Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cousin Shopping

I'm considering wading into the gene pool a little deeper. And why not? We have an unprecedented opportunity to do so this weekend. Even The Ancestry Insider said so. If anyone would know, that would be the one.

But who listens to people with no name? Fortunately, I don't have to. Thomas MacEntee, the guru behind GeneaBloggers, said it was so, too: this weekend has the best price for DNA testing at

So I'm going to try it. After hunting and pecking my way through my matches at Family Tree DNA for the past year, I've barely scraped the surface of my nine hundred plus fellow distant cousins. I keep vowing to find a quick way to upload all the surnames from each match onto a spreadsheet program and check for mutual surnames, but why do that? By virtue of coupling DNA testing with an already-provided family tree database program, can do that searching for me.

Besides, adding AncestryDNA to my repertoire means I am now fishing in two ponds, not just one. I'm expanding my genetic horizons.

Of course, the downside is that people aren't always impeccable when it comes to adding ancestors to their collection. Some of those additions don't even make sense on the face of it—like the oft-repeated example of the "mother" who had to have been eight years old when her "son" was born. (Yes, I know that can happen—theoretically—but the only ones I heard of were listed in Guinness' Book of World Records.)

So, perhaps I'll be trading in reality-based genealogy for ease of handling. I've noticed, though, that each genetic genealogy company seems to have its down side—some crowdsourcing glitch in which the other participants don't seem to care quite as much as this customer does. It will have to be a price I'm willing to pay.

And, apparently, it is, for by the time the deal of this shopping season comes to a close on Monday evening, for every fellow researcher who asks me, "Haven't you tested on AncestryDNA?" I will finally be able to answer, "Yes."

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Put Yourself on the List, Too

No, not the shopping list. Not, at least, after my rant yesterday.

On the thankfulness list.

As Thanksgiving day rushes by us like the holiday blur it has become, I like to extend that season of thankfulness. It seems the best antidote to the turmoil ahead.

I've already mentioned some of the family members I'm personally thankful for. But there is one more group I'm thankful for: you. My readers. By being here and joining in the conversation by sharing your comments, you are part of what makes this blog what it is. And I'm glad you're here.

In one of the classes I taught last semester, we got into a discussion about how class is like a dialog. Yes, the teacher teaches and the students...well...hopefully, they get some benefit out of the process, but I don't suppose much thought has been given to the fact that a teacher is sometimes like a performer on stage. And we all know how much a performer is powered by audience response. It's a downright drag for a performer when nobody laughs at your jokes, cries at your losses, smiles when—at last!—the good guy seems to be able to win again.

Blogging is very much like that. While you and I are not face to face like we would be, gathered in a theater, we meet on a regular basis. Just like that stage performer seems to give just a little bit more when the audience is eating it up, we bloggers seem to write with more enthusiasm when we don't feel like our voice is just echoing around in an empty tin can.

In the past year, while I've wandered around the stories of a number of participants in my family's history, you've been there to cheer me on. I do part of what I do, thanks to part of what you do. Blogging is really a form of symbiosis.

I couldn't really let this Thankfulness weekend slip by without finding the time to acknowledge that. Since you may be a blogger, yourself, I imagine you have a few readers you are thankful for, as well. Aren't they the ones who really make the difference?

Above: "Love of Winter," oil on canvas by Columbus, Ohio, native, George Bellows, February 1914; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Antidote to Getting


I didn't think so.

Now that yesterday's national feast is behind us (except the leftovers), people have other things on their mind. Some people call this next frenzy, "Black Friday." Perhaps you are a partaker. I'm not.

Ostensibly, the day after Thanksgiving is the time to set aside for getting the gifts that will soon—well, within a month—be given to others. Perhaps, in a roundabout way, you could call it a day designated to thinking about giving.

But I don't think so. More often than not, it seems to me to be a day about getting, not giving, for really, the driving force behind all that purchasing is, ultimately, getting. I give to you, so you can give to me.

And so it escalates.

Remember those Christmas Savings Clubs? The kind where your mom or dad might have tucked away five dollars—or ten, or twenty-five—each month throughout the year, so that there would be enough to buy some gifts for Christmas? Yeah, nobody does that anymore. We've far exceeded that limitation. Blown it completely over the top. Now, people consider themselves fortunate if they pay off the credit card bill before the next holiday season rolls around.

Sometimes I wonder: how much of that shopping frenzy is driven by a cultural sense of embarrassment: "What if what he got me is bigger than what I bought him?"

I'm the Scrooge who grumbles about that every time, come this season of the year. I'm glad I have company, though. Some people have re-designated this day, "Friendsgiving," and gather with friends to share leftovers, or pie and games, or social time. Just hanging out. Anywhere but at the mall. It's fun. And de-stressing. Probably more of what the holidays used to be like.

Gear up for what's ahead, though, for if you missed Black Friday, you have that second chance on Cyber Monday. More chances to get. So you can give. So you can get.

It's been heartwarming to see the recent development following fast on the heels of Cyber Monday: Giving Tuesday. A time to give to someone who won't give back—who likely won't even know your name to do so much as send you a thank-you card.

In our extended family of mostly the-ones-who-have-everything, it is, admittedly, hard to shop for them. After all, what do you buy the guy or gal who has everything? I'm not sure how well this has been received, but in the past few years, we've taken to donating money to a favorite charity in our family members' names, then following up with a token gift—something that says, "I'm thinking of you and sending my love, but perhaps these other people can use the real gift much more than either you or I could."

Some charities have become quite consumer savvy and designed ways to accommodate these shopping preferences. We've gone that route in the past. But this year, we found a project that hits much closer to home.

When our daughter began her first year of college, she met a fellow student who is a young woman from India. Over the years, they have become close friends. As time unfolds, the predictable happens. Eventually, both these young women graduated from college. Our daughter's friend met and married a wonderful man from up north, and now this woman from the south of India lives in the uttermost northern reaches of the continental United States.

But her heart has never forgotten her family and neighbors back in her hometown. In her yearly trip back to see family, the fact that there are orphans living in the streets in her own neighborhood has weighed on her heart quite heavily--until she couldn't stand it any more and did what she could: she started a fund drive to help build an orphanage shelter that has already begun its work there.

Unlike many experienced fundraisers, her little group has just put a simple plea out there—and whether they raise their goal or not, they are building what they can.

What seems so incongruous to me, though, is the realization that, if all of the friends of this woman's friends just gave up a lunch date and instead sent a donation to help build this orphanage, it would soon be accomplished. But in our busy rush to get everything done for our holiday, quiet pleas like this sometimes go unnoticed.

I remember reading a book once, in which the author used as his opening vignette the story of a woman in India, going door to door, begging for rice for her children. In the house of one woman, who apparently could afford to do so, this beggar was granted a scant cup of uncooked rice. As she lifted her apron to catch the poured-out gift, a few grains of rice fell to the ground.

What got me was what happened next: the beggar bent down and carefully picked up every single grain of rice that had spilled. Every single grain mattered.

When I think of the huge task before my daughter's Indian friend, I can't get that picture out of my mind: with thumb and forefinger, pressing on each grain of rice and retrieving it. Every bit mattered. That's desperation.

When I was a kid, the constant mantra for those picky eaters around our dinner table was, "You better eat that; think of the starving children in India."

I guess I'm still thinking...  

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

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