LeVar Burton’s Keynote at RootsTech 2017 – From Kunta Kinte to Star Trek and The Power of Imagination

Not only is LeVar Burton an incredible actor, portraying Kunta Kinte in 1977 in Alex Haley’s roots, followed by Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek, but he’s an unbelievably insightful man with a powerful story to tell.

levar-burton

I wasn’t able to attend Rootstech this year, but thankfully LeVar Burton’s absolutely incredible keynote is finally available online. I’ve been hearing about it for days and I was finally able to watch this morning.

If you watch only one thing this year, watch LeVar’s keynote. And I don’t mean if you’re black, I mean if you’re human. It’s only half an hour and, I promise, you’ll not regret it. In fact, you’ll need a box of Kleenex and leave feeling wonderful, renewed and inspired.

And please, do the “One Minute Exercise” with LeVar.

Aside from LeVar’s incredibly interesting delivery and poignant stories about his mother, Roots and Star Trek, he made the following points:

  • LeVar said his mother was determined that he would reach his full potential, “even if she had to kill me.”  I’m sure we can all related to that.
  • We all have an important story to tell and an equally important contribution to make to humanity.
  • Close your eyes and bring into your mind a person who has seen your potential in life and helped you realize your gift, what your contribution to the world might be. Someone who saw you and recognized your brilliance and helped bring it into being.
  • None of us get through this life on our own. We all have assistance on this journey.
  • You can do what you can imagine. Focus equals manifestation.
  • Unless you can be still you may never hear that voice of God within. Pay attention or you might miss something incredibly important that is key to delivering our gift to the world.

The Desert News provided some additional coverage here.

LeVar’s session is not on the RootsTech video selection, but other sessions are available for free viewing here if you scroll down a bit.

Thank you LeVar for the single most incredible, inspiring keynote speech on any topic I have ever witnessed.

2-25-2017 Update – Unfortunately, LeVar’s keynote is no longer at the above link.  I checked the Rootstech site as well as YouTube and was not able to find it elsewhere.  You might check again in the future.  If you find a copy someplace, please let me know and I’ll update the link.

New Year’s Genealogy Resolution – Hey, Look, ANCESTOR

heart

As genealogists, we love genealogy, right?

So we certainly don’t need to be encouraged to work on genealogy. Often, we have to be encouraged to stop working on genealogy – like to do bothersome things like eat and sleep.  Oh yes, and work.

However, sometimes, I find myself researching haphazardly without direction, and I don’t seem to ever get anything “done,” as if there is such a thing in genealogy.  This is the genealogical equivalent of “SQUIRREL” aka “ANCESTOR.”

For me, goals give me direction and clarity. If I wake up in the morning without a plan for the day, I’m much less likely to accomplish anything.

Once a year we make New Year’s Resolutions. Resolutions give us the opportunity to reflect upon what is important to us and how we might go about achieving those things.

But more importantly, resolutions are promises to ourselves. And in my case, a commitment to my ancestors.

I only have one Genealogy Resolution this year.

I know, I know….how can there just be one?

Well, defining what is the MOST IMPORTANT lets me focus on that one goal, without distractions. Ok, with hopefully only a few distractions. Scratch that. I welcome distractions, but only if they are brick walls falling on other lines. See, I’m already distracted. Just thinking about brick walls falling does that to me.  Which is exactly why I need a focused plan.

resolution

I love the 52 Ancestors stories because they give my ancestors’ lives shape.  Birth, death, where they lived, what happened during their lifetimes, what we know or can figure out about each of them and weave into a story – including something about DNA for each of them. These articles bring these people, who are part of me, to life.  And because the articles are online, they can be updated as more information is discovered. How’s that for optimistic! Plus, the stories are available for posterity and they function as “cousin bait.”

Notice, I didn’t say 52 stories.  I want my goal, promise, resolution to be achievable. I don’t want to get discouraged and set myself up for “failure” if I miss a week for some reason. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is how we phrase the goal!

Let’s face it, sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes the research and gathering of information for a particular ancestor is particularly intense. Sometimes, I have to wait for information to arrive. Sometimes I need to find someone to DNA test, or order upgrades.  Sometimes we find out that we were, uh, cough…um, wrong…and we have to do some revising.  Ok, we have to saw the whole darned branch off the tree and start over. Dang!

I’d be very happy with 50 stories, truthfully!

This isn’t like that age old promise to exercise more, which, by the way, I’ve already abandoned this year – in favor of genealogy research. I mean, really, who has time for  sweating when there are ancestors who need to be found???

Plus, now that I’ve shared my resolution with you, you are all going to hold me accountable! Right?

Do you have a genealogy resolution for 2017?  Do share!

Sarah’s Quilt, 52 Ancestors #141

In 1870 in Kentucky, if a man died, the entire estate was presumed to be his, legally, with his wife having a “dower right” of 30% of the value of the estate.  By the way, this also included anything, including real estate, that the wife had inherited, from anyone, unless it was specified in the inheritance that she was to hold it separately from the husband.  So the old adage of, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” was true.

The only way to value that estate was to have an inventory taken, submitted to the court, then a sale of all of the property. Yes, a sale, of everything the “man” owned. Now that “everything” included plates, cups, forks, pans, skillets and kitchen utensils he had maybe never touched, except to eat, but were legally considered his. Nothing was “hers” or “theirs.” The only way for the widow to retain “her” things, aside from her clothes (literally) was to purchase those items from her husband’s estate sale.

So, let’s get this straight.  If a Jane’s mother had left Jane a plate that was a family heirloom, that plate immediately became Jane’s husband’s property, and if he died, Jane had to purchase her mother’s plate from her husband’s estate sale.  Got it.

If you think this was a barbaric practice, it was.

I can only imagine the sale day, not long after the widow had already suffered the loss of her husband, maybe just a couple weeks after hearing those clods of dirt fall against his wooden coffin. The grave, now with fresh dirt mounded over the top was within sight of the auction as neighbors arrived.  Perhaps they acknowledged their deceased neighbor as they passed by and family placed a few flowers before turning and walking towards the house.

The widow was left wondering how she was going to feed the family and get the crops in out of the field. Her, or legally, his belongings were now standing outside in the yard or perhaps in the barn for all to inspect before the sale.  The widow would have felt stripped bare-naked to the bone, exposed, with her entire life on display for all to evaluate and comment upon.  And rest assured, those comments weren’t all made in the spirit of love.

The grieving widow, hearing the auctioneer’s rhythmic incantations to bid, echoing through her mind forever like a terrible melody, watching her life indiscriminately and methodically being sold off piece by piece to family members, neighbors and strangers alike. Heirlooms were sold outside of the family, including items like the family Bible. Going…going…gone! Nothing was exempt.

Furthermore, given that the widow only had the “right” to one third, she had to be careful only to bid on what she desperately needed and could afford, no more than one third of the value of the estate. If she spent her entire one third recovering household and farm items, enough to at least attempt to farm, she would have no cash from the sale to purchase supplies or food she couldn’t grow, like sugar, or pay for labor. And who was going to give a widow woman credit? What a terrible quandry.

I hope, I really hope, that when other bidders saw the widow bidding on something, they just shut up.

William Chumley’s Estate

This past week, I was perusing the estate of my ancestor’s daughter’s husband, William Chumley, who died in 1870 in Russell County, Kentucky. There were three documents filed with the court. The first document I found was the actual estate sale. Like normal, I saw the widow’s name, Sarah Chumley, among the bidders, which always saddens me greatly.

chumley-williams-sale

Sarah Chumley bid on and purchased several inexpensive items.

  • 5 comforts – 1.00
  • Sett teas – .10
  • 7 plates – .10
  • 5 glass tumblers – .15
  • 1 clock – .25
  • 1 looking glass – .10
  • 1 small table – .25
  • 1 hoe – .15
  • 1 plow – .15
  • 1 plow – .15
  • Cavalry saddle – .15
  • 1 sythe and cradle – .50
  • 1 sucking colt – 5.00

The second document I came across was titled “Allotment to widow Chumley” with a list of items allotted to Sarah and values attached. In this case, these items were in addition to what she purchased at the sale. In other words, these items below seem to have been set aside for Sarah at the appraised value of the items. She never had to bid for them, but she had to accept whatever the appraisers estimated their values to be.

Sometimes this was fine, but other times, not so much. The appraised value could be more, or less, than what the item actually sold for. In William’s estate, an ox cart that was appraised at $12 only sold for $6.60. If the widow had wanted that cart, she would have “paid” $12 for it to keep it from being auctioned. Of course, had she waited to buy it at auction, she might not have been able to purchase it, and it might have cost more than the $12 that it appraised for.  The 5 bed comforters that appraised for $1 to $1.50 each were purchased together at auction by the widow for $1 total. So this “setting aside” practice could be a double edged sword.

chumley-widows-allotment

The estate appraisal was the third document filed for William Chumley, although that normally was filed first. All of William’s estate documents were filed at once, on October 7, 1870, and the appraisal just happened to be the third one copied into the book.  It appears right after the final portion of the widow’s allotment.

chumley-inventory

Each item that a deceased person owned was valued by, traditionally, 3 appraisers. The first appraiser being the person the deceased owed the most money to, the idea being that individual stood to benefit the most from the estate items being sold at the highest value possible so the debts of the deceased could be paid, in full, hopefully. The second appraiser was generally someone related to the wife to represent her interests. And the third appraiser was an entirely disinterested party, but with a working knowledge of prices in the area. Often you see the same people being appointed by the court over and over again in this third capacity.

Estate appraisals are wonderful documents for the genealogist, because in essence you’re peering into their house and barn from the distance of decades and sometimes centuries.

I was scanning down the inventory list, imagining what their life was like in rural Kentucky, based on what was and wasn’t present in the appraisal.

That’s when I saw it.

The Quilt

1 Quilt…..$15

chumley-quilt

A quilt.

chumley-civil-war-era-quilt

This quilt isn’t Sarah’s quilt, but it is a quilt top (unquilted) made from Civil War era scrap fabrics from the same time and may have looked similar. The pieced blocks in this quilt appear to have been made from old clothes, complete with stains – a very common way to utilize remaining fabric after clothes were too damaged to wear any longer. Everything was salvaged and reused one way or another.

The quilt in William’s estate inventory was probably a quilt that Sarah had made with her own hands, often piecing and quilting with scraps from clothes, old and new, by candlelight in the evenings.

Maybe Sarah made that quilt from the scraps of the clothes she had made for her children. Sadly, those would be the children Sarah either never had, or that never lived long enough to be recorded in a census. The children Sarah longed for and hoped for, but were never born, or were born and died and were buried in the ever-expanding family cemetery behind the house where she could watch over their graves daily. The same cemetery where she would one day bury William.

Maybe eventually Sarah took the tiny clothes she made for those children she dreamed about apart and used the fabrics in the quilt she and William used to keep warm. Maybe this quilt got them through the Civil War.

It may have been the quilt Sarah sobbed into when her father, Lazarus Dodson, died in October 1861, just a month before the Confederates camped beside, or maybe on, her family land. Two months later, the Battle of Mill Springs (Logan’s Crossroads) took place a mile or so away – the Union forces advancing across the family land – perhaps through the cemetery where her father was buried.

Did Sarah huddle, wrapped in this quilt, with her step-mother and sister as the menfolk engaged in battle? Did the women hide a gun for protection in the folds of that quilt, praying they would never have to use it and hoping they could shoot straight if they did? They could surely hear the battle, the cannons, the shots and the cries, half a mile or a mile away, across the fields, past the cemetery.  Hundreds died that day and scores more were injured. Did this quilt comfort a wounded soldier?

Were Sarah and her sister huddled together with the quilt wrapped around them for warmth in front of the fireplace when they received word that Sarah’s sister, Mary Redmon’s step-son had been killed? His stone rests just down the road at the Mill Springs National Cemetery, but his body never came home.

And what about Mary’s husband, William “Billy” Redmon, who was fighting for the Confederacy?  He came home safe, but Sarah and Mary would have worried relentlessly until he did.  Did Billy know his son had been killed until he arrived home after the war?

Did Sarah shed tears of anxiety as she worried about her half-brother, Lazarus Dodson, named after her father, who fought for the Union in the war? And what about Sarah’s half-sister, Nancy’s husband, James Bray, also fighting for the Union?

How about Sarah’s half-sister Rutha’s husband, John Y. Estes who while fighting for the Confederacy was injured, captured and held prisoner of war? Did he stop at the cabin on his way walking back to Tennessee after his captors released him north of the Ohio River, injured and with no food or supplies? Did John find his way to his father-in-law’s land, knowing he would find food and shelter, only to discover Lazarus’s grave? Did John sleep beneath this quilt perhaps, or as a former Confederate, was he not welcome in Sarah’s home?

And then there was Sarah’s half brother, John Dodson, and his wife, Barthenia, who lived nearby and simply disappeared between the 1860 and 1870 census, with some of their children in 1870 found living among relatives and neighbors. Were John and Barthenia war casualties too?

Sarah probably wrapped up in that quilt for comfort when she buried her children, if she was able to conceive, then when she buried her father, Lazarus Dodson, her sister’s step-son, her brother, his wife and some of their children and then in 1870, when Sarah buried her husband as well. Life was difficult and there were probably many more burials, sorrows and trials that we know nothing about.

The quilt, valued at $15 was worth more than the brown heifer at $11, about the same as 8 shoats (young pigs) at $16 and the man’s saddle at $14, and more than the ox cart and a saddle with bridle, valued at $12, respectively. As far as household goods, nothing was worth more. The quilt was valued at exactly the same as 10 head of sheep, and animals were the most valuable items in this estate inventory except for a grouping of 2 beds, bedding and furniture for $30.

This tells you that the quilt was not a tied comforter, but a beautifully hand crafted quilt. This quilt was clearly more than just “bedding,” given the appraised value, and since there was only one, it was likely an heirloom to Sarah – something she had poured her heart and soul into.

Maybe some of the fabrics in the quilt had even come from Sarah’s mother’s dresses. Sarah’s mother had died when Sarah was a child, sometime between Sarah’s sister Mary’s birth about 1833 and Sarah’s father’s remarriage in 1839. Was Sarah’s only memory of her mother through fabrics in the quilt?

At her husband’s estate sale, Sarah Chumley, the widow, bought “5 comforts” for $1.

chumley-comforters

But comforts aren’t quilts. For clarity, comforters are whole pieces of cloth, front and back, with some sort of cotton or wool “batting” layered in-between, and tied or “knotted” every few inches with thread or yarn to hold the layers together. Comforters were quick to make. Quilts weren’t and aren’t – taking months and sometimes years.  Not only was the quilt top hand pieced, but the top, batting and back were held together by millions of tiny stitches, every one lovingly placed by hand, about 10 stitches per linear inch of thread.

What happened to that quilt?

We don’t know.

It’s not listed on the bill of sale from the auction. It’s not listed in Sarah’s allotment. Let’s hope that someone, someplace had the good sense to simply let Sarah have her quilt and just “lost” it in the process.

Lord knows she needed it.

Ten days after Sarah’s husband died, on May 20, 1870, Sarah made her own will, at roughly 37 years of age, stating that she was “week of body but of good sound mind.” She left everything to a child she appeared to have raised, but with a different surname, and her sister’s children, her “neeces and neffu.”

On September 23rd, that same year, Sarah’s will was recorded with the court, indicating she had passed on.

Indeed, Sarah desperately needed that quilt, just for another 3 months or so, as she mourned the life she had, the family she had lost and the children that were never born, or were and died. Sarah needed comfort as she left this earthly world. When you wrap up in a quilt, those who made the quilt, or those who love you from the other side are hugging you – earthly caresses from the wings of angels to ease your way.

All things considered, I wondered if Sarah was perhaps wrapped in and buried with her quilt.

While Sarah couldn’t be spared the many griefs in her short lifetime, let’s pray that Sarah was at least spared her quilt.

9/11 at 15 Years

9-11-rubble

I don’t want to remember, but I can’t forget. Those arches and palisades that would be beautiful architectural pieces in a cathedral but are horrific in the rubble.

I didn’t want those images seared into my psyche forever, but there they are.

It has been 15 years, and there is certainly nothing to celebrate – except for the heroism that followed this horrific, inhuman attack on America.

Those two things, the most horrific scenes I have ever seen paired with the most incredible examples of humanity I have ever witnessed. I guess it takes a tragedy to make heroes – and this was a tragedy of immeasurable proportions, never experienced before, and thankfully, never again since.

9-11-firefighter

Before I go any further, let me say that not only does my son work in the line of public safety, but so do many of my family members, friends and former clients.  Many went to New York to help in the following days and weeks.

As I listened to this horrible event unfold on the radio, driving to a public speaking event at the Michigan Municipal League Conference, I couldn’t help but think of the police officers, firefighters and EMTs that would be responding and by virtue of their chosen profession, would also be in harm’s way. I said a silent prayer for them. In the end, 343 firefighters, 71 law enforcement officers and 55 military personnel would perish in addition to almost 3000 innocent people on planes and in buildings struck by the terrorists. And that’s just the immediate count, not counting those who died later, and continue to die, as a result of those attacks.

As I listened, I had no idea, absolutely no idea, of the magnitude of the devastation that would follow. When the towers collapsed, I was physically ill, because I knew what that meant. I prayed everyone who would die, died quickly. What a terrible prayer to pray.

I stopped at a gas station to fill up, take a break and see if they had a television, because I wasn’t sure I believed what was on the radio, although the descriptions were incredibly graphic and I could tell that the reporters were in shock themselves.  I guess I didn’t want to believe it was true. The clerk at the gas station didn’t even notice me walk in, because she was absolutely glued to a small television.  I joined her and we stood, motionless, in stunned silence.  It was true, and was getting worse minute by minute.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I assumed it was some small privately owned plane that made a grave error.

When the second plane hit, I knew it was something much worse. I called my husband immediately, who works in an industry very concerned with security, and he was already “in motion,” so to speak. He wanted me to turn around and come home. I kind of thought he was nuts, and I didn’t. Later, as all of the gas sold out of stations, I wasn’t sure I could get home.

I know this makes no sense, but I wanted to know where my family was. I wanted to gather them to me, regardless of their age. I wanted us to be together, because as the nightmarish proportions of that day unfolded, I think we all came to realize that we had no idea where the next shoe would drop, that there were many shoes, and we were suddenly all vulnerable and at some level of risk, as were our loved ones.

I called my elderly mother.  She was sobbing and wanted to know where I was.  I told her to pack a bag, take the cat and all the cat food she could buy, fill her car with gas and go to my brother’s who lived an hour distant.  I didn’t want her to be alone, no matter what happened.  I was 6 hours and 2 tanks of gas away and I wasn’t sure she could get to me, given that we didn’t really know what was happening.  She would be safe with my brother.

The traffic on the interstate was horrendous on my drive to the conference. In fact, it was dead stopped. Apparently people had been so dumbstruck by the news that they stopped paying attention to their driving and had a series of accidents. I could certainly understand that. I drove cross-country, taking the back roads in the beautiful sunshine.  It seemed so wrong for such a terrible day to be so beautiful.  In fact, it all seemed impossible and surreal.

I gave my presentation at the conference, which was normally packed, but on that day, was very sparsely attended. I could tell that no one’s mind was on what I was saying at all. My mind wasn’t on what I was saying either. Finally, we all went out to the lobby and watched CNN together. And we cried. We shook our heads in disbelief as we watched those images over and over again, waiting for the next piece of horrific news. We hugged. Men and women alike. It was the most somber group of people I have ever been with, all funerals included. Each person there served a municipality, and we all knew that anyone could be next. Who would be next? What did we need to do? What could we do?

Air traffic ground to a halt. Never in the history of aviation have such drastic measures been taken. Our skies were eerily silent and fighter jets replaced normal commercial air traffic, especially for those living near borders and “high value targets.”

Never has America been so unprepared for an attack, with no warning, on our own soil. In Michigan, bridges and tunnels were closed due to concern over safety and the fact that some of our bridges lead to other countries. Some bridges are just exceedingly long, and none were prepared for the possibility of terrorism.

Terrorism. What a terrible word. A dark soulless word.

9/11 was the day that terrorism was introduced into our collective psyche in a way that no one alive on that day will ever, ever forget. Terrorism, unfortunately, at one level or another, has been a part of our lives ever since – not only in the US, but also in Europe and other parts of the world. It has spread like a deadly disease – the Zika virus of  radicals bent to destroy us.  They tried to break us, but they failed.

Terrorism also called us all to be patriots. And we answered in such numbers that there were no American flags to be purchased, anyplace.

9-11-newsweek

It galvanized us in our resolve to be Americans, to be brave, and not to be held hostage by terrorists, terrorism or fear. Yes, we live our lives today, still in a heightened state of vigilance, but we do live our lives. They inflicted a grave injury, but they did not and have not won.

Thinking Further Back

As we approach this black anniversary, I realized that there are few things that have had the level of impact on my life, aside from personal anniversaries like births, marriages and deaths, that 9/11 has had.

Another event that probably falls into that same category was the assassination of President Kennedy. That was the day that Americans collectively lost their innocence and 9/11 was the day we became enmeshed in a war that won’t end in our lifetimes. We can’t even see the enemy. They don’t wear red coats anymore.

Vietnam, not a day, but an era, was also very defining for my generation.

On a more positive note, defining moments in my lifetime include the election of a black President and the nomination of a woman by a major party for President. It doesn’t matter whether you like these particular politicians or not – the very fact that our country and society has progressed to the point where people who couldn’t even vote 100 years ago now can and do lead our country is incredibly iconic and liberating. We have gone from “Hell no” to “maybe” to a token “yes” to “absolutely” within two or three generations – mostly within my generation. When I was a child, girls could only be secretaries, waitresses, teachers or nurses. My, how things have changed.

Being a genealogist, I think regularly about the lives of my ancestors, and the 52 Ancestors stories that I’ve been writing allow me, really, force me, to think about their lives individually. I ask myself what things in their lives would have been defining events that shaped their lives, meaning culturally or historically, as opposed to those personal milestones and dates that we typically associate with genealogy.

Some of those milestones stand out as not only life-changers for the ancestors in question, but events that precipitated changes that reverberated down through the generations and changed future lives too. The biggest difference is that that news was carried by Paul Revere on horseback, a town crier or a pony express rider, not by CNN, the internet, cell phones, texts, messages, Facebook and e-mails.

There was no immediate notification across the country, so the news was slower to spread, and reaction took much longer. There was no mass shock. But then the problem couldn’t spread itself by airplane either. Of course, the news might have been much less accurate by the time it reached the most distant cabins and was generally “old” by the time it arrived.

As I write my ancestors’ stories, I try to look for these types of events in their lifetimes. Several come to mind and I’m sure there are many more that could be added to this list:

  • The French and Indian War
  • The 30 Years War
  • The Inquisition
  • The London Fire of 1666
  • Indian Raids on Various Frontiers
  • The Acadian “Grand Derangement” or Removal
  • The Revolutionary War
  • The Civil War
  • The War of 1812
  • The Enslavement of Native People
  • The Genocide of Native People
  • The Trail of Tears
  • The Emancipation of Slaves
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • The Holocaust
  • The Atomic Bomb
  • Women’s Right to Vote
  • The Introduction of Antibiotics
  • The Introduction of Electricity, Telephones, Radio and Television

I asked my mother, before she died, which things had the most profound personal impact on her life and she said that wiring their house with electricity and World War 2.  Those answers didn’t surprise me, except that I hadn’t realized that at one time, she had lived in a home without electricity.  Mother’s fiancé died in WW2 and that clearly changed the entire path of her life.

I ask myself, how did these types of events affect the lives of my ancestors? Did they change their lives by virtue of direct involvement, like fighting in a war, or did they change their lives by virtue of a cultural change, like electricity in homes?

Did they too live in a time of terror?  Did tragedy make heroes of them?

Who were the heroes? Who sacrificed? Whose lives were changed and how? Who died for the cause?

I wonder if they, like us, 15 years later were still living in a “state of heightened vigilance.” I know those types of event changed many forever.

Never Forget

The experience of 9/11, for those even remotely involved will never be forgotten, and for many, especially in New York and for the families of the victims, it doesn’t even fade.

For those of us more remotely involved, being supportive from a distance in whatever capacity we could, those images remain and will remain forever seared into our psyche. Only death will remove them.

We all grieve and mourn in our own way and time. This is the memorial quilt that I started but could never finish, because, well, I just couldn’t.

9-11-quilt

Perhaps it’s time to finish this now and title it, “They Didn’t Win.”  What do you think?

I wonder which images remained for our ancestors for the duration of their lives? How did they cope?  I wish they had told us, written something about their life and times.  While these memories remain vivid for us, anyone under the age of about 20 has no personal memory of this event.  If we don’t tell our stories, and record them for posterity, they will forever be lost.

Where were you on 9/11?  Which images remain for you?  What is your story?

The Death Watch and Harkening Back

Have you noticed that I’ve been a little quiet lately? My publishing goal is for one genealogy related DNA story each week, typically a 52 Ancestors article, and one other technical article as well. I’ve been a little shy recently, and will be a for a little while longer.

In my world, August has been a brutal, brutal month.

I have trouble with August anyway, truthfully. August 26th is when my father was killed in an automobile accident when I was 7, and my dearly beloved step-father died over Labor Day weekend 31 years later. Those kinds of deep wounds never heal entirely, they simply scar over a bit and we remember them with both sadness and fondness forever. But in reality, we never forget, either the person or the pain of their absence – or the circumstances surrounding their death. In the vernacular of days gone by…the death watch.

In early August, this year, we received news that a family member had been diagnosed with cancer after a routine colonoscopy. Now, that could even be construed as good news, if you’re a glass-half-full person, because it means they found the cancer early enough to do something about it. In other words, while cancer is horrible and terrifying, finding it early increases the survival odds dramatically.

At that point, I did what quilters do – I set about making a “care quilt” for the family member, Mary, with help from my quilt sisters – to let her know the family is thinking of her, to send positive energy her way, to let her know she is loved and to give her something to take with her to the hospital, rehab, chemo…whatever. Being wrapped in a quilt is being wrapped in love. Need a hug, grab a quilt.

I’m glad we made the quilt and shipped it when I did, because little did we know time would be so short.

Mary with quilt

The Dentist and Never-Ending August

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate going to the dentist for dental “work?” Well, I do. It almost never goes well and there is always some complication. That could partly be due to a car accident many years ago, but whatever the reason, it’s always some flavor of quite unpleasant.

So, of course, I was on the way to the dentist’s office when I received the text on August 9th that subsequent scans indicated that the cancer was more advanced than originally thought, but that surgery was scheduled for the 17th. Not good, but still hopeful. I was a bit shaken, understanding how unsettling this news must be to her immediate family members.

A few minutes later, standing IN the dentists lobby, I found out that my friend’s house had burned to the ground that morning and her son did not escape the fire and perished. The terrible irony is that my friend is a firefighter. I will also say that thankfully, Andrew, her son, did not burn to death, but died of smoke inhalation. I know, that is small consolation but it is some. Additionally, I later discovered that the family pets perished as well. Needless to say, it was a horrible, horrible day that rocked this entire community.

I had what I think is known as a meltdown, right there, in the lobby. Thankfully my friend works there. They graciously rescheduled me because the dentist cannot work on a sobbing blob.

The next few days were consumed with trying to figure out how to help. How to help the family who lost everything in the fire. How to help my family member with cancer and the other family members caring for her.  How to be useful but not in the way or overbearing.

And truthfully, I felt like a zombie. I spent some time with my friend’s daughter and her fiancé who had escaped the fire. Loren, the fiancé, had tried to rescue Andrew, but a middle-of-the-night fast moving fire offers very little opportunity to do anything – even to escape yourself. The family members who survived barely escaped – with maybe 30 second to spare. If not for Loren, they wouldn’t have escaped either.

And so, two more quilts were delivered, and I am still finishing the third.

A four quilt week, in total. I never, ever want to live to see another four quilt week. But I wasn’t done yet.

My cousin’s husband had a stroke. This isn’t a distant cousin I’ve never met, but a couple we’ve traveled with. We saw them last fall at a reunion. Yep, a fifth quilt is in the works.

On the 17th, Mary, the cancer victim, underwent surgery which, as they say, did not go well. She was consumed with cancer and died eight days later, August 25th. Needless to say, this was not the result we expected and two days before her death, optimism and hope turned to resignation and immediate family received the “come now” call. Thankfully, most of the family did make it in time, by the skin of their teeth, and she retained enough consciousness to know they were there.

Mary had asked for her quilt to be brought to the hospital. The quilt was doing its job, bringing her comfort.

Andrew’s memorial took place in the midst of all of this, and I discovered that another friend had lost both her husband and father within the past few months, on Christmas Day and Father’s Day, respectively.

And of course, the anniversary of my father’s death was mixed into this painful brew.

Is August ever going to end???

The Death Watch

I’ve been thinking a lot about death this month. It’s OK to laugh at this slight understatement.

My last ancestor story that was published, about Daniel Miller, recounted that his death, on August 26th, was probably unexpected. (I told you August was a rough month.)

Unexpected. The norm then. Aside from accidents, few deaths are unexpected today.

My ancestor Joseph Bolton reportedly got up from the breakfast table and walked out to the fields to work and died of a heart attack. That’s rare, very rare today. He was probably having warning symptoms long before that fateful and fatal attack, but had no way to recognize them, and nothing to do medically in 1920 in Claiborne County, Tennessee if he had.

At that time, most deaths weren’t protracted. Today, it’s a different story.

The following death information was extracted randomly from a dozen chronological Claiborne County, Tennessee death certificates from 1917 beginning in May and ending in late June. 

Name Cause of Death Duration Contributory Cause Duration Comments Death Watch
Nancy Roark Asthma 30 years Acute indigestion 10 days Probably a heart issue 10 days
Demis? Cosby? 7 month child No medical attention 0
Lonie Cosby Tuberculosis No medical attention, mother of child above ?
Esker Brooks Whooping cough No medical attention ?
Shrelda Yeary Dropsy No medical attention ?
Child Fulty Stillborn No medical attention 0
Ansel Ellison Diphtheria No medical attention ?
Alexander Welch Homicide by shotgun Right groin, left side chest 0
James Carr Pernicious anemia 2 years Was a physician ?
Jordon Welch Suicide by shotgun Heart wound 0
Gareth Overton Bowel complication 4 months Tetanus 1 yr 4 months 4 months
James Kivett Drown 0

Looking at these records, it’s easy to see how many of these deaths today would have been preventable, or the disease curable or at least treatable.

When I first started visiting Claiborne County, Tennessee in the 1970s and 1980s, many people still eschewed going to the hospital in Knoxville, about an hour away. When antibiotics were first introduced, people began to seek doctors and medical attention more routinely, but by the time you were bad enough to go to the hospital, it was assumed you were going to die anyway. People gave reasons like “didn’t want the family to be split apart,” but in reality, it was hopelessness. Hospitals, at that time, couldn’t do any more for the ailing family member than the family could do at home, and hospitals were viewed as simply places to go to die. Then, it seemed that going to the hospital “assured your death” and people became even more afraid and superstitious with the stigma of a “wives tale” attached.

Looking at Indiana death records which began earlier than Tennessee death records, we find the following for Elkhart County, Indiana beginning in 1902 where records were clearly kept in alphabetical order:

Name Cause of Death Duration Contributory Cause Duration Comments Death Watch
Elizabeth Miller Inflammation of bowel 12 days Valvular insufficiency of heart Several years 12 days
Harry Miller Typhoid malaria 3 weeks Typhoid ? One week 1-3 weeks
Baby Miller Premature birth 4 hours 4 hours
Jacob Miller Typhoid Intestinal hemo??? ?
John David Miller Senile gangrene 7 months ?
Joni Miller Inflammation of bowels 10 days 10 days
Ruth Miller Malignant jaundice 2 weeks 2 weeks
Solomon Miller Abscess in liver 2 months Probably cancer ?
Rettica Minnich Collapse 10 hours 10 hours
Sadie Michler Bloody flux 11 days Followed by cerebral meningitis 3 days 3 days
Jessie Mitchell Cancer of stomach Don’t know ?
John Mitchell Brain lesion 14 days 14 days
Rebecca Mitchell Old age Dysentery One week One week

In terms of the length of the death watch, Indiana records are more informative.

Today, medicine can “save” many, and I put the word save in quotes on purpose.

Before I say what I’m going to say, I want to be very clear that I am an advocate for medical care, both preventative and remedial. However, sometimes medical care simply extends the death, not extending a useful, meaningful life that has quality.

I was speaking with a physician this past week who is also a friend. She told me that she had “finally” lost her father. She is not an insensitive woman, but it took her father 10 years to pass away. His life was repeatedly “saved,” only for him to go back home to wait for the next medical disaster to befall him. He was immobile, diabetic, had kidney failure and finally died of sepsis. His life had no quality – and the family literally had a 10 year death watch with no hope of real recovery. Should I even mention what that, along with 10 years of 24X7X365 caregiving, did to her mother’s life???

Our generation is the first generation to experience these truly prolonged death watches. In my own family, my 4 grandparents passed as follows:

  • Mother’s mother (1960) – heart attack, death watch 4 days
  • Mother’s father (1962)– liver cancer, death watch about 10 days
  • Father’s mother (1955) – congestive heart failure, death watch probably days to weeks
  • Father’s father (1971) – old age, heart failure, death watch just days

Contrast that to 10 years for my friend’s father, or two years while my brother died of cancer, multiple surgeries and chemo rounds one after another. I surely wonder, in retrospect, if my brother wished that he had foregone all of that and lived just a few months, but pain free and with some quality of life as compared to two years of one bodily insult after another. I guess the price of opportunity and possibility was surgery and chemo.

My other brother spent 18 months on a liver transplant list and then died of liver cancer, without a transplant. My sister had surgery for breast cancer which had returned when she died of a heart attack.

These protracted deaths make for an extremely long and draining death watch for anxious family members who so desperately want the person to be healed, especially if more than one death watch is in process concurrently.

More Deaths Than Births

As my physician friend and I continued to discuss this situation, we were talking about how our generation is the first to routinely experience this phenomenon of the extended death watch.

The death watch used to be characterized by the family sitting by the bed of the person who was going to pass over shortly – usually for hours or a few days, generally after they were too sick to get out of bed anymore. Today, the death watch is very different and often significantly prolonged.

One observation we made is that there just seems to be so MUCH death now. It surrounds us. We realized that this is, in part, because of the lifesaving measures that are underway. We never had these opportunities before, and yes, they do turn into death watches in many cases. But not always. My sister-in-law has had cancer twice and remains cancer free today – 15 years later.

Another observation is that there are a lot fewer births today. That same sister-in-law has 7 siblings, and only one has passed away. My step-father had 12 siblings and my father was one of 10.

By comparison, my sister-in-law had 3 children, I had 2 children that lived, my mother had 2 children that lived, my uncle had 2 children and my other brother had 2 children. Much smaller families today.

By virtue of simple math, in our generation, there are simply more deaths to experience and fewer joyous events like births. The scales have tipped, for now. In the next generation, the balance should be more even, although that doesn’t make the deaths any easier to handle – but there should be fewer of them. That also means fewer family members to love.

Another item of note is that when a joyous event like a birth or marriage does occur, it’s over rather quickly and everyone goes back to what they were doing. Death watches have become prolonged, along with the grieving.  So yes, it does often seem that there is much more death than before, and that the negative outweighs the positive.  In terms of the number of days we are feeling the immediacy of grief through a death watch as compared to the joyful days, the number of grief days has increased while the number of joyful events has decreased with smaller families.  This phenomenon isn’t imagined, it’s real.

How does this stack up in your own family?  How has it affected family members?

Empathy

Empathy, according to the dictionary, is the distinctly human ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Sympathy is when you feel sorry for another’s misfortune, but empathy means putting yourself in their shoes.

How to we acquire empathy? From experiencing those same things ourselves. Those experiences are what give us the ability to be empathetic. Sitting those long days and nights in an uncomfortable chair by a hospital bed holding a death vigil ourselves – watching the breath becoming shallower and shallower, more irregular as the hours and day pass, until there are no more breaths and the heart beats for the last time – as the last bit of life slips from our loved one and we know they are gone.   Passed over to the other side.

As my husband said, tears welling in his eyes, on a particularly difficult day this past week, “I can’t hear about this without harkening back to my own experiences of when my parents and grandparents passed away.” That’s empathy.  Harkening back.

Empathy is how we know how the other person is feeling, not just feel sorry for their misery. In essence, it’s how we make lemonade out of the lemons we’ve all experienced and continue to experience as humans.

Based on this, the current generation of older adults should be extremely empathetic, helpful, understanding and willing to lend that helping hand.  I find that empathy often increases with age, as people experience more of these events personally.

Empathy – it’s how we know that people need care quilts, and why we make them.  Many times, it’s all we can do.

In Summary

August is nearly over, thank goodness.

Please bear with me as I catch up with my hundreds of unanswered e-mails and write new articles – along with finishing those two quilts and a sixth quilt that is needed now. I’ve used all of my reserve – emotional, blog articles and quilts.

On the other hand, I’m very grateful that I can write these articles and make care quilts. I much prefer this to being the person in need. It’s just that I have not yet figured out how to forego sleep entirely to harvest those extra hours.

There are exciting things that have happened and come my way over the past couple of weeks that I haven’t been able to attend to. For example, I have finally had my 23andMe account transitioned. I need to look at that, along with a new tool developed by a genetic genealogist. I’m looking forward to getting back in the groove. I miss the sanity/insanity of genetic genealogy.

As I said to my husband yesterday, “You got to work.” He replied, “You say that like it is a privilege.” It is actually, especially when you can’t for whatever reason.

Thank you everyone for your understanding during this difficult period and while I catch up from under a seemingly bottomless pile. I’m back at work!

Memorial Day – All Gave Some, Some Gave All

For Memorial Day, I wanted to take a look at my ancestors and see just how many served our country, or the colonies that would become our country. I was surprised, and a bit overwhelmed, to discover just how many veterans I have for ancestors.

“Our fallen heroes are the reason we live in a privileged nation where we get to sleep safely and soundly in our beds every night. This is one of many reasons they deserve this one day to remember their service and sacrifice.”

Seana Arrechaga, widow of SFC Ofren Arrechaga, killed in the line of duty, March 29, 2011, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, just days before the end of his tour of duty.

When I was young, I thought of Memorial Day as the gateway to summer, and Labor Day as the gate on the other end. Of course, Memorial Day in Indiana was associated with the end of the school year, always a happy occasion, picnics and the Indy 500 Race.  It wasn’t until I got older, much older, that I realized the significance of this day.  That’s odd, in a very strange way, given that I have the triangle shaped flag from my own father’s coffin.  I just never knew or understood its significance…that is…until Vietnam.

Dad's flag

I still, to this day, cannot talk about the human losses in and due to Vietnam. Our men came home, if at all, so broken and to an unsupportive, even hostile, country.  Mental and physical illnesses have plagued them in the decades since, and along with them, their parents, wives and families.  Not all died in Vietnam.  Many died years later from the scars inflicted upon them in Vietnam – both physical and mental.

Perhaps Vietnam was no different from any other war – it’s just that Vietnam was the war I witnessed. Boys going to the recruitment center, proud to enlist, returning months or years later as men, broken and ravaged by an invisible disease, nightmares that woke them screaming from what used to be peaceful sleep, and horrors the rest of us can’t begin to imagine.

I knew Greg growing up, before we dated and married. After he returned from Vietnam, he found a job and tried to pretend all was well, but the mental demons would consume him, inch by inch, day by day, month by month, year by year – until he was gone.

I found a photograph in my former husband’s belongings that explained it all. It was a picture of him and two other men in military fatigues in Vietnam, eating lunch sitting in the front bucket of a bulldozer.  Then I looked closer.  The piles waiting to be bulldozed were human corpses, stacked like cordwood. It is any wonder mental illness consumed him and stole his life?

Then I understood why he hated returning to active duty from leave.  It didn’t have so much to do with what he was leaving as what he was returning to.  What few stories he told me were utterly horrific.  Mostly he didn’t talk about his time in service in the Army’s Green Beret unit.  He never discussed it while it relentlessly ate him alive.  There was no escaping.  Yet, he was proud to serve his country.

He is the first veteran to honor.

Greg Cook

Greg happy times

This picture was taken one Christmas in happier times.

David Estes

Dave uniform for blog

The second veteran is my brother, David Estes, a Marine, shot down as a tail gunner, injured and contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion in Saigon.  Yes, it took him 27 years, but he too succumbed to his injuries.

William Sterling Estes

Dad in uniform for blog

My own father, William Sterling Estes, served three tours in the Army as well, in both WWI and WWII, and he too was injured.  At one point, either during or after his service, he worked at Oak Ridge, TN, on “the bomb,” and he was just never right again.  Alcohol consumed his life.  He died in an automobile accident that we believe was suicide after what would be his final relapse.

John Y. Estes

John Y Estes

My father’s great-grandfather, John Y. Estes, was a Confederate prisoner of war during the Civil War, captured after he was injured and eventually released north of the Ohio River to make his way back to Claiborne County, TN, as best he could.

John R. Estes

John R. Estes restored

John Y. Estes’ father, John R. Estes, served in the War of 1812 out of Halifax County, VA.

George Estes

John R. Estes’ father, George Estes, served three tours of duty in the Revolutionary War, two in Virginia and one in what would become Eastern Tennessee.

Moses Estes

George Estes’ grand-father, Moses Estes, served in the French and Indian War in Amelia County, Virginia.

Henry Bolton

Henry Bolton, my great-great-great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War in Maryland and may have looked after George Washington’s horse.

William Herrell

William Herrell, my great-great-grandfather served in the War of 1812, walking from Tennessee to Fort Williams in Alabama, and back.  He called this the “War with the Creek Indians.”

Samuel Claxton or Clarkson

Clarkson, Samuel Civil War

Samuel Claxton, my great-great-grandfather served as a Union soldier in the Civil War, contracted tuberculosis, never recovered and died after the war.

William McNiel

William McNiel, my 4th great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War from Spotsylvania County, Virginia and fought at the Battle of Brandywine.

Reverend George McNiel

William’s father, the Reverend George McNiel served in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of King’s Mountain, even though he was in his 60s at the time.

John Francis Vannoy

John Francis Vannoy, my 5th great-grandfather, may have served in the French and Indian War.

William Crumley Sr.

William Crumley Sr., my 5th great-grandfather, provided supplies for the Revolutionary Army, gathering supplies in Frederick County, Virginia, and submitted a Publik Service claim.

Edward Mercer

Edward Mercer, my 6th great-grandfather, father-in-law of William Crumley Sr., fought with George Washington and was defeated at the Battle of Fort Necessity in 1754, during the French and Indian War.

Marcus Younger

My 5th great-grandfather, Marcus Younger, provided brandy and other supplies in King and Queen County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War.

Lazarus Dodson

My 4th great-grandfather Lazarus Dodson, served in the Revolutionary War, in the same unit with George Estes in what was then North Carolina, but later became Tennessee.  Their grandchildren would marry in Tennessee.  Their descendants are shown below at the celebration honoring Lazarus by setting his gravestone.

laz descendants

Raleigh Dodson

Lazarus’s father Raleigh Dodson, may also have served in the Revolutionary War. His name is on the same roster.

Jacob Dobkins

My 5th great-grandfather Jacob Dobkins served in the Revolutionary War as a scout.  He is believed to have participated in the Battle of King’s Mountain as well.

John Harrold

William Herrell’s father, John Harrold, my 4th great-grandfather, served two terms in the Revolutionary War out of Botetourt County, Virginia serving in Virginia and North Carolina.

Michael McDowell

My 4th great-grandfather Michael McDowell served three tours of duty in the Revolutionary War out of Bedford County, VA.

James Lee Clarkson/Claxton

James Lee Clarkson/Claxton, my 4th great-grandfather, served in the War of 1812 and died in service in Alabama at Fort Decatur.  He was buried outside the fort, but his grave has been lost to time.

Nicholas Speak

Nicholas Speak, my 4th great-grandfather, fought in the War of 1812.

Joseph Workman

Joseph Workman, my 5th great-grandfather, served in the French and Indian War.

Col. Robert Craven

Col. Robert Craven, my 6th great-grandfather, served in the French and Indian War.

Abraham Workman

My 6th great-grandfather, Abraham Workman, served in the French and Indian War.

Charles Beckwith Speak

Charles Beckwith Speak, my 4th great-grandfather, served in the Revolutionary War in the militia in Maryland.

Gideon Faires

Gideon Faires, my 5th great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War.

Samuel Muncy

Samuel Muncy served in 1774 on the frontier in Moore’s Fort in what is now Lee or Scott County, VA.

Mother’s Side

On my mother’s side of the family, there are fewer men who served to defend the US or the colonies, in part because many of her ancestors immigrated recently, in the 1800s, from both the Netherlands and Germany.

Some of my mother’s ancestors were Brethren, a pietist religion, opposed to warfare or violence in any format, to the point they would not defend their own family against attack.

One of mother’s lines was Acadian, so spent their lives in Canada, not the US.

Joseph Hill

Joseph Hill, my great-great-great-grandfather may have served in the War of 1812 from Vermont.  There were two Joseph Hills and we have been unable to verify his service.

John Hill

Joseph Hill’s father, John Hill served in the Revolutionary War from New Hampshire.

John Drew

John Drew, my 6th great-grandfather, was a Sergeant in the military organization of New Hampshire in the 1600s.

Capt. Samuel Mitchell

Capt. Samuel Mitchell, my 5th great-grandfather, served in Maine in the 1600s.

Stephen Hopkins

Stephen Hopkins, my 11th great-grandfather, served at Jamestown, returned to England, then sailed on the Mayflower and served in the Plymouth colony.

Militia Service

Many men’s names are omitted from this list, not intentionally, but often due to lack of records. The Revolutionary War was the first war that offered land as pay, or land as a benefit of service, as well as both veterans’ and widows’ pensions.  Therefore, service records become critically important.

In the previous wars, specifically the French and Indian War, the only records we have are county records if the soldiers happened to be recorded.

During this timeframe, and earlier, all men were expected to serve in the local militia which functioned to protect the community as well as serve on the frontier to defend the region, if called upon. Therefore, we can assume that all men prior to the Revolutionary War did in fact serve in some capacity in their local militia and community.  Did they see warfare defending the frontier?  Perhaps, but we’ll never have that documentation because in most cases, there are no lists of militia members, nor records of what types of activities the militia was engaged in, aside from regular drills and practice.

In many cases, we don’t know when, why or how men died, so we don’t know if they died in the service of their country, as a result of that service, or of some unrelated cause.

Thank You

For all of my ancestors whose service goes unmentioned, my apologies, but more importantly, my sincere thank you. Without those hearty men who all served as a normal part of their citizenship, we would not be here today as a nation.  And thank you to the wives, left at home with the children who persevered and carried on, doing both the man’s and woman’s work while the husband was gone.

I am honored to carry the history of such a long list of patriots, stretching from Jamestown and the Mayflower to my brother and father.

My son, while not serving in the military, serves as a public safety officer, providing both fire and police protection for his community, risking his life daily to do so – and has for more than 20 years.

radio in squad car

Thank you, one and all, for your service.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend, but don’t forget who made it possible and those in active service today who keep it possible. Many are unable to celebrate with their families this weekend either because they made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, they are currently deployed or because they are working to protect the rest of us.

Just One More Summer Sunday….

I wasn’t able to work on my 52 Ancestors story this week, so instead, I’m sharing something different with you.

I started writing “Sunday Stories” years ago. This is my way of sharing history with my family and descendants, the kind of history I wish I knew about my ancestors.  The daily, “what was my life like” kind of history.

I’ve been rather lax lately. My family doesn’t know it, but the 52 Ancestors articles ARE their Sunday stories for right now.  Still, from time to time, I write a separate Sunday story when something strikes my fancy.  This week, I’m sharing my Sunday Story with you in the hopes it will inspire you to do the same.

Years ago, a man named Mickey used to write Sunday Stories about his life in Italy before he immigrated. He faithfully took the hand-written letter to a copy machine every Monday and mailed a copy to each of his children.  Many didn’t even bother to open the envelopes – too busy – just threw them in a drawer.  Some even lost them.  But when Mickey died, all of a sudden those letters became precious, to the point that the kids had to make a list to see who had which letters and if any, God forbid, were entirely missing.

Mickey would have smiled. I don’t know if he had a father’s intuition and knew that’s exactly what would happen – but he told me he knew they weren’t being read when he sent them.  That made my heart sad for him, because I knew how neglected and unappreciated he must have felt.

I saw what happened in Mickey’s family after his death.  It was actually kind of humorous in a sad way – all the frantic scrambling.  I know they all wished they had paid more attention to Mickey when they had the opportunity.

I decided that Sunday stories were a wonderful idea – and it really doesn’t matter that they aren’t read today, even though I hope they are, because I’m writing them for posterity too.  Someday they’ll be read, maybe….and if not…it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.

Please join me today for “Just One More Summer Sunday” and a peek into life on the farm in the Midwest with my Mom and step-Dad, who I have forever called my Dad.

Just One More Summer Sunday

Summer Sunday

What I wouldn’t give for just one more summer Sunday.

Not that Sunday’s were particularly special on the farm, it’s just that we were all home on Sunday. Even if we had moved to town, everyone came home on Sunday afternoon.  We talked and joked, sometimes played games like gin rummy, aggravation, dominoes and Yahtzee, and did whatever needed to be done.  And we ate, of course.  Life on the farm revolved around eating.

No one ever talked about coming home on Sundays, or planned it particularly, it’s just what we did. It evolved.  Everyone looked forward to Sunday family time to catch up with what everyone else in the family was doing.  It was Facebook face to face.

Sunday afternoons in the summer in Indiana were hot and sticky and uncomfortable. Fans were involved.  Sometimes a completely ineffective electrical fan for the entire house, and always, personal fans being waved back and forth made up of anything that moved air.  Magazines, cardboard, whatever.

So we sweat together. Sweat bonds people, ya know.

We also cleaned green beans together and shucked corn together, sitting on the metal glider under the old maple tree out back, with the corn silk sticking to our hands and arms because we were “moist,” as my mother used to say. Women didn’t sweat, for Heaven’s sake.

We took the kids along and picked out the best watermelon or musk melon from the melon patch that we had planted one Sunday afternoon in the springtime and brought it to the house. If it was particularly large, the child rode in the red wagon to the garden and the child got to pull the wagon back to the house with the melon in tow.  Often, we cut the melon outside to keep the mess out of the kitchen – plus – it was cooler out there in the shade.

We always had a “slop bucket” where any food waste, like melon seeds and rinds, got deposited with a splat. After dinner, we got to go out and feed the hogs who had been looking forward to the slop bucket “treat” since we began the food preparation process.  Hogs are a lot smarter than people give them credit for.  They knew.

Dad had an old red barbeque grill with the paint peeling off from years of cumulative heat. He put charcoal in the bottom and lit it using lighter fluid with enough time left before “dinner time,” which was lunch on the farm, or “supper time” which was late afternoon, about 5, for the charcoal to ignite, burn bright, then burn down to grey ash with the heat inside.  Dad somehow magically knew when the coals were “about right.”  Then he put the burgers on the grill.  It was a long, involved process and you could easily die of hunger waiting!  It didn’t make any sense to me that the coals were better for cooking than the fire, but I’ve learned a lot since then about cooking heat and the fires of life as well.

Before Dad had the red barbeque grill that we got him for one Father’s Day, he had an old barrel cut in half with some kind of grill or wire thing that he had rigged up that sat across the top. Sometimes food fell through the rigged mesh into the charcoal, and you just picked it back up with the tongs and put it back on the grill, after brushing it off of course.  If it was too bad, it went in the slop bucket.  Nothing was ever wasted.

Much of our life on the farm was “rigged up,” but we never viewed it that way. Today I look back at all of those things Dad made personally and cherish them along with the time he took to make them.  Then, they were just life, the way it was and what we did.  Nothing special.

Mom and I made the hamburger patties inside and put them on plates and took them outside to Dad to grill.  Yes, we used the same plates to bring the grilled burgers back inside, and no one died or even got sick.  We made potato or macaroni salad and cut up whatever vegetables were ripe in the garden.  By August, we had fresh corn to shuck and together, at the table, after one of the children said Grace, we ate buttered corn on the cob, grilled hamburgers and fresh warm tomatoes from the garden.  Life couldn’t have been better.  To us, then, it was just normal.  Nothing unusual or special.

We chatted about what happened during the week, plans for the next week, school, teachers and oh yes, about the crops, what was ripening next, or was wilting in the heat…and rain, always rain, or lack thereof. It was a farm, after all.

The women discussed who was dating whom, who was potty trained, who was sick,  what was on sale this week in town, and church doings of course.

Everyone talked about funerals, births, who bought a new car, or far more exciting, a new tractor, and who was going broke – and in farm country, someone was always going broke.

Oh, and pass me another burger and some of that “mater” too please…

There is absolutely nothing like a plump bright red tomato, fresh picked from the vine, warmed by the sun and sliced, its flavor exploding with the juicy hamburger and a slice of sweet onion too.

Sometimes we had buns, sometimes not – depended on how much we could get at the grocery that week for our $20 bill. Sometimes the choice came down to chocolate or Oreos or buns….and let’s just say that we often ate without buns.

And speaking of chocolate, the best was yet to come. Dad planned ahead and sometimes, on particularly hot Sundays, he would make homemade ice cream for dessert.  He churned it by hand, the churn sitting on the back step.  Actually, we all took turns since it was no small task and your arms got tired really quickly. He always helped the kids and absorbed way more than his share of the work without anyone noticing and without saying one word.

Because making ice cream was a slow process requiring patience, dessert usually happened about mid-afternoon.

We always made banana ice cream. It was Dad’s favorite, so somehow it became the entire family favorite. No one even suggested any other flavor – ever.  That would have been heresy…and besides that…no one even thought of it.

I remember company one time asked about chocolate ice cream and we all just stared at them like they were speaking a foreign tongue we couldn’t comprehend. They said they didn’t like banana ice cream.  Mom told them they would like this banana ice cream, because it was “special,” and that was that.  I don’t know if they liked it or not, but nary another word was spoken about other flavors!

It seemed like it took FOREVER for that ice cream to set up. And the more you had to crank, the hotter you became, and the more you wanted some of that ice cold ice cream.  Sort of seems self-defeating doesn’t it – but ironically – no one ever tried to get out of their turn at the crank.  Everyone thought it was fun – a novelty – at least for a little bit – until your arm got tired.  Then Dad would come over and “spell you for a bit,” because that’s just the kind of man he was.  In reality, we were all “spelling” Dad for a bit, giving him a little break, but we though we were really doing something special!

After what seemed like an eternity, the ice cream would be declared “done,” Dad would crack open the churn and we would finally get to eat the ice cream, whether it was done, meaning set up, or not. Sometimes it was nice and hard.  Sometimes it was more like soft serve and I distinctly remember once when it was almost runny, more like pudding, and Dad suggested we put the lid back on and crank some more.  He got soundly outvoted and we ate the ice cream just the way it was…with one important addition of course…chocolate topping.

But not just any chocolate topping. Nosireeeee…special hot fudge topping.

You know those buns we sacrificed? Well, instead we bought chocolate fudge topping and then we “doctored it up” by heating it and adding both bittersweet dark chocolate and fresh percolated hot coffee until the fudge topping was thick and rich, but not too sweet.  I know, that doesn’t seem to make sense, but it was TO. DIE. FOR.

I wish I had taken some pictures of those days, but back then, picture developing was an expensive luxury and photos were saved for “special occasions,” like when my grandmother’s last living sister, great-aunt Eloise, visited.

Note that by this time, the walkway to the outhouse, visible behind the garage, was semi-paved and Mom and Dad were wearing “good” summer clothes – translated to mean not threadbare and no holes or large stains – at least not that my mother spotted or my Dad would have been sent to change:)

Summer Sunday 2

Even though film and developing was expensive, we did of course take photos at Christmas, birthdays and when we had “special” company, but Sunday afternoon on the hottest day of the summer, sweating, eating burgers and cranking ice cream on the farm was nothing special, so not one picture.

Nothing special at all.

Oh, what I would give for just one more summer Sunday afternoon at home with Mom and Dad on the farm….

Summer Sunday 3