Chasing Family… Down a Rabbit Hole and Up a Tree

I haven’t regularly posted to this blog for a while. Life gets in the way sometimes, but since this week marks my 5-year “blogoversary” I’m inspired to jump back in. I’ve recently had eye surgery, and the world is literally a much brighter and clearer place, so I can enjoy reading and writing again.  I plan to take this blog in a slightly different direction on a fairly regular basis now. In addition to musing on retirement, travel, and life in general I will share a little of what’s been eating up my time for the past year or so – my love for history and genealogy.

My sister and I have always loved historical fiction and biographies. That’s a legacy from our mother, who was fascinated with Tudor England and even wrote an occasional story about Henry VIII herself. When we took trips anywhere, she would say things like, “Just think what it was like for the people who traveled in wagons and settled here when there was nothing” or, “Can you imagine the first person who was paddling down the river and heard the thunder of Niagara Falls?” She was transported by every place she visited, and hoped to help us to live a for a moment in another time, and in another person’s shoes.

When I had my first grandchild over 20 years ago, I started to think about history on a much more personal level. I remembered my grandparents, as my parents remembered theirs. I knew our new generation would remember us, but I suddenly wanted to make sure that there was a way for our grandchildren to know our grandparents and what it took for them to build their families. There were struggles and illnesses to overcome, and some did not survive them long. I began to dip my toe in genealogy.

Back then there was no Ancestry.com, but there were other resources and the web was beginning to coalesce. I bought desktop family tree software and started throwing in data as I found it, writing to family members and obtaining civil and church birth, marriage, and death records. I saved everything I could dig up. I put online inquiries on Message Boards in several groups. I combed through boxes of “stuff” from my grandparents, my parents, and my husband’s family.

About eight years into this, my father’s family had a big reunion. My cousins and I put together everything we had. Then we wrote to everyone in the family asking a number of questions – some concrete and some very open-ended. We also requested the loan of photos. We ended up with a lovely book of memories and stories, and over 1500 images on CD to share. I also ended up with a backlog of stuff to document in my tree. The process inspired me to start putting together books and CDs for other branches. The idea was to put the info collected into as many hands as possible, to assure it was available for the next curious descendants, if and when they were ready.

I’ve done a variety family books now. As each niece or nephew marries, I contact the closest relatives and request a little assistance so I can put together a family tree and small history/memory book as a wedding gift to the new “branch.”  In doing these books, I often go back to see where in the heck I found existing info. Thankfully, I have always made at least some kind of note, but I have sometimes been frustrated in trying to locate my original source data from decades ago to review it. That’s how I went from a Sunday hobbyist to a budding genealogist. I started actually citing my new sources in a meaningful way, and went back to review older info. In doing that I found research errors I had made, and, well, this is where it went from just a fun thing to do when I had time to slipping down the rabbit hole into careful, more detailed research. I love a puzzle.

So… I’ve been taking this more seriously. With many online resources worldwide now at my fingertips – and free time to visit archives, cemeteries, churches, and old homesteads – the family tapestry I’m weaving together gets richer every day. I’ve also taken courses online and at Genealogy Fairs. This time last year I was knee-deep in the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program: sixteen weeks of college level coursework, with tons of reading and lots of practical research. I also did an online course at the University of Strathclyde last year. It’s a less rigorous course, but still a great foundation for anyone who wants to understand good research fundamentals – and it’s free.

Some members of our family have also done DNA testing, and that has been a whole other kind of fun – genetic genealogy.

So now you know (if you were wondering at all) partly where I’ve been for the last year or so. I hope now to begin sharing some of this adventure with you. If you are already researching your own family history, I hope my experiences will enrich yours, and that you will share what you’ve learned as well. If you’ve wondered what all the fuss is about, maybe you’ll catch a little research fever. Maybe you’ll decide to do a DNA test at one of the several sites that has had success in helping people find their roots, and perhaps even connect with some new living family.

Or maybe you’ll just think I’m that crazy lady – you know, the one wandering around the cemetery taking headstone photos requested by other families, or in the bookstore wearing the t-shirt that says “I Seek Dead People.” Mostly, I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and background that go with each new discovery as I share this sometimes confounding journey. Nothing is ever exactly what you expect in genealogy, but it’s always interesting, once you start to look. And we can always learn from history, especially if we just imagine ourselves for just a moment in the world of our ancestors.

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Posted in Blogging, Family, Genealogy, Recreation, Ruminations | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Pros and Cons of Fear and Anger

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Right this minute, I don’t much care how you voted anymore, because the election is over, and now we have to look ahead and not back. I understand you’re angry at the opposition, and I understand you’re afraid that the other side wants to take something from you. But right now, I’m also more worried about how we can possibly move forward if we all hold onto the “he said, she said” and “he did it first” fallback positions of our childhoods, with our feet planted firmly and our arms folded across our chests, or with our fingers in our ears shouting, “La La La… I can’t hear you!” Right now, I’m the parent who is angry with both squabbling kids. My own position is irrelevant to the resolution. I am heartbroken, and I would feel exactly the same about the divisions in our country if the election had gone the other way.

Anger and Fear are the evil twins of Compassion and Trust.  None of us was built without some capacity for each of these four qualities. We need them all to survive different times and circumstances in our lives, but balancing them is a truly tricky business.

Fear makes us cautious and often protects us, but can also paralyze our actions or cause us to overreact. Trust lets us take steps forward and build new alliances, but can also make us vulnerable to hurt or attack. Allowing fear to inform us, but not direct us, can be a very, very difficult thing to do.

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Anger can galvanize us to overcome our fears and to act. It’s also a necessary step in any grieving process. On the other hand, left to boil and grow, it can divert our focus, and ultimately can hurt more than help us. Compassion for others forces us to look outside of ourselves, perhaps consider a greater good. Understanding (while not necessarily agreeing with) the mindsets of others gives context to discussions and can pave the way to compromise and unity. So, while anger certainly has its place and purpose; we must each decide when and how far to let it drive us.

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But where does that leave us in the USA as a nation, and each of us individually?  For the past year or so, we and our children have listened to a variety of candidates slash mercilessly at one another. We have watched as both political parties failed to really hear the voices of the opposition, or even to understand the cries of their own constituents. Anger. Frustration. Lack of compassion and understanding. Fear of the unknown. Intolerance of the status quo. Intolerance of one another.

There’s just been so much noise. A media circus on all levels. A continual need for fact-checking, with sometimes even the veracity of the fact-checkers in doubt. Local battles were sometimes as nasty as the national campaign. The fires of various kinds of revolution (economic, social, diplomatic, political) have been stoked at every turn, and the one clear message through all of this was an understanding by just about everyone (including many politicians) that the people of the USA are looking for change…

If only we could find some consensus on what that change should be.

Environmental regulation. Tax reform. Healthcare reform. Gun control. Immigration reform. Term Limits. Supreme Court Appointments. Minimum Wages. The Electoral College. Social Security. Civil Rights. Free Trade. Isolationism. The list goes on.

Some people have said they want to leave the US.  Others live in fear of deportation.

We’ve seen all kinds of reactions to the election results, from the unpleasant and nasty (racial incidents) to devastated Californians in the throes of grief suggesting secession. They are not yet ready to contemplate the potentially negative impacts of leaving the fold. The federal government, while currently the source of their frustration, is also the source of disaster relief during fires and earthquakes. Healthcare, welfare, and Social Security benefits would still have to be figured out and funded or cut going forward. The FDIC would no longer protect their banks. There’s a lot of coastline in California to oversee without a Navy or Coast Guard. The cost of water, gas and oil might become prohibitive, and water availability from other states might even be impacted – a real difficulty for a largely agricultural state. Transport across state lines would become international transport both ways. Just sayin’. Look at Brexit for a laundry list of other things to consider. And still, the idea has some traction.

The point is that tensions and emotions are so high that even previously unthinkable things like secession or migration from the USA, a new House Un-American Activities Committee, and other similar suggestions on both sides of the political spectrum have become part of our conversation again – at least to the extent we can call all shouting and no listening a conversation.

We are no longer indivisible – in fact, we are ideologically split in half.  Face it, folks, there is no clear mandate here either way. Half of the country disagrees with you. We need to take a deep breath, and then realize it’s time to start trying to understand how those people could possibly consider their opposing viewpoints valid (No, they aren’t all just stupid, no matter which side you fall on.) Social media has been good and bad for us. It has forced us all to hear all sorts of things from all sides. It has fed us both information and disinformation. And it has fueled the fires.

In the end, each of us has a responsibility to take stock. It isn’t enough to know what we don’t want and blame others for where we are. It isn’t enough to just accept the assertions and rhetoric we like best. It isn’t enough to think we know what drives other people. It isn’t even enough to be right.

My heart is absolutely broken, because the country I love is no longer united. We can no longer envision ourselves as a big dysfunctional family, squabbling but still loving one another. We’ve lost our reason and our ability to find consensus. We unrepentantly hurt one another with intent. We’re a very broken family, and things in our lifetimes won’t ever be as they were again, or as we perceive they were. We even sometimes forget that our nation is only one in a greater world community. Right now we’re that crazy family down the block, and everyone else is a little nervous about us. We all need to stop shouting and just shut up for a bit before something truly cataclysmic happens. Something that can’t be rolled back or amended.

We need a little time to cool off, to shake off the bedlam of the past year, to take stock of where we are and where we think we’re headed. Then, the really hard part starts. It’s time to really listen. The challenge is to honestly listen to one another’s fears, and to recognize everyone’s anger, fears, and frustrations are very real to them. It’s time to pull up our big kid panties and show (and in return expect) compassion and respect for the reasons that brought each person to his or her beliefs. It’s time to speak rationally so others will take us seriously.  And it’s time to comprehend that until we work to find some pieces of common ground, we’ll have no place to stand as a nation. Remember, we are still only a small part of the bigger world outside. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

That means you. It means me. It means all of us.

Together.

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Posted in Ruminations | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Starting a New Holiday Tradition

Well, here we are into the first week of Advent! In addition to the Sunday celebration services and advent candle lightings, that means baking, wrapping, decorating, and mailing.

I don’t know about you, but we still send paper Christmas holiday greeting cards each year. In the cards for people we feel close to, my beloved and I even enclose one of those obnoxious little letters sharing a bit about the year that we and our family had. We have moved many times over the years, each time leaving behind some treasured friendships. We also have family and very good friends on three continents – these notes show them how the grandkids are growing, and lets them know that we still think of them and want to keep up with them. Not everyone’s on Facebook.

A while back I saw a post on social media, suggesting that cards to soldiers and veterans be a part of the holidays for more families this year. In the face of recent events and so much international uncertainty, that sounded like an idea that was long overdue for me. My dad and both grandfathers served in the armies of their countries (USA and UK) and my husband’s father served in the US Navy. All of them served in time of war and spent holidays in far-away places.  I wish the world were a better place, and all our boys and girls in uniform could be home for the holidays. But I know some of them will be away for a long time, and some will never return. None of them made the decision to put our troops where they are. So, as I started addressing cards this week, I went online to get more info on how to send messages of holiday thanks and encouragement to our troops.

I quickly realized that I had missed the boat. That post? It meant to do it THEN, the day I read it, and not at my leisure a month later.

The annual deadline for the Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign (through their local chapters) had just passed – it was December 2nd.  Valiant Veterans’ Operation Christmas Cards had a December 1st deadline,  and the Hugs for Soldiers’ Christmas for a Soldier annual campaign ended December 1st as well.

But, I learned it’s not altogether too late.

  • A Million Thanks has a Send a Letter program  where you can send letters at any time – including what might be belated holiday greetings – and they have other services as well. All they ask that you be uplifting and thankful in your notes.
  • And missing a holiday card deadline doesn’t mean there’s nothing at all you can do until next year. It tugs at our hearts that there are soldiers and veterans who will not be with family and friends for Christmas (or whatever holiday they celebrate at this time of year), but many are lonely or need support the rest of the year as well. Did you know you could get a military pen-pal? Write to thank a soldier at any time? “Adopt” a military family? Operation We Are Here  has quite a few suggestions. Soldier’s Angels also has community/group opportunities to reach out to deployed US military, veterans, and more.
  • You can also send or drop off cards to your local VA hospital (call first to find out the best way and time to do this). Some Veterans Administration facilities also need drivers, or have “needs lists” which they don’t use to solicit gifts, but offer as guidelines when asked – things as simple as new t-shirts and personal hygiene items.

So at least now I have a revised, two-pronged plan for my cards – sending some notes through the Send a Letter program now (and throughout 2016), and marking my calendar to write holiday cards before Thanksgiving next year to get them into the holiday flow.

Guess I’d better get to work.

Here’s wishing you all a blessed holiday season and a bright, hopeful, and peaceful 2016!

Posted in Faith, Giving Back, Ruminations | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Giving Season and the Thoughtful Giver

It’s that time of year again.

Since before Hallowe’en, US stores have been sneaking Christmas items onto their shelves. Blue and silver Hannakuh wrapping paper and red and green Christmas candies have appeared everywhere, and seasonal music has begun playing in our retail outlets and on TV commercials. Our mailboxes – electronic and snailmail – are filled with exhortations to purchase holiday gifts, and social media is full of ideas for celebrating whatever holiday(s) are part of our traditions. But they contain another kind of solicitation as well.

During the last quarter of the year, non-profit organizations of all types put on an annual push for donations. You have until the end of the year to make contributions that are tax-deductible for 2015, and they know this. The rush is on in early October to get to each of us first, in order to garner their needed pieces of the pie. The tax deadline and the season dovetail nicely together. We’re full of the spirit of giving, and many of us can receive some benefit for doing it as well.

In 2012, a group in New York had an idea for sparking charitable giving on social media, and Giving Tuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) was born. Very clever really, to do it after Black Friday and Cyber Monday – its own day, not conflicting with early shopping, and focusing on charitable giving. Today celebrates the fourth Giving Tuesday, and many non-profit and for-profit organizations have jumped on the bandwagon,. Your email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media pages will be full of the logo above, which we are all encouraged to use to further giving efforts today. And so it gets easier to “do good.” Overall, not a bad thing.

When my beloved and I were in our peak earning years, our charitable giving was barely sacrificial – it was easy to do and opportunities were everywhere. We had United Way automatic withdrawals from our paychecks to our designated favorite charities. We supported some favorite local organizations and an overseas child, our children’s and grandchildren’s school and other fundraising efforts, our alma maters, and our local church. We certainly didn’t always take time to know as much as we might have about some of the organizations we supported.

Now that we have a more or less fixed income, we have to be a little more thoughtful about how we spend our charitable dollars, and that effort has been eye-opening. Of course we will continue to support the efforts of our grandchildren and the church we attend. We continue some designated giving to the schools that gave so much to us. But we’ve received mail solicitations from no fewer than thirty organizations in the past two months, and we can’t just throw money at all of them, no matter how much we appreciate their goals.

 So how do we choose?

Well, to start with, just because an organization is well-known, doesn’t mean it uses its donations well. It isn’t only Wall Street that pays top dollar to executives. And there are many other inefficiencies. It is stunning to see how the dollars you send are used. Thankfully, there are some easy ways to check on this. Some links for groups that watch charitable organizations are included below. Looking at their data may change how you see a few groups, and may make you want to support others more. I guarantee there will be some surprises.

Or, if you want to make a donation for fighting a certain illness, ask your doctor which organizations are best supporting his patients. Ask your pastor or school counselor which organizations are making a difference in your community. Donate to the local food pantry and women’s shelter. There is no end to the ways you can find the charities that are meaningful to you, who will treasure your gifts and use them well.

So, although it’s easier than ever to click and give, we are working this year to find the most meaningful uses for our donations, to really make those dollars count. I’m certainly not suggesting anyone shun the Giving Tuesday movement – it has been wildly successful. I’m just suggesting that you take a moment to think about which clicks will make the most difference in your world.

So Happy Giving Tuesday – May your season be bright and may all your gifts be thoughtful!

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Here are a few links to Charity Watchdog organizations:

Posted in Blogging, Faith, Family, Finances, Giving Back, Ruminations | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Do I Really Have My Father’s Eyes?

BROWNIEAll my life, I’ve been told I had my father’s eyes. Family lore has it that a complete stranger came up to my mother at a county park when I was a baby, pointed to my rosy cheeks and impossibly pale blue eyes and announced that she had no idea who my mother was, but that I clearly was a member of my father’s family. Even other family members have confused my photos with pictures of my Dad’s sisters. (That’s OK with me – I think they’re all lovely.) The point is – the force runs strong in my father’s family.

Daddy and Me as toddlers

Daddy and Me as toddlers

Genetics are a funny and random mixed bag. My sister and I have inherited some of the same traits, but also many different things from each of our parents. My sister’s face is a clear reflection of our mother’s mother, and she got many more of Mum’s freckles than I did. She got Daddy’s natural athletic ability, and I got our mother’s preference to be alone with a book over almost anything else. We both inherited a great love of movies and music from Mum, and we both wear those bright, pale blue eyes from Dad.

1378678_10200726870915958_922495766_nI don’t remember my father ever complaining about his eyes until he was in his late 70’s and diabetes began to take its toll. My mother, on the other hand, had incredibly beautiful eyes, but was very nearsighted (myopic) and often had to hide them behind glasses. An injury to one of her eyes made contact lenses off limits. Taking her specs off meant she had to open her eyes wider to see, which had the effect of making her look inquisitive and even more attractive. The truth is, her eyes were gorgeous, but they were a trial to her.

Mum was a writer and, for a time, editor of a local magazine. Each month she wrote some article for the magazine, like a profile of a local business or personality, or a humor piece about life as a resident of our county. One of those pieces was called “Myopia Is My Way of Life.” In it she described her love-hate relationship with her glasses, and to this day it makes me laugh.

But as she aged, her eyes gave her additional problems – ones that could cause blindness if left untreated. In her sixties she developed cataracts (lens clouding) and the clear vision she relied on became fractured and unclear. An eye doctor told me that 46526_656823199152_1741297494_nmost of us get some progressive cataract distortion as we age, but the very nearsighted are often affected earlier. Mum had surgery to correct her cataracts and improve her myopia, and then did a little metaphorical tap dance because, as she said, her vision was better than it had been in her thirties. She bought some new books to celebrate.

Then, she developed glaucoma (damage to the optic nerve, usually caused by pressure). It was caught early, and for the balance of her life she put two kinds of drops in her eyes daily, to prevent further damage. Being a Scot, she was keenly aware of the financial cost of those drops, but she was even more aware of the consequences of failing to use them. Her vision was clear and her eyes were bright and beautiful until the day she died.

So, today I had a follow-up visit with the ophthalmologist. Follow-up, because my annual checkup with my optician (who provides my glasses for myopia) showed some suspicious things. First, I have cataracts starting. These will be monitored, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have to have surgery. They don’t advocate the surgery when they first start, because, well it’s surgery after all, and so they’re cautious. But when I notice progression, it will be my turn to have the surgery, do a tap dance, and order some new books.

The other suspicion was that I may have the beginnings of glaucoma. Some more tests were done today, and I have yet another follow-up visit in a few months to see if I need to start the regimen of daily eye drops.  You can get crowns on your teeth, and they can build you new knees and hips, but we really only get one pair of eyes each – they need a little TLC.

As I was describing my doctor visit to my beloved tonight, I had a funny thought. It suddenly occurred to me that all my life, everyone has been wrong. In some very important ways, I have my mother’s eyes, and not my father’s after all.

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Also see:

Posted in Health Issues, Retirement itself | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Symbols of Cities and Lands

Some landmarks are iconic – a single image of them conjures the names of the places they represent. They become symbols of their locations…

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Like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in Paris…

China 538 - CopyThe Great Wall of China…

Blue - Tower Bridge and Blue Skies over London

Tower Bridge in London…


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The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco…

DSC_0335 (2)…or the Space Needle in Seattle.

What’s your favorite symbolic landmark?

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This post was written in response to the WordPress Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge:  Symbol.  To see other bloggers’ iconic entries and get more info on these challenges, just click on the links! 

Posted in Photo Challenges, Recreation, Travelogues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments