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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Just Fine in the Abstract

Death is absolutely fine in the abstract--when it is distant and can tell a story of a life interestingly led.  It is when it comes close and is tangible that my chest tightens and panic surges through me.  I am more afraid of the grieving than anything else.  I don't want any of us to have to feel that sad.

Obviously, I enjoy the peace and beauty of a well-appointed cemetery with soft, rolling slopes and grand, ancient and protective trees.  But it is really only the older, established cemeteries that make me feel this way.  Newer cemeteries or, more to the point, new graves cause immediate discomfort, sadness, even a little shock.  Oh wait, I'm not on the private grounds of my estate reading stony biographies of new-old friends?  No,  I'm also walking through the shaded roads of human sorrow and loss.

It is a terrible day when death in the abstract takes on a clean line of definition and finality.


I wrote the above over two years ago and never saw an end to the post much less the point of my words.  Where was I heading with my thoughts?  They were first written in response to the futility I felt about Polly dying and were put in storage after the shock of losing Luke soon after.  Dying is an abhorrent state of affairs and death is only acceptable when ground is gained and time has passed.  But it's the no-man's land between death and the beginning to heal that is the most vile, netless, sense of falling from a high place one can ever experience. 

 You would think people who have known loss would be adept in consoling those who it is less known to.  But, despite my in-depth knowledge into the loss of parents and a sibling, I have no words when people I care about lose loved ones--loved ones I have known and cared about, too.  I feel like a fraud erroneously catapulted to professional mourner status.   I have the experience but not the know-how.  I have sat mute when I should have condoled.  I have pretended there was no elephant in the room despite the stinking 20 lb pile of poop we were all warming our hands over. 

I'm not conventionally religious.  I can't say I'll pray for you, I can't offer you the hope of God's blessings.  But, albeit very simplistically, here's what I can hope for all our loved ones who die:

>>>They are having a helluva reunion
>>>They are beyond all the emotions known to humankind but love.  May we always know love.

Almost more than anything else, I hope they now know the answers to all the secrets.  It would only be fair. 


Thursday, November 6, 2014

What is Seen Cannot Be Unseen

Damn the Victorians and the Information Age

Queen Victoria and Family

Yesterday, I fell prey to the oldest trick on the internet when I chose to "click here to view gallery."  So the promising headline in this case was something about the odd things Victorians did with their dead.  The gist of this gallery was final photos of the deceased posed as they were in life.  Quips like "One of these things is not like the other" introduced family portraits of mixed here and hereafter siblings.  One photo had a Conga line of five or six siblings leading down from the oldest to the wee dead toddler whom I think even had her/his hand resting on the shoulder of the next child up.    Imagine the Von Trapp Children all in a line and a stiff little Gretl bringing up the rear. What would they have had to bribe Marta with to let Gretl's cold, rigid hand be rested on her shoulder.  There's not enough bon bons in the world, my friend.  Obviously, I'm mixing eras and sensibilities here but it is a fair comparison for the most part.

I didn't finish looking through the photos as they degenerated pretty rapidly but also because, of course, I'd known of this practice, and looking at only a few photos was enough to turn an abstract idea into a revolting truth quite handily.  However, before I was completely out of this macabre sidetrack to my day, I saw diagrams of the wooden frames photographers attached corpses to in order to pose them.  I also saw that this death as life tableau was best supported by a standing corpse "leaning" on a piece of furniture.  It was that information right there that hardened into another ghastly thought and likely the truth about a family photograph I never understood why we had.

Queen Vic and daughter
As you may remember, there were three surviving Cass children born to Diantha and Judd.  Frank, whom I descend from, and Frank's two sisters Mary who married Gib Eccles and Adaline (Addie) who married Gib's older brother Josiah.   Aunt Addie makes next to no appearance in Allen's transcribed journals.  Though she and her sister were married to brothers, it is clear Mary and Gib were Frank and Nora's closest kin in friendship and shared lives.  Mary had a daughter Luella from a first, dissolved marriage and a brood of boys with Gib. Allen loved his cousins very much and they are all mentioned throughout. 

I have often wondered if Addie's life was steeped in a sadness so strong it kept her from sharing in the bustle of homes filled with her extended family.  Addie and Josiah had a daughter Myrta in 1874.  She died in childhood and while I have absolutely no photos of Addie and don't know what she looked like, Diana does have this one photo of Myrta who never made it out of the 1880s.  So why, I asked myself.  Why do I know what the dead daughter looks like but no one else from that branch, not even the daughter Bernice born in 1887 who survived to have her own family--The Lees?  Why indeed.

And that is why yesterday when I was peeking at the methods of the Victorian photographers through half closed eyes, the image of Myrta standing so perfectly, her hands resting on a chair back began to superimpose itself onto the diagram.  I pushed the thought out but it kept coming back.  She's dead in the photo.  She's dead.  I always knew the photo had to have been taken at the end of her life because she is so frail.  There is more weight to the fabric of her dress than to her entire body.  Her wrist bone is so delicate and exposed.  She is dressed like a little adult and very nicely, I think.  Her clothes and earrings suggest money I didn't expect to be available.  I had always thought with deep sorrow that Addie and Josiah saw the end coming and decided to hurry and have this photograph of Myrta taken. They would not have known they would have another child so much time was between Myrta and her future sister.  I fear there must have been many lost babies or pregnancies. Now, however, the eeriness of the photograph suggests their bereavement was deeper than imagined.  It was so intense they likely paid to have this final photograph of Myrta made posthumously.

Since we have no other artifacts directly linked to Addie, I think this photograph was given to Diantha as a reminder of her first grandchild.  We have possessions of Diantha's so that seems the most likely path this photograph took to Diana and me.  Earlier this year, I put the photograph on Find-A-Grave.  It is also posted elsewhere on this blog but in lieu of posting the photo again directly because what is seen cannot be unseen I put the F-A-G link here .  You may think she is still very much alive in the photo but I no longer buy into that.  I think they knew the end was near and they were ready to roll with the photographer (who would want that job btw?) as soon as she crossed over.  So I'd rather give you the choice.  Also, I lost sleep last night thinking about this and I don't want that to happen to anyone else.

I know everyone mourns differently, or at least that's what I was told in kindness by someone after my mother died and my world imploded and everyone seemed strange to me in their own reactions.  But we all react to death on a socially acceptable spectrum for the most part, it's just good some  traditions peter out.  Frankly, I'm very glad we didn't prop Sandie up to get one last snap, she's better in my heart and on Kodachrome where "all the world's a sunny day."

Monday, October 27, 2014

Who Do You Think You Are?

The Family History business is a funny old one.  Very scientifically or rather based completely on personal experience and riddled with anecdotal evidence, I have found that on the whole, people interested in their genealogy can be divided into two very distinct groups; The Missionary and The Elitist. 

The first group are the Missionaries and they want the world to know who they are, who they come from and are always willing to find their connection to you no matter how tenuous. They prefer their cake completely frosted sides and all. Their trees have many branches and all leaves are of value and interest.

The second group are the Elitists who want to know where they came from, even revel in it at times, yet disregard all branches but their own as unworthy.  They would rather pretend their family tree had no offshoots other than the one on which they are smugly perched.  Basically, do not deign to call yourself kin if you have not grown up with them in their inner circle.  They prefer frosting only on the very top of their perfectly baked cake.

I am sure you can tell where I see myself on this spectrum.  A cake without frosting is an abomination and a person with a genetic relationship with you that is as close as a great or great-great who is unwilling to share their knowledge of said relative is right up there with the naked cake.  Who the hell do you think you are? 

Maybe I'm too emotional to discuss this today and will come off crazier than I really am so, in my defense,  I confess that I am writing from the dizzying position of my seasonal Ménière's compounded by the loss of a particularly important research binder this week.  However, disclaimer now given, I have had this pet peeve about near-relations who blank you for a very long time.

I am forever grateful to my Missionary cousins Patsy (Cass side), Susan (Nye side) and the late Alfred (Lucas side) for generously sharing theories, photos and research with me on our relatives and for being genuinely happy to have found our connection.  But I have come across far more Elitists in this line of work which begs the question why they put an open tree on in the first place?  It could be they just aren't savvy enough to make it private but, sadly I think it is more likely to wield power over others.  "Of course we know the full story but we wouldn't share it with you...if you don't know it already than there must be a reason...these are my relatives, not yours."  I have felt real proprietorial push back on more than one occasion and new acquaintances have dropped undeveloped after an initial, dutiful acknowledgement of my enthusiasm.

Me:  "I have been searching this line for 20 years, I can't believe I found you!  You must know... etc."
Them: "Yes, nice to meet you,  I'll check with the person who did the original research when I can."

Six months pass and I drop them a note to jog their memory.  A year passes and I drop them another short email reminder that I am still waiting and still hopeful.  I hold back the full tsunami force of what has now grown in me from the joy of finding a strong lead to my conviction that these silent cousins hold the only sledgehammer capable of shattering my research wall.  They must talk to me, they must tell me what they know.  Why won't they tell me what they know?  What could possibly be difficult in answering a simple question?  "  What does it mean they haven't logged into their account for 3 months.  Well it means they've been there within the past year and still not answered me! ANSWER ME DAMN IT!

But I digress.   I think there should be a family research code.  And I think it should begin:

 As an amateur genealogist I (state your name) promise to share with all my cousins either known or unknown the family history I have collected on our mutual relatives deceased for over 50 years.

And because right now my hope is diminishing daily on one particularly strong lead I was following, I think there should be a binding parameter of time in which to share.

I (state your name) promise to share said research within one month of any request for it. 

I think I only ask for what is reasonable:  Frosted Cake for Everyone!

Friday, October 3, 2014

I Ain’t No Challah Bread Girl?

I Ain’t No Challah Bread Girl? 
(Well, that’s what the waitress thought.)

We all have our triggers—the little things that make us react irrationally.  I was recently reminded of one of my biggest irritants—being taken for a provincial, doughy, middle-aged Midwesterner. In reality, I’m only one of those things, okay two because I think it is fair to say I’m mid-life.  But I’m a transplant and one who has lived in two of the largest metropolises in the world and traveled a bit more than most.  Before my accent betrayed me I have been taken as a local in London and in Paris.  I lived 11 years in New York City so I don’t consider myself a natural Midwesterner though I don’t deny I take to it very well.  But my adopted region’s craft beers and fine cheeses have made me soft.  They have rounded my edges and made me less the sophisticated, urbanite I once thought I was.  I’m in the midst of an identity crisis.  What I feel I am inside is not what the world sees on the outside and don’t I now know it.

My family and I recently dropped down to Chicago for the night because every so often I need to feel the rush of a big city again. And Chicago is lovely. However, three things stand out to me from this quick trip.  In chronological order, I’ll begin with dinner.  The waitress was hellbent on us enjoying our trip to Chicago.  She wanted to know if this was our first time here and what we thought.  I assured it wasn’t even our first time in this particular restaurant.  But she kept whizzing by with laughable frequency until Richard preempted her fifth or sixth pass by raising his hand in a stop motion and declared the scallops were still good.

Later, walking back to our hotel, a woman who was no stranger to a grift or two, was trying to sell tourists postcards she’d clearly pocketed in bulk from a souvenir shop.  When I told her I wasn’t interested she told me I should watch how I carried my pocketbook, that I could not trust anyone.  It was too much. Whatever veneer of belonging, ease and naturalness in my surroundings that I thought I sported on my travels was clearly cracked and peeling.  I snapped, “I have lived all over the world, I know how to carry my bag!”  Boy, I told her, right?

It was the next morning though, that I had to completely surrender to my new image—the one that strangers saw but that I did not want to accept.  We were in a diner to have breakfast and the young waitress told me without any request to do so what Challah bread was.  Who the hell doesn’t know what Challah bread is I thought? I wanted to scream “I’ve been eating Challah bread since before you were born, don’t you dare try to expand my horizons with something you clearly only learned since taking this job!  Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.” 

And that was it.  I had mentally compared myself to a wizened sage wise in all matters involving yeast (in this case) and found the situation ridiculous, embarrassing and angering.  I complained aloud to Richard when the waitress had left and, no, I did not order the Challah bread.  It turned out Richard didn’t know what Challah bread was.  It wasn’t big in England. Sigh.

I know I often make my own problems but I was let down to realize you can take the girl out of the city and that time can take the city out of the girl.  I need a pied à terre in New York.  Some place to keep a toehold in urban comings and goings, some place to keep the gelatin from setting in my current mold.  Who’s in?  I’ll make sure we have plenty of Challah bread French toast for breakfast.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Reunions and Cemeteries and Cupcakes, Oh My! (2)


It was rainy in Syracuse for a great deal of our visit so our camp was washed out and our plans for cemetery hopping were slightly hampered.  We visited quite a few of the known ancestors though and even identified some new stones of "cousins".   Probably the stand out cemetery visit for comedic value was to the old part of Oakwood which turns out has some rather new parts tucked into it.  Diana was driving her Mazda 5, I was in the front trying to direct and Di's eldest daughter was in the backseat with her boyfriend.

Quite a few of the old side roads were not maintained, some roads were too washed out to risk.  But Diana made a right turn to go up a hill.  It was not on my directive, in fact I specifically said not to go there.  One side of the muddy road was 6 inches shorter than the other.  Clearly, Diana was channeling our Dad who would take us on the most terrifying rides up to his land on Woodchuck Hill in Gram's old white Falcon on a road that he often had to get out and repair before we could continue.  Dad knew his treacherous road well, when to gun it, when to tilt our collective body weight to one side or the other, when to brace for stomach swirling drops into pot holes whose true depths were hidden by muddy water.

But Diana was just winging it on this rainy day.  "I can make it" she boomed as the Mazda's plastic frame went airborne.  We landed and bounced back and for on the tires like a pinball caught between rubber bumpers. TILT!  We made it to the top of the hill in one piece only to see the road really was not meant for passing through.  Diana did a slippery three point turn in the elbow of a two hills and got us back down on the road.  Not before, in our vulnerable state of debating how to proceed, a lone man came out of the woods walking our way.   "Shit!" Diana screamed and rolled up all the windows and locked the door.  Nothing offensive about that. 

Down again on the "main" road we found the ends of the earliest part of the cemetery.  The chapels had been abandoned, the old pyramids to the kings of Syracuse were boarded up to stop further vandalism.  And just inside a woody corner, we found a lion sculpted for one brother by another.  The cemetery where the boy is buried wouldn't allow the monument. Oakwood was less restrictive and gave it a private lair of honor. 

Oakwood Cemetery doesn't need ghost stories, it is a pretty formidable place in parts.  Creepy and dangerous too.  Diana vocalizing distress at the sight of an unexpected person was how we all felt.  You ebb between a false sense of calm and a real sense of creep.  For example, at the lion, we were feeling a little stronger though we were moving as a pack and I kept one foot pointed toward the car.  But then Alice's boyfriend had to go up over a little hill in the woods to relieve himself.  He came back with a very odd paper mache, devil's mask.  Right, I'm out of here.  He left it on a bench but still the mind boggles as to what circumstance that brought that mask to that place and why we had to see it.

Undaunted by the devil, Diana decided we need to find the grave of Robert Garrow.  I remember when he escaped prison.  Diana was babysitting and I was with her because I didn't want to be home alone. I don't know if we heard about it in the morning or what because there was no cell service in the 70s.  But we were keeping a watchful eye for him everywhere.  I was certain he would turn up on our doorstep.  But I felt that about Big Foot too back then. 

We went to a new part and spread out.  We were further away from the woods now but that didn't stop two deer from wandering out among the stones to feed.  I didn't believe Garrow was buried in Oakwood since that is where his most famous victim was found.  Famous to us because, like us, she came from the Valley.  She was the unfortunate example held up to all local kids to not hitchhike.  Why would Garrow be buried here?  Finally, I brought up Find a Grave on my phone and sure enough not only was he in Oakwood but supposedly right near where Alicia Hauck had been found.  Her case was infamous because the role of attorney/client privilege was challenged by it.  Well, we found him and the rain was coming down again.  I don't know what I was supposed to feel.  All I felt was sorry for the people who owned the adjacent plots.  You can't pick your family but you should be able to put a clause in your plot purchase agreement that you don't want a serial killer moving in next door in the afterlife.