Thursday, November 20, 2008


1900 Census record for Louis Cohen family, Butler Co, NE (1900 U.S. Federal Census page for Butler County, Nebraska, showing family of Louis Cohen -- click on image, then enlarge in separate viewer to read lines)

Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

December 2015

When the family began gathering at Jane and Gillam's house the next Sunday for singing potluck, Myra sniffed the air and said “I smell gingerbread.”

“It's a special dessert” said Jane with dancing eyes.

“We gonna make houses!” blurted out Mimi.

“Oho, gingerbread houses?” Myra said, picking up Mimi and swinging her.

“Houses wif cookies and candy!” explained Mimi. When adults put their minds to it, they could really think of perfect fun, her expression said.

“I thought we could sing Christmas carols while decorating” continued Jane.

“Excelsior” said Margie. “How come we never made gingerbread houses when we were growing up, Mama?”

“Because she filled you with as much sugar as she could otherwise” replied Ginny.

“Which reminds me, every evening next week I'll be doing holiday cookie and cake baking” said Myra. “Mimi and David will begin the decorating for us on Monday afternoon.”

“And we're buying a tree next weekend” said Gillam, not quite defensively.

Ginny looked thoughtful. “Ornaments, hmm?”

After dinner was cleared, Gillam began carrying trays of baked gingerbread slabs to the table, while Jane emerged from the storage room with a box full of gumdrops, peppermints, and dozens of other candies. There were also tubes and tubs of colored frosting.

“Where did you find all this?” said Myra.

“We stopped by a cake decorating store” said Gillam. “I'll give you the address.”

Margie made a bid for Mimi to sit in her lap but Gillam said “Patriarchal rights” and grabbed Mimi for himself. Frances and Margie decided to collaborate on their house. Jane had put a pacifier in David's mouth but still spent all her time keeping him from consuming candy. Eventually she placed him in his high chair and gave him a square of gingerbread to demolish. “It doesn't have any sugar in it at all” she said to Ginny.

They began with “Jingle Bells”. Eric did one verse in a dead-on imitation of Barbra Streisand, saying “UpSOT?” down his nose at Carly and making him collapse in laughter. But they all went into hysterics when they realized Mimi was singing one phrase as “Good King Weinersauce”.

“I'll never hear it as anything else now” said Allie.

When the houses were assembled on their cardboard flats, Myra went into the kitchen and made a huge bowl of confectioner's frosting for them to use as snow on the lawns. Gillam let Mimi get as messy as she wanted, distracting her from sampling by asking endless questions.

“And what room does this window show in their house?” he said, as she struggled to re-stick a pretzel frame.

“The mommy and daddy's room. And this room is the Mimi room, and this room is the David room. And this room at the top is the new baby room.”

They were between songs, and this sentence floated down the table. Jane began giggling and said to Gillam “Well, that answers any question we had about whether she'd actually taken it in or not, doesn't it?”

“For real?” asked Sima.

“We were going to announce it after a doctor visit” said Gillam.

“At least you didn't proclaim it on my birthday” said Margie, but she was drowned out by cheers from the others.

“But I thought...” began Ginny.

Gillam looked at her sharply. “We told you, from the outset, how many we intended to have. We pretend at having a schedule but, well, it's all good, however they arrive.”

“When?” said Allie, her arm around Jane's shoulders.

“Mid June, maybe” Jane said.

“Marching through the zodiac” said Myra. “Mimi's a Taurus, David's a Gemini, and this one might be another Gemini or a Cancer. Hot damn!”

“Hot dam” Mimi immediately repeated.

“Yeah, about that...It's time to go back to 'language' rules” said Gillam. “And with this new evidence of early comprehension...” He raised his eyebrows and pointed his head toward Mimi. Who was watching him quizzically. After half a minute, however, she shouted “Rudolph!”

“Can you remember the beginning?” said Carly. “Here, I'll do it with you.”

He sang in his lovely tenor:
There was Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Cupid and Comet and Donner and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

That night, Ginny came to lie on Myra's daybed with an early seed catalogue as Myra distracted herself from writing by researching Ginny's genealogy.

“I still don't understand by your great-grandmother Lena always appears on censuses as Dora” she complained.

“Because her first name -- “ began Ginny.

“I know, I know. But why did she think she had to give officials her first name instead of the name everyone called her?”

“Fear of the Czar” said Ginny succinctly. “Jews in the Pale always lied about the ages of their sons, to keep them from being conscripted.”

“Yeah, I remember that” said Myra. “Allie's found the same things with boys in her family in Louisiana and Alabama during the early 1900s – their ages and names as given to white men asking questions never match reality.”

They were silent a minute, considering being parents in that kind of terror.

“Well, it doesn't help in trying to find them on the 1900 census” continued Myra. “I mean, even in Nebraska, there are too many Cohens to wade through without a first name to go by. But they were definitely there, because Rosa was born there and they don't appear in the Galveston land records until 1905.”

Ginny got up to lean on Myra's shoulder. “Have you tried looking under Lena and Louis, then?”

“Yes. And Rosa, and her sister Sarah, who was born in Nebraska in 1901, according to her death certificate. No matches” said Myra, frustrated.

“Did you do that sound-alike thing, I can't remember what it's called, to search for names with the same basic letters?” asked Ginny.

“Soundex. And that turns up not just every Cohen, but a kajillion other near-misses” said Myra.

“Maybe Louis is spelled Lewis” suggested Ginny. “Or Rosa is Rose.”

“Tried that already.”

Ginny was concentrating. “Did you ever seen Yankee Doodle Dandy? Doesn't matter – try Cohan. Yes, the Irish spelling. Put in Louis or Dora or Lena.”

“Eight possibles” said Myra. “Hey, here's a Louis with a wife named Dora, they're in Butler County – hand me that map of Nebraska – close enough, let me pull up the record. Eureka! They've got a baby girl named Rosie!”

Ginny's shoved her head in front of the screen, all but blocking Myra's view. “But this says Dora was two years older than Louis. And that she was born in Poland, not Russia.”

“A later census gives her age as older than him, too, Ginny – move over, will you? As she got up in years, I bet she lied about her age, folks do. But the Poland thing – look, it says they've been married 7 years. That could mean they got married in this country instead of before immigrating. That would explain why I can't find her in immigration records, she's under another name. Holy shit!”

“What? What is it, Myra?”

“She says she's had only one child, but there's another member of the household who's listed as a son. A 14-year-old boy named Himie Lazerus. Misspelled, but – if she was married before, that might be the name she immigrated under!” Myra was making notes.

“It can't be her son. Rosa would have said if she'd had a brother, even a half-brother. And Lena would have been a teenager when she had him...” Ginny's voice trailed off.

“No, Gin, this fits. On the 1920 census Lena said she'd had three children, three still living, but I assumed that was census-taker error. I bet he stayed behind in Nebraska, or went somewhere else. By 1905, he'd have been 19, old enough to live on his own, maybe even be married. You have other kin out there! Lazerus kin, raised from the dead.”

The reference went over Ginny's head. She stared at Myra in amazement. “Why wouldn't Rosa have said? For that matter, Daddy grew up with Louis and Lena, why wouldn't he have known?”

“Family rift, maybe. Do you want me to find him? Well, not him, he's long dead, but if he had any descendants -- “

“Hell yes” said Ginny. She stayed leaned on Myra's shoulder as Myra tried the obvious searches and came up with nothing.

“I'll have to organize my approach better” said Myra. “I'm tired and I'm probably missing something. This is enough revelation for now, isn't it? I'll come at it fresh tomorrow.”

“A great-uncle I never knew about” mused Ginny. “Hymie. What a hoot.”

They got ready for bed together. Once in the dark, fitted together, Myra said “What're you thinking about, your mysterious uncle?”

“No. I was – Myra, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I hate it that this baby is, well, an accident. Not really, I mean, they planned to have him or her, but – of all people, I shouldn't use the term accident, I know...”

“I get it. You want children to be chosen in every respect. With your family history, it makes sense you'd have a sore spot there. Huh – wonder if Hymie was the result of teenaged indiscretion on Lena's part.”

“Or maybe not even indiscretion, who knows how much she'd been told about her body in that place and time” said Ginny.

“This baby couldn't be more wanted, Gin, you know what.”

“I do. It came up in my head, is all.”

They breathed together for a minute. “Well, as long as we're confessing” said Myra. “Promise never to tell anyone, and to not hold it against me...”

“Of course.”

“I feel – what's the word – okay, resentful, I guess, at how easy it is for Gillam.”

“You mean he and Jane can just make love and poof there's a baby?”

“No – well, that would've been nice for us, but thank god it wasn't that easy, we'd be overrun by now. No, what I mind is that he's not worried about how they'll get cared for. Not beyond the average terror any parent has. He knows there are a dozen of us here to pick up the slack. We had our aunties, and David as time went on, and I thought we had it good, plus all that money. But he's taking it to another whole dimension. I mean, he's having kids literally as fast as he can. And it does mean the rest of my productive life is going to be bound up in raising them, at least in part. No moving to Amsterdam for a year, no traveling months on end, not even a three-month writer's retreat. You and I are essential to these children's well-being.” Myra stopped, noticing how angry her voice sounded.

After a minute, Ginny said “You knew this in advance. You told him to do it, we had his back.”

“I know. I know I'm being unfair. I keep trying to rewrite the section of my memoir where I'm explaining why my mother made the choices she did, not to apologize for her but to get it clear. I'm having nightmares where I've got three kids and there's not a crumb of food in the house, which she fucking lived through, Ginny. And there's some part of me that wants him to be at least grateful that he's got it so easy.”

“He is grateful, Myra. He's simply not tortured by it. He has the information without your grief.” Ginny pulled Myra onto her shoulder and whispered “She's not sorry she had you, I can promise you that. Whatever it took.”

Myra let herself cry. She'd have to keep pruning away at this, she could tell. Children were an endless classroom. While she was wiping her face on the pillowcase a few minutes later, Ginny said “And we could manage a writing retreat, I'm sure. If that's what you want.”

“Not really. Buncha creative writing majors sitting around gassing on about voice and postmodernism. I'd rather be at our dining table hearing you teach Mimi about color blending while David urps on my shoulder and I try to set down lines.” Ginny pulled her back to her shoulder, saying “While our son sneezes on Jane and starts another baby.”


© 2008 Maggie Jochild.
1910 Census record for Louis Cohen Family, Galveston Co, TX (1910 U.S. Federal Census page for Galveston County, Texas, sh owing family of Louis Cohen)

1920 Census record for Louis Cohen, Dickinson, TX (1920 U.S. Federal Census Record for Dickinson, Galveston County, Texas, showing family of Louis Cohen.)


liza said...

wow. you even found real relatives. I'm impressed.

I guess Ginny and I are related in some way, since I, too, am a decendent of a Louis Cohen.

Jesse Wendel said...

Yeah, I agree.

I understand the guilt. There have been times in my life I've gone without food due to lack of money.

There was that brutal winter in New Hampshire with three kids, months behind on the rent, throwing the newspaper in 20-30 degrees BELOW zero at 2-3 AM every morning and that was BEFORE wind chill from a moving car which dropped it another 20 degrees or more, just to get us up to maybe $8K a year, and selling encyclopedias, then health insurance over the kitchen table... because my three kids had to eat.

And then, oh my Gods, we got knocked up again. We were STUCK on the West Coast, 3,500 fucking miles from our family and friends. My ex's family offered to move us back home, and within ten days we'd packed the entire house, dumped everything else at a yard sale, and were driving across the United States.

We camped out every night as we couldn't afford hotels and we cooked our own food as we couldn't afford to eat out. But we made it to Washington State where there too, I started selling health insurance across the kitchen table till I was able to come up with something better. LOTS of hungry days and with a new baby we knew damn well how to make potatoes and those packs of noodles streeeeetch. Not to mention we had a huge garden.

I've had enough money and I've been dead broke. Money is better.

shadocat said...

oh my freeking god, this is so weird and makes so much sense! When I did the geneology thing on my grandmother's side, I was pretty sure I'd found her family, but over a 30 year period, the countries of origin kept changing , from Russia, to Germany, to Poland, to Prussia, and so on. And the boy's ages were all wrong...thanks to G & M, mystery solved!

Maggie Jochild said...

Well, Liza, I wouldn't be surprised if you are related. But here's the oogie-boogie origins of it all: Back when I began having the original Ginny Bates dreams, in June over two years ago, she said her immigrant ancestor was Cohanim who was part of Baron Hirsch's Jewish farm settlement program. But not the ones in New Jersey or California -- somehow they wound up in Texas.

So I went to the 1920 census for Texas, entered Cohen, and up popped Louis and Lena in Dickinson, Texas, complete with two daughters, Rosa and Sarah. All the rest flowed from that census record. It is a REAL family, which gives me some (delusional) hope I'll run across Ginny some day.

When you and I later became friends and I found out you were descended from a Louis Cohen as well, I shivered but accepted it as fate. I'm sure it's one of the points you and Ginny have bonded around.

Shado, part of the reason the country names change is because these places in Europe kept annexing and absorbing each other. Jewish immigrants to this country kept track of what nation now "contained" their relatives left at home and altered their census reporting accordingly -- they tended to much better educated and up on current affairs than other European immigrants.

And Jesse -- your conversations with me have a profound effect on Myra's development. Especially when it comes to her cutting Gillam some fucking slack.