Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas lesson about variables

Some of us are old enough to remember the “good old days” of Christmas tree lights. These were the ones where any defective bulb knocked the whole string out of commission.

Those who had enough patience or lacked sufficient money to purchase the upgraded version underwent the process of removing each bulb in sequence and replacing it with a bulb known to be good. Usually that was sufficient to solve the problem.

However, there was always that complicating factor when two bulbs were defective. That required a significantly more extensive effort. One tested bulb was placed in the first position while the second bulb cycled through the rest of the string. And then the whole process was repeated with the first good bulb in the second position and the second bulb continuing its travel down the line.

This year I came across one of those strings. And, sure enough, it wasn’t working. An odd sense of sentimental loyalty encouraged me to accept the challenge to see if it was salvageable.

The first time through revealed that it wasn’t going to be a simple solve. I was into my two-bulb mode when my husband started chiding me about wasting a lot of time for no good reason. (Don’t you just hate it when someone is rational and spoils all your fun???!!!)

When he saw that he wasn’t going to dissuade me from my errand, he suggested using an ohms meter. Wow! Technology to the rescue!!!

So I took the little probes and tested each of the protruding wires. Several got tossed (remembering to save the bases just in you sense a little over-the-top frugality?). Then I put the proven ones back in the string. But all to no avail.

Obviously, there are additional variables beyond the bulbs. The sockets probably weren’t designed to last the quarter of a century that this string had survived. Neither are the wires terribly substantial. So any one of those could have scuttled the system.

Well, needless to say, I finally took my husband’s advice and threw the antique string in the trash, along with the defective bulbs. But in the meantime, I learned how to use an ohms meter and had a few genealogy-related thoughts.

How many times have we looked for a missing piece of an ancestor’s life’s string and simply can’t find it? How many times is that failure the result of a faulty “fact” which is occupying another location in the timeline?

Perhaps we would be wise—especially if this person is a pivotal one for our study—to go back and verify each “bulb” we have recorded. Is this a fun process? No! But if there is one (or...horrors...even two!) of those erroneous details, wouldn’t it be better to test them and get rid of the nonproductive clues than to continue to beat our heads against a wall that might not even be real?

I doubt that it will often become necessary to throw the whole string away (though some I’ve seen might be better off simply being started over from scratch). But we should at least be sure we haven’t plugged in defective information, because that will throw us off as we continue our search.

Use the “ohms meter” of your mind to be sure there is true connectivity in your understanding. After all, if the jolly man in the red-and-white suit (who knows everything!) has to make a list and check it twice, don't you think we'd be wise to follow his example?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Marching on

Having married a little later in life, the proverbial “biological clock” is a familiar nemesis. But I never expected this latest development.

You know, I’m in serious contention for the famous award of “She who dies with the most fabric wins.” The clearance shelves at the fabric store are one of my weaknesses. And one of my strengths is a vivid imagination of how nicely a certain piece would work up. Or how many outfits could be created with different components made from a very neutral but distinctive color. Plus, there are always the multitudes of quilts that could be created from the scraps. As a result, I’ve been known to purchase entire bolts of particularly nicely priced materials.

Having already prepared five books of record abstracts for publication, you’d think the thrill of seeing my name on the cover of a book would have passed. But there’s this novel that keeps roaming around in my head, fighting to get down on paper. The muse hasn’t agitated the waters yet, so it’s still just a disembodied dream.

And, although most of my friends would never guess it, I’ve always wanted to paint. Not the bedroom walls, you understand, but actual artistic painting. I took a class once, a long, long time ago. The one project from that session that is still around is not quite finished. It was turning out so much better than I had expected that I was afraid to add the finishing touches—putting the leaves on the tree. So I decided to leave it at very, very, very early spring, before any of them started peeking out.

Intriguing recipes have always caught my eye. I have files full of them. I still copy one down every once in a while. But a few years ago it suddenly occurred to me that we use the same basic dishes over and over, and I haven’t opened those files except to insert a new candidate. They will probably go out in the massive trash dump when it comes time to clean out the house.

But I’m already starting to do a mental housecleaning. I’m beginning to understand that some of the things I’ve always wanted to do will most likely never get done. Priorities are being reset, with things of an eternal nature coming out distinctly on top. And, of course, family history runs a close second to husband and children (though they might think they win only in theory, not in practice).

The pressures that are tapping me on the shoulder now are more like, “Will I ever finish getting my notes in order?” “How can I get a week away to dig into those court records in that courthouse basement?” “Which of all these people with the same last name are related to my guy?” “Does he have any sisters who have disappeared into matrimonial obscurity?” “Where is that one elusive clue that will finally tell me who his parents are???”

Tick, tick, tick. Please just leave me my hands (to type), my eyes (to read), and my brain (to interpret and formulate and guess and pray). And most of all, pretty please, just a few more good years.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Artifacts vs. Legacies

As genealogists, we spent an ample amount of time in cemeteries. Here we see the last tangible evidence of many of our ancestors.

But this morning, I am thinking about the other things we leave behind. You see, we are installing a new garage door. The other one lasted for more than a quarter of a century and held several memories. An old wooden door with four windows, it had been the recipient of an unkindly bouncing basketball which dimmed one of its lights. For several years, a scrap piece of fabric provided a patch (and a rather odd appearance) before I finally realized that heavy plastic would not be as good as the original glass but would at least look better from a distance.

So as we were working on the new door this morning, I was observing the floor of the garage. There was evidence of several painting jobs, one of which had probably caused a few bad words to fly when a substantial spill somehow exited the bucket. The floor at the front still holds remnants of oil and other fluids which leaked from our fleet of previously owned cars over the years, ones often needing the attention of the household mechanic.

My husband’s skills made it possible for us to have the house in the first place. We never could have afforded it otherwise. We broke ground five months before our first child was born and moved in two weeks after our second child. Many late nights, Johnie would come out and work on the house after having put in a full day’s work as a private contractor. He reflected later how frustrating it was for him to see several houses in the neighborhood start and finish during the time it took to build ours. And when I later sold Avon through that same neighborhood and described where we lived, the comment was often, “Oh yes, the house that took so long to build.”

That second daughter arrived two weeks before her due date. Because of her unexpected appearance, we weren’t completely prepared to move in. For one thing, my husband hadn’t had time to install the window screens. For the first week in August of a very sultry Virginia summer, that was not a good thing. I feel like I already know what the plague of flies is going to be like, though perhaps on a slightly smaller scale!

The first winter we were in the house, we heated the entire edifice with an Earth Stove in the basement. We closed in the laundry room around it, thus creating a plenum of sorts. We burned the stove hard, the heat rising through holes in the floor which would eventually become part of the a/c system. As you can imagine, it was not a very efficient set-up. We found that the heat just didn’t make it to the family room. So we hung a blanket over the doorway for the duration of the winter. And I’ll never forget the night of a very severe freeze when I could see the concern on my husband’s face. The idea of bursting pipes in a new house simply wasn’t very comforting to him.

Now we have lived here for 27 years and raised five children and a cat—the former of which were very much planned for; the latter of which, not so much. We had reached the point where we could leave the door to the basement stairs open when the two older girls returned home from a sojourn out west, bringing the feline with them. I guess it’s just as well, because now that same benefactor who brought the cat (and has since moved on without him) has graced us with a granddaughter and is expecting another one in February. We may never be able to leave the basement door open again! But that’s OK. The grandchildren are worth any inconvenience.

The old bureau which I had bought from a former roommate for $10 was the practice slate for our children when they hadn’t yet learned the lesson that pencils went only with paper. Of course, before painting the dresser and the walls of the room in which it was housed, we had to take pictures of the stick people with very large bodies and even longer legs, little messages prompted by irritations over having three girls in one room prior to the finishing of the basement, and even labels for what belonged where during a period of super organization (which probably didn’t last too long).

If they ever demolish our home, they’ll find measurements on the two-by-fours, notice a ton of nails (the inspector said he’d seen overbuilt houses before, but nothing like ours!), and maybe even observe that the bathroom/hallway wall wasn’t totally plumb because my dad had helped put it up during a visit and Johnie had left it. I doubt that much of that will count as a valuable artifact to those living at that time. And all the memories will have left with the last member of our family to inhabit the home.

But what may remain, even though housed in another residence, will be some of the habits, the principles, and the little traditions that get passed down from one generation to the next. It is important to me that my cupboards be organized because my mother had the same policy. (I haven’t snooped through my married daughter’s kitchen yet, but I suspect I know basically what I would find.) I imagine that the cadence with which I read a book to my granddaughter is similar to my mother’s, and possibly her mother before her. And it is very touching to me that the bathing dialogue my daughter uses with her daughter sounds very similar to the one I remember using with her.

Will they take the time to read the volumes of journals and personal histories I will have hopefully prepared by the time I’m no longer here? Maybe not. I’m not even sure what they’ll do with the file drawers filled with multitudes of folders filled with papers that are very important to me (organized or not!).

But there will be a legacy nonetheless—a legacy written in “the fleshy tablets of the heart.” That, after all, will probably not only suffice but wind up being the most important one.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

No generic ancestors---

My experience with family history extends over four and a half decades now. (As I may have pointed out previously, I was very, very young when I began!) And I have just recently begun to recognize something about my mental approach to this burgeoning collection of ancestors and relatives.

Perhaps I began thinking about it because I once heard that one of the most romantic actors in our cinematic past had a rather hefty case of halitosis (a nice way of saying bad breath). Imagine! And so you begin looking at the attractive faces on the screen and thinking, I wonder if he/she wears cologne. If so, what kind? I wonder whether they chew with their mouths closed. I wonder if they snore. I wonder if they leave their socks on the bedroom/bathroom/family room floor. I wonder if they are ill tempered. I wonder if they get along with their family members. I wonder what they think about when there’s nothing else going on. Do they like cats or dogs or neither?

Just a little side note here—My husband always maintains that if you like a celebrity, you should make no attempt to get to know him/her better since you stand a pretty good chance of being disappointed. Because he worked for many years in the music field, he has stories to back up his position. Happily, there are some exceptions to that rule. But in general, we should probably be hanging our admiration hats on hooks (and heads) much closer to home.

Many of us spend uncounted hours trying to find out more about our ancestors. And yet for how many of us have all those names become a flat combination of letters and numbers on our family history forms? Are they more like the detail-deprived silhouettes used in many of the social Web sites? In all our studies and searchings, have we forgotten that we are dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings?

This was probably brought home to me when I finally saw a picture of one of my third-great-grandfather’s children. An older descendant had sent me a picture of this woman’s father several years ago, so I was already familiar with the overly large ears, the piercing eyes hooded by a slanted eyebrow ridge, the square chin and strong jawline. But, startlingly, here was a feminine version with the same general features.

We can continue to ask questions—What did her voice sound like? Did she have a wry sense of humor that might have turned up the corners of her somber-looking mouth just seconds after the photographer’s shutter clicked? What kind of a wife and mother was she? Sadly, it is unlikely that we will be able to obtain the answers to those questions here unless someone kept some kind of a surviving record. (By the by, when was the last time you sat down and wrote a detailed description of one of your family members???)

But simply admitting that there are answers generates more questions. Complex interpersonal relationships are not a 21st-century development. And since it is often difficult to discern accurately the underlying currents motivating living people, it is imperative that we withhold judgment when we see events transpire in the lives of those who cannot even be observed. All conclusions are tentative at best.

So when a husband deserts his wife, we must allow for the possibility that he might have been self-centered or she might have been a scold. We see this problem being played out during the current scandal over the sports personality who was unfaithful to his beautiful wife. Commentators marvel over and over again that his straying is totally incomprehensible given the beautiful wife. Call me jaded, but according to all I have observed there is no direct correlation between compatibility and either fame or beauty!

Similarly, the son or daughter who got left out of the will or received a minimal monetary allotment may have fully merited that final reprimand because of blatant irresponsibility...or worse. On the other side of that equation, there are very few (read “no”) perfect parents! One of my relatives observed that she had determined that she was going to be a great housekeeper because her own mother’s disorganization had driven her father crazy. (And I’ve often wondered if those cycles continue down through the generations.)

My husband says that he remembers that in his grandparents’ world, the man ruled the roost. No doubt, many times that relationship wound up being less than sensitive according to current standards. His own great-grandmother had eight children—all born 16 months apart or less (mostly less)—before she died during the last pregnancy. However, as poor as her husband was, he buried his deceased wife in her new coat, her infant cradled in her arms.

Seven years later, the widower married a woman who shouldered the responsibility for the surviving motherless children and eventually bore eight children of her own. What were those seven intervening years like for him? How did he sustain his family? How did his second wife fit in? Was she happy in this setting? Did they have the same “blending” challenges faced by modern step-families? Or did the demands of survival not allow time for that?

Obviously, I think it is imperative that we exercise judgment cautiously, for both the living and the dead. Our progenitors were real people, composed of faults and flaws, character and quality, and unlimited combinations of each. My husband once asked me what I would do if, after having devoted a huge portion of my life to researching my infamous 3ggfather, I met him and discovered that he really wasn’t a very likable person. I’ll have to admit that the thought gave me pause; however, it has not diminished my determination to find out more about him—warts and all.

Yes, there will probably be some surprises, maybe even some disappointments, when we finally participate in that great reunion. But just as we learn in mortality to love very flawed individuals, I am confident that the same process will play out there—except that we may then see much more clearly all the elements which contributed to the realities we encounter.

In the meantime, perhaps we should remind ourselves constantly that