Archive for April 2012

Spring Planting

Spring Planting

Although Earth Day has come and gone, it is the season to enjoy God’s great earth with all its rich soil and resources. When I was a child I loved to dig and play in the dirt in our back yard, mix the water and soil, pat it all down into mayonnaise jar lids, then bake my ‘mud pies’ or ‘tarts’ in the hot sun. I carefully unmolded them onto a cardboard box, my make-believe ‘kitchen table,’ or ‘counter.’ I would then pretend to serve them to my little play friends (real or imaginary) and my pet dog, Tiny. I pretended my ‘mud pies’ or ‘tarts’ were as good as any real pies my mother could make. At that time I had no problem eating my baked goodies. Well, I didn’t actually eat the whole thing, but rather tasted it. I enjoyed playing in the dirt back then.

Today, as one belonging to the ‘baby boomer’ generation I still enjoy playing in the dirt. Filling flower pots with handfuls of soft, cool potting soil, digging around in it to create little pockets to carefully tuck in a new flower, seedling or plant. A little drink of tepid water, and it is ready to be taken to a place or section in my yard, or house where it gets just the right amount of sun or shade. April and May are months I go to garden centers or nurseries to pick out new plants and flowers for spring planting when all danger of frost is over, safe from late winter season snow storms. It is a beautiful thing to observe all the colors of red, yellow, orange, blue, purple, pink and hues in all shades that come with a new season each spring. Trees are filling out, leaves and grass turning green. Even the birds enjoy the new season, singing, chirping, and looking for a new tree to nest in. And, my perennials begin to bud with new life, keeping their promise to return again. A season to plant, to enjoy and care for what God has given us on this great planet, earth. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24:1).

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Posted April 25, 2012 by Joyce in My Photos, Photography, Seasons, Spring, Writing

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The Forest

The Forest

 

Poem by: Joyce E. Johnson

There is a knoll of land

Where the pines and fir still stand,

As if at attention answering the call

They receive the birds and game of small.

The winds carry their song

Through the nestled branches long.

It is to those that find

With solace to the mind

A place kept to retreat

Where the air still smells of sweet

Flowers growing wild,

 Pines that drop their fruit,

And leaves that follow suit.

For all the seasons to come,

And all the seasons of past

This knoll of land lies in wait

And beckons to be last

To join the host of trees that boast

To greatness lest they fall

To fate, succumbed, cut and quartered

They surrender to the saw.

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THE OAK and the STARLING

starling on a tree

starling on a tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

THE OAK AND THE STARLING

 

By Joyce E. Johnson © 2006

 

Like breezes that blow scattering leaves astray

So it was with the starling from the north that day.

Carried to earth some distance away

By the wind’s strong force, on the ground it lay.

Like a tiny glider it was off on its own,

Having traveled so far its venture unknown.

It was quick to land and needed rest

For it grew too late to build a nest.

Now like a tower there stood strong, but not still

A tree of might, of force, and will.

Its branches did sway with ease and grace,

And rooted so deeply down under its base

Was the largest trunk he had ever seen.

And so it was with this starling so keen

Who grew weary and afraid for the night had begun

To consume the light left behind from the sun.

Where can he take his refuge this night?

The leaves floated down, airy and slight.

He gathered them into a crunchy warm pile,

Then snuggled down in it to rest for a while.

The tree stood proud as a sentry in view,

And like a protector to the starling it knew

This would make a good place for the bird to nest,

For the Oak was the biggest, wisest and best.

The hours passed on and daylight broke.

Breaking the silence the starling spoke,

“What kind of tree must you surely be,

that you stand with greatness over others that I see?

That you speak with age and dignity,

Yet, share your covering, I will not forget;

Your strength and fortitude to me you let.”

Tree leaves rustled. The limbs would creak.

The staunch, old giant began to speak,

“The rings on my trunk tell my history be it told

that I am an Oak and a hundred years old.

I’ve sheltered many a wildlife and prey.

But they soon move on and cannot stay.”

The starling found twigs for his nest to assemble.

The tree fanned its breezes, a soft like tremble

Sending its whispering covers to rest

On the starling, his friend asleep in its nest.

 

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Posted April 21, 2012 by Joyce in Nature Walks, Photography, Poems, Seasons, Secular poetry, Spring, Writing

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Holocaust Memorial Remembrance

Today is designated a day of remembrance to all those (over six million Jews and others) who perished in the Holocaust. On my blog site I have posted a story I wrote as a tribute to the Jews who died during that time, entitled, The Ghetto Jews. Although the story is one of fiction, the events, the ghettos, massacres, death and concentration camps, gassing and persecution of those who were killed are true. I featured in my story a fictional family who perishes in the Holocaust living in a ghetto in Odessa, Russia (now a part of Ukraine).  Most people today know of the Holocaust events that occurred in occupied Germany and Poland during World War II, but not everyone knows of the thousands in Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries of Eastern Europe who died also as a result of the “Final Solution” to round up, and massacre all Jewish people remaining alive towards the end of  World War II. One of those events ordered by Adolf Hitler in the occupied territories of Russia and Ukraine was known as, “Operation Barbarossa.” All Jews found alive were shot on the spot, their bodies thrown into ravines and burned. Other atrocities and means of killing them were committed as well, and also to other groups found having a different political viewpoint, lifestyle, religion or color of skin, even political prisoners taken during the time of occupation.

During my thirty years of genealogy research to search out my own family roots on my father’s side of the family, I found  clues and connections to the German Jewish ancestry of my grandfather’s family from Odessa, Russia. I became focused on those bits of information, while following my roots back before the 1800 ‘s period. I dug in to resources (books, online  websites, genealogy organizations, and other sources of information) looking for more about my family, their beginnings and locations when they migrated east into Russia from Germany, and eventually into the U.S. in 1889. It has been an awesome journey in time and discovery the things I have uncovered, learned and saved of their lives. I would not have traded the experience for anything and will pass it down to my children and grand children, and to their’s.

One can never forget what happened, but we all can use it as a learning lesson to guide us in respect for others, no matter their religion, background, lifestyle, political view or preferences that are different from our own, including where they have come from, or whatever direction they are headed in their lives. As a Christian and believer, it is what I choose to do, what Jesus wants us all to do, as He did the same when He walked this earth and teaches us to do the same.

Musings of a Writer

A blank page to a writer is his podium, his pen: a microphone.

Posted April 18, 2012 by Joyce in Writing

The Ghetto Jews

The Ghetto Jews

Odessa, Russia 1944

Jacob pressed his face to the glass. The window, comforting like a chunk of ice soothed his brow, feeling hot to the  touch.

Large, frosty flakes drifted slowly from a dark, cold sky crystallizing on the dirty window.  Shapes and patterns came together in delicate designs like mama’s lace tablecloth she once owned. Used for special occasions like Passover Seder she would spread it out on their dining room table and place the menorah in the center. She would then add the special Passover dishes and papa would lead in the Hebraic prayer. A long time ago, with Joseph and their friends.

He remembered something his papa once said. “Jacob, each person is unique to God and has been given a gift; all have their own identity making them unlike anyone else. We can all give something back to God by contributing to the world, each in their own way. No one is made just like another. Like snowflakes, people are all different. But there is a beauty, distinct in us all.”

Then papa’s face became sad and his shoulders slumped as if shrinking into his chair.  “Sometimes though, it is not the good in them we see, but the bad things they do …that we remember…and cannot forget.” he said, quietly.

Jacob thought about that, then asked, “Why does God make them then, if they do bad things? Why aren’t they like the snowflakes? Why does God make the snowflakes disappear, but not the bad people?”

“Ah. Well Jacob, perhaps the beauty of such things as snowflakes is with us for just a short time, so God will remind us how important it is to appreciate them when they are with us. Then, he rewards us by sending us more again, later, all in different patterns, different designs, all of them beautiful.”

Jacob remembered how he used to try catching them in his hands as they fell from the sky, but too soon they were gone leaving only a trace of their dampness absorbed into the red mittens his mother knitted for him. He no longer had the mittens.

“But, you asked about the, “bad people” that do not disappear. I think perhaps God allows the evil to remain with us for a time too, like the beautiful snowflakes before He makes them go away. One day maybe, I hope they will all be gone too, and we can see only God’s beautiful creations, again.”

His papa was a doctor and a very smart man. Jacob always had questions. Sometimes, when papa did not have an answer to every question he would ponder for a while and say, “Jacob, some things I believe you will just learn about on your own. It is the way we learn best.”

Jacob remembered a time when he and his brother played out in the snow. Mama would let them stay up past dark and the sky became white with a soft like glow. They built forts and bunkers using boxes and buckets, made bayonets from long sticks, and turned bowls upside down on their heads for helmets. Their snowmen wore helmets too and stood as sentries to their fort. While hiding behind them, or running around they would sometimes knock off their head or helmet playing soldiers at war. They would laugh and roll in the snow and when they came in mama would have ready cups of hot sweet cider. They warmed themselves in front of a hearth fire watching the flames dance, the logs crackle, and pop, then go to bed in clean warm beds.

Now Joseph, his brother was gone. And there was no yard to play in the snow or build a safe fort. There was no hearth fire. But there were real soldiers, and there were real guns aimed at the Jews in their crowded ghetto. The terror continued and the sick and old gave up and died.

“Mama, where did papa go?” he asked her, again.  Peering intently through the window gazing out at the swirling flakes accumulating on the ground he saw no sign of him anywhere. Just the snow that fell, leaving the ground covered in white. He would not leave his post, so he stood there, watched, and waited. But unless papa returned to them soon and they could be together again tears would threaten to fall untended and his heart for papa would ache.

An hour passed; three hours, then more. His mother stood silent. What could she say to a child so young? Now burning with fever from this hated curse, will she mourn yet another son to disease? How many more would they bury tonight? For the thousands of Jews forced to live in the ghetto, with the filth and despair they would surely all die. Like a herd of swine in a holding tank, awaiting their fate, their “transport” to where? To be Jewish, or “different,” this was their fate? What could they do but wait here and die? Typhus and hunger ravaged them all. There were rumors in the ghetto of massacres and killings, of Jews rounded up, digging graves, then shot and burned. Of soldiers laughing, making lewd comments, imitating “pious” gestures, and drinking to their deaths.

Stroking his shoulders, she wore a sad smile. “Jacob, come. Lie down. Try to sleep. Papa will scurry fast like the mice that run away when they scatter and hide.”

His tears fell to the sill in tiny puddles on grime. Some of the ice crystals forming outside still remained, as if lingering; stubborn they stayed, as if wanting to remain for Jacob, this night.

~~~~

Aaron ran, his legs feeling like lead, tired from the effort. If only he’d kept himself, more fit, playing and hiking with his sons in the forest. He stumbled, his gait awkward, his body feeling weak, weary. His breaths filled the air like little puffs of steam, building with each effort.   Ice sickles hung off slouching roofs heavy from layers of old snow, frozen in place from an earlier thaw. Ugly and dirty like the pointy nails of an old witch’s gnarled hands they clawed their way down drainage pipes. No beauty remained from an earlier reflection, “like prisms cascading from an ice castle in the sky,” he once told Jacob. The boys often broke them off to suck on, pretending they were, “iced treats.”

Aaron had no way of knowing how late the hour. Down a dark, narrow alley he ran staying in the shadows. He had to make it back before a guard detachment saw him.  Clutching the small vial and syringe with stiff fingers, his arthritic hands felt numb from the cold, stuffed into thin worn pockets of his tattered coat. The medicine, he found in the doctor’s fine house, the one with the yard where his sons always played, building their forts, their bunkers and caves, under a misty, cold sky after a fresh fallen snow.

Now another doctor lived in their house, seeing his patients and collecting their payments. If he were to hope for just one miracle this night, it would be that he make it back to the ghetto before being caught.

From inside the other pocket he took out two keys, tied together with a shoelace. One fit a lock to their back door and the other to the locked medicine cabinet. He found them in the same place hidden under a porch step. They had been hidden for months before he and his family were rounded up and made to vacate their home. It was not safe to be found with them now. There would never be another time to use them again.  He tossed them into the gutter drain as he ran. He knew he would never see his home, his patients, or practice medicine again.

Painful cramps gripped his legs. He stumbled making too much noise, knocking over a garbage can while rounding a corner. Now they would know, and soon they would learn to where he fled, to a hole in the wall where brick and mortar gave way.

He observed the rats one day watching as they came and went, in and out through the cracked, crumbling wall. Aaron wasted no time, chipping and hacking, enlarging the hole. When he thought it large enough, while still dark, he squeezed through, telling only his wife, Rachel where he was going. It was his only hope if he was to get away and try saving his son from certain death. As much as he wanted to squeeze them all through the hole and try to escape, he had no way of ensuring their safety on the other side until he had tried it first. All sides and entrances to the ghetto were watched, guarded constantly.  Clawing at the hard cold ground under the fence he dug frantically and lifted the wire enough to slide through.  Any escape routes were sealed up and closed off. If he were seen entering it now, he would endanger his family, and everyone else. They would all be shot. He would have to hide somewhere and wait till it was safe.

He thought he heard the soldiers’ jackboots, or was it anxiety born out of fear? Closing in they rounded the corner from where he’d come. Faster now, he thrust himself forward, a determined, defiant attempt of alluding his captors. There were no more alleys to run to, no crevice in the wall where he could squeeze through, no door to bolt to, and no window he could jump through.

His mind raced through a Hebrew prayer he prayed with his family on the eve of Shabbat. Sucking cold air, his breaths coming in ragged short spurts, as if seeing his son before him, he sighed. The light snow continued, snowflakes sticking to his beard. Aaron touched them, moisture forming in his eyes. Jacob, I’m sorry I had to leave, I did not want to watch you die. I will not make it home tonight. Forgive me, son. Be brave, for mama.   

Caught like a deer silhouetted under the night winter sky he came into their gun sights. There would be no escape. Shots rang out. Loud, they echoed, sending the sound and its message beyond to the boy who stood waiting for his papa tonight. Aaron fell to his knees, eyes fixed on the sky, as if in prayerful pose. Another shot, and he lay still, the crimson stain forming under his head.

~~~~

Standing at the window his eyes upon the snowflakes stubbornly affixed to the glass Jacob decided he no longer wanted them there. He wiped furiously at their image as if to make them disappear.  A “work of art, like no other,” his papa would say, “beautiful, unique, like you Jacob.” One remained, as if stuck there. And soon, it too was gone. It didn’t matter anymore.

Snowflakes forgotten, sounds assailed Jacob’s ears like none others he’d heard before.  Closer now, a burst of gunfire in quick succession, screams and shouts, doors kicked loose from their hinges, jackboots came running. Jacob clung tightly to his mama gripped in fear for what would come next. Brown uniformed soldiers stormed in, standing with machine guns raised, the “evil” papa had talked about.

Jacob shut his eyes, his face in deep consternation begging God to, “make the evil disappear.”

But today, the “evil” would be allowed to prevail, and the beautiful would not be allowed to live. In quick succession once more shots shattered the ghetto confines, the sounds of screams pierced the air. Soon, only an occasional sputter from an assailant’s lone gun could be heard. Then it too went silent. The snow stopped falling. An eerie quiet settled over the ghetto. The skies filled with smoke from unknown fires, and the sound of transport trucks was heard rumbling through the streets.

____________________

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

Garage Sales

I love Spring. It is my second favorite season of the year when I begin hearing the birds sing and chirp, and flitter from tree to tree, all so they can pick their place to nest, and gather all they need to make it feel like ‘home.’ But, we humans are a fickle lot, some of us cleaning out our nests of things we no longer want, or need, or maybe adding to it more things we want, or cannot do without.

The warm weather brings out the shopper in all of us. Marketing and selling opportunities are abundant with the many available second hand thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales popping up all over town. The offerings are as diverse, and as plentiful as the customers looking for (more) stuff.

I’m cruising down the street when I notice the neon colored signs with arrows pointing in every direction tacked to posts, pickets, or trees. I slow my speed, careful to not miss it, and soon see rows of parked cars along the curbs. Found it.  Wow! They must have some really good stuff to draw a crowd like that. The driveway is loaded with stuff, and people. Finding a small place to park is difficult, but I manage to squeeze into an opening that seems only big enough for a motorcycle.

Hitting the flea markets, garage sales or antique malls can certainly get the adrenaline going. What is it about ‘old stuff’ that some call, “junk,” but fanatical collectors might call, “artifacts from a historical era?” Depending on the seller advertising their wares it can be a creative or enterprising ploy to grab the attention of just the right customer wanting what is offered at a bargain price. Whatever way the stuff is advertised those “Collectors’ pieces,” “treasures of heirloom quality,” “antiques,” or “cast offs” from another person’s attic or basement can usually get the attention of a potential customer, like myself. That ‘thing’ stuffed in a box, laid out on a table or leaning up against a tree is the ‘thing’ that a shopper cannot refuse at a price too good to pass up.

Whatever one calls it, it lures the seeker, or the hunter in all of us. Women, especially love searching for the allusive “treasures” that another person does not want,  uses, or needs. It is interesting to observe people at garage sales when they find just what  they are looking for, or something they cannot resist.

Where else can one go to find a whole box full of useable canning jars with a new box of lids thrown in to the mix. All they need now is a bushel of tomatoes. “Wonderful! I needed more jars.”

Another woman who loves to sew and do quilting finds a pile of fabric scraps, buttons, and notions. “Look at the colors, and textures of fabric here. This will make a great quilt!”

An for the young collectors?  A little boy spots an assortment of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys tossed into a bin of whirring, whirling, spinning, pinging, dinging objects, and is as happy as a kid in a candy store.  “Mom, look what I found in that box over there. My favorite transformers. Their just fifty cents each. Wow!”

I’ve been on the lookout for some artsy, decorative pieces, lately. Oh, this is nice. A black marble vase. To hold a bouquet of silk blooms, maybe? But where will I put it? Wherever. There will be a place. Never mind what I told my husband about his flea market obsession, “If there is a place to put it, it should be kept in its place. If it, you don’t want to clean, then it I don’t want seen.” I’ll find a place somewhere, amidst my “collection” of other things.”

I find myself thinking, as I examine what I think is a good deal. Then I stand there for what seems like and hour quietly arguing with my sense of reasoning that I really don’t need this, but think I want it. It’s a bargain and too good to pass up. If I grow tired of it I will just sell it at my garage sale, or place it into a box for charity.

I walk around slowly surveying every table and box, taking out things, examining things, putting things back. Then I see more boxes on the edge of the driveway. Books of all kinds and genres. Hardback novels, paperbacks, recipe books, reference books. All kinds. A few classics thrown in. Got that one. Don’t want that one. And then I see it. What I have been looking for, forever. Feeling good about defending my reasons to stop and shop at another garage sale. A classic first edition copy of Dr. Zhivago, one of my favorites, in pristine condition.

I knew I needed to stop at this one. What a find! Now, what else am I needing, or looking for? Sound familiar? Yep. It is the season of the ‘garage sale syndrome.’ We all get it sometime or other. Like a virus or bug that does not shake off easily.

Posted April 13, 2012 by Joyce in Spring, Uncategorized, Writing

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THE ARTIST’S …

THE ARTIST’S HANDS

It is in awe, and wonder that

The artist with such hands now sat,

Perched upon a cliff at sea

Hearing a voice speak audibly.

“You’ve painted much there is to see,

With steady hands and skillful strokes,

You are ready now,

Paint Me.”

The artist cried,

“I can’t Oh, Lord, paint with brush,

Your face and eyes,

So tenderly,

For I haven’t seen

Your face before;

I have no picture

But history and lore.

“How can I paint

The face of God?

What can I do

But a sketch or more?”

God replied, “Look around,

At the world’s mankind;

Look for my image and you will find,

The face and eyes of the Son of God,

Then you will know

How to begin.

Now go my child

And paint Him.”

_______________

  Joyce E. Johnson © 2005

Posted April 10, 2012 by Joyce in Poems, Uncategorized

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Redeeming the L…

Redeeming the Lost

 By: Joyce E. Johnson

The wandering lone man sat down by the track.

He could not hide nor change the fact

While watching people board the train,

That he smelled no better than the sewer drain.

His body sick, and tired in its shell,

Aching from the cold grew accustomed to the smell.

He could once pick from hats, and socks

When he stayed at the shelter down by the boat docks.

  But another man forced him outside on the stairs

 When it became crowded. Now his socks had tears.

He still had the marks from when he was beaten.

He lost count of the number of days he’d last eaten.

He could remember when he was young

Recalling the words from his mother that stung,

“I can’t keep you. Fend for yourself.”

Then left in a hurry with no food on the shelf

She packed and ran off with some strange man

Leaving him alone, saying, “I’m going with Stan.”

The experience turned his heart to stone.

He had no other place to live or call home.

He raised his head as if hearing a sound.

He’d fallen asleep on the damp, hard ground.

 Blinking with wonder what appeared was a vision

Stood a figure beside him; not scorn or derision

Helping him up from the ground where he lay

 His touch comforting, not a word did he say.

The sound of singing and joyful noise heard

From a candle lit hallway soft music spurred

Him to follow the angel into the light

Of a church that welcomed him to dinner this night.

A splintered old cross was raised on one wall,

       Loincloth and crown of thorns lay propped in the hall.

While seated and served in the banquet room,

He heard about a Savior, and an empty tomb.

From out of the clutches of despair and strife,

   Walked a wandering, lone man into redemption and life.

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Musings of a Writer

WORDS:

They are like the sun

on a day with no light;

They are like the stars

to the dark of night

Posted April 10, 2012 by Joyce in Writing

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THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA

THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA

Omaha, Nebraska

Grandfather Jacob, his wine glass raised, as if standing for communion at his Lutheran church stood addressing the Mengelder family on Thanksgiving Day. Forty-eight of us crowded together at my grandparents’ home for the annual family reunion.

“Does this sound familiar?” Jeremy quipped, whispering to me.

“You think? Yes, just a little.” I said, whispering back. “But let him have his moment. It is important to him. He only wants to remind us of the virtues of family values, our beginnings and rich heritage, all of the above we have been taught growing up.” I said. We all bunched together, anxiously waiting for him to finish while he delivered his speech, “embracing family, country, and freedom” once again.

“When our family came here in 1889 they earned the right and privilege of American citizenship. They embraced a new world, a new country. They could vote, go to church, worship God openly, without fear. They could attain an education, exercise free speech, without persecution or imprisonment.  They could visit  friends and not worry about spying eyes, or listening ears. No opportunities were taken for granted.  They were patriots. Today, we are Americans in a free world that will one day seek to return to all once gained, that is now all but lost.”

Winding it up, he said, “At such times as we live in, there might be intervention by the evil one to take our most esteemed privileges from us and place in its stead the works of men with ruinous strife and hatred. But we will fight for our rights and with dignity we will stand before our flag and God, and declare our country, built with pride, perseverance, and respect for all. To God, our flag, our family, and our freedoms.”

At that point, grandfather took a sip from the wine glass in his right hand, while holding a little American flag in his left hand marking the occasion and the day of ‘thanks’ as we raised our glasses, the younger ones their soft drinks, and my uncles their beers, pronouncing a toast to, “freedom, democracy and liberty of one nation, and its people.”

“Hip, hip, hooray! To our flag, freedom, and the grand old U.S.A.”, shouted Chad  with a smart mouthed smirk, gulping down his Coke.

“Here, here! Let us pilgrims march forth into victory. And dinner.” declared John.

“Cheers to the red, white and blue. Cheers to me, and you.” Ben said, rhyming.

My cousins, even uncles enjoyed a good laugh, not meant to be at the expense of grandfather Jacob. It was just that he tended to be a bit overly dramatic, and long-winded when they stood waiting to load up their plates with mounds of homemade German dishes, roast turkey, strudel and pies.

When he was done and the prayer said we raced to our seats at crowded tables spilling out of the dining room, living room and kitchen. It was enough to freak out a fire marshal. Diving into dinner, attacking our food with gusto, we made a noisy bunch, laughing, joking, everyone talking at once in true Mengelder style.

Grandfather Jacob sat at the head of the dining room table in his chair looking every bit the dignified, suited patriarch of the family clan. His once thick silver-gray locks now ringed his pink crown like a soft white halo that glowed in the sunlight pouring through the dining room window. His wire rimmed glasses framing his dark brown eyes twinkled with merriment for the festive occasion. But, when the mood was somber one saw the eyes of a passionate, intense man who masked nothing. High cheekbones with creased wrinkles on ivory skin bore the years of time and age. He worked on the mounds of mashed potatoes, dressing, and corn custard beside a half eaten turkey leg, beaming his approval to the family cooks.  Another small plate with salad and rolls lay beside it disappearing just as fast. While eating he contributed to everyone else’s conversation, not missing a single moment to offer respectfully, his insight and thought on matters.

Grandmother Lisle sat beside him, eating daintily her smaller helpings of the same with the exception of a slice of white meat instead of a turkey leg. She and aunt Libby sat together, both discussing the ingredients in grandma’s Roasted Pecan Sweet Potato Pie sitting on the desert table, and the secret to a “flakier crust.”

Sitting beside my uncle Heinrich at the other end of the table I listened and nodded politely in agreement to all his ramblings about the “things wrong with our government, and all that needs to be fixed in Washington (DC).”

Except for looking a little tired and confessing to some indigestion after dinner grandfather Jacob seemed himself, enjoying the day and all the activity. Everyone else relaxed, watching football games on TV,  playing pool in the basement, or card games, eating pie with coffee. It was typical of all our past family gatherings, for a while.

The day was warm for late November. When grandfather walked outside for, “some fresh air” to watch my young cousins play kickball he claimed he needed, “a little exercise to work off the calories.” We joked about his shirt looking a “little tighter.”

“Can I join your game, for a while?” he asked the boys.

“Sure, grandpa.” Ben said, kicking the ball his direction.

Grandfather had a harder time keeping up with the ones he once bounced on his knees proclaiming them his “little patriots”. He jostled around, returning the ball a few times when suddenly he clutched his chest, collapsing to the ground.

Seeing it all from a kitchen window above the sink I raced through the back door, yelling at my father to come.

My aunt wasted no time calling an ambulance. We prayed he would be OK. But, he looked winded, his face red, perspiring as he struggled to breathe.

His words came slowly, his eyes turning to grandmother Lisle now sitting on the ground, as she lifted his head gently onto her lap.  “Tell them the truth. Make them…. proud….of… their heritage. My dear Lisle,… love. I will…see you, one day. Tell… Monica….”

Grandmother Lisle shook her head.“No, Jacob! You cannot leave me. There is no time for you to be sick.” she said, her voice breaking. She sobbed, imploring our help, praying for mercy.

My uncle and cousin tried CPR, not waiting for the paramedics to arrive. It was no use. A final breath, and he lay quiet. A white cloud moved across the midday sun as his eyes stared upward. A strange calm came over me as I looked down at his still form, realizing we had just lost him. In my mind I had an image of grandfather Jacob soaring through clouds, into the heavens, enlightening all the angels carrying him. And God smiling, while he “went on, and on,” his speech to all who would listen.

When the paramedics arrived their attempt to revive him was futile.  He was rushed to ER, but was pronounced dead from a “massive coronary,” turning our day of “thanks” into one of mourning.

A week later bouquets of flowers draped his coffin, as his Lutheran minister delivered the eulogy. The family gathered again in Omaha, Nebraska for his funeral, wept and mourned, then went home returning once again to busy lives, their jobs, all except me. It was grandfather Jacob’s wish to make me the “keeper” of our records, archive our history, and “preserve it for the coming generations.”

“Moni, – he always called me that – do not memorialize me when I am gone.  Learn the truth of our family’s history.  My grave will be but a stone to the quarry you will come to find. Learn our heritage. Write our story that it may be remembered. The patriotism to our country will live on in the hearts of the descendants that carry the banner of our beliefs. Those who value the words honored in our constitution will uphold the principles our nation’s founders swore to live by,” he wrote in his letter to me, saved and kept with his old German Bible, passport, photos and naturalization papers.

Known jokingly as the ‘reporter’ in the family I did not disappoint them, receiving my BA degree in journalism from UN, Lincoln, Nebraska. My father once told me, “Monica, develop your rapport with people instead of the report on them. Be sensitive to those whose lives and stories are subjected to someone else’s disclosure.”

As the creator of the literary press research paper, THE QUILL AND QUEST while in college I developed a web site and blog, enhancing it with new features.  By updating our site daily our readers could read articles, post and blog on political issues at home and abroad. Our newest feature; genealogy and archival research on diverse ethnic groups became a special project promoting interest, inquiries and questions from people wanting to research their ‘family tree,’ many of them becoming regular contributors or bloggers. Its success drew the interest of other professors and students majoring in history and genealogy studies in other schools. German, Russian and East European Jewish ethnic history became the most popular of our research project. And my obsession.

After earning my Master’s degree in history and genealogy studies I began assessing what I had on my own family history. Grandmother Lisle and I went through old documents, files and photos during our coffee talks, always with a plate of her “fresh from the oven,” Oatmeal Raisin cookies, my favorite.

Carefully turning pages of grandfather Jacob’s German Bible, I read the scrawled names, birth and death dates on family record pages, personal notes, mementos and bookmarks stuffed inside, even favorite scriptures underlined and noted.

The worn, antiquated passport of my great-grandfather with pages as fine as tissue spilled loosely into my hands, well over a hundred years old now. Names and dates of family members’ immigration were scribbled on lines in Old Russian Cyrillic script.

Then she brought out another box. A kind of reverence settled over it like the dust collected as she explained their historical significance and importance to the family. With awe I watched as she pulled things out, and it was then I learned a secret kept, like a hidden piece to a puzzle needed to complete the picture. And I realized the reason for grandfather Jacob’s fanatical patriotism.

Months later grandmother Lisle became weak and frail after suffering the flu the previous winter. Unable to regain her strength and recover she died peacefully in her sleep. Our family once again came together to mourn their loss. Like grandfather Jacob she believed anyone could be, “an American forging paths with a spirit of adventure and greatness,” like the first patriots and immigrants who came to shore pioneering the way.

We buried her a week later, laying her to rest beside grandfather Jacob. Their adjoining grave site now held another fresh bouquet of yellow daffodils, her favorite. It was Memorial Day.

While applying for a current passport and visa papers to travel abroad I received a call from the U.S. Genealogy Department of History and Research in Washington, D.C. wanting to interview me for a job. Three weeks later I was hired. Another four months of training and I was sent on assignment to Europe with a team of archivists. Then into Russia.

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A Family History

… there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down,

it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots

may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil,

 Yet at the scent of water, it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant.

Job 14: 7-9 (NIV)

Family photos of my paternal grandfather’s family and his German Bible

 

            I started researching our genealogy in 1983, one year after my father’s death. After he passed away, I had a strong desire to know about our heritage, our family history, and the countries of Germany and Russia, where they came from. My father often talked about Russia and how his father and family “came over” from Odessa, Russia. I was always mystified by that country, its history, past, culture, and people. He told about there being no freedom to worship in a church, read a Bible, or pray aloud. To do so meant arrest, imprisonment, being exiled to Siberia and labor camps. Little did I know until later with my research that all of that, and worse things, actually did happen in Russia. I learned that thousands of Germans in Russia went to their death, or to labor camps. What was their crime? They wanted to congregate with other believers, attend a worship service, construct a church, or keep alive their German roots, their culture.

            In the mid and late 1700 ‘s the Germans were invited to immigrate to Russia and settle on the steppes of South Russia in territories now belonging to Ukraine and Moldova. Catherine the Great, a German princess, and Czarina of Russia promised them their freedom to live as they had in Germany. They trusted her manifesto, declaring such promises, and protection. But, she did not keep her word. The Germans did not want to follow a Marxist,  or Bolshevik regime, or serve in the Red Army, under the ruthless, murderous dictator, Joseph Stalin. They did not believe in the Socialists’ ideology, or want to conform to Communism. German Jews who were part of this group were coerced into converting to the Russian Orthodox religion. Hundreds more chose to convert to the Lutheran faith before or after their immigration into Russia, like the Mannhalter family. Pogroms and persecution followed, directed at the Germans and Jews. They were rounded up and placed in cattle cars, taken away to labor camps, or put in prison cells, many of them tortured, many dying while incarcerated.  Hundreds more died from the famines in the 1930 ‘s.      When the Berlin Wall was built it was not only to confine the East Germans, but all the ethnic Russians, Jews, and everyone within the communist countries of Eastern Europe. When the revolution rose up against the Communist regime in 1991, and a democratic government was formed it freed everyone of restrictions. It allowed them to travel where they wanted to go, live the way they wanted, worship God, or practice their religion. The Germans in Russia left en masse, pouring into the unified Germany, the United States, and other countries. Many of the Jews immigrated to Israel.          

            My father’s interest in his family’s background inspired me, and a strong desire to begin the quest for our ‘story’ began. It inspired me on to learn all I could about their past. It has been thirty years of research, an emotional journey.

            When I took a trip to the former Soviet Union in 1989, it marked the 100th year of my great grandfather, Adam’s (and his family) immigration in 1889.                   

            I took along my father’s Living Bible given to me when he died. I declared it on my declaration document as I entered the Soviet Union. I read it in my hotel room the first day of the tour, as I prayed for protection, that God would make His presence known to me while traveling in this Communist country. He did. In a way my father too, took the journey with me, in spirit at least. When I returned home, a small American flag hung above our front door to welcome me back home after the ten-day trip. My husband, Wayne had put it there.

            In 1998, Wayne and I went to New York, the New England states, and Washington, D.C. for a vacation. We were able to spend a day in New York City touring the historic Ellis Island (now a museum), the Statue of Liberty and Battery Park (the former Castle Gardens).

            It was at Castle Gardens where our family disembarked and proceeded through the lines of immigration. On the day that we went there, I sat on the ferryboat staring up in awe at the beautiful Statue of Liberty. I was overcome with emotion, wiping the tears from my face. The statue had been set in place just a few years before great grandfather, Adam and his family disembarked from their passage ship. They must have seen it too. Did they maybe also wipe tears from wide-eyed faces? It was crowded the day we were there. There were long lines of tourists waiting to get inside. We were unable to get in to see the rest of the monument. We could only walk the grounds outside it due to the late hour. We had spent considerable time at Ellis Island and Battery Park the same day. We had to use the ferryboats to cross to each site.

            When we walked around Battery Park, the very place of their immigration processing, a park ranger gave us a personal tour. I told him about my family genealogy research. He took us to the place where the early immigrants came ashore to go through immigration processing, just as thousands of others did a few years later at Ellis Island when it opened in 1892. Then they closed Castle Gardens.

            Ironically, there remains buried underneath Battery Park an old landfill that was covered, filled in and beautifully landscaped with a memorial to honor the immigrants. Trees, grass, flowers, and plants are everywhere, thriving and maintained. What a beautiful way to honor that spot by planting the trees, flowers, and plants. I thought about that as a wonderful illustration of our family’s historic past. Our ancestors who went before us were like a tree, transplanted upon American soil, watered, nurtured, and cared for by those honoring them, wanting to keep alive their legacy. They came ashore, walking from the portals of their past through the gates into their future, into freedom. They came with hope and purpose, and believed it would be easier for those coming after them. It is my hope that my children and grandchildren will walk through the portals of their ancestors’ past with this book to get a glimpse of the life our ancestors left, to come to a blessed land, America.

 

Joyce E. Johnson

© 2012

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