Pinky Pie

Who do I think I am & Me

Posted on: March 22, 2010

My grandmother, Nettie, holding my mom, Lee Hessel.

A classic story in our family is about my grandmother, Nettie Itzhovitz Goldberg, coming to this country at age 12 or so all by herself.

Grandma, who died when I was 3, lived with a sister already in this country when she came here from Hungary or whatever it was called in those days.

I don’t know whether she came through Ellis Island or not or even when she came to this country. But I do recognize her courage and fortitude needed to travel as such a young person across the ocean.

Stay tuned for a small addition to that story that I will provide later in this blog post.

The story is a source of pride in my family, especially because I don’t know that much more about family history except little tidbits. As a personal historian, that makes me like the cobbler’s child who has no shoes.

It’s also why I love to preserve stories for other people. It’s important stuff, something that was reinforced to me Friday evening when I was watching the NBC program, “Who do you think you are?”

The program takes famous people through their roots in very powerful moments. (You can watch it at 7 p.m. Central on NBC on Fridays; on line or on demand on cable systems.)

These stars – like the rest of us – find their families lived in the midst of historical events. We are all part of history.

Sarah Jessica Parker learned about her tenth grandmother almost going on trial as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts; Emmitt Smith learned about his slave family history; and Lisa Kudrow learned sadness followed by great joy for her father when she learned a distant relative in Poland had survived the Holocaust.

My grandparents came to this country long before the Holocaust and my parents never talked much about relatives who might have still been in Europe.

I loved to tell my kids the story about their great grandmother, Nettie. However, my timing was not always great.

One night a couple months before 10 or 11-year-old Maggie was to go to Europe to perform with the La Crosse Girls Chorus, I heard her sobbing in her room. I went in there and tried to figure out what was wrong.

“I don’t want to go to Europe without you,” she said.

I knew we didn’t have the resources for me to go as well and we would not know what to do with toddler Michael if I was gone for ten days or so, so I got in her bed with her. I tried to calm her down and did well until I started to tell her the story of her great grandmother.

All along the way, as I told the story, I reminded myself to not tell the end of it. But out came these words:

“You know, Maggie, when your grandmother was about 12, she came to this country all by herself.”


“Yes, and she never saw her parents again.”

Can you imagine what that did to Maggie who was already worried about leaving the country without me?

Yes, I said that. I really did and she started wailing. And, I mean wailing.

How did I get her to stop?  I made her laugh by making myself out to be as ridiculous as I was at that moment.

“Maggie, this is what I tell you to make you feel better? What kind of mother am I that you want with you?

We both started laughing.

And, by the way, she did not go to Europe. Instead, she went to the Concordia Language Village, a French language submersion program.

I love telling this story. First, it is an example of what I great parent I am. I have another story about something ridiculous that I said Michael that I’ll leave for another day.

Second, it illustrates the importance of learning your family stories. I wish I knew more about that journey by her and my other grandparents.

Third, I’d say you should hire me as a personal historian, but that would be too self-serving. (But call me; e-mail me; hire me.)


2 Responses to "Who do I think I am & Me"

Haha! Good story!
I’m still traumatized. 🙂

just kidding!

I love this story! I remember Maggie telling me at the time.

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