Sharing personal stories of loved ones bring family trees to life

Susan Manzke
Susan's parents Izzy and Chuck were married at the age of 22 on Jan. 13, 1946. Stories of the young bride's cooking challenges are shared in Susan's family history.

Today I was online listening to people talk about saving family trees. I started a tree years ago but I haven't worked hard enough to really get a good family tree going. My friend Kathy was here helping me. She knows a lot about the research that will bring up family names in the distant past. I am a beginner when it comes to finding more of my family history.

Finding names and dates and documented facts can be done through the Internet and with connections to other people. But what I really like is adding stories to the family history. In a way, I have been doing that all these 40 years by writing this column.

Today I'm going to share a couple of my favorite stories about my parents when they were newlyweds. You might have heard one before. I even adapted it for my novel Barley Soup and Slug Spit. There the grandfather talks about his late wife as a bride.

As soon as my father was discharged from the army after World War II, arrangements were made for a wedding that took place in January 1946. Mom said she didn't want her red-headed honey to get away from her, so she rushed to get him right to the altar.

For a time, they lived in the lower level of mom's parents’ home in Chicago. It was a good thing they were on ground level because one night dad had a flashback to the war. As they slept, a car backfired on the street and he dove out the window. Happily, the window was open, but he took the screen out with him into grandma's garden. There he sat dazed until his senses came back to him and he figured out where he was.

Dad joked about it later, but it scared the living daylights out of his new wife. Eventually, they moved to a small apartment they called a flat.

Isabelle and Chuck stand outside her family home in Chicago in 1945.

Mom was not a good cook. Grandma never taught her. Mom was the oldest of eight and became the babysitter for her little sisters and brothers. Anyway, when she became a wife, she worked hard to learn how to cook.

Mom couldn't even make toast. At that time making toast meant putting bread in the oven where it often came out charred and smoking.

One day a couple of her brothers came to have soup at the flat. My mom was fussing about the kitchen after serving bowls of soup of her homemade soup to her siblings and young husband. No one said anything about the concoction. It wasn't until she sat down at the table and tasted the super-salted soup that she found out it was inedible.

This young bride wasn't about to give up on cooking. One day she worked hours making homemade barley soup. When dad came home from work, their flat smelled like heaven. This time the soup was salted perfectly, not too much and not too little. Dad told her how good it tasted.

It wasn't until they got to the bottom of their bowls that they found out that there was a problem with the barley soup. It seemed that mom had not grabbed the box of barley from the cupboard, she had used the box next to it. The lovely soup she had made that day was made not with barley, but with birdseed kept for her canary.

Isabelle never became a great cook. She put her heart and soul into Thanksgiving dinner, making the best stuffing ever. But it was my dad, Chuck, who always had soups and stews simmering on cold winter days. One of my favorites was his famous oxtail soup. I remember sucking the meat from the bones and savoring the broth.

I'm happy to share these family stories with you today. I hope you have time to save your own stories. They take you beyond the family tree to the real people that lived and loved.

Susan Manzke, Sunnybook Farm, N8646 Miller Rd, Seymour, WI 54165;;;