Family History as a Civics Lesson

Once upon a time, I thought it was decidedly macabre for people to wander around cemeteries randomly looking for names on tombstones. Then I turned into one of them—long before I qualified as the kind of person (OLD) who seemed most fascinated by this hobby. 

The Gnome and I found ourselves immersed in genealogy in our earliest forties. At first, it was nothing more than wanting to find the names and origins of our ancestors, but it quickly became so much more. I wanted to know about these people who came before me. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know: who they were, what they did, how they ended up where they were, what their world looked like. I wanted to round out their stories.

That’s when I realized that, at least for the intellectually curious, one’s family history is really a massive civics and history lesson.

Do you know how roads in the United States were maintained in the early days? If not for genealogy, I wouldn’t. Each locality required all ‘able-bodied’ men to spend a designated number of days on road work. Imagine that today. Fines—maybe worse—were imposed on shirkers. I suspect most of us are happier paying a fuel tax than putting aside our normal work to build roads on demand with pickaxes and shovels in hand. I understand the quality of those roads was somewhat (!) unreliable. It was a serendipitous lesson to discover that history because it helped me understand the nature and evolution of mutual responsibility for public works.

As for my own story, I lucked out when I came upon the account of a pair of ancestors, Jimmie and Jerutha Holland, written by Nellie Holland Russell for her pre-teen nephews. The somewhat fictionalized version of these early Scots-Irish settlers nonetheless told me how desperate things were in the ‘old country,’ how dangerous it was for two teenagers to cross the Atlantic on a rickety boat (‘ship’ is much too generous a word), how their vessel turned out to be run by pirates, how their naiveté in a strange land made them easy marks. In short, it told me I’m darned lucky to be here today.

This historical marker in Wayne County, NC, celebrates my fourth-great-grandparents. Who knew?

Surely it was much the same for millions more immigrants whenever and however they made their own journeys. It’s a piece of our collective history we would all do well to understand.

As the Gnome and I became more involved in learning about our family histories, we found ourselves engrossed in their times. I have precious few details about a great-grandfather and another great-great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. When I came across a book of letters from Confederate soldiers to their families back home, I wildly hoped I’d luck across one signed by one of my ancestors.

 

 

My great-great-grandfather, John Holden, and my great-grandfather William Holland Thomas Dillard were soldiers in the US Civil War.

Of course, I didn’t, but that didn’t make the stories any less compelling—stories of boredom mingled with bloody horror, near starvation, worry about a son or other family member in another unit, prison conditions, anxiety about the women and children back home. In that moment, it didn’t matter whose signature was on a letter or which side of the conflict he was on. I suspect the story was much the same for every soldier.

I read about soldiers returning home to western North Carolina from the prison in Petersburg, Virginia, after the war had ended. I pictured what it would have been like to be in their shoes. Or their bare feet, for some were without shoes. My grandpas weren’t part of that group, but reading about the odyssey told me a lot about how it must feel to return home after war, defeated, carrying the wounded, hungry, walking most of the several hundred miles to reach home, not knowing what one will find upon arriving. Seeing the desolation along the way. No parades, no hordes cheering from the roadsides.

It’s a story that’s been repeated through the ages and still is today in too many corners of the world. Looking through this lens, without the judgment of who’s right or wrong, but simply seeing the human heart, gives a person new perspective.

When I traveled to the heritage center in my dad’s hometown, I was hoping to learn more about my grandparents. What was education all about then? Why did Granddaddy only go to school through the seventh grade? He was eighteen when he finished, and within days he married his teacher, only a few months older than he. What a treat when the center’s director pulled out an old survey which included my great-grandparents’ farm. A little square on the edge of their property designated a school. They donated that bit of land to the county. It’s where Granddaddy went to school and most likely where he met my grandmother. With that tidbit of new knowledge. I felt closer to them.

I learned that school wasn’t compulsory, that children who did attend often started at age eight.

In those days, a three-person committee ran each school independently. In some cases, when they needed money to build a new school house, rather than raising taxes as the committee had the authority to do, they chose instead to close the school for a year and divert the teacher’s salary to purchase building materials. Hmm—no wonder a person didn’t finish seventh grade at age twelve.

I was in my small, local public library browsing some North Carolina history books when I came upon a small volume about tobacco-growing in the state. My dad’s father was a tobacco farmer. Working in tobacco—and cotton—was how Daddy and his brothers grew up. Maybe I’d find something useful in the pages of my book discovery. I did, but not what I was expecting. There was something about mules—how important they were to farm life in earlier days—so important they were considered part of the family. I asked my Uncle Edwin about that. “Noooo! They were never part of the family. I’d chop cotton [one of the most dreaded farm chores] before I’d plow a mule!” Now, that told me something about my dad’s life growing up. And I never would have known it if the only place I’d searched was the genealogy shelf. 

Daddy’s relationships with the family mules were as varied as their personalities. Rhodie was one of his favorites.

Random gleanings from random places. And each one a jewel that deepens my understanding. Our human story is so much more than the bare bones of begats. It’s a broader story, a deeply-textured one. Everyone’s story is different. Whatever yours is, if you let your curiosity guide you, it will teach you civics and history which will inform your knowledge about the world around you, give you an appreciation for where we are now as a society and what our forebears lived through to get us here. You might even discover a new passion.

Because there is a story to tell. You just have to find it.

Failures and Fiascos

“No true fiasco ever began as a quest for mere adequacy.”  —Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown

I fell in love with this quote the second I heard it. It really resonated with everything going on in my life at the time. Fictional Drew Baylor became my hero.

Drew also said, “Failure is simply the non-presence of success. But a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions.”

Thomas Edison put it a different way. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Bob Ross, the afro’d artist of PBS fame, was known to say that when it comes to painting, “We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”

The varied nuances in these quotes take me down somewhat different mental paths. I have had failures, and I have experienced fiascoes. For the most part, I point to my years working in the public sector for both. Usually, debacles led me towards alternative paths that worked out just as well and occasionally better, even if it was after a good bit of fretting, fuming, bawling, and varying degrees of depression. I just had to keep an open mind, look for more workable solutions, and refuse to give up.

Failure can indeed open doors, at least for a person who is imaginative and alert to possibilities.

But it’s true there’s a difference between failure and fiasco. Failure doesn’t necessarily imply significance. You can fail to set the alarm clock. You can fail at making the perfect piece of toast. The world will not end.

I’ve definitely experienced a fiasco or two, especially in my career. The world didn’t end then, either, though there were times I thought it would. Mine, anyway. Inevitably, those fiascoes resulted from experiments to break molds, push boundaries, explore the unexplored, be better. Such paths aren’t always popular in the cautious, slow-moving, don’t-rock-the-boat, if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it world of the public sector.

Sometimes I was too eager to try the next big thing, assuming others would jump on my bandwagon. I failed to understand that a thing that was only my dream was destined for doom. I didn’t look for unintended consequences.

I didn’t imagine that they couldn’t imagine, or that they simply didn’t want to do the hard work. In my eagerness, I didn’t do my own hard work of laying groundwork, getting investment.

Sometimes, my ideas were just plain dumb! People were right not to dive in with me.

And on occasion, I made the very bad mistake of assuming people I thought of as mentors would stand behind me—or at least guide me. It was a painful lesson to learn otherwise.

As I look in my life’s rear view mirror, my career growing infinitely smaller behind me, I understand that it was always lofty goals which led to my efforts which in turn led to fiascoes. I’m proud of that. And painful as those moments may have been at the time, visible as some scars remain, I’m content in the knowledge that I wanted to make things better, that I knew how to dream.

Like Drew Baylor, I’d rather dream big and fail big than stumble along in mere adequacy.

Tip: watch this 2005 feel-good road trip movie (featuring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Paula Deen). You’ll be glad you did.

Reincarnation

Wouldn’t it be lovely to come back as a cat?

Soft, furry, loose of limb, able to get in or out of most any tight spot, always landing on my feet;

Endlessly cuddled and loved, and yet, my own disdain and aloofness accepted, no questions asked;

Every emotion at my disposal at my tiniest whim;

Fed by others, pampered by others, living in a sunbeam.

Idyllic. If it just weren’t for that personal grooming bit!

First Love

His brown eyes, that shock of slightly uncontrollable dark sandy-colored hair, his deep tan, the shy smile. He was irresistible.

He was an outdoorsman, favoring construction work with his yellow dump truck and fire-engine-red shovel in the newly excavated plot of land across the road from his house and catty-corner from mine.

His name was Teddy, and we were pretty much inseparable the year I was five. I’d rather play with Teddy than any of the girls on our street.

How I looked forward to our starting school together the next fall.

Then, in early January, Teddy had a birthday. I went to the party. And cried my heart out. Teddy was six and I was still five. That could mean only one thing. Six-year-olds went to school. Five-year-olds did not. Teddy would start school without me. I was sure of it.

I couldn’t bear it.

No, Mother assured me. No, Daddy agreed. No, certainly not, chimed in Teddy’s mom. She was older—even wore her hair in a bun. Surely, she could be believed. It was hard to understand their logic, but finally I was convinced. Teddy and I would begin our school journey together, they promised. We could continue walking down life’s path side by side.

Teddy and I share a moment at his sixth birthday party.

And once again, all was right with the world.

(Post Script: Alas, our family moved out of state in late spring. Teddy and I did not start school together, after all. Life is so unpredictable!)

Boundaries

Just as children are astonished to discover potatoes buried in the ground the first time they dig in the garden, I’ve heard there are real people who, on their first airplane flights, have been shocked—shocked!—at the absence of lines differentiating one state from the other. Yes. Strong, black, permanent-marker-type lines like they’ve seen on road maps or in textbooks.

                                     Where are the boundary lines?                                       Aerial photo courtesy of Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9578535

I’ve been thinking about boundaries—those demarcations that set us apart. Some are real: canyon ledges, rock cliff faces. Who would want to take that next step into the abyss?

Rivers are demarcations. They divide one piece of land from another, and sometimes (but not always) rivers are used to set boundaries. Even so, they’re usually crossable by one means or another.

But other boundaries are completely artificial. Humanmade. Political, legal, emotional. Some are good to have. Some, not so much.

One of our neighbor families once owned the acreage where we now live—for a very long time—before having to sell it off to pay health care expenses. I’m sure it was a painful decision. They’d sold to someone else, who then sold to us. One day a year or two after we’d moved, we came upon the matriarch of the ‘first family’ hunched over our wild blackberry patch like a furtive hooded monk. She figured we wouldn’t mind her picking those blackberries, she said, to make jelly—like she always had.

She knew she was overstepping boundaries. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have looked up at us like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. But she was ready with her passive-aggressive defense, suggesting that by prior ownership, she now had squatter’s rights. She did not respect our boundaries.

Plenty has been said about personal boundaries of late, with much more eloquence than I can offer. Let it be said that they deserve respect, too.

But what I worry about is the tribalism which we’ve allowed to create artificial boundaries, rivalries that erupt based on nothing more than an accident of birth, or where one’s parents transferred for work once upon a time, or where we went to school, or simple indoctrination. That sort of thing.

It bothers me, this “We live in the best [fill in the blank],” or, “My [blank] is the best” mentality. We use this blanket superlative whether talking about our schools, our communities, countries, spiritual beliefs, or ‘our’ teams. How can we possibly know ours is the best? I certainly can’t; I’ve not experienced all the others, even superficially. Has anyone?

I’m pretty place-bound. I’m at home with what I know. I appreciate the landscape around me, the people who surround me, my heritage. Traditions built from shared experiences help bind us together in ways that help us through times both easy and hard.

But don’t all people everywhere have every bit as strong a claim on pride of place as I have? Don’t I need to understand and honor their natural pride without proclaiming mine is the better, the best, and possibly the only, way?

Is it arrogance that makes us believe such things? Or ignorance? Or both? Isn’t there a better way to live in this world we share? A more thoughtful, generous way?

When I travel across a single state, I may move from salt water and a flat, sand-covered topography to densely green mountains, from arid desert to lush wetlands. Yet, as I step across the imaginary line between my state and its neighbor, I neither see nor feel anything magical taking place to set one apart from the other. Except for a green metal road sign, I wouldn’t know. The terrain is the same. Why should I imagine there’s something completely unique about my side of the boundary?

Photo courtesy of Famartin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Can any lasting good come from this cutting ourselves off from otherness? How can it build understanding and goodwill? And if we don’t want to build those things among our fellow humans, what do we want?

Everyone Knows Someone

(If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you know why this issue is ever-present in my mind.)

I read this comment the other day: “Everyone knows someone who has had cancer.” Someone? As in one? Off the top of my head, I can name ninety people I’ve known personally who have had a cancer diagnosis. Ninety! Not ninety people I’ve heard of. Not celebrities or friends of friends. Ninety people whose hands have touched mine. People I love—family and friends, work colleagues, teachers, childhood play pals or schoolmates, and a few more distant acquaintances.

If I try making a list tomorrow, it will be different. I’ll remember new folks and inadvertently overlook some on today’s list. But today’s list looks like this: breast, 34 (!); prostate, 11; blood, 5; brain, 5; colon, 4; lung, 4, skin, 4; tongue, 2; cervical, 1; and others—those diseases whose names I don’t know or are too complicated to spell out here, 20. (btw, 34 related to me, 17 of them by blood)

And those are just the people I happen to know about (and that my brain recalls). There are friends and relatives I’ve lost contact with. I don’t know their stories. And some people are more private about personal issues. My best friend might have cancer and decided not to share, at least not yet.

Is this—ninety—is this normal? Seventeen blood kin? Is that the way it looks for others? Or am I the only one in touch with so many whose lives have been hijacked by this awful disease?

Now, I know cancer is an inclusive term for more than a hundred so-called different diseases, but they are a family, all identified by abnormal cell growth that spreads and crowds out healthy cells and interferes with necessary body functions and steals nutrients from tissues.

Cancer is a cruel disease, mean, vicious, painful. One whose treatments can be as bad or worse than the disease itself. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how old or young, what gifts you have for the world—cancer doesn’t care.

At least some people with cancer have found unexpected gifts along the way. Some of us know how to do that—to find some good, to learn something valuable, to grow, even in the most difficult of circumstances. But that doesn’t negate the atrocity of the disease itself.

For forty percent of the people on my list, cancer, or complications thereof, was their cause of death—mind you, some of those deaths are from as far back as the 1950s when early detection and advanced treatment technologies we have today simply didn’t exist. Others have almost sailed through treatment and are, at least at the moment, cancer-free. For still others, an uncertain prognosis hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. That sword actually hangs over everyone who has received a cancer diagnosis, whether they’ve been declared ‘cured’ or not, because those potentially deadly cells can hang around, unseen, for years. Every next check-up is a question mark.

People live with that question mark or that sword in different ways, but are rarely, if ever, unaware of it.

The same is true for those who love them.

My Writer’s Life

Every writer is first a reader. Probably a voracious one. I was weaned on Little Golden Books, those short, richly illustrated stories for toddlers and preschoolers. The books had only been in circulation for five years or so at that time, so they were still somewhat of a novelty—and at a quarter a pop, pretty affordable, too.

I still have some of them. The little books suffered through a lot of abuse, first at my hands and then my two brothers’. Some covers are missing. Crayon scrawls adorn the pages of most. Here and there one or another of us practiced our newly-acquired penmanship skills, such as they were.

For all their stereotypes, I still hold my first books in high regard. Busy Timmy, The Brave Little Tailor, A Day at the Seashore, and Three Little Kittens are some memorable ones. And I swear, even though I haven’t cracked The Little Golden Book of Jokes and Riddles in more than forty years, I can still repeat, without thinking, the silly rhymes and riddles I learned there.

One of my favorite reading memories is the bookmobile. I didn’t understand exactly how it worked, but I remember the large, squarish van pulling into our driveway on a regular basis the year we lived in Charlotte. I was six. Mother and I hopped on and picked out a good-sized stack of books to read until the next time our library-on-wheels stopped by to refuel our reading habits. It was like being in a candy shop!

I was six and had just begun to read Dick and Jane books in school. I wasn’t a reader before first grade—kindergarten had been unavailable to me. But I caught on fast, and, ever since, it’s been hard to pry a book from my hands—even now, after I’ve fallen asleep while reading one, according to the Gnome.

Remember writing themes in school? As I recall, those weekly events took place from the seventh grade on. They represented my first forays into creative writing. My themes were always graded well, but they were nothing spectacular. I’m not being modest; I remember being blown away by the imagination and creativity displayed in some of my classmates’ writings. I didn’t think that way. I had the technical aspects mastered, though. That’s probably why my grades were so good.

And then came that ubiquitous assignment for all college-prep senior English classes: the term paper. My chosen topic was the House of Windsor. The British royal family had dominated the news of my childhood and teenage years what with Elizabeth’s coronation and Margaret’s boundary-pushing escapades. And the romance surrounding King Edward VIII’s abdication to marry American socialite and divorcée Wallis Simpson was a never-ending source of media curiosity, even though it had occurred years before. The notion of giving up the throne for love was almost too romantic to bear.

How I loved the after-school hours I spent at the public library, reference books and 3×5-inch, ruled index cards spread out on a large, oak library table along with similar supplies belonging to one or more of my friends. The quiet togetherness, the visual stimulus of the stacks, the scent of old books and pencil shavings, the magic of the card catalog—oh, it was heady stuff! We walked the couple of blocks from school to the library, first stopping at the Rexall Drug Store across the street for a vanilla or cherry Pepsi and a pack of Nabs to give us sustenance. It all felt so sophisticated and scholarly.

In my career, I did a lot of writing, though most of it was on the technical side. Off and on (mostly off), I got a yen to practice creative writing, but I was never one of those writers who write because they can’t help themselves.

Maybe that’s not quite true. I’ve always been a pretty prolific and long-winded letter writer. And if a pen or pencil is handy, I’ll pick it up, even if it’s only to write the letters of the alphabet or indulge in some goofy doodles—I suppose a writer will use whatever outlets are available.

It was only after repurposing my life, thanks to Social Security and Medicare, that I rediscovered the great joy writing brings me, the satisfaction that comes from putting into words and onto paper the myriad thoughts that keep swirling in my head. Finding a couple of informal writing groups has cemented my writing habit, and blogging keeps it disciplined. While I may not be driven to write, I’ve come to realize my life feels more complete with it than without it.

So I write.

How about you? Are you a writer? How did it all start? What inspires you?