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Tag: family history

when the history you seek is your own

The Dixie Line of the L&N Railroad

it started over matzo and maror, the staples of passover, when amid cups of wine (they’re commanded, four of them), i started to pepper my mate with question upon question (more than four of my own; again, four are commanded). i was asking about seders of his long-ago past, curious about each of the characters, and the long journey from shtetl to tenement to, well, ivy league colleges and a pulitzer prize. because i tend to poke around in the vaults of history, root around for tidbits and clues, i remembered i’d once tucked away what we thought were steerage records of one isidore kaminski’s arrival on nov. 14, 1912 from russia by way of rotterdam, on the s.s. uranium.

and upon pulling that sheaf from my stash, i felt my curiosities piquing. i was suddenly hot in pursuit of my own irish peoples. and, lo and behold, i found philip mahoney himself arriving in boston harbor on may 9, 1850, on the silas leonard, a steerage ship that only three years later would be shipwrecked off the coast of newport, rhode island.

the deeper i look the likelier i see how often the fact of my existence is but a long, long series of near misses and narrow escapes.

and, often, when poking around long-ago times when survival was iffy, the tales you unearth can knock you back for a while. it’s the price of paying attention. and i welcome it, though it might take a few days, maybe some months to really distill all i discovered this week.

best of all, i discovered a long-lost cousin, a cousin whose tales criss-cross the pages of the new york times, among other adventures. we share a great grandmother and great grandfather. tragedy struck his branch of the tree right from the start, when our great grandmother died birthing joe’s grandmother. my grandfather would have been seven, left without a mother and with a newborn baby sister. i am still filling in all of the pieces of a story far sadder even than that. i am imagining––enlivening––all of the characters in each of the plots, thrusting myself back in time, peeking out from under the tables and around all the corners.

that’s what is often the case for those of us who find ourselves compelled by the stories of the past, stories we know in some way inform who we are and how we got to this moment. the few cousins i’ve met along the way, one of them one of the true treasures of my life, all seem to share a gnawing curiosity, a wanting to fill in the blanks. to step back from the present and take in the whole sweep of the story.

it’s how i discovered an uncle had died in the great battle of iwo jima, slashed with a bayonet in the deep of night before he could leap from his tent. it’s how i filled in so many missing pieces of the grandmother my own father so rarely spoke of, a silence i sensed was fueled by a heart so broken by her absence he chose to stay mostly wordless when it came to talk of her. though he did tell me once––and with my father the less he said, the more emphatically you knew he meant it––that he saw so much of his mother in me.

i am fairly certain i get lost in the mists of family history in my feeble attempt at resurrections. oh, what i wouldn’t give to sit at an old maple table, fueled by tea for the women, scotch for the men, and indulge in the swirl of their stories. maybe it’s reaching deep into the vaults––frustrating as it is to run into the dead ends and cul-de-sacs of hard-to-read 18th-century cursive and records gaping with holes––maybe it’s reaching back into time, barely brushing up against the most basic of biographies, that fills in a sense of just who i am, and propels me to make of my one little life just a little bit more than i otherwise might.

maybe it’s that the long sweep of history puts me more squarely in my place, highlights how tiny a dot is my place in the long ellipsis of genetics and time.

this week i spent a long time looking at the mahany side of my family, a side i knew too little about, a side whose story is much sadder than i ever realized. my dad said so very little, and my dad was gone way before i’d asked even a tenth of my questions. the last significant thing i remember my dad saying to me, one day not long after his very last christmas, was “kid, you have a real sense of history.”

indeed, it seems it’s a hunger.

and all these years later, i’m still trying to ask my next question, to find the stories he never told.

with all the love in my heart, this one is in its own way a love note to my dear beloved p. shannon, a third cousin who more than anyone i know has taken me by the hand deep into the vaults, and pointed the light at each and every turn. bless you paddy, i will adore you till the way end of time…..

the map above is the rail line through kentucky where my choochoo papa (my paternal grandfather) was the locomotive engineer for the Louisville & Nashville Rail Road at the early age of 26 until his retirement some 50 years later. he––along with my dad and the grandma i never knew––started out at the little dot on the map marked “paris,” as in kentucky not france, a dot on the map that will forever be my old kentucky home.

manifest of the s.s. uranium that carried our boys’ great grandfather to america in 1912
my great-great-great grandfather’s record of arrival from ireland in 1850

have you poked around in the attic of your own family’s history? are you propelled by curiosities? i suppose, after a lifetime of bylines, i’ve left more than my share for some curious soul in generations to come. have at it, sweet girl, i only wish i could join you…….

40 years later…

i thought i was fine this week, the week we marked the day and the hour when my dad died 40 years ago. but then, as the hour grew nearer and the twilight grew dimmer, one of my brothers started a chain of emails, everyone chiming in, adding a snippet, a gesture, a frozen moment in one of our minds. my brother michael, in four short lines, haiku of the heart, conjured a moment that pierced me, one that keeps looping round in my head. he wrote how he’d driven down from milwaukee in a blizzard, in a borrowed car with a bag of sand tossed in the trunk—just in case. my other brother, two years younger and all of 19, was riding shotgun. when they got to the hospital parking lot, walking toward the entrance, they saw an old family friend. the man, always stern, must have been wise enough to station himself out in the cold, on the sidewalk beside the gliding glass doors, where he’d been waiting, on the lookout for two sons not knowing, maybe sensing, they were on their way to their father’s deathbed. wordlessly and from a distance, the man shook his head, a gesture simple and somber, a shorthand for the grief soon to come. a sad shake of the head, that’s all, letting them know, before the question was asked, did we make it in time?

it’s an angle of the story i never knew before, or if i did, i’d long ago buried it. it slayed me, that simple short story. ripped me in bits. i thought until then that i was okay. but then i crumbled…..it all came tumbling back, that awful abyss of a night, and the way the grief spread like a shadow, one by one across each of our lives, changing us all forever and ever. i ached all over again for both of my brothers, out in the cold, absorbing the subtle but certain shake of the head. grief comes in so many layers.

***

because i’m writing up a storm for a book that is taking immense and total concentration, because i’ve been underwater for days, squinting at the screen and hoping no one notices if i never get up from my chair, i am re-upping this tale written 14 years ago. how can that be? when my little one sat on my lap watching his grandpa for the very first time. how can it be that that snowy blizzard-y night was 40 years ago?

measuring life in 8 millimeters (from 2007)

it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.

it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.

i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.

but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.

mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.

it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?

it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.

if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.

but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.

as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.

as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.

i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.

not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.

in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.

i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.

it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.

but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.

“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.

in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.

a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.

how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?

in the darkness, it’s the familiar rhythms of the heart that soothe…

As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.

When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.

My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.

He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.

We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.

Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.

In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.

For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.

And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.

While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.

I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.

As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.

So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.

Xox


In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….

Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.

Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?

the underground and me: how my papa tried to save me

papa letter

the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…

it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.

what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.

as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.

consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.

but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.

as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)

she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”

inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”

and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.

apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.

some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.

thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.

i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.

the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.

right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.

this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.

and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.

but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.

i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.

was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made? 

p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”

the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….

the curious pull of family history…

Iwo Jima funeral mass

funeral mass on iwo jima for soldiers who died on its soils, april 1, 1945

amid this summer of deep discontent and dyspepsia, i’ve been visited by an almost mythical faraway sprite — a cousin really, a distant cousin — who has opened for me long locked vaults of family history, and drawn before me the not-so-faint outlines of heartbreak and who came before me.

i signed up for a 14-day free trial of ancestry.com. figured i might learn a thing or three about the irish, german, and eastern european roots of my beloved and me, roots that trace directly to our pair of boys. i had no illusions of finding fine-grain stories, of hearing the voices of long ago come reaching out of the depths. i carefully marked my calendar so i’d remember to un-subscribe on day 13, get in and out without much trace.

and then, after i’d pulled the plug and skittered away, paddy shannon found me. paddy is a cousin plenty removed. we share the same great great grandfather, he told me in his first message. if i was willing to share my email, he told me, he had plenty to share.

within a day i had photos of the old family home, a hodgepodge of sod walls and windows and doors built between two bridges in a wee little place on the map not too far from the eternal tide of the atlantic, in county clare in ireland. i scribbled notes, drew diagrams, to try to trace and re-trace these lines and roots. i followed biographical bits — birth, death, burial — struggled to keep one daniel j., one teddy, one patrick straight from all the others (there are multiples of each, a few fine names used over and over and over, ancestral prize to those so christened).

i read once again of mothers who died in childbirth (on christmas day, no less), and filled in narrative. narratives of heartbreak, of loss, and starting over again.

i was particularly struck this time around (for i’ve gone down these roads before, with far less detail, never before guided by my very own ancestral guide) by the heartbreak that visited my grandma mae — how one of her brothers was struck and killed by lightning when he ran for cover in the tobacco barn on their kentucky farm in a rainstorm described in biblical proportions in the front-page news. how the other brother, the one who lifted his brother’s limp body, tried to revive him, how he died years later of cirrhosis of the liver (i couldn’t help but imagine the heartache that drove him, likely, to drink). i read how my grandma married the widower with four young children, and how four years after they married — he 44, she 35 — she gave birth to her one and only child, my papa (i imagined what a treasure he was, the unlikely and long-awaited firstborn).

and then this week i read the most i’ve ever read about the big brother (my uncle) who was like a papa to my papa, a brother named danny whom i’d always been told was destined for some degree of greatness. i knew he’d run one of the great kentucky racing stables, calumet farm, just outside lexington (he’d left university to learn racing from the ground up, literally starting as a stable boy and rising to business manager of the farm that trained whirlaway, a kentucky derby legend). i knew he’d signed up for the army at the height of world war II. but this week i found out that he’d been plucked for an officer’s college at harvard, had written a regular horse racing column in the lexington herald, and when pearl harbor was attacked in december 1941, he’d been on the california coast at the santa anita track, where he’d remain with the horses for months (racing was shut down in the wake of the attack and no transport of horses allowed), and where — my brother wisely hypothesized — his decision to defend these united states might well have been sparked. my uncle danny wrote a stirring anthem on the obligation to serve, one that ran with a grainy black-and-white photo that couldn’t hide the handsome lines of his bespectacled face, in the pages of the sunday herald-leader of lexington, on january 10, 1943, eight months after he himself had enlisted, and 10 months before he set sail for iwo jima.

and then, because my ancestral guide was himself a marine and stirred to understand how an army air corpsman came to be buried in a marine plot in the national cemetery in nicholsville, kentucky, i read the gruesome details of how my uncle danny and 14 others died in a pre-dawn banzai raid on iwo jima, on march 26, 1945, the very last battle of that awful siege of the japanese island. at 4 in the morning, some 300 japanese soldiers — ordered to stage a final suicide attack — rose up out of miles of caves, surrounded the tent camp not far from the beach on the southeast corner of the island, lobbed grenade after grenade and then, one by one, called out “banzai,” before charging into the tents with bayonets that slashed and beheaded.

my uncle, a first lieutenant at his death, was among the ones buried there on the island, in a military grave with a makeshift funeral mass preceding (see photo above). his father, my grandfather, would later have his remains exhumed and moved to kentucky, where he was laid to final rest beneath one of the white granite gravestones that stretch endlessly across the bluegrass he so loved.

it’s all a narrative that had mostly escaped me. my father — who’d been the one who answered the door when the soldiers came bearing the telegram and the news that danny had died — barely ever spoke a word about it. as my third-cousin paddy put it, “I hope this helps in understanding your Uncle “Danny’s” Service and Death and why your Da never spoke of it. It was to say the least a Horrible Place, and Horrible way to die.”

dear blessed paddy, my patron saint of genealogy, was so moved by danny’s story, he sat down and wrote a doggerel, an irish-intoned ode to the life and death of a little-known american soldier.

my own “da” has been gone now for 37 years. but all week, all summer really, i’ve been swirling in the mists of the past, his past. i’ve ached to hear him fill in the details, to fill my ears and my heart and my soul with the depth of the heartache that stilled him to silence.

there is much to mourn in the stories i’ve turned up this summer. and, just as emphatically, there is much to inspire. it’s a history rife with tragedy, and yet — and yet — it’s a story that goes on and on. triumph over loss. rising up from the unbearable.

and in the summer of 2018, when the world all around shatters me, i am holding onto shards of the past and breathing in the will to not be succumbed.

danny headstone

what family stories do you hold, and learn much from?

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.

sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.

and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.

what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.

in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.

am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?

as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.

  1. i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
  2. i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
  3. i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
  4. i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?

history: lost and found

DSCF1448

four of us, before there were five of us. 

i’ve been pulled into the mists and folds of history, family history, tumbling across generations and centuries, drawn back to beginnings. and what’s pummeling me more than anything is the sense of stories lost. i sift through the barest scraps of biography: birth, death, name (or, too often, too confusingly, derivation of name, not the name that will lead me to slips of paper that nail down history, as much as history can be relied upon, can be trusted to those who put ink to government forms).

it began with a wisp of a note from my brother, a short bit of digging about our kentucky roots. didn’t take long to hop to ireland, that homeland that stirs me in ancient, primal ways. my attention — despite a deadline that pounds at me by the hour — was captured. i couldn’t resist. and in the wonders of the world we live in, a few clicks away i found birth dates and days of someones’ last breaths. any time i stumbled on a document, found corroboration for hint, for approximation of fact or of timeline, i heard a faint sigh. one more story with beginning or end. soon, but not yet, i will begin to sift through those dates, search for overlappings, for patterns, for sense. connect the dots, literally. fill in what i can of the story.

i finally determined that i’m only three generations away from ireland, at least on one strand of my story. i learned, too, because i found a letter along the way, that my irish great grandpa, teddy (though officially timothy, or thaddeus, depending on the document), spoke with a brogue so thick, so old-country, he was hard to understand for those who bumped into him on the streets of paris, kentucky, where my papa was born.

on my mama’s side, i tumbled into some stroke of genealogical good fortune when my tapping around bumped into someone else’s hours and hours of archival digging, and suddenly i was looking at 16 generations — dating all the way back to 1470 in the year of our Lord, dear Lord. i was charmed, on this side of familiar affairs, to discover that besides the name barbara (which i’d always been told had a long family history), the other name spotted with alarming frequency was none other than — hold your chairs, here — Apollonia. my favorite: one Apollonia Winter, born in 1659. she must be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmama. i admit to being charmed to have an apollonia for a grandma. (although my serial and lifelong protests of my own barbed name might now be put to permanent rest, for what if they’d reached in the archival closet and pulled out the feminine nod to Apollo, variously regarded as god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, and poetry.)

by the end of the day’s digging and clicking i had a spread sheet that filled a few screens, and yet, i knew so little. while somehow i found comfort, embraced in the arms of time spread across decades, century, millennia, i was washed in a profound sense of loss — of stories lost. of moments of heroism, or plain old hearts cracked. i wondered what kept apollonia awake at night. i wondered who caught her fancy. did she know what it was to bury a child? and what of all the men i noticed, especially on the irish side, who’d buried a wife, and then started all over again (a predilection that sprang forth my very own papa). and, because it’s february, and because long ago now, my own papa died on the 10th of this month, i find myself achingly missing him all over again. only slighted comforted typing the name and the line of his mama, my dear anna mae shannon, born 1896, died february, 1954.

there was a yin to this yang, though, and it unfolded the other night, well past bedtime for my freshman in high school, the formerly named “little one” whose adventures have so filled these pull up a chair pages. he sat down for some reason, and pulled up a chair, and for a good hour or so i heard him giggling and sighing as he clicked from story to story. he was reading the bits of history i’ve left behind, the scraps i’ve put here on the table. for him. for his brother.

all along i’ve said the number one reason i write these tales from the front is so that my boys will have a record. a record of love, more than anything. i want them to be able to pore over the grains of their growing up years. i want them — and, goodness, maybe even their children’s children — to know the stories. to be able to grasp a detail or two, so it’s not lost. so that the whole of one someone’s life — and more importantly her love, her heart — isn’t washed away with my very last breath.

i’d give anything to gather up the scraps of story from long long ago.

i think of my father’s words to me, shortly before he died, one of the very last times i rested my head on his chest. we were standing in front of the refrigerator in the house where i grew up. he’d just read a love letter i’d written to him, to each one in my family. he said simply, strikingly at the time: “you have a real sense of history.” he could see what i didn’t yet know. and then he was gone from my everyday.

and that sense of history, one filled with so many blanks, it haunts me, it pulls me. it propels me to gather up stories. before they’re lost to all time.

has anyone gathered the stories at your house?

power of five. five.

and here is the fifth of our five, my forever dream come true.

any hour now

my papa and me, taking a walk.

top drawer

i had no idea it was there. waiting for me, maybe. wondering when in the world i’d discover it, lying there in the shadow of the drawer i’d not opened in a very long time.

oh, my mama had urged me up there. not to slide open the drawer, but to look at the boxes at the back of the closet. boxes i’d tucked there long long ago. baby clothes, all of the boxes, doll-sized mittens and onesies and little gap overalls. somethings i’d sifted through, tucked off to the side, hoping, waiting. maybe someday there’d be a reason, a brother with reason to lug home the boxes. maybe a new baby would come, would finally come.

and so, this past long slow weekend, puttering about my mama’s old house, the house i grew up in, i somehow found myself pulled back to my room. maybe at first it was that ol’ twinge of guilt, oh, geez, those boxes, might as well get to the boxes, see if it’s time yet to part with those wee tiny treasures.

but then, for no reason, i swear, just an urge, a wisp of a whisper calling me maybe, i slid open the very top drawer.
and there, for the very first time, i saw a whole stash of papers, yellowed a bit, worn at the edges, stacked, one after another.

i started to read. my heart quickened, then pounded. suddenly, certainly, i knew i had found lost pieces of a puzzle i’d put off to the side.

these were essentials. turning points, each of them, in the life of my father. only i’d not ever seen them, not known, really, they existed. it was as if history, over the years, had done all the work there in the dark while i wasn’t looking.

it was sifted, condensed, it told whole threads of the story. threads in my mind, over time, over decades, that had started to blur.

there is that fine line in every unfurling of a family’s story, where truth drops off and myth takes over. fills in the lapses, bridges the gaps. i’d long ago lost track of which was which, and figured some chunks of the story had slipped into the warp of what happens when the sharp pierce of too-early death loses its sting, and in its place, story is laid, etched in the sands of family telling.

you simply stop looking for truth. you take the story as it’s handed to you. there is a balm in believing. you like a dash of amplification–glorified truth, perhaps–tossed in your old family tale.

yes, yes, your grandmother was the first woman in the state of kentucky to graduate college. yes, you like that. like the ring of that tale. yes, yes, your papa turned down harvard law school. had work to be done, and children to raise.

what woulda been, coulda been, doesn’t much matter. if, in telling the story, you can cling to the posts of what might or might not inflate a key player, provide something more to hold onto, there in the dark and the murk of a life’s fading twilight.

and so, after all those years of not really knowing any more, of occasionally feeling the itch of is-that-quite-true-or-is-it-a-bit-of-a-fib, i’d come to not count quite so much on a firm underpinning of fact. it all blurred. simply became the story we told.

but deep down, i am–as my father told me his very last christmas–a girl with a deep sense of history. i like my stories to line up, the facts to fall into place, because they belong there.

i am, after years of writing in medical charts, and even more years of writing everyday history in the pages of news, best suited–most settled–when the timbers of my story are nailed down in truth.

and so, there in my hands, my hands that were feeling the rush of discovery, of having stumbled on something that told the crux of the story, i moved from standing there, quivering, to dropping and curling my legs on the quilt of the bed that so many nights had shipped me to dreams.

and there it was, on harvard business school letterhead. a note, penned in the summer of 1953, acknowledging that my papa would not, for choices all his own, be attending in the fall. the place would be held, the admissions deputy wrote, should he ever change his mind.

i sat there beholding this new, never-known, or could-it-be-merely-forgotten, thread to my father’s story. i couldn’t help, later that night, poking around the keys on my keyboard, looking up the HBS class of 1955, to see what titans of industry mighta been classmates, mighta known and loved my gregarious–and dare i say, brilliant–father.

but before i got to that, i sat there, feeling the great granite slab of foundation settle into its lasting place.

what might have been myth, blurry, unfounded, was, with a slip of thick ivory paper, turned into fact. a crisp edge of history–my papa’s history, my sense of the man who’d always been my bright light and hero–was sealed. the fingers of time, run down the fold, neatly tucked it away, filed at last under t as in truth.

never again as i told of my father would i feel the ground quake under my story, as, behind the occasional passage, i wondered if i’d trespassed the truth, tiptoed to fiction.

and that wasn’t the only piece of the past that came to me, there on the bed, as the sun slipped away over the treetops that circle the pond out my long-ago window.

layer after layer, memo after letter after letter after old crinkled black-and-white photo. some of the layers typed on tissuey paper, the sort that looped like a sticking-out tongue through a key-sticking typewriter. some scrawled in the handprint of long-muffled heroes, the ones who loomed large in their day and their time and their page of the story.

by the end of an hour or so, my face wet with tears, with joy, with pride, with unbearable sorrow, with feeling again the scab of my heart ripped off and bleeding, i clutched the thick stack, the marvel of all of it.

there in the drawer at the top of the dresser, there where growing up i’d always tucked all my treasures, my things i wanted no one else to see–my eyeshadow snuck in the house, my love notes to boys i had crushes on, my rosary from first holy communion–there in the shadows of the one place where i’d kept what mattered the most, i discovered that history had done all the work.

lined up the truth, one after another. gave me the gift of a verifiable version of who was my papa–not only to me, but to all of the world.

more than ever that night, or maybe only more than in a very long time, i ached for the man whose story i’d only just more deeply discovered.

it all–and more–came flooding back to me. how i stood there in the kitchen, right after my papa’s funeral, and how my uncle, a wise man, spoke to me the words that for years were my solace: the depth of the pain equals the depth of the love.

so many nights, and again just the other one, i clung to the cramp in my heart, and named it the love of my papa.

only this night, as i remembered the feel of his arms wrapped around me, felt once again the breadth of his chest as i leaned in my head, i cried out for the papa i’d not wholly known for years and for years.

but who now–because, at last, i tugged open the very top drawer–i knew more than ever, and missed all the more gapingly.

have you discovered bits of the story of those who came, and maybe left, before you? have you stumbled upon history, only to be shaken by what you found? that you’d known it all wrong, or tripped upon the missing pieces to puzzles? have you wondered where the outlines of history blurred, and where myth had filled in for lapses in the telling of your family story? did you find solace in finally getting it straight?