Friday, March 5, 2010

Sepia Saturday -- Heroes and Villains?

Yeah, I'm posting a day early, but here goes...

The above two shots are variations of the only photo I have of my grandfather, Peter Stremekes. (I've previously mentioned the multiple spellings I've encountered of their family name, but for right now, I'm sticking with the "Stremekes" spelling listed on my grandparents' 1923 divorce decree.) It's also the only photo I have of my grandmother Josephine until 1927.

There were others that I saw of Peter -- it's hard for me to think of him as anything as personal as "Grampy" because he died so long before I was even born -- while I was growing up. One was a nifty shot on thick card stock which I have yet to find, although I know for certain my mother would never have purposely disposed of it. The others were two or three 8" x 10" shots of him in his coffin, right after he died! In my younger years, even as obsessed as I was with old horror films and the Dark Shadows supernatural soap opera, I thought they were kind of morbid. Perhaps my mom agreed over time, and that's probably why they were eventually discarded.

In the second, cropped version of the photo, my grandfather stands behind his seated wife, my Grammy Josephine. On his immediate right (our left) is my Aunt Josie, an amazing woman whom I regrettably never knew. Josie looks to be anywhere between fifteen and seventeen, which would place the date of this picture somewhere around the time my mother was born in 1917. That would have placed Peter Stremekes in his mid-40s.

(I have no idea who the woman in the lower left of the cropped photo is. For that matter, I don't know any of the others in this group of mostly Lithuanian immigrants and their American-born offspring in this shot for certain, although I think I was once told that the woman sitting on my grandmother's left is her sister Julia, a colorful, charismatic character who'll get one or chapters all her own at a much later date.)

In the interest of my haphazard attempts at displaying these photos somewhat chronologically, I'm going to insert a shot of my Aunt Josie and her younger brother Albert. My Uncle Al was born in 1908, and in this shot, he looks to be between 5-7, which would make Josie a very young teen. It's one of the few childhood photos I have of any of my aunts or uncles -- on my mother's and father's side of the family -- and the only shot I have of my Uncle Al before the mid-1940s!

And I'll follow that one with a lovely shot of Josie, taken in (I believe) 1919, when she was an older teen.

That photo of Josie was probably taken around the time that, for whatever reasons, my grandmother left her husband and seven children when my mom was only two years old. At the moment, I'm not sure if that was before or after her namesake daughter, Josie, got married... although I've been cheerfully nagging my cousin Joe (Josie's son) to find out the date his mom married his dad. I have my own, half-assed theories as to why Grammy might have done her little walk-out, but they'll have to wait until my next Sepia Saturday entry... or perhaps the one after it.

Somewhere around the time of Josie's marriage, the following photo was taken on Newbury Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, in (I think) 1920. These kids look like extras in a Charlie Chaplin flick!

It's labelled "Helen, Anita, & Eddie." I don't know who Helen is or was. Eddie is my much-beloved uncle, about five at the time. By the way, I am firmly convinced that much of my strange sense of humor came from the same gene that inspired Eddie's own... although I'm pretty sure his style of humor was missing my own occasional sick little twists!

And Anita? Anita's my recently-deceased mom, in what seems to be the earliest picture existent of her! It seems to have been taken during the earlier part of the year, which means she had not yet reached her third birthday.

Here's a pensive-looking Aunt Josie relaxing "at home," as the fading, hand-written caption says below her.

And I thought it only appropriate to insert the next picture of a dapper-looking dude named Joseph Korsak, who married my Aunt Josie somewhere around the time my grandmother fled husband and kids for her new life in Rhode Island. The following photo itself was probably a few years before Josie's and Joe's marriage. My Uncle Joe was yet another of the Lithuanian immigrants in my family, one whose ancestors probably hailed from Russia, originally.

Joe Korsak, Sr., was born in 1895, and according to my cousin Joe, his son and (obviously) namesake, Uncle Joe came to the USA in or about 1914, when he was nineteen. Eventually, as it turned out, he didn't just marry my Aunt Josie...

He married her entire family!

My grandfather, Peter Stremekes -- and I still don't know (yet) exactly when the family began using the name "Hartman" instead, although a piece in the puzzle has recently been supplied by (again) my cousin Joe -- was deserted by his wife, and left to raise most of his children alone. One assumes this was a monumental task, and it very well may have contributed to his death in 1927 at the age of 56 or 57.

At that point, some of my uncles were young adults, and the rest were teens or young adolescents, but the idea of having all of them and my nine-year-old mom fend for themselves was still a few years from being feasible.

Uncle Joe and Aunt Josie took them all into their home. Even with the elder Hartman/Stremekes brothers being old enough for the so-called "work force," that had to have been an incredible burden for Joe Korsak and his wife. No one's alive to say whether the conversation amounted to "Hey, Joe, let's raise my whole family, what do you say?" followed by "Sure, honey, why not?" or if there were countless, sleepless nights of arguments... but the fact remains that they did it.

I'm damned glad that I've never been faced with anything remotely resembling that sort of responsibility! I can just hear myself now: "But, sweetie, I love you, and I married you... not your whole family!"

But... that's just me. I suppose I would have eventually made the "right" decision if confronted with such a choice, but... it'd be easier to say than do.

Joe Korsak did it, and if I give him even the slightest "edge" over Aunt Josie in terms of credit, it's only because these kids were her blood relatives. To Joe, they were "just" in-laws.

I'm incredibly sorry I never met either of them, as they both passed away in 1954, a couple of years before I first saw the light of day. And to me, Joe Korsak will always be a hero -- and I mean that term in its most literal sense -- whose hand I wish I could shake.

Next time, fellow babies, I'll either pompously hypothesize about my Grammy Josephine at length, or share some more shots from my mom's early years.

Thanks for your time.


  1. Sepia photos always seem more interesting than colour don't they? I suppose it's because of the inferred history behind them. You have some great photos there and the history to go with them. :)

    I thought maybe you would do another Flash 55 today. :)

  2. Indeed Joe Korsak was a hero.
    Just so you know, my late Dad,
    did the same thing with my mother's family.
    He supported all of them too.
    He was a great man,died by 42.

    Great men are very rare indeed.

    Have you a great weekend.


  3. It seemed a European Tradition to snap people in Their Coffins.My Dad was forever recieving photos from Poland of recently dead relatives.
    Yes, you have some great photos here. A nice mix.
    It will be interesting to hear more of your Grammy's story.

  4. tony has a point ( ex ) brother-in-law vidoed Pop in his coffin...but eve nbeing European as I am, I didn't agree with it...

    I can see you're well on your way to that book ;)

  5. It's good to see the continuation of this story. I really like the photo of Josie with her little brother. She looks so relaxed. An the one of "Helen, Anita, & Eddie" is so cute. They look like kids from the "Our Gang' shows.

  6. GREAT photos and many intriguing stories left to be told about this bunch. Am really wondering what happened with your she went and started a new life. Look forward to your ponderings. (Your mom never found out or reconnected with her mother?!)

  7. A fascinating story, well told. Joe Korsak certainly was a hero. The more I read about these characters from the past, the more I am in awe of their levels of resolve and resilience. But I guess, desperate times...etc, etc.

  8. @Akelemalu: After spending all of Thursday night and most of Friday morning writing this SS post, and the emotionally-draining (albeit fictional) post now up on the Simpson/Lynch Studios: Pleasantview blog, 55 additional words seemed like just too much work! ;-)

  9. @Shakira: Then kudos go to your dad, too... as well as any man or woman who made that kind of sacrifice!

  10. @Tony and Subby: Strange custom to my mind, but I don't make the rules... I just bitch about 'em.

    @LadyCat: That's probably about as relaxed as Uncle Al ever got. And I, too, thought of the "Our Gang" reference, but opted for Chaplin because my too-literal pop culture knowledge said that the "Our Gang" crowd hadn't appeared yet in films (Hal Roach got the idea in 1921.). Petty, I know, but... welcome to my world. ;-)

  11. @Sparkle: Two weeks ago was the first installment of this story. I've embarked on a fact-finding mission, contacting various relatives, etc., but on my blog, it'll mostly be a linear history of the lineage resulting in my sister's and my own "debut," as it were. Next Saturday, probably more about my mom's early years, and on the following Saturday, I'm going to devote a full post to what little I know about my Grammy Josephine's life. That'll answer your questions to the best of my ability.

    Great "seeing" you again on my blog, by the way. Most of my internet work since my arm problems began has been writing or reading-without-commenting.

  12. Wonderful pictures and what an interesting history! Joe was, indeed, a hero!

    And it would be nice to know more about your grandmother -- at that time she probably couldn't have gotten custody of the children if she'd tried.

  13. @Vicki: More on Grammy Josephine in two weeks!

  14. A great post for SS. Joe was quite a man sounds like. Thanks for stopping by. This is my first SS. My uncles shown in my story were very happy to be home. In that picture they had just gotten home. The one in the army was in the South Pacific and the sailor was in Rio de janerio. Another uncle was in Alaska. My gm keep us praying all the time. Candles burning and novenas etc going all the time.

  15. Your aunt Josephine was certainly a lovely looking young girl.
    I suppose at the time, folks didn't really think twice about taking on the family-even if it was large. You just got on with things, didn't you? Mind you, it still was quite an undertaking.
    And speaking of undertaking, don't you find it fascinating the way people liked to photograph the dead? Such a bizarre practice to us, but at one time, so commonplace. It would be neat if you could find that coffin-photo (I have inherited a morbid streak from somewhere, but I don't know where.)


  16. Oh my goodness, what a wonder family story here. And I must agree; you have some dandies and beauties here. Congrats on having these photos to share. Thanks for doing that and wishing you a great weekend! :) The Bach

  17. @QMM: Yeah, he was. I can't say enough times how sad I am that I never met Josie or Joe. And I enjoyed your post very much.

    @Kat: You're right, of course, in that Joe and Josie weren't unique in that aspect, but as you also stated, that doesn't detract in any way from anyone who did what they did.

    @Bach: "Dandies and beauties" indeed! Glad you liked it. You have a great weekend, too!

  18. Another wonderfully well told tale & photos. Joe certainly earned his cloud above! My family also took photos of the departed in the caskets; I found some of my grandmother when cleaning my aunt's home--I burned them. Always thought that a peculiar morbid thing. Must have been common among immigrants from eastern Europe.

  19. Me got tributes and awards for you!



  20. Start to finish, a fascinating read.

    I am waiting with bated breath to read more of your renegade grandmother!!!

  21. I have a photo of my great-great grandmother all laid out in her coffin. Very strange.

  22. @Pat transplanted to MN: While I'm still searching through my late mom's paperwork, I don't think I'll have the nerve to dispose of any photos... but I understand your doing so in this case.

    @Meri: Unfortunately, there are several variants to the spelling of Stremekes: Steimekis, Streimekes, Stremekis... I even found one listing of my grandfather and all his children as "HANTman," listing "HARTman" as an alternate! Very confusing.

    @Shakira: I'll be checking your site later today!

    @Leah: Next Saturday will have more on my mom, including my very favorite childhood photo of hers and the story behind it... but the following week will be devoted to my "renegade grandmother," as you so delightfully referred to her.

  23. @Willow: According to several comments this post has gotten, that seems to have been a more commonplace practice than I'd realized.

  24. Your uncle Joe defines the finest kind of man: a man doing what he HAS to do. I really enjoyed reading this, David.
    The only way I know anything of my mother's baby sister, Mason, the last of my grandmother's nine girls and who died of pneumonia at age three, is a large sepia photograph. I saw it only few times when I was little girl: the toddler laid out for burial in a pale linen dress, propped up on a pillow. In my memory of that photograph, which was destroyed in a fire, Mason was a beautiful sleeping cherub. She broke my heart.

  25. I'd love to shake Joe's hand as well! Those are lovely photos of Josie!

  26. I loved your post! What a compelling family history you have. Josie is beautiful, and she and her husband have more than earned my admiration for "stepping up to the plate" and caring for her siblings. I agree completely-- Joe is a true hero. Thanks so much for sharing. I can't wait to read more!

  27. It is actually good to have to search and find as it would never get done. You photos tell so many stories just by viewing them. I really enjoyed your post.

  28. indeed, really a hero.

    the photos of Josie are lovely - I'd like to get a closer look at that handbag too!
    and I love the picture of the kids on the steps - theres something quite timeless about that

  29. Interesting about the post-mortem photo. Thanks for sharing.

  30. I really like the hero part of your story - yes, your uncle was a true hero and many people today could learn something from him

  31. Wow, David...very nice! You certainly have a great collection of family pics.

    I've seen a few coffin photos in my day...I agree it's a strange tradition. Personally, I think I want a closed-casket ceremony for myself. ha.

    Love the pic of your mom as a toddler. Very cute. :)

    That was a long post to type....the arm doing a bit better?

  32. To All: Thanks for the comments. I've been contacting relatives one by one, looking for stories, documents, photos, etc. A lot of it won't see the light of day on my blog, because I'm sticking mainly to my own so-called "direct lineage" here, but it looks like I've committed myself to yet another long-term project.

    @Betsy: Yes, my arm is much better. Just a little residual numbness in my hand, but absolutely no pain now... which accounts for the increase in my output on the Simpson/Lynch Studios: Pleasantview blog, as well.

  33. Hey, that's great! I caught up with Foxster and Skipster earlier today. :)

  34. @Betsy: Yeah, I know. "They" told me! ;-)


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