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I love strolling through antique malls. Some may only see a building filled with old junk, but for me, it’s a fabulous opportunity for imaginative spelunking through objects’ unshared stories:

A painting purchased by a lonely housewife temporarily eased her aching heart. A book offered adventures to a young boy who yearned to leave home. A clock traveled thousands of miles from the “old country” accompanied by hopes of a prosperous land. A porcelain Victorian doll was shipped by a WWII sailor to his young niece two weeks before losing his life to a direct torpedo hit. Vinyl albums were played over and over by girlfriends at a slumber party. A mahogany table played host to dinners, holidays, discussions and challenging homework. The art of whittling was learned with a pocketknife gifted from a beloved grandfather. A ring had been carried in a pocket during picnics, movies and walks before the proposal was finally blurted out during a rainstorm. Building blocks hand-me-downs from four older siblings continued to bring joy. Martini glasses filled every Thursday night for ladies’ bridge night.

Photographs of discarded relatives periodically appear in and out of frames: Two brothers – one seated and one standing – agree to the portrait after their mother’s anguish that they are leaving home to fight the Yanks. A teenage girl standing behind a chair with a wide, white collar and hair tied back in a pony tail just learned the boy she has crush on also has a crush on her. A young daughter holds her mother’s brooch, causing the younger brother to cry until his father lets him hold his pocket watch for the family portrait. A group of second grade students in a class picture just learned of two classmates’ deaths due to diphtheria. A middle-aged woman glares, irritated, at the camera, thinking about numerous unfinished chores.

I also love driving or walking through older communities where more stories await: That beautifully landscaped home’s secret cellar witnessed brewing of illegal hooch during Prohibition, which was also sold to neighbors. A victory garden in the backyard in the next block preceded the swimming pool and spa. A battered wife hid her shame and embarrassment in the charming bungalow. The strict piano teacher on the corner produced three successful concert pianists. A president visited his old college chum in the brownstone.

That is why I enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” in which she provides a bird’s eye view of a family history. The reader is led back-and-forth through time through objects, places and people as informative bread crumbs gently and often humorously ultimately bring us to a complete picture. The book’s story, as with  life, is multi-layered.

Pay more attention to what surrounds you. Leave the flat plains of existence and explore the depths and heights that surround you. You won’t be bored. I promise.

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?

You Are a Classic

My grandparents had been married 70 years when it came time for them to move into an assisted living facility.  Forced to leave their home and losing their independence was obviously difficult for them.

My mother – their daughter – had passed away a couple of decades previous, so it was up to my brothers and I to overlook the moving process. My grandparents sat next to each other watching, with sad, sad eyes as I emptied cupboards and drawers, and would respond quietly, sometimes with a catch in their voices, whenever they were asked if they wished a particular item to be donated, sold at a yard sale, or gifted. 

My grandfather had served in the Navy the first couple of years in their marriage, so moving was not new for them.  However, they had accumulated a lot of memories in the subsequent decades, and many of them were associated with treasured items – drawings and paintings created by my grandmother before arthritis kicked in, her grandmother’s lace bed coverlet and her mother’s plates, a high school textbook, dance cards, my grandfather’s tools from his basement workshop, his sailor’s uniform last worn in 1930, a sword he obtained in Panama, souvenirs from road trips after their children had grown, silhouettes of the grandchildren when they were in grade school, and so forth.

My brothers claim their part was the most difficult – loading up the few heavy pieces of furniture and boxed items that would fit in their small, new apartment.  I disagree.  I drove them away from their home.  As we pulled away from the curb, my grandfather said, “Good-bye, house.  Good-bye, old house” and started singing, “The Last Roundup,” while my grandmother rifled through her purse looking for her heart medication.

When you’re writing your life story, or helping someone else to write his or hers, ask what treasures are sprinkled throughout the home that have a history; a memory.  It will not only serve as a memory trigger, but the story can accompany the item to its new home.

What items in your home are special to you, and what’s the story behind them?

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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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A friend recently observed that she doesn’t use cursive writing anymore, except to sign checks.  I realized that I don’t, either.  Out of curiosity, I sat down and just began writing whatever popped into my head in cursive writing only.  I had to hesitate a few times, reaching back into my memory banks on how I wrote certain letters.  I laughed as I wrote, because how do you forget something like that? 

I then contemplated the art of cursive writing, which truly is an art, as it can be a form of creative expression.  My grandmother was very artistic, and worked hard at creating a handwriting style that was unique to her.  When my grandfather joined the Navy, during the course of their correspondence (they were teenagers at the time) she insisted that he create a special handwriting style as well.  He wasn’t happy about it, but he did it. 

When I was in grade school, my main objective was that my handwriting not look like a boy’s.  In junior high school, the handwriting fad for girls was to draw a circle or flower to dot an “i” and for the letter “e,” we would write a “c” with a diagonal slash. 

My grandmother saved a few letters I had written her when I was young, including one when I was in high school.  My handwriting was definitely different than it is today, and in re-reading it, I remember liking the way my friend Kim wrote the letter “p,” so I copied it.

Historical documents can be revealing, not only in content, but in the handwriting and style itself.  A hundred years ago, the letter “s” was often written like a backward “f” and people who were illiterate, couldn’t write their name, would leave their “mark.”  The mark was just as unique as a signature.  Writing instruments of those times were usually limited to pens with sharp nibs that were dipped into an inkwell, requiring one to write quickly, and blow on the paper to encourage the ink to dry.  The appearance and type of paper were unique to the times.  Today, to mimic that special look, fountain pens offer a practical option for writing with a visual flair.

Pondering once again the cursive vs. printing methods, I wondered if the cursive style is falling by the wayside, because printing requires less concentration and is, therefore, faster to write.  In these days of texting, social media posts, etc., we are in such a rush to get it done, that we are losing an aspect of the literal human touch, thus, disallowing the future an opportunity to peek into what set us apart as individual human beings.

How has your handwriting changed over the years?

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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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