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Friday, November 8, 2013

War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things

It has been nearly 100 years since the start of World War I-- the war to end all wars.  To mark this anniversary we will be writing about this era over the next few months and sharing our family history as it relates.

For now here are two classic songs from the War:

 Over There

or our Grandma Kate's favorite:

Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous

Monday, September 23, 2013

Accidental Memory Revival

I thought I remembered everything.  Well, everything long-term, not short-term at any rate.  I've had a manilla envelope full of about dozen letters from my mother to my Grandma Lucas that I'd never taken the time to read. As I continue to sort out my papers though I have to face these things down.  Today I began to open them.

If you read the entry "A Broken Home and other terms that pissed off mom" you may remember a reference to the tweedy furniture that ended up in our garage post divorce.  Imagine my surprise when one of the letters I opened today contained a swatch of that black and brown houndstooth.  My memory in this instance was as good as a photo.  It is exactly how I remembered it and it was an incredibly odd sensation to hold the fabric in my hand and see it as brand new.  Unlike the long lost couch it once covered, this little piece of fabric hasn't seen light in 46 years.  I was immediately transported back to Spring Valley in a brief, unexpected bit of time travel that made me queasy.

I read on and this is where I can't believe I didn't remember.  "Jennifer has her bar for feet --Uses it at night and doesn't seem to mind."  Wow, what a thing to forget.  I needed a brace on my legs.  How did I forget that?   It  clearly didn't make a huge impression on me unlike when my elementary school friend wore leg braces in third grade.  Her mom had to make her pants to fit over them and I always walked behind with her to recess. 

I'm the kid who always folded my stick of Juicy Fruit over my front teeth to simulate orthodonture that I would never really need.  You'd think corrective bars on my feet would have made a dent in my psyche good or bad. However, if I hadn't read the letter I would never have remembered them for the rest of my life.  I am certain.

I called Diana.  She remembered them because she was jealous of them.  Kids are hilarious.  But the most curious thing about these letters is why they may have been kept.  Why just this year and just one letter from 1960 about my brother as a baby?  Was it just the years of most change?  The family was started in 1960 and it was complete in '67 and it was divided in 1970.  I will continue to read and see what else I've forgotten, or never knew.  It's funny how one little line in a letter written so long ago changes the memories as I have had them ordered for so long.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

"Makes You Think All the World's a Sunny Day"

In 1993 I was having a bad year.  Not as bad as my mother mind you but let’s just say I didn’t handle her death as well as she did.   I felt lawless, hateful and even resentful at those women her age who were still alive.  But why wouldn’t they be alive? Mom was only 55—just a week from 56.
Above all else though I was so utterly sad.  I got fat.  I developed IBS.  I developed asthma as soon as I quit smoking.  My periods became ridiculously heavy and unpredictable and worse than all that was the physical fear for my life I felt from my brother.  He had stolen everything in our house before Diana and I had a chance to sort our things.  Without our mother running interference, we felt he might kill us. Well kill Diana for sure,  I’d be collateral damage.  It doesn’t matter how realistic a threat might be, if you perceive it, you suffer.  But that tale is for another day.

My state was fragile.  I felt like an abandoned kitten one moment crying piteously for my lost mother and the next I felt like a tiger needing to bolt for freedom in the unknown having found my cage unlocked.  My friends tried so hard to help me through but really I just needed to cry until I could cry again.  I thought about running away so many times.  Maybe I would do “Teach America” I thought or, better yet, just go west and try to find work on a farm.  What to do? What to do?  Diana wanted me to come to California but we fell out.  We were both so hurt we couldn’t help each other much less ourselves.  It was just easier to not talk for a while.  So we didn’t and instead of going to Cali for the month of August as planned, my friend Patsy asked me to come to Ireland where her family had a farm.  In turn, I asked Lori to come with me.

Dancing to the Wolfe Tones

Me and Strawberry on the neighbor's farm in Kilcummin

Patsy’s family lived in Kilcummin just outside Killarney.  Lori and I stayed in a B&B in town and set off to help move time forward.  Well, that’s what I was doing.  I was just getting through the days.  I was the girl who lost her mother and I didn’t have an easy time stepping out from under that mantel.

Killarney is a very popular tourist destination but it was relatively unspoiled back then.  It was small and had a number of pubs that had not changed in decades.  It also had trusty tourist shops and pony and trap drivers to take you down to the Lakes and Muckross House. 

It was the Gap of Dunloe, however, with its wild, lonely scenery and Macgillycuddy's Reeks that made me fall in love with Ireland.  The Ring of Kerry was at once a promise of the beauty still to be enjoyed in the world and a reminder of its ever- difficult terrain.  There is no easy passage through life but there is much to enjoy along the way.

By the end of the trip, I was fully aware that I was not much fun to be around despite what look like very happy photos of me.  I had more running to do before I could even begin to seriously face my loss.   I’d be back to Killarney again though.  Many times.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Please Don't Get Up on Our Account

Two weeks before we left for Ireland I was in a panic about still not knowing where my Irish Sharkeys emigrated from and I've been looking on and off for 20 years. I wanted to know since we'd be in Ireland so long and I didn't know when I would be back there again.  I've been to Ireland a lot for other reasons (explanatory blog post to come) but this was likely the one time I'd get to travel around a bit.

The summer my mother died I found out a great deal about the Sharkeys--even found their graves thanks to an irritable cemetery secretary. Her annoyance with having to look up 100 year-old burial records was obvious in her tersely typewritten answer on the same letter I had sent to her.  But she did answer.  For the record, if I were a cemetery secretary, and frankly I think I'm suited to it, I would love to help people find their family bones.

Getting back to my panic, it was 20 years as I said since I last contacted that cemetery and since then I've found many related Sharkeys whose records might reveal necessary clues of parentage and origin which is why this past May I thought I must write the cemetery again.  Thinking cemetery secretaries are usually "of a certain age"  I can't lie, I thought she'd be long gone since I last made a request of her but there her name was.  Damn it all.  I still mailed it off and hoped for the best.  Two plus months later and I've heard nary a boo from her even though I so sweetly began my letter:

Dear xxxx,

Twenty years ago you so kindly helped me find my relatives......  

This woman is a wall.  She will not be moved by age, flattery or sentimentality.  And she sure didn't care about the time crunch of my Irish trip.  But believe me, I knew better than to mention it in my letter.  I thought for sure that would double my delay.

Without holding my breath I tried other things. I knew what I knew and kept hammering away on every free site I could online when, thank you Irish Times, I found not a Dominick and Honora Sharkey but a Dominick and an Honor Sharket who married in Castlereagh, Roscommon in 1871 exactly when Dominick and Nora Sharkey were married.  It had to be them.  The parish was Kilkeevin.  The family is so hard to track because there were many little clusters of Sharkeys in that area and up a little further north in Sligo.  I can't tell you why I'm sure it's them especially because Sharket is not their name but it was pretty much their first names together on the same page and I've never seen that before.  And the year was right so Roscommon was added to our itinerary. 

It was late in the day when we arrived in Castlerea at The Armcashel B&B.   The very kind and helpful owner Rita told me Sharkey was definitely a local name and pulled out phone books for me though I knew I wouldn't be calling on anyone living until I had more information.  My heart was set on finding Kilkeevin Cemetery and Rita knew how to get us there but was uncertain of its accessibility.  The sky was dark with the threat of rain.  Rita warned us to wear our boots because, if we were able to even find it, the cemetery would be overgrown.  The directions were simple; drive back through Castlerea to the roundabout at the prison, take a right and turn up the road to the water treatment plant.  Can you picture that?

It was pouring by the time we got out of the car at road's end just next to a fly tip (aka some woods). The situation looked all but hopeless when we found a large gate blocked the grass tract that lead to what was sure to be the fields with my ancient dead. Thinking us at the end of the line, I stopped and looked into the distance unsure what to do when Richard walked over to the gate and undid the latch.  Oh.  We're really doing this.

It was spooky, wild and windy as the rain pelted us.  We were soaked through in a matter of minutes but we pressed on.  Ellie was loving the lark of it all.  I questioned my judgement.  Was I endangering everyone? What if there was a prison break or "a randy bull in top field"?  We had no phone, we were miles from anyone but cattle, sheep and ghosts.

Then we saw it across a small creek and up the embankment!  We circled around the stone walls looking for a way in but found the gate on the far side was locked tight. I stood on the outside looking in trying to read stones through my rain-splattered glasses.  Then Richard realized there was a stile built into the wall.  With the utmost care the three of us climbed the slippery stones and dropped down into the field of overgrown meadow grass and tombstones.

It wasn't completely abandoned.  Some graves were relatively new but stones that might name my ancestors were weathered bare and no paths were cleared.  Still we were there and through the rain I yelled hello to my family and told them they were not forgotten even if I didn't even know there names yet. Then Richard yelled "Come out and show yourselves"

Ellie and I both screamed "NO!"

Stay put, for goodness sake don't get up on our account.  Just know we're thinking of you.


A Better Class of Scarecrow

When we were passing through my m-i-l’s house on our recent trip over the Pond, I made a dash up the road to do a little bit of Find-A-Grave at St. Swithun’s--a wonderful old church and yard.   

It was a gorgeous sunny day as was the peace of my solo walk through the village.  While walking down Church Lane I was a bit startled to see this out by the recycling. 

Upon closer inspection I was more impressed than fearful. Still, odd and random I thought. Then I found a few more offerings and I figured there had to be a reason.  Sure enough, I found a bill tacked to a pole announcing a village scarecrow contest.  I wondered if any of the ones I’d seen had been the winner.   With all due respect to Dorothy’s friend the Scarecrow, (not a euphemism), we could do so much better in the US with our native scarecrows.  The plaid shirt and jeans look is so overdone.  Our scarecrows are just friendly icons of the fall, not something that would give a bird a pause before proceeding, much less a human.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Generation Gap

The first thing we did when we got to Ireland was head to England because that is called a good some other universe.  Richard put his foot down way back when the tickets were bought--this trip is about Ireland and not about England.  I argued that we're right there, how could we not? 

The real pull was Ursula.  She is Elle's last great-grand standing and she wasn't going to join us in Ireland at nearly 91.  It's not that she's frail but, by her own admission, her traveling days are nearly over.  In the 14 years I've known her though she's taken herself to Chile, including Easter Island.  She's cruised through the waterways of Russia and her final big sojourn was following the Silk Road to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.  I'm blanking on what "stans" she was in but at 85 they're all pretty impressive travel if you asked me.

So down to the ferry and over the Irish Sea to Wales and then straight to our overnight stop at my mother-in-law's in Bath. 
For the record, she has the most beautiful garden I have ever seen.  Ellie calls it nothing short of magical.  Then off to Grandpa's where Ursula lives on the "grounds" (really just a big yard) in the deconsecrated chapel. 
Tiniest bit of the magical garden

Ursula is a man's woman much like my grandma Kate was.  They were only children, difficult childhoods and extremely bright.  However, they never saw themselves equal to men despite their own many accomplishments.  Instead, these women idolized the intelligence of the men in their lives, admired what they perceived to be an overall masculine superiority in the world without even realizing their footing was more equal than not.  They undermined their own strength and skills by not recognizing this.  They shuddered at women who sought to reach the same heights as men academically, politically, intellectually.  Well, Ursula more than Kate I reckon but still, the point is while Kate expertly played the male-dominated game of chess, Ursula became a WREN and lied about knowing how to cook in her interview though she was quite proficient at it thanks to "finishing school".  She thought she'd be damned if she joined the War effort just to be somebody's cook. 

We made the crossing because we didn't know when we'd see Ursula again.   It was bittersweet to speculate what we thought our futures would bring and when we may see each other again.  Sadly, Ursula is struggling with her memory so the conversation was had more than once.  But for Ellie's own memories it was lovely to let these two generations spend time together and for the older one to finally see the brilliance of a young girl.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Long Time, No Blog: The Irish Gathering

Today I'm going to start with my Irish.  Twenty years ago when my mother died I thought, right, time to figure out who these people were and much good it did do me. That's sarcasm for I still can't tell you for absolute certain where the emigrated from or how they ended up in Syracuse but I do know a great deal more.  More on that later.  The one thing I am certain of is they were Roman Catholics and they were poor.  I have long since been conflicted by my boggy roots and my Anglophilia. 

Enter my Anglo-Irish husband (not how he ever describes himself BTW) and no longer could I gleefully sing almost any given Wolfe Tone song.  The lyrics were too charged--almost forgotten to me now.  But once in a while R and I will play a little game of whose Irish is bigger.  He claims an Irish-born grandfather who I in turn call an imposter since my people were on the land hundreds of years before his took it.  This in turn begs the question, how long does someone need to be in a country before they can claim nativity?  In the US, it is almost immediate though we do say first or second-generation American to deferentiate between newness of transplants.  But R claims his blood is more Irish than mine.  I claim you're not Irish if you're not Celt.  We're both ridiculous and we're both American.

As part of an economic recovery plan, Ireland declared 2013 as year of "The Gathering".  Ireland wants her people to invite their scattered relatives home for gatherings.  That's why a few weeks ago there was a family reunion at Castle Townshend--R's family's historic home in Ireland.   Yes, you heard me.

In desperation to make the most of my chance to research my Sharkeys while in Ireland, I pushed hard and two weeks before our departure I finally had a breakthrough.  I think I found my peeps in Castlrea, Roscommon.  We took a lovely trip around Ireland including Casltrea before we settled into the castle down in Cork.  During our drive we both found new appreciation for each others' Irish roots. Richard swotted up on his family history--which is a good thing too since he helped his father make their genealogy website and it was time he read the content. Was Richard ever relieved to learn his relative Col. Richard Townshend was not handed his land for his loyalty to England but rather he bought it all himself.

 Naturally, both of our Irish are worth descending from and Elle gets the best of both worlds.

photo by John Townsend

Monday, April 15, 2013

"A Broken Home" and other terms that pissed off mom

"Who said you come from a broken home? Our home is not broken." Mom was all kinds of pissed about that. Funny thing is I can remember Mom's response as if it just happened but I can't remember who used the term about us in the first place. Maybe I did, maybe I just assumed divorced parents equaled broken homes. Clearly, not according to Sandie's dictionary of idioms. Maybe we weren't broken per se but we were riding on a wobbly wheel or two.

This leads us to the next entry in Diana's and my dueling memories. Cue the banjos...


I did not know what was going on the day we left Dad—or rather the day Mom left Dad and took us with her. Why would I? I was only four years old. But my memory is odd. If you asked me what I needed in the spare room I might not even know what compelled me to climb the stairs in the first place. But I have pockets of strong, long-term detail. For the rest of my life, I will remember waking up that August morning in 1970 feeling like crap. I had a runny nose and it was being further irritated by the morning sun pouring through my bedroom window.

I rolled away from its cheerful blaze and whined for Mom. I most likely stuck my thumb in my mouth as a punctuation mark on the demand for her to rescue me. Shockingly, she sent my brother as her proxy. Richard was 6 ½ years older than me and never really paid me any attention before. So it was with caution I let Richard set me up on the couch in the family room, with blankets, tissue and the cat, Pididdle. The room was big, the use of which was divided in half by a fire place. On the right side was the T.V. where I'd watched the premiere of Sesame Street and on the other side was our play area where I first tasted the delicacy known as Play-Doh.

To get there, Richard and I had to pass Mom in the kitchen and I whined my indignation at her for sending the second string. Strangely, she didn’t really take notice of me. She did direct my brother to give me some baby aspirin and a cup of water after which he sort of put his arm awkwardly around the top of my head so that between him and the cat I was cocooned from what lay behind the safety of the couch. We didn’t really talk and I knew it was weird for my brother to be my comforter. He usually was locking me out of his bedroom or breaking my toys with his rough-housing. It was uneasy.

I simply can’t remember for sure where my sister Diana was but my mind can easily put her at mom’s side because she was Mom’s little helper. Diana has indeed always been the friend in need to anyone who seemed troubled—a natural Brownie. It makes perfect sense that she would have been eager to help our distressed mother. Even at six-years-old, Diana would have gladly been Mom’s go-to-kid. Oh, and when I describe my mother as distressed, I’m sure she was more determined at that point since the distress had been going on for so long.

It would be over 30 years before I learned where Dad was that day. After my mom had died, as a little swipe at her impending sainthood, Dad whined to me (for that is where I inherited that charming gene) “Your mother left me in the hospital with pneumonia. I could have died.”

All very dramatic and technically true but the back story to their divorce made that moment an optimum point for her departure. It was no longer a case of “in sickness and in health” this was one of life’s crossroads where you can choose to carry on in the same old dysfunctional manner heading to a tragic end or you can choose to live a different life and hope for a better ending. My father was a drunk when my mother married him. Mom left after a dozen years trying to get him sober and watching him drink himself ill for the umpteenth time. She left when Dad was safely in the care of health professionals. Mom left and that was okay.

What my mom didn’t know as she was driving us, the cat and some of our favorite toys and clothes up the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Media, PA to Syracuse, NY is that her life was already half over. It is good that we don’t know our own timelines because I’m not sure that it would really be helpful information nor change how any of us live our lives. In fact, it may depress one into inertia. I don’t mean this when it comes to terminal illness because that information can be helpful in sorting out your exit strategy. I mean when we’re the picture of health, it is best not to get discouraged by the thought of death—not when we are really just trying to survive. I guess I’m just now struck by how sad it was for my mom that day, how sad it had been for a long time and it only got marginally better.


By late afternoon we arrived at my Grandma Kate’s house on Weymouth Road. From the front, the brick house looked deceivingly small. In actuality, the house was built out over a slope making it rather deep. Gram was very happy to see us but I didn’t know her yet. Not really. When I was a month old my parents moved from Rochester, NY to Spring Valley, NY. On the way down, I was left with Grandma for a week or two while my parents set-up the new home—not exactly something a baby remembers. In time, I would love Gram, fear her and admire her very much. And someday, my own daughter would have her name. However, that day Gram was a stranger whose house was opened to me.

One thing is for sure, I liked her yard immediately. It had a late upstate New York summer lushness and Gram’s eclectic style was apparent in the landscape. The property was bordered by hedges down each side and from either sidewalk-side corner of the rectangular front lawn, colorful, slate stepping stones made a converse V leading to the front door. They were reddish pink, light green, gray-blue, somewhat ovoid stones all in random order but looking like the squares on a Candyland game board. They’d soon find a new use as a cutting board on which my brother would gut his trout caught in Cold Brook, the small creek up the road.

In the center of the lawn was a circle of perennials surrounded by stones gathered from a lifetime of garden building. Beside that was a baby fir tree from my Uncle George that would grow for years to come. There were also three rather large yew bushes big enough for us to climb in and make woody forts. There was one on either side of the front door and the third one took up the lawn between the driveway and one of the stone paths.

The house was wonderful. We entered through a small brick alcove walled with glass block windows into a living room clouded by filterless Camel cigarette smoke and were instantly comfortable. We could see the house was deep and down at the far end was a big picture window looking into the backyard beyond the kitchen table. However, immediately to the right our attention was caught by a Stark Davis print of a Macaw. Nearly, 23 years later, as my mother was dying she called us kids into that living room and asked us to tell her what we wanted when she died. After a brief, requisite verbal denial that her death was eminent, I jumped on the parrot. It was always there in that house, on that wall and we always called it a parrot. Someone would remind the other it was a macaw but then, one day that person would call it a parrot and the other would kindly correct them and so on. It was just a thing. A thing that happens in families that doesn’t seem to mean anything but means everything. It now hangs in my house.

There were four bedrooms in the Weymouth house. Upstairs were two rooms and a bathroom with a thin metal shower stall that I would love to punch on to make thunder noises and the small sink in which I would one day get my mouth washed out with soap. “Jenny, you are so sweet and pretty why do you have a mouth like a truck driver?” Mom would sadly ask. “Fuck you” was my soapy reply” Well, I wish it had been.

The bedrooms were very different in size—one would have been an ideal New York City studio apartment complete with a good sized alcove and two closets. The other bedroom was more a “room-for-let” size. It could fit a double bed and a dresser but the closet was built for little people since it was constructed into the eaves. For example, you couldn’t hang a Granny dress in it. But I’m dating myself now.

The house was built around 1952 and my grandparents bought it new. Within about five years their marriage would be ending over mental illness and infidelity. Frankly, I don’t know which event precipitated the other but I have my suspicions. But, due to that and the fact their children were half grown when they moved into this house, the décor had never been changed. My mother moved into the house at 15, my aunt 17 and my uncle was 12. Naturally, the large room with twin built-in vanity tables and drawers belonged to the girls. Because of this alcove there were six walls five of which had pink wallpaper with pictures of Cinderella-esque, fur-trimmed masks and ribbons on them. The fourth wall had the same print in age-darkened blue. There had been a fight between the sisters over which color should be used and the compromise was that my mom got a single wall of the blue background she preferred. Kudos mom—it would have been my choice too.

The furniture was “screaming 1950’s” with slightly textured, white vinyl fabric headboards decorated with large, similarly covered buttons. There was a rocking chair covered in the same material. I liked to drag my fingernail across and make a loud scratchy, synthetic sounding noise; Voop, Voop. I wish we still had that furniture but when we moved in it was all almost immediately discarded--except the rocker which moved to Gram’s room. For some reason, my sister and I were given our parents’ marital, “I Love Lucy” bed with the full-sized headboard that attached two twin beds together. Maybe mom just had no interest in the bed any longer and took over Diana’s. I can see that now.

My brother was given my first big-girl bed--my awesome, cool, magical high-riser bed that had one bed tucked under the other. (Within the next few years, my brother would burn that mattress by leaving his electric blanket on high—on purpose but I’ll come to that later). To make one bed into two, all you had to do was pull out the smaller bed underneath and pop it up for company. Richard had my Uncle Andy’s old room with its blue wallpaper of sail boats and lighthouse lantern design. Still hanging from the globeless overhead light was my uncle’s Valley High School tassel.

I have no memory of missing Dad in those first few days. I don’t even remember it hitting me that he wasn’t there with us. At first, Diana and I were much too busy exploring because a 4 year-old and 6 year-old could do that in 1970 without anybody watching them. And that we did. Since the adults had recovery plans to make, Diana and I headed out to the front yard to play. Drawn cautiously to the corner of the hedge by other little voices, we soon met Michelle and Lori. Michelle was about to turn 5 in a few weeks and Lori was only 2 ½. In that instant one of the most special and certainly the longest friendship of my life began. Though Michelle and I were closer in age, Lori and I were instant best friends.

Within a day of our arrival I also met my cousin David who was one year younger than me. David was an impish towhead and we hit it off immediately.  His parents were Uncle George and my mom’s sister Aunt Carla. From that day forward, almost no day would go by for the rest of my mother’s life when she and Carla wouldn’t speak multiple times a day. They were best friends—more loyal than swans. If I hadn’t been told outright about the reason there was one blue wall in my new room, I never would have believed those two fought over anything in their lives. Naturally, they didn’t always agree but no discussion nor debate between them could ever have been deemed an argument. No time between them ever passed because of anger. Diana and I could never say the same. Twice in our adult lives we’ve needed time apart. The first was after mom died. We didn’t speak for 3 months. The second was after I had my daughter. We didn’t speak for 3 years.

David, or Snookie Ukums, as Gram called him came to spend the night while Uncle George, Aunt Carla and Mom took a truck back down to Media to empty out the house. For a year after they returned, the furniture from the last house was stacked nearly to the ceiling in Gram’s garage. David Diana and I would sneak out there and climb on the mountain of rough, tweedy furniture—the last bastion of my mother’s middle-class life. Slowly the mountain was razed—pieces were brought into use but much of it was probably given away.

I liked Gram’s house. I loved its smells—which weren’t cooking smells but they were distinct. Gram thought the world of Noxema. That and a camphor nasal inhaler were two of her favorite tools for a comfortable life. I never saw her use the inhaler though it was always on her dressing table. It was a small torpedo shaped, slightly dented aluminum tube that had a little hole in the top that you could look down to see a small wick of the camphor. However, the Noxema was always in use. “Put some Noxema on it” was the order for every minor skin ailment. In my general ongoing house investigation, more than once I snuck in Gram’s room to smell the Noxema and drag my finger through the cold, greasy cream. I enjoyed watching the shiny, white, chunks separate as I made my in-roads. To this day there is nothing like the fabulous first dig out of a fresh jar.

The most reassuring smell was to be found in the hall coat closet. It was a wonderful—rather big closet that had mothballs somewhere inside. The door had a funny little light bulb with a spring on it that made the light turn on and off with the opening and shutting of the door. I liked to go in there and sit down among the winter mittens and scarves, smell the bizarrely comforting mothballs and try to find the magical balance on the door between it being closed and the light still being on. Also, from this hiding place I could listen in on mom and Gram talking in the kitchen. Maybe I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying yet I loved that they didn’t know I was in there but I heard them shuffling around and talking. It was my womb.


The houses of my youth were filled with cigarette smoke. It would be easier to tell you which adults in my life didn’t smoke than who did. Gram Lucas didn’t smoke. There, that is it. Everyone smoked and it was normal. It was such a part of everyone’s persona that I almost remember how some people inhaled. Aunt Carla took a quick, little popping puff and suck so as not to lose time meant for talking; Mrs. Fifield took slow thoughtful drags then held the cigarette daintily at arms length while slightly squinting her opposite eye. Mom always seemed super determined to smoke the whole cigarette with the first light, then, after the initial nicotine rush completely become blasé with the procedure. She would hold the cigarette in her right hand angled across her face to the left and speak to you through the V of her elbow. Diana does the same thing in motion, Mom did it at rest. Dad would have a cigarette in his fingers nearly every waking moment for the rest of his life. When he was in a place where it was not allowed, his twitchy little fingers would still subconsciously twiddle in his shirt pocket, grab one, remember why he wasn’t smoking it and drop it and repeat until he was out that door.

Gram Nye was the coolest smoker and by that I don’t mean technique. I mean she was old school hip with her Camel filterless. None of those sissy filters for her. But I think her cigarettes were left burning in ashtrays more than they were smoked. There would always be one smoldering away when she applied her bright coral lipstick at the kitchen table. Gram had a small, brass finish, circular beauty mirror with one side normal and the other side magnified. She kept it in the kitchen because she was used to living alone and it was a comfortable location for the operation. Gram didn’t just swipe lipstick on top and bottom but took her time like she was DaVinci working on a ceiling. All the muscles in my Gram’s mouth worked hard to get the lippy on. First, she poked her tongue behind the corner of her top lip pressing it forward to receive the waxy application and then, with her tongue following on the inside, she slowly moved the tube of color from one side of her lips to the other, repeated a few times more quickly once the initial color was in place before applying it similarly to the bottom. All the while her mouth would open and close, smile and pout in varying degrees while carefully being watched in the little round mirror. Lastly, most of it would be blotted onto a wrinkly Kleenex that she bit down on and one final coral-stained drag on her cigarette before crushing it out.

In her youth, Gram was a beauty with dark, rich, red hair that slowly turned an unnatural hue of burgundy as she aged. Gram was a big woman in stature—not fat but tall with some weight around her middle—it was her un-tethered breasts that made her look larger than she was. Bras were of no interest to her. Her uniform was double knit Hagger slacks ordered from a newspaper flier and ribbed, knit turtlenecks from Cooks (an early Target). On a chain around her neck were her dark rimmed, cat glasses. She totally rocked the look.

Summer of 1970

Summer of 1970. It started with Kent State. It ended like thieves in the night. We left. I remember being lifted out of my bed from a deep sleep. Put into the back of my mother’s black car and driven from one lush jungle to another. Syracuse. It is the first time I remember seeing my Grandmother’s house. I had been there before but not before I had memory capability.

Her house was a cool cave with an abandoned lived-in feeling. In the backyard was a go-cart that the neighborhood children had built under the guidance of my Grandmother. Upon our arrival they scattered like Fagin’s gang never to be seen again taking the go-cart with them. The stop sign at the end of the street had a stencil under the word STOP in spray paint of THE WAR. I didn’t know what war.

That stop sign remained there for years. One day it was upgraded in the early Reagan years.

I thought we were on vacation. I never knew we were never going back. I never knew that the toy I had on my possession was the only one I would have for awhile. It was a bouncy frog that I got at a birthday party of a friend I would never see again.

There were long phone calls between my mother and some unknown person who made her cry. There were a lot of hang-ups. There was yelling. We remained glued to the TV watching the "Bugaloos". We were wearing the same clothes again and again. Awful.

One summer evening I heard piano music coming from the backyard. I went down the slope that leads to the back porch (every home should have one) and there, through the basement window, I saw my mother playing a decrepit, upright piano. Playing magically. It was glorious. Discovering your mother had a secret gift of being able to play a musical instrument was so cool. This scene was to be repeated when years later I discovered my paternal grandmother could play the piano, too. Oh, the secrets we keep. They clutter our heart and make it hard to breathe.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tales of two sisters and the divergence of memories

One thing that Diana and I took years to figure out was that there is no such thing as a truly shared memory. So many factors and unchecked personal baggage translate joint experiences into individual truths. We have so many of the same stories we just tell them differently and we thought it would be fun to chronicle some here beginning with religion. The stories we share clearly echo each other but they are our own independent experiences and, probably most interestingly, written at vastly different times in our lives.

And so to begin...

Give Me That Old Time Religion

I have this amazing, sinking, thrilling feeling that I was meant to be a Catholic. I owe some of my mere existence to the fact that the Catholic Church had orphanages and housed my maternal grandmother in on from 1912-1919. Never mind that no sooner would I enter the church then I would most likely be kicked out as a heretic. Excommunicated as soon as communicated. Mostly because I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut and mostly because I would like to channel my inner Dorothy Day and that could present some problems for everyone involved. Plus, I have only been to one Mass in my entire life and right off the bat I took communion even though I wasn’t suppose to because nobody tells me what to do. Nobody. As it is, I am a playpen Episcopalian. My Grandmother got a hold of my sister and in the summer of 1970 and took us to St. Luke’s Episcopal church in Jamestown, NY. The same church where the funeral for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson was held don’t you know. But there we were in our summer Sunday best and I had no idea what was happening. There was talking and praying and kneeling and walking up to the altar but just to receive a blessing because Grandma didn’t want to cross the line with my parents and have us receive communion. But apparently Grandma drinks.

They kept talking about the Holy Ghost which made my face flush with indignation. All this time the adults had been telling me that there is no such thing as ghosts and then they are celebrating one right in church in front of God. What is wrong with you people? I kept looking over my shoulder and to see if the ghost was behind me because that’s their usual position. They like to sneak up on you and scare your pants off. I really wanted to stop the proceedings and ask a few questions but my Grandmother’s gloved hand squeezed my hand a little too firmly which is to say not at all but just enough to silence my fidgeting and curiosity. As soon as the service was over I demanded to know who this Holy Ghost was and had it ever been under my bed. “Oh my word Diana” my grandmother said. I could tell she was perhaps embarrassed and that I was calling attention to us. Calling attention to one’s self is anathema to Mabel Alice Cass Lucas. Perhaps there was a time back in the days of the Golden Pheasant that she was the life of the party but now, 35 years later, Mable wasn’t doing the Charleston and sipping bathtub gin.

We went through the receiving line and met the priest. He asked us how we enjoyed it and with out releasing my hand Mable pointed her gloved finger at me and said, “I have to go home and explain the Holy Ghost to this one.” There was a sympathetic nod and sigh from the priest as Mable marched us out to Second Avenue and into the white Falcon with the ice blue seats that I loved.

I suppose that is the day I became an Episcopalian. I didn’t know it at the time. I was unaware of the Machiavellian moves going on behind the scenes. Every child should be so fortunate to have a Grandmother who loved them so much that they hatched plans for the care and feeding of my soul.


I was not baptized at birth. My parents claimed that they wanted us children to discover our own faith. I saw it as proof that my parents were secret hippies and counter culture revolutionaries. Years later I realized they were just lazy, selfish people who were trying their best not to be their parents. Philip Larkin would have been proud. But there is something missing for children of agnostics. Or worse yet believers who don’t want to share. Both my parents had intensive spiritual lives in churches growing up but somehow they failed to realize that their own children would long for some guidance, some communal belief system.

Plus I got gypped on a baptismal gown-the first of many rites of passage absent from my childhood. But then something happened in elementary school where I kept company with some Christian Missionary Alliance girls who sang the praises of Delta Lake Summer camp outside of Rome, NY. And although it meant missing the summer reruns of “The Waltons” I begged and was allowed to go.

I was given a swanky white leather version of the KJB. By the end of the week it and my new sleeping bag had been trashed because who gives an 8-year a white leather Bible? I was determined to read it that week at camp but nobody bothered to tell me what begot meant and it grew tiresome quickly. I understood Noah and the flood but what was really missing was Nancy Drew to come into the storyline and do some sleuthing.

There were so many stories floating about the camp about demonic possession and the need to have an exorcism but the fact was that was inspired by several movies: “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and the like. There was witnessing. There was saving. There was accepting Jesus as your savior. I didn’t know about any of this and so my week was filled with much pageantry as I was offered up as the child of a broken home. I was a newly saved soul. It was wonderful and much needed since I had fallen through the cracks of my parent’s divorce. The only time my entire family of five was ever in a church at once was for one of my second cousin’s wedding in the Lutheran church in Jamestown. That was around 1967 or ‘68

I’ve seen the photos. All them posing in the heat, pretending to be happy. It's crap I say.

It is spring 1991. I am working on Wall Street, oddly enough, not as a prostitute. Well, maybe a sort of desk jockey prostitute. A secretary. I have failed big time in my quest to grab life by the balls. My phone rings. There was no caller i.d. back then. It’s my mom. My Dad’s favorite cousin has died in upstate NY. Self inflicted. But justified. He was having a stroke. Something like his third. He knew what was happening and he took matters into his own hands. Taking his loaded shotgun he went into his backyard and attempted to blow his head off. He missed and took off his left shoulder. Undaunted he reloaded and into the cold hard ground he dug a hole in which to brace the shotgun so it wouldn’t fly out of his hands on the kickback. Everyone in upstate knows understands about the kickback. I learned about it at the Carroll Rod & Gun club in ’74. A lesson I have never forgotten over the years and one that has served me well when it comes to firearms and life in general.

Having created the hole in the frost covered land (Spring NEVER comes early in Upstate) he put the shotgun into the ground and put the barrel in his mouth and ended it.

We live on those sorts of terms. We are cloth coat Republicans. We stash dead babies in ice houses to save on funeral expenses. Don’t mess with us. We live and die on our own conditions. And somewhere in between, God exists.

My mother always clucked her tongue at people who made candy and sweets such a no-no to their young. She thought for sure that it only would boomerang into a life-long sugar binge once the child got out from under and was able to have the verboten on their terms. God turned out to be my candy.


The Scarlet B

My heathen seeds were germinated long ago in the impressionable years of childhood. As it turned out, I was different from my peers from birth. In the spirit of the free-thinking 1960s my weekend-radical parents decided not to baptize us kids. They thought it was a choice they had no right to make for us and that we would choose our religion when we were old enough to decide for ourselves. I shouldn’t say religion as if it were a vast option. Rather, their thoughts were narrow enough to include any Protestant Sect we might warm to. My sister covered her bets and was baptized Episcopalian when she was in college. She maintains a cautious reverence. If it’s in any way true that this life counts against the next, I’m sure my brother will not have a nice end.* This probably does not worry him.**

Personally, I can conversely quote a Blood, Sweat & Tears lyric on this point; "I swear there is no hell but I pray there ain’t no heaven." Granted it’s not as catchy and doesn’t scan well at all, but I took geology in college too and there is no hell. But heaven or an afterlife for that matter is possible and what a nuisance that would be. I can only picture a giant cocktail party where I would have to mingle with everyone I ever knew and pretend I was glad to see them.

The truth is, as a child, I tried desperately to belong to the Christian world. I felt it was a grave oversight, if not plain laziness, on my parents’ part not to have baptized us. To help right this wrong I went to church almost every Sunday. This wasn’t entirely of my own volition. My sister, being older and thus possessing the power of Pan over me, actually enticed me. She had found religion on her own and was an acolyte at the Episcopal church on the corner. It was more than amusing to see her with the boys on the altar, it was inspirational. I thought she was a fabulous rebel doing what no girl had done before.

In addition to my sister, the notion of communion was also a powerful lure. I memorized the Lord’s prayer to rightfully partake in his blood because I loved to feel the paper wafer disintegrating to pulp in my mouth, washed down by the warm burn of wine. Each week was no less a thrill every time my favorite verse came round: "Give us this day our daily bread," yeah, yeah, yeah, but should I go up with my row? I got through last week, will I get in again this one? All I have is the fake i.d. of faith and a friend who works behind the bar. I heard the rumors of the rite of first communion and that it was a sin to partake prior to the official ceremony, but wasn’t that somebody else's religion? I heard about needing to be baptized too, but a scene was never made. I was never asked to leave and I was always served.

Music has always been a draw for me, especially if it involves a sing-along so it’s only natural that I loved the hymns. I carry no recognizable tune, I’m aware of that now, but I felt I sang like an angel "Glor ororororor ororororo orororor ria in excel sis dayo!" Something like that anyhow, with a very affected operatic trill, because I felt the touch was warranted. It’s true none of my pew neighbors ever complimented my "voice of a nightingale" but they never actually complained either so, again, I slipped through.

Mom encouraged our interests in piety even though she never seemed quite comfortable with the constraints of organized religion herself. I never heard her petition the Lord, much worse curse him. She had been baptized Catholic but was not raised as one. In fact, her mom renounced Catholicism as much as she could as an adult because she had overdosed on it in her formative years. Gram wasn’t an orphan, but her mother was a widow and finances were so tight that she was forced to live in the convent while growing up. Upon graduation from high school, Gram refuted the practice of Catholicism but the nuns had left an indelible mark on her psyche. Even when I knew her you could always gauge how angry she was with you by how many times she addressed you as "Sister". However, Mom was supportive of our interests. In an effort to show this support, she began teaching Sunday school at our church.

Mom, my sister and I found common ground at St. Andrew’s. The trouble with that was that our paths would diverge at the door. My sister and I were in separate classes because of our age difference and Mom taught a class of boys. This whole twist of Sunday school, which I had thus far avoided, was unpleasant to me. I had to make friends with kids I felt were corny. It was a prejudice of mine that all kids in Sunday school were knee-sock wearing prigs. Gradually, the idea of church began to
freak me out. I didn’t mind it when I was hanging out with the adults, drinking and singing but when I was shuffled off in a group of my peers, well, you must know the real problem; I wasn’t baptized and they found me out. I was a 7-year-old sinner who couldn’t make a collage celebrating my baptism because I’d never had one.

When the project was given to make a collage for our parents, all the kids around me happily went about their business, making these special celebratory certificates of their baptism. Not only did I not have an event to celebrate, I didn’t even have “parents” to share it with, only mom. Another strike; I was a child of a broken home. So, while everyone else was gluing down borders of yarn and dropping sprinkles of glitter on construction paper, the dam burst in my creatively stunted mind and I began to cry. Nobody could get me to explain why. I just cried until Mom was sent for and my mortification was uncontrollable. I couldn’t tell her it was her fault because she was trying so hard.

I left class that day with an overwhelming sense shame. It was mom’s fault that I was a sinner at seven because she could have just taken care of things when I was born, but she didn’t. If I had been less guilty, if I had been one bit smoother, I could have just faked it. I could have made up some damn date or, in a worse case scenario, copied someone else. But that wasn’t me. Deep down I knew I couldn’t lie because the Lord would know. In fact he’d known all along and he was just waiting, biding his time, letting me drink his blood and swallow him whole because he knew how to deal with me. He revealed me to my Sunday School Class.

It took me some time at home and the blind promise from mom that I would never have to return to class before I eventually admitted that I cried because I didn’t know how to do my assignment. Without naming names, I told her it was very difficult to try and live religiously when one is not baptized into a faith. It sort of precludes you from full membership rights. She gave me the old “It’s suppose to be fun” speech and asked if I wouldn’t let my teachers know personally that I was all right, but I refused. Eventually, she did handle it for me, maybe realizing some blame. As it turned out, no one was offended, just sorry that I had been made so upset. Mom ensured me that in the future I didn’t have to do anything that made me feel so badly. I truly appreciated the absolution, because I knew I wasn’t going to return to that class the moment I began to cry, and I just didn’t need the guilt on top of the fact that I’d been shamed, if not bested by a group of kids I didn’t even respect. They had just one thing on me--one lousy thing.

Our once strong family enthusiasm for bonding in the hallowed halls of St. Andrews was
irreparably damaged, though not just because of me. A new minister arrived who was too much of a fanatic for Mom. He had weekly "Jews for Jesus" meetings and he had people raising their arms up and holding them up for most of the service so they could "better receive the spirit of the Lord". But what really ended the entire era was when the new minister went through Mom’s checkout line at the drugstore (she there worked evenings) and asked her out loud, "Who’s watching your children?" Now my mother had a few problems with this particular question the first being his judgmental tone. He was obviously implying that she was an irresponsible parent, but his question also let all in earshot know' that we didn’t have a father there with us either. His brief, damning words suggested the possibility that we were left completely unattended. He knew we lived with our grandmother, her just didn’t like women working regardless of the need for it. Public judgment always has repercussions and my mother was through with all of them that day. Even my sister, in an act of solidarity, turned in her white robe. Naturally, I was relieved, my sins however, were to follow me still.

Because my sister is two years older than me she went to summer camp first. Funny enough, she chose a bible camp. Her friend had been to it the year before and it was deemed suitable. I became wrought with jealousy tagging along on shopping sprees for her necessary camping supplies. At one point, Mom took her to the bookstore and let her pick out her own bible which had a flap in the front for you to fill in your family tree. Just like the “Waltons," my sister had a family bible with a page to fill with her future. I suffered in silence. Well, probably not, I probably whined about injustice and cried ageism or something.

Religion was looking good again when you tacked on shopping trips and a week in the Adirondacks. The next summer, when I was just finishing third grade, I was granted permission to join my sister at camp. My year of envy had been rewarded with my own bible and a bookmark with the Lord’s prayer written in golden Gothic lettering. Once again, I was divinely inspired. It was a new set of people who didn’t know how short I actually fell in comparison to them. It was a second chance.

The week at camp passed in a flurry of activity. We had a typical summer camp agenda with crafts, games and swimming. Still, aside from two times a day in the chapel, it had weird overtones that could not be ignored. I realize most kids at camp tell ghost stories and relate tragic lore of previous campers who befell strange ends. It’s part of the experience and makes for great cult movies. Unfortunately, here at the Bible Conference, ghosts were replaced by demons and bears in the woods with emergency exorcisms. I was eight-years-old, I’d rather have lived in constant fear of the existence of ghosts than to think I might, as others reportedly had, see demons dancing on my playing cards or be forced to host the devil in my body. In my everyday life back home, the devil rarely came up as subject matter. But here he had a starring role; he was the pariah to be scorned and the evil to be refuted everywhere. He was an unnecessary scare tactic to use on basically good kids. We were at bible camp for God’s sake, not kicking puppies or tripping old ladies. Camping with Christians is terrifying for children, I need that on a bumper sticker.

Obviously, I was glad when Saturday came. I got up early to set up watch in the parking lot for the old, paneled station wagon. If only it had been that easy. I had no idea what I was in for that last day. We all were called into our dormitory to wait quietly in our rooms and reflect on God’s kindness toward us through the joy we had and the friends we made at camp.

However, by that time, we were well sick of each other. We were kids and our attention spans were short. As far as we were concerned it was time to strike the set and leave town. There were about a dozen of us in our room and we all just slung across our bunks in a sullen funk. After much meditation and the conclusion that I would give anything to God if Mom would be the first parent to arrive at pick-up time, I realized that we were all being called out one-by-one to talk to our head counselor without explanation. Someone came up missing first and in turn returned for the next kid and so on until my turn came. Nobody was talking, just tapping the shoulder of the next person to go.

When my turn came, I bravely walked down to my counselor’s room. It was a private room and much smaller than our barracks. When I saw her face look up, I quickly soothed myself with the thought that she was nice enough after all. I mean they all were nice enough in a reserved, no-time-for-homesick-babies type of way. So in I walked and closed the door behind me at her request. I sat on the very edge of her bed while she sat sideways at desk facing me with a notebook and pencil in hand.

At first, it all seemed very relaxed as she noted down my birthday, address and such. It was like visiting the school doctor each year. Then BOOM.

"And when were you baptized?" My eyes started to brim and my throat nearly crushed with tension. So that was it, a witch hunt. Here I had so ardently tried to blend and belong only to be found unholy again.

Her curiosity turned to enthusiasm as I managed to stammer my confession. She leaned forward with such interest that her stringy Breck girl hair took on a new-found bounce. She smelled a cover-up and feeding off some innate Woodward and Bernstein zeal she probed with excitement.

"Well then, when did you ask Jesus Christ into your heart?"

What the hell? Nobody ever told me I had to send out an invitation? I always figured if I was praying to him, he was already pretty fond of me--already with me in fact. Strike two, I completely lost it. The tears now falling heaved into outright sobs. Against my deepest desires, I ruefully became a tale of redemption in their twisted camp lore. It knocked the Sunday school incident right off the chart of childhood horrors for me.

I was so damn mad and so damn frightened when that woman fell to her knees in front of me. (To think my biggest problem was once that I thought knee socks were corny.) She took my hands in hers with feigned affection and before her moment could be lost, she pleaded with starry eyes, "Ask him in right now. Honey, ask him in now!"

I wanted my Mom. I wanted to get out of there. I had no idea that I was living in such a high risk body, that it didn’t have Jesus in it. It was worse than not being baptized. This was so wrong, who were these people? There must be another way to do this I thought, it couldn’t be as easy as asking, especially on such short notice. We needed holy water and surely a minister to make this official Apparently, I was about to be saved and I didn’t feel she, in her khakis, had the authority to bear witness.

"Just Pray to Jesus and ask him in...NOW!"

There was no turning back. I closed my eyes, held my breath and silently asked Jesus in to my life or heart, maybe both, I wasn’t taking chances. I did do it all right, but I had too much pride to be audible about it. She would not get that satisfaction from me. Immediately after, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ, having the power all along. I was always mad as hell at that part of the movie because it would have been a lot easier and a lot less emotional if the Good Witch had just gone over a list of all the powers the ruby slippers had before anyone had to get hurt. I mean, Glinda had the gall to put the shoes on Dorothy’s feet in the first place.

I didn’t know what to say after I’d' nodded indicating I’d done my job. As I collected my wits, I couldn’t help wondering what my friends at home had done this week and how much fun I’d likely missed. I had felt trapped and done what she wanted but I didn’t really know what it meant for me. She had beaten me by saving my unclean, unbaptized soul and I owed her. However, she was done and lost immediate interest in my physical presence. She just snatched up her notebook and began furiously jotting notes down on the page devoted to me. I don’t think she even gave me a good Christian hug as she sent out. Feeling rather weary and used, I sniffled back to my room and my sister.

Might I mention that my sister never ceases to slay me. "Oh I forgot about that, they got me last year." she said snapping her gum and barely raising her eyes from her book. Apparently, it never dawned on her that I was going to cry and I think I was an embarrassing sight in front of our peers just then.

Clearly this event did not faze my sister. She could always ad lib when she wasn’t sure what was going on and I know she didn’t know anymore than I did, she was just calmer. In fact, just looking at her in that moment with tear swollen eyes and a Jesus swollen heart, I could perfectly picture the scene that took place the year before. When they asked her "And when did you ask Jesus Christ into your heart,” she probably flipped her hair with nearly imperceptible defiance, looked them right in the eyes and said "Easter l972."

*He did not have a good end.

**He really never did worry about what would come next.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Twin Sons are Born! Collect Prizes.

Marvin Andrew and Morris Frank Cass were born on Easter Sunday in 1905. Twin sons which, in "The Game of Life" would be good cause for celebration--two little blue pegs for your plastic car and cash prizes from all your opponents.  It's a big score.  In reality, it wasn't for Alice and Allen.  

Alice already had a perfect boy and a perfect girl---fat healthy babies who were thriving so it was quite a shock when the twins were born.  I don't know for sure which boy entered the world first but Marvin, likely the smaller of the two, was never sturdy and died by the end of May.  And, what would turn into a gruesome family story that we'd giggle at in horror, Alice and Allen decided in the likely event that Morris would soon die too,  put Marvin in the ice house to keep until they could bury them together.  The laugh, of course, was that Morris didn't die.  He was mentally retarded but he grew big and strong. He just didn't do it with his parents.

I can only imagine the family discussions that must swirled between the two Cass farms but it seemed in everyone's interest to let Morris be raised by his grandparents Frank and Nora.  Their younger son Rollie was only 14 years-old himself and he would be a good role model for his little nephew as he grew.  In fact, they were more like brothers as it happened.

Maybe they all agreed that a child anything less than perfect was too much of a burden on working farm.  Frank and Nora were in midlife but still quite able to raise a child.  In turn, Morris was adored and given all the attention he needed from his real siblings as well.

What must Alice have felt like?  She lost a baby and then she had one she must have thought she couldn't raise, why else would she relinquish him?  One thing I feel certain of is that people weren't "in their own heads" back then the way were are today.  They didn't seem to second guess or punish themselves for such difficult, heart rending decisions.  In fact, they got right back to the business at hand because Grandma Mabel was born the very next April--nearly one exact year after the twins. 

Alas, for all their diaries I have, I'll still never know what they really felt because emotions were not recorded nearly as much as the weather.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

Saving the Pieces of Today's Treasure

Alice Grace Warn: born 1880

This gorgeous little chubster was her Daddy's darling. I'm amazed by all of her jewelry--she doesn't look like a humble farmer's daughter to me.  Alice's mom, Hattie, was born in Scotland and I believe Alice's dress is made from a close approximation of the Wilson tartan embellished with velvet.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lydia Pinkham--The Rest of the Story

Way back in 2011 when I started this blog, I found a letter to Nora from Lydia E. Pinkham giving her advice on some feminine issues she was suffering, most likely menopause.  Sadly, at a very crucial moment in the descriptive directions, "Lie on face and in-"  we had to stop short because we did not have the last page.  Talk about your cliffhangers.  Well, fear not, over Christmas vacation, Diana and I were fortunate enough to be together and had some time to sort papers in tandem.  Et voila! Diana had the rest of Lydia Pinkham's letter to Nora!  At last we can learn what to do after we lie on our faces.  Please refer to this post for the beginning of the story:  Lydia E. Pinkham and the Menopausal Woman.

The Last Page:


serting the capsule. 

Paxtine can be obtained of the Ruth Paxton Co., 68 Chauncy St.  Boston, Mass.  Price 50c.
In obstinate cases of constipation one of the first things to be attentive to is a change of diet.

Exercise freely.

Use brisk friction over the abdomen.  Have regular hours of rising, eating and going to stool.

Use Hunyadi Janos water which you can get at any drug store according to directions on the bottle.

Womb trouble will cause headaches.

Yours for health, 
Mrs. E. Pinkham


Well, there you have it--womb issues and constipation.  Not a cool combo but as I think I mentioned before, Nora lived a very nice, long life either because of or in spite of Lydia Pinkham.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mabel's "Snow in the City"

Berta and Elmer Hader were children's authors from the 1920s to 1960s.  They met in art school and built a beautiful, creative life together.  As a teacher and book lover, my grandmother became familiar with their work and shared many of their stories with her class.  I believe, at one point, she had her class write letters of appreciation to the Haders.  Moved by this lovely, little fan base in Jamestown, NY, the Hader's dedicated this book to my grandmother and her 3rd grade students.

I don't know where my dust jacket is but it looks like I haven't had it for a while guessing by the big snowball, splat mark of white paint.  To be honest, I can't remember a time that mark wasn't there but my grandmother's love remains evident.  My grandmother retired the year I was born.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Mabel Was a Literary Fangirl

Grandma Mabel didn't moon over the movie stars of her day but she did love the bookish crowd.  One of her favorite authors was Carl Carmer.  You probably don't know him but he was huge in his day.  Carmer wrote of folklore and history and quite a great deal about upstate New York though his most famous book seems to have been about his time in Alabama.  We have a set of his works somewhere, probably autographed, but the most awesome proof of Mabel's admiration to survive is the following letter Mr. Carmer wrote to Mabel.  It is in response to her request to know more about him for a paper she seemed to be writing.  I know nothing of her paper but in answer to his offer at the end of the letter, Diana said it took place and I want to think it did too.  Frankly, I would have loved to have met Marjorie Flack.  Angus is one of my all time favorite literary dogs.

 November 7, 1939

Dear Mrs. Lucas

The major facts of my biography are obtainable in Who's Who in America for 1938-39 or whatever the latest edition is.

The minor facts are, I feel sure, obtainable from my sister who will be very glad to talk to you about her brother if you let her know you're coming.  She has some rather bad pictures of me -- but practically all pictures of me are bad.

If your paper is not to be read until after November 30th and you could find time to come to Geneseo on that date,  I will be there myself.  So will Mrs. Cramer,  William Rose Benet and Marjory (sic) Flack--author of many books for children, and you will be able to obtain a perfect torrent of unrelated facts about me.

Sincerely Yours,
Carl Carmer


What an unbelievably awesome letter to get from someone you respect so much and invitation to his sister's home to meet with him and two other very respected writers.  WRB and Flack married, though I haven't looked to see if they were married at this point.  But what a literary windfall.  I'm sure Gram would have moved mountains to get there and share a Tom Collins or two with that group.  

As I wrote this I realize there are many book-related stories of Mabel and might share a few more.