bathtub has been installed (complete with dirty rug inside); there's new insulation in the bathroom, kitchen, and den. Leaky pipes in the den have been fixed. An electrical upgrade is in the works, lights and light switches have been moved, and yesterday we passed our initial plumbing and electric inspections.

Lessons Learned
What I've learned (actually, it's just reinforced what I already knew about myself) through all this is that I, indeed, can be flexible.

  • I can live with constant noise and block it out if I have to. I do realize, however, that I love the quiet and relish 4:00, when the banging stops, the radio is shut off (country music, no less!), and the constant chattering ceases. 
  • I've learned to live with the toilet seat constantly up, though honestly, I'd prefer not to. When Doug and I were first married, I used to charge him a nickel a pop if he left the seat up (it only took one time of falling into the bowl in the middle of the night to institute that policy). I did the same with Russell, but charged him only a penny; he was a child, after all.
  • I've learned to live in very limited space, though this, too, is something I'd prefer not to. I never realized before how much I roamed the house in between completion of my work assignments. Now, there is no place to go; it's basement or bedroom for me. And it's too cold to just walk around the block.
  • I've learned there are solutions to most problems. There are two contractors working on the project. Each brings a different specialty to the job. One is an expert tile layer, while the other is a master carpenter. One is quiet and planning, while the other loves to talk and go with the flow. But both are great problem solvers. They love figuring things out. They love finding a solution to whatever quirks this old house (or I) throw at them.
  • Most importantly, I've learned dreams do come true.
Note to self: Keep dreaming!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Total Chaos

It is bittersweet that the construction that I have been dreaming about for years (at least 15!) of a new kitchen, bath, and den has now begun, and the only way it was made possible was through my mother's death. I know that she would be very happy that some of the monies she left to me are going to fix up the house. Whenever she gave us money as a gift, she wanted it to be used on something that she could see, not be added to the general operating budget to pay the mortgage.

To prepare for the construction, we had to move everything out of the three rooms and into others. Over the last few months, Doug and I have slowly been going through everything we own to see what we need and what we really want to keep. It's amazing that despite the amount we have donated, trashed, gifted to our children (Russell keeps asking why every time he comes home now he leaves with more than he came with!), there is still so much left.

What is left has now been moved into the basement where I work (making an already messy space even messier; no clients are reading this, I hope), the porch, the garage, the kids' rooms, and our room. Even Perri's goldfish (his/her story of perseverance is a tale for another day) had to find a new home for a few months.

The den is now the cleanest room
in the house!

I'm not a neatnik by any means. But there is not one room in the house that is not loaded with relocated furniture, dishes, pictures, linens, and stuff.

Like most things, you need to tear down before you can build up (hmmm, a life lesson for my scrap of paper?). So yesterday began the tear down. Walls, floors, ceilings, tiles are now in a dumpster sitting in our driveway. Added to the chaos of stuff all over the place is dust all over the place. One of the crew said I should get used to living in dirt for a few months. Really?

Friends who have gone through home renovations had warned me, but I really had no idea how much chaos we'd be living in.

Note to self: What were you thinking?

Monday, January 26, 2015

In Loving Memory of Meyer Millman

Today marks the 17th anniversary of my father's death. Serendipitous that my brother Bruce was over yesterday to look through the boxes of army memorabilia that Dad had saved. Sifting through the boxes of photos and postcards from every city he served in, letters (in triplicate) of every order he received or authorized, army-issued books and maps, and even telegrams to our mother, gave us a glimpse of the man he was and the father he was to become.

Coincidently, two days ago I also came across the eulogy I had given at his funeral. I am proud to remember him here, again with those words:

Though a communicator by profession, how hard it is for me to stand up here and convey to you my love for my father and what made him a very special person.

The consummate educator, he taught me many things that have guided and shaped my life and how, hopefully, shape the lives of his grandchildren.

He taught me to be passionate about work, for he truly put his heart and soul into his job. He was dedicated to his students, to his teachers, and to his building.

An honorable man, he taught me right from wrong. His ethics were grounded in his Jewish background and his love of Judaism—which he passed along to me.

He taught me that family comes first. There was always time for us, even after a long day's fight with the district office.

He also taught me that:

  • Money doesn't grown on trees;
  • We don't own the utility company;
  • I wasn't born in a barn;
  • If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right;
  • I could be anything I wanted...though he advised me against being a teacher...but I have to work hard to get what I wanted.
I would like to read from Psalm 15, which describes the character of a man worthy to come into the presence of God. I think my father was such.

Adonai, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle?
Who shall dwell upon thy holy mountain?

He that walks uprightly, and works righteousness,
And speaks truth in his heart.
That has no slander upon his tongue,
Nor does evil to his fellow,
Nor makes a false charge against his neighbor.
In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honors them that fear Adonai.
He keeps his promise at all costs, and changes not.
He that lends not his money on interest,
Nor takes a bribe to injure the innocent.
He that does these things shall never be moved.

He was a supportive and good husband; a loving father and grandfather. I still miss his calm demeanor, his warm embrace, and his wry (and sometimes dirty) sense of humor. 

Pops, I love you.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Looking Forward to The New Year

Doug and I were fortunate to usher in 2015 singing and dancing with friends at Maggianos—a different experience, to be sure, which hopefully augurs a different and promising new year.

The last few years we have been focused on taking care of parents, on illness, on death and mourning. We've experienced a lot of losses, including both our mothers, one of our dearest friends, and a childhood home. As we've closed out our parents' estates, we've had to get rid of objects that bring back many memories of better times; the good news is that we've also learned that a lot of those "things" are merely that—just stuff. I don't think either of us ever truly appreciated the value of our temple's bazaar, Goodwill, and Craig's list prior to this last year. And how wonderful that our children are now of an age to have apartments of their own; it's quite liberating to get rid of our "crap" and pass it along to them!

Sadly during the last few years, we've had to neglect some of our friends, our home and yard, and even ourselves. There are friends who have taken us off of speed dial, if not deleted us completely from their devices. Perhaps our deletion felt as liberating to them as our getting rid of stuff was to us! I can only hope so. We do, however, regret that we are no longer part of their lives. It's easy to let go of things, not so much people.

Hobbies over the last few years have gone by the wayside. While Doug has continued to play tennis, and I have continued with my book club (thank you my dear ladies for keeping me sane!), I think we both have misplaced some of our passions about other interests.

So as we start 2015, I think we are both ready to shred our shrouds and don brighter colors and, more importantly, refocus on those areas of our lives we have neglected. As a friend (depressingly) reminded me on New Year's Eve, we only 20-40 years left. So, we'd better make each day count.

I'm not big on new year's resolutions (mostly because I seem to break them and/or forget about them by day 2), but I am big about thinking about what my future might look like and what changes need to be made to get closer to that dream.

As a first step, we are changing our environment. Those who know me well know that I have been talking about renovating our kitchen for at least 10 years. We learned (from the same wise friend who reminded me on New Year's Eve about living in the moment) that when you renovate you should work from the top down. If you've been to our house, you also know that our lovely pink bathroom (original to our 1960s home), which is right over our kitchen, is in desperate need of a redo. And, as long as we have a contractor coming in, we might as well fix the den...right?...which has cracked floor tiles held together with clear packing tape, sliding doors with gel leaves on them so no one walks through the glass, and early American-style built-in bookcases (UGLY).

The most exciting part of the renovation will be the installation of a pocket door that will contain a stained glass door from my mother's house. That door holds a lot of memories, and I am happy that our entire family (and friends) will be able to continue enjoying it.

More changes to come—outward and inward. I am, indeed, looking forward to 2015!