The oldest of six siblings, 76-year-old Annie Gottlieb has always felt a natural pull toward the caretaker role. So when Annie’s mother, Jean, asked her in 2017 to help her edit a family memoir documenting several generations’ history, she said yes without hesitation. In the midst of a publishing career spanning more than 50 years, including reviewing books for The New York Times, Viva, and other publications, Annie thought working with her mother would be her most challenging yet satisfying project to date.
Jean, now 98, had been thinking about her family’s history for more than 20 years, ever since one of her many great-nephews told her he wished he knew more about his ancestors. “My mother said, ‘I’ll take care of that,’” Annie recalled. “My mother started to think about how all of the stories told by her grandparents and parents were going to be lost with her. So many Jewish families don’t have documents going back very far, so the idea of memory and the tribal strand really drove her.”
Throughout those years, Jean created a digital document where she would collect her memories and family stories. Eventually, her eyesight began fading due to macular degeneration, so she transitioned to writing by hand. By the time Annie read her mother’s work, she had close to 100 pages of free-associated writing.
As Annie began reading what her mother had written, she immediately saw how to edit it. “I inherited my mother’s brain,” said Annie. “We have the same thoughts, we come out with the same words, and we haven’t been living together for years. It’s uncanny how alike we are.” She’d read batches of pages, reorganize, edit, and insert questions for her mother.
“Through the editing process, more memories would be triggered for my mom and she would remember more about a particular person or incident,” Annie said. “And that would enrich the story even more, so I would take her responses and emails and weave them into the story.”
This became their editing process for five years while Annie was working on other projects. When the process became more time-consuming, Jean offered to pay her daughter for her time. Annie refused: “I said, ‘You’re my mom, you don’t have to pay me!” But Jean insisted, which ultimately made it possible for Annie to dedicate the time and concentration she always wished she could.
The result of their collaboration is Braided Generations: The Living, the Lost, and the Power of Belonging—a family memoir they published this spring. In it, Jean describes in vivid detail the stories of her and her husband’s families as they immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and Eastern Europe. In it, she reveals two family deaths by suicide, which in Jewish tradition was historically something families didn’t speak about. She didn’t want those stories to be lost, which drove her to publish this memoir, rather than just keep it to herself, and her immediate family. Jean came up with the title Braided Generations herself, trying evoke how families are woven together. It was Annie, the editor, who provided the subtitle, hoping to highlight the idea of bringing those who passed back into the consciousness of the family.
Annie wasn’t the only daughter tasked with collaborating on the family memoir. Braided Generations was proofread by Jean’s fourth daughter, Janet Sailian, a professional freelance writer and editor. Martha Gottlieb, Jean’s third daughter, provided the image of a woven rug for the book cover.
Jean dedicated the book to her great-nephew who inspired the work. He was 11 years old when he inquired about his family’s past. He is now 33. “For Ezra, whose curiosity about our ancestral past unleashed this torrent,” the book’s dedication reads. “May it answer some questions and ask many more.”
In Braided Generations, Jean wasn’t only committed to documenting her own family’s past, but her late husband’s as well. It’s a memoir about two kinds of Jewish immigrant experiences: one Eastern European, and one German.
The book tells the story of how Jean’s mother’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement, documenting her father’s journey to America as a 10-year-old, non-English speaking immigrant, and her mother’s transformation from the ghetto to Hull House.
The story of Annie’s father’s German family was quite different. Jean tells the story of how her late husband’s grandfather Abraham Gottlieb (the engineer Daniel Burnham hired and fired in Devil in the White City) immigrated from Bohemia in 1857.
The memoir includes sections with photos and news clippings, giving readers the full picture of the families’ histories. Jean’s memories and stories are detailed, descriptive, and vivid. “American history and Jewish immigrant experience twine together in the memoir, from our grandfather’s memories of pogroms and fleeing them, to the author’s memories of the Depression and Pearl Harbor,” said Annie, describing the heart of Braided Generations. “My mother was a very observant witness to history. And she felt that putting those experiences on paper was her contribution to her family, and the world.”
In many ways, Jean was perfectly primed to take on this endeavor of documenting and sharing her family’s stories. She was born in Chicago in 1923 to immigrants from Eastern Europe. She won the freshman writing prize during her time at Scripps College before dropping out to marry Harry Gottlieb. Together, they had six children, and years after the last child was born, Jean went back to school, eventually earning her M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Chicago. She worked as a researcher, writer, and editor at many companies, including Encyclopedia Britannica before retiring. “My mother is an archivist, and researcher, so she had all of those skills to research our families,” said Annie. “But at heart, she’s a writer. That’s what she was born to do.”
Jean now proudly lives on her own in Chicago. Her husband, Harry Gottlieb, died in 2015. It was after he passed away that Jean was really able to dedicate her time to bringing this memoir to life. We spoke about her life, and how she took on the role as a family documentarian. “It took around 20 years to write Braided Generations. I raised a family, worked, and went to school. It was hard but it was worth it.”
The similarities in the sound of Jean’s and Annie’s voices was striking. I asked if she believes they share a mind, as Annie had mentioned to me. “I think that’s true,” said Jean, “but she has a better sense of humor.”
Jean said it was a no-brainer to ask her daughter Annie to be the one to edit her family memoir. “I would never have found anyone who could have done it as well, and who had knowledge of the people and stories,” said Jean. “Our relationship didn’t change, it deepened.”
“So many people go through their parents’ archives—photos, letters, journals, memorabilia—as part of the grieving and clearing-out processes after they die,” said Annie. “Through the process of editing my mother’s memoir, I got that chance to see into my mother while she is very much alive. I gained more understanding, compassion, and forgiveness for her. We’d always had good intellectual raillery and laughed well together, but maybe we developed a little surreptitious tenderness.”
I asked Jean the same question I asked her daughter Annie—What does she hope people take away from her book?—and unsurprisingly, they gave a similar answer.
“It would be a wonderful thing if these stories, adventures and characters could be preserved in some way. I hope it makes people realize the value and importance of family. Family is what makes you who you are,” said Jean. “And I think my daughter feels the same way,” she made sure to add. Like mother, like daughter.
While Annie and Jean won’t physically be together on Mother’s Day this year, Annie plans to visit her mother soon after, in early June. In the meantime, they’re in regular contact, said Annie: “My mother and I FaceTime every night.”
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.