52 Ancestors – Week #11 – "Lucky" (My Story)

This week’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks topic is “Lucky”  – in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. I was planning on writing about how lucky I have been “employment-wise.” But then I discovered March 14 was National “Write Your Story” Day. I remembered writing a lengthy autobiography as part of the Genealogy Do-Over I started in 2015. So – for several reasons (one of which is that I am on “Grandma Duty” in Colorado this week) I have decided to post the “Story of Me.” I have a good excuse for not posting yesterday. I spent the day in planes, trains, and automobiles. (ok- the train was at the Denver airport between terminals, but it’s still a train!)

Before you decide to read on, I must warn you – I am old. Therefore my story is quite lengthy (almost 7 typewritten pages.)  If you’re not keen to learn all the intricacies of my life, just stop reading now. It’s okay – I get it. I’m really not that interesting. But it’s important to have the story written.

I was born on February 9, 1955, at 9:01 P.M. at the Yokosuka Naval Base Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan. My father, Alan Edouard SAMUEL was in the Navy and my mother, the former Doris May LICHTENTHAL didn’t want to spend two years alone stateside while he completed his tour so she joined him in Japan in January 1954. Both my parents were just 22 years old when I was born, married less than two years. Our address on the US Naval Base was: 684-B Area X, Yokohama, Japan.  
My passport photo – 1956
I was named after my mother’s childhood friend, Debby Moscowitz. On February 28, 1955, I was named during the Friday night service at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, NY. All four of my grandparents attended the service as well as a close family friend, who was visiting New York from Japan.
I remember nothing about the months I spent in Japan, probably because I was only 9 months old when we returned to the States! Thanks to my parents’ penchant for photography and a probable genetic marker for collecting (NOT hoarding!) I have many letters, photos, movies and artifacts to help me recreate what life was like during that time. 
In 2015 I wrote a book, Letters Home, based on the letters my mother wrote home to her mother during those years.
Upon our return to the United States in late October 1955, we moved to 38 Linden Place in New Rochelle, NY. Both sets of my grandparents lived in New Rochelle. They actually lived across the hall from each other in an apartment house at 30 Eastchester Road. (Are you channeling Everybody Loves Raymond? You should be!) My sister, Jeanne was born in New Rochelle, barely 16 months after me.
By October 1956, my father started attending graduate school at Yale University, paid for by his naval service. (Dad always had some kind of grand plan going.) We were living in New Haven at 17 Ward Street which is now a pretty rough area. My sister Katharine was born and we moved to a two-floor duplex in a much nicer part of New Haven – 88 Cooper Place. I have two stories about that residence: 1) My mother told a story about a woman who was taking a shower and leaned too hard on the soap dish. The wall collapsed and she ended up outside, naked. 2) Living in this two-floor duplex with three small children is what prompted my mother to choose a ranch style home for her next residence.
December 1959
I remember watching as our new home was being built in the suburban town of Hamden. We moved into that home in 1959. I lived there until I moved into my own apartment in 1974. My mother lived there until she passed away in December of 2011. It remains in the family today, purchased by my daughter and her husband in 2013. 
My sister, Elizabeth (Betsy) was born in 1961 and shortly after that, my parents divorced. My mom, faced with raising four little girls aged 7, 6, 4 and 1 was understandably stressed. She broke down crying one day while purchasing tires at the local Firestone. The manager, Al Falcone took pity on her and asked her to coffee. And – as they say – the rest was history. My mom and Al had a son, my brother Dean, in 1964. Our family further expanded on Sundays and holidays when we all got together with Al’s children from his first marriage, Sandra, Mark, and Laura. Good times.
I began my formal schooling at the ripe old age of 4 ½, attending Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade at Alice Peck School in Hamden. Some notable moments during those years include throwing up on the Principal’s car (I’m still mortified) and the day the kid behind me leaned back and split his head open on the shelf. The kid in front of me was so upset she peed her pants and it ran onto my shoes. Oh, and I guess I learned to read – something I’ve enjoyed throughout my life.
1963 – 4th grade
Hamden was becoming a “bedroom” town to the city of New Haven in those days. As the town grew, a new school was built – Bear Path. I attended there until moving on to Sleeping Giant Junior High for grades 7, 8, and 9. Highlights of my elementary years: getting moved to another 3rd grade class because the teacher was really mean (she died later that year – hmm), being sent to the principal’s office in 4th grade because my handwriting was so bad (pretty sure that couldn’t have been the real reason, but that’s what I remember), being called “Peanut” by my 5th grade teacher (I was the shortest kid in my class.) 
I forgive Mrs. Knox though. She instilled a life-long love of writing in me. This was the year I realized exactly how short I was. 10 years old and not quite 48” tall. My paternal grandmother, “Nana”, paid for me to get some bone scans to see if I was “normal.” Diagnosis? Just doggone short. I thought junior- high would be a better experience. Wrong. My very first day, I was confronted by some “big” kids, who told me, “Hey, kid – Kindergarten’s that way.” Swell. Later that year I made a real name for myself when reaching far into the ice cream cooler at lunchtime, I actually fell in! It was 1967 – girls still had to wear dresses to school. Wonderful. I ran for Student Council each and every one of the three years. I lost every time.
Hamden High School. There were two junior highs in town but only one high school. 2400 charming adolescents spanning three grades (10-12). Hamden had just made the news in Time magazine (Feb. 7, 1969) following a major race riot at the school. But, the girls could now wear pants! Much more comfortable while they were puffing on cigarettes (and some other stuff??) lounging on the front lawn of the school. Not me of course. Waaaaay too afraid to get in trouble. Pretty sure I was the shortest of the 2400, but I did have a couple of close contenders. Again, I ran for Student Council. This time I decided to use my height, or rather, the lack of it, to my benefit. I closed my speech (which I had to give standing next to the podium so people could see me) by saying, “So…. the next time you bend down to tie your shoe, there I’ll be.” I won a seat for the next three years. (People still remember this speech 40 years later!)
The best part of high school was meeting my friend, Doreen. We are still “besties” to this day. Lots of good (and some odd) memories there. I hung with a very small group of people who frequented a certain teacher’s office between classes. I got my first job at Morton’s Drug Store as soon as I turned 16. Got fired but I can’t remember why. Maybe I wasn’t Jewish enough for them. Got my second job at Maxwell’s Drug Store in the next plaza. (By the way, Hamden is famous for its Magic Mile, one of the first strip malls in Connecticut. We also had the first McDonald’s. My siblings and I were always amazed by the sign that proclaimed “Over ONE MILLION sold!) The manager at Maxwell’s was an old friend of my step-dad. Frank actually hired me because I was Jewish and he thought I would work on Sundays, Christmas, and Easter without complaint. But – as I like to say – I’m Italian by osmosis. Once my Italian step-dad entered the scene, holidays became a major food-fest. I did my shifts dutifully though and worked at Maxwell’s through college, even getting my friend, Doreen a job there. (She met her husband, John working there, so – you’re welcome Dor!)
My 9th grade report card
Academically, I did ok. But back then a “C” average was considered okay. I loved my German teacher, Mrs. Karacsonyi. I took German, beginning in 7th grade all the way through high school because I wanted to know what my grandmother was saying to my mother. (They emigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1938.) Unfortunately, the dialect you learn in school is not the same as that spoken in Vienna. It did help a bit though. I did pay attention in Biology class. To one thing. Genetics. I learned that if a very short person has a child with a fairly tall person there is a 50 % chance of having an average size child. I met the man would become my husband in 1974. Scott was 6 feet tall. I was 4 feet 10 inches. (So it said on my license. I think I really was 4 ‘8 ¾” which is what I am now.) We now have two children, Caitlin and Meghan – both of average height. Knowledge is power.

Freshman Year – SCSC

I graduated from Hamden High in 1972 and went straight to college; Southern Connecticut State College (now Southern Connecticut State University). I was 17 ½ years old. I was going to be the “coolest English teacher” ever.

Somewhere during my sophomore year, I decided that English was completely BORING. Totally blindsided by this revelation, I had no idea what to do. I remembered my friend Paula (from that small group in high school) babysitting a hearing-impaired boy when we were younger. Special Education was just beginning to be a major field and SCSC was the school for Special Education teachers at the time. So that was that. I would study Special Education and work with students who had mild learning disabilities.

Going to college at SCSC was basically like attending a giant Hamden High. It was primarily a commuter school at that time. I lived at home because it was too expensive to live on campus. I received a grant to pay the majority of my bills due to our family’s large size and small income.  The loans I took out were later forgiven because I became a teacher. I supplemented my grant money by
continuing my job at Maxwell’s. I was making $1.85 an hour. Finally, in 1974 the company agreed to give us a nickel raise. The minimum wage was raised to $1.91 just a few days later. Nice people I worked for.

 A childhood friend, Renee, introduced me to Scott Holman in October 1974. By spring 1975, I had moved into my first apartment at 1074 Dixwell Avenue in Hamden, CT. My roommate was Patty, a childhood friend of Doreen’s. The rent on the third-floor apartment was $150 a month. The only heat was a space heater in the living room and whatever radiated from a “gas on gas” stove in the kitchen. I bought a waterbed to avoid freezing at night. It all seemed like a good idea at the time. Within a few months, Patty moved out to live with the guy on the first floor. Solution? Move Scott in! It was perhaps the most radical thing I had ever done. Of course, it was the 70s.

We lived there for some months then moved several blocks south to 40 Whiting Street. Our landlord was an Italian guy who said he didn’t speak English. It did appear that was true when we tried to get him to fix the kitchen drainpipe that had frozen because it ran down the outside of the house. He also didn’t seem to understand when we expressed our disgust at the fruit flies invading our apartment as a result of his winemaking in the basement. He sure knew how to speak English when asking for the rent though.

I did my first student-teaching in Meriden working with what was then referred to as TMR students (Trainable Mentally Retarded – what a horrible term.) The master teacher was horrific. I spent many days crying as I drove the 20 minutes from school to my job at the drug store. The highlight was spending the evenings at the bar with Scott, coloring whatever drawings I needed for class the next day.

My second student teaching experience was much better. I worked in two elementary schools in Hamden. Ah… these are the kids I wanted to with. Sweet kids, with minimal learning disabilities. I graduated from Southern with a B.S. in Special Education in May 1976.

I no longer was working at Maxwell’s. The Adams Drug company said they had evidence of employees stealing, took me (alone) in the backroom and threatened to “get the authorities involved.” I panicked. I don’t like to be in trouble. I signed some crazy paper that said I taken funds from the company. What a sucker – I never even asked them for evidence. I left and never heard another word from them. Shortly after that, I got a job at J.C. Penney working in the catalog department.

But, I couldn’t get a teaching job. There was so much competition. The market was flooded with newly graduated teachers. Out of desperation, I agreed to an interview 3 miles from the Canadian border. My sister Kathy joined me for the road trip. On the way home, it was raining. No, it was pouring. Of course, my wipers stopped working. We “MacGyver-ed” a substitute contraption, tying our shoelaces together and running it from wiper to wiper through the inside of the car. By the time we hit Meriden, Connecticut (maybe an hour later) Kathy’s hands were blistered from the pulling. It was raining even harder. If the radio in my car had worked, we might have heard the cause was Hurricane Belle. We decided to stop at a hotel. Great idea till we got locked out of the room on the balcony when we went outside to check the rain. I still hate Meriden.

I didn’t get the job. I was quite distraught, thinking I would never get a “real” job. I remember bawling my eyes out on the waterbed while Scott consoled me. He’s a good guy.

I finally got a job in October 1976 at Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) as a part-time aide. I worked with adolescents who had severe emotional and learning deficits. In January I went to full-time. I applied for several teaching jobs over the next few years with no success. I believed the reason was “they” thought I couldn’t do the job because I was so short. (Do you sense a theme here?) I finally earned a teaching position in 1979, becoming the first “pre-vocational” teacher in the program. I taught basic life skills and simple job tasks. (Years later, I finally asked why it took so long for “them” to hire me as a teacher. The answer: “You simply just weren’t ready.)

Scott and I took several “breaks” in our relationship. He moved out and I moved to 205 Norton Street in New Haven. Directly across the street were the “Moonies”, members of the Unification Church, a “cult” religion headed by Sun Myung Moon. I had a perfect foil for their frequent proselytizing.  I just told them I was a Bahá’í. They would take their leave before I could launch into my “spiel.”

Years before, my friend Renee and I attempted to be part of the youth group at the local reformed temple. Not my crowd. Our friend Patty had developed a crush on this guy who was a Bahá’í so she and I thought we’d check it out. Loved them. The Bahá’ís basically believe that God sends a divine messenger for each generation. Bahá’u’lláh was the messenger for our time. Well, technically for the 19th century. The religion has its roots in Iran. There was no church and lots of music. Also – no drugs, no alcohol, and no pre-marital sex. Perfect. It was the 70s after all. I drank my fair share but it wasn’t that important to me. (Oh – the drinking age was 18 then.) I really didn’t want to do drugs – too scared to get in trouble. So, this was perfect. “Sorry, it’s against my religion.” But then I met Scott. Hmm. Did I mention I met him in a bar? The Sleigh House Restaurant in Hamden.

 So, after we moved in together the Bahá’í thing kind of waned. In some ways, I do miss it. I really connected with much of what the religion offered. I even visited the Bahá’í Temple in Wilmette, Illinois and went to a National Bahá’í Conference in Oklahoma City. Saw Cher and met Seals and Crofts. At some point, Scott moved back in with me in the New Haven apartment. Someone must have blabbed about our living arrangements because I remember getting a letter asking me to send back my membership card (I think that’s what it was called) if I insisted on continuing to “cohabitate” with Scott. I sent the card back. I didn’t want to get into trouble.

Our engagement photo

After three engagements (one he can’t
remember and one that we both broke) we married on May 28, 1983. His father, the Reverend William Winchester Holman married us at the Yale Divinity Chapel. My father, by then on his third marriage, came down from Toronto, Ontario with his wife Valerie, their three adopted children, Rodi, Kristen, and Marion. I can’t remember if Valerie’s son from her first marriage, Fraser came. My father’s second wife, Debbie and their daughter (my half-sister) Alexandra didn’t attend. It would have been weird. I now had 12 people I considered to be siblings. To my father’s credit, he was completely accepting of the fact I wanted my stepfather, “Alfie” to walk me down the aisle. Dad had his issues, but he could be a class act.

In 1985, our first daughter, Caitlin was born. I was, to put it mildly, a nervous mother. This autobiography is already too long so I’ll spare the readers the excruciating details of my incompetence as a new mother. The important thing is, she survived. I went back to work when Caitlin was 4 months old.

Scott and I bought our first (and probably our last) home in February 1986. We have been living there, in Hamden, ever since.

During my pregnancy and over the summer of 1986, I finally earned my M.S. in Learning Disabilities from Southern. Our second child, Meghan, was born in 1989. There were at least 5 other children born to ACES staff that year. The mother of one, a little boy named Ryan, was struggling with new motherhood and the stress of our difficult job. Carolyn and I decided we needed to do something, just for ourselves. We formed TBT Crafts (Two Broke Teachers) and for the next few years, enjoyed selling the personalized art cartoons created by Gay Martha Zurich through home parties and crafts shows. We even made some money!

I stayed at ACES for a total of 23 years. The majority of my career there was spent working with high-school students who had a variety of serious emotional, behavioral, and learning issues. These were the students who “could not be taught” in their local schools. The “sending” school districts would pay upwards of $20,000 – $40,000 to send a student to ACES for just one year.  While at ACES, I developed the first yearbook, a school library, and a variety of different courses. I made wonderful friends. Three, in particular, are still close to me today.

It was a great place to work, but quite draining. By 1999, our girls were 14 and 10. Like they say, “Bigger kids – bigger problems.” Not that the kids had big problems, but I was just so tired at the end of each work day I couldn’t fully attend to helping them with homework, getting dinner cooked and on the table, managing their schedules and all the other daily minutia of motherhood. I was tired. And stressed.

Then an opportunity presented itself. At a meeting for one of my students, the director mentioned they might be looking for a teacher. She ran a small, alternative high school program for special education students. In Hamden. Five minutes from our house. It sounded like ACES the way it was back when I started in 1976, not the huge program it had morphed into. I took the job in September 2000. Good call.

Working at STEPS (Secondary Teen Educational Programs and Services) was great. It was March 2001 before I got sworn at. That had been a daily, if not hourly, experience at ACES. How refreshing. I was so lucky to have such a wonderful opportunity. (See what I did there? Lucky! This week’s 52 Ancestors prompt!)

Me and the Yield House dollhouse – 1974

I was even able to spend more time on my hobby, dollhouse miniatures. For many years, my mother and I shared the love of dollhouse miniatures. We participated in local craft shows, selling accessories she made, under the name D’Orette Creations, in honor of the company (D’Orette Linens) her parents had run in the late 1940s. By 2000, I owned at least four dollhouses and a plethora of furniture and accessories spanning several design eras. As I mentioned earlier, we are NOT hoarders. I was waiting till I could retire and spend time with all my “stuff.”

For the next several years, I worked at STEPS, enjoying happy hours and even a cruise with my new co-workers, who had quickly become like family. I get bored quickly which is why I think working in a small setting fits me so well. I was able to teach in my own way, creating new courses and activities without having to explain (or defend) my style to the “administration.” Until that one day when the Superintendent of Schools passed through my classroom. She was in the room no more than 6 seconds, but it was long enough for her to view and then complain about the sign hanging over my desk: “Sarcasm-Just one more service I offer.” I had to take it down.

In 2004 my step-father died. I had always spent a good deal of time with my mom, but as her health began failing, my responsibilities to her increased. My father passed away in 2008. We had never been particularly close but he had made a real effort in the year before he died to make amends for some of his transgressions. I’m glad for that, as I am now closer to my Canadian siblings.

Eventually, I picked up a part-time job teaching two nights at the Adult High School in Hamden. I figured it would serve me well later on, perhaps as a way to make some extra money in retirement. (Like my father, I also had a “grand plan”) I also facilitated the online program at HCLC. (STEPS changed its name to Hamden Collaborative Learning Center when the program moved and merged with REACH, a similar program for middle-school students)

In 2010, I co-wrote and published a book with Linda Gant, whom I met online after purchasing some pieces from her web-store. The Complete Reference Guide to Ideal’s 1964 and 1965 Petite Princess and Princess Patti Dollhouse Furniture detailed the history and information about the first “real” dollhouse furniture I ever owned. We quickly sold out of the 250 copies we had printed and are planning a revised edition for release in the near future. Hopefully, we will get that project completed in time for the opening of a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Linda’s collection (and our book) will be featured as one of only two dollhouses they have accepted i
nto their collection.

On December 2, 2011, my mother died. She fought valiantly for several years to overcome major health problems. I miss her terribly. Writing the book about her life in Japan was very therapeutic for me. I felt like I got to know my mom on another level. Reading her letters, I could imagine she was still here.

The last few years have been amazing. Our daughter Caitlin married Matthew Hardy, in 2012. They had a son, Jack Winchester in 2014.  Caitlin has been living in Colorado since 2003. Jack’s arrival made the distance seem even wider. I realized that I had accrued enough years teaching (35) to take retirement at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. So I did. I spent the summer of 2014 helping Caitlin adjust to motherhood. I also attended the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Genealogy has become another passion for me. I started my quest just before my father passed away, attempting to prove we had Irish heritage. No luck there yet. (Now you know why our kids are named Caitlin and Meghan). Sharing our family history is a way for me to honor all those who have passed on and keep them alive in my mind.

On October 11, 2014, our daughter Meghan married Andrew Jefts. They live 6 ½ minutes from us in the house I grew up in. (More about that house in a future post.) In October 2015, Paisley May Jefts was born. Our family grew again with the birth of Abram “Abe” James Hardy in 2017. Next month, we are looking forward to a new brother for Paisley! People always tell you there’s nothing like being a grandparent. Believe it!!

Since my retirement, I have been working part-time (but somehow it feels like more!) at Hamden Adult Education, teaching students who are looking to obtain their high school diploma. I also facilitate the online program and mentor clients working towards earning their high school credential through the National External Diploma Program. Recently, I started teaching genealogy classes through the Hamden Adult Ed Enrichment program. And – I am almost finished with my next book, Opulent in Aliases: Who was Catherine Seeley Fitzallen? The book chronicles the life of Scott’s great-grandmother, a real character. The project has more or less consumed me for over two years, and I can’t wait to present a finished product!

How lucky am I? It seems my “grand plan” has worked out.

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