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My parents’ hometown was a four-hour drive, which my family would undertake each holiday, as both sets of grandparents still resided there.

Memorial Day was predominantly spent with my paternal grandparents, whose families had immigrated to the town in the late 1880’s, and so had a fair number of gravesites to visit.  I would follow my grandmother around their one-acre property as she gathered calla lilies.

At the cemetery, as the adults walked from grave to grave of loved ones, laying down the flowers and reminiscing about each lost relative, I would venture off, walking between the sites (mindful of stepping on someone) and reading the gravestones. Sometimes, there would be a quote which would offer a clue about who was buried there.  I especially liked walking to the back end of the cemetery, where it had become neglected and overgrown; only sporadic bits of markers remained.  I wondered who they had been and why they were forgotten.

My father confessed his curiosity, as well, not only about the forgotten, but all of those who were buried there.  Who were they?  What were their stories?  He thought it would be grand if each gravestone had a button you could push, which would play a recording of the deceased’s story.

Little did he know that years later, QR codes would come along, holding a brief biography of a decedent, tastefully embedded on a gravestone.  Imagine, after visiting a loved one’s burial site, strolling around meeting his or her “neighbors” with a simple scan. 

Another way to share a condensed bio is through Find A Grave (http://www.findagrave.com/), where you can search for graves at cemeteries around the world. It’s volunteer-based, so it’s up to individuals to post a photograph of the gravesite and type in information.  Photographs of the deceased can be uploaded as well.  It’s a free service. 

Obituaries provide one-time glimpses into lives of loved ones.  These two options provide ongoing introductions and storytelling. 

Who would you like to be remembered?

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The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil war.  While many of the obvious states will memorialize the event, many would be surprised that California played a part in the war as well.

Gold from California helped keep the Union solvent.  California had more volunteers per capita in the Union Army than any other state. Nearly 17,000 Californians enlisted to fight.  By war’s end, California volunteers in the West occupied more territory than did the Union Army in the east.  The efforts of California men were not only critical in keeping California part of the Union and in keeping the flow of gold to Washington uninterrupted, but also in keeping the Far West federal territory.

Sacramento organized a voluntary military defense force due to the possibility of invasion by forces stationed in Confederate Texas.  In Sacramento’s July 4, 1861 parade, Major J.P. Gillis proudly waved his version of the Confederate flag, which was promptly “captured” by J.W. Biderman.  (The flat is on display at the California State Capitol Museum and is referred to as the “Biderman flag.”  I’m curious as to why it isn’t named after the man who actually created it.)

After war’s end, many Civil War veterans remained in California, including the Sacramento area.  In 1897, a Civil War memorial Grove was planed in Capitol Park (10th and L Streets) with saplings from 40 famous Civil War battlefields, including Manassas, Harpers Ferry, Savannah, Five Forks, Yellow Tavern and Vicksburg.  At the center stood a “tree of peace,” transplanted from Appomattox, where the Confederate Army surrendered.  In the Sacramento City Cemetery, you’ll find the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, allegedly the first Civil War memorial in California.  To this day, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUV) continue the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Deceased Civil War veterans often only received a wooden plaque with their name written or carved into or a headstone without information indicating their military service.  SUV, therefore, locates and identifies Civil War soldiers, the units and companies in which they served, infantry, artillery, etc., and what state they were from. SUV then ensured they receive a proper military headstone, and present rededication ceremonies, replicating how it would have looked during that time period, with attendees in full Union blue uniforms and sometimes a 21-gun salute, with muzzle loaders similar to those use din the Civil War. 

Grave sites can be found throughout Sacramento County, including the suburbs of Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks.

If you believe you have an ancestor who served in the Civil War, SUV is a national organization who can be contacted at their web site site, www.suvcw.org.  (Perhaps you’re an “S.O.B.” – son of both sides.)

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My 88-year-old great-aunt doesn’t want anyone to know she was pregnant when she got married.  She even had her son lie about his birth year growing up. She doesn’t want to be considered one of “those kind of girls.”  I look at this incredible shrinking woman, hunched over as she crosses the room in her walker.  The birth of her first child occurred over 65 years ago.  She and my great-uncle welcomed two additional children.  Yet, she still feels ashamed.  It’s her little secret and she wants it kept that way.

Some families have secrets on a larger scale.  I met a woman who, in researching her family tree, discovered an aunt she didn’t know existed.

She asked her mother, “Did you have a sister?”

“Oh, yes,” she shrugged.

“Well, you’ve never mentioned her,” she accused. 

She stared her mother down until she supplied an explanation.  “Sis” was a “Madam” who had Mob connections, angered the wrong person, and was gunned down in bed with a client.  The resulting scandal was such that the family erased her from existence. 

After an exhausting emotional discussion, it was agreed that her aunt be included in the family history book.  Her mother had struggled with years of inner conflict between family honor and loyalty to her sister, and the opportunity to discuss it with her daughter was cathartic and healing.  Their relationship has become much closer.

How do you decide what secrets should be revealed and what should not?  Discuss with the individual the potential results of revealing a secret:

  • Will it adversely affect someone still living?
  • Could it open communications within the family; offer a greater understanding of an individual’s subsequent life choices? 

“The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great-grandfather was a pirate.”

Have you learned about a family secret?  Do you think it should remain a secret or is appropriate to be included in a family history book?

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The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Mark Twain

Although he died a century ago, he continues to be quoted and his books continue to be read by each generation.  He has so many fans that Hal Holbrook has been successfully performing his Tony Award winning one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” every year since 1954. 

And, yet, the publishing and retail industries were stunned to learn that Mr. Twain’s autobiography would sell more than the originally printed 50,000 copies.  I shook my head in bewilderment.   Have they been living in an alternate reality?

I experience the same head shaking moment when people tell me their life stories aren’t interesting.  No one else has lived them.  That, in and of itself, makes them interesting.  Additionally, reading the biography of a celebrity is never as interesting as reading biographies of family members, because you’re related to them.

“You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography.”

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain

Have you begun dictating your autobiography?  Why not?

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“Before the war, it was always the United States are.  After the war, it was the United States is.  It made us an is.” 

Shelby Foote

 

The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  While many of the obvious states will memorialize the event, many would be surprised that California played a part in the war as well. 

  • Gold from California helped keep the Union solvent during the Civil War
  • California had more volunteers per capita in the Union Army than any other state
  • Nearly 17,000 Californians enlisted to fight
  • By war’s end, California volunteers in the West occupied more territory than did the Union Army in the east
  • The efforts of California men were not only critical in keeping California part of the Union and in keeping the flow of gold to Washington uninterrupted, but also in keeping the Far West federal territory 

Sacramento organized a voluntary military defense force due to the possibility of invasion by forces stationed in Confederate Texas.  In Sacramento’s July 4, 1861 parade, Major J.P. Gillis proudly waved his version of the Confederate flag, which was promptly “captured” by J.W. Biderman.  (The flag is on display at the California State Capitol Museum and is referred to as the “Biderman flag.”  I’m curious as to why it isn’t named after the man who actually created it.)

After war’s end, many Civil War veterans remained in California, including the Sacramento area.  In 1897, a Civil War Memorial Grove was planted in Capitol Park (10th and L Streets) with saplings from 40 famous Civil War battlefields, including Manassas, Harpers Ferry, Savannah, Five Forks, Yellow Tavern and Vicksburg.  At the center stood a “tree of peace,” transplanted from Appomattox, where the Confederate Army surrendered.  In the Sacramento City Cemetery, you’ll find the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, allegedly the first Civil War memorial in California.  To this day, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUV) continue the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic. 

Deceased Civil War veterans often only received a wooden plaque with their name written or carved into it or a headstone without information indicating their military service. SUV, therefore, locates and identifies Civil War soldiers, the units and companies in which they served, infantry, artillery, etc., and what state they were from.  SUV then ensures they receive a proper military headstone, and present rededication ceremonies, replicating how it would have would have looked during that time period, with attendees in full Union blue uniforms and sometimes a 21-gun salute, with muzzle loaders similar to those used in the Civil War.   

Army vet Jim Montéton, age 67, is an active member of SUV.  “One of the graves they just located was in a cemetery in Ione.  It was a flat marker on the ground and it had been covered over with weeds.  When they cleared it away, it was discovered that the deceased was not only a Civil War vet, but he was a medal of honor recipient.”

“In Lockeford, we had a rededication ceremony for a Confederate solider.  About 50 people from Lockeford showed up.  Didn’t even know him, but they just thought it was an interesting thing to do to see this re-dedication.  All of the women in the historical society came out in full dress, with big hoop skirts, like they just stepped out of the 1860’s, and us in our uniforms.  It’s living history, and it’s a good feeling. “ 

Sometimes, inaccuracies will be discovered and corrected, such as the recent case in Vallejo.  A Civil War cannon had been stolen from the cemetery, and when a member of SUV visited the scene, a gravestone was pointed out to him by the groundskeeper, who believed there was an error.  “This guy here, they got him marked as a Confederate soldier, but I don’t think he was,” said the groundskeeper.  “I think he was a Union soldier.”  The veteran had enlisted at a certain point in the war when the Union troops had moved all the way down into Georgia.  So, he enlisted in Georgia.  That’s why they thought he was Confederate and placed it on his gravestone, but he wasn’t, so SUV corrected the records, and discovered he had over 300 descendants living in the Bay Area.  One hundred and fifty of them attended the rededication ceremony. 

“The oldest person there was his 77-year-old granddaughter “says Montéton.  “It was very emotional.  We had Union soldiers from all over the Bay Area, including here from Sacramento.  We had a pretty good detachment, almost enough to start a war.  We were all turned out in our blue uniforms, the weather cooperated; not one of those scorcher days when those uniforms are really hot.  We had about 7 or 10 guns when we fired them all in the air and it was impressive and the full color guard came in.” 

Grave sites of Civil War veterans can be found throughout Sacramento County, including the suburbs of Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks.    

“The cemetery in Fair Oaks, I think there’s four Union Civil War vets, and one Confederate,” says Montéton.  “When we had the ceremony there for Memorial Day, you could follow your eye along the edge of the cemetery and see all of the American flags, one after another, and all of a sudden, there’s one flag that sticks out.  It’s got a red top, a white center and a red bottom and blue field with 13 stars.  That is the flag of the Confederacy.”  (Interesting side note:  Civil War General Charles Henry Howard, one of the original Fair Oaks landowners, named Howard Street after himself.) 

If you believe you have an ancestor who served in the Civil War, SUV is a national organization who can be contacted at their web site www.suvcw.org.  (Perhaps you’re an “S.O.B.” – son of both sides). 

What state(s) did your ancestor(s) enlist?

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“You will always find an answer in the sound of water.”     Chuang-Tse

Water can be transparent or murky, cold or warm, can bring tragedy or joy.

This morning, as I listened to the rhythmic jerk of the sprinkler’s water spray, I was transported back in time when my girlfriends and I giggled running through sprinklers to escape the heat.

I considered other sounds of water that evoke memories for me:

  • Ocean waves building strength and momentum before crashing to the shore, smoothing out sandcastles, and burying our feet deeper in the sand as the water receded.
  • The splat as water balloons hit their marks – whether human targets or the sidewalk from the top of building.
  • Cannonballs into swimming pools trying to make the biggest splash. Ever.
  • “Marco!” “Polo!”
  • The quiet lapping of water on the lakeshore, subtly and gently massing the soul.
  • Jostling and clinking of ice cubes in a summer beverage invited relief to parched throats.

Rafting. Kayaking. Waterfalls. Fountains. Creeks. Squirt guns.

What memories do the sounds of water conjure up for you?
 

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Children should be seen and not heard.”

Children definitely did not have a voice. The April 1874 case of Mary Ellen Wilson illustrates this point:

A charity worker was alerted to the severe abuse eight year old Mary Ellen was suffering in the home of her “stepmother.” The charity worker could not have Mary Ellen removed from the home, as there was no existing legal means to do so. The only alternative left to the charity worker was to have Mary Ellen’s stepmother prosecuted for abuse under existing laws prohibiting cruelty to animals. In effect, Mary Ellen had to be classified as an animal before any existing legislation could be used to protect her from the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her stepmother. As a result, the first child abuse case in New York City was prosecuted under cruelty to animal laws. It would appear that animals were deemed worthy of protection in nineteenth century society, yet children were not. This situation was remedied in December 1874 with the establishment of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, homeless and orphaned children on the east coast were “placed out” to families across the country and into Canada. Many were immigrant families and could neither speak or write English. Some were treated like slaves, being forced to work in factories and on farms. Historically, the practice was commonplace, going back to ancient Jewish and early Christian cultures. English practiced it routinely. Following World War II, approximately 2,000 British war orphans were shipped to the United States and Canada.

Several organizations were actually involved in the “placing out” of children. In addition to New York, Boston was a source of the “orphan train” as well. The majority of the children were sent to the west, many were also sent to New England, the south, and the eastern seaboard.

Considering recent legal immigration events, it is interesting to note that no children were placed in Arizona.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which placed out over 150,000 children and young adults over a 75 year span , transporting them via train from the east coast to predominately Midwest destinations. The overriding focus of the CAS was to remove large numbers of children from the city. Many of the children who participated in the program were not orphans, but had living family members.

While many applaud the efforts of placing these children in loving and supportive homes, critics claim that although the program was promoted as a humanitarian effort, it was, in reality, an employment service for cheap labor. Farmers did, in fact, use the CAS as a labor source and, in many instances, children were placed in abusive situations.

The last “orphan train” ran in 1929, when focus had, finally, segued into the care and protection of children.

Is there a member of your family who was a rider of the orphan train?

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Rene Manes was a female version of the neighborhood bully.  She was taller than most of us girls, had long blonde hair, pale skin, and was intimidating as hell.  A bit of a loner, she kept to herself, except to abuse any poor sap who unwittingly crossed her path.

One summer day, she approached a few of us who were playing marbles, and asked if she could join the game.  Stunned, we just looked at her.  Rene Manes not only wanted to play with us, but she actually asked permission.  Speechless, all we could manage were slow, short nods.

In our school, “steely boulders” were considered the most valuable marble, followed by agates, then purees.  Cat-eyes were at the bottom.  In this particular game, I won my first steely boulder.  I was simultaneously ecstatic and terrified, because the marble, naturally, belonged to Rene.  She immediately denied my victory.  A bit loony in my joy at having finally won the coveted steely boulder, I actually stood up to her.  This resulted in an intensely heated debate, and ended when she shoved me on the ground.  The skin of my knee scraped off, I limped home, crying, as blood dripped down my shin.

A couple of days later, my family and my aunt and uncle’s family took a trip to Disneyland.  After checking into the hotel room, my mother discovered my knee wound had become infected.  As she scraped the puss off, I cried and screamed.  My cousin (three years younger than I) watched the painful, grisly procedure through the hotel window, crying and screaming in harmony with me, until her mother carried her off to their room.  The scar on my knee remains to this day, a subtle reminder that standing up to a strong personality does not always have a happy ending.

That fall, I had one more encounter with Her.

In my front yard, stood a tall sycamore tree, with a long, fairly straight, horizontal branch.  It was about half-a-foot out of my reach, but I could jump up, grab it, pull myself up, drape a leg over it, and swing around it like I did on the monkey bars on the playground.

One afternoon, standing under said branch, I assumed the squatting position to segue into the jump.  Rene happened to be walking down the street.  I pretended I didn’t see her.  Midway through my vertical leap, with deliberation and malice aforethought, she yelled my name, knowing that, in a knee-jerk reaction, I would automatically turn my head in response, lose momentum, and plummet to the ground.  I landed on my arm, and watched her continue walking with a smile, as tears rolled down my face.

The doctor told my mother I had a sprained arm, and that I would need to wear a sling until it healed.  At school the next day, Manes called me a “faker,” saying there was nothing wrong with my arm.  Everyone believed her, so I took it off.  When I got home, my mother was not pleased to see me sling-less.  The following morning, she watched me walk down the street to ensure I kept it on.  Of course, I took it off as I was out of her sight.  The arm managed to heal, without physical scarring.  To this day, however, when someone doesn’t believe me, I can become somewhat defensive.

Manes’ family moved the following summer, and the streets became safe once again.  As I grew in height and age, my self-confidence grew as well.  I now stand up for those who are unable to do so, and support the underdogs.  However, whenever I find myself standing next to a tall woman, those cell memories shoot up to the surface, and I have to remind myself I am no longer eight years old.

Were you bullied, or were you the bully?  How have those experiences affected you?

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As a boy, George Washington was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He could not even lie.”

Mark Twain

 

Anecdotal cherry tree aside, very little is actually known about Washington’s childhood. We do know, however, that when he was 16 years old he assisted in plotting land in the Shenandoah Valley. Excerpts from his diary of the trip, included the discomfort from sleeping under “one thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas & c” and an encounter with an Indian war party bearing a scalp.

As an adult, he enjoyed riding, fox hunting, duck hunting and sturgeon fishing, dancing, billiards, cards, wrestling, and ran his own horses in races. Washington had two horses shot out from under him and his clothes cut by four bullets without being hurt.

Can you spot the historical errors in this famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River?

  • the flag is from the wrong time period
  • the boats are the wrong size and shape

Washington was voted unanimously to be the first President. As the first president of a new country, he defined the style of that position (including how to address a president), and the people adjusted to a government without a king. The first four members of thes cabinet: Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State), Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of Treasury), Henry Knox (Secretary of War) and Edmund Randolph (Attorney General).

In 1793, when war was declared between France and England, he believed that the United States should insist on its national identity, strength, and dignity; to keep the country “free from political connections with every other country, to see them independent of all, and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character that the powers of Europe may be convinced that we act for ourselves, and not for others.”

When the news of his death on December 14, 1799 reached Europe, the British channel fleet and Napoleon’s armies paid tribute to his memory.

By the way – the father our country fathered no children of his own.

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Great-aunt Jessie was a character.  She had her own ideas about how life worked, and everyone was expected to conform to them.  For instance, if she invited you over for dinner, you knew that you had to bring the food, cook it and then clean up afterward.

Here are a few anecdotes from various relatives:

One time, she was here visiting and she told me to bring her to a friend’s house for dinner.  I asked, “When is she serving dinner?”  She said, “I don’t know.”  “Didn’t you ask?”  “Probably 6:00.”  We got there, and no one was at home.  They didn’t know she was coming.  So, then she said, “Bring me to so-and-so’s.”  “Well, they don’t know you’re coming, either.” She was quite the Jessie.

Her wig always seemed to change direction.  One time, it was so windy, her wig blew right off, and traveled down the street like a tumbleweed.  She was yelling at me to get it, and I was trying not to get hit by cars.

When she backed out of a driveway, she would count to three and go, whether there were any cars coming or not.  And, the turn signal in her 1949 Studebaker didn’t work.  Instead of putting her arm out the window to indicate she was turning, she would just put out a hand and wiggle her fingers. 

Jessie was complaining that her shoes were untied.  Well, her shoes were buckled, so they couldn’t possibly be untied, but Oscar said, “Come here and tie Aunt Jessie’s shoes.”  So, I pretended to tie her shoes.

I remember when she went for a long walk, and then realized she’d have to walk back.  So, she walked up to a stranger’s house, knocked on the door and asked them to drive her back, and they did!

Jessie could be irritating and frustrating, but we loved her.  As a personal historian, I have worked with families who were unwilling to talk about relatives who didn’t “fit in” with the rest of the family.  It’s a shame, really, because I see those relatives as rough cut, unpolished jewels; gems who can sparkle when regarded with the right light.

My cousin is considering writing a couple of children’s books based on Jessie.  I think it’s a fabulous idea. 

This Thanksgiving, I will be expressing my gratitude at having been born into a family with diverse viewpoints and perspectives; who are willing to spend time outside of the box to appreciate the complexities of life.  But, most of all, a family who loves one another unconditionally, regardless of the eccentricities that may reside in each of us.

What stories do you have to share about your eccentric relatives?

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