My father’s family has been in Brooklyn since the 1600’s. Seriously. I’m pretty sure that if we had had a relative on the Mayflower, I’d know it, but we were here since soon after that. Of course that is only Dad’s side. Our other sides are pretty much Johnny-come-latelies. In any case, it was inconceivable for my Dad’s family to imagine living anywhere but Brooklyn. Forget another state, Manhattan wasn’t even in the cards. Our two aunts and their husbands and kids lived in Brooklyn. Our uncle, (horror of horrors!) was sent kicking and screaming to Pennsylvania by his company. There was practically a wake over it. One of the things my father used to say was: “If you’re not in Brooklyn, you’re camping out.”

Our family got together every single weekend for my entire childhood in Brooklyn. The parents got together over whiskey sours and the kids were sent away with Pepsi, Coke, 7up and pretzels. After we hung around in our separate groups for a while, we would all have a big dinner then the mothers would clean up and the fathers would go smoke cigarettes and then we’d go home. Each holiday was also included, in addition to the weekends. This was our extended family, all of it, and we stuck together. We earnestly stuck together.

When I was about eleven, my father announced that it was time that we visit our mother’s mother.

(She had a mother?)

This came as a shock to me and my brother. We never knew she had a mother. We discovered that she actually did have a mother and she lived in CANADA! Her mother and some of her brothers lived in Manitoba on a farm.

(She had brothers?)

(They lived on a farm?)

This was before President Eisenhower started the Interstate Highway system we have today. It took five full days to drive on two lane roads from Brooklyn to Manitoba. This was summer, and I might point out for those of you who are young, there was no such thing as air conditioning anywhere, let alone in cars.

My brother and I fought the whole way for entertainment and my father kept trying to hit us from the front seat while driving, but we had mastered the art of not getting hit in the car by wedging ourselves in the far corners where his right arm swinging and punching at us while driving couldn’t reach. One odd thing I remember is that we got turned around at some point and my mom mentioned the placement of the sun and my dad actually backed out of South Dakota. How many people can say they have done that, eh?

When we arrived in Manitoba, which is a place that is actually NORTH of North Dakota, we found my Mystery Grandmother’s farm. My mother got out of the car and walked over to this teeny, tiny, squat old lady. This person was easily 145 years old.

Then my mother started speaking in tongues. My brother and I were thoroughly flummoxed. It appeared that our mother was speaking another language, unknown to us. Understand here that no one had explained anything to us. This mystery family we had never heard of, on a mystery farm in a foreign country NORTH of North Dakota, spoke Ukrainian. My brother finally gleaned this somehow. He was a pretty good detective, and four years older than I. I just thought the whole bunch of them were possessed.

There were more surprises. My mother had ten and a half brothers and one sister. On this trip we met some of them. There were the short, squat ones and the tall, thin ones. Their stature was divided approximately in half. We didn’t know what a half a brother was, but we left that one alone because taking in the whole our mom had a family thing was more than enough to process.

My Mystery Grandmother had fingers that were gnarled up as though they were in knots. She had NO fingernails. Not one. She didn’t even look in our direction for the whole visit, which I think lasted about four days. It was as though we were not visible. She totally creeped me out. As she showed no interest in me, and there was no way to communicate with her, it was not a problem staying away from her.

We never were told anything to call her, so I will just refer to her as MG. MG’s farmhouse had no running water. There was an outhouse, replete with spiders. There was a well for drinking from and a river for doing laundry, since the well water was too hard. MG’s farmhouse had no electricity.


Duh. We were from the CITY. We were from BROOKLYN!

We had traveled back in time to an earlier century.

The kitchen had a wood stove in the center. In the cold weather, (and let me tell you, there is some seriously cold weather up there in Canada, and I’m pretty sure that people still live there on purpose!), the family, each with his own blanket, slept in a circle in the kitchen around the wood stove. MG had burns all up and down her hands and arms because, for reasons I never knew, she had no feeling in her hands or arms, so she would constantly be burned by the woodstove in the winter because she was unaware when she was touching the stove.

This is the only picture of MG that someone took of my mother and my father and Woody and me with her. Here it is:

After this visit, we never saw her again. If it were not for the photograph, I might have thought I imagined the whole thing.

Later, when I was an adult, my mother showed me the other picture of her. This was with my Aunt Ann, the bigger one, and my mother, the little one, and her father and mother. She was told by her sister that her father wanted a picture taken of them with his girls. There is no picture of the myriad boys. My mother was also told that her father told my grandmother to take care of the girls, that the boys could take care of themselves. A few months after this picture was taken, my grandfather died of pneumonia after helping a neighbor pull his ox out of a frozen lake. No shit.

My Aunt Ann actually thought I was great. This was new to me, since my mother thought I was a waste of space. She sent smocked dresses to me by mail, which my girls wore also and I expect my granddaughters will, too. Of course, I never knew they came from her since I didn’t know she existed at the time.

I only met my Aunt once when I was about 13. I had never been on a plane. People just didn’t fly back then. The day before we left, I went to Coney Island with some friends and, since it was overcast, I assumed I wouldn’t burn. I was wrong. My mother had picked an outfit for me that was, oddly, the exact same color as my skin. This was a time when, if you DID fly on a plane, you dressed up for the occasion. I wore a bright red suit with patent leather shoes and a little hat.

My Aunt Ann had cancer. No one told me this. (Does anyone see a pattern forming here?) She was stick thin and could not walk. She sat, crumpled, on the couch. Later, spinal cancer was mentioned, but I never really knew what closed her eyes for good. Her husband, Uncle George, carried her everywhere. They had no children and were notoriously in love. They had owned and had been running a very successful restaurant in Calgary. (The restaurant business was something I was later to learn was one way her family escaped the farm.) We spent a few days with her, while huge swaths of my skin peeled off, rather like I was molting.

Soon after we returned from Calgary, my Aunt Ann died. My Uncle George totally disappeared. The restaurant was left abandoned. The consensus is that he could not live without her and killed himself in such a way as not to be found. I always thought this was incredibly romantic when I was young. Now, I think that perhaps he could have used some support to get him through the grief, but he wasn’t about to get that from my mother’s family. We were not a supportive family, on my mom’s side. Were my dad involved, he would have stayed with Aunt Ann until she died and then stayed with Uncle George until he was able get past the grief enough to accept living without his beloved. That’s how things were done in his family. But, then, my dad was not there. Abandonment is what was done in my mom’s family.

Recently I had occasion to order a certified copy of my birth certificate. (The surprises just keep on coming.) My mother’s place of birth was listed as California. So far as I know, my mother never set foot in California. Apparently, my mother lied on my birth certificate. How’s that for weird?



Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:20:39

I enjoy your family history so much Irene, but I’m always left wanting more. I would love to know how your parents met and how two people (from what I can figure out) so completely different in compassion, love and care, can presumably fall in love and get married…
And the picture with your MG, is that your mother over her shoulder?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:45:31

That’s my mother with the cat’s eye glasses. At the time I couldn’t see a thing, but my brother could. (Not that we knew what we were looking at.)

This is taking me so long to type on account of my right hand tried to sever a piece of my left index finger yesterday and the bandage is pressing way too many letters that are entirely unnecessary.

Is my MG STRANGE or what? (How about my brother, on the other hand?)

I’ll get to all of it eventually. My story telling comes in strange random spurts.

Comment by Christine W. |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:25:11

I love these old photos!

Has anyone tried to find Uncle George? I wonder where he went…hmmmm…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:48:00

Hi Chrisitne!

I was only 13, so I didn’t know what to do.

As far as I know, he completely vanished. it was horribly sad, now that I’m old enough to know better.

Poor Uncle George. I had two Uncle Georges, but that’s a whole other story.

Comment by George |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:31:38

You said, “My mother’s place of birth was listed as California. So far as I know, my mother never set foot in California. ” Why would she lie? How could she lie? The people who print these certificates don’t ask you where you were born; they tell you. There is a story there.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:49:57


What can I say?

I just ordered the certified copy and there it was.

Not only was she born in California, but her last name was spelled differently.

Maybe I’m illegal! (Don’t tell anyone!)

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-15 15:12:20

Wow , such a boring family I have. Brooklyn does rule, however.
Now about you and getting injured. I had my turn a few years ago. remember? A friend of mine wanted to wrap me in bubble wrap. I am thinking you need the same.


Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 02:43:32


I would go for the bubble wrap, but it’s so HOT here! It would be way too sweaty.

(I call it “pop-it paper” and so does Victor. We always have. Perhaps it’s regional. It drives Sara crazy, cause she thinks we’re teaching her kids the wrong words.)

My family is extremely not boring, I agree.

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:47:34

Although my grandpa was in jail for a bit… legend has is for 2 month to 2 years who knows. My great grandfather ran away to San Fransico and supposedly died in the great earthquake. Since there are no real records we do not know if that is true or not. I bet you dollars to donuts though if there is a list , he is the only Goldstein on it.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 05:53:49

What was your grandpa in jail for? This is tasty!
Poor great grandpa!

Comment by melissa (irene’s friend) |Edit This
2009-05-17 07:52:20

If you heard Grandpa tell it , his brother set him up. They were in business together , Grandpa went to jail for extortion.
Now they say what comes around goes around, my great grandfather ran away from his family to San Fran and died in the earthquake. Hmmm, Karma?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:14:55


It sounds like Great Grandpa got what was coming to him!

did your grandpa ever get back at his brother? Some brotherly love there!

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-15 16:42:20

you left out the part about City Girl wanting to cuddle the piglets…
i like that part!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 02:56:22

Oh yeah! Thanks Sara!

I was wandering around the farm and I found a pen full of the sweetest, pinkest baby piglets, so I climbed over the fence to cuddle them. (I always have been a sucker for animals.)

The next thing I new my mother was flying over the fence, grabbing me and hurling me and then herself out of the pen.

City girls don’t know that the 350 pound sow is not happy with people cuddling her babies.

I used to think it was the only sign ever that she cared about me, but actually now I think that she did it because my father really liked me and he would have been angry at her if I’d been attacked and possibly eaten by an angry sow.

When NANA was living a block from us at the ritzy retirement community she did a similar thing for Lenore. Lenore went down to the lake to pet the swans, but they had recently laid a clutch of eggs and were not friendly. My mother booked her skinny body down the hill and snatched up Lenore right before the swan attacked.

I was surprised for two reasons. First, birds have no teeth, so how bad could a bite or two be? My mother explained that when she was growing up they had attack swans to warn them when someone was on the farm. They made lots of noise and their bites really do hurt. Remember, we were the city people.

Second, my mother only liked Lonny out of all five of my kids. It amazed me that she snapped up Lenore from the jaws of danger. Perhaps it would have looked bad to her fellow retirees to allow her granddaughter to be attacked.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-16 04:26:22

maybe it was the messiness factor?
think of all the paring that would be necessary if you (or lenore) had significant injuries from the pig (or swan)… plus, the bleaching, and ironing, and sewing… it would take all day! how irritating!

(i admit, i’m hamming it up a little– i really do think she loved and even liked all of us, including you. she was just, well, nana, and had a hard time showing affection. but in the end, she didn’t want her daughter or her granddaughter to be eaten by a quasi-domesticated animal, even if you two girls should’ve known better in the first place and could’ve used a lesson-learning!)

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 05:01:09

You think so, Sara? I hope that’s true.

For those of you who don’t get the reference Sara is referring to, you could go here and see:


Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-05-16 11:11:07

It’s true… Swans are scary, nasty creatures. I got bitten by a black swan when I was about six. They terrify me now. I’ve never been the same since…

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:16:31

I can’t understand how I didn’t learn swans were dangerous until I was an adult.
sometimes I think my brain is on vacation when I’m supposed to be learning things, Zara!

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:56:30

I did get bit by a duck, when I was aobut 5. Lollipop farm on Long Island. We have it the bite and my screaming (well not really since there was no sound then) in a movie. Nasty duck, my mom said it was after me the entire time.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 05:55:38

Oh, Poor Melissa,

When you’re five you are so trusting.
You see a fluffy duck and go over to it and it ATTACKS you.
So wrong.
So very wrong.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-15 16:46:24

also, you can totally tell that MG is has mangled hands. i wonder how she
beat herself up, so?
it’s not all that easy to lose *all* of one’s fingertips. do you think she might have had leprosy? or just many years of repeated frostbite? or renaud’s? or similar knife-handling skills as her granddaughter?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:03:16

Sara, I know! Even from far away you can see that they are HUGE. I think it was a combination of rheumatic arthritis, and Renaud’s, both of which she passed along to NANA. Also I’m sure repeated burns were a factor.

I don’t think she was missing her fingertips, I think she was just missing her fingernails. But now that you say that, perhaps she was missing them. Lord knows frostbite where it gets 50 below on a regular basis in the winter and living in a house with no heat didn’t help. She had to do the laundry at the river, remember? You still have laundry in the winter and there were scores of children there dirtying up clothes. Plus, again, the repeated burns.

Any ideas why she had no sensation in her hands and arms?

I never heard of any leprosy, but then, I wouldn’t have, would I?

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-16 04:30:21

sort of looks like her fingers might have been congenitally webbed…
google medical images of congenital finger webbing or “lobster claws.” i’ll bet you’ll find some. poor gal. but i’ll bet growing up with significant malformations toughened her for a life of early widowhood in manitoba with 952 kids to support. i’ll bet she was a tough old bird.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 05:02:40

But, Sara,

WHY didn’t she have fingernails, or did she actually not have finger tips?

And WHY were her arms and hands numb to pain?

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 09:41:14

OH MY GOD! we have a flipper-person as a family member!

omg omg omg

i am so excited…i feel like i’m a character in Geek Love!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 12:22:26


You are jumping to conclusions here. She had terrible rheumatic arthritis and Reynaud’s and she was badly and repeatedly burned.
You don’t know because no one does!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:51:46


I am trying to comment on Sara’s last post , but I can’t even get close to it.

I never noticed my MG’s hands in the picture where she was young!!!

They are ENORMOUS!

I think she DID have “Lobster Claws!”


This is going to take some getting used to.

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-05-17 12:05:36


great grandma had sweet lobster claw flipper hands

that is super cool

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-18 05:58:02

Does anyone understand why my children think that this deformity is a cool thing?
I’m stumped here.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-15 18:03:29

i love that nana pretended to be from california. but i’m pretty sure she was diagnosable as paranoid personality disorder, so it seems like that might have had something to do with it. crazy old lady.

do you ever think about how gross it is that you were in her womb?

by the way, i never knew anything about any of this, either. so no one tells me anything, either. i wish someone had taught me to speak russian or some eastern european language.

our family is weird.
you write about it with such fluidity though!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:10:51

How in hell could I have taught you Ukranian when I only heard it for four days when I was 13?

Dad could have taught you Russian, I suppose, but he was pretty busy trying to work to support his enormous family, and making sure you did your homework.

I would have taught you Italian, if I had remembered it. I did teach you some French. We sang French songs, remember?

Only YOU would ask if I thought how gross it was to be in her womb. All I know about that part is that she didn’t want to gain weight, so she didn’t. No one could tell she was pregnant. It’s amazing that I wasn’t damaged in some obvious way. (On the other hand, the birth certificate I just got actually just has dotted lines for my weight. Could it be that I weighed nothing?)

Duh. Of course she was nuts.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:45:04

Now that I look at the picture, I don’t think I could have been thirteen. I look much younger. Maybe I was ten or eleven. My brother is four years older, how old does he look to you?
MG does look 145, though, eh?

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Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 09:44:13

you look ten or eleven there to me.

seriously, like we’re straight from Geek Love. maybe you were actually three there and you just looked ten or eleven cause you were a freak.

this is so exciting.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 12:23:33

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Lenore!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:33:23


I think it’s time you knew.

All five of you were born with little stubby tails that came to a point. Each of you had different patterns in your fur. Some of you had stripes, some speckled, some with spots. The doctors all said we had to remove them or you would be scarred for life.
I really sort of regret it, they were utterly adorable little tails.
(But. What’s done is done. We just have to go on.)

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 18:20:57

now it’s like i’m the MAIN CHARACTER of Geek Love!
you know this is my favorite book.
you know all of this makes sense now.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 03:56:48

Good to find your rightful place in life.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:20:50


I am very much afraid that if you look closely at her left hand in particular, both when she was young and when she was old, it looks just like ectrodactyly.
I think Sara is right again!
I think I just WANTED her to be wrong about this one cause it’s so totally discomforting!

Look for yourself:


Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-05-17 12:26:25

i think we can all agree that you are both freaks

doesnt that make everything better?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-18 06:01:18

Lonny, who so you refer to when you say “both”?

I am turning into a dithering idiot over all this.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-05-15 18:05:49

See, this stuff if tricky and those who try to write
(and arent we all trying to write?)
(Who has actually written?)
know how difficult it is to tell a story like this
in a manner that moves the reader along the page.
This Irene, she’s crafty and capable.
Surely her husband is blessed among men.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:16:50

James Michael Blaine,

It is true that I am always trying to write and have never actually written. I just keep editing things over and over and I guess when I just get sick of it I finally post. But I still want to make changes. Always.

My husband is a blessing.
I am blessed among women.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-05-15 20:22:43

Your dad’s family sounds exactly like both sides of my family. Ben finds this whole extended family thing very strange.

I am really angry that my grandpa never taught my dad or any of us Swedish. It would be really cool if I were bilingual, though I would prefer a more useful language than Swedish.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:24:46


We would have had an extended family thing if we could have, but Victor is an only child and all his relatives are gone. I only have my elusive brother and he has no children and barely ever appears. All the rest of my relatives are gone too.

But Ben forgets that we constructed an extended family from our amazing and wonderful friends. They were better than family. We got to pick each other.

If you knew Swedish, you would be close to learning all the other languages in the area. Norwegian, Finnish and whatever you call the language from Denmark. (I’m blanking out here.)

I don’t think it would help much with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian though. I may be wrong, but I think they are based differently.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:21:21

Ben seems to have forgotten his entire childhood, from what I can gather.

Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are all really similar, but I think Finnish is actually more closely related to Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It’s not really very Scandinavian at all.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:03:32


When we were in Turkey, we were told that, odd as it may sound, Turkish is closely related to Finnish and Hungarian.

TAGS: , , , , , ,

IRENE ZION has been married to the same curmudgeon for 40 years. She has 5 children, none of whom sufficiently appreciates her. The one you probably know is Lenore, who frequently gives her mother hives. Irene paints oil portraits and makes her own frames. She has been described as an outsider artist. Most of her paintings creep people out, especially her family. She finds this to be greatly satisfying. She writes non-fiction for TNB and loves every minute of it. She is writing fiction now too, but is too chicken to show it to anyone. She has two golden retrievers who will inherit anything of worth she leaves behind. Her kids will delight in dividing up her famous cork collection and her notorious stockpile of bubble wrap.

2 responses to “The Invisible Side of the Family”

  1. Carl D'Agostino says:

    Those days seemingly deformed hands mostly had nothing to do with physiology. It had to do with men and women who blazed a wilderness frontier or blazed in the wilderness of a factory. The hands of a smithy, a brick layer, the steel workers and those of a woman too who planted and harvested and helped build her own house. Hands that built empires and monuments and pounded stone and in our case, hands that built our family foundations.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Carl, I know that’s true. The hard physical labor people before us had to do tended to deform their hands. Also, though, were the diseases which contributed and worsened the effect. My mom, for instance, had rheumatoid arthritis and she worked, worked, worked all the time. Her hands looked just like those of the witches in the drawings in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. My grandmother couldn’t open her hand to clean it. My cousins told me she had them help her to peel her fingers back to wash them. It wasn’t a time of running water or electricity, so it certainly wasn’t a time for good medical care. Glad I was born after that time, I’ll tell you that!
    Thank you so much for reading, Carl. I love your self-portrait, by the way.

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