Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thankful for the People

It's Thanksgiving Day in the United States—a holiday we share in concept, though not necessarily the date, with our neighbors to the north, and, apparently, with pockets of others around the world.

While I'm sure whatever those first settlers in the New World wished to express thanks for differed vastly from what our over-indulged generation now appreciates, this is still a good time to turn our thoughts toward gratefulness.

Perhaps, when we pass that point of possessing everything we need, it is not more stuff that we are grateful for, but those very aspects of life which, in the losing of them, we feel the greatest regret. Perhaps that is why, this Thanksgiving, it is the people for which I am most grateful.

In this past week, I've been remembering some of those people whom I've lost, over the years, and I realize, in review, that for each one of them, I can attribute something for which I owe them thanks.

For my mother-in-law Marilyn, it was for her quiet, steady approach to the practical—those thrifty tips like folding back the rim on paper shopping bags to stand them upright as makeshift garbage receptacles—and her unmovable resolve to be there as support when the unthinkable inevitably occurred and, in the blip of a generation, I had stepped into the place she once had held.

For my sister-in-law Judy, it was her vivacious, unscathe-able approach to life that set her as far apart from my own tendencies as could be possible in two human beings, and yet she showed me that very different people can share the same love, the same devotion and the same determination. She taught me the power of loyalty, that endearing always-gonna-be-there-for-you determination that is stronger than any mismatched likes-versus-dislikes scorecard. She demonstrated the sense of family, no matter what.

My aunt, much like my mother-in-law, was a champion of the slow-and-steady approach to life, blending that thoroughness with an infectious cheerfulness and a nonstop spunk that left exhausted even those one or two generations removed from her. For her example of always reaching out, always being there—especially as a surrogate mother when we, as adult daughters, still felt the sting of loss—her constancy proved a great example. Like her own father, she demonstrated what it took to be one of those people for whom others say, "She never knew a stranger."

It was for my own mother, though, that it has taken the reprieve of time to mellow those thoughts of thankfulness. In retrospect—and, especially as I delve into her own family tree and push back through the generations of her heritage—I realize what a legacy she has left her children. Not in the riches most people seek as an inheritance, but in the tendencies she passed down to us, I owe her my desire to focus on the stories, to keep at the chase until I reach the goal, the ability to read between the lines and gain the wisdom hidden in those quiet inferences from the experiences of others.

There are others, of course, from whom I've learned a great deal and am certainly grateful. Likely, you can think of several in your own life, as well. Whether you've already consumed your own turkey feast, or are just now finishing up your morning's coffee and daily read to head into the kitchen to begin the day's preparations, I hope you will likewise have a moment to reflect on the benefits your family and friends have bestowed upon you. In turn, hopefully, you will be able to share those reflections among those with whom you share this pleasant day, and let that gratitude reap a harvest of its own.

Above: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," by American genre painter, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Closer It Gets,
The Harder It is to Talk About It

From a distance, genealogy seems to be the study of those old, dry details of relatives long forgotten—or never known at all. Thanks to that perception, it comes quite easily to search through what would otherwise be considered macabre details—when and how they died, where they were buried, what they left behind to be catalogued in their will.

As we get closer to the ones we knew, personally, the tone seems to soften—to become almost fragile—as memories are dredged up from their submerged resting places. Perhaps it is frightening to re-open the lid on recollections kept far away because of their potential to hurt.

And yet, it is likely those to whom we owe the most, the ones who invested in our own lives.

Perhaps that is why reawakening those memories can hurt so much.

There are lots of unfinished projects in my files with my mother's name on them. I went out of my way to secure a copy of her journal after her passing years ago, and yet, do I have that transcription project completed? Of course not.

I had wanted—with a treatment much as I have done for others' stories here at A Family Tapestry—to tell my mother's story, but the closeness got in the way. In some ways plain as a housewife's resume, in other ways as enticing as an actress' lifestyle, hers was a different path.

It was always different, no matter what stage of her life. Born on a farm in Iowa, she wasn't the child of farmers, nor a descendant of Iowans. When childhood was supposed to be filled with all the comfort and stability of home and friendships and family, hers was a desperate journey through America's Great Depression—sometimes following, sometimes staying back and awaiting a paycheck from, her determined father, always steadfast to his resolve to support his family, come what may.

From her mother, long after her passing, it was the saved newspaper clippings which told me the details of my mother's decision, after high school graduation, to leave home and seek her fortune as an actress in the great city of New York. Photographs from my mother's own albums witnessed the story unfolding—up until the day, that is, when she chose to tell a certain someone, "I do." With that exchange of vows came the trading in of a glamorous night life in the city for the mundane details of life in suburbia. A home of her own. A family. And, eventually, a new career.

Some people can never stand still. What to others might be the end goal becomes to others merely the dressing room for their next starring role. Back when people didn't do such things, my mother decided to enroll in classes at the local community college. She took philosophy. She took German. She studied French. She majored in English. And moved on: A.A., B.A., M.A. And then, accepted into a doctoral program, when...

Things never stay the same. At least, that is how it seems. The rhythm of daily life—by then, having become the sequence of studies, exams, repeat—was once again upset by an unexpected turn of events. With my father's passing, everything seemingly came to a halt. The studies were discontinued—the hope of inserting the term "temporarily" eventually gave way to the reality of "permanently"—replaced by the prospect of simultaneously selling the house and finding a job.

That old, continual pilgrimage to seek employment from a generation past reared its spectral visage as my mother sought work across the country—from New York to California to Minnesota. And then, finally settled in the place she once knew as home: Columbus, Ohio.

Even a return home didn't guarantee the journey was over. As I look back on it now, it seems my mother lived an entirely new lifetime in that city, fulfilling various roles throughout the more than two decades since her return there. It became like a second home to us, her children—not only through memories of our own childhood in visiting our grandparents, but again with her return, as we brought our own families there to visit.

Somehow, buried in all the details of an ever-changing life full of goals and duties and detours, perhaps I missed something in the narrative. Only in retrospect can we sometimes realize the lessons learned from the blur of events which once rushed past our eyes with disorienting speed. I sit down now at my computer to transcribe a page from her journal, witnessing the thoughts she captured more than twenty years ago, and begin to have thoughts of my own. Not just along the lines of "What did all this mean to her?" or "How did she feel about what she was going through?" but "What does this mean to me?" What can I learn from what she learned?

In burying those memories during the times in which their recollection was too raw, too painful, we sometimes neglect to return and revisit them from a safer distance when the time is right. Perhaps this is an inner voice prompting me to plan on making that return trip. The journal is still there, the transcription task still unfinished. From a distance safe enough to heed the call, it would certainly yield me the advantage of a useful message.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Remembering the Ones
Who Made a Difference

On my last trip to Columbus—a sad journey two years ago to clean the cabinets and desk drawers of my aunt, following her passing that November—I lingered over a box full of photos, debating whether to toss or save.

The box was filled with those tiny school portraits—you know, the thumbnail-sized kind parents pass out each year to everyone in sight—but not one of them was of a person I knew.

Unlike those photographs we often find in our now-gone relatives' collections—the type bearing absolutely no identification of the portrait's subject—almost every one of these pictures included a name.

Just one name, that is: a first name. Usually found beneath the words, "your friend." And a thumbnail-sized thank you letter to someone who was obviously their favorite teacher.

That would be my aunt.

Over the years, my aunt had evidently preserved these mementos of students who now, likely, were adults, themselves—some, possibly, even teachers. It makes me wonder whether, on a cold November day—maybe when she was feeling discouraged, herself—she pulled out this Stash of Students Past to reminisce. And soak in the positive feelings sent her by those who had not yet outgrown that endearing childish habit of thankfulness.

Sara Jacqueline Davis was a homegrown graduate of Columbus' Ohio State University, that gargantuan institution of higher education football-with-a-college-attached. She had chosen to major in home economics, a now-quaint career choice from which she eventually swerved to specialize in library science. That, of course, required yet another degree—in her case, a master's degree—but that was no problem. She was a career teacher with no family of her own to distract from her professional goals.

A social person, my aunt made many friends over the years—not just students, but fellow teachers, people she met on her frequent travels, members of her church, fellow volunteers, neighbors. A special focus of her verve for life was cheering on her beloved "Buckeyes," either in the stands or with a circle of friends at the parties she hosted at her home.

Though her career path eventually morphed from full-time teacher to librarian to part time substitute teacher, she refused to let herself become idle. Up until the injury that eventually took her life at the age of eighty seven, she kept a part time position in a local gift shop, just for "pocket change"—and company.

It was interesting, receiving the guests who stopped by, in the rainy November weather, for visitation before her funeral. They came from all walks of life. Hardly surprising, considering her cheery affect and spunky approach to life. Each came with a story to tell our family—how they came to know her, what they did together. But most importantly, what she meant to their life.

It's funny, thinking over all the things that I remember of this aunt from my own life. The ones that stand out the most aren't the achievements she accomplished, or any flashy, stellar claims. They hover mostly around childhood memories—like the time that home ec teacher promised to help me learn how to sew, took me through the whole process from picking out the fabric to completing the project, my very own stuffed animal (a cat, of course), or just the generic fun that seemed to radiate from her. She was a fun and favorite relative.

Mostly, though, in adult-eyed retrospect, it turns out that the most remarkable thing about this woman was her slow and steady consistency. Over the years, bit by bit, she built a life of constancy. Though she was petite, I guess some found a rock-like stability in her that became the antidote to the turmoil and angst in many pre-teen students' lives.

Every now and then, I run across a well-written piece, explaining how the author decided to—against all odds—go back to find and thank a teacher who made a big difference in his or her life. While I'm glad for all those who heed that nudge to reconnect with the people who poured so much of themselves into that writer's life, I'm sure glad that wasn't the case for my aunt. For there, in a box in her desk drawer, was the testimony of many years' worth of students who didn't wait, but said their heartfelt thanks, right when they could.

Jackie Davis teacher in Columbus Ohio circa 1950s

Photograph, top left: portrait of Sara Jacqueline Davis, circa 1950; below: in front of the Columbus school where she taught for many years in Ohio; originals from the private collection of the author.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Some Memories Become Dust in the Wind

When we research the lives of ancestors long gone, one of our stopping points is the cemetery where the headstone tells us the bare facts that remain: name, date of birth, date of death.

Sometimes, as we move towards the present and search for the details of loved ones we've lost from our own lifetimes, we are not so fortunate as to find such telltale markers. Instead of one spot designated as a final resting place, the remains of a family member might not even be in a cemetery. Perhaps in an urn in a special place in a home, or possibly not even in one designated place at all—some left, as their final wishes, a request to be "scattered" over the ocean, or in the wilderness. Free spirits in life, they refuse to be boxed in, even after their departure.

While Marilyn Bean's death, in my own family experiences, began the yearly reminder to turn my mind back to such losses, it's the one whose death became the other bookend to a melancholy month that leaves me with no physical token, no place that marks her life. Perhaps that's as it should be, for Judy was a free spirit in every sense of the word.

Hers was a passing that came without warning. Sudden. More challenging to wrap one's head around. Inconceivable, considering how full of life she was—full of experiences, opinions, attitudes, stories.

Unlike those relatives of past generations, whom we remember by passing along their photographs, letters, journals, and other memorabilia, when the current generation takes leave of her peers, it doesn't seem like there was sufficient time to store up all these tokens of life—much less time to bequeath them upon others in long anticipation of that inevitable home-going.

It was on the very last morning of November, three years ago, that my sister-in-law joined her mother, her brother, and every other member of her family, in passing unexpectedly. She was the last leaf on a branch whose every member had already withered away from humanity's family tree.

Yet, even today, I can't tell you where her remains lie. They may never find a "final resting place." If anyone in future decades feels prompted to find a headstone that will recount the bare bones of her existence, it likely will never be found.

For some, now, that hardly matters. Memories seem much stronger than stone. But when those memories are blown away in the passing of time, then what? The free spirit sees as romantic now what the future's historians or documentarians will not even realize they are missing. Unless someone in the family passes down that inevitable box of unmarked photographs, there will be nothing to provide a reminder that this one life had once passed this way.

childhood photo outside home before Christmas in Santa Rosa California 1960


Sunday, November 22, 2015

The "No" Season

There is something about the month of November that buries me in a somber mood—something that only the festive Christmas season can persuade me to abandon. Perhaps, in reflecting yesterday over yet another loss among my friends and family, it can be pinned to the fact that, over the years, November has not been the most cheerful of months for me.

I'm quite sure it goes far beyond my youthful distaste for being left behind on Thanksgiving weekend while all my more fortunate friends headed out of town to feast at large family gatherings. It may be owing to that cumulative effect of all the dreary losses sustained during that one gray month—the "no" month, November.

It was on one of my customary trips to the library as a young person that I stumbled upon a poem about the month of November. Growing up in New York—and hating the snow, incidentally—I felt the poem resonated with my childish perspective, and somehow never forgot it.

The brief ditty went something like this:
No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -
It turns out to have been written by a British poet—likely following the last November before his early passing in the spring of 1845. And that brief stanza lodged in my memory, long ago, from that children's poetry anthology was not the complete representation of Thomas Hood's poem, as I discovered recently—thanks to the magic of Google showing me this website's version of his work.

When I find myself in that dreary "no" state—prompted again yesterday with the loss of a good friend—it wakes me up to the remembrance of all those others I've lost during November. In prompting me to not only research those ancestors long past but also from my past, I think first of the one whose November exit has been the farthest removed from today. That would be my first mother in law—the one whose son's story I've already shared.

Marilyn Beverly Sowle—born 25 February, 1928, in Wisconsin to David Moore and Olive Brague Sowle—was a southern California gal whose move to the northern part of the state was to follow the love of her life. A young Marine, Earle Raymond Bean, had captured her heart, and somewhere, sometime—these genealogical details still escape me—they married and began a family of two children.

Life turned out differently for petite Marilyn. It wasn't just because she chose a husband who, at six feet six inches, towered over her—although the height itself became a telltale factor in predicting what was to befall her within about five years of their wedding. It was because her husband, apparently born with the congenital condition now called Marfan Syndrome, met an early death—not on any battlefield like the Iwo Jima conflict he had faced only a few short years before, but back in his hometown of Alameda, California.

I only met Marilyn years after that great tragedy in her life. Somehow, we all find ways to pick up and move on, even after the greatest of losses. I got to know her when I met her son. And got to know her more when the same fate that took her husband befell her son as well. Even years after her son's passing, we'd spend holidays together. And other the time she discovered her cancer was back, and in order to proceed with chemo, the doctors recommended a simple procedure to insert a port. Somehow, the thought of what she faced must have been too much for her. She never awoke from that "simple" procedure.

Thoughts of Marilyn come back to remind me every November, my least favorite month of the year. Mainly, I remember being in the waiting room at the hospital with Marilyn's daughter, coping with the incredible news. But if I ever forget which morning it was, the volunteers at Find A Grave help me remember. The story is etched on a simple slab of stone set within the endless white rows of uniform reminders at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California, where, at last, Marilyn joined her husband—after all these years, in November, no longer apart.



Saturday, November 21, 2015

When It's Time to Go Home

As genealogy aficionados, there are times when we can border on becoming glib in our assertions. "I seek dead people," proclaims a T shirt worn by a woman at a conference. In fine print below, the parenthetical explanation divulges, "I do genealogy."

While in essence, that is exactly what we spend our time doing—devoting a lot of time in the pursuit of dead people—what we really are seeking are the details on dead people long gone, not recently gone.

Just like Ebenezer Scrooge questioning the upcoming visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past—"Long past?" "No, your past."—I find myself sometimes far removed from our customary reveling in the mantra of "seeking dead people." It is when it touches our past—rather than the distant past of ancestors even our grandparents have not met—that we begin to sense the dread of that thought.

In that unexpected yet you-knew-this-would-happen sort of way, news of a fresh addition to those dead people we always claim to seek ripped through my community of friends. A beloved elderly former missionary took leave of his family for the last time, yesterday, in the dark of the early morning hours. Though he had been through so much in the past year, he had survived so much, leaving a false confidence that perhaps the worst was now behind him.

Not so.

Perhaps it is merciful when our loved ones slip away so suddenly. A heart attack sometimes sneaks up, giving no warning, and does its work so quickly that those closest are left clueless until it is all over. While that, in retrospect, seems merciful, the speed of the loss is no easier to bear.

In this case, it will be a loss felt around the world. How ironic, when you realize that this unassuming gentleman began the battle for his health on one day when, during last year's holiday season, he made his routine walk out to the mailbox to retrieve the day's delivery of Christmas cards. There were always so many holiday greetings arriving each day from around the world that it was sometimes hard to wrestle them out of the mailbox.

Sure enough, one good tug on the stack of letters in that overstuffed mailbox and the equal and opposite reaction knocked him off his feet and down on the curb. He broke his hip.

Then came surgery. And rehab. And other health revelations. And more surgery. And almost losing him. But miraculously surviving. And the wonderful day when he got to go home—back to where it was comfortable and familiar and relaxing.

We never know when that sometime will be, when we get that final call home. For some, it is in the midst of a crisis. And we lament the great loss. But sometimes, it is when we rest assured that all is well—seems to be all well—and yet isn't. Perhaps those are the times when the loss seems the hardest to bear. But is it really harder? Or is it that way from the perspective of those left behind?

In the many beliefs held by people from around the world—many of them, beliefs shared by the very people this man once knew and lived with—there is the thought that, in opposition to the grief borne by those left behind, there is a time and space of comfort for those we now count among our dead. This becomes the time when we truly do get to go home. Yet, while we cling to such thoughts, we still find it so hard to let go of the one we love.

For now, raw from the feelings of such a loss, it seems impossible to glibly chatter about those tokens of one's genealogical prowess—the "dead people" we are "seeking." Perhaps, as there is a time for every purpose under heaven, there are times to remember those long gone—the ones we've never grown close to, never become attached to, never even met.

Sometimes, though, the season asks us to set that aside and, in its place, remember the ones we have known, in their final time of going home.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

...Yet Never Discounting Those Staples of Sound Genealogical Research

While I'm grateful—as I mentioned yesterday—for those book-digitizing projects that are bringing hundred-year-old publications to the forefront of our researching attention once again, those books were penned by people who were no less prone to error than are humans of our modern era. Admittedly, those authors faced the same snares we face—and we all know the foibles of family fables—and yet, they had other research challenges we now can bypass with a click of a mouse. When you think of the snail-mailed, personal-memory-riddled reports authors of a bygone century once had to overcome just to compile their genealogies, it's a wonder they got as much right as they did.

One aggravating aspect of riding the online family history wave back through the centuries is the lack of scanned documentation, once the census records drop off the scene. While everything seems to go along swimmingly back to 1850, before that, researchers may—or may not—have at their disposal copies of any other actual pertinent governmental documents., for instance, offers up a lot of "data collections" which may or may not merely be compilations of user-contributed say-so reports. It is nice to peek at these collections for hints, much as one queries a trailblazer before attempting a wilderness journey never before traveled. But we all have to prove our own way, eventually.

On the other hand—at least for those of us with ancestors firmly (and successfully) interwoven into the American social fabric of the last two or three centuries—our well-heeled forebears left significant paper trails of another sort: court records and land records. While I am exploring the possibilities in my Meriwether, Gilmer, Lewis and Strother lines, I'll be corroborating—or disproving—the details unearthed by other researchers via governmental records of a type entirely different than the scant details offered up in pre-1850 census records.

That, of course, becomes the part of my daily research which goes underground as I pursue it, mainly owing to my observation that, like the making of laws and sausage, the tedium of genealogical research can sometimes get both messy and boring. While we all live for the stories, it's the sound genealogical research methods that provide the skeletal framework upon which those family stories need to hang.

Not that I won't make a peep about it, from time to time—one never knows when an exceptional or curious anecdote may surface that simply must be shared. In addition, as I hit each matrilineal node, based on my mtDNA quest, and turn around to trace that other woman's female line back down to the present, I'll track my progress in connecting to my mystery cousin. But my first love, at least for blogging purposes, is to share the stories. It's just that there aren't too many stories amidst all the grunt work of reading legal proceedings or land records.

Above: "Autumn in the Welsh Hills," watercolor on pencil, circa 1860, by British landscape artist, George Price Boyce; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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