A Happy Aside

The thing that fascinates me most about genealogy is the realization that I am who I am today because of decisions made by and events that happened to my ancestors. We like to think that we’re the masters of our own destinies — and, to be sure, we bear the responsibility for making the best of things once we’re here — but where we begin the journey is entirely up to the people who came before us. Why am I here and not there? Why do I have this and not that? What if my 12th great-grandfather had taken an arrow to the heart instead of to the foot in battle, or my 10th great-grandmother had become a nun rather than a wife? One change somewhere along the line, and suddenly we might not exist, or we might be a completely different nationality, or we might be driving a Lada rather than a Ford, or making Inkulal Firfir for breakfast instead of plain old scrambled eggs.

Megan Smolenyak (squared), a giant in the field of genealogy with a wonderful blog, does a particularly great job of illustrating the idea that the decisions of our ancestors form who we become. Take five and watch her explain how Pharrell Williams almost wasn’t.

And, because I get happy every time I see these pictures, here are two of my People wearing some serious Pharrell hats, back when they were cool the first time around.

Date and photograph unknown. The back of the photo says, "LS happy at West Point."

Date and photographer unknown. The back of the photo says, “LS happy at West Point.”

My great-grandpa Leo in 1918. Photographer unknown.

My great-grandpa Leo in 1918. Photographer unknown.

What decisions are we making today that will affect the destiny our descendants? It’s impossible to tell, but I do know one thing. We can all do a better job of labeling our pictures and other artifacts. Seriously, People, do your descendants a favor and go make a few notes about something precious right now. Go on, do it, and have a happy Tuesday.

Leo’s School Days

My great-grandfather Leo was seven years old when he began school in April of 1897. I feel so fortunate to have a few pictures of him as a schoolboy, even if one of them is badly damaged. I don’t know if Leo’s school was a day school or a boarding school. The paperwork says Hamburgilche Schulverwaftung, but unfortunately, Google Translate was zero help with that one.

Back of photo: "1897" Leo is in the front row, second from the right. He would have been seven years old in this photo

The back of the photo says “1897.” Leo is in the front row, second from the right. I love that the school had a dog; Leo (and all of us who came after him) adored dogs. Date and photographer unknown.

I think Leo must have been in the first row of this badly damaged photograph -- I can't find him among the kids who show. Based on the hairline, my money is on his head being the one right in front of the teacher. Date and photographer unknown.

I think Leo must have been in the first row of this badly damaged photograph — I can’t find him among the kids who show. Based on the hairline, my money is on his head being the one right in front of the teacher. Date and photographer unknown.


A slightly older Leo is in the top row, second from the left. Date and photographer unknown.


Leo, age ten. Photographer unknown.


This is what’s written on the back of the photo directly above. If Leo is ten, then the year must be 1900.

Here’s another shot of a school yard that I found among Leo’s papers, but I haven’t been able to locate Leo himself in this image.


Date and photographer unknown. I assume that Leo is somewhere on the playground, but I haven’t been able to find him.

I just had to pull out this detail of the two boys in front. What on earth were those guys up to?


If this is supposed to be fun, it doesn’t look like these two are having any.

My daughter Anna thinks it’s a turn-of-the-century version of the “get-along” shirt. Who knows.

On December 23, 1904, Leo graduated from what appears to be the equivalent of the 8th grade. According to his diploma, which I found among his papers, Leo was graded in the following subjects:

  • Betragen (Behavior)
  • Ordnung (Order)
  • Schulfleiß (School Diligence)
  • Häuslicher Fleiß (Domestic Industry)
  • Schulbesuch (School Attendance)
  • Religion (Religion)
  • Deutsche Sprache (German Language)
  • Englische Sprache (English Language)
  • Geschichte (History)
  • Geographie (Geography)
  • Naturlehre (Natural Philosophy)
  • Rechnen und Algebra (Arithmetic and Algebra)
  • Geometrie (Geometry)
  • Schreiben (Writing)
  • Zeichnen (Drawing)
  • Singen (Singing)
  • Turnen (Gymnastics)

Unfortunately, I’m not able to make out the handwriting, so I’m not sure exactly what marks he earned in those subjects. I can make out gut (good) in many places, but not much more than that. If there are any German speakers out there who are willing to help, please leave a comment and you will have my undying gratitude. Google Translate can only take a girl so far.


Leo’s 8th grade diploma

Years later, when Leo and Margaret settled in New Jersey and and were answering questions for the 1940 US census, they both indicated 8th grade as the highest level of education obtained. Given the magnificent career that great-grandpa Leo later had with the Hamburg-Amerika line, I found that information to be a real tribute to his natural intelligence and industry.

1940 census

1940 US Federal Census

Notice that my Grandpa Bob’s education level is listed as “C2″, which I assume means he was in his second year of college at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania at the time of the census. Gosh, his mom and dad must have been so proud.

Grandpa Bob Lessiack at his graduation from Bucknell University in 1942. Photographer unknown.

Grandpa Bob Lessiack, far right, at his graduation from Bucknell University in 1942. Photographer unknown.

PS: This is my 50th post. Wow. I had no idea how this blog would go when I started. I’ve learned so much, met such wonderful folks, and feel so good about doing my small part to preserve my family’s history. Thanks for reading, People!

Meet the Lessiacks of Hamburg

Happy Saturday, People. Here in the Bay Area we got a little bit of sorely needed rain this morning. I love waking up to rain.

Allow me to back up a moment and tell you what I know about my great-great grandparents, Anton and Marie Lessiack, and their children other than Leo. It isn’t much, unfortunately, but I’m working to rectify that.

Anton Ludwig Lessiack, born TBD in Steiermark. Date and photographer unknown.

Anton Ludwig Lessiack. Date and photographer unknown.

Henriette Catharina Maria Puhlmann. Date and photographer unknown.

Henriette Catharina Maria Puhlmann. Date and photographer unknown.

My great-great grandfather Anton Ludwig Lessiack was born in Steiermark, Austria on February 10, 1866. To give that date some context, Anton was born one year after the end of the US Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, and several months before Austria was defeated by Prussia and Italy in the Austro-Prussian (or Seven Weeks) war. At that time, Steiermark, which is in the southeast part of modern Austria bordering on Slovenia, was part of Germany. After World War I, Steiermark was divided into a northern section (which forms the modern Austrian state) and southern one, which was annexed to Yugoslavia.

My great-great grandmother, Henriette Catharina Marie Puhlmann, was born on August 31, 1868. I have not been able to find out her birthplace (yet). For context, in that year, the fourteenth amendment to the US constitution was ratified. That event was probably not top of mind for Marie’s parents, though, what with all of Prussia’s martial pestering of Europe at the time.

Let me say right here that the rest of this post is a bunch of guessing.

How Anton and Marie met, when they married, and why they ended up settling in Hamburg are all mysteries to me at this time. Based on what I know, and what few photographs I’ve been able to find, I believe that they had five children:

  • Emmi Lessiack Keil, born about 1887
  • Johanna Lessiack Scharpfenecker, birthdate unknown
  • My great-grandpa Leo, born December 17, 1890
  • Wally Lessiack Dammerich, born about 1899
  • Peter Englebert Lessiack (later changed to Pullman), born in June 25, 1902

I came across this photograph, labeled “1897” on the back. I definitely recognize great-grandpa Leo, and assume that the other little girls are Emmi, Johanna, and Wally. (Peter was not born until Leo was 12, so he does not appear here because Leo is obviously younger than that in this shot). However, if Wally is indeed the little girl in the wheelbarrow, then either the date written on the back of the photograph is incorrect, the birthdate I have for Wally is incorrect, or these kids are not, in fact, Leo’s siblings.

The back of the photograph is labeled "1897" The boy on the right is Leo, and I assume  the girls are Emmi (in the back),  Wally and Johanna. Because I don't know Johanna's birthdate, I don't know if she is older or younger than Wally. However, I do have other photos of Emmi, so I'm reasonably sure I've identified her correctly.

The back of the photograph is labeled “1897” The boy in the spiffy straw hat is Leo, and I assume the girls are Emmi (in the back), Wally and Johanna. Because I don’t know Johanna’s birthdate, I don’t know if she is older or younger than Wally.

Here are a few more photos of the Lessiack family.


This one is a little bit confusing, because Leo is now the tallest child. Did he have a growth spurt, are the girls actually sitting, or have I identified the kids wrong altogether?  Date and photographer unknown (This is the image from which I cropped Marie and Anton’s headshots above).

Here’s another shot. The posing of this one amuses me; Leo is smack dab in the center, dwarfing everyone else in size, exactly the place he occupies in my brain these days. There is also an extra girl in this picture. Who is she, I wonder?


Leo’s haircut here just cracks me up. And, who is the extra little girl? I just love the expressions on everyone’s faces here–it’s very hard to get this many kids to sit still long enough to take a decent picture, and I feel like the little girl to Leo’s right is barely suppressing laughter. Date and photographer unknown.

Same photo session, but with a wider frame:


Leo’s hair is really unfortunate in this shot, but who among us does not have at least one hideous childhood haircut? The girl on the far right seems to be enjoying the photo shoot enormously. Date and photographer unknown.


My great-great grandparents, Anton and Marie Lessiack, and either Wally or Johanna, I’m guessing. Date and photographer unknown.

Next up will be Leo’s school days. Enjoy your weekend, People.


A Delicious Side Project

Just a quickie, People.

Remember a few weeks back when I mentioned that I was helping my friends Pauline and Liliana get started on their spectacular family food history blog? Well, they are off and running! Go visit Radici Siciliane (Sicilian Roots) and subscribe to collect the most scrumptious Sicilian family recipes imaginable. The blog includes colorful family history, wonderful archival photographs, and recipes galore. Find your stretch pants. You’ll need them.

My younger daughter, Grace, worked with these lovely ladies for two years at Half Moon Bay’s own Toque Blanche gourmet cooking supply store. As part of the job, she assisted Pauline and Liliana (along with Stuart Cristol-Deman) at cooking classes, which typically featured a full menu, plus wine pairings. Some of my most favorite recipes and techniques came from those classes, and now you can play along at home. Many, many people have suggested that Pauline and Liliana should write a book, but I convinced them that blogging was the way to go. Please go show them some love.

Buon Appetito!

Liliana and Pauline, the talent behind Radici Siciliane. Photo by me, 2014.

Liliana and Pauline, the talented sisters behind Radici Siciliane. Photo by me, 2014.


The Birth and Baptism of Leo

We begin at the beginning.

My great-grandfather Franz Georg Leopold Lessiack was born on the 17th of December in the year 1890 in Hamburg, Germany. I am reasonably sure this information is correct, because I have found 19 sources (so far) that corroborate the date. Plus, I have his actual Geburts Urkunde (birth certificate) in my possession. Check out this beautiful calligraphy, People.


The front side of Leo’s birth certificate, which was prepared on December 19, 1890.


The back side of Leo’s birth certificate.

Leo’s parents were Anton Ludwig Lessiack and his wife, Henriette Catharina Marie Puhlmann. While none of the photographs in my possession are labeled as such, I have come to the conclusion (based on a number of clues) that these images are of my great-great grandparents.


My great-great grandfather Anton Ludwig Lessiack. Leo refers to him with affection as “Papa” in later letters to his siblings.

Here’s another photo, I believe, of my great-great grandfather Anton.  At least, I think it’s the same guy–what do you think, People? The cock of his head and the shape of his eyes and eyebrows look the same to me. Isn’t that mustachio spiffy?


My great-great grandfather, Anton Ludwig Lessiack. Date and photographer unknown.

And, here is my great-great grandmother, Henriette Catharina Maria Puhlmann.


My great-great grandmother, Henriette Catharina Marie Puhlmann. Date and photographer unknown.

You might recognize her from this picture in an earlier post. She’s a bit older here.

The back of the photo says July 1922, Harz Mts, Germany. Postcard to Mrs. F. Bielitz (no address). The baby is my grandfather, Robert Lessiack.

Henriette Catharina Marie Puhlmann, Leo Lessiack, and Margaret Spielmann Lessiack. The back of the photo says July 1922, Harz Mts, Germany. It’s a postcard to Mrs. F. Bielitz (no address), who is my great-grand aunt Lillian Spielmann Bielitz. The baby is my grandfather, Robert Lessiack. Photographer unknown.

Eight months later, on the 16th of August in 1891, great-grandpa Leo was baptized into the German Evangelical Lutheran Church at the church of St. Gertrud in Hamburg. (Leo and Margaret were married in the United States in the same denomination many years later). Here is a picture of his original baptismal certificate. My scanner wasn’t quite big enough to fit the whole thing.


Leo’s baptismal certificate from St. Gertrud’s church in Hamburg, Germany.

Notice the names of his Godparents. It’s not hard to figure out where great-grandpa Franz Georg Leopold Lessiack got his name.

  • Franz Lessiack (I suppose this is great-great grandfather Anton’s brother, but have uncovered no proof)
  • Georg Tuhl (a family friend, maybe? Another thing to research)
  • Leopoldine Maurienhardt (Another mystery to research — she could be a friend, or she could be sister to either of the parents)

I also discovered this incredibly nifty website that offers a virtual tour of St. Gertrud’s church. To “go inside” the church, click this link, and then click on the little arrow inside a circle just outside the church door (I put a giant red arrow in the picture below to help you find it). Take a look around — the site will pan 360° automatically, and it’s almost like being there. The internet is amazing, no?

Photo by 360° Tourist

Photo by 360° Tourist, a most marvelous website.

We’re off and running with Leo now. Happy Monday, People.


Escape from the Scanner

Hello again, People. It’s been too long since I last posted, but I have not been idle. Along with my sore neck (which is much better, thank you), I’ve been grappling with a challenge that many of you dyed-in-the-wool genealogy bloggers might recognize: Deciding when I have done enough research and compiled enough information to actually begin telling the story. Does anyone else struggle with this?

I inherited a treasure trove of photographs, papers, and personal effects that belonged to my great-grandfather, Franz Georg Leopold Lessiack (or just plain great-grandpa Leo to me) and my great-grandmother, Margaret Spielmann Lessiack.  Unfortunately, labeling things was not their strong suit, so every gem unearthed leads to hours of corroboration — Where did I see that face before? Oh, so there might have been five Lessiack siblings rather than four? Why oh why can’t I wring some sense out of these German words on Google Translate? You get the picture. It’s a time sink.

I’ve also been doing a ton of scanning, which leads to a ton of keywording, sorting things into chronological order, recording captions where they exist, and making semi-educated guesses where they do not. Fascinating and fun, but also a giant time sink.

Pretty soon a month has gone by, and I haven’t written a single word about what I’m discovering, even though I’m putting in many hours behind the scanner. Because it seems too soon. Because I’m sure that the next box I dig into will hold the golden clue that will make the fragments click into place. Because I still don’t know what year to assign to a whole bunch of pictures. Because. Because. Because.

But I realized something.

I could grapple with all these treasures for the next six months and still not be finished. And, all that radio silence would make for one heck of a boring blog. So, I’m smacking down my inner perfectionist and going for it. I’m calling what I have already compiled good enough for a start. The goal is not to be perfect–the goal is to enjoy the journey of discovery.


An undated Bon Voyage card from the collection of my great-grandparents, Leo Lessiack and Margaret Spielmann Lessiack.


Hildegard was a popular name, I gather. There are two here. Recognize anybody?

I’ll keep scanning — there’s still a mind-blowing amount of scanning to do — but I trust you’ll forgive me if things appear slightly out of order. It’s way more fun to write than to scan.

Enjoy your Sunday, People.

One Lovely Blog Award

Last week was very rough. I injured my neck, which made activity of any kind excruciating. After two trips to the chiropractor, some pharmaceutical help, and about 10 days of sheer misery, I am finally on the mend. On one of the crappier days, I got a spirit-lifting email from Jana Last over at Jana’s Genealogy and Family History Blog.

“You may or may not already know this, but I nominated your blog for the “One Lovely Blog Award.”


Let me tell you, People, it was just the shot in the arm, er neck, that I needed. Though it took me a few days to feel well enough to sit and type, I am finally able to pay it forward. The One Lovely Blog Award comes with the some strings attached; here’s Jana again:

“Here are the rules for this award:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link to that blog (Check. Thanks again, Jana! You really cheered me up.)
  2. Share Seven things about yourself.
  3. Nominate 15 bloggers you admire (or as many as you can think of!)
  4. Contact your bloggers to let them know that you’ve tagged them for the One Lovely Blog Award”

Seven things about myself. Hmmmm. OK, here goes:

1. I am a giant nerd, in the Buzzy Jackson sense:

“Genealogy hobbyists are not just a bunch of well-adjusted funeral attendees, though; they’re also nerds. I love nerds. My definition of a nerd is someone who is extremely interested in … something. Anything. Whether experts on sports scores, Star Wars, or Michael Kors, they’re all nerds to me. These are people of passion, and the object of their fascination is less important than their zeal to know everything about it. With genealogy, there is a lot of “it” to know, from understanding the limits of mitochondrial DNA to locating the long-lost manifest of an ancient schooner, these people demonstrate that learn is the most active verb. My name is Buzzy Jackson and I, too, am a nerd.”

Word, Buzzy. Me too. My eccentric research habits are the butt of many a family joke. When the books in the living room reached a state of particularly advanced disarray, my husband christened my decorating style “Early Debauched English Major.”

2. And, speaking of my husband, I’ve been married to that awesome guy for 22 years. He’s a nerd too, and our interests often overlap. I made a business trip to Italy last year, but we decided to extend the trip a little into a second honeymoon. What do nerds on second honeymoon in Italy do? Why, nerd out over food, of course. Our younger daughter, a Harry Potter fan, dubbed the shot on the left “the Hall of Prophecies” (it’s Parmagiano Reggiano), and my film-crazy husband dubbed the one on the right “The Silence of the Hams” (it’s Prosciutto). Did you know that a needle made of the specially-carved lower leg bone of a horse must be used to judge the maturity and condition of prosciutto? Well, now you do.

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3. My picture is in the April 1986 issue of National Geographic magazine. Let’s play “Where’s Pancho?” Look at the crease. Now look at the dark boat with the white stripe in the top row a little to the right of the crease. Now look at the dark speck behind the orange life preserver. That’s my head. Our 4-person cayuco was the “Mixed Emotions” and we were delighted to finish smack dab in the middle of the pack in the Ocean-to-ocean Cayuco Race of 1985. I had to join the Explorer Scouts to participate in the race, so technically I’m also a boy scout. The race is both a Panama Canal and a family tradition: my stepdad raced in his teens, and some of my little brothers did it many years after I did.

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4. Speaking of my little brothers, I was an only child when I came to the United States for college at age 18. Not long after, my mom and stepdad adopted three boys, my father and stepmother had two boys of their own, plus one from her previous marriage, so by the time I graduated from college four years later, I had six little brothers.

5. My older daughter, when she was 13 and 14,  was a professional touring circus aerialist. As her Momager, I spent a lot of time dragging around oddly-shaped luggage and hanging around the dusty, musty wings of various venues on the West and East coasts. It was fun, but we are both kind of glad it’s over.

Chevron Family Theatre Festival, Walnut Creek, CA

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6. I’ve been best friends with the same person since I was five years old. We met on the school bus to kindergarten in Coco Solo, Canal Zone, Panama, and we haven’t grown up very much.

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7. I am petrified of frogs and toads. It’s totally stupid, but there it is. You would think that a devotee of fairy tales would love all those princes in waiting, but nope. It worked out OK, though. See #2.

With my seven confessions out of the way, it’s on to my nominees. This was hard, because there are so many terrific blogs out there. I settled on “blogs that inspire me” as my theme for choosing, and because inspiration comes in many forms, I didn’t limit the field to genealogy blogs. My 15 favorites are listed in alphabetical order, not preference. Please check them out — they’re all inspiring.

(I realize that not all bloggers will want to add this award to their blogs. That’s okay. I’m nominating you because the purpose of these awards is not only to recognize the bloggers we admire, but also to share their work with others.  So accept it or not, as you please. There are no obligations, and no hard feelings either way. Thank you very heartily for inspiring me in my own blogging adventures.)

  1. Advanced Style – I love this blog because it actually makes me look forward to aging. These women have sass.
  2. Ancestral Paths – A fellow genealogy traveler from whom I glean all sorts of useful information.
  3. Bernfeld Family of Galicia and More – Wonderful family stories and pictures, sprinkled with excellent tips.
  4. Book of Days – I love marking the circle of the year, and this blog helps me do it.
  5. Brain Pickings – This blog is the most wonderful source of things to ponder.
  6. Brotmanblog: a Family Journey – Beautifully told family stories, and a wealth of Jewish Genealogy tips.
  7. The Eluceydator – The “illuminated” theme of this blog is so perfect. Great photographs, too.
  8. Enjoying the Small Things – Exactly what it says. This blog is required reading for human beings.
  9. The Genealogy Girl – Another beautifully done trove of family stories and pictures.
  10. Maybe Someone Should Write That Down – Family stories told with great wit.
  11. Myth and Moor – I’m a mythology and fairy tale nut. This blog makes me happy every time I visit.
  12. Pacificparatrooper – A trove of information about WWII in the Pacific, lovingly and respectfully told.
  13. Persephone Post – Books and Britain, with a focus on women writers. Feel free to send me a care package from Persephone books any time.
  14. Shaking the Tree – Marvelous family stories and photographs, the inspiring work of an artist and fellow traveller.
  15. Silver People Heritage Foundation – The Panama Canal could not have happened without the back-breaking labor of West Indian people who were unjustly paid the “silver” wage (as opposed to whites, who were paid the “gold” wage). This blog pays tribute to their stories and history.

Thanks for hanging in there, People. Now, go on, you have some blog reading to do. I’m going to go rest my neck.