family records for blog

The Drowning of Vic Garland

Synopsis: Three days after the sinking of the Titanic a young nurse receives a meaningful package.

 

No further updates of the Titanic survivors have been wired.

The White Star agent stops hurling the sentence at the journalists long enough to check for my brother’s name. When he finds it printed on the original passenger list, he mumbles where on the wharf I can find the other families.

Pier 59 teems with thousands of anxious women in crumpled hats, somber gentleman with their hands behind their overcoats, and photographers documenting it all. Most everyone’s heads point toward the White Star pier where the RMS Carpathia broods, but I continue looking for the cordoned-off portion of the dock the agent told me about. I push forward until I find myself under the steel arch that reads “Cunard Line.” My confusion and the near-ice falling from the sky make my progress through the throng of people feel like a morphine dream.

Men use newspapers to shield their eyes; the names of the surviving first-class passengers’ names bulge from the front page. There is no word yet on the lower classes, but reports are grim. Images of my brother, poor darling Vic, drifting in a gulping sea float through my mind. I fear they will continue until the moment I see the ridiculous orange feather aflame in the band of his homburg.

A tall officer with a mustache like a push broom crosses his arms as he shouts, “This section is for families of passengers only, ladies and gentlemen. If you are not relation, please wait for the ship elsewhere.”

I grab the man’s arm and allow my fears to spill out. “My brother, sir, James Garland? He goes by Vic. He’s a salesman, hospital cots. Look at me. Please. I’m his sister. People say we resemble each other. Will you watch for him for me?”

The man’s sparse eyebrows rise higher above the thin bridge of his nose before he says, “Of course, my dear, but until he comes, wait with us. Take comfort in the company of others in your particular quandary.”

A woman standing nearby immediately starts complaining about the Cunard company’s decision to drop off the Titanic’s lifeboats before allowing the survivors to disembark. Others agree. A man with an aristocratic air announces that a few of the survivors with the most pressing medical needs have already been sent straight to hospital, that family members should check with a White Star agent for more information. A matronly woman takes my arm.

“I do hope it’s good news for your brother.” She pats my hand and her touch sets in motion a wave of unsteadiness. “This too will pass away, young lady. Chin up, now.”

Hollow words with good intent. Exactly what put my brother on that abominable boat. I think of the belongings he didn’t take with him, still piled high in one corner of my lodgings. He had asked his man Thomas to arrange the suitcases, boxes, and empty birdcages to look pleasant. When he saw Thomas’s work, he dubbed it the Eiffel Tower and insisted upon addressing every letter he wrote to Mademoiselle Garland.

“Would it help to tell me about him?” I feel the matron’s cool grip on my arm.

No, I think. I can hardly think of him without being reminded of our fight the day I sent him away. I can’t bear to remember the look on his face, hear again the apologies for his crimes, what the police described as “sexual perversions,” the schemes, the aliases, or the promise I extracted from him to leave New York. Searching for a safe topic, I blather on to the woman about his dog, who is likely curled on my kitchen floor, with an old nurse’s uniform of mine for a bed. I tell the woman he named the Boston terrier “Her Majesty” because it amused him to walk through the neighborhood calling it out. I tell her that he wore his dog’s collar around his wrist whenever he left home.

“He sounds like a nice man,” she says. I do not say otherwise.

The Carpathia eventually slides into port and dock hands carry the recovering survivors on stretchers down the gangplank. Everyone on the wharf jostles to see the precious cargo. Photographers flash their cameras. The matron eventually releases my arm when she spots her niece’s face.

Then the survivors who can walk proceed silently down to the waiting crowd. One by one the pale men and women find their loved ones, cries of joy and grief follow, until at last the end of the cortege proceeds up the wharf and there are no more survivors to be seen. 

I collapse into the officer’s arms.

“Come, miss,” the officer whispers. “I’m sure the agency has the finalized list now. Hope is not lost; perhaps your brother waits for you in a nice, warm room at the hospital.” The officer takes my arm, and conveys me to the shipping office. The same agent from before tells me that my brother’s name is still absent from the list, and I feel every vibration in my body—digestion, respiration, cognition—cease. I can hardly find my own hands inside my gloves; it takes the kindness of the police officer to deliver me at home.

 

In the confines of my parlor I unpin my hat and peel off my wet gloves, my coat. I am warming my feet by the fire when someone knocks. Her Majesty starts barking. I find Thomas, the valet Vic gave to me while he was away, standing on the stoop wearing a soot-stained coat and a cockeyed grin. He clutches at my wrist, behavior of which I would reprove under other circumstances.

“The German Hospital, miss. We’re to look for Ludwig Kranz.” He places something in my hand. I find a thin leather strap with three ornate bells attached. I call Her Majesty to me and refasten the collar around her neck.

spot in the forest

Migration

When I wake, I am lying in a field stretched taut over a hill. The knife in my hand gleams in the still-blinking dawn, and I see the patch I’ve cleared in the switchgrass—a circle on one end, two prongs on the other. Its shape reminds me of you. The fire is slow to rekindle, but it is rare that something stands between me and my day. Stags scatter from the creek bed when I move to gather blackberries and wild mint for breakfast. I stare at the flames as I chew and sip coffee. I write in my journal of last night’s Cheshire moon—how its malice kept me up too late—then I swear to the page that I will find a hill every twilight on my journey, and I will slash the switchgrass into that same shape. After a week there will be seven oracles. After a month there will be a knowing army. I say a silent prayer to the birds. That they will use the path of my men to find their way back. That they will whisper what they’ve seen in your ear.

 

The Aerialists

It’s easy to idolize the women floating above you. The footlights set their sequins on fire; the music spins them between gasps and cables. You appreciate the simplicity, the reliance on ribbons, the swinging on silks. Their work is to be upside down, arms extended, hanging by an ankle to please strangers, and you blush to think you’ve complained about less. Of course the spotlight reveals the tent roof beyond, the spider web of trapeze to one side, still you keep the tangle of your gaze on the dazzle-skinned for fear they’ll float away.

105H

The Forbidden Room

The rink had just been resurfaced, but adjusting to the extra stickiness of the floor was only Ryan’s second problem. His first was a tall bottle-rocket of a girl. Jessica.

Seconds before, Ryan had been practicing his backwards dance moves. He was getting better, but he knew the real jam skaters didn’t knock so many sixth graders off their feet. They practically floated around the rink moving together in perfect synchronicity. That’s what he was thinking when he felt strong hands pull him past the deejay stand. He heard Jessica sneer “payback” into his ear. By the time he thought to do something—squat, wiggle, turn around—he was sailing past a row of stalls the color of guacamole. A girl screamed when she saw him in the mirror, which made the other lip-glossed girls stop their unnecessary reapplications and turn around. Ryan looked to the floor and that’s when he remembered how to stop.

“What are you doing in here, perv?” Jessica snarled.

Just as quick he was back on the rink. He wracked his brain trying to think of a reason for Jessica’s revenge. Ryan had no idea, but he wasn’t going to practice dancing backwards anymore.

 

174H

Calamine

I still feel that humid night on me. Back then our apartment perched above the sidewalk like a vulture; my head perched above my heart like a parrot. Just before you wedged that stupid laundry basket you use as a suitcase out the back door, you told me to stop messing with the frays of things, and I spent I don’t know how long on the rim of the bathtub. Early, early, I wandered outside. I found one of your button-downs wadded in the yard—still wet from its vagrancy. I took off my shirt, smoothed yours on my skin like lotion.

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The yeah write super challenge is a six week, three-round competition that will help you stretch your muscles as a writer and storyteller. Each participant will walk away with detailed feedback on their entries, and the winners will walk away with sweet prizes. The more people who enter, the bigger the prizes – so invite your friends!

Great, you’re saying to yourself, but what’s yeah write? Well, yeah write is an online writing community that hosts several weekly writing challenges. I’ve been involved in the group for over 2 years now, both as a contributor and an editor. Submitting to the challenges has provided me with weekly writing inspiration, a solid deadline to meet, and a supportive group of writers who have never let me feel like I was sending my thoughts into the digital ether. Because of the support of this group, I have submitted my writing to contests, magazines, and web sites! And I very much credit yeah write for my successes, so I’m really excited to tell you about the latest way to get involved! 

For our first super challenge, we’re calling for nonfiction entries of up to 1,000 words (fictioneers, you’re up next!) written to our specific writing prompt. For those without a blog, don’t worry! Submissions will be accepted via email so no personal website is required. The process is simple: we give you a prompt, and you give us* your best short essay and mostly-true story. The early entry fee is $20 USD until 11:59 pm on June 30, 2016. That means you have one day to sign up for the cheaper rate! From July 1 to 11:59 pm on July 6, the entry fee will be $25 USD. Entry fees go to prizes for winners and maintenance of the yeah write blog site.

We’ve collected more details for you here. Check it out, read the official rules, and start warming up those typing fingers. The yeah write super challenge starts on July 8, and registration is open now!

Please feel free to spread the word if you think anyone you know would be interested in our very first super challenge. We are so excited to get this started! Less than two weeks to go!

 

*Full disclosure: I’m not a judge in this round. But I will be judging the fiction super challenge coming up in a few months.

garden hose tweaked

Hunting And Gathering

I am notorious in my household for coming home with the wrong grocery items. I’m always pretty close: fat-free sour cream instead of the fat-ful, italian-seasoned bread crumbs instead of just regular old Panko, chili powder packets instead of taco seasoning. I fully admit my grocery store impatience. As soon as I pass between the waist-high pyramid of La Croix 12-packs and the salad-to-go buffet, a rushed laziness descends upon me, which always results in a second trip to the grocery store and a nice little wait in the Exchanges and Refunds line.

I’ve noticed signs of this lazy, impatient rush in other people, too. Mostly on the internet.

You may have noticed that genealogy is pretty popular right now in the United States. There are several TV shows, podcasts, YouTube channels and websites dedicated to the topic. Ancestry.com is one of the biggest genealogy websites. On their commercials, they advertise the millions of family trees people have entered onto the site and the ease of shaking leaf hints. Don’t worry; I’ll explain.

Shaking leaf hints are notifications like on Facebook. They suggest records that might match people you’ve entered into your family tree. If you press the leaf, you can compare the information you have on your family member with the facts on the record. Then, you can decide to accept the notification, and it will copy all of the facts on the new record to your family tree.

Now it’s true that these features are really useful. But there’s a misleading component to all of it, and it has to do with that Mexican-seasoned shredded cheese I accidentally bought last week.

Here is the fact page of Fred Wilson, my great-grandfather, a man I’ve been researching for 10 years, off of another person’s Ancestry family tree. Let’s call that person Angela:

The Made-Up Fred Wilson.png

That picture to the left of Fred’s name? I posted it. The censuses listed under sources? Angela copied those from my family tree. His wife, his children, the dates of his birth and death are all there because Angela pressed the Accept button on my research. But her copying doesn’t bother me as much as the part of this profile that she didn’t take from me. See the red circle on the right? Yeah, those people aren’t my 2nd great-grandparents.

How did that happen?

Short answer: rushed laziness.

Long-ish answer: I’m guessing Angela is also related to a Fred Wilson and received a shaky leaf hint about my research on my Fred Wilson. Excited by the new find, she probably clicked Accept on the information without looking at it. Not that I blame her for being excited. Genealogy is the science of belonging after all. But all she had to do was open one of those censuses to see her mistake. Above Fred’s name on every one of those censuses, his parents Ambrose and Lucy are listed; and below him are his brothers and sisters. It’s pretty easy to see the disconnect if she’d compared Ambrose and Lucy’s family to her Wilson family. Instead she made them a part of her family tree where 14 other people have picked up the error on their own.

The perpetuation of this mistake aggravates me. I sent her a nice note. Just a “hey, thought you’d like to know that there’s a pretty big mistake on your tree. I’d love to help you find the right Fred. Let me know.” That was 2 years ago. No response. I can’t help but thinking of the time I took to post accurate information and how it has been written over in a click of a button. My fingernails are chewed down to the quick.

So, that’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my genealogy research and the thing I tell new researchers: it’s really easy to attach yourself to the wrong people on genealogy web sites.

How do you avoid it? Simple: hunting and gathering, just like I should be doing in the grocery store. Walk down every aisle (or every web site) looking for what you need. Once you’ve spotted a promising item (or document), gather as much info as you can about it (or, you know, read the packaging). Once you’ve done that, review it before you buy or accept it. If facts in the documents don’t agree, make informed decisions about the probable. If items in your grocery cart are gluten-free, sugar-free, and carb-free and you don’t want them to be, throw them out. Then, and only then, should you take it home.

 

25H

The Songs We Sing

Sometime in the middle of May, in the blinking daylight hours between rolling fog and thunderstorms, the buildings along Lincoln Avenue inhale. The restaurant workers in their white aprons have thrown open the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that line the fronts of their buildings. You have to fight against the draw of their breath as you walk by them, and the gift shop, and that store on the corner that sells running shoes, because the sidewalk could pull you inside to a waiting wood-trimmed bar or cash register. But it doesn’t. Instead it pushes you farther up the street past a Bierstube (once upon a time your neighborhood was German Town) where a young man stops talking to his date long enough to appreciate a tendril of her hair blowing onto his wrist.

And you feel an unfolding inside you.

The doors of the gift shop are propped open with heavy chairs. The greeting cards in the spinning racks at the front of the store whistle as the wind vibrates between them. They are reed instruments accompanying the bass of traffic noise rising from the busy street. They play a tune you find yourself wanting to sing.

A gaggle—or is it called a Fitbit?—of joggers stand outside the shoe store. They stretch, popping one foot up on the free-newspaper racks and light posts. Or they lunge, the hems of their matching yellow shorts almost make contact with the pockmarked sidewalk. The runners silently form a rank and piston their way down the avenue. Your shoulders square as you watch them. Your spine straightens. Intersection after intersection, they stop traffic with their presence until they turn left and vanish.

You walk the four blocks to Lincoln Square. Las Lagunitas, a new cantina, is raucous with 20-somethings. Its patrons spill neatly out onto the grid of tables formed on the patio. Chartreuse margaritas beckon from every table. On the other side of the patio gate, couples sit on benches gripping the handle of a baby stroller the size of a Humvee in one hand and a paper cup the size of a golf ball in the other. Inside the cups, mini-glaciers of coconut, chocolate mousse, and roasted-banana gelato peek at you over the rim. The parents chastise their sons and daughters to sit still, then they dip the tiniest shovels you’ve ever seen into their cups. You smile as they take their first bite.

The Fitbit of joggers thunder past you. You join their most informal of parades. They breathe loudly and rhythmically, and you match them. It is not a surprise that they take you back to the shoe store and assume their scissor and jackknife positions up and down the sidewalk. It is not a surprise to you because this ritual takes place every year: the birdsong, the echoes of laughter coming from inside the pub, the guitar riffs only audible when the School of Folk Music door swings open. None of it is a surprise. You breathe, you swing your arms, you glide up the back steps of your apartment ready to begin again.