I can’t explain how the question was thrust into my consciousness that day. It could have been some subconscious subterfuge bubbling to the surface, but I like to think it was the phantom asserting his spirit, reaching out to thicken the family plot.
I was 11 years old; my family was enjoying a July cookout at my grandmother’s. While playing tag with my siblings, in the tears of a Weeping Willow tree, I suddenly felt compelled to approach the adults hovering over the searing meat and pose the burning question.
Why do my father and grandfather have different last names?
My query triggered puzzled glances and stammering responses, I was promised full disclosure – some other day; I knew right then that I had stumbled upon a family jewel.
Perseverance furthers, reminds the I Ching. In time, I was informed that our grandfather was really our step-grandfather, a loaded word that doesn’t explain the complexities of such relationships. Our hyphenated grandfather was kind to us, and was a good match for my grandmother, to a point anyway. He had a amicable relationship with my father, but displayed clear preference for his son from a previous marriage. He didn’t have the time, nor desire to fill the void left by the phantom, the one whose name was not to be spoken.
I found the lack of detail totally unsatisfying, the phantom had been summoned, but not allowed to speak. As time slipped onward, I pursued this shadowy being. I questioned my grandmother; she angrily refused to discuss him. My father, too, became agitated when asked and simply snapped “he’s dead, end of discussion”!
But, I had an informant who I could turn to for clues. My aunt Grace, was the story keeper of the family, and although, hesitant, about divulging her sister’s sensitive information, she eventually spilled the beans, recognizing that I had a right to know about my ancestors.
The phantom was named James Jefferson Gill. My grandmother married him at age 18 and moved to Chicago for all the revelry of the roaring twenties. My father was born in a downtown hotel room on a hot June night in 1927, and above the roar of the city, was given the name of his father.
It seems the phantom preferred whisky and other women’s company to that of his family, and so was written out of his role in the nativity scene. My grandmother resented him so deeply, she had my father’s name legally changed to James Jefferson Hale, erasing any reference to the Gill clan.
The phantom disappeared, I can only speculate it was to avoid child support. He was never to be heard from again, not even by his own family, and no one in my family had any interest in finding him. It was assumed he died anonymously somewhere in Chicago.
Fifty years, after my original question, I wrote a book of my family history and was fortunate enough to find info on the Gill family dating back to 17th century Scotland. I had photos of the phantom’s grandfather in the Civil War and even his father’s life story. Even more interesting was that my father was the fourth generation of men named James Jefferson Gill. The internet had opened crack in the phantom’s crypt but he was nowhere to be found.
I posted a PDF version of the book on my website thinking someone might find my family menagerie interesting; months later a message appeared in my inbox. A guy from California had read my research and revealed that the phantom was his father also, thus my father’s half brother. Two photos quickly followed.
With a single click, a 1948 photo of a moustached man in a zoot suit and dapper hat was looking right at me. I freaked out and sent the photo to family members. We were astonished that the phantom had been dragged into the daylight. More details followed.
Apparently, Grandpa Gill was an extremely violent, alcoholic who beat his kids and had started several families, at least 6 that we know of, with women around the California and Seattle areas. My new found half-uncle said that his only memory of his father, was a slap across the face. My father was an angry alcoholic and verbally abusive, occasionally whacking me. Since he never knew his father there must be a few troubled genes swimming in the pool. Comparing 23 and Me DNA tests, we confirmed our relationship.
Another woman, now in her nineties, contacted me through her niece saying that she had become pregnant from the phantom when she was 16 years old, during the same period he was married to my grandmother. She was spirited off to St. Cloud, MN to have the child as was done in those times. He vanished, but, she would never forget his name nor his sweet-talking manner.
The phantom patriarch was buried in Seattle, a city my father loved, and visited often on his business travels. Maybe they even passed each other on the street. I would like to believe that grandpa had some redeeming qualities; perhaps, not inflicting his wrath upon my father was one of them.
We’ll never know. My father died twenty years ago and the phantom, twenty-five years before that. One thing for certain, I would loved to have shown my father the photo and seen the look on his face as he saw the image of the man who had been a phantom in his life, but I’ll have to settle for their photos hanging side by side on my wall.
Been a fairly good year in the gardens. I tried a lot of new varieties this year and was amazed with their success, in spite of the sporadic drought and deluge. I want to talk about some plants that I’ve already eaten.
Garlic A perennial favorite. This year marked the 15th year I’ve been cultivating my bulbs by natural selection. I’ve been reserving the largest cloved bulbs for planting each year and have developed a crop is red striped and each has 4-6 large cloves. So beautiful to admire, so few to peel, so delicious to eat…..
Padrón peppers – These small peppers from Galicia, Spain are like cracker jacks. 10 to 25% of them are hot, so you don’t know what the prize will be. Sweet and tasty or hot and sizzle. I’ve never had one I couldn’t handle but for some it might be too much. Just keep a baguette nearby.
Simply fry them in hot olive oil until they turn dark. Thinned skin they are, so you can just grab them by the tail and eat. My Galician friends went wild over them.
Mizuna (ミズナ（水菜） – Fun to read about, beautiful to look at and delicious to eat. Also called Japanese mustard green but the name doesn’t describe the taste. The characters are more so. Very easy to cultivate, grows fast and furious so you can start dining immediately. One plant would have been more than enough. Add it to salads or a salad on it’s own with simple dressing of rice vinegar, a tad of sweetener of choice ( Mirin is best ), roasted sesame oil and soy sauce. I’m going to have some now.
Beets Tried a few new varieties and was very pleased. I really can’t grow enough to keep my son and I in beets; fortunately there is an abundance at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market. Boiling or steaming seems too brutish so I rub them down with olive oil and roast at 375 till al dente.
Slice and serve with goat cheese and a honey dijon dressing on a bed of Mizuna.
Yellow San Marzanos – Didn’t yield as expected but very colorful and tasty. They don’t resemble San Marzanos so don’t expect a large, dense fruit. Perhaps they didn’t get along with other family members planted close by.
Yukon Gold Potatoes The sandy soil at the Rice Street Community Gardens is perfect for spuds. Very easy to grow. I grab a bag of organic from the coop making sure there is lots of ‘eyes’. Let them get a start in the bright light, then cut, separating the eyes. Plant to depth of 4-6 inches. So fun to dig up and be surprised what happens in the darkness. A freshly dug potato is a wonder !
Soon I’ll have more as the winter squash start to roll in. Also I will be talking about pollinators and the role they play. Hope you enjoyed this bit of garden adventure in the Urban Landscape.
Anything we can grow organically, keeps us off the pesticide/herbicide/chemical fertilizer grid.
This morning the stillnes of the neighborhood was violated by the rumble of large trucks and chain saws. It was as if someone had thrown a brick through a plate glass window.
The crew scaled the majestic White Pine and dangling on the ropes like an aerial circus act began whittling away at the branches. Chips and sawdust drifted like snowflakes as a light breeze stirred the sweet resinous air.
In the neighboring trees, the birds, that I expect had made the pine their home , were wildly dancing and singing a song of distress. It was an unusually loud and high-pitched scold I wished I’d recorded.
The tree was estimated to be between 100 and 150 years old, was nearly 3 feet in diameter and reached almost 200 feet into the sky. The branches extended 20 feet or more from the trunk. One of the woodmen said it was virgin growth which meant it was here long before the urban life was laid down.
As the last large section of trunk shuddered the truck bed, I felt sad that such magnificence would not be seen again on those mornings after a fresh snowfall. The whispering of the the needles in the wind falls silent. It was feared that such a giant, could, in a storm, wipe out 3 or 4 homes, theoretically I suppose. Fear of the giant was its demise.
My violin is made from Maple, Spruce, and Ebony trees. Trees are invaluable to me. I’ve started composing a piece about the White Pine as token of tribute.
I grew up along the Mississippi and am now growing wiser along its banks. As a citizen of Saint Paul, the river has always loomed large, but largely ignored unless it asserts its independence. Mississippi may even have been the first word I learned to spell. But until the last several years, I was never aware of the rich story lore laying around like a waiting room magazine rack.
During family outings to visit the cousins in Minneapolis, we’d cross the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue bridge which in itself was a somewhat adventurous trip. Built in 1889 the massive maze of steel rattled and seemed to sway with the breeze as we made the crossing. Dangling above the gorge of brown water, my grandmother taught us the rhythmic chant spelling M-Iss-Iss-IPP-I. If you can sing it you can spell it was her theory and because I remember it today is testament.
Being the adventurous one, I announced I wanted to swim in the river and float down it on a raft. My grandmother’s eyes grew wide and seriously explained what fate awaited you if you dared. There is this thing called the current she explained, which will wrap around your legs and pull you under, perhaps releasing you miles downstream. In my visualization of her words I saw an Anaconda like beast that rose from the depths of the river to sweep you away, never to be heard from again. If that wasn’t enough there were also whirlpools which were like tornadoes in the water that could suck you down to the bottom.
With pictures like that
playing in my mind
it’s no wonder I grew up fearing the river.
There were also tales of people swimming and getting rashes and peeling skin from the chemicals dumped in upstream. The river had been industrialized, an extension of the factories, mountains of coal, rusted salvage yards and railroad tracks that occupied the banks. It was a giant trash bin. People dumped their worn out wash machines, tires, refrigerators, anything that needed to be disposed of. A place of beauty and recreation was the furthest thing from people’s’ minds.
What grabbed the headlines wasn’t
what went in the river
but rather what came out of the river.
Bodies were the number one news item, especially those of people who succumbed from their leaps from the High Bridge. There were others who fell off the Ford Dam or those who thought they could outswim the beasts in the current. More gruesome stories were of Minneapolis people murdered and tossed in the water washing up downstream on our shores.
My great grandfather, tales have it, swam across and back the river in the gorge near Riverside Park in Minneapolis. It was in August I suppose, when the water level drops and current slows to a lazy meander that a crossing is more practical. The story was told with a cautionary message: Do not try this yourself !
What galvanized my fear of Big Muddy, was the floods of 1965. My father took me down to see what the river was doing in downtown St. Paul. From our perch near the post office, we watched and listened as the snow melt and spring rains rushed downstream. Harriet and Raspberry Islands where underwater as was the airport. The chocolate froth writhed so violently it sounded like a hissing dragon. The day before our outing, I’d read stories of sandbagging volunteers who slipped into the current, never to be seen again. Gigantic eddies whirled on the downstream side of the bridge supports with bystanders wondering if they would endure such force. Entire wood buildings, huge uprooted trees, animal corpses and miscellaneous junk surfed the current. Shepherd Road had become one with the river and parts of Lowertown were submerged.
The mounds on the white bluffs overlooking the river stood silent, well out of the way of the mayhem.
Eventually the waters subsided; the wind whispered “I told you so. Can’t tame the river !”. I don’t think many people listened.
Two months later it was Ashkibagi-ziibiing, ( Anishinaabe – the place of many fresh green leaves). Only the knee deep layers of mud were left to tell the story. Since then my fear has evolved into a healthy respect; the dragons of the river remain quiet – for the time being..
Gravlax is so succulent and wonderful that even squeamish folks who wouldn’t eat sashimi love it. I personally enjoy the fatty fish from Norwegian farms. It melts in your mouth.
A Norwegian native friend, Anne, showed me how to prepare it as it’s done at home. Of course there was no recipe ( written that is ). Homemade is usually a little more rustic than restaurant prepared so experiment all you like with different flavors. I’ve even added a drop of fresh lime. Be bold but don’t drown the fish !!
Start with two filettes of the freshest salmon you can, sashimi grade if available. This is of course the key ! You will also need salt, sugar, and a few stalks fresh dill. ( dried will be *ok* but fresh dill is the best )
Take equal amounts of salt and sugar, rub in a thin layer on each cut side of the fish, next, layer as much chopped dill as you can get on top of one piece.
Place the fillettes, rubbed sides together, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and place in a container with raised sides, it should be flat also. Refrigerate for at least one day. Pour off the liquid if you like.
Slice thinly, serve on thin rye bread with honey mustard. If there is any left, refrigerate. Will keep for a few days at least.
I recently published a book recalling the stories of my Great Great Grandparents’ emigration from Bohemia in the late 19th century. While researching and writing their tales, I felt I was being directed by my Kubiček family spirits; I knew I had to complete the circle and make the return visit they were never able to.
My son, who has for years listened to my tales was graduating from college in Rotterdam and we decided to take the opportunity to make the trip. In order to get the full Czech experience we booked a flight on Czech Airlines.
We landed at Vaclav Havel Airport just after dark, and after a rapid descent through immigration boarded a bus for the city. The bus deposited us at the entrance to the subway just to the northwest of Prague. The subway is impressive. Though constructed in the 1970’s, it hasn’t lost its polish and has none of the human scents found in other subterranean systems, We feel very secure. We had a rocky recollection of the stop we were looking for; there were three in a row that began with ‘M’, we chose the middle one, Mustek.
We emerged from the underground into a spectacular view of a zillion colored lights and statues. It was surreal, not the first time this word would come to mind. With no idea of where we were, we wandered briefly savoring the ambiance, before soliciting a cab for a ride to our hotel. We had been wandering about the infamous Wenceslas Square.
Not even attempting to use my primitive Czech, we booked into the Hotel Julian, a stunning, classic hotel. It was formerly the residence of a musician and his family until falling in the hands of the soviets. Several families occupied the building until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, after which, it was returned to the musician’s family. The tall screenless windows in the room opened to the street so we could hear late night voices and footsteps clicking on the cobblestones.
By the time we oriented ourselves, restaurants were closed as was the hotel food service. Up for a walk we passed an incredible lighted fountain; I was already so impressed with the city. We stumbled upon a corner store that sold pints of Czech beer and snacks. Loading up we sipped our pilsners and toasted our Bohemian ancestors for the opportunity.
After mammoth breakfast at the hotel, we followed directions given by the front desk to the Karlův Most, the Charles Bridge. Prague was one of the few cities not bombed in WW II, so the Gothic architecture dating back to the 12th Century remains intact. Although flooding of the Vltava River has eroded and destroyed parts of the bridge it has always been repaired back to its original appearance.It’s a massive structure, 33 feet wide, with arches and statues throughout; an entire book could be dedicated just to the history this bridge.
Passing the licensed street musicians and artists we entered the Old City, a maze of narrow streets, with frequent plazas and fountains and sculptures. Through this ancient architecture, the metro tram system weaves its way as if the city had been designed around it. It is by far the best transportation system I have encountered. The subways and trams put the entire city at the tips of your toes and run so frequently you need not consult schedules.
Exiting through the Jewish Quarter we discovered the Čechův bridge that crosses the Vltava as it courses eastward. Now the word surreal takes on new energy. The pillars on the downstream side between the arches are adorned with six headed hydras. Words alone cannot describe this Kafkaesque scene. Franz actually lived just down the road.
Across the bridge we encounter a switchback of stone stairs leading up a steep hill. If we had a better understanding of the language, we’d have know that this was the entrance to Letenské sady ( Letna Park ) As we finish the climb we discover a massive outdoor beer garden and park on the peak. We quench our thirst with a couple pilsners and savor the surprisingly big crowd. A short walk reveals a monument that had once been a huge statue of Stalin. When the cult of personality feel out of party favor, it was dynamited in 1962 before it was completed. It does provide, however, one of the finest vistas of the bridges of Praha. Jutting above the central skyline we spot an odd structure that looks like a building from Cloud City in Star Wars. Numerous antennas pop out from the top and sides. I make a mental note to Google this when I get back to the hotel.
Emerging from the trail, we encounter a tram that glides us down the hill to the Malostranská metro station. From there it’s about a 8 block walk to our hotel. As we hike we notice a funicular train that carries park visitors to the top of Petřín, the great hill that extends itself along Vltava River with a 130 meter high view. It’s hot, so we note the location for a evening visit.
Cooling our heels back at the hotel, we survey the maps and Google to determine if a trip to the ancestral village if viable. The village,named Knížecí Pláně ( princely plain) is located in the foothills of the Bohemian forest mountains about 80 miles southwest of Praha. There is nothing left of the village but a few tourist hotels and mountain bike trails. There are no trains that travel that direction and we would have to change several buses just to get within 10 miles. We decide that a trip to Plzeň, the home of pilsner beer, would give us a view of countryside our ancestors lived in. Touring the breweries that Czecha is famous for would give us a taste of modern culture.
Our male ancestors were either builders or brewery workers ( Schmidt Brewery, St. Paul) and in either case had a strong thirst for the barley brew. A trip to the most famous Czech brewery seemed like an appropriate tribute to their memories instead of staring at a nearly empty field that once was their village.
But first we had to take care of our hunger. So many street-side cafes to choose from we go for one that is funky but not overly and decide on the authentic meal. Roast pork, sweet and sour braised red cabbage and knedliky, traditionally prepared dumpling, a meal I was suckled on. The pork was succulent as was the red cabbage. The dumpling was not what I expected as it was a bread dumpling, I relished the potato knedlicky. Oh well, delicious nonetheless and perfectly paired with a pilsner.
We passed near the funicular and decided to give it a try. We rose to the top 130 meters high and exited into the amazing park planted with roses and other colorful plants. There is an observation tower built from cast steel that replicates the Eiffel Tower. Rather than climb the 800 stairs we opt for the elevator ride which is really a claustrophobic capsule made from cast iron, supporting up to three people. It reeked a peculiar smell and was very hot and humid; if we’d gotten hung up in there I would have died of suffocation for sure. The view however is astounding; 360 degree views of the entire area warranted a good 30 minute viewing. We took the stairway down. As the sun settled we sat next to the lighted fountain meditating on the day’s adventures.
Up by 10 we grabbed the No. 9 tram that carried us all the way to the Central Station. Trains to Plzen run hourly so no need to rush and check schedules. The smooth electric ride pulled out of the station, circumventing the Vltava before heading up a steep grade into the valley bounded by the Brdy mountains. A small river full of yellow kayaks follows the train into the pointed spruce forest. The scenery is stunning and ancient castles occasionally pop into view. It took us approx. 90 min to make the trip.
We arrived in Plzeň, and counter to tourist horror stories, we were almost the only ones there. The Pilsner-Urquell brewery is just across from the train station via a pedestrian bridge. We enter the majestic gates and follow arrows to the tour building, signing up for the English tour which leaves in 20 minutes following the French and Spanish.
The first part of the tour is standard brewery, showing off how many bottles can be fillled in a day, etc. The pots where the brew is cooked is amazing; thousand gallon copper kettles boil the barley malt, hops and water before the yeast is added to the tanks. The yeast used today is grown from the original batch created in 1838. After viewing all the technological wonders, we descend down a set of slopes into a maze of sandstone caves built below the brewery a couple hundred years ago. It is very cool and we’re glad we wore hoodies. After a tour of the caves we arrive in a room full of larger wooden barrels where the brew served to tourists is resting. We are each given a pint of beer drawn individually from the casks. It is the most amazing tasting beer I’ve ever had. Creamy, unfiltered pilsner with a foamy head, each sip delivering a tasty mouthful. This part of the tour is alone worth the trip. We eat lunch in the brew house, dining on another traditional Czech meal and a Pilsner-Urquell of course. Once again we raise our glasses to the Kubiček ancestors.
We catch the 5 o’clock train back to Praha, a man enters our compartment covered from bald head to toe in bizarre tattoos; I’d never seen that before. Exhausted we watch tv, all that’s available is Russian language detective shows and reruns of Czech dubbed Rockford Files. Sorry no English, but there is library full of books in the hotel lobby; how civilized I remark to Dylan. I’ve never seen an American hotel with a library ! We read while a thunderstorm spanks the cobblestones below our window.
The morning breaks to cool blue skies and the feeling that we have a grip on the mental map of the city and decide to stretch out across the city. It seems everyone working at the hotel speaks English quite well. The Czech language is so foreign to my eyes and ears that struggle to grasp it; I applaud hotel people’s English skills.
After another full day of hikes; I read on the local events page about a latin music festival taking place across town featuring food, drink and song. Curious I am ! We exited the metro and rose into a park where a latin music festival was indeed in progress. A full mariachi band held court from the stage and the scent of burning animal flesh filled the air. Brazilian churrasco, tacos, all that one desired could be had.
More interesting was that strange antenna structure we spied from Letna Park is just a block away. It is identified as Žižkov Television Tower built during the Russian years. It is reviled by many for its symbolic value but admired for the enhancements performed by the artist David Černý He created several crawling babies that are attached to the walls that make one do a double-take. Mark that word surreal again. The tower is illuminated at night by a cycling series of color schemes making an attractive artifice. We didn’t go to the bar at the top or check out the hotel, but the park was pleasant and the beer tasty.
Dylan is craving pizza. We stumble upon a greek restaurant with the best goat cheese flat crust pizza I’ve had so far in my life. Perhaps the ambiance affected my taste.
9 days was just too short a time to absorb the city, but friends in Amsterdam are expecting me. I think I will need to spend at least a month there to leisurely explore to really capture a the sense of place. I hope this keeps my ancestor’s spirits engaged until I return.
A productive growing season is coming to an end, snow is predicted in a few days, but no time for rest as I evaluate what worked and what didn’t do so well. I’ve always been a compact gardener due to limited space and sunlight. This year I obtained another plot in our local community garden which allowed me to stretch my imagination and experiment. Acorn squash, leeks, and potatoes were the major successes. I’d never planted potatoes, the ease of growing and deliciousness ensures their survival in my plot next year. Potato-Leek soup won the prize. The garlic which I’ve grown for over 15 years are solid producers. Planting of cloves is a little later now due to climatic changes which I’ll expound on soon.
The weather was a great partner this year, so much so that I got to travel to Europe for a couple weeks, Amsterdam and Prague. The growers in the Netherlands are producing magnificent vegetables in their high tech hot houses. National Geographic recently profiled this work of art.
With the hot July sun, San Marzano tomatoes were once again the stars of the fruiting section, followed by the serranos, jalapenos and gypsy peppers.
The soil in the new plot got quite hard between rainfalls, will need some more compost for sure, my legacy plots have been mulched and composted every year and difference in soil texture is astounding.
Next year I will attempt to grow more native crops. Many of my garden companions are from Southeast Asia and have introduced plants I’m not used to seeing. Red Amaranth for one is stunning to watch. I believe the leaves are used in soups and stir fries. I haven’t had any reports of seed use. I may try some of that next year.
So aside from a few persistent serrano plants and late-surging chards things are winding down, save for some soil conditioning and future fantasies.
I’m available for consulting year ’round on any and all topics – just saying…….
Whenever I hear an appeal for money that states the organization is ‘fighting’ something I get agitated. Whether it’s fighting cancer, homelessness, racism or bad breath, the fighting metaphor is lame.
I’ll use cancer as an example. Cancer is a biologic malfunctioning of cellular replication in our bodies, cells not reading their DNA messages properly or reading bad data from the DNA. It is not an an external enemy that we can engage in physical combat or country we can invade. I think the ‘fight’ is an extension of our militaristic culture adopted by advertisers because of its simplicity (mindlessness). It also implies that there is a winner or a loser. Like the phrase “lose a battle with cancer” which means cancer won. How can cancer ‘win’. Where’s the battle, it’s our own bodies.
So I don’t want to be critical without making a positive contribution. How about we say “Find immunotherapies that tame our out of control cells” or since most cancers have environmental causes, “exercise, eat healthy, don’t smoke !”. I guess that wouldn’t be profitable.
This is another prepare ahead of time party delight from Turkey. It can be purchased in jar form but is so much better freshly prepared. The scent of roasting peppers,garlic and eggplant is like perfume…
Ajvar, pronounced, “eye – vahr ” is a vegetable dish made from roasted red peppers, eggplant, garlic, olive oil and any other things you might want to add. There are several local variations running around Romania, , Bulgaria, Serbia and other Balkan nations. For a party use the following recipe:
6 fresh red paprika (mild or medium-hot, to taste)
3 medium-size eggplants
1/4 – 1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely minced
3 large garlic cloves ( at least ) , chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Roast the paprika and eggplants over charcoal or a gas flame until the skin is blistered and black. Place the roasted vegetables in a plastic bag and let them steam in their own heat for 10 – 15 minutes. Peel off and toss the burnt skin along with the steams and seeds.
Sautee the onions and garlic in some olive oil until soft. Add all ingredients together and run thru the food processor until you get the texture you like. It’s nice a little chunky.
I dress it up with a little chopped parsely or cilantro.