31 December 2008


What have I done??!!

I have given posting privileges to Unitman (http://unitman.blogspot.com/), that's what! Be afraid! Be very afraid!

OK, that's my brother Peter, but don't tell anybody. I have encouraged him to add posts about the family, since Eddie and Johnny (so far - how about the rest of you lot?) seem to be so interested in boring details about my (and Peter's) misspent youth(s).

Welcome aboard, Unitman! There is a story behind that name. Perhaps he will tell us about it one day.

26 December 2008


My middle name is 'Thayer,' and so is my older daughter Helen's. 'Thayer' is my mother's maiden name and her father was Joseph Thayer.

I grew up knowing about 'Grandpa Joe' but I have no memory of him. Thanks once more to the researches of "Annie from Minnesota" I now know why. Grandpa Joe was born "in Ontario," the records say, though not where in Ontario - and "in 1864," but not when in that year. But he died 25 March, 1946 - about six months before my 4th birthday. It seems unsurprising that I have no recollection of him.

There is a nice photograph - I believe my brother Peter has it at present - taken during the second world war - perhaps 1943? 1944? - that has my mother, her sister, her four brothers, and "Little Byron," the son of one of her brothers, dressed in his uniform. And in the picture are my grandfather and grandmother. Grandpa Joe looks very old in the photo. If it was taken in 1944 he would have been 79 or 80.

I think I recall my mother saying that her father had worked as a locomotive mechanic for the Southern Pacific - the same company that Porter had been a despatcher for. Judging from my mother's quotations of sayings from him, Grandpa Joe appears to have been rather a salty character. The only one I can remember which is suitable for appearance in a family magazine was "One more clean shirt and we're all in the poorhouse!" - though precisely what this was meant to convey is not crystal clear.

There is a lot more in the material that Annie has sent me and if any of you is sufficiently interested, you may e-mail me privately and I will send you sufficient genealogical information to keep you busy for quite a while.

"Grandma Dell" - of course her name 'Adele' was my mother's and is my younger daughter's - I remember very well - and blush as I do so.

I had imagined, somehow, that she was of French Canadian descent. She may have been, but the records show her as born in Illinois on the 11th of July, 1874. Well, Grandpa Joe was born in Canada but ended up in the United States. Perhaps Grandma Dell's parents had done something similar. Her birth name is listed as Adele M. LaBerge. My mother's middle name is 'Mildred' so perhaps that was Grandma's middle name as well. Her first child, my Uncle Bob Thayer, was born 15 September, 1896, and her last, my mother, on 5 January 1915 (my mother will be 94 years old 10 days from the time I am writing this!).

We left Bakersfield in 1954. I was born in 1942 and can scarcely have much conscious memory from earlier than about four years of age - September, 1946. Sometime between 1946, then, and 1954 my mother's mother came to live with us for a while. And sometime during those years my mother's mother had a stroke. What I do not know is whether the stroke is the reason she came to live with us, nor whether she lived with us after the stroke.

I believe she lived with us before she had the stroke because I have vague memories of an ambulance coming for her; and I have much less vague memories of her begging me, and perhaps Peter, to do little things for her: tie her shoes, go to the store, etc. If I was to go to the store, I think it must have been when I was at least 8, so perhaps 1950 0r '51.

She asked these things - in fact she begged. She offered to pay us small amounts to do them. I did do them - but I resented it and complained about it. May God forgive me for my coldness and selfishness.

It may be said that, after all, a young boy has little interest in the cares of the old. She would have been in her late 70's by then. Certainly there was a great gap between us. And I do remember Porter's mother - "Grandma Turner." She was born in 1863, and would have been in her late 80's when I knew her. To be sure, she did not ask for favours. She had not had a stroke and perhaps did not need them. I did not so much resent spending time with her as I found it boring. But I resented Grandma Dell. I do not think this inevitable. I think it possible, through grace, for a young child to have at least some inkling of the needs of the old, and to have something to put against his natural selfishness.

I think it possible, but I detect nothing in my own past to match it.

Grandma Dell did one other thing for me. She was the first person to try to talk to me about God. She gave me a Bible, too, and told me to read it. She marked - in blue chalk, the 1950's version of highlighter! - the Lord's prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and told me I should memorise them, which I did. I recall deciding to read that Bible. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that I began with Genesis. I remember asking my mother if people really lived for seven or eight hundred years long ago. My poor mother! Instead of telling me - what? - that she didn't think so? that I would have to ask someone who knew better? - I don't know. But what she said was that in the translation of the Bible perhaps there was some confusion between months and years, and that those ages were really months.

It's a pity people don't realise the child's ability to reason. One of the patriarchs - I don't know which one and can't be bothered to look it up - but one of them quite reasonably is said to have fathered a child at the age of thirty-something.

Even I saw that it was as remarkable a thing to say that a man fathered a child at the age of about three years as to say that he lived for seven hundred. I lost interest in the Bible and never read any more.

I still have that Bible somewhere, I think, over fifty years later. I don't know. Perhaps Grandma Dell prayed for me.

She died in 1957, just two days past her 83rd birthday. But there is another thing that I must say about Grandma Dell and I have gone away past any reasonable length in this post. In another post I have to talk a little about religion. Grandma Dell clearly had religious beliefs - hence that Bible. In addition, there was some connexion with the Catholic Church.

21 December 2008


A woman from Minnesota has read my blog. And here I thought it was only my kids! The lady signs herself "Annie from Minnesota" and I trust she will not mind my mentioning her name here.

She has provided information which I could not have got otherwise. In particular, she was interested in my middle name, which is on the blog. Her daughter has married a man with that middle name - 'Thayer' - and she has been researching some Thayer genealogy. Thayer is my mother's maiden name - but then I haven't got to my mother's family yet!

Beause of Annie's information I now have a large amount of information about the history of some members both of Susan's and of my families.

In particular, there is a little information about my father's mother's second husband.

According to a U.S. Census report that Annie sent me, Lena was single in 1910, and lived - apparently with her father, mother, and two sisters, in Fresno, California. My father was born in 1914. So I presume Lena married Hans in the interim.

Now there is information about Porter, as well. At least she has sent information about a convincing Porter Eugene Turner - but in 1920 he is married to a woman named Clara, according to the census.

Well, if it is the same Porter, then there must have been a divorce, or a death, I suppose. I don't know how old my father was when his father left, nor how old when his mother re-married. But Porter is the only grandfather I remember.

Porter was, I believe, a remarkable man, though as a child I only remember him as a boring old person. He had served in the first World War - and then was an officer in the second (a Lieutenant Colonel, I believe). When I knew him, I suppose he was retired, but my father referred to him as a despatcher for a railway company - the Southern Pacific, I believe. A despatcher is a pretty high-up job, I believe. This is the person who monitors and manages the trips that the train makes - ensuring, amongst other things, that they do not collide with each other!

My memories are vague here. Perhaps Peter can correct the details for me. But I recall that Porter was sent - after the second world war? During? - both to India and to Jordan - oh, and to Ecuador, I am sure I recall - to help with their rail systems.

But my personal recollections centre around his automobile. For some reason I seem to remember that it had something called 'Fluid Drive'. Childhood memories are untrustworthy, but I have some confidence about this. The amazing thing about it was that it had no clutch. To shift gears you just moved a lever from one gear to another. I remember thinking that was just incredibly cool.

I also recall that he drove very slowly. He drove us, once or twice, to orange orchards that - apparently - he owned, somewhere around Bakersfield. I was used to my father's and mother's driving. I do not think they were speed demons - but when Porter drove, I thought we would never get anywhere!

"Grandpa Porter" was the only grandfather I ever knew. But certainly I had another. My mother's father was Joseph Herriot Thayer - but appears to have died when I was only three and a half years old.

20 December 2008

Chester Lane

We lived at 221 South Chester Avenue in Bakersfield. I remember feeling there was some mystical connexion between our address and my Grandma Lena's, whose address was 2110 Chester Lane. To a child, perhaps, every fact about the world is new - and every fact has some mystical meaning. The coincidence of the street names and the repeated "twenty-one" and the fact that she was our grandmother made everything come together.

Looking on Google Maps I find that the distance is an impressive 1.3 miles - half an hour's walk. Peter thinks we walked up Chester Avenue - which was state highway 99 and the main route from Los Angeles up the Great Central Valley of California (the motorway in the map below was not there then), turned left in Brundage, went down to 'H' Street, and then north . Brundage was a pretty busy street and I expect we would have avoided walking farther than necessary on it.

View Larger Map

But we certainly went past Beale Park. The memory of Beale Park has a kind of Edenic flavour to me. Certainly it was not much of a park. But we could walk there or ride or bicycles, whereas anything the other side of Chester Avenue was (officially :-)) forbidden. There was a swimming pool. When we could talk my mother into taking us to Union Avenue Plunge (which was, I suppose, Olympic size - at least to my child's eyes it was enormous) that was our preference - but we could go to Beale Park ourselves.

The area on this map was our home. The elementary school I went to for my first four years (until the Big Earthquake) is still there in Verde Street, but Roosevelt School has new buildings now. I think they must have torn down the old brick ones because of the earthquake. Haybert Court, just around the corner, was practically our backyard.

At Grandma Lena's house we were always on our best behaviour. I find this interesting as I don't recall anyone's ever telling us we needed to be. It was just clear to me that we didn't run around, or make a lot of noise, when we were there. Perhaps it was just always very clean!

The same, I think, at Anna's. Anna had a much smaller house, but I always felt more at ease there, for some reason.

And I see I have not even mentioned my father's stepfather Porter.

OK, I have - separate post. Actually I started this one earlier, got fascinated by the google map and got a bit hung up. But this was our home territory. Here it was that we fought (in our imaginations) the other gangs (who did not exist) who were going to attack us (this is all before I was 12!). Here we built our forts to defend against them. Here we lived and moved and had our being.

13 December 2008

I am not a Jew

Well, not quite.

Sometime after I became a Christian, at the end of 1969, I began talking (probably haranguing, but I don't recall definitely) my great-aunt Anna about Christ. It was then that I first learned, to my amazement, that my father's mother's family had all been Jewish.

That I first learned it then indicates that their Judaism had not been a matter of practice. Hans - my father's father - had presumably been in at least a nominal sense a Lutheran. Porter Turner - my grandmother Lena's husband when I knew her - was some sort of Christian - Congregationalist or Methodist, I think. So marrying a goy was clearly not out of the question. Anna was not married.

But my father's mother's family were all Jewish by descent. One Jewish friend tells me that she believes that your 'Jewishness' is inherited in some sense through the maternal line. She thinks that this means my father would be considered Jewish -at least I think it means that if he had wanted to immigrate to Israel, he would have had the right to demand citizenship - but that I am 'half Jewish' - whatever that is supposed to mean.

I once had a photograph in my possession - now my brother Peter has it, I think - of John Weiser, his wife Sophie, his mother Miriam Kurtz, and including one or two of his daughters. John Weiser appears to have emigrated from the fairly famous Jewish shtetl of Brody in, perhaps, the 1880s - at the time a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire - to the United States. I think the photo was taken in San Francisco around about 1890. I don't recall and don't have it with me now. I believe I remember being told that my grandmother Lena was born in Texas, but it is certain that they soon moved to California.

John Weiser was, therefore, my father's maternal grandfather. It is his surname - in other words, Lena's maiden name - that is preserved in my father's middle name (his full name is John Weiser Jensen), and in Eddie's (Edwin Weiser Jensen). He certainly had four children: Lena, Anna, Claire (sp?), and Maurice; may, for what I know, have had more.

In 2002, when I visited my parents, I talked with my Dad about his mother's family's Jewishness. He himself was not very clear about things, but said that he thought his grandfather had come to the United States, and had said - more or less - that in the Old Country we were Jews, some people were Catholics, others were Orthodox - nothing but trouble. Here we are in the New Country, we are Americans!

It was speculation on his part, but so far as I know none of my Jewish relatives considered themselves particularly Jewish. It was only when I began to talk with them about Christianity that they suddenly became ... Jewish :-) I always wish I knew more about this, and have had a deep emotional attachment to things Jewish since then.

There has been at least one (probable) consequence of my Jewish ancestry, in any case. When our younger daughter Adele became pregnant with her daughter Thea - and Luke, Adele's husband, is Jewish - Adele was tested for Tay-Sachs disease. Tay-Sachs is a genetic disease. If a person is heterozygous for the gene - that is, the person is a 'carrier' - the person has no symptoms. If a person is homozygous, the condition is fatal. The incidence of the gene in the general population is 1 in 300. In two groups of European descent, the incidence is about ten times as much. Those two groups are Ashkenazi Jews and French Canadians. My paternal grandmother is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent; my mother's mother was French Canadian.

Adele was tested and is a carrier.

Fortunately Luke's parents had been tested years ago and are not carriers. A heterozygous child whose symptoms appear in infancy (almost always the case) rarely lives past the age of five.

Of course it is not certain that Adele has inherited this gene from me. It is much more likely, certainly, but it could have come through Susan. I could be tested to find out but have not done been.

Suppose that I am the carrier. In that case each of my children - including my daughter, Kathleen, child of me and my first wife Edna - has a 50% chance of being a carrier. And for each of those children who is a carrier, each of their children has a 50% chance of being a carrier. (All this is assuming, of course, that neither Susan nor the spouses of my children is a carrier). Naturally, a carrier must marry another carrier in order for the two to give birth to a child with the disease. Each of their children would have 1 chance in 4 of having the disease.

Perhaps that is what my friend meant by my being 'half Jewish.'

10 December 2008

08 December 2008


Concert just over - and the last one for the year! We played:

  • Overture to "Die Meistersinger" (Wagner)
  • 5 Mahler songs (not my cup of tea, but Helen Medlyn sings like an angel)
  • A fanfare written for us by our composer-in-residence Leonie Holmes - exciting stuff!
  • And after the interval, Beethoven's 3rd sympony the "Eroica."

Three of my friends came - I mean besides Susan, who is definitely the one of my friends who counts most :-) But three others came, two from work, one who is a good friend of Susan's. It is always very satisfying to me to play when I know there are people I love in the audience.

A crisis has come. I have never owned my own horn - too expensive. For the last fifteen years I have hired a horn from the Howick School of Music.

Starting in 2009 they have a new director - a man who is a brass band man - and it is his ambition to push brass for the school. And the time of rental of that horn looks like coming to an end.

I might have continued with that horn as it is not yet certain they will require it for first term 2009 - but the handwriting is on the wall. Other rental possibilities may exist, of course, but certainly commercial one are very expensive (the music school rent has been really only a token amount).

So I have bought a horn.

I rang up KBB Music, just wondering what they might have and how much it might cost. Well ... They are having a sale! It lasts until Christmas. And they have one horn, a Hans Hoyer 801L, precisely the one I would have preferred. At about 25% off. Interest-free for one year. Bought on the old, more favourable exchange rates (the New Zealand dollar has taken a beating the last month or so).

I can no longer say I have never owned a horn. And as Susan commented when we decided that I would buy it: it is now obvious that I will be playing the horn for as long as I am physically able.

Oh, well, there are worse addictions. I guess.

It is a lovely instrument.

I was born

Well, you probably had inferred that. But all autobiographies start out that way, don't they?

Anyway, I was and hereby inform those who might have been in doubt - was he hatched? manufactured? - that I was, in fact born.

Actually, perhaps I had better start a bit farther back. I really don't know what Eddie (and Johnny) might have meant by 'memoirs,' but I take it they want to know a little about my life. And my life came from others.

My father's father was named Hans Jensen - Hans Peder Jensen, I think, though I am uncertain about the spelling of the middle name. I recall my mother telling me, once, that she named my brother Peter Michael after two tomcats. Perhaps she did, but I think there might be a whiff of my mother's humour there. My first name is John - as is my father's - and Hans is just an abbreviated form of Johannes - which is John. So it appears to me possible that I am named after my father, or my paternal grandfather - and that it is no coincidence that my brother's first name is the same as my grandfather's middle name.

I never met my father's father.

I have only little bits of memories of my father (and once his mother) speaking of Hans. The bits of memory themselves are very questionable, but for what they are worth, here they are:

  • He was born in Denmark (that is certain)
  • Maybe in the late 1870's or early 1880's (a guess)
  • He had been apprenticed to a farmer, but ran away from the apprenticeship - my father thinks - because the farmer had failed to keep his side of the bargain regarding Hans's education
  • He came first to Mexico (very uncertain about this but I think I recall my dad saying s0), and began selling spectacles ("try them until you find the ones that work for you") off a horse-drawn wagon
  • He moved to California (certain)
  • He married Lena Weiser - my father's mother (certain)
  • When my father was quite young - 8? 10? - Hans 'ran away' with 'the maid, whose name was Edna' (I remember this from my grandmother because when I told her I was marrying - my first wife - a woman named 'Edna' my grandmother said something along the lines of "Hmm... Hans ran away with the maid whose name was Edna")

And that is about it. But it seems very likely to me that this experience in my father's youth helps to explain some facts about him. I may talk a bit more about it later, but I think it possible to suppose that my father - an only child - grew up with a very great need to defend and care for his mother. His own life is consistent with that.

It is a humbling thought to me. I am afraid I have never very strongly heeded the injunction to honour father and mother. To a considerable extent this is, I expect, a consequence of the details of my life. I married young - just short of my 20th birthday - and from that time on lived at great distances from my parents. My brother and sister have born the burden from the start of caring for my parents in their old age. My sister is now almost the sole care of my mother. When my father was alive, she, and to a considerable extent my brother, took care of him, and of my mother. I did nothing and whilst I was not in a position to do so, I do not think I would have taken very seriously the idea that I should have, for instance, moved closer to them so that I could.

But I do think that much of my father's life's decisions were related to his determination to care for his mother.

His mother - my paternal grandmother, Lena - I knew quite well. Something about her next time.