What about the Women?

When I taught women’s history, I used to assign a family history project in which I asked students to trace four generations of the women in their families.  I had grown up knowing about my family’s history, and was surprised to learn that many of my students could trace no further back than their grandparents.

I’m not going to do that assignment today, but I was wondering how much I could reconstruct about the lives of my great great grandmothers. I come from a family of storytellers, but it turns out that most of our stories about male progenitors and very little information survives about the women. Let’s start with my paternal side.

Passet, Karl and Marie (Koch)

Karl and Marie (Koch) Passet

My Great Great Grandmother, Marie Koch Passet, was born in Neu Isenburg, Germany, in 1822 and married when she was twenty two. A decade later Marie and her husband immigrated to the United States with four children, the youngest of which was only three months old.  According to family legend, Marie and her family docked in Boston after several weeks at sea (I suspect they traveled in steerage), and stayed there for a year before continuing on to northwest Ohio where they purchased farmland. After giving birth to three more children, Marie died at fifty three and was buried in a rural cemetery.  The family was prosperous enough to afford a portrait, which portrays her as somber,  with straight brown hair parted in the center and swept into a severe bun.  Her dark cape and dress are plain, but neat, with no lace or jewelry to offset the stark nature of the image.

Bernheisel, Susannah Snyder wife of Henry and mother of Sylvania

Susannah Snyder Bernheisel

I don’t have a picture of my Great Great Grandmother Sylvania Barnheisel Young, but I do have one of her mother, Susannah Snyder Barnheisel , who was born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in 1811. Like many nineteenth-century farmwomen, Susannah had a large family, giving birth to at least eleven children,  eight of them daughters. One of the younger members of her family, my Great Great Grandmother Sylvania (1847-1935) lived her entire life in Wyandot County, Ohio. She married quite young, at fifteen, to a farmer named George Young.  Sadly, I know nothing more about her except she gave birth to at least five children.

Moving on to another branch of my family tree,  my Great Great Grandmother Marie Catherine Kroedel Frank,  a Lutheran, was born in Germany in 1819. After her older sister died (presumably in childbirth), Marie (age 27) married her brother-in-law, Peter Frank, gave birth to a son, and immigrated to Ohio in 1850.  The family settled in Wyandot County, where Marie died eight years later at thirty nine, leaving children ages 4, 5, 7, and 10.  As the wife of a farmer determined to establish himself in a new country, I’m sure her short life was filled with hard work. After her death, Peter married for a third time and fathered six more children.

My Great Great Grandmother Anna Margaretha Roszman Ross was also a Lutheran. Born in Germany in 1821, she married Johann Adam Ross in 1847 and gave birth to a son the following year. While she remained in Germany, Adam sailed for the United States, eager to make his way in the world. His travels took him to the California gold fields, and she did not see him again for several years, but by 1854 they had reunited and were living on a farm in Wyandot County, Ohio, where she had six more children. I suspect her early death, occurring only one day after her fifty-fourth birthday, was due to hard work as well as a weak heart.

Mary Ann Belsey Harrison young

Mary Ann Belsey Harrison

And now, what do I know about the women on my maternal side?  Mary Ann Belsey (1827-1894) spent her entire life in England. She was twenty seven when she married Charles Harrison in an Anglican church in Dover. After giving birth to seven living children, she watched them scatter as far away as South Africa and the United States.  Mary Ann appears to have had a more affluent lifestyle than the great great grandmothers on my paternal line.  In 1871 she had a servant, and her husband accumulated enough money to buy land in the United States for his spinster daughters. Nonetheless, she was only sixty seven when she died.

Harriet Baxter Harrison parents and siblings

Mary Burnett Baxter

Mary Burnett was nineteen in 1854, the year she left England with her sister and brother-in-law and their seven children. She refused to come earlier because she wanted to finish sewing school before she moved to a new country. While on board the ship, she met Benjamin Baxter, who she married later in the year, and they settled on a farm near Peotone, Illinois. Mary gave birth to at least seven children, and the family relocated to Kansas, where Mary died in  her eighty-fourth year. A devout woman, she read the Bible to her grandchildren.

I know much less about my Great Great Grandmother Hannah Bonning Quantock (1815-1896). Born in Somersetshire, England, she married a roof thatcher, and gave birth to at least nine children.  Hannah’s children wanted to better themselves economically, and some of the boys apprenticed themselves to farmers in the United States. She lived into her eighty first year.

Samuel and Susan Newton Townsend

Susan Newton Townsend

My final Great Great Grandmother, Susan Newton , was born in Somersetshire, England, in 1829. A genealogist who assisted with some research years ago indicated that her parents never married.  Susan was twenty four when she married Samuel Townsend, and she gave birth to at least eleven children. Despite the finery she is wearing in this portrait, the family was not wealthy, and several of her teenage daughters went into service.  According to the England and Wales census of 1871, she supplemented the family income by working as a glover, piecework she could have done at home after the birth of her twins in 1870.

Who were my Great Great Grandmothers? I’m sad to discover how little I know about them, and how many aspects their life stories have fallen through the cracks of time. But I am not surprised, because they were ordinary nineteenth century women from ordinary families. Sure, the details I can unearth confirm what I would have predicted, they were  wives and mothers who, for the most part, lacked economic privilege and worked very hard. Many of them had large families, and four immigrated with their husbands to the United States, where they adapted to new language, culture, and traditions. But I wish I knew more about their hopes, their dreams. Most of all, I wish I could catch a glimpse of their personalities–did they laugh easily or have tempers, were they worriers or did they roll with the waves, did they have a knack for solving problems or did they create them? Were they shy or gregarious? Curious or unquestioning? Were they submissive, dutiful wives, or did some of them question authority? If only DNA could reveal the answers!


Posted in music

Breaking Silence

I finished the draft of my last academic monograph in 2014, and have come to regard Indomitable (2016) as my  scholarly swan song. (I know many academics keep on with their scholarly research after retirement, but after years of an imbalanced life, I wanted to try something different.)

Even though I no longer need to concern myself with promotion, tenure, and pay raises, the recognition Indomitable received has been surprisingly satisfying–it  was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in biography, a Golden Crown Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction (even though I think CNF is an odd category for a biography), and most recently, it was reviewed in The Women’s Review of Books. I used to dream of having a book reviewed there, and had long ago given up.

But what next?

When I retired, I thought I’d ease into a new career writing young adult historical fiction. Several workshops, classes, and critique groups latter, I’ve reached the realization that I may need another dream. Last summer when  I paused to contrast my writing output with the more concrete results of knitting, vegetable gardening, practicing piano, and taking exercise classes, I decided to focus on the latter. I donated a large stack of writing books to the public library’s book sale.  I put my laptop away, and filed drafts of earlier work in a tub. The room I use for writing suddenly looked much neater without piles of paper tumbling onto the floor. And although there’s lots I could have said, I didn’t even blog about the safari I took to Kenya in September!

I thought I was done with writing, until, that is, I encountered a woman from a noncredit creative writing course I took last fall.

“Are you signed up for Bix’s new class?”

I shook my head. “No, I’ve been attending to other things.” I wished her a good day and drove home.  That evening, out of curiosity, I perused the Lifelong Learning catalog and found the course, “Writing Every Day: Developing a Writing Habit Through Short Fiction.” With a little encouragement from someone who knows me well, I enrolled and reported for our first session, which felt like a family reunion because it was filled with Bix’s groupies.  Still, I wondered what more I could learn from her.

It’s been five weeks now, and I’m happy to report that Bix’s class has worked its magic. Once again I’ve picked up my pen and fired up my laptop. Through our discussions about writing practice and process, I’ve come to the realization that writing is an extension of myself, a part of my identity that brings me joy (and, to be honest, a bit of frustration).  Wish me luck in letting go of my goal-oriented approach so I can see where the writing wants to take me.




Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

Carole, the Collector

Carole and kitties

Carole with her kitties


In the early days of my teaching career, I wondered if I had made a mistake in taking a position at UCLA. It was fall quarter 1988, and I felt like an imposter because I lacked the urban sophistication and polysyllabic vocabulary of my faculty colleagues at UCLA. Far away from family and friends in the Midwest, I went home to my near-empty lodging and spent wordless weekends prepping for classes, walking the streets of Westwood, and escaping into novels.

Then Carole came to my rescue. A staff member at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, she heard about my lack of furnishings and announced she would take me shopping for used furniture. A few days later I stood waiting in front of my building when a battered light blue two-door sedan slowed to a stop beside me. I looked away, confident I didn’t know the driver.

“Joanne!” Peering through the open passenger window, I saw Carole, a grin spreading from ear to ear and a bird feather tucked in her salt and pepper hair. When I climbed inside, I couldn’t help but notice the sagging roof liner, stuffing spilling out of cracks in the blue vinyl upholstery, and a back seat piled high with black garbage bags and cardboard boxes overflowing with used clothing.

“My friends call it the rolling wardrobe,” Carole laughed as we glided into traffic and headed to her favorite bakery for a fruit tart. “I use it to store things for my friends at the pueblo.”

“The what?”

“The San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico.” As we drove down the street, Carole told me about the time she took a pottery course at UCLA extension and fell in love with the work of Santana Martinez. Friendship blossomed from a fan letter, and soon after Carole started collecting bird feathers, shells, art supplies, and clothing for the Martinez family. She shipped packages to the pueblo when the backseat of her car overflowed.

At the bakery, Carole greeted everyone by first name, inquiring about the cashier’s children and another customer’s pet. Continuing on to the Wertz Brothers parking lot, she maneuvered her car into a tight space and we entered the cavernous furniture store. “You should get this!” she exclaimed as I sat at a table and four chairs. “It’s a great price, and perfect for your apartment.” When the clerk asked if I needed the furniture delivered, Carole shook her head. “My car’s outside.” While I paid for the purchase, two dubious employees strapped my table, four chairs, and a settee to the top of her car. Pulling out of the parking lot, we turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard. “Would you like to go anywhere else?” Carole inquired. I shook my head, trying to avoid eye contact with drivers of the Mercedes, BMWs, and Porches passing by us.

From that day forward, Carole made it her duty to ensure I enjoyed life in L.A. Confident she knew me better than I knew myself, she filled my calendar with museum exhibit openings, excursions to used book shops and fabric stores, and sales at Trader Joes.  One day, she invited me home for dinner.

Carole had lived in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica for more than two decades. Climbing the stairs, I found five cats sunning on a plant-filled patio—Walks-a-Lot, Ralphie, Gertrude, Blackie, and Turtle. The living room overflowed with baskets, piles of books, Indian blankets, pottery, and plants. There were piles of tins for sending cookies to soldiers in Iraq, and stacks of fabric used to make quilts for AIDS babies.

In the kitchen, anti-war posters covered the windows and plastic bags of recyclables hung from the ceiling. Peanuts cartoon strips, children’s drawings, photos of friends, and birthday cards covered the refrigerator door. Thrift store finds spilled out of cupboards onto her—NPR and Kerckhoff coffee cups, silverware in many different patterns, and English bone china. Carole no longer ate at her kitchen table, piled high with cans of cat food, tins of cookie cutters, and old Kleenex boxes stuffed with coupons and recipes clipped from the Los Angeles Times.

Carol banished me to the kitchen while she put the finishing touches on our meal.  A short while later she spooned bowls of beef stew from a cast iron kettle and handed them to me through the window connecting her kitchen to the patio. Humming birds darted back and forth among her hanging baskets as we ate on faded plastic chairs. Below us, in the alley, a woman tossed a box of household goods into the trash. “You never know what you’ll find,” Carole said, tearing downstairs and returning a few minutes later with a blue lava lamp. “I can’t believe she threw this away!” Plugging it in, we sat mesmerized by the blob of blue bubbles rising from the lamp’s base until I went home, my arms loaded with must-read books—a British mystery, feminist tract, and self-help manual.

I returned to the Midwest in 1990, but remained in regular contact with Carole. Envelopes covered with colorful stamps in a variety of denominations breathed life into my mailbox, but she didn’t stop with me. Before I knew it, she had started corresponding with my elderly mother, sending her books and home-made biscotti that Mom mistook for dog biscuits. She signed her letters with “Peace” or “Love and Hugs, Carole.”

Carole found peace on June 17, 2008, after a two-year battle with cancer. In late summer I flew to L.A. for the memorial service, a diverse gathering of people whose lives she had touched. “She was a collector,” one friend said as we went around the room sharing Carole stories. Those of us who spent time in Carole’s apartment laughed. “Sure, she acquired stuff,” the woman continued, “but her most treasured collection was her friends. She took good care of us, and never threw anyone away. We are the living proof.”

In looking back over my life, I’m grateful for my two years in southern California because it allowed me to meet Carole. The L.A. Times described her as “a woman of grace and indomitable spirit” whose simple life enlightened others. I am one of those “others.” Thanks to Carole, I have read books I never would have taken off the shelf and reflected on subjects I wouldn’t have given a second thought. I visited the San Ildefonso pueblo and bought a pot from the Martinez family. I’ve met people, now friends despite the distance separating us.  I’ve taken up charity knitting, and derive great joy in purple, one of Carole’s favorite colors. I bake cookies and biscotti, and share them with others. I may never be as generous of heart or as optimistic as Carole, but in the words of the “Wicked” lyrics, “because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Posted in Correspondence, friendship, Los Angeles, women's history

“The Quilter”

The Quilter

I first wrote about my great grandmother’s four-decades in the Toledo State Hospital about ten years ago while taking a workshop with Carol Bly at the Indiana University Writers Conference. Originally I called the piece “Insanity,” but as I explored my Great Grandmother’s experience and what it meant to me, I discovered a more appropriate title, “The Quilter.”

Last summer I took Amy Jenkins’ nonfiction essay writing workshop at the University of Wisconsin’s Write By the Lake.  Haunted by my great grandmother’s story, I took it out once again and with Amy’s encouragement, crafted the piece published today in the online journal, Biostories.

If you’d like to read the full essay, you can find it at: http://www.Biostories.com/recent-essays/.

Posted in family history, Quilting, women's history | 2 Comments

Breaking News

These days, news anchors seem to think everything is “Breaking News.” It often reminds me of the boy who cried wolf–eventually everyone ignored his cries.

That said, I have a piece of news to share. I don’t normally toot my own horn, but it’s not every day someone says I’m a winner. Plus, I love the design of this slide, which was used at the award ceremony last weekend.


The Golden Crown Literary Society, which awards “Goldies,” was founded in 2004 with a mission to educate, promote, and recognize lesbian fiction and creative non-fiction.  I was a bit surprised to learn my biography of publisher Barbara Grier won the award for creative non-fiction, but then one reviewer did say it reads like a novel.

Indomitable also was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the Lesbian Memoir/Biography category,  and received an Honorable Mention in the Biography/Autobiography/Memoir category at the San Francisco Book Festival.


Posted in Writing

Inspired by Julia

Julia Child cookbook

Even though I have a French surname, I’m not known for French cooking. Yet, ever since seeing the 2009 film, “Julie and Julia,” I’ve entertained thoughts of making Boeuf Bourguignon, a la Julia Child. We bought the cookbook, but after perusing its pages, I put it on the shelf, intimidated by Child’s use of butter.We bought the DVD of her cooking series, and learned to make yummy 20-second omelets (You can serve 200 guests in 20 minutes!–Julia says so!).

After many years of talking about making Boeuf Bourguignon, we finally committed to doing it this weekend.  Sure, iIt took a few hours of shopping and food preparation, followed by several hours more of cooking and a heap of dirty dishes, but the dish turned out better than I could imagine–tender and flavorful.

Julia's Boef BourgAlong the way, I learned how to braise young onions, also a la Julia Child. We served the bacon-mushroom and onion infused Boeuf Bourguignon with a simple tossed green salad and cooked green beans (both from our garden) and a baguette from the farmer’s market.

We shared our experiment with the next door neighbor, who also owns a Julia Child cookbook. For dessert, she surprised us by making a wonderful Julia-inspired mixed berry galette! Blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries in a rich, flaky crust. What a perfect way to end a very satisfying and enjoyable meal and weekend.

Berry Galette


Posted in cooking, friendship

Scratching paint, and other memories…

Norman Passet family 1954 (2)

Yesterday was my Dad’s birthday. If he were still alive, I’d bake him a chocolate cake or an apple pie, two of his favorite desserts. Or I’d serve him ice cream. For much of his life he was on a very strict diet due to high cholesterol, but on hot summer evenings he sometimes indulged in a bowl of “Ice milk.” I don’t know if the stores still sell it, but think ice cream without the fat. After he passed 93 and went into a nursing home, his inhibitions and self-control lessened. If we took him candy, he would eat one piece after another. And he devoured the cups of ice cream my mother bought for him at the nearby Dairy Queen.

These days Dad is never far from my mind. Sometimes people at our community gardens compliment me on keeping my plot weed free, but it pales by comparison to Dad’s, weed free and vibrant even when he he had to lie on the ground to do his weeding. And Dad always kept his wood farm buildings well maintained–our barn, garage, granary, woodshed, tool shed, and chicken house. In his later years he spent endless hours scratching paint and painting.

I recently had the opportunity to scratch paint on a friend’s deck, and realized it is a very meditative act. For one thing, it’s pleasant being outdoors, but this solitary activity also gave me time to explore memories and to listen for birds in the nearby trees. Plus, it was surprisingly satisfying to slide my putty knife under a loose flake of paint and send it flying through the air, like a game to see how much raw wood I could expose. In these moments I felt a strong connection to Dad, who has been gone now for eight years.

As a young man, Dad hunted and trapped, but he put that aside after returning home from World War II to focus on raising sheep, wheat, beans, and corn. He was so immersed in work that he seldom came to my school and church programs, but my mother explained he was making up for lost time (the over 4 years spent in the army).

That’s why I was stunned when at the age of 62 he developed a passion for coon hunting. He would go out every night the law permitted, and was always on the lookout for others to accompany him. My brother and cousins lacked the depth of his passion,  so he strung together a diverse array of hunting companions, and collectively they managed to keep up with him.

To support his new hobby, Dad became a distributor for Star Dog Food, selling the 40 or 50 pound bags from our tools shed. I suppose he received a percentage of each bag he sold, but selling dog food also enriched his social life.  You see, much to my mother’s chagrin, Dad didn’t like going places once he returned from the war. Trips to town for supplies were necessities, and he did coach a baseball team during the 1960s, but otherwise he preferred to stay put.

Christmas 2001 (2)But Dad loved to tell stories, and for that, you need an audience. Dog food customers and other hunters found themselves spending hours at our chrome kitchen table hearing about epic hunts, military service, baseball games played in the 1930s, and much more.  I realize now that Dad preserved his memories by telling the stories over and over again.

He also was an avid local newspaper reader, and in later years he enjoyed searching for the longest words he could find. Often, they were unfamiliar to him. On December 30, 2000, for instance, he found one with eighteen letters–telecommunications. (Picture–The hunter at 80 in his beloved bib overalls and flannel shirt.)

Dad’s retirement hobby was a source of great satisfaction in his final three decades. I don’t think he planned on being a hunter and gardener, but he embraced those identities. Like him, I retired early. In my mind, I envisioned myself as a writer and expected to turn out more books–especially ones without footnotes. For whatever reason, I don’t have the passion for it that I expected and I want more immediate results.  Perhaps it’s time to embrace a completely different pastime–music. It’s not one I planned on, but it has reached out to me–first the French horn, and now the piano.  Like hunting for my Dad, it is something one can do alone or with friends. And somehow, I bet it will be a source of many more stories.



Posted in family