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!

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?

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.

Country Living

It’s taken a long time for me to realize it, but I must live in Hooterville. I did love watching Petticoat Junction and Green Acres back in the day. (If you’re too young to understand those references, or if you just feel like a little nostalgic break from reality, click here and here.)

It’s no wonder we landed up here on the diagonal.

But it was only recently that I noticed the signs for the side roads off of the steep, dusty, barely-two-lane road I often take when I’m heading down into the valley a couple of miles away. To give myself credit, there were no green signs to identify them until our county developed its 911 system, but that’s been a long time now, so any credit due me is minuscule.

Indeed, one of those roads is Green Acres Trail. Loafer’s Joy Drive sounds like it would be perfect for Petticoat Junction’s Uncle Joe. Bugtussle Lane is just down the road a piece. And, honest-to-goodness, I drive right by Feuders’ Hill. There’s got to be a story there! The road I’m driving on is no different—Tater Hill. Yep, I’m way out in the country.

Looking into the valley from Tater Hill Road

I like it here. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our neighbors on a few important socio-political issues, but this is the kind of place where an attentive person—and they’re all attentive—will run out in the rain to pick up a package hanging on the arm of our rural mailbox so it won’t get drenched.

And if a strange vehicle turns onto our half-mile, private, gravel drive, someone’s almost sure to follow, insist on learning the driver’s name and business, and proclaim, “We’re all family here [though not quite all of us are], and we watch out for each other.” Fair warning.

It’s a comfort. And you gotta appreciate the history of the place. The folks who live in the two-story frame house down the road a piece include the great-great-great grandchildren of the ones who built it. Imagine that—a six-generation farm!

So, yes, most folks around these parts are family. But not us; we’re the interlopers—we’ve only lived here forty years. It may have taken a long time, but knowing a neighbor includes us in the informal neighborhood watch creates the kind of reassurance that only comes where folks grow their own vegetables and still hang their wash on the line.

It’s home.