Why Bother ?

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REALLY?

I’ve spent years chasing my ancestors thru wet cemeteries, musty boxes and up family trees.  I’ve dug around libraries, attics, and read books and webpages galore.  What I have learned from all this is simple…

no one else gives a hoot if they can’t somehow “relate” to those old names and numbers

Truth is, all that detective and scholarly work is really boring on paper.  My family used to roll their eyes when they saw me coming with yet another binder of “genealogy stuff.”

What to do ~what to do?  Let me tell ya…

We’re all connected with our families, not by pedigree or heirlooms, but through our common stories.  Names and dates have no real pull on our heartstrings.  But the joys and struggles of everyday life in another time can fascinate us like a flickering campfire.

Oh and a little tattle-taling or a dash of dishing-dirt doesn’t hurt either! 

Without stories our family tree efforts are just tidy (for some) stacks of paper with footnotes and a few photos sprinkled in.  I invite you to take the next step with me and you will soon be writing an account of your family’s history to be read , re-read  and actually cherished for many years!

When I originally wrote that about two years ago, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.  All of the wonderful people we have lost (and gained!) in the short life of this blog is both sad and miraculous.  I’m speaking of blogs abandoned or begun as well as losses and gains within my own family.

Telling family stories and even writing our own as “memoir” has become quite a “thing.”  I am seeing this form of writing honored and applauded more and more.  Only a handful of years ago, a Memoir was one of the trappings (or curses) of celebrity or notoriety.  Now, regular people, in common circumstances are writing prolifically about themselves and their “inner circle.”  To this I say–HooRay!

 I would like to add a very important “beware” to those of us who are writing stories to be read years from now.

I’m not talking about identity thieves and computer hacks or natural disasters and copyright laws.  I want to advise you to look over all of your writing in a different way.  You need to read over the pages you have enjoyed and slaved over in order to preserve them as readable and understandable documents…later.

Here’s the important point of this:

 Have people of many generations read over the words you have written.

Have them work separately. Ask them to mark or note any words, phrases or sayings that are not immediately clear to them (ie: is there anything you have questions about/ don’t understand?).

 Take these comments and figure out how to make them clear to “other” generations.  As an example, genealogists are accustomed to seeing the word “nee.” Someone who is looking at a family story for the first time may not know the meaning of that funny word.  Yes, they could look it up (as we all probably had to) but wouldn’t you rather have them enjoy the tale that is spun on the page? Well of course you would!  Other things that some would take as common knowledge are in danger of being lost to time. Like Ration Books and what they were, when, and why they were out there.  How about “no swimming in summer?” 

Now, decide how to work the definitions and explanations into your work.  Below are methods that I have used or seen used to good effect.  Remember you want to tell stories more than to give history tutorials.  Likely, you also want to preserve these people beyond their vital statistics for lots of generations to come!

A mix of these will probably work in your own writing~

1.  Use all the antiquated, colloquial, unusual, foreign, confusing word in italics.  Then use a method similar to footnotes at the bottom of the same page to explain it.  So perhaps you would write a sentence and italicize nee. Then, appearing at the bottom of the same page a note would appear as such:

nee~woman’s surname before marriage.

2.  Work the words into the story and thus describe it (or the phrase etc) as a part of the tale.  An example would be to describe an old, rarely used phrase or slang or other term as such:

Jane grew up in the roaring 20′s when women wore long straight dresses, without bras, and were thus called “flappers” and things        that were new and exciting were referred to as “the bee’s knees.”

3.    Perhaps a bit more complicated sounding (but when working with several family members a work-saver) is the “overview page.”  This is a prelude, preamble or forward to the material you are about to present.  It isn’t uncommon to find your family stories falling into neat categories related to universal events. Listen to conversation around a holiday table and you will likely hear talk of “the war years,” or “during the depression,” or “on White Avenue.”  So, describing that place and time as an overview for all of the stories under the heading will set the tone for everyone’s notable adventure during that family “era.”  You could even combine method 1 and method 2 together italicizing the funky words and noting them, and describing events of the time and the vernacular of speech.  This is a great way to get around a re-write for several finished pieces. It’s sort of backtracking, but getting the work done without overdoing. This one works best when each story is written as a separate event like my post “Honest Abe and Too Many Jimmys” ( click here to see it http://wp.me/p2pmvZ-72 )      perhaps under a heading such as “Myths and Mysteries.”  When the story is a synopsis of someone’s whole life, like my post “Uncle Joe” (see it here http://wp.me/p2pmvZ-bb   ) using only the first or second method would be best.

So what tips and tricks do you have up your sleeve tricky writer?  Share your secret weapons with all of us in the comment box! Then~ Maybe someone should write that down…

 

The Case for Place in Your Storytelling

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PD_0095there are places I remember…all my life Though some have changed.  Some forever not for better. Some have gone and some remain.

So aptly crooned by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

 Yes, It’s been stuck in my head for days.

You’re welcome.

 It can haunt you for a while now. Are you humming?

 I am as I type……la la la laaaaa hum hum hummm….

Sometimes the most powerful memories and attachments our families hold on to are of places.  The places are the event hosts, the welcoming port in a storm, the elevator music of our lives.  These certain spots grasp time and happenings in a way that we mortals can never wipe clean. A place is not always a house, it could be another building~ like a church or school or business.  Those are almost a given, but “place” can also be an intersection of two roads, a lake shore, or an event not precisely plot-able on the maps in our head. How about the time you spent the day with cousins at a little carnival and lost all of your hard earned grass cutting money on baseball throws at milk bottles?  Maybe you do remember where the carnival set up, or maybe you just remember the carnival and it’s mesmerizing midway lights as the place.  Which version of “place” is more important to your story?  Which was more important to you while it was happening?

My husband’s Grandfather “Estal” was “something else” a real…how should I put it?…”character.” At family gatherings  and holiday get-togethers he always managed to sneak his way into the nearest liquor cabinet in search of some “Wild Turkey.”  Shortly after bagging his “Turkey” or whatever else he could find, it was not uncommon to find him rummaging through women’s purses looking for unattended cigarettes.  Once he and the scavenged cigarette were both sufficiently “lit” the stories of places would begin.  One of his favorites was about “Little Rock Arkansas.” There were other places he liked to talk about too, all with rather lurid and inappropriate recounts of escapades of the “young Estal.” Mercifully, Grandma Lydia’s ears would usually perk up from two rooms away, and she would come zooming to the rescue and shut him down before he could get too far into the uncomfortably intimate details. Not always, but most of the time.  Ew.

The point being, although these tales were coming from the whiskey inspired lips of an old, half-senile geezer, with little to no social filter, “place” was always the starting point of his dissertation. That is of course if you skip the pre-storytelling preparations of Turkey hunts and cigarette foraging.

In my own family places are christened with names that are verbal shorthand for addresses, or the occupants, or incidents.  They are referred to in ways like “White Avenue, the Old Man’s, The County Line, Perry, 104, the Farm, the Cabin and the New House.  There are also references to places in ways they relate to time like “during the War,in the Flood, and under the Highway.”  Place can be a pretty big deal in our stories.  Often, it is like an extra character because the setting can make an enormous difference as we describe it (or ignore it).

I personally, love using descriptions of places or settings in my own writing.  Sometimes just seeing a photo of a place will elicit the starting point for the telling of a story you’ve never heard before. As relatives reminisce about a picture or event listen to the “place-chat” closely.  And, if you write in a style similar to mine (I try to use the voice of the person I am writing about as much as possible), be careful to also annotate the actual address or name of the place if you can!  “Out at the farm” is a very clear description for my current day readers, but when someone picks this up to read in 20, 50 or 100 years will they have a sense of where you’re writing about? The advent of Google Maps and especially Google Streetview has made this describing and locating from afar thing a whole lot easier!  Don’t hesitate to tuck in a printed out page to help future generations relate to the story you’re writing today!

So try throwing in the location any time you get a chance.  Yes, you may have the info from Ancestory.com that a family was living in Louisville during the Great Depression just by finding their info pop up on a census.  But look closely in the margin on the left and you can find their street name and house number.  Imagine finding the same home today on Zillow or Trulia and seeing photos from the curb, and even the front parlor!  How cool would that be?  And if it’s not too far away, maybe a weekend road trip would be worthwhile  to snap a photo of the fancy entrance gates to the new housing addition that is going up in the middle of Great Grandpa’s cow pasture :).

 Every step we take now to deepen and anchor these stories will bring us and future generations closer together through time.  That’s a pretty cool thing to think about when you’re getting tired of writing… or, when a song is stuck in your head…or you feel like none of it amounts to much…or when your own Estal starts Turkey hunting.

I always feel so glad when a story is told and I hear someone whisper~ 

Maybe someone should write that down

ps…….Here’s a link to an extra cool website that we have here in Indianapolis, hopefully you will be blessed enough to have something similar available for your most researched city or town.  If you don’t, maybe you should take a cue from this one and start your own!  See it at http://historicindianapolis.com/

Too Little

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IMG_20130717_161607Somewhere in your family writing journey, you will undoubtedly be challenged by a few souls whose stories are so thin that they are barely viable for the telling.

This is where you need to really use every ounce of creative writer’s “umph” you can muster.  With just the barest little sheet of information we can make them count as more than a name on a census list.

In a recent workshop, we encountered such a case.  Since I, Mom, am not one to “kiss and tell” we can use my own Aunt Julie as an example in place of “Marilyn’s uncle Mickey.”  Put your thinking caps on, grab a shovel for digging up ideas and add a little new-age chant. Sometimes we family history story tellers need all the help we can muster:

#1  Figure out what you know:

Here’s what I knew to begin with–My mom was the oldest of four children.  She had two brothers and a little sister.  Her sister’s name was Julie.  Julie had died when she was a very young child.  Although my mom would never talk about the details, over the years it became clear (rather tragically so) that my mother had blamed herself for her sister’s death.  That admittedly makes for a pretty good reason to not want to discuss a painful part of history.  No one dared to ask Grandma or Grandpa about Julie.  They never mentioned her name and there was really no trace of her to be found in their home.  No photos I’ve ever seen, no dolls, no traces at all…except…an eerie little framed memorial hanging on the wall in my Grandparent’s bedroom.  You may have more or less than this to work with.

#2 Put yourself in their environment in every way you can think of:

Their home was an old farmhouse that had been built long before indoor plumbing was a “thing.”  If you’ve ever spent any amount of time stomping around old houses, you will know that the invention of indoor outhouses made for some pretty funky floor plans.  At Grandma and Grandpa’s house, you had to walk through the downstairs (“Master”) bedroom to get to the bathroom.  Yes, THE bathroom.  The ONLY bathroom.  At some point I think an owner had closed-in a back porch to make a full bathroom and pump-room in front of the door to the dirt storm cellar that lurked underneath the house. If you were a brave kid, you could go through the opening from the kitchen to the pump-room (at some point converted to a civilized laundry room) and enter the bathroom from the side door.  I say brave kid, because that portal to the basement was about the scariest thing around.  It smelled funny, even when the door was closed.  The floor boards in front of it popped and moaned and carried on with an awful racket whenever anyone walked over them.  And the big old windows, relics that support my converted porch theory, were fully covered up by tall overgrown bushes that hid the home’s propane service tank and wiggled like mossy monsters with the lightest breeze.

I wasn’t a brave kid.  I ran through the bedroom whenever I had to pee.

#3 What do you note from retracing their steps?  What wispy bits and crumbs are there for you once you look closely?

Now, let me explain the “running.”  At some point in my childhood, I began to read. One day on a leisurely trot to go tinkle after hours of sliding down the slick waxed stairs from the second floor on my butt everything changed.  I would never dare to take the scary route past the cellar door.  As usual, I headed through the bedroom bound for the nice 1940′s grey and black tiled bathroom. I will never forget the first time I saw the framed memorial on Grandma’s wall in a different way.  I saw words. I didn’t have the ability yet (nor the nerve) to read the whole plaque.  The only part that I was able to read about my dead-baby Aunt Julie was the title: She is not Dead.

Having been an enthusiastic and avid watcher of Dark Shadows every day after school, I was scared witless by that phrase! If she was not dead, she must have been “undead.” Nobody can survive an encounter with the undead!  Until the day my Grandparents moved out of that house, I ran, full out, every time I needed to “go.”  I’m sure they thought I was incontinent or just plain weird.

#4 What sort of tangible evidence do you have available, if any?

Officially, all that was left of Julie was a birth certificate and a death certificate I got for seven dollars from the County Clerk’s office.  I knew her date of birth, her date and cause of death and really little more.  I had located her grave by chance one day while looking for her Grandparents’ grave site.  She rested in between my Great Grandparents with a small inscription added to their headstone “Granddaughter Julie 1937-39 Our Lamb.”  It was so little.  Maybe too little to write about.  But I couldn’t leave her there, nearly forgotten as a footnote–a child who once lived and breathed and played and laughed.  A baby who had been so loved by everyone that mentioning her name was still all but forbidden more than 40 years after her death.  Missing Julie hurt. Loosing her again to time would be even worse.

#5 Begin to cobble it all together.  If you have too little to write about them, you can write about their lifetime.

I really wish I knew what happened to that scary plaque.  As an adult, I now “get” that it was likely a framed memorial given to my Grandparents as a keepsake of the child they so tragically lost.  I wondered whether it was provided by their church, or a close friend, or even the undertaker.  For the longest time I found no newspaper obituary to at least glean a few scraps about the funeral service.  I had to assume that Julie had been viewed either at home or at her grandparent’s home (since it was larger and closer to town).

Mom Note:  I’ve spoken to more than a few people who think I’m from another planet when I mention in-home viewings/wakes/visitations this late into the 20th century.  My Mom’s family, the Farmer’s, preserved this tradition well into the 1940′s in conjunction with the local undertaker who did the body prep.  Were we weird?  Did you have family branches who bent this way too?

Bottom line is this:  With only this silly memory from the house, the birth and death certificate and one more little tid-bit that happened to come forward at Grandma Farmer’s own funeral (about 65 years after Julie’s) I was able to write about a 5 page entry for baby Julie in our family book.  Here’s the general gist of it:

The second child born to George and Maggie Farmer was a daughter named Julie.  She was born at their home  January 18th, 1937.  Her older sister Carrie was about two at the time.  Tragically, in early January of 1939, just days before the family would celebrate Julie’s 2nd birthday, she began to run a fever and complain of a sore throat…

**Julie died of Scarlet Fever.  I recall having Scarlet Fever as a child and watching my mom freak out.  I didn’t think it was any big deal.  In fact, except for the sore throat, I thought it wasn’t too bad.  The fever gave me really funny and realistic dreams.  When the rash started appearing on my chest my mom went into Crazy-mode.  I was taken to the doctor and given a shot of penicillin in the bum, and was back to school by Monday.  Beyond the new understanding of why my mom was so unnerved by my rashy sore throat, I had to dig into the symptoms, progression and treatment of Scarlet Fever.  Most of all I needed to find out why she died from it, when all I needed was a shot.  This gave me a lot of material to write about.  I learned (as will those in my family who read the Julie chapter of our family history) that though penicillin was discovered in 1928, it was not produced in large enough quantity or in condensed enough form to be made available for general use until after WWII.  If Julie had contracted the Strep infection that caused her to get Scarlet Fever and ultimately the pneumonia that killed her a mere seven years later, she would have been given the same shot in the bum that I got.  She would likely be still around to ask about it too.  I also found this was a good part of the family story to discuss at-home wakes and what that entailed in the house.  I saved in-home births for my younger uncle who was the first of the Farmer’s to be born in a hospital. For my own Mother, I had made the date discovery that showed even though she had always felt that she was responsible for bringing the fever home from school to her little sister, that was actually impossible.  She had been barely 4 when Julie died. She didn’t start school until the fall of 1940. Who knows why she had this idea, and why she suffered so deeply without ever checking the facts.  Maybe she had overheard adults at the funeral speaking about school closing because so many homes were under quarantine due to the fever in the county (as I found announced a couple of years later in a newspaper clipping).

**Beyond the history of antibiotics, there was also the bit of epiphany I had at Grandma Farmer’s funeral service.  At one point, the pastor indicated that we would all be treated to Maggie’s favorite song, as performed by a famous female blue grass artist.  He lowered his head next to the podium and someone keyed up the cassette tape they had dug up.  To me it sounded like a screeching cat from the back hills of who-knows-where keening out the lyrics that were hauntingly familiar~

She is not dead…She’s only Sleeping

Once home, I googled the song lyrics to try to figure out who the performer was.  I was still sort of trying to make sense of a rather painful day in my own head.  What popped up first was not the name of a lady blue grass diva, it was the bible verse in all it’s assorted variations:  Luke 8:52 Don’t Cry! She isn’t dead, she is only sleeping!

Mystery of the mourning plaque is solved, it was sad, but it was not the terrifying thing that I had thought it was. I added the passage to Julie’s pages.  And, at last I understood a bit more about her.  She died just two days short of her second birthday, and I had really very little to write about her life, but her pages don’t seem so empty since I could at least write about her lifetime and her place in our family story.  Too little?  Indeed, too little to die, but she did.  Too little known about to tell a story on her behalf…no way!

Hello Black Sheep, it’s been a while…

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PD_0161You may recall my recent proclamation:  “Sis Hit the Jackpot.”  Toward the end of last year Sharon managed to score a half dozen tubs full of “stuff” from an elderly Aunt’s house.  So far the “yield” has not disappointed.  All sorts of photos and memories are crammed into the boxes within boxes.  The other day, gold was struck in the bottom of Tub #3.  It was there that a cousin we had lost was suddenly found and accounted for.

Danny’s disappearance from our home state (and pretty much the face of the earth) was explained with the contents of a worn legal sized envelope.   A wad of old newspaper clippings from the 60s unfolded the story of what must have been a terribly painful chapter for one branch of our family. 

Mom note: I don’t think Aunt SueEllen cared a wink about “concealing” this family skeleton.  I really believe she just never got around to looking through this insurmountable pile of “stuff.” Besides, I don’t think “Danny” ever won any familial popularity contests.

At first glance under current  standards of morality, the whole ruckus seemed kinda silly. Danny hadn’t fallen into a mysterious sink hole or been filched by space monsters, he was in fact removed (relocated might be a nicer way to put it) for his own good.   To a modern observer, banishment could seem like an “over reaction” on the part of his staunchly Republican, cigar smoking, politically influential and highly conservative dad.  But once put into context the horrific story became crystal clear.

Let me explain

Revealed on those crumbly old pages was that daddy’s little darling was involved in one of those “Hippy sit-in protest things.” It was a distasteful act~ rife with disrespect of his family and their social standing.  But hey, come on, he was barely out of his teens. And, granted, this took place at Dad’s Alma Mater~ which Danny probably wasn’t smart enough to get into on his own merits (and thus rode the coattails of his father’s Magna-Cum-Status).

So what if Danny’s little “episode” was embarrassing to his family and mocked all that assured him the right to behave so ridiculously in the first place?  How could it have possibly been made into such a big deal?  Well, for that we look to the back story and the facts of the matter:   Danny’s father was very big in politics.  And as the History Channel now tells us the Cuban Missile Crisis  actually panned out to be a big deal…

Seriously?  Danny’s family all lived on farms in Indiana for Pete’s sake.  The Indy 500 sure was a far cry from Fidel’s rockets or those Kennedy boys.

The simple truth was that Danny was in a little deeper than a disruption at the country club. Seems ol’ Danny had always been quite the loose canon.  Growing up he could have been easily described as a boy of privilege who never really appreciated what had been handed to him.  He left small town Indiana for the fancy far away University at a time in history when free love and “self expression” squared off with a nasty oversees war. In those times the emotional gauge of our nation was running  hot.   Hair was long and even “peaceful” tempers were short.  The Indochina “conflict” in Vietnam was  devouring young men by the thousands. Meanwhile many of their own high school classmates were safely in dorm rooms on campus protesting for “peace.” Everything and everywhere was a powder keg politically.

Danny wanted a little attention, a shot at campus fame.

When he decided to join a league of “enlightened individuals who sought peace for the downtrodden” he was pledging allegiance with a bunch of other rich kids who were flirting with the 1960s era equivalent of the Taliban.  The “sit in” that they orchestrated at their prestigious University garnered national attention.  What soon followed involved arrests and charges of treason and other not-so-nice accusations. Danny put his own life and that of his family in real danger.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Danny had made a “scene.”  He had rolled past several earlier brushes with the law. Petty little embarrassments like possession charges, under age drinking and reckless driving and motorboat operating.

Within family circles there were always whispers of some darker happenings too~about some poor girl at a party and Danny being…well…Danny.

I recall seeing him once when he was “secretly” within our state boundaries for my Great Grandpa’s birthday.  When I asked one of my young aunts who he was she commented:

“That’s Danny, he’s a real Creep. Stay clear of him if you know what I mean.” 

I didn’t know what she meant, but it sounded bad, so I took her at her word and stayed glued to my Dad’s side for the duration of the day’s festivities.

Turns out that my Uncle was able to pull some strings and cut a deal with the FBI.  Yes, I said that.  It went that far.  Indiana didn’t want him around, so it was agreed that Danny would be better suited to a life outside of the Hoosier state.  As far away as land could separate him, his dad sent him off to a remote little coast to set up trade as an asparagus farmer.  Back to his agricultural roots.  Somewhere far enough away from everybody else that he would have to “sit” pretty loudly for anyone to notice he was protesting something.  It was for his own good.  It kept him out of prison.

Stupid kid.  Powerful Dad.  Lucky break.  Sort of.

There are many ways a parent can lose a child.  All of them are dreadful.  No matter what the situation is, no matter how quick or protracted, the pain of losing a child  is said to be immeasurable.  I think that loosing one to their own hurtful decisions, choices, or madness is probably the worst loss of all of the unthinkable tragedies. No amount of help ever helps, they just keep on that troubled path, almost like they are made for hurting themselves and everyone around them.  As I see it, to be cast out by your family,  to be written off and sent permanently away, must bitterly sting at your marrow.  But to be the parent who is forced to take that desperate action, well…that truly must hold down the floor in one’s own earthly corner of hell.

After we found this info in the box, I did quite a bit of Google searching to see if there was any additional info around.  Crazy as it sounds, a bit of the court transcript is posted on the internet.  Also, the bunch of nuts he was running with at the time apparently still host “reunions” from time to time.  At least one of the guys involved is an avid blogger~go figure!   As far as I can tell, Danny’s still farming asparagus on that remote coast.  So Karl Danny, if you happen to read this and feel you want your side of the story told, it’s solely up to you cousin…you know what they say~

Maybe someone should write that down…

A Rose is a Rose Gladys

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Well, well, well…

PD_0105

The subject of “names” is a rather touchy one in some factions of the family…around here anyway.  I was named “Kathryn” as a political move.  I had enough Grandmothers on all sides with that name, in various spellings, and at various positions (first, middle, patron saint, baptismal) to make most of them happy.  I was not the first grandchild on either side of my family, but I was the first granddaughter on both sides!  Another of my illustrious firsts.

When I went to school, there were 7 little girls in 1st grade at Perry Elementary named Kathryn in some form or another.  So, probably, their families had the same sort of “thing” going on.  If this had been a big school, then Cathy, Kathy, Kathryn, Cathleen, Katherine, Katy, and other Kathryn would have been insignificant.  However, this was a farming community.  The schools were small.  The 4 feeder grade schools that lead to my high school produced a grand total of 265 in my senior class.  By the time we all converged in the spiffy new Middle School, I had lost count (and interest) in how many other girls had “my” name.

My brother though, had it a bit rougher with family names.  Ours is a long line of “traditional” men’s names.  The first born pretty much was going to be a Junior, and if not a Junior (or 3rd, or 4th) then perhaps would be named after the other Grandpa, or a middle name.  My brother didn’t get a chance at something modernish…like Scott or Brian… point of his birth, the options available were Frank, George, Earl, Henry/Harry or the scandal of picking a meaningless name out of the air…like Bobby.  They did not choose Bobby.

Darling Gramcracker, ever sensitive to my needs as an individual in this sea of Kathryns, gave me a unique and extended name to claim as my own.  Or, possibly, she told me this was my full name because she also had a wicked sense of humor and loved having me say it and seeing the reaction of strangers.

She crowned me:  Kathryn Elaine Martha Elizabeth Gladiolus Rose Mousy Get-Along Johnson.  Gramcracker always called me Goldie for short.

Until I got in trouble for “fibbing” in Kindergarten  I was convinced and unquestioning of my full name.  As a matter of fact, I wondered why the other kids had such common and plain middle names. Being “cut down” to the reality of Kathryn Elaine was a real bummer.

Surnames though, can be a whole different matter.  My Balkan grandparents brought their old country name along when they crossed the pond.  Those who I refer to as the Urbanski clan, are actually owners of an unspeakable (literally, no one can pronounce it) name which when translated from Slovene to English means “putrid smell.” With hopes that this was just another example of the family sense of humor, I quietly wondered if this wasn’t a joke.  I had visions of my “huddled masses” Granddad standing before the man at Ellis Island and when asked for his name…making a smart- assed remark back at him in Slovene~ only to be countered in hilarity by the immigrations agent who made it official.  No such luck.  The international white pages online lists a handful of families both here in the US and back in the Balkans living with the exact same surname…spelling and all.  No denying it.  Sigh (or would a “sniff” be a more accurate expression here?).

Sadly, they buckled to the mounting pressures of anti-German and anti-immigrant sentiments that swept our area around WWI and “Americanized” their name ~ neutralized it actually.  I see myself writing “sadly” but under my breath I am saying “thank God they changed it!” I can’t imagine writing that 5th grade report for school about my heraldry, and revealing to my prepubescent peer group that I was not the glamorous K.E.M.E.G.R.M.G. Johnson, but in fact Miss Kathryn Elaine Pukesmell.

Ask around your family, are there any naming patterns, revisions, or scandalous translations out there?  Maybe take a few minutes and run down one or two nicknames of relatives.  These can be as commonly used as Kassie for Kathryn, or as ornery as a brother who called a sister “Twin Piggies” for an entire lifetime…that’s another story :)

Recipes of the Family

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1223122211 Easter is just around the corner.  Last year was kinda fun, as my sister and I dragged out box after box of old family photos and held a full out scanner fest.  But as the Bunny fires up for egg painting this year, my nerves feel a bit jumpy already.  I will once again be challenged (expected, assumed. pressured) to bake the traditional Slovenian treat for our family…the Potica.  For those of you with no Balkan heritage…it’s “Po-teets-zah.”  For me, it’s a  Panic Attack. Now this is by no means the first time I’ve made the Potica.  It’s been my job now for several years since my Grandma quit baking it.  Apparently this skips a generation, so my aunts and mom just crowned me Princess Potica and before I knew it…I was in charge.So,  I make it for each of the big family celebrations, and then, kind of like Jesus, I take a beating for it.  Let me clarify that ~  I make the complicated yeast and nut delight, and then sit back and listen to everyone else critique it, and wax poetic over the Poticas (the real Poticas) of days gone by.

How I haven’t spent a holiday in jail yet I do not know.

Oh, I get it.  I really do.  I understand why I am the one who is saddled with the honor of carrying on an old country tradition.  I can bake. And I am really good at it.  I had my own coffee house for several years, and baked everything that went out the door.  But the problem with Potica (and in your family it could be aunt Nell’s potato salad) is that there is only one right way, one right recipe, and one right presentation that can be accepted and deigned as perfect.  Unfortunately, no one who went before me actually wrote the damn recipe down for “the real Potica“, exactly as they made it “when it was perfect“.

Let’s revisit that last line:  I want you to experience it as I hear it each time I offer up a Potica.  Say it for yourself aloud

with your nose crinkled up,

as if you are chewing an adult aspirin,

and it is stuck to the back of your tongue and you only have scalding hot coffee available to wash it down with..

now say the words.. like the real Potica, when it was perfect….

Is there a tear in the corner of your eye as if you have just been deeply harmed and dissappointed?  Good.  You’re getting the general tone of voice they use for Potica critiqing.  We can continue now

When my oldest daughter was receiving First Communion, we had a little ceremony a couple of days ahead of time, where each family was to involve their child in baking a loaf of bread and then bring it to church with all their classmates and their families for a special blessing of the loaves.  For Caitlin, I thought it would be cool, and perhaps more special to her if together we made Potica.  Since this was a sort of last minute thing, I went to the internet and trolled for some recipes.  This was the first time I had actually seen the word spelled out.  Luckily, I hit a site where the pronunciation was spelled out phonetically so was close to how I had “searched” for it (this was way before Google).  I looked through until I found a recipe (in English) that sounded about right.  We sifted, kneaded, rolled, filled and baked with delightful anticipation.  The smell in the kitchen was heaven.

Blessing of the loaves day was probably a little traumatizing for Cait.  Many of my Mom friends had chumped-out (having never baked bread before) and had purchased the frozen, thaw and bake stuff.  Their loaves were glorious mounds of buttery gold crusts. The Pillsbury Doughboy bakes up like a champ every time.   Our Potica (and yes we made 2 just to have a shot at choosing the best looking one to show off at church) looked like hemorrhaging cinnamon raisin bagels glopped together.  Not stellar.

After that “experience” I started checking around within the family for a good recipe.  Oddly, no one ever seemed to be able to put their hands on one.  That was probably 20 years ago.  Eventually,having learned my lesson, I gave up asking. Clearly, some family things are strictly on a “need to know basis.” As the older women in my family line all began passing on to their reward, the Potica making pool got smaller and smaller.  When Grandma Jean announced that she would be taking up residence in a rest home, suddenly, the baking baton was passed on to me.  Sans the recipe of course!https://mail-attachment.googleusercontent.com/attachment/u/0/?ui=2&ik=c938b848b0&view=att&th=13d4b54c1cdf29ca&attid=0.1&disp=inline&realattid=1428966306534653952-1&safe=1&zw&saduie=AG9B_P97KCkApex4osVHcNqmwSUW&sadet=1362768577902&sads=CSugN6PAQNmqCrhJScUqOdomaAA&sadssc=1

 

Luckily, my friend Karen gifted me with this well worn and dearly loved cookbook that had belonged to her Aunt Udi.  Udi had been the Potica maker for her family.  Karen naturally had no idea which of the more than 2 dozen recipes for the bread was Udi’s favorite, so I have been baking my way thru the book holiday after holiday.  With of course, all the feed back I can stand.

I’ll be on version #18 soon, wish me luck

Cures for Headlice and Other Maladies

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           PD_0056

           Ew yuck~ There I said it~ Lice !

Recently my husband came home and confessed that he had let a coworker in on my secret removal method.  I was stunned!

I couldn’t believe that:

1. he had admitted that it had ever happened in our house… and

2. that he really remembered something I’d done about 20 years ago.

I have a huge abiding love of old books.  I am especially drawn to Etiquette and “Women’s issues” titles.  I believe the oldest in my collection is from the 1830s, which isn’t ” but a wee youngster” compared to lots of my Euro-reader’s own family bookshelves…but when you consider that most of them were received as gifts or rooted out at tag sales…I’m living pretty large antiquarian- biblio-wise.

One of my absolute favorites is called

  The Science of Women 

Mulierology 

for the Maiden, Wife, and Mother

Mom Note:  This was,  as far as I can tell, a compilation put out by AB Gehman in 1888.  A man by the name of Thomas William Herringshaw claims to be the founder of this “Science of Women” that he named Mulierology, but as far as I have been able to discover, it is pretty much a made-up word, and there’s a little controversy over who it really is attributable to.

Modern in it’s time, Mulierology  gave advice to females in any condition, age or marital state.  A lengthy chapter describes the birthing of babies and the wise use of a heavy packing of goose grease to the traumatized tissues both on the interior and outer surfaces of the mother after birth.  Ew.  No wonder women died so frequently of  postpartum infections.  What genius conjured up goose grease as a “healing salve” for peritoneal tearing?  TW Herringshaw do you really want to take credit for that one?

There’s also a pretty hilarious discussion of birth control at the end of the volume.  I am especially fond of the description of the withdrawal method.  It is described as a leisurely paddle down the river, and then a gentle drifting and going only along as the surface takes the canoe, gently ebbing on its way in its own time.  The book goes on to caution though ~  This method is easily spoiled by turbulent thrusts and raging action against the current until one goes over the falls.  Mom is paraphrasing, I start laughing so hard everytime I read this, my eyes tear up and I can’t see well enough for an exact quote.

Not even kidding.

The “itches” as head lice (or probably any other creepy crawler living where it should not be) acording to Mulierology is to be relieved by frequent and hot suds baths followed by application of a sulfur paste to any immediately affected area.  All bedding, clothing and head wear must also be taken into clear air and sunlight, swept vigorously and then all brushes and combs treated with a sulfur powder.  This can also be mixed with water and taken internally in extreme cases

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Nice to know

Fortunately (?) for my kids, I had no patience to sit around grinding up match tips to glean sulfur (I don’t know of a good 1800′s apothecary here in the Midwest).  So after weeks and weeks of waging war on these nuclear-bomb resistant pests, I devised my own method inspired by stories (tales of horror actually about dirty buggy families of my childhood).  No, I didn’t douse the kids in kerosine or gas.  But I sort of thought along those lines. Using a big box fan to blow the fumes away from their little faces and with towels held in place to protect their eyes, unloaded a whole bottle of hand sanitizer on each one’s itchy head.  I slapped a shower cap over each little noggin, waited a good half hour and then combed out the dead critters and their grossly engorged triple-sized swollen egg nits right out of all those blonde curls.  Honestly, do not try this at home.  I don’t think the kids remember the itching, but they sure remember the stinky fan treatment to “get the mice outta their heads.”

Like I said, that was years ago.  I figured the statute of limitations had run out on that Mommy Dearest moment.  Then home comes Daddy, feeling quite proud of himself for sharing the true and absolute “Mom Method for Removing Mice from Heads”  I think I’ll write a book and call it “DeMicerology : the Science of a Mom who Snapped after Weeks of Ineffective Lice Treatments”

I’m sure my kids are huddled together right now whispering…Maybe someone should write that down…

Uncle Joe

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   untitled-holytrinity According to Parish records from Holy Trinity Church, John and Mary Urbanski had 10 children.  Of  10, only 2 girls and 2 boys survived to adulthood. Francis, Joe, Annie and Mitz were born , christened,communed, confessed and confirmed as Urbanskis.  Suddenly, around 1915, they all became “Casters” an Americanized name, and a generic term describing John’s occupation at the time.    The ugliness of anti-German sentiment had overtaken people’s everyday lives and had crept  along the National Road  and deep into Indianapolis.  Suddenly, old street names like Germania were changed from German words and towns-names to  more “appropriately” American ones like Belmont Avenue.   Coinciding with the German hysteria, the KKK was recording its biggest membership surge since the days of the old South.  Thus being Catholic, being immigrants, sounding German (colloquially called Hunkies ) while speaking their Slovene native tongue all became rather lowly and dangerous.   Our  family was among many who changed their surname to blend in.  In those early years of the 20th century, being different or being “less” was both a social hindrance and potentially treacherous.

Mom note: somethings just never change…

Neighborhood assimilation centers were set up to help all children and adults learn to be more American and to turn their backs on the lives they had left behind in “the Old Country”. The Ku Klux Klan was deeply entrenched in the small counties ringing the big city of Indianapolis, and there was a simmering contempt for anyone or anything that may have been in allegiance with the Kaiser.

John and Mary were raising their children in between the country folk to the west, and the eastward cultured city dwellers just across the White River bridge. Considered West Indianapolis at one time, their small neighborhood was now called Haughville named after the metals manufacturers plant located there by Haugh Brothers in the 1880′s.    Soon Haugh’s foundry was joined by the modern refrigerated packing business Kingans and the immigrant workers flooded in to take the jobs and simple frame housing.  They had been recruited and imported from their bergs and villages in places like Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia. That’s how the Urbanskis had come to Indianapolis and that’s how they earned their daily wage too.

 Grandmother Mary saved every penny she could spare to buy up boarding houses.  For years  the parlor floor in the family’s own house was  “bedded up” for newly arrived workers who needed temporary lodging.  They had taken the long transatlantic ocean liner trip, paid in full by “the Company”,  made a connection by train and found themselves in Haughville on John and Mary’s floor…working in the mill, or the packing house, renting a space on the floor to sleep on, and in turn,  saving every penny they didn’t drink to bring their families over too.

Joe wasn’t the oldest of the children, but he was probably the tallest at about 6′. He was athletic and tough,a simple and hard-working man who chain smoked and stirred cream and sugar into his coffee in ritualistic trance-like manner. He played bush league baseball and was the big hitter on Holy Trinity’s men’s team. When he was 18, Joe was drafted into the army. When his hitch was up he joined again to serve in the place of his brother who was about be wed. I often wonder if he didn’t rejoin just for something bigger to do than spend his life running gutted pig carcasses from the slaughter hooks into the cold lockers at Kingans. After all, being big and strong, that’s likely where he would be headed for life.

Note: he is the tallest in the center of the back row in the photo. 

I’ve heard a tale or two of Joe in his younger rougher days.  Especially one about him and some buddies getting into a fist fight with some men from “somewhere else” passing by the corner tavern. All was regular Saturday night fun, when one of the outsiders added a 2×4 into the fray and started swinging. In Haughville it was considered “off-limits” to use weapons in a fist fight…a real sign of ungentlemanly behavior.   By the time the cops arrived, the crowd had disbursed and a half-dozen guys were laid out neatly along the gutter.  Bloody and semi-conscience the “strangers” were helped to their feet and sent on their way back toward the bridge.  To the frustration of the officers,  the tavern was filled with only law-abiding citizens enjoying an evening out. As a matter of fact, they were all having such a lovely time singing and carrying on, none had even noticed a ruckus outside on the steps.  The interlopers never bothered to visit Haughville again… with or without their 2x4s .

 Joe discharged from the army after a couple of tours.  He had spent most of his time driving big supply trucks across the swampy roads of the Philippine islands.  Sometimes, at Grandpa’s he would start stirring his coffee and speaking about the giant black snakes… hundreds of them that would be all over the lonely roads at night when he was driving convoy.  He talked of how they must have needed the heat left in the road to warm their cold blood at night. Sometimes he described the thumping sounds of them hitting the bottom of the big trucks.  ” The sound never let up some nights, like all the snakes in the world were there in the Philippines.” I hung on every one of Joe’s words, and had the nightmares to prove it!

Headed home, Joe had saved up some money and following the wisdom of his  mother began buying rental properties.  He had small homes and duplexes and eventually bought a couple of small neighborhood apartment houses built-in the old style of shops below and rooms above.  One of the buildings was home to the laundry and dry cleaning store his sister Mitz ran.  Being in a good location (between the businessman’s downtown and the upscale homes of the Indianapolis old North Side) Mitz’s shop cleaned and starched clothing for local celebs and politicians.  After actress Frances Farmer was “treated” for her nervous breakdown (famously via a frontal lobotomy) she came to Indianapolis and hosted a television program on one of the local stations.  Aunt Mitz did the movie star’s alterations and cleaned her delicates for years from her shop in Uncle Joe’s building.  I’ve never been clear on whether it was Mitz or Joe who owned the business.  I would speculate that it was there when he bought the building and he let Mitz run it as a way to support herself.  I couldn’t even say whether or not she paid a dime in rent.  Uncle Joe rarely talked about such things

Joe kept all the rentals as his investments.  All of John and Mary’s kids were desperately frightened of being poor.  Saving money and saving stuff (anything that could some day be useful to someone in the family) was always top priority for them. But he also worked for the Indiana University Medical School as a night watchman until he retired.  A family joke (or maybe it was truer than others wanted to admit) went that Joe guarded the cadaver room for 30 years and didn’t have a clue what was in there.

I mostly remember him as generally very quiet and reclusive.  We saw him at Grandpa’s occasionally on weekends before he went in for a night shift.  He would pull into the drive in his massive dirty ivory Plymouth Fury. His car windows were legendarily coated in an amberish vaseline-thick goo from years of collected cigarette smoke.   If I saw him coming, I would run to the kitchen drawer where Grandpa kept Joe’s ashtray (it was like a beanbag on the bottom) and scurry to get a spoon out for his stirring.  I delighted in watching him swirl the pale sugary coffee and cream soup he made in his cup.  I listened to the funny old world way that he spoke (he held the accent and manner of speech of the old country that my Grandpa had worked so hard to erase from his own speech) and watched him punctuate sentences with his hands.  Uncle Joe also had the largest nose I had ever seen on a person.  It was just like Jimmy Durante…but since Jimmy was on tv and in movies he really didn’t count as a real person.  Uncle Joe had a real-live Schnazola that was mercifully never passed on to the next generation.

When he died years ago, it was as a “confirmed” bachelor.  He is buried at the Catholic Cemetery,but I do  not recall a mass for his funeral. After his retirement from the night watchman’s job, he really had little to do and fell into the staid habits of a reclusive old man.  He must have had a heart attack and died without much suffering.  He was found after lying dead alone in his home days later. Only his German Shepard dog was with him.

I think of him whenever I stir my coffee :)

Photo at top of page from the Holy Trinity Parish Diamond Jubilee celebration book:

Slaves To No One, written by James J. Divita

Duck and Cover !

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 PD_0033 ...or Why I use “As Told By” pages in my family histories

The other day on Facebook, I found myself in the middle of a simmering fight that seemed to be headed toward a full-out embroilment.  It involved my sister, an aunt, her dead father, and his long-dead immigrant parents – the “Urbanskis.”  I clicked “exit” and went grocery shopping.

  Days later when queried about my sudden disappearance from the on-screen skirmish, I feigned a “virus” that shut down my computer.  Thank goodness for cyber illnesses!

I don’t know if it is a common thing to have so many mule headed people in one family, or if we are just gatekeepers of the stubbornness gene.  But over the years, one writer’s trick in my bag has saved me many times over ~ “As Told By” pages.

It’s my theory that our memories are odd fuzzy filters steeped with emotions and previous experiences.  Our individual point of view is dependent on the “back story” written within our own heads.  This is shaded heavily by how our own experience in similar or imagined situations has panned out within roughly equal settings and/or participants.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as an unquestioning acceptance like~ “That’s what Dad said.  It is true and reliable.”

Some of the touchy subjects I run into as a researcher can easily cause an old wound to open or a fresh feud to start.  Rather than take an obvious side (the factual one) I try to draw a neutral line in the sand.  Using the “As Told By” heading honors the vantage point and belief of all who care to chime in, but still keeps the pot at a simmer instead of boiling over.

I do have to be clear here~  I believe that ALL sides are the truth.  I know that sounds nuts.  But I believe everyone because everyone’s individual story is factual in that it IS a part of how SOME of the family members believe that it happened.  Yep, we are the keepers of the crazy gene too.

Let me put it another way

These stories are all true in the sense that they are and were believable.  They are factual from each “Teller’s” point of view.  I report them as told by so that one version isn’t lost to the shadows by the others.  It’s easy to let others draw their own conclusions. I also think this lack of “side by side comparison” is how family secrets get blown out of proportion, or lost forever.  I guess I can understand a little bending of the facts.  While searching out Uncle Tony’s tenure in the French Foreign Legion…I found he actually spent those 6 years in Sing Sing for embezzlement…whoops! So, rather graciously I allowed Aunt Bertie  her “As Told By” and I had mine when she no-longer needed to hold on to a “variation of the records.”

My own beloved Gramcracker spoke of cousin Barabara’s nuptials as a “Shot Gun Wedding.”  Gram raged on about this for several years until time took her memory and she forgot to be mad at Barb anymore.   It was always her insistance that “No One Has Ever Shamed This Family~ Ever ~ until Barb!” that she took to the grave with her.  It seemed really important to her that she had descended from an unbroken chain of  poor but purely chaste women.

I elected to sew my own lips tight, and to seal up the file on Gramcracker’s own Grandmother who had miraculously birthed an 8# baby only five weeks after she and Grandfather married upon their arrival here in the US.

And Barb? Of course she had a dog in this fight too.  In her “As Told By” she tells the story of her wedding in a very different light.  She did wear white (because she didn’t want to upset Gramcracker …epic failure there) and went down the isle looking a bit more voluptuous than her tiny frame usually was.  But she also told the story of young love and a beau who was about to “ship out” during the Vietnam War years.

As for the Facebook fight?  Well, that was a new one on me.  I’ll have to look into it.  In the meantime

maybe someone should write that down…     :)

Sis Hits The Jackpot!

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wpid-1217121515.jpgIf I were to face facts, I would admit that my little sister kicks my researching rear-end.  Daily.  On a regular basis.  Any day of the week.  Hands down, always.

Just before Christmas, Sharon hit the Jackpot.  She unearthed (pried from the clenched and unrelenting fists of) the tower of family history crowned jewels from another relative.  This was one of those “oh sure, I’ll keep that old crap and get to it someday” sort of piles.  A burden to some, but to a Family History Hound…food for the soul, ambrosia…heaven on earth.

Sharon has been busy over vacation “Gedcom loading” and sifting like a good genealogist.  I ran thru it like a cat in a litter box.  I wanted first dibs on all the photos and newspaper clippings.  Why would anyone care about the famous “Fat Twins” who appeared many times on Hee Haw (a silly television show where country folk whooped it up and poked fun at themselves), I am not sure, but there was a clipping in box#3.  Who was Mildred Ecke ?  She died November 15th, 1934 and apparently was someone who Grandpa cared enough about to save her obit.

For my sister the good genealogist, information is what was swaddled in those boxes.  For me, it was more like a mountain of questions and riddles.

Titillating.

What an incredible gift at year’s end.  We each got what we wanted.  In 5 very untidy boxes and one (yes, I am serious) picnic basket, all the sorrow, glory, tattling, whispers, and funkiness needed to keep us both busy for months, maybe years.

Hats off to Sharon, she loaded this all into her little bitty Dodge, by herself, and sped off to the “cave.”  That’s what she calls her office / family history library.  I get to dig thru it and share the thrill of the expedition vicariously as I listen to her tell the tale of her “score.”

It’s in gentle and capable hands now.  And she is a good “sharer” so it will be available and sorted soon.  My sister has already put a lot of thought into which local history society will be receiving the original documents once she has processed it all tidily.

Interesting…It would have never occurred to me to share with strangers.

Hmmm. 

So I would love to know, how do you feel about sharing your “own” discoveries, clippings, papers, documented photos and the like with an organized (and funded) Society?  Have you done this?  Considered it?

I have to admit that once again, my sister the researcher has taught me a lesson.  Dang it!  I think she just kicked my B-Hind again!

Happy New Year!

Mom

 

Heraldry and We the People

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   1219121525aI’m not sure, but I believe it was PT Barnum who said “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

What I am sure of is that I am one of those suckers.

  The other day I was clearing out a drawer and ran across a family crest certificate that my husband and I had purchased many years ago.  Can you hear the Merry-go-Round music yet?  It came from a very “proper” looking shop.  I believe that it was even spelled “shoppe” ~ a spelling meant  to further endorse the authenticity of fake stuff.  But we were young and silly and newly married.  So we scraped together the $35.00 ( a pretty Royal sum for us 30+ years ago) and bought a “fully researched and authenticated, heirloom quality” piece of paper with our last name slightly misspelled on it.

Wow.  How cool is That ?

What I have learned since ( ironically for free via library books) is that we were totally duped.  A crest is only “good” for the original “owner.”  A father may have a certain design, but it does not pass down verbatim to his children.  When important families married, as was generally the plan, their crests were merged to create a new one for the identity of the newlyweds.  Maybe there was an Earl of Momenhousen who bore the crest in my drawer a bazillion years ago.  However we, the current-day Momenhousen family, have no claim to it.

  Heck at this point, I don’t even know what happened to the receipt !   I do have an excuse though…I am an American.  Almost all of us are about one inch away from obsession with “the Old Country.”  Additionally, we are also generally convinced  there is a Duke, a Baron or at least a Bergermeister in our family pedigree somewhere.  Therefore, it stands to reason that we (meaning the immediate “us”) must have claim to a heraldic shield, a family crest, or something that verifies we are from a stock above serfdom.  Thanks Mr Barnum, you have given a name to this madness~

Sucker.

The real truth is that Heraldic Design is pretty much about Art.  If you are Canadian, you may claim a crest for your lineage if you wish to go through a long and arduous process. For better or for worse,if you are looking for something cool to put up on the wall, its time to do some doodling.  Although I did some intensive research on the topic and found a few favorite books that I think are very good for being technically correct, I just recommend the use of an artsy relative.  Simply by Googling “Heraldry” or” Heraldic Design”, or” Colors in Heraldry” you can save yourself some time and money. If you are looking for good books on the subject (and you can persevere for a few months to get through one) I would recommend one of these three.  And please note, the third one is not an opening chapter, it is the title of the book:

1.  A Guide to Heraldry by Ottfried Neubecker

2.  Concise Encyclopedia  of Heraldry by Guy Cadogan Rothery

3.  The Manuel of Heraldry a Concise Description of the Several Terms Used and Containing a Dictionary of Every Designation in the Science with 350 Illustrations  by Sir Francis James Grant

If these all sound too scary, have a sit down with your clan and start brainstorming what it means to be a “Dipfenhoffper” or “Smith.”  Think up some words,symbols, and colors to use to represent You.  Maybe then craft a family logo~for your ” house”.  Remember, siblings should be allowed to represent the same ancestry with their own selection of colors, symbolism and mottoes.  Consider using a string of words that spell out your last name as a motto like the poems kids are so fond of writing out of their names .

Example (bad one, really bad one):

Bravery In The Hood Masked At Night (Bithman)

In my post titled “Managing the Help(ers)” I talked a little bit about dividing this task up among different factions of the family.  It’s a great way to get everyone started with helping without driving you nuts.  And, as a bonus, if you can get everyone to create their own crest, then the cover design for their copy of the finished project will already be done.

Wow, how cool is that?

Honest Abe and Too Many Jimmys

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PD_0153Today’s date is 12-12-12.  If we weren’t all being consumed with Christmas Shopping and the looming end of the Mayan Calendar, we would probably be a bit more frothed up about this.  It’s a heck of a day for marriages (as I hear the Las Vegas quicky chapels are doing big business today).  Apparently lots of C-section babies are scheduled for today too.  I’m kind of excited because it’s my real Birthday. However, that also means that my driver’s license expires in a few hours.  Whoops!

Which brings me to my point.  Last month during our write-a-thon, the theme for November 10th was family “Legends.”  I was also reminded that this year commemorates 100 years since the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic.  So, have you looked into any of those “legends” in your family story stash?

In my own family, Uncle Jim was a Lincoln Lawyer.  Meaning, that he had learned “lawyering” as an apprentice.  Not from a formal education.  Also, it was cool because Uncle Jim was reported to have been in  practice , and perhaps though not a partner, a contemporary of Honest Abe.  He was not assassinated like the President, so Jim was able to practice well into his 80s.  He used to scare the B-Jeebers out of any boy brave enough to go to Sunday dinner with my family.  Invariably, Uncle Jim would get the kid cornered, furrow up his profuse wiry white brows and query : “Young man, what sorts of plans have you laid out for your life?”  With his courtroom voice and icy stare, I don’t think a shotgun would have made him any scarier !  Jim retired just shy of 90 and died a few years ago barely missing his 100th birthday.

So, in circling back, yes it is my birthday today.  I won’t say how old I am, but I will admit to flirting with 50.  I thought that Uncle Jim’s story was fascinating all of my life.  Until one day, as I happened to do a bit of math.

Jimmy was sharp as a tack and still practicing law when he met and interrogated my husband in 1980.

Hmmm. 

I called my Mom.  “Are you sure Uncle Jim knew Abe Lincoln?”  She assured me that it was true, and that she knew that having been told by “everyone” in her family.  In fact, “everyone” knew this about Uncle Jim.

Hmmm. 

So, in 1980 while he was questioning my eventually- to- be husband, he was 80-something.  Abe had been dead for more than a hundred years.  But, “everyone”  knew that Uncle Jim had been practicing forever.  I remember my head swimming with cyphers.  I gave up trying to understand and just laid his file off to the side.  Of course I had to be wrong.  “Everyone” knew the Lincoln link.  And please note that this all happened long before anyone considered that Abe Lincoln was a Vampire Slayer.

One evening while helping my son with his Social Studies homework, my curiosity was peaked once more.  There in the Civil War Chapter I saw the date of birth, date of death and other stats of ol’ Abe.  The next day I dug up Uncle Jim’s folder and took another run at the conundrum.

Turns out that my Great Uncle Jim was named after his Great Uncle Jim, who was an attorney, who did clerk his way into law, and was a cohort of Abe in that they were born 2 states apart in roughly the same year :)

I’m not saying it was a popular ending to the story, but at least now “everyone” knows which Jimmy they’re talking about.

 

Not Playing with a Full Deck

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imageThis is by far one of my favorite tricks to get organized. 

Inspired by the hall trays in Victorian homes for calling cards, I came up with Character Cards.  Whenever I “add” a new relative to a family branch, I make up my own little version of a collectible edition trading card.  I call them my Character Cards.

Each family has their own ever-expanding “Deck.”  The Decks only get larger, because unlike real live families, no one gets discarded (buried).  In most cases, I have figuratively dug them up :).

I have a specific list of info that I want to chase for each Character.  These are the same old things one puts on an ancestry chart : dates and places of major life events, occupations, spouses, a parentage note etc.  I also include on my hunting and collecting list an “image.”  I really like having pictures.  So, in some cases where none is (yet) available, I will opt for some other image to represent the person and their statistics.  It can be anything I can connect to the real person.  For one uncle I have a scan of a lock of hair found wrapped in tissue paper marked “Tommy’s first hair cut.”  Eventually, I hope to find a photo, but until then he is represented as a little yellow curl.

I do not put original items on my cards.  I only use scanned images and I simply tape them on with cellophane tape.  I can pop a whole collection into my purse and head off to the cemetery, history center, or out to do drive- by house photos.

My family has a big laugh with this…they have always insisted that I don’t quite play with a full deck, and now, well…they have it in writing :)

November 30th or In the Beginning

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So I know this seems to be an odd day to ask this but…Why?

What got you started on this crazy train ? What or who inspired you to take up this cause and perhaps give your ancestors a little brush of the immortal ? We all know it isn’t easy, it is often quite thankless and frustrating. So why on earth do we kooky family history hounds chase the ever-dangling carrot?
I only need to look at this photo to know. It is my Grandmother with my Dad on her lap. Two pieces of the” oldest child of the oldest child” puzzle that have molded a big part of my life. I think she is timeless and beautiful. I remember her warmth and the tenacity that she loved us all with. I want my granddaughter (the oldest child of My oldest child) to know her as well. Today, my send off surprise for you is the beginning of my own family history journey. I want you to really truly begin writing Your story today.PD_0063


  I hope that by reading my “opening chapter” you will be inspired and driven to merrily come along. Thank you for writing November with me…now on to the task!

The Farmer Family Tree a Written Account

I’m a believer.  I believe in God, Country, Ghosts, and Fairy Tales.  And because of this, I also believe in the Never Ending Story of who we are, and who we will be in the years beyond.

I have also come to believe that most of the moments in our lives go floating by unnoticed and without consideration.  Although no one could take an entire lifetime of thoughts and experiences and write them out or otherwise record them, in the following pages, I have attempted to preserve the “essence” of our beloved George and Margaret Farmer.

Writing this account of their lives and those around them wasn’t something I originally set out to do.  I had heard tales for years of a written family history that Grandma Kate had been keeping for all of us.  Before her passing, I nor any of my cousins had laid eyes on this dear Historian’s work.  When she quietly passed away at age 94,  Indiana was staring down the barrels of a looming ice storm.  The skies were deep sullen gray and the forecast was ugly when the phone calls went out to all that Grandma had gone to her rest.

With the weather forecast getting more negative by the hour, we all gathered for Grandma’s wake at the local funeral parlor.  Grandma was one of those dutiful women who always attended funerals of those who she knew.  If the measure of one’s life was the number of attendees for one’s wake, my Grandma had clearly paid her dues.  For most of the afternoon and evening the line of persons waiting to pay their last respects was “out- the -door” long.  Mercifully the bad weather held respected Grandma’s mourners and held off until the line finally eased.

A side room off of the main hall was reserved for close family in attendance to rest for a few minutes and maybe have a cup of coffee or a danish.  After a few hours, I found myself seated near the table with several aunts and cousins (half of my genes are from  a very big and very old farm family).  Seating on folding chairs under fluorescent kitchen lights the subject turned to Grandma’s “job” as the family historian.  Some wondered aloud exactly what sorts of things she had kept track of all these years.  I, among others, had heard we were “royal” way back when.

“I wonder whatever happened to all of that stuff ?” queried one cousin.  Aunt Leslie licked the pastry filling off of her end finger and offered:

Oh I have that whole box.  Your Grandma gave it to me to keep for you kids when she moved into the nursing home.  If you all are interested, I can dig it out and make copies for whoever would want them.

Of course we all nodded, yes, yes we would love to have a copy of what Grandma had written. And then, as I recall, the conversation turned back to the horrible weather we were threatened by, our aching feet and who would be hosting Easter dinner in the spring.

**********

Driving home with my husband and kids that night, we were all exhausted.  A wake for someone like Grandma Farmer was an extra long event.  We seemed to be related to all of Boone, and Hendricks Counties.  Half of Marion and Morgan Counties were there as well.  When we were nearly home the sleet began falling on the windshield.  I didn’t notice so much.  My husband is a seasoned snow and ice driver so I felt safe as we crawled along the interstate.  Besides, I was too busy dreaming of the History book I would soon get to see.  I imagined myself being delivered a dusty tome.  It would be leather bound, over-sized, with hints of gilt work tooled into it and still visible.  I would sit down in my (imaginary) winged back chair beside the roaring fireplace (also a figment) and gently pull back it’s weighty cover.  A beam of glowing light would spring from within the pages and welcome me like a hug from across time.  It would be a transforming moment.  I would be in the presence of my Ancestors!

They would whisper to me which castle to go rightfully claim as mine!

********

I will cut to the chase for you here…several weeks later a large manilla envelope arrived half mauled by the postal service.  I had nearly forgotten it was promised that evening.  As promised, inside was the life’s work of Grandma the family history keeper.  But it was not bound, gilded or illuminated.  In fact the history was a smallish mess of papers, typed on onion skin paper, with carbon sheets between.  It had been started about 50 years before and at some point the original had been photo copied onto thermal (the old style office printers with the roll paper and ink drums) paper, and then again onto standard paper stock by Aunt Leslie.  The pages were in various states of quality, some had thermal marks from paper clips, or smears from being handled too much.  There were handwritten notes and about kids born and added in and spouses marked through and replaced in margins galore.

It was a wreck.

And all it was beyond a wreck was a listing of names, dates and little else.  I had to know more, and once I started researching and finding more…everyone kept looking at me and saying

Maybe someone should write that down….

Familial Oddities

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Hat Club

waiting for the mothership

Every family’s “quirks” and traditions have to come from somewhere.  Around the dawn of the 20th century, our Victorian relatives were into some weird stuff.  Germans really enjoyed their mysticism, mediums and seances.  Some folks dabbled in phrenology, eugenics, and even handwriting analysis.  Granted, the handwriting thing has come to be accepted as a pseudo science, but some of the other stuff?  Whew!

Think about the Victorian fervor for the “language” of flowers.  Then take a look at some old family wedding pictures.  Do you find anything that went rather “unsaid?”  Was  Grandmama hiding any hints or scraps of wisdom in her bouquet?  What did the lapel posy say about the groom?  Coincidence?

In daily living and in researching with my family, I’ve found a few skeletons lying outside the closet door.  Take for instance the skeleton that resided~ coffin and all~ in my second cousins’ front room for years.  Somehow this branch of the family had “inherited” this unusual parlor piece when an aunt died.  It seemed ol’ Aunt Luly was a high mistress / exalted poo-bah of some “unusual” lodge or another.  So, she was the trusted keeper of the the “box.”  I’m not sure who it was, or what the real scoop was…but I saw it.  Often.  And no one who lived there  in the house with it seemed to be creeped -out.  I assume that “Becky” as I will call her/ him / it, was eventually interred or placed with another family once the new cult leader...chairwoman was installed.  For all I know it was plastic, but never the less it was creepy.  They’re all gone now, otherwise, I’d ask.

You may want to bring this up in casual conversation and see where it leads with your family.

Chances are pretty good that you’ll hear tales of at-home wakes and such. They were pretty common in some areas through the second world war era.  My Mom’s family held this tradition in the rural community where she was raised well into the mid 1940s.  In one of my favorite movies ever, my beloved Gone With the Wind, Mrs O’Hara is laid out on the dining room table.  In a more contemporary vignette, the opening scenes of Sunset Boulevard feature Norma Desmond’s beloved pet chimp awaiting the undertaker in her posh Hollywood bedroom.  I’ll admit that it didn’t seem as weird in the Civil War setting.

My Balkan relatives had a gruesome insistence on a photo with the dead family members.  When a loved one passed, their casket would be propped up on the church steps as the poll bearers held the departed in place.  A formal portrait would then be taken with all the close and extended family, and various Club and Union delegates posed carefully around the deceased.  To this day, I know some older folks still want one last photo of their brother, spouse, whoever in their final rest.  Now-a-days though, this is usually arranged in private before other family and friends are let into the room for visitation.

Funerals and death aren’t the only time our ancestors got freaky, but usually these are the traditions that sort of stand out.  If you are ever going thru an attic or antique shop and run across a portrait of a sleeping baby…you guessed it…the baby is dead.  Another one you will see occasionally is a picture of a willow tree with a lock of hair in the frame with the picture, same thing.  A big family gathering photo with a funny looking blob on the wall in the back ground is probably a shrouded mirror, and you guessed again, a funeral gathering.  Sometimes the photo is taken outdoors and if you peek behind a head or two you’ll spot a black crepe wreath on the front door.  This is a signal to passers by that the family is in mourning, so it would be rather respectable to slow the horses and remove one’s hat.

But like I said, it’s not always death that brings out an unusual tradition.  My Grandpa Farmer was a tea-totaling Methodist who had a disdainful and queasy feeling around Catholics and their “idolatry.”  But he made a pretty tidy income on the side “witching” half the wells in Boone county for a fee.  Grandpa would cut a switch (thin flexible little branch) off of a weeping willow tree.  He always selected one with a sturdy “Y” shape for divining wells.  The plain switches were for swatting the be-hinds of unruly grandchildren.  George the Methodist would then hold the top Y ends in his hands lightly in front of him and walk about on the property of the neighbor he was witching for.  When he found the underground well spring, the switch would twitch and that’s where they were instructed to start digging.  In 1965 when my parents built their new house, Grandpa came over and witched the well.  We never went without water.

Tea on the Porch Swing

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Yesterday while out-of-town on a kid errand (our youngest plays a travel sport) we found ourselves near a sort of long-lost relative.  The soccer team was celebrating with a pool party at the hotel, so my husband and I ventured out for a happen-stance visit.
I think my generation, baby boomers, is the last to practice and embrace this tradition.  When we say to each other ” hey, don’t be a stranger!” We actually are extending an open invitation.  Its something I really miss in our daily modern life and family.  We were in the neighborhood ( only a 45 minute drive from the hotel) so we did “drop-in”

 Unannounced, as that is the custom of my fellow “Boomers.”

After some winding around and false recognition (we had probably been lost that way before) we pulled up to the house of uncle Charlie.

Our plan had been to say a quick hello, or to stay for an hour if we weren’t interrupting something.  But the 6 years since we had last visited melted away in seconds and we sat on their beautiful long front porch scanning the crop laden horizon for hours.  While big city newspapers boast of all the news that’s fit to print, we sat in the shade swinging back and forth with cold tea and long-winded updates and re-visitations of all sorts of matters.

This is what I miss and want to hand down to my grandchildren. Unfortunately, it is lost and likely will be gone forever.   This seamless feeling of acceptance, of connectedness and of belonging to a family. I know it can’t always be like this.  It’s just a fact of life that some of us will never get along and “play nice” with all of our relatives.  In truth, if we had not been “in the neighborhood” we probably wouldn’t have made the effort.  But on that porch, on that hot afternoon, with those lovely people who look like my husband, and whom my children half resemble, that was bliss.

Managing the “Help”

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Once the stories start flowing and your paper ghosts are wriggling with life, you may find yourself with a lot of volunteers. Now is the time to be extra creative. Use all the help that is offered ! Rather than seeing enthusiastic volunteers as “Johnny-Come-Lately-Bandwagon-Jumpers,” consider how their eagerness to help could add to the richness of the ultimate end product.  Collaborating this way will make your work an “of the people, by the people” sort of outcome for your family tree.

Think about a special talent aunt Susan can contribute. She might well be the biggest gossip in 3 counties…so use that!  You can always debunk / confirm later.  But for now, pull up a chair, turn her on and let her rip!  Don’t stop with the volunteers who step forward !   Everyone knows there is an unwritten code of honor among thieves, however that code pales to the closed -community of cooks who hold the family recipes!  When buttered up and coddled. cooks may be moved to show heart and dig out family recipes to share.   They could also be put on the task of beating secret recipes out of others within the inner circle of the kitchen.  Artsy types could be put to work designing a cover for the finished product, or Illuminating  pages.  The scholarly would enjoy collaborating  with each branch to create a representative family crest (see  a later posting for info on this). The hoarders (God bless us everyone!) can be assigned to photo finding, or heirloom display.

Get them all working together as a team . Once your dear hoarder has unearthed Grandmama’s wedding china, perhaps there’s a shutter bug just waiting to document those very heirlooms from every angle. Clearly, there’s no reason to pass over your clan”s computer geek!  They could join forces with the children in a google scavenger hunt of mapping and street viewing ancestral homes.   And, if the Saints are smiling upon you, may you find yourself in the fortunate position of being related to one or more retired couples who just love to travel.  If you can engage their enthusiasm and wunderlust they may become the boots on the ground you’ve always wished for to find and photo far away monuments or records.

The more the merrier… really !  However you scheme (or choose to use)  the willing participants,  don’t hesitate when they offer.  Really pull out all stops to let their experience count !  If several family members  become truly vested in this work (with a very specific task assigned) the hype will be bigger and the end result will have broader appeal.

You and I both know that there has to be an invisible lid on this “doling out of jobs” in order for it to work.  Play your hand a bit close.  Be sure to explain that in order for you to be an effective writer and compiler of your collective story, you will need certain things from all of them.  Timelines, confidentiality, steadfastness of the untiring persuer…and all suggestions in written form and sent to your email or mailbox.  You’ve got to be able to focus on the big task and trust that as the adults they are…they will keep noses to the grindstone and complete their mission!  Independent of you.  Ask your mother. .. don’t bug me to death…  tend to your own knittin’… implied but unsaid :)

It’s always a  fine line when families are called to work together.  Delegating  fairly and effectively without being seen as bossy is a dance on the tightrope.  But if you can stand to let them help, you will be rewarded in the end.  After all, families are like…well you know…everybody has one !

Why Bother ?

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REALLY?

I’ve spent years chasing my ancestors thru wet cemeteries, musty boxes and up family trees.  I’ve dug around libraries, attics, and read books and webpages galore.  What I have learned from all this is simple…

no one else gives a hoot if they can’t somehow “relate” to those old names and numbers

Truth is, all that detective and scholarly work is really boring on paper.  My family used to roll their eyes when they saw me coming with yet another binder of “genealogy stuff.”

What to do ~what to do?  Let me tell ya…

We’re all connected with our families, not by pedigree or heirlooms, but through our common stories.  Names and dates have no real pull on our heartstrings.  But the joys and struggles of everyday life in another time can fascinate us like a flickering campfire.

Oh and a little tattle-taling or a dash of dishing-dirt doesn’t hurt either! 

Without stories our family tree efforts are just tidy (for some) stacks of paper with footnotes and a few photos sprinkled in.  I invite you to take the next step with me and you will soon be writing an account of your family’s history to be read , re-read  and actually cherished for many years!

When I originally wrote that about two years ago, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.  All of the wonderful people we have lost (and gained!) in the short life of this blog is both sad and miraculous.  I’m speaking of blogs abandoned or begun as well as losses and gains within my own family.

Telling family stories and even writing our own as “memoir” has become quite a “thing.”  I am seeing this form of writing honored and applauded more and more.  Only a handful of years ago, a Memoir was one of the trappings (or curses) of celebrity or notoriety.  Now, regular people, in common circumstances are writing prolifically about themselves and their “inner circle.”  To this I say–HooRay!

 I would like to add a very important “beware” to those of us who are writing stories to be read years from now.

I’m not talking about identity thieves and computer hacks or natural disasters and copyright laws.  I want to advise you to look over all of your writing in a different way.  You need to read over the pages you have enjoyed and slaved over in order to preserve them as readable and understandable documents…later.

Here’s the important point of this:

 Have people of many generations read over the words you have written.

Have them work separately. Ask them to mark or note any words, phrases or sayings that are not immediately clear to them (ie: is there anything you have questions about/ don’t understand?).

 Take these comments and figure out how to make them clear to “other” generations.  As an example, genealogists are accustomed to seeing the word “nee.” Someone who is looking at a family story for the first time may not know the meaning of that funny word.  Yes, they could look it up (as we all probably had to) but wouldn’t you rather have them enjoy the tale that is spun on the page? Well of course you would!  Other things that some would take as common knowledge are in danger of being lost to time. Like Ration Books and what they were, when, and why they were out there.  How about “no swimming in summer?” 

Now, decide how to work the definitions and explanations into your work.  Below are methods that I have used or seen used to good effect.  Remember you want to tell stories more than to give history tutorials.  Likely, you also want to preserve these people beyond their vital statistics for lots of generations to come!

A mix of these will probably work in your own writing~

1.  Use all the antiquated, colloquial, unusual, foreign, confusing word in italics.  Then use a method similar to footnotes at the bottom of the same page to explain it.  So perhaps you would write a sentence and italicize nee. Then, appearing at the bottom of the same page a note would appear as such:

nee~woman’s surname before marriage.

2.  Work the words into the story and thus describe it (or the phrase etc) as a part of the tale.  An example would be to describe an old, rarely used phrase or slang or other term as such:

Jane grew up in the roaring 20′s when women wore long straight dresses, without bras, and were thus called “flappers” and things        that were new and exciting were referred to as “the bee’s knees.”

3.    Perhaps a bit more complicated sounding (but when working with several family members a work-saver) is the “overview page.”  This is a prelude, preamble or forward to the material you are about to present.  It isn’t uncommon to find your family stories falling into neat categories related to universal events. Listen to conversation around a holiday table and you will likely hear talk of “the war years,” or “during the depression,” or “on White Avenue.”  So, describing that place and time as an overview for all of the stories under the heading will set the tone for everyone’s notable adventure during that family “era.”  You could even combine method 1 and method 2 together italicizing the funky words and noting them, and describing events of the time and the vernacular of speech.  This is a great way to get around a re-write for several finished pieces. It’s sort of backtracking, but getting the work done without overdoing. This one works best when each story is written as a separate event like my post “Honest Abe and Too Many Jimmys” ( click here to see it http://wp.me/p2pmvZ-72 )      perhaps under a heading such as “Myths and Mysteries.”  When the story is a synopsis of someone’s whole life, like my post “Uncle Joe” (see it here http://wp.me/p2pmvZ-bb   ) using only the first or second method would be best.

So what tips and tricks do you have up your sleeve tricky writer?  Share your secret weapons with all of us in the comment box! Then~ Maybe someone should write that down…

 

The Case for Place in Your Storytelling

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PD_0095there are places I remember…all my life Though some have changed.  Some forever not for better. Some have gone and some remain.

So aptly crooned by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

 Yes, It’s been stuck in my head for days.

You’re welcome.

 It can haunt you for a while now. Are you humming?

 I am as I type……la la la laaaaa hum hum hummm….

Sometimes the most powerful memories and attachments our families hold on to are of places.  The places are the event hosts, the welcoming port in a storm, the elevator music of our lives.  These certain spots grasp time and happenings in a way that we mortals can never wipe clean. A place is not always a house, it could be another building~ like a church or school or business.  Those are almost a given, but “place” can also be an intersection of two roads, a lake shore, or an event not precisely plot-able on the maps in our head. How about the time you spent the day with cousins at a little carnival and lost all of your hard earned grass cutting money on baseball throws at milk bottles?  Maybe you do remember where the carnival set up, or maybe you just remember the carnival and it’s mesmerizing midway lights as the place.  Which version of “place” is more important to your story?  Which was more important to you while it was happening?

My husband’s Grandfather “Estal” was “something else” a real…how should I put it?…”character.” At family gatherings  and holiday get-togethers he always managed to sneak his way into the nearest liquor cabinet in search of some “Wild Turkey.”  Shortly after bagging his “Turkey” or whatever else he could find, it was not uncommon to find him rummaging through women’s purses looking for unattended cigarettes.  Once he and the scavenged cigarette were both sufficiently “lit” the stories of places would begin.  One of his favorites was about “Little Rock Arkansas.” There were other places he liked to talk about too, all with rather lurid and inappropriate recounts of escapades of the “young Estal.” Mercifully, Grandma Lydia’s ears would usually perk up from two rooms away, and she would come zooming to the rescue and shut him down before he could get too far into the uncomfortably intimate details. Not always, but most of the time.  Ew.

The point being, although these tales were coming from the whiskey inspired lips of an old, half-senile geezer, with little to no social filter, “place” was always the starting point of his dissertation. That is of course if you skip the pre-storytelling preparations of Turkey hunts and cigarette foraging.

In my own family places are christened with names that are verbal shorthand for addresses, or the occupants, or incidents.  They are referred to in ways like “White Avenue, the Old Man’s, The County Line, Perry, 104, the Farm, the Cabin and the New House.  There are also references to places in ways they relate to time like “during the War,in the Flood, and under the Highway.”  Place can be a pretty big deal in our stories.  Often, it is like an extra character because the setting can make an enormous difference as we describe it (or ignore it).

I personally, love using descriptions of places or settings in my own writing.  Sometimes just seeing a photo of a place will elicit the starting point for the telling of a story you’ve never heard before. As relatives reminisce about a picture or event listen to the “place-chat” closely.  And, if you write in a style similar to mine (I try to use the voice of the person I am writing about as much as possible), be careful to also annotate the actual address or name of the place if you can!  “Out at the farm” is a very clear description for my current day readers, but when someone picks this up to read in 20, 50 or 100 years will they have a sense of where you’re writing about? The advent of Google Maps and especially Google Streetview has made this describing and locating from afar thing a whole lot easier!  Don’t hesitate to tuck in a printed out page to help future generations relate to the story you’re writing today!

So try throwing in the location any time you get a chance.  Yes, you may have the info from Ancestory.com that a family was living in Louisville during the Great Depression just by finding their info pop up on a census.  But look closely in the margin on the left and you can find their street name and house number.  Imagine finding the same home today on Zillow or Trulia and seeing photos from the curb, and even the front parlor!  How cool would that be?  And if it’s not too far away, maybe a weekend road trip would be worthwhile  to snap a photo of the fancy entrance gates to the new housing addition that is going up in the middle of Great Grandpa’s cow pasture :).

 Every step we take now to deepen and anchor these stories will bring us and future generations closer together through time.  That’s a pretty cool thing to think about when you’re getting tired of writing… or, when a song is stuck in your head…or you feel like none of it amounts to much…or when your own Estal starts Turkey hunting.

I always feel so glad when a story is told and I hear someone whisper~ 

Maybe someone should write that down

ps…….Here’s a link to an extra cool website that we have here in Indianapolis, hopefully you will be blessed enough to have something similar available for your most researched city or town.  If you don’t, maybe you should take a cue from this one and start your own!  See it at http://historicindianapolis.com/

Too Little

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IMG_20130717_161607Somewhere in your family writing journey, you will undoubtedly be challenged by a few souls whose stories are so thin that they are barely viable for the telling.

This is where you need to really use every ounce of creative writer’s “umph” you can muster.  With just the barest little sheet of information we can make them count as more than a name on a census list.

In a recent workshop, we encountered such a case.  Since I, Mom, am not one to “kiss and tell” we can use my own Aunt Julie as an example in place of “Marilyn’s uncle Mickey.”  Put your thinking caps on, grab a shovel for digging up ideas and add a little new-age chant. Sometimes we family history story tellers need all the help we can muster:

#1  Figure out what you know:

Here’s what I knew to begin with–My mom was the oldest of four children.  She had two brothers and a little sister.  Her sister’s name was Julie.  Julie had died when she was a very young child.  Although my mom would never talk about the details, over the years it became clear (rather tragically so) that my mother had blamed herself for her sister’s death.  That admittedly makes for a pretty good reason to not want to discuss a painful part of history.  No one dared to ask Grandma or Grandpa about Julie.  They never mentioned her name and there was really no trace of her to be found in their home.  No photos I’ve ever seen, no dolls, no traces at all…except…an eerie little framed memorial hanging on the wall in my Grandparent’s bedroom.  You may have more or less than this to work with.

#2 Put yourself in their environment in every way you can think of:

Their home was an old farmhouse that had been built long before indoor plumbing was a “thing.”  If you’ve ever spent any amount of time stomping around old houses, you will know that the invention of indoor outhouses made for some pretty funky floor plans.  At Grandma and Grandpa’s house, you had to walk through the downstairs (“Master”) bedroom to get to the bathroom.  Yes, THE bathroom.  The ONLY bathroom.  At some point I think an owner had closed-in a back porch to make a full bathroom and pump-room in front of the door to the dirt storm cellar that lurked underneath the house. If you were a brave kid, you could go through the opening from the kitchen to the pump-room (at some point converted to a civilized laundry room) and enter the bathroom from the side door.  I say brave kid, because that portal to the basement was about the scariest thing around.  It smelled funny, even when the door was closed.  The floor boards in front of it popped and moaned and carried on with an awful racket whenever anyone walked over them.  And the big old windows, relics that support my converted porch theory, were fully covered up by tall overgrown bushes that hid the home’s propane service tank and wiggled like mossy monsters with the lightest breeze.

I wasn’t a brave kid.  I ran through the bedroom whenever I had to pee.

#3 What do you note from retracing their steps?  What wispy bits and crumbs are there for you once you look closely?

Now, let me explain the “running.”  At some point in my childhood, I began to read. One day on a leisurely trot to go tinkle after hours of sliding down the slick waxed stairs from the second floor on my butt everything changed.  I would never dare to take the scary route past the cellar door.  As usual, I headed through the bedroom bound for the nice 1940′s grey and black tiled bathroom. I will never forget the first time I saw the framed memorial on Grandma’s wall in a different way.  I saw words. I didn’t have the ability yet (nor the nerve) to read the whole plaque.  The only part that I was able to read about my dead-baby Aunt Julie was the title: She is not Dead.

Having been an enthusiastic and avid watcher of Dark Shadows every day after school, I was scared witless by that phrase! If she was not dead, she must have been “undead.” Nobody can survive an encounter with the undead!  Until the day my Grandparents moved out of that house, I ran, full out, every time I needed to “go.”  I’m sure they thought I was incontinent or just plain weird.

#4 What sort of tangible evidence do you have available, if any?

Officially, all that was left of Julie was a birth certificate and a death certificate I got for seven dollars from the County Clerk’s office.  I knew her date of birth, her date and cause of death and really little more.  I had located her grave by chance one day while looking for her Grandparents’ grave site.  She rested in between my Great Grandparents with a small inscription added to their headstone “Granddaughter Julie 1937-39 Our Lamb.”  It was so little.  Maybe too little to write about.  But I couldn’t leave her there, nearly forgotten as a footnote–a child who once lived and breathed and played and laughed.  A baby who had been so loved by everyone that mentioning her name was still all but forbidden more than 40 years after her death.  Missing Julie hurt. Loosing her again to time would be even worse.

#5 Begin to cobble it all together.  If you have too little to write about them, you can write about their lifetime.

I really wish I knew what happened to that scary plaque.  As an adult, I now “get” that it was likely a framed memorial given to my Grandparents as a keepsake of the child they so tragically lost.  I wondered whether it was provided by their church, or a close friend, or even the undertaker.  For the longest time I found no newspaper obituary to at least glean a few scraps about the funeral service.  I had to assume that Julie had been viewed either at home or at her grandparent’s home (since it was larger and closer to town).

Mom Note:  I’ve spoken to more than a few people who think I’m from another planet when I mention in-home viewings/wakes/visitations this late into the 20th century.  My Mom’s family, the Farmer’s, preserved this tradition well into the 1940′s in conjunction with the local undertaker who did the body prep.  Were we weird?  Did you have family branches who bent this way too?

Bottom line is this:  With only this silly memory from the house, the birth and death certificate and one more little tid-bit that happened to come forward at Grandma Farmer’s own funeral (about 65 years after Julie’s) I was able to write about a 5 page entry for baby Julie in our family book.  Here’s the general gist of it:

The second child born to George and Maggie Farmer was a daughter named Julie.  She was born at their home  January 18th, 1937.  Her older sister Carrie was about two at the time.  Tragically, in early January of 1939, just days before the family would celebrate Julie’s 2nd birthday, she began to run a fever and complain of a sore throat…

**Julie died of Scarlet Fever.  I recall having Scarlet Fever as a child and watching my mom freak out.  I didn’t think it was any big deal.  In fact, except for the sore throat, I thought it wasn’t too bad.  The fever gave me really funny and realistic dreams.  When the rash started appearing on my chest my mom went into Crazy-mode.  I was taken to the doctor and given a shot of penicillin in the bum, and was back to school by Monday.  Beyond the new understanding of why my mom was so unnerved by my rashy sore throat, I had to dig into the symptoms, progression and treatment of Scarlet Fever.  Most of all I needed to find out why she died from it, when all I needed was a shot.  This gave me a lot of material to write about.  I learned (as will those in my family who read the Julie chapter of our family history) that though penicillin was discovered in 1928, it was not produced in large enough quantity or in condensed enough form to be made available for general use until after WWII.  If Julie had contracted the Strep infection that caused her to get Scarlet Fever and ultimately the pneumonia that killed her a mere seven years later, she would have been given the same shot in the bum that I got.  She would likely be still around to ask about it too.  I also found this was a good part of the family story to discuss at-home wakes and what that entailed in the house.  I saved in-home births for my younger uncle who was the first of the Farmer’s to be born in a hospital. For my own Mother, I had made the date discovery that showed even though she had always felt that she was responsible for bringing the fever home from school to her little sister, that was actually impossible.  She had been barely 4 when Julie died. She didn’t start school until the fall of 1940. Who knows why she had this idea, and why she suffered so deeply without ever checking the facts.  Maybe she had overheard adults at the funeral speaking about school closing because so many homes were under quarantine due to the fever in the county (as I found announced a couple of years later in a newspaper clipping).

**Beyond the history of antibiotics, there was also the bit of epiphany I had at Grandma Farmer’s funeral service.  At one point, the pastor indicated that we would all be treated to Maggie’s favorite song, as performed by a famous female blue grass artist.  He lowered his head next to the podium and someone keyed up the cassette tape they had dug up.  To me it sounded like a screeching cat from the back hills of who-knows-where keening out the lyrics that were hauntingly familiar~

She is not dead…She’s only Sleeping

Once home, I googled the song lyrics to try to figure out who the performer was.  I was still sort of trying to make sense of a rather painful day in my own head.  What popped up first was not the name of a lady blue grass diva, it was the bible verse in all it’s assorted variations:  Luke 8:52 Don’t Cry! She isn’t dead, she is only sleeping!

Mystery of the mourning plaque is solved, it was sad, but it was not the terrifying thing that I had thought it was. I added the passage to Julie’s pages.  And, at last I understood a bit more about her.  She died just two days short of her second birthday, and I had really very little to write about her life, but her pages don’t seem so empty since I could at least write about her lifetime and her place in our family story.  Too little?  Indeed, too little to die, but she did.  Too little known about to tell a story on her behalf…no way!

Hello Black Sheep, it’s been a while…

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PD_0161You may recall my recent proclamation:  “Sis Hit the Jackpot.”  Toward the end of last year Sharon managed to score a half dozen tubs full of “stuff” from an elderly Aunt’s house.  So far the “yield” has not disappointed.  All sorts of photos and memories are crammed into the boxes within boxes.  The other day, gold was struck in the bottom of Tub #3.  It was there that a cousin we had lost was suddenly found and accounted for.

Danny’s disappearance from our home state (and pretty much the face of the earth) was explained with the contents of a worn legal sized envelope.   A wad of old newspaper clippings from the 60s unfolded the story of what must have been a terribly painful chapter for one branch of our family. 

Mom note: I don’t think Aunt SueEllen cared a wink about “concealing” this family skeleton.  I really believe she just never got around to looking through this insurmountable pile of “stuff.” Besides, I don’t think “Danny” ever won any familial popularity contests.

At first glance under current  standards of morality, the whole ruckus seemed kinda silly. Danny hadn’t fallen into a mysterious sink hole or been filched by space monsters, he was in fact removed (relocated might be a nicer way to put it) for his own good.   To a modern observer, banishment could seem like an “over reaction” on the part of his staunchly Republican, cigar smoking, politically influential and highly conservative dad.  But once put into context the horrific story became crystal clear.

Let me explain

Revealed on those crumbly old pages was that daddy’s little darling was involved in one of those “Hippy sit-in protest things.” It was a distasteful act~ rife with disrespect of his family and their social standing.  But hey, come on, he was barely out of his teens. And, granted, this took place at Dad’s Alma Mater~ which Danny probably wasn’t smart enough to get into on his own merits (and thus rode the coattails of his father’s Magna-Cum-Status).

So what if Danny’s little “episode” was embarrassing to his family and mocked all that assured him the right to behave so ridiculously in the first place?  How could it have possibly been made into such a big deal?  Well, for that we look to the back story and the facts of the matter:   Danny’s father was very big in politics.  And as the History Channel now tells us the Cuban Missile Crisis  actually panned out to be a big deal…

Seriously?  Danny’s family all lived on farms in Indiana for Pete’s sake.  The Indy 500 sure was a far cry from Fidel’s rockets or those Kennedy boys.

The simple truth was that Danny was in a little deeper than a disruption at the country club. Seems ol’ Danny had always been quite the loose canon.  Growing up he could have been easily described as a boy of privilege who never really appreciated what had been handed to him.  He left small town Indiana for the fancy far away University at a time in history when free love and “self expression” squared off with a nasty oversees war. In those times the emotional gauge of our nation was running  hot.   Hair was long and even “peaceful” tempers were short.  The Indochina “conflict” in Vietnam was  devouring young men by the thousands. Meanwhile many of their own high school classmates were safely in dorm rooms on campus protesting for “peace.” Everything and everywhere was a powder keg politically.

Danny wanted a little attention, a shot at campus fame.

When he decided to join a league of “enlightened individuals who sought peace for the downtrodden” he was pledging allegiance with a bunch of other rich kids who were flirting with the 1960s era equivalent of the Taliban.  The “sit in” that they orchestrated at their prestigious University garnered national attention.  What soon followed involved arrests and charges of treason and other not-so-nice accusations. Danny put his own life and that of his family in real danger.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Danny had made a “scene.”  He had rolled past several earlier brushes with the law. Petty little embarrassments like possession charges, under age drinking and reckless driving and motorboat operating.

Within family circles there were always whispers of some darker happenings too~about some poor girl at a party and Danny being…well…Danny.

I recall seeing him once when he was “secretly” within our state boundaries for my Great Grandpa’s birthday.  When I asked one of my young aunts who he was she commented:

“That’s Danny, he’s a real Creep. Stay clear of him if you know what I mean.” 

I didn’t know what she meant, but it sounded bad, so I took her at her word and stayed glued to my Dad’s side for the duration of the day’s festivities.

Turns out that my Uncle was able to pull some strings and cut a deal with the FBI.  Yes, I said that.  It went that far.  Indiana didn’t want him around, so it was agreed that Danny would be better suited to a life outside of the Hoosier state.  As far away as land could separate him, his dad sent him off to a remote little coast to set up trade as an asparagus farmer.  Back to his agricultural roots.  Somewhere far enough away from everybody else that he would have to “sit” pretty loudly for anyone to notice he was protesting something.  It was for his own good.  It kept him out of prison.

Stupid kid.  Powerful Dad.  Lucky break.  Sort of.

There are many ways a parent can lose a child.  All of them are dreadful.  No matter what the situation is, no matter how quick or protracted, the pain of losing a child  is said to be immeasurable.  I think that loosing one to their own hurtful decisions, choices, or madness is probably the worst loss of all of the unthinkable tragedies. No amount of help ever helps, they just keep on that troubled path, almost like they are made for hurting themselves and everyone around them.  As I see it, to be cast out by your family,  to be written off and sent permanently away, must bitterly sting at your marrow.  But to be the parent who is forced to take that desperate action, well…that truly must hold down the floor in one’s own earthly corner of hell.

After we found this info in the box, I did quite a bit of Google searching to see if there was any additional info around.  Crazy as it sounds, a bit of the court transcript is posted on the internet.  Also, the bunch of nuts he was running with at the time apparently still host “reunions” from time to time.  At least one of the guys involved is an avid blogger~go figure!   As far as I can tell, Danny’s still farming asparagus on that remote coast.  So Karl Danny, if you happen to read this and feel you want your side of the story told, it’s solely up to you cousin…you know what they say~

Maybe someone should write that down…

A Rose is a Rose Gladys

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Well, well, well…

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The subject of “names” is a rather touchy one in some factions of the family…around here anyway.  I was named “Kathryn” as a political move.  I had enough Grandmothers on all sides with that name, in various spellings, and at various positions (first, middle, patron saint, baptismal) to make most of them happy.  I was not the first grandchild on either side of my family, but I was the first granddaughter on both sides!  Another of my illustrious firsts.

When I went to school, there were 7 little girls in 1st grade at Perry Elementary named Kathryn in some form or another.  So, probably, their families had the same sort of “thing” going on.  If this had been a big school, then Cathy, Kathy, Kathryn, Cathleen, Katherine, Katy, and other Kathryn would have been insignificant.  However, this was a farming community.  The schools were small.  The 4 feeder grade schools that lead to my high school produced a grand total of 265 in my senior class.  By the time we all converged in the spiffy new Middle School, I had lost count (and interest) in how many other girls had “my” name.

My brother though, had it a bit rougher with family names.  Ours is a long line of “traditional” men’s names.  The first born pretty much was going to be a Junior, and if not a Junior (or 3rd, or 4th) then perhaps would be named after the other Grandpa, or a middle name.  My brother didn’t get a chance at something modernish…like Scott or Brian… point of his birth, the options available were Frank, George, Earl, Henry/Harry or the scandal of picking a meaningless name out of the air…like Bobby.  They did not choose Bobby.

Darling Gramcracker, ever sensitive to my needs as an individual in this sea of Kathryns, gave me a unique and extended name to claim as my own.  Or, possibly, she told me this was my full name because she also had a wicked sense of humor and loved having me say it and seeing the reaction of strangers.

She crowned me:  Kathryn Elaine Martha Elizabeth Gladiolus Rose Mousy Get-Along Johnson.  Gramcracker always called me Goldie for short.

Until I got in trouble for “fibbing” in Kindergarten  I was convinced and unquestioning of my full name.  As a matter of fact, I wondered why the other kids had such common and plain middle names. Being “cut down” to the reality of Kathryn Elaine was a real bummer.

Surnames though, can be a whole different matter.  My Balkan grandparents brought their old country name along when they crossed the pond.  Those who I refer to as the Urbanski clan, are actually owners of an unspeakable (literally, no one can pronounce it) name which when translated from Slovene to English means “putrid smell.” With hopes that this was just another example of the family sense of humor, I quietly wondered if this wasn’t a joke.  I had visions of my “huddled masses” Granddad standing before the man at Ellis Island and when asked for his name…making a smart- assed remark back at him in Slovene~ only to be countered in hilarity by the immigrations agent who made it official.  No such luck.  The international white pages online lists a handful of families both here in the US and back in the Balkans living with the exact same surname…spelling and all.  No denying it.  Sigh (or would a “sniff” be a more accurate expression here?).

Sadly, they buckled to the mounting pressures of anti-German and anti-immigrant sentiments that swept our area around WWI and “Americanized” their name ~ neutralized it actually.  I see myself writing “sadly” but under my breath I am saying “thank God they changed it!” I can’t imagine writing that 5th grade report for school about my heraldry, and revealing to my prepubescent peer group that I was not the glamorous K.E.M.E.G.R.M.G. Johnson, but in fact Miss Kathryn Elaine Pukesmell.

Ask around your family, are there any naming patterns, revisions, or scandalous translations out there?  Maybe take a few minutes and run down one or two nicknames of relatives.  These can be as commonly used as Kassie for Kathryn, or as ornery as a brother who called a sister “Twin Piggies” for an entire lifetime…that’s another story :)

Recipes of the Family

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1223122211 Easter is just around the corner.  Last year was kinda fun, as my sister and I dragged out box after box of old family photos and held a full out scanner fest.  But as the Bunny fires up for egg painting this year, my nerves feel a bit jumpy already.  I will once again be challenged (expected, assumed. pressured) to bake the traditional Slovenian treat for our family…the Potica.  For those of you with no Balkan heritage…it’s “Po-teets-zah.”  For me, it’s a  Panic Attack. Now this is by no means the first time I’ve made the Potica.  It’s been my job now for several years since my Grandma quit baking it.  Apparently this skips a generation, so my aunts and mom just crowned me Princess Potica and before I knew it…I was in charge.So,  I make it for each of the big family celebrations, and then, kind of like Jesus, I take a beating for it.  Let me clarify that ~  I make the complicated yeast and nut delight, and then sit back and listen to everyone else critique it, and wax poetic over the Poticas (the real Poticas) of days gone by.

How I haven’t spent a holiday in jail yet I do not know.

Oh, I get it.  I really do.  I understand why I am the one who is saddled with the honor of carrying on an old country tradition.  I can bake. And I am really good at it.  I had my own coffee house for several years, and baked everything that went out the door.  But the problem with Potica (and in your family it could be aunt Nell’s potato salad) is that there is only one right way, one right recipe, and one right presentation that can be accepted and deigned as perfect.  Unfortunately, no one who went before me actually wrote the damn recipe down for “the real Potica“, exactly as they made it “when it was perfect“.

Let’s revisit that last line:  I want you to experience it as I hear it each time I offer up a Potica.  Say it for yourself aloud

with your nose crinkled up,

as if you are chewing an adult aspirin,

and it is stuck to the back of your tongue and you only have scalding hot coffee available to wash it down with..

now say the words.. like the real Potica, when it was perfect….

Is there a tear in the corner of your eye as if you have just been deeply harmed and dissappointed?  Good.  You’re getting the general tone of voice they use for Potica critiqing.  We can continue now

When my oldest daughter was receiving First Communion, we had a little ceremony a couple of days ahead of time, where each family was to involve their child in baking a loaf of bread and then bring it to church with all their classmates and their families for a special blessing of the loaves.  For Caitlin, I thought it would be cool, and perhaps more special to her if together we made Potica.  Since this was a sort of last minute thing, I went to the internet and trolled for some recipes.  This was the first time I had actually seen the word spelled out.  Luckily, I hit a site where the pronunciation was spelled out phonetically so was close to how I had “searched” for it (this was way before Google).  I looked through until I found a recipe (in English) that sounded about right.  We sifted, kneaded, rolled, filled and baked with delightful anticipation.  The smell in the kitchen was heaven.

Blessing of the loaves day was probably a little traumatizing for Cait.  Many of my Mom friends had chumped-out (having never baked bread before) and had purchased the frozen, thaw and bake stuff.  Their loaves were glorious mounds of buttery gold crusts. The Pillsbury Doughboy bakes up like a champ every time.   Our Potica (and yes we made 2 just to have a shot at choosing the best looking one to show off at church) looked like hemorrhaging cinnamon raisin bagels glopped together.  Not stellar.

After that “experience” I started checking around within the family for a good recipe.  Oddly, no one ever seemed to be able to put their hands on one.  That was probably 20 years ago.  Eventually,having learned my lesson, I gave up asking. Clearly, some family things are strictly on a “need to know basis.” As the older women in my family line all began passing on to their reward, the Potica making pool got smaller and smaller.  When Grandma Jean announced that she would be taking up residence in a rest home, suddenly, the baking baton was passed on to me.  Sans the recipe of course!https://mail-attachment.googleusercontent.com/attachment/u/0/?ui=2&ik=c938b848b0&view=att&th=13d4b54c1cdf29ca&attid=0.1&disp=inline&realattid=1428966306534653952-1&safe=1&zw&saduie=AG9B_P97KCkApex4osVHcNqmwSUW&sadet=1362768577902&sads=CSugN6PAQNmqCrhJScUqOdomaAA&sadssc=1

 

Luckily, my friend Karen gifted me with this well worn and dearly loved cookbook that had belonged to her Aunt Udi.  Udi had been the Potica maker for her family.  Karen naturally had no idea which of the more than 2 dozen recipes for the bread was Udi’s favorite, so I have been baking my way thru the book holiday after holiday.  With of course, all the feed back I can stand.

I’ll be on version #18 soon, wish me luck

Cures for Headlice and Other Maladies

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           PD_0056

           Ew yuck~ There I said it~ Lice !

Recently my husband came home and confessed that he had let a coworker in on my secret removal method.  I was stunned!

I couldn’t believe that:

1. he had admitted that it had ever happened in our house… and

2. that he really remembered something I’d done about 20 years ago.

I have a huge abiding love of old books.  I am especially drawn to Etiquette and “Women’s issues” titles.  I believe the oldest in my collection is from the 1830s, which isn’t ” but a wee youngster” compared to lots of my Euro-reader’s own family bookshelves…but when you consider that most of them were received as gifts or rooted out at tag sales…I’m living pretty large antiquarian- biblio-wise.

One of my absolute favorites is called

  The Science of Women 

Mulierology 

for the Maiden, Wife, and Mother

Mom Note:  This was,  as far as I can tell, a compilation put out by AB Gehman in 1888.  A man by the name of Thomas William Herringshaw claims to be the founder of this “Science of Women” that he named Mulierology, but as far as I have been able to discover, it is pretty much a made-up word, and there’s a little controversy over who it really is attributable to.

Modern in it’s time, Mulierology  gave advice to females in any condition, age or marital state.  A lengthy chapter describes the birthing of babies and the wise use of a heavy packing of goose grease to the traumatized tissues both on the interior and outer surfaces of the mother after birth.  Ew.  No wonder women died so frequently of  postpartum infections.  What genius conjured up goose grease as a “healing salve” for peritoneal tearing?  TW Herringshaw do you really want to take credit for that one?

There’s also a pretty hilarious discussion of birth control at the end of the volume.  I am especially fond of the description of the withdrawal method.  It is described as a leisurely paddle down the river, and then a gentle drifting and going only along as the surface takes the canoe, gently ebbing on its way in its own time.  The book goes on to caution though ~  This method is easily spoiled by turbulent thrusts and raging action against the current until one goes over the falls.  Mom is paraphrasing, I start laughing so hard everytime I read this, my eyes tear up and I can’t see well enough for an exact quote.

Not even kidding.

The “itches” as head lice (or probably any other creepy crawler living where it should not be) acording to Mulierology is to be relieved by frequent and hot suds baths followed by application of a sulfur paste to any immediately affected area.  All bedding, clothing and head wear must also be taken into clear air and sunlight, swept vigorously and then all brushes and combs treated with a sulfur powder.  This can also be mixed with water and taken internally in extreme cases

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Nice to know

Fortunately (?) for my kids, I had no patience to sit around grinding up match tips to glean sulfur (I don’t know of a good 1800′s apothecary here in the Midwest).  So after weeks and weeks of waging war on these nuclear-bomb resistant pests, I devised my own method inspired by stories (tales of horror actually about dirty buggy families of my childhood).  No, I didn’t douse the kids in kerosine or gas.  But I sort of thought along those lines. Using a big box fan to blow the fumes away from their little faces and with towels held in place to protect their eyes, unloaded a whole bottle of hand sanitizer on each one’s itchy head.  I slapped a shower cap over each little noggin, waited a good half hour and then combed out the dead critters and their grossly engorged triple-sized swollen egg nits right out of all those blonde curls.  Honestly, do not try this at home.  I don’t think the kids remember the itching, but they sure remember the stinky fan treatment to “get the mice outta their heads.”

Like I said, that was years ago.  I figured the statute of limitations had run out on that Mommy Dearest moment.  Then home comes Daddy, feeling quite proud of himself for sharing the true and absolute “Mom Method for Removing Mice from Heads”  I think I’ll write a book and call it “DeMicerology : the Science of a Mom who Snapped after Weeks of Ineffective Lice Treatments”

I’m sure my kids are huddled together right now whispering…Maybe someone should write that down…

Uncle Joe

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   untitled-holytrinity According to Parish records from Holy Trinity Church, John and Mary Urbanski had 10 children.  Of  10, only 2 girls and 2 boys survived to adulthood. Francis, Joe, Annie and Mitz were born , christened,communed, confessed and confirmed as Urbanskis.  Suddenly, around 1915, they all became “Casters” an Americanized name, and a generic term describing John’s occupation at the time.    The ugliness of anti-German sentiment had overtaken people’s everyday lives and had crept  along the National Road  and deep into Indianapolis.  Suddenly, old street names like Germania were changed from German words and towns-names to  more “appropriately” American ones like Belmont Avenue.   Coinciding with the German hysteria, the KKK was recording its biggest membership surge since the days of the old South.  Thus being Catholic, being immigrants, sounding German (colloquially called Hunkies ) while speaking their Slovene native tongue all became rather lowly and dangerous.   Our  family was among many who changed their surname to blend in.  In those early years of the 20th century, being different or being “less” was both a social hindrance and potentially treacherous.

Mom note: somethings just never change…

Neighborhood assimilation centers were set up to help all children and adults learn to be more American and to turn their backs on the lives they had left behind in “the Old Country”. The Ku Klux Klan was deeply entrenched in the small counties ringing the big city of Indianapolis, and there was a simmering contempt for anyone or anything that may have been in allegiance with the Kaiser.

John and Mary were raising their children in between the country folk to the west, and the eastward cultured city dwellers just across the White River bridge. Considered West Indianapolis at one time, their small neighborhood was now called Haughville named after the metals manufacturers plant located there by Haugh Brothers in the 1880′s.    Soon Haugh’s foundry was joined by the modern refrigerated packing business Kingans and the immigrant workers flooded in to take the jobs and simple frame housing.  They had been recruited and imported from their bergs and villages in places like Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia. That’s how the Urbanskis had come to Indianapolis and that’s how they earned their daily wage too.

 Grandmother Mary saved every penny she could spare to buy up boarding houses.  For years  the parlor floor in the family’s own house was  “bedded up” for newly arrived workers who needed temporary lodging.  They had taken the long transatlantic ocean liner trip, paid in full by “the Company”,  made a connection by train and found themselves in Haughville on John and Mary’s floor…working in the mill, or the packing house, renting a space on the floor to sleep on, and in turn,  saving every penny they didn’t drink to bring their families over too.

Joe wasn’t the oldest of the children, but he was probably the tallest at about 6′. He was athletic and tough,a simple and hard-working man who chain smoked and stirred cream and sugar into his coffee in ritualistic trance-like manner. He played bush league baseball and was the big hitter on Holy Trinity’s men’s team. When he was 18, Joe was drafted into the army. When his hitch was up he joined again to serve in the place of his brother who was about be wed. I often wonder if he didn’t rejoin just for something bigger to do than spend his life running gutted pig carcasses from the slaughter hooks into the cold lockers at Kingans. After all, being big and strong, that’s likely where he would be headed for life.

Note: he is the tallest in the center of the back row in the photo. 

I’ve heard a tale or two of Joe in his younger rougher days.  Especially one about him and some buddies getting into a fist fight with some men from “somewhere else” passing by the corner tavern. All was regular Saturday night fun, when one of the outsiders added a 2×4 into the fray and started swinging. In Haughville it was considered “off-limits” to use weapons in a fist fight…a real sign of ungentlemanly behavior.   By the time the cops arrived, the crowd had disbursed and a half-dozen guys were laid out neatly along the gutter.  Bloody and semi-conscience the “strangers” were helped to their feet and sent on their way back toward the bridge.  To the frustration of the officers,  the tavern was filled with only law-abiding citizens enjoying an evening out. As a matter of fact, they were all having such a lovely time singing and carrying on, none had even noticed a ruckus outside on the steps.  The interlopers never bothered to visit Haughville again… with or without their 2x4s .

 Joe discharged from the army after a couple of tours.  He had spent most of his time driving big supply trucks across the swampy roads of the Philippine islands.  Sometimes, at Grandpa’s he would start stirring his coffee and speaking about the giant black snakes… hundreds of them that would be all over the lonely roads at night when he was driving convoy.  He talked of how they must have needed the heat left in the road to warm their cold blood at night. Sometimes he described the thumping sounds of them hitting the bottom of the big trucks.  ” The sound never let up some nights, like all the snakes in the world were there in the Philippines.” I hung on every one of Joe’s words, and had the nightmares to prove it!

Headed home, Joe had saved up some money and following the wisdom of his  mother began buying rental properties.  He had small homes and duplexes and eventually bought a couple of small neighborhood apartment houses built-in the old style of shops below and rooms above.  One of the buildings was home to the laundry and dry cleaning store his sister Mitz ran.  Being in a good location (between the businessman’s downtown and the upscale homes of the Indianapolis old North Side) Mitz’s shop cleaned and starched clothing for local celebs and politicians.  After actress Frances Farmer was “treated” for her nervous breakdown (famously via a frontal lobotomy) she came to Indianapolis and hosted a television program on one of the local stations.  Aunt Mitz did the movie star’s alterations and cleaned her delicates for years from her shop in Uncle Joe’s building.  I’ve never been clear on whether it was Mitz or Joe who owned the business.  I would speculate that it was there when he bought the building and he let Mitz run it as a way to support herself.  I couldn’t even say whether or not she paid a dime in rent.  Uncle Joe rarely talked about such things

Joe kept all the rentals as his investments.  All of John and Mary’s kids were desperately frightened of being poor.  Saving money and saving stuff (anything that could some day be useful to someone in the family) was always top priority for them. But he also worked for the Indiana University Medical School as a night watchman until he retired.  A family joke (or maybe it was truer than others wanted to admit) went that Joe guarded the cadaver room for 30 years and didn’t have a clue what was in there.

I mostly remember him as generally very quiet and reclusive.  We saw him at Grandpa’s occasionally on weekends before he went in for a night shift.  He would pull into the drive in his massive dirty ivory Plymouth Fury. His car windows were legendarily coated in an amberish vaseline-thick goo from years of collected cigarette smoke.   If I saw him coming, I would run to the kitchen drawer where Grandpa kept Joe’s ashtray (it was like a beanbag on the bottom) and scurry to get a spoon out for his stirring.  I delighted in watching him swirl the pale sugary coffee and cream soup he made in his cup.  I listened to the funny old world way that he spoke (he held the accent and manner of speech of the old country that my Grandpa had worked so hard to erase from his own speech) and watched him punctuate sentences with his hands.  Uncle Joe also had the largest nose I had ever seen on a person.  It was just like Jimmy Durante…but since Jimmy was on tv and in movies he really didn’t count as a real person.  Uncle Joe had a real-live Schnazola that was mercifully never passed on to the next generation.

When he died years ago, it was as a “confirmed” bachelor.  He is buried at the Catholic Cemetery,but I do  not recall a mass for his funeral. After his retirement from the night watchman’s job, he really had little to do and fell into the staid habits of a reclusive old man.  He must have had a heart attack and died without much suffering.  He was found after lying dead alone in his home days later. Only his German Shepard dog was with him.

I think of him whenever I stir my coffee :)

Photo at top of page from the Holy Trinity Parish Diamond Jubilee celebration book:

Slaves To No One, written by James J. Divita

Duck and Cover !

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 PD_0033 ...or Why I use “As Told By” pages in my family histories

The other day on Facebook, I found myself in the middle of a simmering fight that seemed to be headed toward a full-out embroilment.  It involved my sister, an aunt, her dead father, and his long-dead immigrant parents – the “Urbanskis.”  I clicked “exit” and went grocery shopping.

  Days later when queried about my sudden disappearance from the on-screen skirmish, I feigned a “virus” that shut down my computer.  Thank goodness for cyber illnesses!

I don’t know if it is a common thing to have so many mule headed people in one family, or if we are just gatekeepers of the stubbornness gene.  But over the years, one writer’s trick in my bag has saved me many times over ~ “As Told By” pages.

It’s my theory that our memories are odd fuzzy filters steeped with emotions and previous experiences.  Our individual point of view is dependent on the “back story” written within our own heads.  This is shaded heavily by how our own experience in similar or imagined situations has panned out within roughly equal settings and/or participants.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as an unquestioning acceptance like~ “That’s what Dad said.  It is true and reliable.”

Some of the touchy subjects I run into as a researcher can easily cause an old wound to open or a fresh feud to start.  Rather than take an obvious side (the factual one) I try to draw a neutral line in the sand.  Using the “As Told By” heading honors the vantage point and belief of all who care to chime in, but still keeps the pot at a simmer instead of boiling over.

I do have to be clear here~  I believe that ALL sides are the truth.  I know that sounds nuts.  But I believe everyone because everyone’s individual story is factual in that it IS a part of how SOME of the family members believe that it happened.  Yep, we are the keepers of the crazy gene too.

Let me put it another way

These stories are all true in the sense that they are and were believable.  They are factual from each “Teller’s” point of view.  I report them as told by so that one version isn’t lost to the shadows by the others.  It’s easy to let others draw their own conclusions. I also think this lack of “side by side comparison” is how family secrets get blown out of proportion, or lost forever.  I guess I can understand a little bending of the facts.  While searching out Uncle Tony’s tenure in the French Foreign Legion…I found he actually spent those 6 years in Sing Sing for embezzlement…whoops! So, rather graciously I allowed Aunt Bertie  her “As Told By” and I had mine when she no-longer needed to hold on to a “variation of the records.”

My own beloved Gramcracker spoke of cousin Barabara’s nuptials as a “Shot Gun Wedding.”  Gram raged on about this for several years until time took her memory and she forgot to be mad at Barb anymore.   It was always her insistance that “No One Has Ever Shamed This Family~ Ever ~ until Barb!” that she took to the grave with her.  It seemed really important to her that she had descended from an unbroken chain of  poor but purely chaste women.

I elected to sew my own lips tight, and to seal up the file on Gramcracker’s own Grandmother who had miraculously birthed an 8# baby only five weeks after she and Grandfather married upon their arrival here in the US.

And Barb? Of course she had a dog in this fight too.  In her “As Told By” she tells the story of her wedding in a very different light.  She did wear white (because she didn’t want to upset Gramcracker …epic failure there) and went down the isle looking a bit more voluptuous than her tiny frame usually was.  But she also told the story of young love and a beau who was about to “ship out” during the Vietnam War years.

As for the Facebook fight?  Well, that was a new one on me.  I’ll have to look into it.  In the meantime

maybe someone should write that down…     :)

Sis Hits The Jackpot!

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wpid-1217121515.jpgIf I were to face facts, I would admit that my little sister kicks my researching rear-end.  Daily.  On a regular basis.  Any day of the week.  Hands down, always.

Just before Christmas, Sharon hit the Jackpot.  She unearthed (pried from the clenched and unrelenting fists of) the tower of family history crowned jewels from another relative.  This was one of those “oh sure, I’ll keep that old crap and get to it someday” sort of piles.  A burden to some, but to a Family History Hound…food for the soul, ambrosia…heaven on earth.

Sharon has been busy over vacation “Gedcom loading” and sifting like a good genealogist.  I ran thru it like a cat in a litter box.  I wanted first dibs on all the photos and newspaper clippings.  Why would anyone care about the famous “Fat Twins” who appeared many times on Hee Haw (a silly television show where country folk whooped it up and poked fun at themselves), I am not sure, but there was a clipping in box#3.  Who was Mildred Ecke ?  She died November 15th, 1934 and apparently was someone who Grandpa cared enough about to save her obit.

For my sister the good genealogist, information is what was swaddled in those boxes.  For me, it was more like a mountain of questions and riddles.

Titillating.

What an incredible gift at year’s end.  We each got what we wanted.  In 5 very untidy boxes and one (yes, I am serious) picnic basket, all the sorrow, glory, tattling, whispers, and funkiness needed to keep us both busy for months, maybe years.

Hats off to Sharon, she loaded this all into her little bitty Dodge, by herself, and sped off to the “cave.”  That’s what she calls her office / family history library.  I get to dig thru it and share the thrill of the expedition vicariously as I listen to her tell the tale of her “score.”

It’s in gentle and capable hands now.  And she is a good “sharer” so it will be available and sorted soon.  My sister has already put a lot of thought into which local history society will be receiving the original documents once she has processed it all tidily.

Interesting…It would have never occurred to me to share with strangers.

Hmmm. 

So I would love to know, how do you feel about sharing your “own” discoveries, clippings, papers, documented photos and the like with an organized (and funded) Society?  Have you done this?  Considered it?

I have to admit that once again, my sister the researcher has taught me a lesson.  Dang it!  I think she just kicked my B-Hind again!

Happy New Year!

Mom

 

Heraldry and We the People

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   1219121525aI’m not sure, but I believe it was PT Barnum who said “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

What I am sure of is that I am one of those suckers.

  The other day I was clearing out a drawer and ran across a family crest certificate that my husband and I had purchased many years ago.  Can you hear the Merry-go-Round music yet?  It came from a very “proper” looking shop.  I believe that it was even spelled “shoppe” ~ a spelling meant  to further endorse the authenticity of fake stuff.  But we were young and silly and newly married.  So we scraped together the $35.00 ( a pretty Royal sum for us 30+ years ago) and bought a “fully researched and authenticated, heirloom quality” piece of paper with our last name slightly misspelled on it.

Wow.  How cool is That ?

What I have learned since ( ironically for free via library books) is that we were totally duped.  A crest is only “good” for the original “owner.”  A father may have a certain design, but it does not pass down verbatim to his children.  When important families married, as was generally the plan, their crests were merged to create a new one for the identity of the newlyweds.  Maybe there was an Earl of Momenhousen who bore the crest in my drawer a bazillion years ago.  However we, the current-day Momenhousen family, have no claim to it.

  Heck at this point, I don’t even know what happened to the receipt !   I do have an excuse though…I am an American.  Almost all of us are about one inch away from obsession with “the Old Country.”  Additionally, we are also generally convinced  there is a Duke, a Baron or at least a Bergermeister in our family pedigree somewhere.  Therefore, it stands to reason that we (meaning the immediate “us”) must have claim to a heraldic shield, a family crest, or something that verifies we are from a stock above serfdom.  Thanks Mr Barnum, you have given a name to this madness~

Sucker.

The real truth is that Heraldic Design is pretty much about Art.  If you are Canadian, you may claim a crest for your lineage if you wish to go through a long and arduous process. For better or for worse,if you are looking for something cool to put up on the wall, its time to do some doodling.  Although I did some intensive research on the topic and found a few favorite books that I think are very good for being technically correct, I just recommend the use of an artsy relative.  Simply by Googling “Heraldry” or” Heraldic Design”, or” Colors in Heraldry” you can save yourself some time and money. If you are looking for good books on the subject (and you can persevere for a few months to get through one) I would recommend one of these three.  And please note, the third one is not an opening chapter, it is the title of the book:

1.  A Guide to Heraldry by Ottfried Neubecker

2.  Concise Encyclopedia  of Heraldry by Guy Cadogan Rothery

3.  The Manuel of Heraldry a Concise Description of the Several Terms Used and Containing a Dictionary of Every Designation in the Science with 350 Illustrations  by Sir Francis James Grant

If these all sound too scary, have a sit down with your clan and start brainstorming what it means to be a “Dipfenhoffper” or “Smith.”  Think up some words,symbols, and colors to use to represent You.  Maybe then craft a family logo~for your ” house”.  Remember, siblings should be allowed to represent the same ancestry with their own selection of colors, symbolism and mottoes.  Consider using a string of words that spell out your last name as a motto like the poems kids are so fond of writing out of their names .

Example (bad one, really bad one):

Bravery In The Hood Masked At Night (Bithman)

In my post titled “Managing the Help(ers)” I talked a little bit about dividing this task up among different factions of the family.  It’s a great way to get everyone started with helping without driving you nuts.  And, as a bonus, if you can get everyone to create their own crest, then the cover design for their copy of the finished project will already be done.

Wow, how cool is that?

Honest Abe and Too Many Jimmys

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PD_0153Today’s date is 12-12-12.  If we weren’t all being consumed with Christmas Shopping and the looming end of the Mayan Calendar, we would probably be a bit more frothed up about this.  It’s a heck of a day for marriages (as I hear the Las Vegas quicky chapels are doing big business today).  Apparently lots of C-section babies are scheduled for today too.  I’m kind of excited because it’s my real Birthday. However, that also means that my driver’s license expires in a few hours.  Whoops!

Which brings me to my point.  Last month during our write-a-thon, the theme for November 10th was family “Legends.”  I was also reminded that this year commemorates 100 years since the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic.  So, have you looked into any of those “legends” in your family story stash?

In my own family, Uncle Jim was a Lincoln Lawyer.  Meaning, that he had learned “lawyering” as an apprentice.  Not from a formal education.  Also, it was cool because Uncle Jim was reported to have been in  practice , and perhaps though not a partner, a contemporary of Honest Abe.  He was not assassinated like the President, so Jim was able to practice well into his 80s.  He used to scare the B-Jeebers out of any boy brave enough to go to Sunday dinner with my family.  Invariably, Uncle Jim would get the kid cornered, furrow up his profuse wiry white brows and query : “Young man, what sorts of plans have you laid out for your life?”  With his courtroom voice and icy stare, I don’t think a shotgun would have made him any scarier !  Jim retired just shy of 90 and died a few years ago barely missing his 100th birthday.

So, in circling back, yes it is my birthday today.  I won’t say how old I am, but I will admit to flirting with 50.  I thought that Uncle Jim’s story was fascinating all of my life.  Until one day, as I happened to do a bit of math.

Jimmy was sharp as a tack and still practicing law when he met and interrogated my husband in 1980.

Hmmm. 

I called my Mom.  “Are you sure Uncle Jim knew Abe Lincoln?”  She assured me that it was true, and that she knew that having been told by “everyone” in her family.  In fact, “everyone” knew this about Uncle Jim.

Hmmm. 

So, in 1980 while he was questioning my eventually- to- be husband, he was 80-something.  Abe had been dead for more than a hundred years.  But, “everyone”  knew that Uncle Jim had been practicing forever.  I remember my head swimming with cyphers.  I gave up trying to understand and just laid his file off to the side.  Of course I had to be wrong.  “Everyone” knew the Lincoln link.  And please note that this all happened long before anyone considered that Abe Lincoln was a Vampire Slayer.

One evening while helping my son with his Social Studies homework, my curiosity was peaked once more.  There in the Civil War Chapter I saw the date of birth, date of death and other stats of ol’ Abe.  The next day I dug up Uncle Jim’s folder and took another run at the conundrum.

Turns out that my Great Uncle Jim was named after his Great Uncle Jim, who was an attorney, who did clerk his way into law, and was a cohort of Abe in that they were born 2 states apart in roughly the same year :)

I’m not saying it was a popular ending to the story, but at least now “everyone” knows which Jimmy they’re talking about.

 

Not Playing with a Full Deck

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imageThis is by far one of my favorite tricks to get organized. 

Inspired by the hall trays in Victorian homes for calling cards, I came up with Character Cards.  Whenever I “add” a new relative to a family branch, I make up my own little version of a collectible edition trading card.  I call them my Character Cards.

Each family has their own ever-expanding “Deck.”  The Decks only get larger, because unlike real live families, no one gets discarded (buried).  In most cases, I have figuratively dug them up :).

I have a specific list of info that I want to chase for each Character.  These are the same old things one puts on an ancestry chart : dates and places of major life events, occupations, spouses, a parentage note etc.  I also include on my hunting and collecting list an “image.”  I really like having pictures.  So, in some cases where none is (yet) available, I will opt for some other image to represent the person and their statistics.  It can be anything I can connect to the real person.  For one uncle I have a scan of a lock of hair found wrapped in tissue paper marked “Tommy’s first hair cut.”  Eventually, I hope to find a photo, but until then he is represented as a little yellow curl.

I do not put original items on my cards.  I only use scanned images and I simply tape them on with cellophane tape.  I can pop a whole collection into my purse and head off to the cemetery, history center, or out to do drive- by house photos.

My family has a big laugh with this…they have always insisted that I don’t quite play with a full deck, and now, well…they have it in writing :)

November 30th or In the Beginning

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So I know this seems to be an odd day to ask this but…Why?

What got you started on this crazy train ? What or who inspired you to take up this cause and perhaps give your ancestors a little brush of the immortal ? We all know it isn’t easy, it is often quite thankless and frustrating. So why on earth do we kooky family history hounds chase the ever-dangling carrot?
I only need to look at this photo to know. It is my Grandmother with my Dad on her lap. Two pieces of the” oldest child of the oldest child” puzzle that have molded a big part of my life. I think she is timeless and beautiful. I remember her warmth and the tenacity that she loved us all with. I want my granddaughter (the oldest child of My oldest child) to know her as well. Today, my send off surprise for you is the beginning of my own family history journey. I want you to really truly begin writing Your story today.PD_0063


  I hope that by reading my “opening chapter” you will be inspired and driven to merrily come along. Thank you for writing November with me…now on to the task!

The Farmer Family Tree a Written Account

I’m a believer.  I believe in God, Country, Ghosts, and Fairy Tales.  And because of this, I also believe in the Never Ending Story of who we are, and who we will be in the years beyond.

I have also come to believe that most of the moments in our lives go floating by unnoticed and without consideration.  Although no one could take an entire lifetime of thoughts and experiences and write them out or otherwise record them, in the following pages, I have attempted to preserve the “essence” of our beloved George and Margaret Farmer.

Writing this account of their lives and those around them wasn’t something I originally set out to do.  I had heard tales for years of a written family history that Grandma Kate had been keeping for all of us.  Before her passing, I nor any of my cousins had laid eyes on this dear Historian’s work.  When she quietly passed away at age 94,  Indiana was staring down the barrels of a looming ice storm.  The skies were deep sullen gray and the forecast was ugly when the phone calls went out to all that Grandma had gone to her rest.

With the weather forecast getting more negative by the hour, we all gathered for Grandma’s wake at the local funeral parlor.  Grandma was one of those dutiful women who always attended funerals of those who she knew.  If the measure of one’s life was the number of attendees for one’s wake, my Grandma had clearly paid her dues.  For most of the afternoon and evening the line of persons waiting to pay their last respects was “out- the -door” long.  Mercifully the bad weather held respected Grandma’s mourners and held off until the line finally eased.

A side room off of the main hall was reserved for close family in attendance to rest for a few minutes and maybe have a cup of coffee or a danish.  After a few hours, I found myself seated near the table with several aunts and cousins (half of my genes are from  a very big and very old farm family).  Seating on folding chairs under fluorescent kitchen lights the subject turned to Grandma’s “job” as the family historian.  Some wondered aloud exactly what sorts of things she had kept track of all these years.  I, among others, had heard we were “royal” way back when.

“I wonder whatever happened to all of that stuff ?” queried one cousin.  Aunt Leslie licked the pastry filling off of her end finger and offered:

Oh I have that whole box.  Your Grandma gave it to me to keep for you kids when she moved into the nursing home.  If you all are interested, I can dig it out and make copies for whoever would want them.

Of course we all nodded, yes, yes we would love to have a copy of what Grandma had written. And then, as I recall, the conversation turned back to the horrible weather we were threatened by, our aching feet and who would be hosting Easter dinner in the spring.

**********

Driving home with my husband and kids that night, we were all exhausted.  A wake for someone like Grandma Farmer was an extra long event.  We seemed to be related to all of Boone, and Hendricks Counties.  Half of Marion and Morgan Counties were there as well.  When we were nearly home the sleet began falling on the windshield.  I didn’t notice so much.  My husband is a seasoned snow and ice driver so I felt safe as we crawled along the interstate.  Besides, I was too busy dreaming of the History book I would soon get to see.  I imagined myself being delivered a dusty tome.  It would be leather bound, over-sized, with hints of gilt work tooled into it and still visible.  I would sit down in my (imaginary) winged back chair beside the roaring fireplace (also a figment) and gently pull back it’s weighty cover.  A beam of glowing light would spring from within the pages and welcome me like a hug from across time.  It would be a transforming moment.  I would be in the presence of my Ancestors!

They would whisper to me which castle to go rightfully claim as mine!

********

I will cut to the chase for you here…several weeks later a large manilla envelope arrived half mauled by the postal service.  I had nearly forgotten it was promised that evening.  As promised, inside was the life’s work of Grandma the family history keeper.  But it was not bound, gilded or illuminated.  In fact the history was a smallish mess of papers, typed on onion skin paper, with carbon sheets between.  It had been started about 50 years before and at some point the original had been photo copied onto thermal (the old style office printers with the roll paper and ink drums) paper, and then again onto standard paper stock by Aunt Leslie.  The pages were in various states of quality, some had thermal marks from paper clips, or smears from being handled too much.  There were handwritten notes and about kids born and added in and spouses marked through and replaced in margins galore.

It was a wreck.

And all it was beyond a wreck was a listing of names, dates and little else.  I had to know more, and once I started researching and finding more…everyone kept looking at me and saying

Maybe someone should write that down….

Familial Oddities

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Hat Club

waiting for the mothership

Every family’s “quirks” and traditions have to come from somewhere.  Around the dawn of the 20th century, our Victorian relatives were into some weird stuff.  Germans really enjoyed their mysticism, mediums and seances.  Some folks dabbled in phrenology, eugenics, and even handwriting analysis.  Granted, the handwriting thing has come to be accepted as a pseudo science, but some of the other stuff?  Whew!

Think about the Victorian fervor for the “language” of flowers.  Then take a look at some old family wedding pictures.  Do you find anything that went rather “unsaid?”  Was  Grandmama hiding any hints or scraps of wisdom in her bouquet?  What did the lapel posy say about the groom?  Coincidence?

In daily living and in researching with my family, I’ve found a few skeletons lying outside the closet door.  Take for instance the skeleton that resided~ coffin and all~ in my second cousins’ front room for years.  Somehow this branch of the family had “inherited” this unusual parlor piece when an aunt died.  It seemed ol’ Aunt Luly was a high mistress / exalted poo-bah of some “unusual” lodge or another.  So, she was the trusted keeper of the the “box.”  I’m not sure who it was, or what the real scoop was…but I saw it.  Often.  And no one who lived there  in the house with it seemed to be creeped -out.  I assume that “Becky” as I will call her/ him / it, was eventually interred or placed with another family once the new cult leader...chairwoman was installed.  For all I know it was plastic, but never the less it was creepy.  They’re all gone now, otherwise, I’d ask.

You may want to bring this up in casual conversation and see where it leads with your family.

Chances are pretty good that you’ll hear tales of at-home wakes and such. They were pretty common in some areas through the second world war era.  My Mom’s family held this tradition in the rural community where she was raised well into the mid 1940s.  In one of my favorite movies ever, my beloved Gone With the Wind, Mrs O’Hara is laid out on the dining room table.  In a more contemporary vignette, the opening scenes of Sunset Boulevard feature Norma Desmond’s beloved pet chimp awaiting the undertaker in her posh Hollywood bedroom.  I’ll admit that it didn’t seem as weird in the Civil War setting.

My Balkan relatives had a gruesome insistence on a photo with the dead family members.  When a loved one passed, their casket would be propped up on the church steps as the poll bearers held the departed in place.  A formal portrait would then be taken with all the close and extended family, and various Club and Union delegates posed carefully around the deceased.  To this day, I know some older folks still want one last photo of their brother, spouse, whoever in their final rest.  Now-a-days though, this is usually arranged in private before other family and friends are let into the room for visitation.

Funerals and death aren’t the only time our ancestors got freaky, but usually these are the traditions that sort of stand out.  If you are ever going thru an attic or antique shop and run across a portrait of a sleeping baby…you guessed it…the baby is dead.  Another one you will see occasionally is a picture of a willow tree with a lock of hair in the frame with the picture, same thing.  A big family gathering photo with a funny looking blob on the wall in the back ground is probably a shrouded mirror, and you guessed again, a funeral gathering.  Sometimes the photo is taken outdoors and if you peek behind a head or two you’ll spot a black crepe wreath on the front door.  This is a signal to passers by that the family is in mourning, so it would be rather respectable to slow the horses and remove one’s hat.

But like I said, it’s not always death that brings out an unusual tradition.  My Grandpa Farmer was a tea-totaling Methodist who had a disdainful and queasy feeling around Catholics and their “idolatry.”  But he made a pretty tidy income on the side “witching” half the wells in Boone county for a fee.  Grandpa would cut a switch (thin flexible little branch) off of a weeping willow tree.  He always selected one with a sturdy “Y” shape for divining wells.  The plain switches were for swatting the be-hinds of unruly grandchildren.  George the Methodist would then hold the top Y ends in his hands lightly in front of him and walk about on the property of the neighbor he was witching for.  When he found the underground well spring, the switch would twitch and that’s where they were instructed to start digging.  In 1965 when my parents built their new house, Grandpa came over and witched the well.  We never went without water.

Tea on the Porch Swing

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Yesterday while out-of-town on a kid errand (our youngest plays a travel sport) we found ourselves near a sort of long-lost relative.  The soccer team was celebrating with a pool party at the hotel, so my husband and I ventured out for a happen-stance visit.
I think my generation, baby boomers, is the last to practice and embrace this tradition.  When we say to each other ” hey, don’t be a stranger!” We actually are extending an open invitation.  Its something I really miss in our daily modern life and family.  We were in the neighborhood ( only a 45 minute drive from the hotel) so we did “drop-in”

 Unannounced, as that is the custom of my fellow “Boomers.”

After some winding around and false recognition (we had probably been lost that way before) we pulled up to the house of uncle Charlie.

Our plan had been to say a quick hello, or to stay for an hour if we weren’t interrupting something.  But the 6 years since we had last visited melted away in seconds and we sat on their beautiful long front porch scanning the crop laden horizon for hours.  While big city newspapers boast of all the news that’s fit to print, we sat in the shade swinging back and forth with cold tea and long-winded updates and re-visitations of all sorts of matters.

This is what I miss and want to hand down to my grandchildren. Unfortunately, it is lost and likely will be gone forever.   This seamless feeling of acceptance, of connectedness and of belonging to a family. I know it can’t always be like this.  It’s just a fact of life that some of us will never get along and “play nice” with all of our relatives.  In truth, if we had not been “in the neighborhood” we probably wouldn’t have made the effort.  But on that porch, on that hot afternoon, with those lovely people who look like my husband, and whom my children half resemble, that was bliss.

Managing the “Help”

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Once the stories start flowing and your paper ghosts are wriggling with life, you may find yourself with a lot of volunteers. Now is the time to be extra creative. Use all the help that is offered ! Rather than seeing enthusiastic volunteers as “Johnny-Come-Lately-Bandwagon-Jumpers,” consider how their eagerness to help could add to the richness of the ultimate end product.  Collaborating this way will make your work an “of the people, by the people” sort of outcome for your family tree.

Think about a special talent aunt Susan can contribute. She might well be the biggest gossip in 3 counties…so use that!  You can always debunk / confirm later.  But for now, pull up a chair, turn her on and let her rip!  Don’t stop with the volunteers who step forward !   Everyone knows there is an unwritten code of honor among thieves, however that code pales to the closed -community of cooks who hold the family recipes!  When buttered up and coddled. cooks may be moved to show heart and dig out family recipes to share.   They could also be put on the task of beating secret recipes out of others within the inner circle of the kitchen.  Artsy types could be put to work designing a cover for the finished product, or Illuminating  pages.  The scholarly would enjoy collaborating  with each branch to create a representative family crest (see  a later posting for info on this). The hoarders (God bless us everyone!) can be assigned to photo finding, or heirloom display.

Get them all working together as a team . Once your dear hoarder has unearthed Grandmama’s wedding china, perhaps there’s a shutter bug just waiting to document those very heirlooms from every angle. Clearly, there’s no reason to pass over your clan”s computer geek!  They could join forces with the children in a google scavenger hunt of mapping and street viewing ancestral homes.   And, if the Saints are smiling upon you, may you find yourself in the fortunate position of being related to one or more retired couples who just love to travel.  If you can engage their enthusiasm and wunderlust they may become the boots on the ground you’ve always wished for to find and photo far away monuments or records.

The more the merrier… really !  However you scheme (or choose to use)  the willing participants,  don’t hesitate when they offer.  Really pull out all stops to let their experience count !  If several family members  become truly vested in this work (with a very specific task assigned) the hype will be bigger and the end result will have broader appeal.

You and I both know that there has to be an invisible lid on this “doling out of jobs” in order for it to work.  Play your hand a bit close.  Be sure to explain that in order for you to be an effective writer and compiler of your collective story, you will need certain things from all of them.  Timelines, confidentiality, steadfastness of the untiring persuer…and all suggestions in written form and sent to your email or mailbox.  You’ve got to be able to focus on the big task and trust that as the adults they are…they will keep noses to the grindstone and complete their mission!  Independent of you.  Ask your mother. .. don’t bug me to death…  tend to your own knittin’… implied but unsaid :)

It’s always a  fine line when families are called to work together.  Delegating  fairly and effectively without being seen as bossy is a dance on the tightrope.  But if you can stand to let them help, you will be rewarded in the end.  After all, families are like…well you know…everybody has one !

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