The Secret of the Silver Cup: Opening the Door to Personal History

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions

 

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The ornate silver cup had been given to my husband at his birth, inscribed with his name and birthdate. When our child was born, the same cup was inscribed again with the name and birthdate of our son. We had always been puzzled by the original inscription on the cup: etched in old-fashioned script, it appeared to say “ELKOI” and the birthdate May 5, 1901. We asked my mother-in-law who that was, and she couldn’t say. “It’s just an old family heirloom. I thought it would make nice birth cup for my son.”

 

The name “ELKOI” haunted me for years. I would open the china cabinet and look at it, and wonder at the strange name and think about who that person might have been, where they lived, what his or her life was like, and how he/she was related to our family. I had forgotten about the cup as I began to explore my husband’s family history of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Germany, who came to American via Baltimore and New Orleans, and settled in the Deep South. From the raw dates and pages his great great uncles and aunts gradually began to emerge as personalities like a photo in an old darkroom.

 

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I went to historical societies, talked to people online, and incorporated facts from the stories my mother and law had left with us to uncover a family of entrepreneurs and lawyers, farmers and Confederate soldiers. One of them was the owner of a successful confection operation. Uncle Hiram (nee Hyman) had started his confectionery company in one city and then moved to another in the early 1900’s. I wondered why he had moved, as he was so successful in the first location. Had he married? Did he have children? What became of them?

 

I kept digging. With the help of Family Search and a local historian, I discovered that Hiram had married later in life and had married a much younger woman. They had a baby, in May of 1901 and named her Elka.

 

So, that was the name on the silver cup! What I had always read as ELKOI, was actually “ELKA 01.”

 

Now I needed to know what happened to Elka, and Hiram, and Hiram’s wife. My further research revealed that Hiram’s wife had died unexpectedly when Elka was only 9 months old. Hiram left her in care of her aunt, closed his store in that city and moved his operation to another city. 

 

I’m now looking to fill in other details of Elka’s story: how long she lived, if she had a relationship with her father, what her life was like, and what Hiram’s life was like after he uprooted his comfortable life and moved to another city.

 

Two months ago, I wrote about the plastic bins I carried back from Chicago to Boston containing all sorts of items and papers that have both answered, and raised, questions about my family. This month, we see how something as small as a name engraved on an old, dented silver cup, can lead to a richer understanding of a whole other chapter of our shared family history.

 

In this Thanksgiving season, I am especially grateful to be a personal historian. I continue to hone the skills of inquiry, research, recording interviews and writing which combine to help me put together the scattered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle into a coherent, informative and enlightening, picture.

Our clients, and in this case, my husband, are now able to feel more complete knowing where they came from — and who they came from.

 

As the holidays approach, think what “silver cups” might be in your cabinet.  Are there artifacts that have always intrigued you? Fragments of stories you would like to flesh out? Please share any stories you have in a comment here, and help inspire others to “preserve their lives.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 7 – Keeping History Alive: Jan Turnquist, Louisa May Alcott, and Orchard House

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Jan Turnquist is a portrayer of Louisa May Alcott and the Executive Director of Orchard House, the Alcott’s home in Concord, MA. She brings both to life in our interview with her for this episode of the podcast.

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Small Moments, Lasting Impact

By Pamela Pacelli Cooper

with guest blogger Sharon Carey

 

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When my colleague Mary-Anne taught a lunchtime class on Gingkoes a few weeks ago, she was surprised at all the memories that the trees elicited from her students.

I am sharing one of those memories here. It is a magical moment that remains luminous and meaningful even years after it happened.

 

Please enjoy this moment, written by Sharon Carey taught English at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington Connecticut, and now lends her talents to the Board of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston.

 

Watching the Ginkgoes

One fall morning in 1986, Kate walked into my History of Theater Class, “Look at this weird leaf,” she said. “I’ve never seen one like it… It looks like a tiny, yellow fan.”  She walked to the window and pointed, “It’s from that tree over there by the brick walk.” There were actually six identical trees standing in a row bordering the path.  Ellie joined her and said, “That’s the ginkgo – a good luck tree; supposedly it survived Hiroshima; you can make a wish on the leaf” By now everyone was at the window.  The ginkgo leaves were falling- not just fluttering down, a few at a time.  Hundreds of leaves were falling, and because the wind was barely breathing they were dropping straight down into easy mounds around their trunks, almost as if someone had choreographed the movement.

 

The class bell had sounded and I went for my notes, but as I looked at the faces of my students, held by the sight of the falling leaves, I decided to wait. I waited and watched and waited for the moment when people would lose interest, but it didn’t come.  We stood by that window for the entire class period, frozen in a spell. The only voice was a small one in my head reminding me to get back to work, but it was quickly silenced by the quiet that had overtaken the room.  

In less than an hour, the trees were stripped bare. Not one leaf was left hanging – not one. Piles and piles of golden yellow leaves lay beneath the slim, straight trunks…

 

The bell rang and the students gathered their books and went away. I imagined their lunch-table conversation: “Boy did we get away with murder today.  We didn’t do a thing in Theater Class …

 

Back then I felt guilty and hoped the academic dean wouldn’t hear about this wasted time. But now, I realize how I pulled one over on them, for, I have no memory of what profound lesson I was going to pass on that day or even that week, but I have never forgotten that beautiful morning, standing side by side with my students watching the ginkgo leaves fall. And I’ll bet a few of them remember it, too.

 

Your Magical Moment:  This Thanksgiving, when friends and family gather together, why not ask everyone to share a Magical Moment of their own? Something that stays vivid and continues to give them sustenance whenever they call it to mind.

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The Stories on Your Bookshelves

By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about transporting several bins of family papers from Chicago to Boston. This week, I’m thinking about the books on my shelves, and the story they tell.

 

Soon after we arrived home, we had guests from Tennessee in our Airbnb. I walked in to find one of them cross-legged on the floor in our living room, looking at the books in the old mahogany bookcase that had belonged to my husband’s grandfather. I hadn’t even considered that anyone would look through our books, and I began to wonder what he might find and what he might think of our book selection. He pulled out Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, and purchased by me as a part of my training as a therapist. He was fascinated, having never read it before, and the contents of the book made for lively discussions during the rest of his week-long stay, particularly in light of current events.

 

That started me thinking: what is on our bookshelves, and what stories do our various book collections tell? I’ve looked through only a few of our many bookcases, but so far I’ve found: 10 years worth of book club selections, which brought back memories of spirited discussions; several shelves of therapy books which span 40 years of different trainings and illustrate my evolution as a psychotherapist; a collection of poems, which limn the outlines of various loves in my life; and the finely bound sets of Dickens and Thackeray and Shakespeare, left to us by my father-in-law, an English professor whose love of word and wit has passed down directly to our son.

 

I felt a sense of appreciation and awe that I had found yet another rich source of family history in a place I hadn’t considered before.

 

bookshelfblogphotoWhat stories are the books on your shelves telling about you? About your loves, your vocations, your friendships, your family?

 

If you have resorted to minimalism (I’m a lost cause, there), what books have you kept and why?

 

What would it be like to call your parents or your siblings or your cousins and compare collections to discover what stories their books tell?

 

Before everything resides on a Kindle, I hope you can mine your books for the themes in your life.

 

Please share your thoughts here. We’d love to know—and get ideas.

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 6 – Amateur Historians Pt. 2

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In Part 2 of of our series on “Amateurs”, hear the rest of our interview with Historian John Morrison as he describes how he came upon a fresh and revealing look on Ben Franklin, and his connection to Boston, while doing research as volunteer tour guide for Boston by Foot.

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Goodbye Britannica: The Rise of Online Research

The Universal Encyclopedia

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions

 

 

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All the dishes were washed and put away, and the dining room table was cleared for me to do my homework. That night, it was a report on clocks.  I walked down the long hall from the dining room to the foyer where our set of 1936 leather bound Encyclopedia Britannica’s rested in their own mahogany bookshelf, adorned with a stripe of ebony wood on the perimeter.

 

At approximately the same time I was doing those reports and pulling out the Volume that said “Ca-Cl,” a science fiction writer named Isaac Asimov was imagining a world where there would be a Universal Encyclopedia, with unprecedented amounts of knowledge available to all.

 

The Universal Encyclopedia has arrived. After 224 years, the Britannica stopped publication in 2012, and if you have a set in your house, it is more of a collector’s item than a reference source.

 

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Do you mourn its demise? Sometimes I do, but mostly I am overwhelmed with gratitude, (when I’m not just overwhelmed) by the availability of research material online that is available to all of us.  Not just text, but films, and audio recordings and virtual tours of museums.universal-encyclopedia6

 

As a personal historian, I can use this Universal Encyclopedia to access the broader historical context that will bring my client’s story to life. An African American client, whose family migrated to Detroit in the 1930’s, can have a soundtrack on their video biography that includes part of a field recording from the Library of Congress’ Alan Lomax archives, recorded in 1938. CLICK HERE to listen to a blues song about Joe Louis, heavyweight champion and hero to African Americans of the time (best audio starts  at 1:04)

 

And suppose one of my subjects has a history in Massachusetts which stretches back to Colonial times and is connected to the Adams family? With ONE CLICK I can go to the “volume” of letters from John to Abigail Adams, digitized online at the Mass Historical Society and give texture to the story:

 

Whether you are looking at the Adams collection, searching for Civil War pension records, or viewing old films on the Library of Congress website, the Universal Encyclopedia transports you to other worlds and in a way that I never would have conceived when I opened that “Ca-Cl” volume to do my homework.

 

Sometimes it’ still necessary to go to libraries, museums, and historic homes to get the information you need, but isn’t it thrilling that the vision that of science fiction half a century ago is now a reality?

 

What are your favorite online historical resources?  Please share with a comment below!

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History Finds A New Home: The Journey of the Plastic Bins

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions

 

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My mother lives in a small, one bedroom apartment on Chicago’s North Side. The one big thing about the apartment is the closets. There are three large ones, and they would be the envy of anyone in the Northeast who lives in a 19th century house designed for wardrobes. For years, her closets have been filled, top to bottom with strong boxes, plastic bags, suitcases, old hat carriers, and a lavender jewelry box with a scene from Godey’s Lady’s book on the lid. Much of this trove of history has seen post offices in Kansas and Kalamazoo, San Diego and Saint Louis and Chicago apartments ranging from post WWII efficiencies to a 13 room “palace”.

 

And now, they’re all coming East with me.  Not able to organize them herself, mother has asked me to take them to a new home.  I go to the local Target and buy color-coordinated bins and spend four days packing them, carefully, for their journey.  Some of the paper is very old and crumbling (note to self: acid free sleeves). Some of the photos have been stored deep in boxes so they appear almost new as I unpack them from their hiding places.  There are familiar pieces of history: my great great grandfather’s affidavits for his Civil War pension, the napkins with love notes on them from my father to my mother, the daguerreotype c.1850 with the stern looking twins in it.  There are also surprises: a long series of letters between my great grandmother and her older sister about their other sister, who was suffering from mental illness, a lock of hair from the young son my great grandmother lost to tetanus in 1900; the lectures my grandmother gave across the West in the 1930’s when she ran a depression-era charm school.

 

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1861 Godey’s Ladies Book.

 

We pack them up and drive back to the East, across Michigan, into Ontario, then New York State and back to Massachusetts—the exact reverse of the migration that led my Ipswich, Massachusetts relatives to Illinois in the first place.

 

We carry the six bins up to the third floor of our house, where they will be keeping company with the bins we brought from Memphis six years ago when my mother in law passed away.

 

Now, I begin the task of cataloging these artifacts and adding the stories they bring with them to the names and dates in my family tree.

 

How many bins have you transported?  What have you done with your family materials and what have you learned? Please write in and let us know.
Please also tune in to our podcast for this month, where John Morrison describes his adventures with history in an historic home.

 

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 5 – “Amateur Historian”

Old Houses and Puritan Contentions

A special Waltham childhood in an unusual house sparks a love of history and research and…what is the connection between a fiery Puritan and the United States constitution?  Hear it all on this month’s “Life Preservers” podcast.

 

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 4 – Beach Listening

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Hooked on podcasts? So are we. We listen at the gym, while travelling, at home, and even relaxing on the beach. For our summer episode of Life Preservers podcast, we’ve chosen 7 off-the-beaten-path podcasts that entertain us, teach us new and useful things, and pique our desire to learn more . Old movies? Ben Franklin? “Hamilton ” as a teenager? Tune in and enjoy. We hope you’ll find a new podcast obsession, and share yours with us!

 

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Attribution This episode contatins excerpts from the following: Plimoth Plantation podcast (iTunes); You Must Remember This (http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/) ; Becoming Wise (http://www.onbeing.org/becoming-wise); Ben Franklin's World (http://www.benfranklinsworld.com/); Still Buffering (http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/still-buffering); Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine(http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/sawbones-podcast/sawbones); The Bowry Boys: New York City History (http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/).

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Brilling and Bedazzled: Creating New Words

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions

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My family of origin adores words. We did crossword puzzles, word games, Boggle and Scrabble when I was growing up. I was lucky enough to meet and marry someone who is also a lexophile.

 

What his family doesn’t do is create words to capture a feeling, an object, or a process where regular words don’t seem to work. I figure if it was OK for Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll (Oh, that “frumious Bandersnatch”), and e.e.cummings, it’s OK for us. We are Neologists.

 

This custom is proving to be immensely valuable as I talk to my now 90-year- old mother. In some ways, she is as sharp as ever, but her vocabulary is slipping along with her memory. As I try to piece together her personal history, we amble through our conversations, stopping along the way to clarify words and memories that are now quite murky. One day, we were working our way back to 1936 when she made a cross-country trip with her parents, seeking a dry climate for her stepfather, whose mustard-gassed lungs couldn’t take the cold, humid Chicago weather. She stalled when trying to describe the diary her mother had kept of the trip. “I don’t remember the correct sequence,” she said. “ My memory is just not what it was.” Then she paused again. “Just a minute, I think I’ll go into my Remembory and see if I can find it.” And she did.

 

Her Remembory: I loved it this new word! It brought to mind the famous “Memory Palaces” created by the Ancient Greeks, buildings in their brains that had rooms and shelves and doors in which they organized and stored vast amounts of material.

 

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My own Remembory resembles the stacks in an immense library built in the 19th century. The stacks go up several levels, but there are also basements and subbasements where some of the most arcane and fascinating materials are stored. When I can’t think of something, I imagine myself filling out a slip of paper at the
library and the reference librarian “ sending down to the stacks” to get it. Sometimes it takes awhile, but with patience, it returns.

 

Do you have a “Remembory,” a place where you go to search for information from the past when you can’t find it in the present? Can you describe it for us?

 

NOTE: After I wrote this blog, I looked up Remembory on Google and found this from the “Urban Dictionary”: the recall of an almost forgotten memory, leading to a story.

Someone else out there is making up words, too…

 

 

 

 

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