On History and Mystery

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Do you see the missing piece?

 

This weekend, I should have been doing one or more of the following:

 

  • fixing up the writing studio post earthquake proofing
  • creating a syllabus for my next class
  • writing lesson plans for my next class
  • working on a website to sell my wares to the wider world
  • writing this blog
  • cleaning in general
  • cleaning specifically:
    • birthday confetti off the carpet from the first part of the month
    • cobwebs I keep discovering on the ceiling
    • a fan that is more dust than blade at this point
    • the bottom of the kitchen trashcan (Z and I keep hoping “our man” will do it, but it turns out, we haven’t hired a man and thus it’s down to us and we’re each hoping the other will cave first)
  • putting industrial strength patches on the thighs of my favorite jeans
  • figuring out where to get rid of the books I’ve weeded
  • actually getting rid of the books I’ve weeded once I’ve decided
  • preparing for a presentation at a conference in three weeks that Z talked me into and at which I must appear to be knowledgeable and quick-witted though I am feeling neither of these things
  • using the new Panda Planner that has promised to change my life

 

 

What I’ve actually been doing:

 

  • genealogy

 

Probably I should be apologetic about why I am doing this since I have no children with whom to share this ancestral knowledge, but the truth is, I don’t care. I don’t care if my niece and nephew are interested. I don’t care if my cousins are. I see Z’s eyes glaze over when I tell him about some new relative I never knew I had who was a Quaker or a Puritan or a dentist, but I don’t care if it bores him—I tell him anyway.

 

I’m doing it because I’m curious and because history fascinates me, in particular, personal histories that overlap larger, human history. There are good stories there and I like a good story. So every night I open up Ancestry.com and introduce myself to some new person who contributed to the cocktail that is me. God bless them every one.

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A set of my great-great grandparents, their brood, and one awesome tricycle.

While the men’s histories are the easiest to access—them being regularly afforded their own names and the bulk of the attention in Quaker meeting minutes and newspaper accounts—what thrills me most is imagining the women’s stories and what might have been happening between the very few official mentions they get. A long space between children often means some grief, for instance. There’s all sorts of speculation I do about the teenagers who marry older men, the women who audaciously manage to work their maiden names into a first name for one of their children. If I happen upon a photo, I try to peer into the eyes to see if there’s any evident happiness or misery, and if the photo is of a tombstone, I’m curious to see if it is simple or grand, and if she warranted any sort of adjectives: beloved wife, devoted mother, etc.

 

This weekend I discovered that my paternal grandfather’s grandmother, Ellen, emigrated from Ireland in 1849. I’m familiar enough with the stories of my great grandmother Bridget who sailed away from Ireland as a teenager near the end of the 19th century with a blackthorn walking stick in her hand that now belongs to me. I know she married a man much older than she was who had a young son of his own. I know her middle son gave up a future in the priesthood when her husband died so he could earn money to help support her and his baby brother, my grandfather. I’ve met her nieces and nephew in Ireland, skulked around the farm where she was raised and that her great nephew now farms, stayed overnight with her niece and great niece, and stood over the graves of her parents and grandparents. So Ireland was no surprise.

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane, County Galway

But 1849? As soon as I saw that year on the screen, I said a very non-blasphemous Jesus under my breath and my eyes filled up and threatened to spill over the dam. You didn’t come to America from Ireland in 1849 because you wanted a change of scenery or were ambitious. You came because of the Famine.

 

I checked to see if there were children older than my great grandfather and discovered there were two: one born in New York, where they must have landed and tried to earn money enough to head west, and another, before that, born in transit on the Atlantic.

 

Jesus again.

 

Can you imagine? Your first child born in the hull of an overcrowded famine ship, not entirely sure what would be waiting on you when you arrived, except of course, that it wouldn’t be family—or anyone else—with open arms?

 

There’s the added knowledge that while she was pregnant for my great grandfather in West Virginia, her husband did the unfathomable and died at a young age, so there she is, a woman in coal-mining country with two pre-schoolers and a newborn to raise on her own.

 

So she did what you did if you were a woman in those straits and she married almost immediately. No time for a lengthy mourning before looking for a new spouse. No time for a long courtship to make sure the fellow is kind or clever. No chance for pre-marital counseling to make sure you have compatible dispositions. There are mouths to feed and your whole adult life you’ve been running from the Hunger.

 

No wonder I get panicky when there’s no peanut butter or Lucky Charms in the cabinets. No wonder I’ve had a passive-aggressive relationship with food my whole life (it being passive and me being aggressive). That hunger stuff has to get written on a person’s DNA at some point.

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It’s not _really_ Irish, but it is the perfect breakfast food.

So anyhow, that’s where my head is at and may explain why none of the above items on my ticking-off list have been ticked off. It might also explain why this afternoon while I was attempting to re-assemble the writing studio from earthquake-proofing-shambles and listening to The Drovers—an old Chicago Celtic rock band—I heard the opening stanzas to “Kilkelly, Ireland” and before it was all over I was having a loud, snorty cry as I re-hung pictures and stacked books.

 

To be clear, I’ve been listening to The Drovers since I first heard them on the Blink soundtrack in 1993, I’ve seen them in concert in Grant Park on a warm Chicago evening, and I’ve never, NEVER, heard them sing this or any other piece that is so maudlin. Their music is sometimes haunting, but mostly it makes you want to spin around like a dervish, maybe stick it to The Man. So I was blindsided when I heard those opening stanzas. It’s a song I intentionally took off of my Irish playlists because uncontrollable sobbing is not an activity I enjoy.

 

Have you ever heard it? I defy you to listen to it and not have some feelings. “Danny Boy” might make the masses tear up, but those are cheap emotions compared to the ones this song elicits. Supposedly, it is based on a set of actual letters from a father in Ireland to his son who has emigrated around the time of the Famine (the years are a little off, and this bothers me, but once the music swells, I allow for a little poetic license) and it spans several decades. For me, the tears start when the father begins his letter explaining that he’s had Pat McNamara “write these words down.” (As if the longing for loved ones you’ll likely never see again isn’t enough, I’ve the added weep-material of illiteracy.) By the time it works it’s way round to the immigrant’s brother writing the final lines to his brother that the father has died with a “He called for you in the end/Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit/We’d all love to see you again” I’m a mess. It’s like the old-timey Irish version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

Please note, a decade ago I once purposely traveled from Waterford to Kilkelly specifically so I could feel the feelz of this song, only to realize when I arrived that I was not actually in Kilkelly but in Kilkenny, which is, it turns out, a whole different place. Instead of walking around mournfully and reflecting on my (then only imagined) Famine-affected relatives, I spent part of the afternoon in a Radley of London shop trying to justify an expensive leather bag with a Scottie dog logo. (I did not win that justification and am still sans a Radley handbag, fyi.)

 

Aside from the stories and extra fierce musically induced weeping because of those stories, the thing I like about this genealogy business is how much it’s like doing a puzzle. It’s the kind of detective work I was born to do because at no point is anyone going to hold me at knifepoint and tell me to quit snooping or else. (Though things did look a little dodgy at the Seattle Public Library yesterday when I was on my way to the genealogy department, so I s’pose it could happen.) It’s amazing the things you can find with a little poking around: a break with the church, a scandalous marriage, an illegitimate child. Sometimes, I’m guilty of assuming that anyone that predated me and my immediate family were just sitting around in long dresses and wearing stovepipe hats and working the land and reading their Bibles, but it turns out they were living real lives and making some desperate (and sometimes dubious) choices.

 

I’d have made a terrible historian though because I get caught up in my flights of fancy. I’ve hit a brick wall with Ellen and can’t find where she was born, who her parents were, and she’s starting to morph into Nicole Kidman in Far and Away, a high born woman who falls in love with a poor country yoke (and Scientologist) and makes her way to America, for good or for ill. She’s become amazing in my mind. Fierce, feisty, kind and generous. But for all I know, she was none of those things. She might have been a stern, humorless mother and who could blame her? She might have always been nagging her second husband to wear his hat and scarf to keep himself well, and who could blame her?

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Great Great Grandmother Ellen

Since January, I’ve been solving a lot of little puzzles. First, I’ve done actual jigsaw puzzles as I like the satisfaction I feel in those five minutes after I’ve completed one and before I realize what a complete waste of time it is since the picture is right there on the box and I didn’t need to actually put it together to see it. But the mystery to be solved here is how is it that the last two puzzles I’ve done have been missing a single piece? They were both new. Where did the rogue piece go? Was it never put in because there’s some malcontent at the puzzle factory who gets joy out of the notion of wrecking some obsessive’s sense of self-satisfaction? Has someone (read: Z, not me) dropped a piece and it’s bounced into a crevice in our crooked apartment? Am I sleepwalking and hiding a single piece to sabotage myself?

 

Other early 2018 Mysteries of the City:

 

 

  • Who is the man who coughs until he throws up EVERY DAY right outside our apartment?
  • How is it that I felt warmer in 8 degree temperatures in Indiana than I do in 42 degree temperatures now that I’m back in Seattle? (The cold out here gets right into your bones.)
  • How is it that despite having weeded almost 100 titles, it has been an impossible feat to get my books back onto their rightful shelves. They’ve reproduced like rabbits and somehow the Irish authors that used to fit neatly into one of 36 tidy IKEA cubes have breached their confines and now require an additional two cubes. Clearly, I need to build a border wall.
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Look at those Irish books, trying to sneak onto other shelves without proper documentation!

  • On a similar note, how is it possible that our south wall was moved in a foot because of the earthquake proofing and suddenly the furniture doesn’t seem to fit now? A foot is nothing really. If you were in one of those trash-compacting rooms in spy movies (or the original Star Wars) and the wall moved in a foot, you wouldn’t really even notice yet that you were in danger of being squished. And yet, what the writing studio looks like now is an implausibility of Wildebeests in one of those “bad” zoos with too-small enclosures. It’s all chair legs and coffee tables and bookcases overlapping each other and it hurts my eyes and heart.
  • If the Parks Department has to paint permanent suggestions on the park suggestion board about what activities people like to do there because the chalk option meant a lot of rude comments and a few dubious artist’s renderings, shouldn’t you just maybe forego the suggestion board and have a mural instead?
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Note: there are no actual roses in this park.

  • Why do drivers in Seattle—a city made of hills comparable only to San Francisco’s—insist on riding other people’s bumpers?
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If my car were in Seattle, it would be sporting this.

  • Do city officials really think they are tricking us when they make real estate developers “save” historical properties and this is how they do it: a shell of old bricks encasing the lower two floors of a boxy steel and glass monstrosity? We aren’t fools.
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Historic preservation Seattle style.

  • Does the new Seattle soda tax of almost 2 cents an ounce (which doesn’t sound like much until you buy a case of Coke) mean that the city really DOES want us to move away? Z is not happy and is now considering the merits of life in Indiana where no government officials pretend to care that much about your health.
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Not pictured: Z, weeping

  • Why do I think every year that a new planning system—no matter how intuitive and inspiring—is going to make me a better person? It hasn’t yet, but hope springs eternal, I guess. When I told Z that I was getting a Panda Planner he laughed out loud. He knows that by March—despite my best laid plans—I won’t be able to find it because it will be hiding in the recesses of a bag I quit carrying in February. (The joke may be on him this year, however, because I brought the bright “cyan” for an extra $4 and it might be more difficult to lose.)
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Precious.

Periodically, Jane and I have discussions about who’s more introverted. This isn’t really a contest because being Most Introverted does not come with a crown or prize money. Despite the likelihood that Jane IS more introverted than I am, she will keep getting herself embroiled in book clubs and social groups that make me feel twitchy when I imagine signing up for something similar. All those people you don’t know, asking boring things like “what do you do for a living?” and “have you read All the Light We Cannot See yet?” (as if not reading it is not an option). But then when I do something like invite near-strangers to stay with us for a week, it’s hard not to argue that I am perhaps slightly less introverted than Jane.

 

Last week I read an article in Irish Central about an Irish woman living in America who has started an immigration awareness campaign of creating buttons for people to wear that say things like “I am an immigrant” and “I’m the daughter of an immigrant.” I liked the idea of this—a sort of political performance art that makes folks recognize that more of the people they pass on the street have connections to immigrants than they realize. So I found her on Facebook to see how I might get one of these buttons for myself since I’ve a real live immigrant sleeping in my bed, and I promptly discovered she lives in Seattle. We messaged back and forth and made tentative plans to get together for drinks because I love Ireland and she and her husband are fond of Zimbabweans.

 

I had to admit to Jane that this is a real conundrum of my life: that I supposedly love being alone and value quiet, chat-free expanses of time so I can live in my own head without interruption, but then I talk to a new person and realize my solitary life behind the walls of my imagination is not enough. Maybe I’m an introverted extrovert. Or vice versa. I need other people—people dissimilar to me sometimes—to make life richer, more intriguing, more thought provoking. It’s one of those things that makes me glad I’m in this city on the edge of a country that—despite everything—still recognizes that it’s richer because of its diversity, not in spite of it.

 

God bless us every one.

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FYI: Immigrant Awareness on Facebook can hook you up with your very own button

 

6 responses »

  1. I like the analogy of the “missing puzzle piece” because all of us have gaps in what we would like to know about our ancestors, but even so, we can get a large part of the picture. Even with a piece missing we can experience the relationships of the pieces that we know and have to be content with as much as we can put together AND sometimes, a piece will turn up later. I could not see your missing piece, by the way. Likewise with genealogy we can’t always find all of the pieces but you have done a very good job of filling in the background of historical events according to the date of 1849, and even other sources such as the songs which give an impression of the times. Others, reading the story of what you have put together about immigrant ancestors, do not notice the missing pieces.

    I am 65 and at this age we appreciate our background more, even though older relatives are gone and there is no one left to ask. For this reason cousins become closer and I have one wonderful cousin who is uploading our family photos to create a digital archive. We know that our children who are in their thirties now, may not want all of our Stuff such as photo albums but we can preserve things for such time as they, too, will come to the stage of life when they appreciate the past.

    Next time I am on the 9th or 10th floor of the library, where I often hang out, I will ask them about the Reluctant Lady but I am sure they will not say anything bad about you!

  2. If you had cats, you would know how helpful they are when doing a picture puzzle. Those little pieces of cardboard need to be patted off the edge of the table, and kitties have the most useful paws for doing such. I almost enjoy the hunt for the missing pieces as much as I do putting the puzzle together.

    My husband and I save our yearly picture puzzle marathon for the February blizzard; December and January are too busy to bother, but by February we are desperate for something to “do” while we drink too many cocktails on a dark and blustery day. It turns out that we have distantly different methods of putting a puzzle together: he sorts the pieces by shape only, while I like to pick a piece at random and identify it from the picture on the lid of the box and smack it into the puzzle-in-progress. I cannot do what he does, and he cannot do what I do.

    There are no blizzards in our near future so, sadly, until further notice we will have to sip our V&Ts without benefit of 1,000 pieces of puzzle.

    I listened to the Kilkenny song and yes, it’s very sad to know how many mothers said good-bye to their children forever, and how many immigrants never got a chance to see the old country ever again. I think the time line works, because Irish immigration was still at a peak in 1860.

    Was the wall in your apartment moved one foot, or was a new substructure added inside or on the surface of the wall that thickened it a foot? I find this after-market engineering very interesting, since I live in a 100-year old house with walls that have a few rather large cracks in them, and I’m certain the whole shebang is going to fall down one day. One crack is so large that I can put my hand in it, and I’ve had it inspected and am told that it’s nothing to worry about, but of course I still do.

    I hope you and your Irish Central friend enjoyed a tea time at the Sorrento?

    • I can’t even imagine trying to “puzzle” with a cat nearby. That adds a whole layer of complexity. My beef with “Kilkenny” is not about the immigration but specifically the reference to the potato famine in the 1860 letter when the height of the Famine was 1847-1849. John the son would have already known about those potatoes failing because that’s probably what drove him to America in the first place.

      The wall. Ugh. They put in braces–which I believe were just 2x4s to brace the upper floor and then they drywalled over the top of that. Our apartment was supposedly structurally sound but the one above us was not, so they braced it so it wouldn’t pancake in the event of excessive seismic activity. The best thing about drywall is that it covers over anxiety-causing holes and you just don’t have to think about it anymore. I hope you don’t lose puzzle pieces (or a cat!) in yours!

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