Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reaching Out From Beyond the Grave?

When I moved here last summer, I assumed my husband and I had left all family behind in New York, including the grave of our little daughter, Elizabeth. But some very bizarre trips back in time uncovered quite the opposite.

I first became intrigued by Mystic’s dead while researching the “back stories” for my article, "The 7 Wonders of Mystic.” Deciding that the Memorial Arch of Elm Grove Cemetery was a “Wonder,” I drove past the markers of the 13,000 souls buried there, many on the “Who’s Who” list of 19th century ship builders and sea captains, and looked for one to highlight. I became intrigued by a tall obelisk along the Mystic River depicting the steamship, City of Waco. The grave marker tells how Captain Thomas E. Wolfe died piloting her when it caught fire off the port of Galveston in 1875. Articles in the New York Times gave an account of Wolfe’s command of a vessel during the Civil War that transported supplies from New York to New Orleans until his capture by the Confederate navy. His boat burned, he was taken prisoner, but made a daring escape with some companions over a year later. After the war, he became a pilot for the State of Texas until his steamship exploded in flames and sank, killing all on board. His body was recovered and shipped back to Mystic.

With “The 7 Wonders” article finished, and a vote for the 8th Wonder conducted by Patch, I was curious to learn about the potential “Wonders” suggested by the public. I began by purchasing a copy of the Mystic River Historical Society’s walking tour booklet, Curbstones, Clapboards and Cupolas. Reading about the historic homes and former residents of West Mystic Avenue, which now extends to Allyn St. where I live, I was intrigued when I read, "Contractor Allyn built #12 for his brother-in-law (who could not make payments). Captain Charles Sisson bought the house in 1858 after an unsuccessful search for gold in California.” Could that Sisson be a long-ago relative of mine?

I contacted David Sisson, my cousin who has done extensive research on the Sisson line. Yes, Captain Charles Sisson was my cousin--and he had lived only 10 houses down from me! Captain Charles Sisson and I are fourth cousins five times removed, both descending from Thomas and Jane (Freeman) Sisson.

Not only were we cousins, which was enough to thrill me, but after his wife Ann died at sea in 1876, he married the widow of Captain Thomas E. Wolfe—the Civil War hero in my "Wonders” article! It turns out that Charles and Captain Wolfe were boyhood friends who searched for the California gold together—and married sisters! I couldn’t wait to visit the graves of Captain Charles Sisson and his first wife Ann at nearby Lower Mystic Cemetery, because I wouldn’t just be visiting interesting people, I’d be visiting family.

Their grave markers were not difficult to find in this small cemetery on Route 1. Charles’s tall stone, engraved with a sailing ship, declares: “The voyage is ended.” Ann’s marker is similar, but was placed in memory of her because she was buried at sea—with the stone giving the coordinates. When I saw a small grave marker nearby, I felt this must be the reason I was led here. On it was the name of their 10-month-old daughter. Engraved with “Our Little Ida,” I felt I was given a place to grieve for my own daughter, whose marker is engraved, “Our Little Girl.”

Taking my husband, Jim, there the following weekend, I thought I was going to show him where I had some dead relatives. Standing in front of their markers, we saw another couple walking around looking at stones. “Excuse me,” the man yelled over to us, “Would you happen to know if there are any Sissons buried here?”

Stunned, I yelled back, “Yes there are—and we're standing in front of them! I’m related to them!”

The man replied, “My name is Matthew Sisson.” A captain in the Coast Guard, Matthew told me he wasn’t sure if he was related to Captain Charles Sisson, but he couldn’t wait for me to find out. He mentioned that his Sisson family was coming from as far away as California to attend his upcoming Change of Command Ceremony in June. He just happened to stop at this little cemetery on the off-chance he would find some Sissons there.

Another flurry of e-mails to my cousin David Sisson revealed that Captain Matthew J.Sisson and I are distant cousins too!*

On Thursday, June 23, I went to Matthew’s Change of Command Ceremony at Fort Trumbull State Park in New London—and met a lot more cousins!

End Note:
If Captain Charles Sisson is still working from beyond the grave to reveal more Mystic secrets, such as that he and his friend Captain Wolfe did find gold in California, buried it somewhere, and want me to know where it is, I plan to look for clues at the Collections Research Center at Mystic Seaport, where Sisson's captain’s logs are reportedly stored among other important documents. Perhaps I will find out more about Captains Sisson's and Wolfe's treacherous trip back from California, which claimed the life of their third companion (who is buried near Captain Sisson). I will also look further into the circumstances of Wolfe's death in the steamship explosion because the inquest included some disturbing eye-witness accounts.

Another cousin of mine, genealogist Carol Sisson Regehr, was given Captain Sisson's family bible from Col. John Sisson, who received it as a gift from a friend who found it in a resale shop. Carol then donated the bible to the Mystic Seaport Museum. Through that and the captain's logs I hope to find out why Sisson's first wife, Ann, died at sea at the age of 45 on the ship, Jeremiah Thompson.

Captain Charles Sisson’s home on 12 West Mystic Ave, Mystic, which looks very much the same today, can be seen at:

The information available on the site (which includes a photo of Captain Sisson’s Bible) at,
states: “Charles was shipmaster of the Bridgewater, Jeremiah Thompson, and Thomas Dana… Charles married (1) Ann E. SAWYER...She died 12 May 1876 at sea on ship "Jeremiah Thompson.”
According to the Mystic River Historical Society’s walking tour booklet, Curbstones, Clapboards and Cupolas, Sisson "commanded the clipper ships Elizabeth F. Willetts and Mary Sutton." Eight volumes of his journals from 1863-1882 are said to be in the G. W. Blunt White Library at the Mystic Seaport Museum. 
Attention Sisson family members and/or descendents: To learn more about Sisson genealogy, visit:, where you can do family searches, learn about current genealogy projects, and the next bi-annual Sisson Gathering in Albany, NY, in 2012 (the purpose of these gatherings is to learn about ongoing Sisson research in the U.S. and England). To participate in Sisson-related conversions, join the Sisson listserve by registering at:

*My cousin David Sisson said that Matthew Sisson and I share ancestry back to Richard and Mary Sisson, an immigrant couple who were in Rhode Island (and later Plymouth Colony) by 1650. I descend from Richard and Mary's oldest son George, and Matthew Sisson descends from their son James.

Captain Charles Sisson and I are fourth cousins five times removed, both descending from Thomas and Jane (Freeman) Sisson.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How to Get Cast in a Mystic Film

Didn't get a part as an extra in the movie, Mystic Pizza, staring Julia Roberts? Weren’t asked to be a zombie in the recent movie filmed at the Ramada Hotel--despite strolling back and forth in front of the hotel hoping the director would say, “Now there goes a real zombie?”

Don't despair, there are ways of getting into the upcoming movies rumored to be shot here next--or at least to be considered for a part as an extra in a commercial.

Just as I was pondering how I, a plump 50-year-old freelance writer, could get a small role in a film, I received an e-mail from my new friend Kristin of Mystv Studios, the local production company that makes commercials and the travel show, "Mystic Coast Connection," which plays continuously in 4,000 area hotels (their website states: "Get in Bed with Your Customers”).

Anyway, Kristin’s e-mail that may have launched me from obscurity, said, "I was wondering if you'd be interested in helping out on a commercial shoot on June 14 at the Newport Grand Casino. You and I would be PAs, so we’ll be fetching and holding light screens, checking off the shot list, and various other unglamorous things. It might be fun and I know it would be more fun for me if you were there!”


I had no idea what a PA was, and was only being asked because I might be “fun,” but I certainly wasn’t going to reject this chance to squeeze my image somewhere into this film!

Scheming how I could go from PA to film star (or at least film “extra”), I watched taped reruns of “I Love Lucy” to study Lucy's sneaky antics that landed her small roles in Ricky’s shows. Having a terrible sense of style, I wondered what I should wear to catch the director’s eye (my husband, Jim, usually arranges my outfit when I need to look decent). Just as I was e-mailing Jim to remind him to lay out something appropriate, I received another e-mail from Kristin: "You might be asked to be 'peanuts,' meaning filler for the commercial, so make sure your husband dresses you." There was hope I’d get in this commercial—and without any devious plotting!

On Tuesday morning, the day of the shoot, I began learning a whole new industry (such as P.A. means Production Assistant) —and that almost anyone can get into a film as an extra (or a “peanut”)—even me! And if a person has some talent, they can get paying roles as a “principal” or a “secondary” in practical films such as training videos (one actress at the shoot was using her down time to practice a five-page monologue for her upcoming role as an organ transplant recipient in an educational film).

I was told just before the shoot that a “grip” had been hired, so I wouldn’t be needed to hold and carry film equipment. Still wanting to look important, I brought my own clipboard—and it worked! Looking like a person in authority, the actors came to me with important questions that ranged from “Where is the bathroom?” to “Do you think my scene will be shot soon?” One woman, an extra, wanted to leave for a while so she could hang out in the smoking area. I reminded her that the slot machine scene, which required extras, was scheduled soon, but she replied, “Someone else told me it wouldn’t be for an hour or so.” Sure enough, right after she left, I got word it was time for the extras to leave for their scene. I offered to fill her spot (it’s a dog eat dog world out there), but was told I was needed where I was.

How was I was ever going to get my chance to play an extra? I told the cameraman and the directors more than once that I was willing to fill out a scene. No response. Kristin told me not to despair—they might still need me to heap food on my plate in the buffet scene or to dance in the nightclub scene. Since I didn’t want to admit I was a terrible, uncoordinated dancer just in case that was my only shot, I stressed that I was very good at eating—that I would be just perfect for the buffet scene. Not to brag, but I did win first place in a New Jersey pie eating contest—twice!

I was not requested for the buffet scene, but was asked to laugh in the comedy club scene (the camera man neglected to film us when the director elicited genuine laughter with a joke--so we had to laugh afterwards on the count of three). Despite my reservations, I was also needed on the dance floor of the nightclub scene. But I'm not sure you’ll see much of me in this commercial, which is due to be aired during the T.V. show, Wheel of Fortune, and several other places, because I was told by the director, “Now you dance in the back—look as though you are still trying to ‘find your way.’”

I guess that’s true—I am still trying to find “my way” to get into “the act,” but I did learn some valuable tips from the other actors, whose backgrounds included full-time acting professionals, a tradesman trying to earn a little extra money, casino goers who received an e-mail about the upcoming commercial, and retired individuals who read the audition notice in their local paper.

To learn about upcoming auditions in the Mystic area, read local online and print newspapers and sign up to receive audition notices by clicking the "Like" button on the Mystv Studios’ Facebook page and by registering with talent agencies, such as New England Actors.

If you audition for a part, bring a headshot and a resume.

What to wear if you just show up at a shoot: If you haven’t been told what to wear, a costume designer out of New York, Terry Thiry, suggests that women wear “a plain, neutral dress and bring accessories—a couple pairs of shoes, scarf, jewelry, jacket, and sunglasses. For a man, a pair of pants, button down shirt, dressier casual shirt (like a polo shirt), jacket, tie, and sunglasses.”

Good luck!

Lisa Saunders

P.S. The casino commercial is out! If you watch it several times, you might see me dancing in the background wearing a print skirt and a solid shirt. Will I be plucked from obscurity? If you like a challenge, see if you can find me at:

P.S.S. If you would like to see my other "How To" advice, which ranges from "How To Get a Job" to "How to Promote Your Business," visit my "How To" Workshops blog at:

Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Boat "Mystic Style"

by Lisa Saunders

I have never been accused of having style. But I do know how to get on a boat—especially since moving to Mystic. But I never bring the right accessories! Knowing what to wear and bring takes experience. Having been a landlubber until recently, I’m learning the hard way.

My first boat ride in Mystic was on the Sabino, the last wooden coal-fired steamboat still in operation (you can actually watch the coal being shoveled into the furnace the entire trip). It was a cool, breezy day and the ride wasn't too long—so there really wasn’t anything I needed to bring to feel comfortable.

My second trip on the Sabino, however, was a 90-minute evening excursion on a Saturday night with my husband, Jim. This time, I realized I should have brought a full-fledged picnic to enjoy the trip Mystic-style. I looked on in envy as passengers took out bottles of wine, plastic cups, cheese, crackers, and all sorts of delights from their wicker baskets. And there sat Jim and I, with a lousy jar of almonds and some bottled water we pulled from our ratty, old knapsack.

The following March, we took a seal watch cruise from the University of Connecticut's Avery Point Campus in Groton with Project Oceanology (we spotted about 200 seals lying on rocks in Fisher's Island Sound). This time, Jim and I were wet and cold because we disregarded the warning that we might get soaked if we rode on the bow of the re-outfitted offshore lobster boat. At least my feet stayed dry because I wore my thick, water-proof shoes, but poor Jim wore his leather ones (making me think of the stow-a-way sailor on Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition who had his toes amputated because he only had leather boots to wear).

In May, when we booked an evening sail on the schooner, Argia, I vowed things would be different. We would dress properly and bring some elegant snacks and drinks to enjoy. This time, we packed a bottle of wine along with our almonds and bottled water in our old knapsack. We even remembered to bring pretty, blue plastic cups in keeping with the color of the waters we were about to sail.

Well, I knew right away we underpacked when I saw a party of six adults pull out real wine glasses with their bottles of wine. Suddenly, my blue plastic cups seemed so cheesy—so inadequate on this tall, seaworthy sailboat. And when the adults broke out a tray of shrimp cocktail from their large, Mary Poppins-style picnic bag, that was too much. I tried to make friends with them so they’d share their shrimp with me, but they didn't warm up to my advances. Another family with young children also had the better of us. I couldn’t help being envious when they lifted one cheesy pizza slice after another from their Mystic Pizza take-out boxes. They didn't share with us either. Thankfully, the Argia provided cheese and crackers and fruit, so I ate a lot of that, loudly declaring things like, “Yummy!” so the others would think I preferred the Argia’s food to theirs.

My other mistake was that I was underdressed—it got very cold that foggy evening on the Mystic River and the Sound. The Argia did, however, provide blankets. The males on the voyage were too macho to wrap one around themselves, so they shivered like real men or went below decks.

Last weekend, we took another boat ride down the Mystic River—but this time, on a much smaller boat. Operated by Mystic River Tours, we felt completely pampered lounging on their 21-foot electric launch, complete with cup holders and comfy, padded benches. Since it would only be a 40-minute trip, I didn’t pack anything, especially since there was a canopy to keep the rain off. I didn’t even miss having shrimp cocktail because Captain Rick Nestler kept us thoroughly entertained with stories of life along the River, such as why Fort Rachel of the War of 1812 was named after Rachel (it was rumored she provided comfort to the men in more ways than one). This boat can be found at Steamboat Wharf, next to the Mystic River Drawbridge.

Most of my boating time now will be spent on my friend Cindy’s extra kayak. I had always wanted a friend with a boat—but had envisioned the kind where I wouldn’t have to do anything except sit and enjoy the view. At least there is little to pack in preparation for our paddling trips because there simply isn’t room. Since my visor tends to blow off my head when kayaking the Mystic River, I doubt I will even bother packing that anymore.

More info on the boats I’ve ridden:

Argia: 860-536-0416

Cindy’s Kayak: You will have to get to know Cindy in order for her to invite you, but there are places in Mystic where you can rent a kayak, such as Riverdog Kayak Rental. To learn how to launch yourself in a kayak, Cindy teaches you how in my video of  her at:

Project Oceanology: (860) 445-9007, (800) 364-8472.There was a reporter on our seal watch trip, so if you want to see some cold, salty spray, seals, and the back of Jim's head, watch this:

Riverdog Kayak Rental at Seaport Marine: 860-333-3198 (Co-owner, Suzanne Simpson, says she and her husband named their business after their sleepy greyhound you'll see with them under their tent. They offer my dog, Bailey, a treat when we stroll by. Maybe they'll give your dog one too!)

Sabino: 860.572.5351

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gloria the Goose Survives to See Another Christmas at Olde Mistick Village

Despite the name of the shop, The Gray Goose Cookery, it does not specialize in cooking geese—instead, this gourmet kitchen store was instrumental in saving Gloria, the regal yet cranky, arthritic goose residing at Olde Mistick Village.
“Earlier this year, an employee of The Gray Goose Cookery told us that Gloria was ailing,” says Christine Robertson, Office Manager of Olde Mistick Village. “She looked a little sluggish to them. She wasn’t her normal, feisty self.”
Gloria first came to Village in the mid 1980s when her owner could no longer care for her. Knowing the Village maintained duck ponds for their shoppers to enjoy, her owner thought Gloria could live out her life among the ducks who were permanent residents there. A goose in captivity can live up to 40 years.
When the Village office learned that Gloria wasn’t feeling well, they called in a vet. “These birds are part of our family, and Gloria is the reigning bird. We call her Queen Gloria because she is very bossy and hisses when displeased—but she is very protective of her subjects—especially the swan we once had named Gracie. They were good friends and if a duck or person got too close to the swan, Gloria would warn them off with a hiss.”
The vet, who doesn’t know for sure if Gloria is a female, discovered that she had an infection. So every day, the maintenance man in charge of feeding the birds caught Gloria and held her close to his chest so Robertson could give her an injection. “She started feeling better after the first day, so catching her for the rest of the treatment was almost impossible!” Gloria recovered completely, and despite her arthritis and a slight limp, is still reigning as queen in the main duck pond.
And what happens if age and arthritis eventually get the better of Gloria? “We have a duck pond near the maintenance barn that we call the ‘Geriatric Ward.’ That is where we retire all the birds who are too old or feeble to defend themselves from an aggressive duck.”
Spring is a particularly busy time at the Village because of mating season. Ducks fly in to raise their ducklings then fly off again. Many, however, live at the Village year-round. “Why would they want to leave?” asks Robertson. “They have everything they need here.” They are fed five, 50-pound bags of duck food per week by the maintenance crew and the public can feed them duck pellets purchased from the Franklin’s General Store at the Village.
For more information about Olde Mistick Village, visit or call (860) 536-4941.
(Note: This first appeared in the Mystic River Press on December 16, 2010.)

Gloria was sick again in 2011--incurring a $3,000 vet bill! Visit the Gray Goose Cookery if you would like to donate to her care.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How To Have a Party in Mystic

Dear Reader,

Jim and I just hosted our first Memorial Day Weekend party since moving to Mystic from New York last summer. None of our new neighbors came—are they are still recovering from my "eye-opening" debut last August when I first moved in?

We bought a house within walking distance of downtown Mystic so I would have a fun place to walk our beagle/basset hound, Bailey. At the start of my first stroll downtown, a woman pulled over in her van, and said, "Excuse me."

Expecting her to ask for directions to Mystic Pizza or some other tourist attraction, I wasn't prepared for what she really wanted to know: "Do you realize the back of your skirt is tucked into your underwear?"

Is that why the neighbors still shoo their children indoors whenever Bailey and I walk by?

Anyway, I wanted our first full summer in Mystic to begin just as it had in previous years—with us inviting everyone we know to a Memorial Day Weekend party at the last moment possible. I dread the work of preparing the house and yard for a party, so I figure it’s best to invite folks within a day or two of the event—that way they won’t expect too much because they'll know I barely had time to prepare.

Although all of my neighbors said they already had plans and couldn’t come (is my first dog-walking outfit still burned in their memory?), we were able to rustle up some new friends who were willing to come: Jim’s co-workers who had never met me (and were therefore unafraid of my wardrobe); Bambi (yes, that is her legal name), who felt compelled to rescue me from my lost and lonely state when we first met at the Department of Motor Vehicles last summer; and a few others who were happy not to have to prepare their own home for a shindig.

Watching Jim clean off our backyard patio with the leaf blower, I thought how lucky our guests were that I had learned from a party in our New York home that leaf blowers were for cleaning outside, not inside.

Our dog before Bailey was Riley, a 100-pound black lab-mix with long hair. Preparing for a “Girl’s Night In” party for my high school friends one evening, I realized I just wasn’t going to have time to vacuum up Riley’s kinky, black hair rolling across the floor and wrapped around chair legs. Everything else was in order. The food was laid out, delicate wine glasses face up, ready to be filled, and water mixed with cinnamon was bubbling on the stove to disguise the doggy smells. What happened next is an excerpt from my memoir, Anything But a Dog!:

"Suddenly I had a brilliant idea! Our leaf blower could blast all the hair to one corner of the house in seconds! Then I could quickly gather it up. Energized by this innovative thought, I flung open the mudroom door that led directly into the garage. Beholding the machine that would clean my house in an instant, I wondered why no one else had ever thought of this before!

"Collecting the leaf blower with its long, orange outdoor electrical cord, I dragged the contraption through the mudroom. Plugging it into a kitchen socket, I pondered a second career for myself—move over Martha Stewart! Adjusting the nozzle toward the floor, I flipped on the switch. The machine sprang to life with a loud resounding woosh. And poof! The dog hair vanished. But not where I wanted it to go! It wasn’t racing tidily toward one corner of the house. Instead, fluffs of it flew high into the air. It landed on ceiling cobwebs and clung to them. Black hair also settled on top of the salsa, hummus, and tortilla chips and gently drifted into the wine glasses. Not exactly what I had planned!

"I wiped as much of the hair off the table and counter surfaces as I could before my guests arrived. Just as I was blowing the hair off the food and out of the wine glasses, the doorbell rang. Once my friends were all seated, and had eaten their fill, I entertained them with the account of my leaf blower disaster. It felt great to make them laugh. I decided, however, that in order to keep the giggles going, it would be best not to burden them with the fact that I’d turned on the blower after their food and wine glasses were already laid out..."

Perhaps you, Dear Reader, may find yourself invited to our party next year. Knowing what you know now, do you dare come?

P.S. My memoir, Anything But a Dog!, is available on Amazon and in downtown Mystic at the Green Marble Coffee House, 8 Steamboat Wharf, Mystic CT 06355, (860) 572-0012