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.

Used bedroom furniture

When I was single I moved into my first home, albeit a condominium with two bedrooms. With a spare bedroom, I decided to look into used bedroom furniture, which I found in the newspaper for sale.

I bought this solid wood furniture – headboard and frame, chest-of-drawers and dresser for $200 in 1983 from a policeman and his wife. They had first painted the set pink for their daughter and then brown for their son.

While it has had many coats of different colors, we still have the set 33 years later. My daughter has the dresser in her bedroom, while we just pulled the chest-of-drawers from the attic to put in place of a piece my oldest son is taking as he moves into his first post college apartment.

We are excited for his move as he is. He is starting a new path forward. But, these old bones and what little muscle remains have been moving stuff around and down stairs, with more to do. Since this piece is well-built, it is not light even sans drawers. Thank goodness it was going down the stairs, as up would have been a challenge.

New furniture is lighter and flimsier, unless you want to spend a fortune. For $200, we have been able to build on the memories first created in the policeman’s home with his family. I wonder if he and his wife bought it used as well. We have made good use of it.

To me, the furniture is as good a metaphor for a solid family as I can think. Times change and events occur, but family is forever. This furniture may last that long.

Bottom-up history

In the movie “Bull Durham,” Susan Sarandon’s character Annie Savoy confides to Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis the morning after their tryst that due to her love of horses, she must have been Catherine the Great in a previous life. Davis laughs and says how come when people bring up previous lives they are never Joe Schmo? To his point, history is made up of us normal, everyday people more so than the ones that get notoriety, whether it is deserved or undeserved. We live our lives the best we can and sometimes it matters not who the leaders are, unless they have done something very bad or very good.

I was watching PBS Newshour earlier in the week and I found a segment very moving and enlightening which I will call “Bottom-up history.” David Isay formed an organization called StoryCorps about ten years ago, whose purpose is to capture recorded interviews with everyday people. His organization began in Grand Central Station in New York, but moved onto several other cities. It now has a mobile unit that caravans across America. And, recently he has teamed with some innovators to craft cartoon stories than will be aired on PBS. A link to his Wikipedia page is below.*

His mission is to capture the bottom-up history and not the top down version that is taught in school or makes the headlines. The interviews are facilitated to tease out as much information as possible. In his view, we have a wealth of information in our older people or folks who have gone through amazing journeys that needs to be captured. I have recently seen similar efforts with young volunteers who help older people capture their histories.

Our blogging friend Z who lives in Ecuador captures these stories on a daily basis with her pictures and interactions. ** I often find myself gravitating toward the people she meets, their faces, their postures, their livelihoods and their interactions. This is where life exists. It is not the air-brushed, heavily made-up, well-dressed, and polished images we find online or in photo shoots. Life lives in the one who gets up everyday to feed their children, their animals and themselves and goes to work.

And, it has been that way for ages. For every Catherine the Great, there are millions of Joe Schmo’s. We Joes and Josephine’s are the ones who ran across open fields in Poland to escape Nazi shooters with our child holding onto our back. We are the ones that climbed walls to get out of danger when extremists came to our village. We are the ones who hid people in our basement to escape persecution. We are the ones who boycotted buses in Alabama and walked to work. We are the ones who journeyed to America with nothing but a suitcase, our family and our dreams for a better life.

And, we are the ones who with quiet dignity do jobs that we don’t love every day, then get up the next day and do them again. We are the ones who parent our children, sometimes without a partner, and then work a full-time job or several part-time ones to make ends meet. We are the ones who forego taking our medicine, so a child can be clothed and fed or maybe get that used musical instrument, soccer shoes or ballet tutu.

Hero, star and superstar are words that are thrown around much too often. Very few people who are given that term are truly worthy of the label. To me, the real heroes of the world go about their business in quiet fashion. They are the unsung heroes, who I have only touched on above. They are the bottom-up history of the world. Let’s find out more from them, while we can. Talk to a relative, friend or someone who interests you and learn more about how they arrived to this point. Your ancestry is in the stories, not the lineage.

Have a peaceful rest of your year and best wishes for 2015.

* Here is the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Isay

** Here is a link to Z’s blog: http://playamart.wordpress.com/

 

 

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.