Family reunions bring out the old stories

My wife, sister and I met my brother at a large family reunion this weekend. The annual gathering is of descendents of my mother’s maternal grandparents who had eleven of their fourteen children survive to adulthood. This is the first time we have gone in many years and is the first one after my mother passed. To top it off, the three of us stopped at the home of family friends who went to college with my parents.

The old stories were wonderful to hear, many which were new to our ears. Here are a few highlights beginning with a couple we shared about our grandparents.

– My grandmother worked for a retail store overseeing the men’s and boy’s departments. When the CEO of the company visited, he was given a tour by the store manager for whom my grandmother worked for years. The CEO borrowed her pen and then put it in his pocket. She said “Sir, that is my pen; my boss is too cheap to buy us any pens. So, if you want any sales, you may want to give it back.”

– My step-grandfather would take us fishing leaving around 5 am. My Great Uncle would follow my grandfather’s truck and boat trailer with his. One morning my grandfather had to stop suddenly and my Uncle smashed into and crumpled my grandfather’s boat – we still fished, but had to rent a boat.

– One of the second cousins (the family was so large, the older children’s grandchildren were contemporaries of the younger children’s children) told a story about listening under the porch while her mother, grandmother and great grandmother sewed on the porch – it was too hot to be inside, so she heard all the gossip. Later, she said she helped them with the foot pedals as the sewers were too feeble to manually spin the bobbins of the old sewing machines.

– One of my mother’s cousins confirmed a story that my mother shared as her memory was fading. The cousin shared that she and another cousin hid in the backseat of the car in which my father and mother drove off to their honeymoon from the wedding reception. After a couple of miles the two culprits surprised the young newlyweds and they had to drive them back. As I told the confirmed story to my table, the wife of another cousin shared that she sang at my parent’s wedding. She recalled singing “Whither thou goest.”

– I confirmed with a couple of my mother’s cousins, that her younger sister was similar to Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” taking up for my mother when she was slighted. She was deemed a tad bossy at that age, but would give you the shirt off her back to help. Ironically, she was small in stature, but married a man who was 6’7″ making the oddest of pairs.

– The best reunion story relayed a piece of advice from the lone childless couple to his niece who shared it with us. He said don’t put everything off; go out and live. He lamented they have money and time as  retirees, but cannot travel. So, the niece said each time they felt they were saving too much for later, they remembered these words and went on a trip. This was voted the best story.

– My grandmother’s younger brother liked to do gymnastics. When a boy, he fell snd knocked out his two fronf teeth. Their mother, who was like a local nurse, sat him down and soaked a towel iin boiling water.  She let it cool a little and told him ti put that in his mouth as hot as he could stand it and his gums swelled. She then shoved his cleaned up teeth into the swollen gums and they held the teeth. To have that presence of mind is amazing.

– At the later gathering with my parents’ college friends, who we have known for years, they shared how hard they had to work at their college work study program. The two guys worked on a sawmill crew, where they took down trees for several days a week, loaded and trucked them back to the mill the next few days, then sawed them up later in the week. The women worked in the cafeteria, laundry and sewing areas. The work was hard, but it was the only way they could afford college.

I hope you enjoyed these vignettes. What are some of your memories of your older relatives?

Note: Looking over a photo of ten of the siblings, one of the cousins noted the older female siblings were much more conservative in dress, pointing to the closed toed and shorter heels. The younger female siblings had more stylish clothes along with open-toed and higher heels.

Finding your Roots

My wife and I have become fascinated by the PBS show called “Finding your Roots.” Historian Henry Louis Gates hosts three people of prominence and shares with them interesting things he discovers about their ancestry.

The show provides a rich and personal history lesson to the three guests and the audience. We have learned many things we did not know, especially when races and ethnicities intermingle or families flee bigotry, enslavement or persecution.

Here are a few of those learnings:

– every family has unusual circumstances or secrets that may not have been shared, as the information may have been embarassing, highly personal or even dangerous if others knew.

– there were some freed African-Americans living in areas of the South and more surprisingly, some of these freed African-Americans owned slaves.

– we knew of African-Americans that fought for the Union, but some fought for the Confederacy, and some of those fought for the Union after their City fell to the Union.

– Fascists and anti-Semites know no boundary. Some Jews escaped Poland from Polish anti-Semites long before they tried to escape the Nazis. Some escaped Russia for the same reason, then had to leave England to escape it there.

– it is not surprising for the guests to find different races and ethnicities in their background – the history is validated by DNA tests.

As examples of this last point, Bryant Gumbel found out he was about 10% European Jew. Suzanne Malveaux from CNN has multiple races mixed in, including Native American, French Quebec and sub-Saharian African. The comedian Fred Armisten found out his Japanese grandfather was actually Korean who fled persecution and was an acclaimed dancer in Japan. Larry David, who does a great Bernie Sanders impersonation, has DNA that makes him a distant relative of Sanders, which neither knew.

I encourage you to watch the show, even if you may not know the guests. Also, go on Ancestry.com and spend some time tracing your roots. It will suck you in, but do invest some time. History is fun, especially when it is yours.

America’s diversity is what matters

During this past election and until today, I get a sense from some that they feel they are more American than others. In my view that belief devalues what it means to be an American. We are the melting pot of the world and have first through multi-generation people living here whose ancestors were born in every populated continent on earth.

Our strength is in our diversity. And, while far from perfect, these diverse peoples do tend to integrate better with other cultures than in other places. Could we do better, absolutely?

One of the best movies of last year was simply called “Loving.” While the movie was about love, the title is about the first interracially married couple in Virginia named the Lovings. The Lovings successfully challenged a law banning their marriage winning a Supreme Court victory of 9 to 0. That was in the 1960s. Now, interracial marriages are about 1 out of seven marriages.

We don’t have this democracy thing down, but we should strive to live up to our ideals the best we can. And, if someone thinks they are more American than you or vice-versa, you both are wrong. My freedoms are no more important than anyone else’s, but they are no less either. That is how it works.

We are diverse. We are imperfect. And, yes we are Americans.

Ancestry Holes

I have returned to http://www.ancestry.com to update some new information on our ancestry, primarily on my wife’s family. The website is a powerful tool, but be prepared for it to suck you in and not let you resurface for hours. It is both fascinating and addictive, so be wary. The addictive nature is one reason I had to take a hiatus a few years ago. But, if you like history and/ or puzzles, you will love digging into the website tool. Trust me, there will be mysteries to be solved, given common names and lack of specificity in the information you search with.

What is interesting about our two family histories is their similarities and size. For the record, you can easily confirm that the “rhythm method” was a poor means of birth control. Plus, rural families as in our heritage tended to have more kids for labor supply. And, the further back you go, two additional things will pop out. First, it was not uncommon for people to marry second cousins, as the circles of social exposures were somewhat restricted. That makes interesting family trees.

Second, the other noteworthy observation is the huge damage that disease and war inflicted on families in the mid-1800s on. You will see far too many deaths of young people. The diseases were as crippling as the wars, as this is when cholera, dysentery, and other mixed sewage/ drinking water-borne diseases hit many, especially in larger cities and impoverished rural areas around the world.

You will also find mysteries that cannot be solved. In both of our families, we have a mysterious birth where the mother is not identifiable in the records. In my father’s family case, his mother’s mother is a mystery with only a father noted. This is likely due to one of two events – the father sired a child out-of-wedlock with someone the family disapproved of and the child was raised by a member of his family, in this case his teenage sister. Or, what I think happened, is the teenage sister was the actual mother after having an encounter with a young man, and the older brother’s name was posted as father to mask the public awareness of the true mother and the unfortunate shame that goes with that.

On my wife’s side, two similar stories occurred. Her mother’s mother was adopted. Yet, the adoption masks the true story that the grandmother was the child of young man from a well-to-do family who loved the daughter of their housekeeper, whose name may or may not have been known.  The family of the father of the child would not let the son have anything to do with the child, so she was eventually adopted by someone who likely was helping out the real mother. My guess is the young mother and her family were likely very poor, so needed to give the baby up for adoption or the adopting family knew the young mother and wanted to help.

Going further back, we have learned my wife’s great great grandmother did not have a husband. She had tryst with an Englishman who remains the unknown father of my wife’s great grandfather. In fact, he was given her last name. She was banished from the house, but was allowed to live in a smaller house on the property. She was both independent and beloved.

My father was very silent on these issues and I wish he was still around to ask. He may not have even known the true story. My father was not very close nor did we spend any time with his true parents who divorced and moved far away from each other and him. We spent more time with the aunt (the teenage sister noted above) and her family who helped raise his mother and also raised him after his parents divorced. My wife’s family knows the gists of both stories about their grandmother and great great grandmother, but the names are not officially known, although come under speculation.

My guess is these kinds of mysteries or “ancestry holes” exist in more than a few families. So, be prepared as you go back in time for some mysteries, which may or may not be solvable. If you do go back, middle names or initials are most helpful, as well as places where they lived or were born. Happy hunting.