Merzy Eisenberg: A Song in Her Heart

From the time she was a little girl, Merzy Eisenberg had a song in her heart, and ever since the time her sixth grade teacher asked her to sing a solo in the spring concert, Merzy has willingly shared that soprano talent. “I knew that I would always sing,” she said.

Merzy (pronounced MAIR zee) is now an octogenarian living on Milwaukee’s North Shore, and music continues to be a central part of her life. In fact, she currently belongs to four choirs, including the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale and the Bel Canto Seniors Choir.

These past months, living in semi-isolation because of the Covid-19 virus, Merzy hasn’t been able to meet in person with other chorus members or their directors. Fortunately, she is married to a man who loves music as much as she does. And fortunately, that man (retired United States Bankruptcy Judge Russ Eisenberg) is an accomplished pianist who is delighted to accompany his wife whenever she has a song in her heart that just won’t hold back. They also enjoy listening to music, both classical and show tunes, and to the free streaming of Metropolitan Opera on their website.

The two of them were making music together before they were married, when Merzy would perform such numbers as “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and “It’s Almost Like Being in Love” — and other songs from Brigadoon. Sometimes the performances were part of a public concert, other times for private soirees. Both Merzy and Russ were longtime members of the MacDowell Club, which promoted music and other arts in the community for over a century before it disbanded last year.

For many years before her retirement, Merzy taught modern Hebrew at Whitefish Bay High School and Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Milwaukee Jewish Day School. Although she didn’t have time during those years to join choirs, she took delight in perking up her lessons with music. She remembers one of her favorites, “The Conjugation Dance,” an original composition calling for many gestures and body language to make Hebrew verbs come to life.

“The impact of Covid-19 on my form of artistry is huge,” Merzy said in a recent interview. “Choir work by its definition is group work. The choirs in which I sing are composed of four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Thus, once we began to be quarantined, the choirs could no longer exist as they were.” And it’s not just the singing she misses. It’s the people. “Choirs often become vocal music communities. In some choirs the singers become so close they feel like families.”

To compensate for the missing musical dimension in her life, Merzy has already participated in two virtual choir experiences, one from synagogue Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She especially appreciates the efforts of Rebecca Renee Winnie, the director of the Bel Canto Senior Singers, for featuring a choral piece on Facebook every day. “Rebecca calls the project ‘Choral Connections Through Listening,’ Merzy said. “I take full advantage of that musical gift by listening every day and following through by learning more about the composer or the piece of music.” Merzy also expressed her gratitude to Enid Bootzin Berkovits, director of the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale, for offering Zoom meetings. “This helps me feel connected to the others in our chorus and I appreciate Enid’s efforts to produce a piece of virtual choir music.”

Merzy remembers those days before cellphones and the internet, when she kept in touch with family and friends by the almost lost art of letter writing. People thought twice before making a long distance phone call. Now there’s email, texting, Facetime.

Some of her chorus friends “get together via Zoom once in a while,” she said. “Everything helps.”

“I’m used to paying attention and receiving attention from people I love.” Nothing, not even the Covid-19 virus can interfere with that.

B.C. – Before Computers

People of my generation sometimes joke they were born “B.C.” – before computers.  When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a typing class from Mr. Kaczmarek, a tall, thin man in horn-rimmed glasses.  I can still remember the sound that reverberated through the classroom as we took a timed typing test on our Remingtons.  Reaching the end of a line at our own pace, we each hit the carriage return, creating a keyboard symphony: “Clicky clacky, clicky clacky, WHACK!  Clicky clacky, clicky clacky, WHACK!” 

It was a decent way to develop our left arm muscles.  Later, of course, there was a carriage return key — where the “Enter” key is found on today’s computer keyboards.  To help us keep our eyes off the paper in the typewriter, a bell would sound to let us know we were reaching the end of a line.  Momentary pause as we would think, Is there room for the entire word or should I hyphenate?

Then came “Word Wrap” – a term many computer literate young people aren’t familiar with.  To me, it was a technological miracle that the word processor knew when there was no more room for print on the current line, “wrapping” the word around to the next line.  As these machines became more and more sophisticated, they even knew where to place the hyphens.

Typing is definitely one of the most valuable classes I’ve ever taken, and I’m reminded of that every time I watch someone at a computer, searching the keyboard for a particular letter or symbol.  Even once they’ve become familiar with the precise location of each letter, number and symbol, the best most of these self-taught typists can do is use two or three fingers on each hand, and they can’t take their eyes off the keyboard while they type.  Over the years I sometimes earned extra income by working for temporary agencies; my typing – fast and accurate – helped me learn what it would be like to work in offices at Harley-Davidson, Midwest Express, Northwestern Mutual, Ameritech or Magnetek Engineering.  I also worked in a variety of law offices.

One of my first temporary jobs was for the law firm of Lipton and Petrie in downtown Milwaukee.  Every letter, every brief, had to be typed perfectly in duplicate.  These days duplicating a copy is easy – we just hit the “print” command and specify the number of copies we want.  If we send an e-mail, we can send a duplicate e-mail to another person by indicating “cc” (carbon copy) — or “bcc” (blind carbon copy) if we don’t want Person A to know that Person B is receiving it.  In the “B.C.” days at Lipton and Petrie, we used real carbon paper – the kind with the purple backing which marked the hands of any secretary who made too many errors.  One mistake on the top copy meant repeated mistakes on the copies underneath, and there was no “erase” key to undo the damage.  Each mistake had to be carefully whited out and the correction made so that it was imperceptible.  Even one noticeable correction meant the entire page had to be retyped.  This, more than anything else, improved my accuracy.

In the 70s, when I started writing news and feature articles for the Hales Corners and Franklin Hub, I worked from home on my personal typewriter.  As in the law office, I was required to make a carbon copy of each article submitted for my files.  If I made a mistake, I could mark up the carbon copy any way I chose, and the editors weren’t fussy about corrections on the page turned in, as long as they could read it.  After editing it, they turned it over to a typesetter where it had to be keyed in a second time. 

Today even some kindergartners can find the right keys on a keyboard. But I wonder how many will learn touch typing? Most people in the 21st century will probably get along fine on their laptops, tablets and smartphones with a self-taught version of accelerated hunt and peck.

Remembering My Mom

My mother, Vivian Marcella Ellingson, was born 107 years ago in Fillmore County, Minnesota. Her grandparents – the Ellingsons and the Stensgaards – had immigrated from Norway to that area of southern Minnesota. That’s where she met my dad, Willard Johnson, descended from another farm family of Norwegian immigrants. My two older sisters and I were all born in Fillmore County too – in a small, rented farmhouse, delivered by the local midwife, while waiting for the country doctor.

But times were not good – farms were failing and there wasn’t much work to be had. And so in 1942 my parents packed up their three daughters and moved to Milwaukee. Later that year our brother was born – in a hospital. What a luxury for our mother!

When I imagine what it was like – taking care of four children all under age seven – I’m filled with admiration for my mom.  The six of us lived with her mother – Grandma Ella Ellingson – on the third floor of an old, once glorious home on 27th and Vine Street.  We lived there until I was seven. Meanwhile, my father, who had been working all those years in a foundry, longed for the country life and saved up enough cash for a down payment on a small farm 100 miles north.  It couldn’t have been easy for my mother to say goodbye to family and the many friends she had made in the city, and move to a small farm on a gravel road where there was no indoor plumbing, no telephone.  She had never learned to drive either – it made her nervous – but all those years on the farm I never heard her complain about the isolation she must have felt.

For our father, you see, needed to keep working his factory job in Milwaukee to support his family, so he rented a room during the week and took the train back on weekends.  Essentially, he was a weekend farmer, and my mom a single parent for five days a week.

But she wasn’t a complainer – she had a courageous spirit and a happy disposition. She’s been gone now for 44 years, but the gift of memory keeps her close.  What follows are a few of those memories.

Every Monday my mother washed clothes on the enclosed porch just outside the kitchen.  That meant heating water on the wood range to fill the wringer washing machine.  All year around the baskets of clean wet laundry were hung on clotheslines outside.  I still have a vivid memory of Dad’s long-legged underwear frozen solid and then brought inside to finish drying over the hall railing.  Mom had other chores too – feeding the chickens and bringing in the eggs, starting the wood fire in the morning and keeping it going all day – even in the summer, because most of our meals were made on top of the wood range.

Mom was an excellent baker – bread, cookies, cakes, pies – always something waiting for us when we came home from school.  Before she was married, my mom had taught all eight grades in a one-room country school; now her children attended a school just like that.  We walked or biked the two miles each way.

We didn’t have TV until I was in high school, but radio was Mom’s link to the outside world.  I remember coming home to hear the latest installment of “Stella Dallas” or “Lorenzo Jones.”  In the evenings we would gather around the console radio in the living room and listen to “Dragnet” or “The Lone Ranger” or “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

Mom had lots of sayings: “If it was a snake it would have bit you.”  (That was after finding something that was right under our noses.)  “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” When my sisters and I thought we were “too busy” to do dishes: “You can wash a lot of dishes in 10 minutes.”

I’ve found that the implications of that 10 minute challenge applies to much more than a sink full of dirty dishes.  I can take any task, any project – no matter how overwhelming, break it down and start somewhere, anywhere.  The key is to just start.

Mom had a lot of energy, didn’t sit too much, yet she could poke gentle fun at herself with comments like “The faster I go, the behinder I get.”  Another of my favorites is: “I just seem to run around in a bushel basket.”  These days we don’t usually preface the word basket with bushel. But I conjure up an image of it right away: a wooden crate which held apples or potatoes. It’s harder, though, to conjure up an image of my mom in miniature running around inside that basket. So my imagination expands that basket until it’s plenty large for a woman to run around in, not getting anywhere.  Little basket or oversized basket, that image of my mother, Vivian, running around and around and not getting anywhere always amuses me.  When I find myself suffering the “bushel basket syndrome,” I can step back, lighten up, and remember my mom.

On the wall next to my computer is a framed picture of my mother, about ten years old, sitting in a field of wildflowers with her two younger sisters and their mother, Grandma Ella.  My cousin Dianne painted it, transforming the images from an old black and white photo into lovely pastels.  Looking at it, I am always reminded how I’m connected to the many generations of mothers and grandmothers before me and to the many generations of daughters and grand-daughters after me.

Joining Up With Jeff

I got sidetracked with my blog. It isn’t as though I took a hiatus from writing — I’ve been doing plenty of that — but I wasn’t meeting anyone at this WordPress corner.

Now here comes Jeff Goins. He’s been sending me emails about writing for several years, and I remembered that the last time I took up his 500 words a day challenge I started becoming more intentional about my writing. In 2017 I put together a collection of stories: The Romance of Anna Smith and other stories. It has been well received and a number of people asked me, “When are you going to publish your next book?”

The answer to that is “Very soon. . .possibly this month.” My second book is a collection of prose poems and short memoir titled Where I’m From: poems and stories. 

Meantime, I need to get reacquainted with WordPress, and I’m hoping other members of Jeff’s “tribe” will be willing to share some tips.

Meet You at the Corner. My little corner of the world.

Harrisville, Wisconsin – Home of Bratfest

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday, the day before Labor Day, the little town of Harrisville, Wisconsin was overflowing with people who had come for the annual Bratfest. Madison claims to host the largest Bratfest in the world — and that’s on Memorial Day weekend , but if that’s true Harrisville is certainly giving our state’s capital some fierce competition.

It’s not just the brats which attract the crowds. And it’s not just the beer, though there’s plenty of that too. There are several bands performing throughout the day, a tractor pull, line dancing, softball and volleyball, a midway — with games and carnival rides, and free wagon rides through the town. You could even buy a Bratfest t-shirt in just about any size or color. As far as I know, all profits go to fund the all-volunteer Fire Department.

The first Bratfest was a community affair held in 1961, but people were looking for a “Last Hurrah” of the summer for the Labor Day weekend, so the numbers increased and more events and activities were added to appeal to various age groups. Oh yes, and the motorcylists turn out by the dozens. (Mostly Harleys but not all.)

My husband and I wouldn’t normally drive over 100 miles for a brat. ((Served with homemade potato salad and baked beans and ice cream, I should add.) But we enjoy the leisurely drive through the countryside from Fond du Lac through Ripon, Rosendale, and Princeton. And we enjoy walking down to the millpond and through the town. You can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes.

Some things change over the years; others remain the same. The Town Hall, where the brats are served, used to be a one-room country schoolhouse. My Soiney cousins went there and their mom, Aunt Ina, was the teacher. The millpond is where I learned to swim and where Phyllis Frank tried to teach me to iceskate one winter. This past Sunday a woman stood alongside the bank, holding a fishing pole.

There used to be two taverns; now there’s just the Sportsmen’s Tavern, which my brother Vince claims to serve the best hamburgers ever. My friend Phyllis (now Phyllis Ingram) who still lives in the Town of Harris serves as the Town Clerk. Almost every Friday she and her friends eat the best fish fry ever at the Sportsmen’s Tavern.

That’s a long way to drive for a fish fry, but hey! maybe some day we’ll try it.




Let Me Introduce: Jeannée Sacken

On her website, Jeannée Sacken describes herself as “Writer, Photographer, Adventurer.” Three passions – and I am always amazed how she manages to include time for all three in her life.

Which first? From my own perspective, I will start with Writer because that’s where I met Jeannée. She was facilitating a workshop of writers at Redbird Writing Studio in Bay View, Wisconsin.

Jeannee Sacken

Jeannée, would you speak about “the writer in you” and how this passion has played a central role in your life?

Jeannée: My fondest memories from childhood are of my father reading me bedtime stories. The next thing I knew, at age six, I was writing my own stories and plays. The kids in our neighborhood would stage my one acts, and my schoolteachers would have me read my stories to the class on rainy days when we couldn’t go out on the playground. Powerful reinforcement that led me to define myself as a writer.

But in graduate school and later as an English and French professor, my creative writing gave way to the academic monographs and articles needed for tenure and promotion. When my father died, I decided that the creative writer in me needed to come back to life. As did my inner photographer. I resigned my tenure and set out to pursue the vocations that make me, me. This current phase of my writing is inextricably linked to my photography and to my travel. Judy Bridges, my longtime mentor at Redbird describes my writing as “visual.” Robert Vaughan, a member of Redbird and Red Oak round tables with me, describes my novels and novellas as “cinematic.” That’s a direct result of my photography and the way my inner eye sees the world and composes images that I capture, which I later transfer to the written word. Felicity Librie and Barbara Kellam-Scott, two of my writing partners, described my work as “stories of social justice”—a result of my travels and listening to the stories of the people whose portraits I make.

*  *  *

In the Roundtable groups at Redbird Jeannée always kept her focus on the writers she was there to mentor. But we soon learned about her talent as a photographer. At one time, we were honored to have framed photographs of African women displayed on the walls in our meeting room.  We also were privileged to view public displays at various locations in the Milwaukee area. She has presented slideshow lectures at the Shorewood Library. Most recently, Jeannée was part of Milwaukee’s Art Gallery Night and Day, showcasing her favorite photos from a trip to Madagascar. These photographs and dozens of others are presented in five slideshows on her website:

Jeannée, many of your photographs feature people, but you also have a gift for photographing animals and landscapes. What personal and professional satisfaction do you get from photography?

Jeannée:  I’ve been incredibly fortunate with my photography. Galleries in Milwaukee, New Jersey, and New York have mounted my exhibits. The Shorewood Public Library featured a program on my trip to Madagascar. Having people view my images, listen to the stories behind the images, and then purchase a photograph to hang in their home—it doesn’t get any better.

Some of my images are the result of a split-second, but most take hours to capture. Hours of talking with people, getting to know them, putting them at ease until their guard is down and the real person emerges. Or hours of  studying how elephants or lions or leopards or penguins interact with their group and making sure I’ve become invisible. Those are the moments I treasure: when an elephant calf I’ve been watching for an hour goes running head-over-heels to the mud wallow once the matriarch bellows it’s his turn, when the Maya woman in “Stringing the Loom” brings her hand to her forehead in relief because all her strings are tangle-free, when “Maya Girl with Corndolls” offers her Mona Lisa smile because I turn my camera away from her brother and toward her, when a schoolgirl at L’école des Saphirs in Madagascar glances back at me over her shoulder, when 90-year-old Marie takes off her glasses so the camera can capture the wisdom in her eyes and reveal her life experiences on the Navajo Reservation.

And those moments inform my writing in all kinds of ways. In fact, I’m currently working on a novel about a photographer whose professional and personal lives are inextricably linked. May I also say that the incomparable Dave Blank ( is the creative force behind my website.

*  *  *

Jeannée’s third passion – adventure – is often synonymous with world travel. As you explore her website, you will see references to Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Alaska, Japan, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, and Madagascar.

Jeannée, in your travels, you are no mere sightseer. What does the word adventure bring to mind when you reflect on these travels?

Jeannée: When my husband, Michael, and I travel, we follow our hearts and don’t hold back. We’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, sea-kayaked with thousands of seal pups in the southern Atlantic, trekked through rainforests in Madagascar and Panama, and canoed the Zambezi River through hippo and crocodile alley. On photo shoots, we’ve jumped off a train in the Honduran Mosquito Jungle, lived with the San in Botswana, and ridden horseback to mountaintops in search of images of women and children.

For me, meeting and photographing people with vastly different life experiences from my own is key to my travels, to my writing, to my life. People cultivating bananas on communal plantations in Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania, a seamstress surviving the war years in Guatemala, or grandmothers and granddaughters throat-singing in Petropavlovsk, Russia, get me outside my comfortable life in Wisconsin and open me to life in other parts of the world.

Sometimes our adventures test us. Although we take precautions, things happen. We’ve endured a car accident in Costa Rica, our lodge burning down in Namibia, an emergency helicopter medevac out of the Kalahari Desert, and a hospitalization in Maun, Botswana. No matter what we encounter, we do our best to stay in the moment—and remember those moments. Adventure travel certainly gets our adrenaline flowing, but more important, it gives us the chance to see some of the most beautiful places on earth and the opportunity to meet and honor the people who live in those countries.

*  *  *

Jeannée, Could you tell us about your next adventure?

Jeannée:  We have two trips on the horizon. In a few weeks, we’re off to Mongolia: a week in the capital, Ulaan Bataar, then a week in the far-western reaches of the country for the Golden Eagle Festival, followed by a week in the Gobi Desert. Our reason for going is to photograph the festival where hundreds of nomadic Kazakhs will congregate to display their eagle-hunting prowess. Although this used to be an exclusively male undertaking, young women are starting to take part—as seen in the documentary The Eagle Hunter. We’ll also saddle up and ride with Kazakh hunters across the steppes! In 2018, we’ll be returning to southern Africa to photograph the great elephant migration from Chobe in Botswana to Hwange in Zimbabwe. I’ll be photographing these magnificent animals from toe-level blinds, kayaks, jeeps, and mountain bikes. This expedition is in concert with Imvelo, an organization that works with local Zimbabwean and Botswanan communities to ensure conservation of endangered species.

*  *  *

Thanks for the interview, Jeannée. We’ll follow you on your website.



Meet Me at the Corner

I used to write a blog for Community Newspapers in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. I called the blog “Meet Me at the Corner” and I still like that name. To me it brings up the image of two friends agreeing to meet at a designated spot. Although I picture a sidewalk with street signs (say, the corner of 4th and State Street) a meeting in the world of the Internet doesn’t demand an actual corner. Wherever readers meet me on these pages will be a little “corner” of the world.

I have lots of thoughts and stories to share, though I plan to steer clear of politics and controversy on these pages. Sometimes I’ll write about interesting people I meet; other times I’ll share stories — both real-life stories and fiction. You’ll be sure to find posts here on writers and writing. Mostly, though, I want to write about things that will lighten your day and to give you food for thought.