ORGANIZING THE PAST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I just spent three weeks with my 34-year-old daughter, Sarah.

She lives 3000 miles away, in LA, so this was a rare treat. We have so many interests and views in common, we never run out of things to talk about, even when we spend 24 hours a day together for three weeks!

Sarah

Beyond great conversation, visiting with friends and family and watching TV and movies together, Sarah provided an invaluable service. She is a world-class organizer and loves going through the boxes and boxes of photos and memorabilia in the attic.

She organized our family photos going back to my grandparents from the early 1900s. Everything is now in plastic containers, organized by category, dates, properly labeled. We had a serious mouse problem so the plastic boxes with lids are life savers.

Organized boxes in my attic

We found wonderful treasures buried in the attic boxes.

We found the hospital bracelet I wore when I gave birth to my son in 1980. We found a large photo negative of the Surgical Army Hospital my ex-husband ran in Vietnam in 1970-1971.

Letters I wrote to my Mom from my first trip to Europe with friends in 1965 were a hoot to read. We also found a sterling silver cup with my name engraved on it – a gift to my mom in honor of my birth in 1949.

The oldest find was a series of love letters to my grandfather dated 1914. They were from someone who was clearly in love with him and equally clear was the fact that her feelings were not reciprocated.

Letter to my grandfather dated 1914

I was blown away by a particular set of writings from my early life. I had saved my teachers’ comments and evaluations (given in lieu of grades) from third grade through sixth grade. Most interesting was the fact that my basic personality has not changed much since then. I apparently had only a few close friends then, as now. I was considered a leader in small groups but faded into the background in large groups. Like now.

I was curious, inquisitive, creative and intelligent but lacked confidence. I seemed to have constantly sought the approval of adults. I’m better today but still lack confidence and undervalue my talents and accomplishments.

My senior thesis in college

The second category of writings we found, were papers I had written from grade school through college. I was thrilled that Sarah actually read some of these – my early evolution as a writer. She was impressed by my organization, persuasiveness, and writing style. I was impressed too. I was very sophisticated for my age, in writing and thinking.

Our exploration of our family history was gratifying. I’m very happy my daughter will keep our family treasures and pass on our stories. In fact, Sarah encouraged me to write about the many family stories from my grandparents down to my kids. I spent about a year writing and posting autobiographical blogs for Serendipity. I have over 330 pages of these blogs.

Sarah and my dogs

Sarah helped me put them in roughly chronological order, copy them, and put them into large three-ring binders. We added tabs to indicate stories from different people and periods of time.

For example, my life is divided into my early years, living with my first husband before kids, my kids’ childhoods, and life with my second husband.

My Family History with Tabs

I gave a copy of the Family History in Blogs to both my children, so we all have a collection of the most interesting stories about everyone in the family. I feel great that I’ve preserved in writing what the photo albums preserve in pictures. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments.

Binder I had customized for my Family History

And you, Serendipity readers, came along with me for this amazing ride. You gave me the motivation to write all these stories and sharing them with you has been fantastic.

Thank you for reading them and commenting on them. My children thank you too!

HOLOCAUST STORIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was born in New York City in 1949, just a few years after the end of WWII. My parents and grandparents, all Jewish, lived through WWII hearing horror stories about Jewish persecution and the concentration camps. They genuinely feared that if Germany won the war, a distinct possibility for much of the war, the ‘final solution’ for the Jews would spread all around the Nazi-controlled world. It was a scary time for everyone, but particularly for Jews, even in America.

My grandmother’s sister, Rachel had stayed in Russia, with one other sister, while her siblings and eventually her parents emigrated to the United States. They lived close to the western border, so when Hitler broke his pact with Russia and invaded, their town was one of the first to be taken. This was before the Russian army had even begun to mobilize. The Jews in their town were rounded up and put in the synagogue. The building was set on fire and anyone who tried to escape was shot.

Rachel’s oldest son was in school in Moscow at the time his family was murdered. After the war, organizations were formed all over the world to help Jews locate relatives and friends who were missing after the war. My grandmother spent years searching for her nephew, but no trace of him was ever found.

My grandmother as a young child (between her parents) with her siblings

My mother and grandmother were obsessed with the Holocaust when I was growing up. They read everything they could find on the persecution of Jews, and particularly about the concentration camps. I was given graphic books about the camps at around nine or ten years of age. Way too young, in my opinion.

But I also learned about the camps in another, more personal way. Two Czechoslovakian, identical twin sisters named Irina and Elena were good friends of my parents. They told us lots of stories about their time in concentration and work camps, including Auschwitz.

They were sixteen years old when they and their parents were put in overcrowded cattle cars, squashed together with other terrified Jews, and shipped to Auschwitz. They had no food, water or bathrooms for several days. People were crying and screaming. People got sick and died. The smells were unbearable. They arrived at the camp in horrible shape, physically as well as emotionally.

There was a line of Jews being processed into the camp. Dr. Joseph Mengele was at the front of the line with a whip which he used to indicate if a person should go to the left into the camp, or to the right, directly into the gas chambers.

He also picked people out of the line to be subjected to his horrible, sadistic ‘medical’ experiments – all done without anesthesia.

Dr. Josef Mengele, also called “The Angel of Death”

Irina and Elena tell how their lives were saved by a camp guard. The guard recognized that the girls were twins. He also knew that Dr. Mengele loved to do experiments on twins. This guard’s wife was also a twin so he took pity on the girls. He whispered to them that they should say that they were a year apart in age. Bewildered, the girls did as they were told and were sent to the camp, saving their lives. They also threw away their eyeglasses so they would be judged healthy and ready to work, thus avoiding the gas chamber.

I don’t remember all their stories about the camps. I remember that they were separated from their parents and didn’t know if they were even still alive till the end of the war. I also remember that a good friend of theirs, also a teenager, got sick. They tried to nurse her back to health. They even gave her part of their meager rations of food. But she died anyway and they were crushed.

They told us that they tried very hard to preserve some of their Jewish traditions – a reminder of life outside the camps. They feel this helped preserve their sanity and gave them the strength to survive. They and a few other friends would save up pieces of their daily bread so they could sneak off and have secret Shabbat ‘dinners’ and celebrate Passover at a makeshift Seder. They managed to find something to use as a tablecloth and maybe a candle, to make these celebrations as real as possible.

They were liberated by the Americans and the British at the end of the war. Miraculously, their parents survived (they had also been separated in the camp) and they were reunited. They were emaciated and weak and their heads had all been shaven. They went back to Czechoslovakia and began to recuperate and start a new life. Their hair began to grow back, which was a huge deal for the still young twins.

Tragically, Elena’s new life was cut short in 1948. She was arrested for being a communist, turned in by a ‘friend’. The Czech authorities shaved her head again and threw her into prison for another year. She had emotionally survived the camps but this was too much for her to handle. She had a complete mental breakdown in prison. She was mentally very fragile for the rest of her life. She went up and down emotionally and had many periods of serious meltdowns and crises. Her sister was at her side through all her problem periods, even when they lived in different parts of the world. They remained close the rest of their lives.

I made sure that my children understood the Holocaust, but in an age-appropriate way. When my daughter, Sarah, was around seven, we were in Germany and we visited the Dachau Concentration Camp, which is now a museum to the Holocaust. We answered any questions she had but didn’t push too much information on her. She came across a photo that got to her on a visceral level. It showed a child being torn away from its mother and the mother and child were frantically reaching for each other. Sarah was horrified when she realized that children were being separated from their parents. That’s what she could relate to at her age and it made an indelible impression on her.

Dachau Concentration Camp as a museum today

Both my children are adults now and know a lot about the Holocaust and World War II. Hopefully, they will make sure that their children never forget.

Hopefully, no one will forget.

SERVICE DOGS FOR VETS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve always been fascinated by service dogs. I can barely get my dogs to sit, stay and come on command. So the idea that dogs can be trained to do complex tasks for the disabled seems like a miracle to me.

The Guide Dog Foundation For The Blind expanded in 2003 to include America’s VetDogs. This organization gives assistance to wounded veterans to help them return to a normal life. America’s VetDogs still shares staff and resources with the Guide Dog Foundation.

VetDogs provides service dogs to veterans who have a wide variety of disabilities and issues which prevent them from getting around independently. Service dogs help those with physical limitations, those who are blind or have low vision, those who are deaf and those who have PTSD.

Veterans who are paired with dogs go to the VetDogs ten-acre campus in Smithtown, New York, for a two-week, residential training program. The student and his or her dog bond and learn to work together as a team. The classes are small and there are lots of individual attention and instruction.

VetDogs has a wonderful Prison Puppy Program that allows prison inmates to train potential service dogs from early puppyhood. The prisoners also get invaluable benefits. I used to watch a TV series about prisoners training puppies and it was a joy to watch.

The inmates developed a sense of responsibility toward the dogs and a sense of accomplishment at their dogs’ progress. Puppies also create a calmer climate in correctional facilities and bring some normalcy to the prison environment.

Puppies get sent to the prisons at eight to nine weeks old. They live in the handler’s cell where the inmate works on house breaking and other basic skills. The dogs attend classes with their handlers, participate in recreational activities and even go to meals with their handlers. An American VetDogs instructor comes once a week to provide training instructions and monitor progress.

The inmates learn about canine socialization, puppy development, behavior theories, grooming, and canine first aid.

Prison handlers do more than teach basic obedience skills. They also train the dogs for service dog tasks, like retrieving dropped items, opening doors and refrigerators and providing support and balance on stairs. The prisoners also acclimate their dogs to objects in the outside world, like umbrellas, skateboards, and battery operated toys.

But a prison environment is limited. So the puppies go to the home of an outside family on weekends, often prison staff members. Here they learn house manners and they become familiar with cars and traffic noise. Dogs are taken to stores, restaurants, and hospitals so they can confidently go wherever their future veteran partner will take them.

When the puppies reach adulthood, the dogs go back to VetDogs for assessment, final training, and client matching. Statistics show that prison-raised dogs go through these final phases in half the time as home-raised dogs.

One dog trained in the prison program has become an overnight celebrity. His name is Sully and when he was two, in June of 2018, he was matched with former President George H.W. Bush.

Sully with Bush and Clinton

Bush, Sr. was always a dog lover and he welcomed Sully enthusiastically into his home and his heart. Sully helped Bush, who was in a wheelchair, pick up dropped items, open and close doors, push an emergency button and support him when the 94-year-old former president stood.

Sully developed a following on social media. His own Instagram account had more than 98,000 followers. Since George H.W. Bush’s death, Sully has become even more popular. A photo of Sully forlornly lying in front of Bush’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda went viral. Sully seemed heartbroken, but also seemed to still be keeping watch over his partner. His devotion exploded the internet.

Sully’s service to President Bush is over, but his career as a service dog is not. America’s VetDogs will send Sully to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. There he will assist with physical and occupational therapy for wounded soldiers. The Bush family found comfort in knowing that Sully would continue to help veterans for many years to come.

The relationship between President Bush and Sully has shined a spotlight on the amazing things that service dogs can do for people with physical and emotional limitations. Maybe Sully’s fifteen minutes of fame will result in more money being donated to training more dogs for civilians as well as for veterans.

It costs over $50,000 to breed, raise, train and place one assistance dog. And dogs are provided to veterans free of charge. America’s VetDogs is a non-profit organization so funding comes exclusively from donations.

So please donate to America’s VetDogs by going to their website. It’s a wonderful cause.

POSTPARTUM DOULAS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I wrote a blog a while back in which I argued that we need to require parenting classes for everyone. They should be at least as prevalent as Driver’s Ed classes.

I had my first child at 30, in 1980. I was a cultured New Yorker with a post-graduate education. But I knew nothing about babies. I held a baby for the first time when I was six months pregnant. Unfortunately, my baby was born seriously premature, with a non-functioning lung. He was in the Preemie unit of the hospital for six weeks. During that time, I pumped my breasts so I could nurse him. He came home from the hospital at just under five pounds.

Premie in an incubator

During those six weeks in the hospital, I got to pick the brains of the well-trained and highly knowledgeable neonatal nurses. I learned a tremendous amount and came home armed with enough information and confidence to weather the first few months at home with David. In effect, I had the help and support of several Doulas. They helped me learn how to handle a tiny, underweight baby, nurse him, change him, treat diaper rash, etc.

In my day, most first time mothers had to rely on relatives, friends, or other new mothers they had met in Mommy and Me classes to figure out how to handle all the issues that arise with a new baby. This can often result in contradictory or inaccurate advice, creating confusion and doubt rather than confidence. But today, new mothers with financial resources, don’t have to go it alone anymore.

New grandma with new Mom

Enter the Postpartum Doula. Birth Doulas have been around for a long time. They are trained women who support, educate and advise pregnant women through their pregnancies and childbirth. Medicaid even covers birth Doulas in a few states in the U.S. It is generally accepted that these Doulas improve health outcomes. They lower the incidence of a cesarean as well as the surprisingly high incidence of maternal deaths in childbirth. This rate is especially high among black and brown women.

Birth Doula helping a woman in labor

Postpartum Doulas are a newer phenomenon that has caught on in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Other countries provide Birth and Postpartum Doulas as part of their national healthcare programs. Postpartum Doulas are like a Mary Poppins for new mothers and infants. They are the friend, sister, teacher, and advocate. They teach new mothers all kinds of tricks about soothing a crying baby, nursing, bathing, swaddling, etc.

They calm the mother’s fears and help them deal with the anxieties of the new dads. They also help mediate with eager to help grandparents and other family members and friends who want to give unsolicited advice. They advocate for their clients to doctors and nurses. Overall, they make the new mother feel supported, confident, and in control. That prepares the new mom to deal with whatever may come up in the future after the Doula leaves the scene.

My friend’s daughter just had a baby in England and she received free weekly visits from her Postpartum Doula, as well as unlimited phone calls. When there was a nursing crisis, the Doula made a house call, again free of charge. These more evolved countries understand the importance of the postpartum period in the emotional and physical well-being of both mother and baby.

Postpartum Doula helping with breastfeeding

Postpartum Doulas are becoming more prevalent in the U.S. but they are largely unsubsidized and very expensive. The majority of women who use Postpartum Doulas are upper-middle-class women who can afford $50-$70 an hour over a period of at least six weeks.

There are some low-cost Postpartum Doula collectives in the States for women who couldn’t otherwise afford a Doula. Poorer women are often the group that most needs the help of a Doula. Apparently, poor women of color can be afraid to ask for help with their babies. The fear is that a black woman might lose her baby if she admits that she is overwhelmed or exhausted. This is so sad!

Every woman should be able to have access to informative and supportive professional caregivers in the first few months of their child’s life. Mothers and grandmothers can be helpful, but there is always baggage, judgment, and a need to push a particular childcare practice. These people also often focus completely on the baby and forget about the needs of the exhausted and nervous new mom.

Reasons to have a Postpartum Doula

So the neutral, non-judgmental Doula is often a valued addition to the new baby’s family life. Especially since the Doula is also trained to soothe and relax the mother as well as the baby. So let’s hope that we start to catch up with Europe on this important issue, and make Postpartum Doulas affordable and accessible to everyone who wants one.

THE GLORIOUS OLD-FASHIONED MUSICAL by ELLIN CURLEY

I normally wouldn’t write a blog about a Broadway show since most blog readers would not have the opportunity to ever see the show themselves. However, I recently saw “She Loves Me”, a delightful and thoroughly enjoyable musical that most of you will be able to see because the show is being filmed, live. It will be streamed starting on June 30. So you too can revel in this charming piece, with the added benefits of close-ups, which I didn’t get in my viewing from the nosebleed seats high in the Mezzanine.

“She Loves Me” was nominated for a Tony Award for best revival of a musical. It also got glowing reviews, all well deserved. It was often referred to as “old-fashioned” and “a jewel of a musical”. Those phrases aptly describe it’s character and ambiance.

It is definitely an old-style romance set in a Parfumerie in 1934 Budapest. The story is based on the book that also provided the plots for two movies, “The Shop Around The Corner” and “You’ve Got Mail”. The latter is the more modern, computer age version. In all three, the main characters work together and don’t get along. However, unbeknownst to them, they are falling in love as anonymous “pen pals” through a lonely hearts club (an online dating service in “You’ve Got Mail”).

Ice Cream Scene

In the show, there are seven main characters who work in the Parfumerie. Each has his own plot line and solo number. The delivery boy who dreams of being a sales clerk; the brown-nosing employee who will do anything to keep his job; the young woman who is “used” by the womanizing co-worker she is having an affair with. You get to know and like all these people as well as the verbally sparring leads.

split dance

The dialogue is well written and quite funny. The sets are sophisticated and beautiful, as are the costumes. The lead actors are perfect. The music is melodic and the lyrics artfully develop character and move the plot along. The staging and choreography are brilliant, intricate and fast-paced. The full cast, including eleven subsidiary characters, work together like a well-oiled machine.

The show creates a sense of intimacy that you don’t get often anymore in the musical theater. I prefer like this kind of “small,” character-driven show. It’s the thing theater can do better than movies or TV. Seeing this kind of show gives you an experience you won’t readily get from any other entertainment medium.

final kiss

You can see a video montage from the show at http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/She-Loves-Me.aspx. Scroll down to Videos / Montage

But I urge you to sit back and enjoy 2 ¼ hours of pure entertainment and simple joy. You’ll be smiling and tapping your foot through most of it.

Here’s how you can watch it:

“She Loves Me” will be streamed by a new company called Broadway HD. Their goal is to stream as many theater performances as possible so theater will reach a wider audience. The show will be filmed using nine or ten cameras, so I expect the watching experience will be somewhere between live theater, and movies or TV. It will cost $9.99 to watch it on the Broadway HD website. It will also be available via Roku and Apple TV ( I don’t know about costs on those).

ENJOY!

SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Ellin is away all day, but will answer comments when she gets back this evening! It’s that time of year 😀


Most people wax poetic when they talk about their idyllic summers at sleep-away camp when they were kids. Tennis, volleyball, waterskiing and other fun sports. Campfires, nature walks, bunk hijinks, and lasting friendships.

I had none of those wonderful experiences. I went to sleep-away camp one summer when I was thirteen.

I refused to ever go back again. I was miserable.

Me at around thirteen

My horrible experience was basically due to three factors. The first problem was my parents’ choice of camp. They sent me to a progressive, Montessori style arts camp called Bucks Rock Work Camp. The selling point for the camp was that there were lots of artistic opportunities but there was no schedule or requirements for the campers. Each child had to choose their own activities each day.

While this format is great for self-motivated kids with intense interests and actual talents, it was a disaster for me. I had no overpowering interest except for theater. And that was an organized activity that did have a specific schedule. So most days I wandered around. I tried jewelry making, art, and pottery. I took fencing classes and a few guitar lessons. But I was pretty aimless most of the time.

The second problem I had was my bunkmates. There were four of us in two sets of bunk beds. One of the other girls spent every night sneaking out the window to meet boys. The other two were best friends and overtly excluded me. It was very uncomfortable and demoralizing. I had other friends but this cast a pall over my camp life.

The third problem was the way the camp handled the casting of the big theatrical production of the summer. This was what I was looking forward to. This was the all-consuming activity I was waiting for.

The play was “Peer Gynt”. I auditioned along with hordes of other campers. And the lead females role narrowed down to two girls, me and someone else. I didn’t get the role. This would have been fine if they had done the reasonable thing and given me a subsidiary role. I was good enough to be the lead, so you’d think they could find some other part for me. But no. I got nothing. Not even a place in the chorus. This was a horrible thing to do to any camper. Anyone who was interested and had any skills whatsoever should have been allowed to participate.

Theater production in outdoor theater

But I was shut out completely. And I was devastated. A part in the play would have given me focus and purpose for the rest of the summer. Instead, I joined a small theater class. I did end up with a lead role in a scene we did from the “Madwoman of Chaillot”. (Great play choice for teenagers!) The problem here was that the counselor was the brother of a girl I grew up with. I had known him my whole life and we hated each other. We did not get along at all. So this turned out to be another unpleasant experience.

The whole situation stressed me out so much, I could not memorize my lines. They were actually quite hard to remember because they were the nonsensical, non-sequiturs of an insane woman. At the performance, I skipped a page and a half of dialogue.

The audience didn’t notice. In fact, I got a compliment I’ve never forgotten. An adult from the audience told me that they had been to a professional production of the play and that my performance was as good as the professional actress they had seen!

another photo of me at around thirteen

I called home once a week and cried hysterically every time. My parents offered to take me home but I refused. I decided to stick it out. I didn’t want to admit to or give in to failure.

Looking back, I now know that I had an anxiety/depressive disorder my whole life and I was probably spiraling into a pretty bad depression that summer. Going home might have been better for me, therapeutically.

But I proved to myself that I was strong and could survive a lot. So while I had an awful summer, I learned that I’m a survivor. That lesson has gotten me through a lot in life and I’m grateful I learned it so young.

SOAP MAKING 101 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My future daughter-in-law, Katie, has started a fun new hobby. Soap making. She’s always been artistic and soap making is another creative outlet for her. Soap making is creative aromatically as well as visually, so it provides multiple levels of artistry.

Katie in her kitchen getting ready to make soap

Katie makes beautiful soaps, whimsical soaps and some simple soaps that smell heavenly. She can play with design and smells to make an infinite variety of shapes, patterns and odors.

Katie is very industrious and motivated and she is trying to turn her hobby into a small business. She got herself on Etsy, the major craft site online. She has also done some craft shows and designed and printed business cards.

Her business is called The Phoenix Rising Shop because the symbolism of the phoenix rising from the ashes has tremendous meaning for her.

Another one of Katie’s charming designs

She also came up with a clever marketing idea – the soap making party. She offers to come to your house and make batches of soap in your kitchen with you and you and up to twelve friends. It becomes a social gathering with a theme.

Katie did a test party at her home and it was great! Everyone had lots of fun and learned a lot.

To make soap, there is a very specific recipe that involves the mixing of different oils together at the right temperature. Everything has to be precisely measured out, mixed through and temperature tested. A lye mixture is added to the oils.

This is a recipe where the order in which you add ingredients is as important as what you add. At one point, the mixture thickens as you mix it. Very cool to watch.

Testing the temperature with an infrared thermometer

Adding scent and color is the fun part. There are a huge variety of scents,  from watermelon, cherry, lime, vanilla, ocean breeze, and pine. You can also mix a variety of scents to create your own, such as watermelon cherry, or white tea and ginger.

The quantity of scent you put in is also important. Too much and it is cloying. Too little and you can’t smell anything.

Party guests testing scents

There’s a whole artist’s palette of colors. How you add the colors can determine the design or pattern on the soap. You can also use a knife to swirl colors together to form different designs.

We did a simple pattern layering ribbons of different colors into the soap mold. We also chose the basic rectangular mold that makes bars of soap as opposed to fancier molds in any shape you could imagine – flowers, seashells, geometric shapes, whatever.

The soap has to set 24 hours in the mold before it can be cut into bars. Then it has to cure for four weeks before it can be used. So Katie has set up shelves in the basement to hold the finished soaps and the ones waiting for their due date.

Check out The Phoenix Rising Shop on Etsy to see the wide range of soaps Katie has created. Soaps are a wonderful Xmas gift! And she ships anywhere!

Discarded and oddly shaped chunks of soaps