Sheila Merle Johnson reads at Stories from Brooklyn and Beyond Showcase

December 12, 2020

Sheila Merle is from Novato, California in the San Francisco Bay Area. She retired from a 25-year career as a Trager Movement Education Instructor, and then 10 years as an Image Consultant and a Home Stager. She is enjoying an expansive and joyful retirement exploring Improv Theater, voiceover acting, French, Italian, dancing and other fun pursuits.

Sheila Merle is an endless source of inspiration to me with her positive attitude, involvement in a seemingly endless list of Zoom workshops and events, and her generous and joyful spirit. It is my great pleasure to welcome Sheila Merle!

This is a story about my late husband and I interviewing his grandmother before she passed away. My one marriage which happened late-ish in life at age 39 was to the last of my many Jewish boyfriends over the years. My husband’s name was Michael Stuhlbarg, which is translated from German as chair hill. I always joked that his family invented the skiing chair lift.

The family immigrated from Russia through Germany to the U.S., and his grandparents came in through Ellis Island. On one trip to New York, we found their names there, and it was quite moving. Michael’s grandmother and grandfather were nicknamed Momo and Popo. I don’t even remember their real names. After Popo had died, we made one trip to Cincinnati where Michael was from to interview Momo, who was very old and frail but quite bright in her mind still.

We brought a little tape recorder, for this was many decades ago, with a little handheld mic plugged into her rest home. He went through questions about the family, how they immigrated, their experiences in the early days, his parent’s upbringing, etc.

At the end of the interview, Michael asked, “Momo, do you have any wisdom for your progeny?” Of course, we were awaiting the great wisdom of life that comes with age. She was in her late 80s or maybe early 90s. We were hoping to learn from it ourselves and translate that wisdom into something we could apply to our lives. She sat back in her rocking chair, eyes closed, rocking, and thinking deeply.

Then she opened her eyes and leaned forward. Both Michael and I leaned forward as well, in breathless anticipation. He held out the microphone towards her, and she opened her mouth and said, “Buy real estate.” While we may laugh at the incongruency of this response and our expectations, it is really the story of immigrants who came here, having had their families wiped out in the pogroms in Russia, going to Germany under duress, and then leaving Germany because of the Jewish persecution there.

So having built their wealth such as it was here, through real estate, it was a very important piece of wisdom for her to give. This is the familial wisdom from a past generation, but so far, none of the family has really followed it, including Michael and his brothers. In fact, I’m not sure any of my stepchildren or their children even know this story. So it’s my job to transmit it. Sadly, I have no idea of where the recording of that interview with Momo is. I’ve never come across it in all the moves I’ve made since Michael died. Thank you.

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