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!

CHANGING THE PAST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

This blog was the first blog I wrote and published on Serendipity in November of 2015. I have written a large number of blogs since then, many of them recounting personal stories from my own life as well as the lives of my family members.

Rereading it in January of 2018, I realize that it is a fitting epilogue to the Family History in Blogs that I have set out to write. It brings my story full circle. It expresses where I am after having spent so much time delving into my own life and the lives of other loved ones.


Folder for my Family History In Blogs

Here is the editorial conclusion to my opus of family lore and expression of family love:

 I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time travel. I’m particularly fond of the fantasy of going back in time, knowing what you know now, and changing some pivotal moment in your past. I used to wish fervently for this fantasy to become a reality so I could undo some of my Top 10 “mistakes” and bad judgment calls. Many of those involved my first husband – like deciding to marry him and deciding, multiple times, to stay with him rather than leave.

Time machine, from “The Time Machine”

I’m a logical person, so the problem with this fantasy is that I have to be willing to accept all the drastic changes in my time line that would naturally flow from my new and improved choices.

The major change that comes to mind, if I didn’t marry my ex at all, is that I would no longer have my children. I can’t imagine life without them, so, scratch that option. If I had left him after I’d had my kids, my life still would have changed so dramatically the odds of my meeting my current husband are essentially nil.

I’m not prepared to give him up. He’s the best piece of luck I’ve ever had and the best decision I’ve ever made.

Family portrait from 1993

This means that I have reached a point in my life that I never thought I’d get to. I’m at peace with my whole life, knowing that all the crap I went through led me to where I am now. It also made me into who I am now.

My husband and I often discuss the fact that without the angst in both of our pasts we might not have appreciated each other when we did meet. And we’re pretty sure that we would not have gotten along well if we had, somehow, met when we were both young.

Tom and me last year

The result of all this philosophizing is that I don’t wish my past away anymore. I wish it had been easier and had left fewer scars, but I’m totally content with where I am now. So if I had to pay a high price to get to this place, so be it. It was worth it.

AMEN!

AHEAD OF HIS TIMES – ELLIN CURLEY

Most of us believe that our current beliefs have been our beliefs forever. Of course we know that germs cause disease and that the earth is round. But people didn’t always know these concepts as “facts”. We once thought the earth was flat and had no idea what caused disease. Someone had to propose these “new” and “revolutionary ideas. And someone just as assuredly had to argue against them and give the proponent of the new ideas a hard time.

Father-4-Edited

My father was a brilliant, innovative thinker in the fields of psychiatry and the social sciences. All he got initially was a lot of grief and aggravation. Even today, only a few academics have heard of him.

His name was Abram Kardiner. He had a long and varied career in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and psychiatry from the 1920’s to his death in 1981. He deserves at least part of the credit for three major contributions: the idea of interdisciplinary studies, the concept of early, “pre-school” education, and acceptance and understanding of PTSD.

Father-2-edited

Everyone knows that interdepartmental studies are the best way to thoroughly understand at least history and cultures. Didn’t we always apply the tools of sociology, economics, political history, art history and other cultural history to the study of history? The answer is no. In fact, the concept was anathema until the 1960’s.

When I went to Barnard College in 1967 (the sister school to Columbia University), I was one of the first classes to be able to take an interdisciplinary major. At the time, I was old enough to understand that my father’s struggles at Columbia University in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s had cleared the path for me to be an American Studies major in the 60’s.

My father studied with Sigmund Freud in 1921 and came back to New York to help establish psychoanalysis as an accepted and respected “new” field of science. But he was also interested in sociology and thought that using psychiatry to better understand the individuals in a society would help understand the society as a whole. So he decided to study more primitive cultures (anthropology) to further establish the interrelationships between the individual (psychiatry) and the society (sociology).

Father-3A-edted

Unfortunately at the time, each academic field was considered a totally separate entity. No one was allowed to stray into another academic’s carefully guarded territory.

For more than 30 years, my father was bounced back and forth between the psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology departments. No one wanted to claim him. He was “tainted” with methodology and ideas from a different discipline. This sounds ridiculous today. But even now, the only department at Columbia that recognizes his accomplishments is the Department of Psychiatry, the department he helped found.

When I had my first child, I enrolled him in play groups and I planned to send him to preschool when he turned three. My father, once again, had been on the front-lines years before, espousing the importance of the first three years of life. He believed that early childhood intellectual and social stimulation was necessary to foster a child’s ability to learn and to adjust socially throughout it’s life. His writings became the basis for Head Start, President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s program which provided pre-kindergarten for all kids. Dad also focused attention on the optimal environments for preschoolers to develop well intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

Father-3-edited

Reading to your children, playing counting games, and talking to them — these concepts, now so familiar, became part of the standard of early child care, in part, because of my father. He helped prove, scientifically, how important these activities are both for children and for the society.

When a member of our family was ten, he had a tonsillectomy — and awoke during surgery. This resulted in PTSD as well as a myriad of other issues. Guess who was one of the first people to study PTSD and recognize it as a psychiatric syndrome?

You guessed it. My dad! He studied World War 1 veterans and built on Freud’s concept of psychiatric trauma. He published a book called “The Traumatic Neuroses of War” in 1941. But it wasn’t until the Vietnam War, in the 1970’s, that PTSD became a hot topic. Luckily, by 1991, further advancements in this field, building on my father’s work, helped our family cope with the aftermath of childhood trauma.

So, thanks Dad! You cleared the way for me to have the college major of my dreams, a well-educated toddler, and a family member with doctors who could understand and help him. I wish I could tell you your name is now known throughout the world for your amazing contributions.

But I understand and appreciate what you have contributed to society and now, maybe some blog readers will know, too.

FREUD AND MY FATHER, PART 1 – ELLIN CURLEY

(All quotes are from my father’s book, “My Analysis With Freud, Reminiscences”, by A. Kardiner, M.D.)


My father’s first contact with Sigmund Freud was a letter he received in 1921 accepting him as a student of Freud’s in Vienna. My father had graduated from medical school in New York City and was having trouble finding a job in a specialty that interested him. He thought it would be a great opportunity to study with the founder of this new science of the mind. He also believed that this field was the wave of the future. There were only eight psychiatrists in New York City at the time and it appealed to my Dad to be a pioneer and make a major contribution in a whole new area of science.

Freud with signature-edited

During my Dad’s 6 months as Freud’s student (that was the contracted period of apprenticeship) Freud had six students, each of whom he saw five hours a week. He charged $10 an hour and asked that he be paid in dollars, which were worth more than the Austrian crown. He also apologized that he could not give more than thirty hours a week to his students because his wife and daughter had forbidden it! They cherished their time with him and didn’t want him working longer hours.

Freud did not treat his students equally. My father’s distinction among his group of students in Vienna was that Freud talked to him in his therapy sessions. Freud was apparently silent with other students, particularly with the two English students who were there with my father. The Englishmen complained that Freud often fell asleep in their sessions and that he would only wake up if they stopped talking. One day the Englishmen asked my father to tea and confronted him with the rumor that Freud actually had conversations with him. When my father confirmed that Freud was quite garrulous with him, they wanted to know what my father did to get Freud talking. My father was a wonderful raconteur so his only explanation was that he kept Freud interested and engaged – and therefore awake.

Kardine-edited-2

Ironically, despite this conversation with my dad, the English contingent must have left Vienna with the belief that Freud’s “silent” analysis was the method that he was imparting to his students. This evolved into what was known as the “English School” of psychoanalysis, in which the therapists said nothing to their patients except “hello” and “goodbye”, often for years!

I used to complain to my father that Freud had done a terrible job analyzing him because he was still riddled with anxiety and neuroses. My father agreed with me. He said that Freud’s training and analysis were both woefully inadequate by today’s standards. In the ‘20’s, the only training that existed to become an analyst was to be analyzed yourself, for a mere six months. We now know that six months is too short a time to accomplish much in psychoanalysis. We also know that you need a greater body of knowledge to be a good therapist than what can be gleaned from a personal analysis.

To advance their education, my father and his fellow students got together and organized lectures for themselves (with Freud’s approval, of course). They got some of the other great minds in the field who were also in Vienna, like Karl Abraham, Otto Rank and Helena Deutsch, to present courses to them. These turned out to be the first formal didactic courses ever given in psychiatry, anywhere.

In Freud’s day, analysis was not only the sole training tool, it was also very limited in its scope. Freud’s goal of treatment was to give key insights to the patient. The patient was then expected to go off on his own and apply these insights to his own life. It is understood now that insight is only the starting point of any therapy. The major goal of therapy today is to help the patient integrate these insights so that they can help change the patient’s perceptions, emotions and behavior. My father never got this part of the process so his analysis was incomplete. However, my father felt that Freud was brilliant at dream interpretation and was very intuitive in interpreting free associations. So my father’s analysis was not without its benefits.

Kardiner Passport edited w borders 1My favorite story about Freud shows that he was not only brilliant, but also prescient about the future of the profession he created. Freud attended a meeting in which the participants spent an hour and a half discussing what Freud said here and what Freud meant there. Freud was getting more and more impatient and he finally tapped on the table for order. He said something to the effect of, “Gentlemen…Why do you treat me as if I were already dead? Here you are, sitting among yourselves, discussing what I have said in this paper, what I have said in that paper … and I am sitting at the head of the table and nobody so much as asks me ‘What did you really mean?’ “ He continued to say that he took that as an insult and worried “…if this is what you do while I am still among you, I can well imagine what will happen when I am really dead!” Unfortunately the movement did splinter into warring factions after Freud died. And many of these factions were in fact based on differing interpretations of what Freud meant and how he intended his theories to be expanded upon.

Another story in this vein involves the origin story of the 50 minute psychiatric session. People have always assumed that Freud consciously and thoughtfully chose 50 minutes as the perfect amount of time for a doctor/patient session. The reality is much more mundane and insignificant.

Freud had allocated six hours a day, five days a week for sessions with his students. He had six students so each student had a one hour therapy session with Freud per day. However, there was a scheduling snafu and a seventh student appeared for a place in Freud’s class of ’21. Freud didn’t want to increase his teaching time to seven hours a day. So he proposed two options to his six current students.

He could send this seventh student away. Alternatively, each student could give up ten minutes a day from their hourly sessions to make room for the seventh student. The students agreed to a 50 minute instead of a 60 minute hour. To this day, therapists use the 50 minute hour as the ‘Freudian model’. Freud would be laughing now to realize that sheer happenstance had resulted in almost a century long tradition for psychiatrists all over the world.

When my father returned to America he helped found the first independent psychoanalytic training institute and the first university (Columbia) affiliated training program in America. Both were in New York City.

 

INHERITANCE WITHOUT MUCH VALUE

It was my anniversary present — from me to we. I am not searching for my ancestors  because I more or less know who they were. Interesting, not fascinating. Not the kind of things you write very long saga tales about. More, I was curious about the very ancient ancestors — the Neanderthals and other early humans and what, if anything, do they have to do with me and mine?

Turns out, I still don’t know. Because MyHeritage DNA doesn’t tell you any of that. Nothing. If you want that information, you have to go somewhere else and search, or pay a lot of money to MyHeritage for the opportunity to connect with people who are at most, very mildly interested in your existence. To be fair, I didn’t feel all that excited about it either. But I was curious, so I paid the money and got nothing much.

We sent them our DNA and discovered what we already knew. Garry is widely mixed with European and African ancestors and I am Jewish. Very Jewish. As far as MyHeritage is concerned, back to the dawn of time which is illogical because no one was anything to the dawn of time. Otherwise, there wasn’t a surprise in the package.

I am almost entirely Ashkenazi with a wee bit of Sephardi and a hint of Baltic — probably the guy no one talks about. I had been hoping for something more entertaining and certainly more information. Some minimal analysis would have been a nice touch. What we got were numbers and a map. No analysis. Not even a summary paragraph. Nor reference material or links or anything to work with.

Garry was more entertaining than me, but not exactly shocking. We knew about his Irish grandparents. We expected — and found — lots more Europeans and many more Africans, almost equally mixed. And we expected that. Garry’s DNA is a broad brush across Europe and Africa.

Garry even has a 1.7% Ashkenazi Jewish in there (maybe we’re related?) … and a 2.1% Middle Eastern component. I, on the other hand, am Jewish. Except for that tiny bit of Baltic. So where does my weird B+ blood type come from?

I was disappointed. The results are skimpy. Within the limits of what they did, I suppose they are accurate — but it doesn’t feel like they did anything much. No depth to this material and the lack of any kind of analysis? Really? If you want real information, they want a lot more money. But if this is all the information they can retrieve from the DNA, more money isn’t going to get us deeper analysis. To get deeper analysis, you’d need deeper information gathering and that’s missing. What they really want to do is run your family tree information against other family trees to look for matches. If that’s what you want, join Ancestry.com. You’ll get more information there.

They offer links to “relatives” here, but if you want to get in touch with them, that costs more. Of course.  There were more links for me than for Garry, but that’s because Ashkenazi Jews are closely related and have been studied more than most groups. Otherwise, the information MyHeritageDNA gets seems more dependent on how much data you give them than anything they retrieve from your DNA.

MyHeritageDNA doesn’t dig for information. If what you are looking for is something that will agree with what you know, this might be just what you need. If you are looking for a deeper or broader understanding of your ancestral history … well … this ain’t it. 23andMe gets better reviews for about the same price. Ancestry.com gets reviews just like this one, but provides nominally more analysis of results — but at a price.

Of course, any analysis would be more than I got. Also, there a very new one called Insitome DNA Test Kit: Neanderthal Genetic Traits Profile (Ancestry) powered by Helix which sounds potentially interesting. But I’m not paying up front again. Once was enough.

Inheritance. Now I know that I already knew it. Whoo hoo!

MyHeritage DNA – THE LEAST EXCITING DISCOVERY OF 2017

It was my anniversary present — from me to we.

Garry and I don’t need much, at least not much I can afford. The big things are out of our price range — new toilets or a chair lift anyone? Otherwise, we have as many little things as any couple our age could possibly need … or want … or have room to keep. But then, I saw all these DNA thingies and I thought “Well, that would be different.”

So we sent them our DNA and discovered … nothing much. Not a surprise in the package.

I am Jewish. Really. From top of head to tip of toes. Garry is a bunch of European plus a goodly chunk of Africa.

I am almost entirely Ashkenazi with a wee bit of Sephardi and a hint of Baltic — probably the guy no one talks about. I had been hoping for something more entertaining and certainly more information. Some minimal analysis would have been a nice touch. What we got were numbers and a map. No analysis. Not even a summary paragraph. Nor reference material or links or anything to work with.

Garry was more entertaining than me, but nothing shocking. We knew about the Irish grandparents … and we figured there were more Europeans, too. Thus to no one’s surprise, Garry’s DNA is a broad brush across Europe and Africa.

Garry even has a 1.7% Ashkenazi Jewish in there (maybe we’re related?) … and a 2.1% Middle Eastern component. I, on the other hand, am Jewish. Except for that tiny bit of Baltic. So where does my weird B+ blood type come from?

I am disappointed. The results are so skimpy. Within the limits of what they did, I suppose they are accurate — but it doesn’t feel like they did anything. Apparently if you want real information, they want more money. A lot more money. But the thing is, if this is all the information they retrieve from the DNA, they aren’t going to give us deeper information no matter how much money you give them. All they will do is run your family tree information against other family trees and look for matches. If that’s what you want, join Ancestry.com. You’ll probably get more information there than here.

They offer links to “relatives” here, but if you want to get in touch with them — well that costs more. Of course.  There were more links for me than for Garry, but that’s because Ashkenazi Jews are closely related and have been studied rather more than most groups. Otherwise, the information MyHeritageDNA gets seems more dependent on how much data you give them than anything they retrieve from your DNA. If you tell them a lot about your family, they can scan other family trees for related information — but it’s not based on your DNA. The complete absence of any analysis — literally no analysis — made it feel like I was just getting back information I already knew. Shallow doesn’t begin to describe it.

This wasn’t supposed to be an expensive visit to Ancestry.com. This was supposed to be a DNA analysis. Now, we know we are exactly who we thought we were. Wow.

MyHeritageDNA doesn’t dig for information. If what you are looking for is something that will agree with what you know, this might be just what you need. If you are looking for a deeper or broader understanding of your ancestral history … well … this ain’t it. 23andMe gets better reviews for about the same price. Ancestry.com gets reviews just like this one, but provides nominally more analysis of results — but at a price.

Of course, any analysis would be more than I got. Also, there a very new one called Insitome DNA Test Kit: Neanderthal Genetic Traits Profile (Ancestry) powered by Helix which sounds really interesting. It’s slightly more expensive (not much), but apparently provides a lot more information.

Meanwhile, it’s official. We are us. Will the thrill never end?

MY MOTHER, THE PARTY PLANNER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s in New York City, social life revolved around the dinner party. Anywhere from six to twelve people would gather at someone’s home for drinks, appetizers and a sit down dinner. This was in addition to the once or twice a year that you would give a large party, with waiters, bar tenders and a buffet dinner.

Over the years your friends got to know each other. And you got to meet new people when you went to your friends’ dinner parties. Some of these people ended up as regulars at your own parties.

My mother loved giving parties. She did it well and often. Our home was beautiful and beautifully maintained – by the housekeepers. My mother didn’t do cleaning. Or cooking. Her elaborate and delicious meals were made by the cooks she always had during those years. (Not uncommon for professionals in the city in that era).

Mom’s NY dining room set up for a buffet party

However my mom did do all of the menu planning. She spent lots of time reading recipes in magazines and clipping them out. She turned them into a giant cookbook that filled several loose leaf notebooks. I still have them in my basement. I could never part with them.

My dad and I had a great time taste testing new recipes all the time. And I don’t mean meatloaf and brownies. Mom used recipes from American, French, Italian and Asian cuisine. There was also a smattering of Austrian and Eastern European when we had cooks from those areas. The dishes would be considered high-end or gourmet by today’s standards, though some were homier than others (a favorite was home cooked fried chicken, for example).

The desserts were to die for. My father was very thin, so my mother was always trying to fatten him up. She was always trying to entice him with amazing desserts – all kinds of cakes, pies, trifles, custards and puddings, you name it. Dad never gained weight, but we did. I ended up on a diet for most of my late teenage years living at home.

I had a friend who used to joke that at most people’s homes you got Twinkies for dessert, but at Ellin’s house, you got Oeufs A La Neige or Floating Island. That was my favorite dessert as a child.

Oeufs A La Neige, or Floating Island Dessert

My mother planned her parties meticulously. From the guest list and seating arrangements to the menu, from the place settings, the crystal and good china, to the dinner table centerpiece. Fresh flowers always decorated the rest of the house as well.

For summer parties at the CT house, Mom and I filled the house with flowers from our garden, including a big fancy centerpiece for the dining room table. Every week during the summer, company or not, we always did vases and vases of flowers for the house, just for us. These were simpler and less numerous. Those long hours arranging flowers with my mom are some of my favorite memories. My grandmother would often come in to talk with us while we worked. It was a wonderful time.

Summer meant flowers to me. I loved floral arranging so much, I actually got a part-time job in a florist shop for a short while in 2002. I also went on a dried flower binge and filled my entire house with dried flower arrangements of all kinds, in all kinds of exotic containers.

I was involved in every aspect of party planning from the time I was nine or ten years old. I was also allowed to sit with the guests before and after dinner. As a teenager, I usually joined the adults at the table as well. My parents’ friends adored me. I got to know many of them very well and I grew up with them as a part of my life from early childhood, on.

As an only child, I was very comfortable with adults. And I was always respected by them. My opinion was elicited from early on, at least on topics that I could understand and comment on at my current age level. I also knew when to be quiet and just listen.

Mom’s CT dining room

My parents were well-educated, intellectual, New York City professionals. So the conversations were always exciting, animated, interesting and fun. There were always lots of loud disagreements, but never any hostility. I learned to debate someone with differing views in a civil manner.

When I was a young wife and mother in NYC in the mid 1970’s – 1980’s, I followed in my mother’s party planning footsteps. I gave regular dinner parties for four to six guests. However, I had to do all the work MYSELF, including the cooking. I’ll never forget how proud I was to cook my first dinner party for my parents and some of their friends. It wasn’t as fancy or elegant as my mom’s, but I did it all on my own!

My first real dining room in NYC as a young lawyer

What I didn’t realize was that the times were changing and social life was different than in my mother’s heyday. I had party after party and rarely got invited back to anyone’s home for dinner. The trend now was for two couples to get together by going out to dinner at a restaurant. So people would invite us out to dinner with them, but not to their homes.

It was years before I gave up the ghost and stopped slaving over dinner parties, even after I had children. I eventually gave into the ‘let’s go out to dinner’ tradition. I don’t miss the hard work that went into planning formal parties. But there was an excitement and an element of creativity involved in the process that I do miss.

I still have people over for dinner. But it’s usually one or two couples and we usually grill or order pizza. I sometimes miss the good old ‘party’ days – but not enough to go back.