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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Myles to Go Before I know

Back in 1994, when I first found James Sharkey and family on the census, I was completely taken with the trajectory of his youngest sibling, Myles.  Dominick and Nora started having babies right when they landed around 1871 and finished 19 years later with the birth of Myles Bernard Sharkey in 1890.  The thought of nearly twenty years of spawning exhausts me even from my safe vantage point here in the future.  However, a large family should mean more surviving family-history sources.  Since my great grandfather died young at age 29, I needed to find other lines to connect with, if I was to learn more.

As I mentioned before, that has proved difficult but one of the first lines I followed was that of Myles.  Out of the seven first-generation-born Sharkey children, Myles was the one who most successfully managed the American Dream. You would think Nora would have been quite done with the whole baby thing but, in truth, she seems to have poured her life's remaining energy into nurturing her last bloom.  How else can you explain why five of Myles six older siblings didn't go past the 9th grade in school while Myles finished high school, graduated from Syracuse University and studied medicine at the University of Maryland?  There was time to support him with the other children grown enough to help around the house and taking up trades of their own.

I gave Myles romantic hero status the moment I learned he was born on Valentine's day.  Upon learning he never married, I decided he had been career-driven and had a star-crossed lover whom he only regretted not choosing at the end of his life.  But that is all fantasy, the facts are he registered for the draft in WWI and I believe he must have served because he died in the Veteran's hospital in Bath, NY in 1943 from what I guess was cancer.

In the intervening years, he was a regular at society parties making a good single gentleman to seat with the ladies.  His older sister Mary never married either and, being 14 years his senior, took up the role of lady in his life.  Mary was a milliner but seems to have enjoyed her role as hostess for her brother quite well.  Together, they lived respectfully and comfortably.  I believe the eldest sister in the family, Teresa, who also finished high school and was a teacher, divorced her first husband.  Her daughter seems to have lived with Myles and Mary for a short time as a result.  This always sort of galled me.  If they could look after Lenora, why not look after my grandmother in the orphan asylum? 

It has occurred to me more than once that, perhaps, Myles was gay.  Myles liked parties and was thrown with eligible women often according to the papers of the time, could he really not find one that suited?  I was certain he was handsome and, unbelievably, I found this article the other day.  All things were against me but perseverance because during the early part of the 20th C there were two famous boxers named Sharkey clogging my searches and, in this case, they spelled Myles' name wrong.

But it is him.  As Diana says, "nice eye sockets".    Creepy but cool, I say. I know from his draft registration that the eyes in those sockets were blue and that wavy hair was brown.  I also know he didn't remain a doctor in a hospital or private practice but worked for H.H. Franklin Manufacturing Company presumably, as a company physician. 

Myles will always be romantic and tragic to me.  But alas, his line gives me no descendents-- only an interesting glimpse of his life as an immigrant family's success story.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

What's Cooking: Musings on Modernity

I am not a cook.  I could be a cook but I have too many food issues; I'm a vegetarian texture-eater  who hates tofu, eggplant and large mushrooms, random exotic fruits give my mouth a weird, scratchy feeling, I have an almond-family allergy that may or may not be abated when the almonds are cooked, I have never cared for seafood (except Friendly's fried clams) so instead, I'm more of a baker.  You can't go wrong with cake and cookies.

Growing up, our house always had a brownie or cake mix to make.  I have no idea why these items were on the shopping list but I remember, as a teen, being able to open the cupboard and assuredly find brownies to be made.  Mom's only stipulation was "use walnuts to cut the chocolate taste".

Our cupboard, also, always had a box of magical Bisquick that could make biscuits, dumplings, shortcake and pancakes! I believed in the mystical powers of Bisquick well into my 30s when I was living in England and found a box in my local Sainsbury's.  I was so beside myself with joy and nostalgia.  The English box didn't have the standard recipes as on the American box so the next time I went home I brought a box back and cut them out when it was empty so I'd always know how to make my English Bisquick do what I wanted.

It was only when we moved back to the US that I first gave the powers of Bisquick any thought and looked at the ingredients.  It was only flour with baking powder, salt and butter already in it. That's not magical; that's lazy.  I don't buy it any more.  In fact, I only buy cake mixes in a time/ingredient crunch but pancakes and cakes and even brownies made from scratch don't really take much more time and taste infinitely better.  What the hell have we been thinking? 

 Yesterday, I was making cupcakes because I found a tub of processed chocolate frosting that admittedly I had once purchased in a previous time-crunch experience.  Feeling the need to not waste it, I made vanilla cupcakes from scratch and because my kid hates fake frosting, I made her a little butter cream.  Anyway, none of this is the point which is that as I was mixing up the butter and sugar, out of nowhere an earwig falls into the batter and scrambles for cover under a hunk of butter.  I did what I'd like to think anyone in my position would have done; I screamed and screamed a little more (not loudly so much as consistently) and dumped my bowl in the sink.  Quickly, I scooped the beast out with a spoon into the sink and flushed it down the disposal where I ground him into smithereens. 

As I flipped off the disposal and gave the bowl a clean, I thought of Nora Cass.  Do you know what my great-grandmother Nora would have done, or yours for that matter?  They would have picked the bug out with their bare hands and squashed it between their fingers before continuing to cream their batter.  They wouldn't have started over.  They couldn't have afforded to if it had even dawned on them.  But we are so spoiled with convenience and plenty.

Andy Warhol
Recently, I was speaking with Diana about our grandmother Mabel's cooking abilities.  I was dumbfounded remembering our favorite dish of hers was chicken and dumplings. I don't even think the chicken was fresh but was made from Campbell's cream of chicken soup and had Bisquick dumplings.  OMG, that was tasty back in the day when I ate such things.  What a salt lick but hardly scratching the surface of what a farm girl should be capable of cooking.  Why didn't Gram eat fresh food or cook more originally than that?  Even when she packed our lunches for the Greyhound ride home from a visit, they would always include a bologna sandwich, Snack Pack pudding in the metal can, a grape or orange Crush soda and a Wet One.  Everything was processed in her kitchen.  Diana thinks it's because, being born at the right time for all these newly-created food stuffs, Gram embraced their ease and convenience without a single glance back.  She was a Modern Woman who kept a Modern Kitchen.

It is interesting to note that all this modernity has made us a fat and lazy nation.  And, it is also interesting to note, my generation of friends is reverting back to a natural state of culinary affairs.  We grow our own food as best we can, we belong to CSAs, buy local, buy organic...No more dark magic from the Bisquick box, we can mix our own dry ingredients, thank you very much.