My Longest-Living Ancestor

Nathaniel Lewis 97 birthdayTRANSCRIPT from The Flint Journal (Flint, Michigan), 6 Jan 1963, p. D7:
Still ‘Farming’
Flint Man Marks 97th Birthday

Nathaniel Lewis, who is 97 today, has been a farmer all his life. Last summer he cultivated a small plot of corn and berries.

Lewis lives with his daughter, Mrs. Nora Miley, at 1482 Alberta St. He was born on a farm near Mount Vernon, Ind. and has lived in Flint since 1951.

He has a son, Nathaniel Jr., Parma, Mo.; five other daughters, Mrs. Mattie Hicks, Flint, Mrs. Dora Alley and Mrs. Alice Spanick, both of Dearborn, Mrs. Lillian Myrick, Dexter, Mo., and Mrs. Elizabeth Zint, Parma; 18 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren.

***

I am one of Nathaniel Lewis’s many great-great-grandchildren born after he passed away in 1964 at age 98. Our common first name is a coincidence; my parents didn’t know there were Nathaniels in the family when they named me.

Writing this for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors. This week’s prompt was “longevity.”

Amphitrite, The Forgotten Goddess

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 10.15.41 AM

[Image: page 241 of All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Most of the text has been blacked out. The remainder reads:]

The girl waits with her fist
she          the ocean
knows rope and drowned pleasure
her fingers whisk tidepools
her toes wonder how much
is true she simply listens
her bedroom fills with
scallops          whelks
she assumes the morning
will deliver neighbors

This is an erasure poem for Yeah Write’s Challenge #353. Join us by clicking the badge below.

Original Text:

ATLWCS p 241

The Known and the Unknown

When I started my family research in 2009, it was all lopsided. My mother’s family had annual reunions and shared churches and a huge piece of paper with all of our names on it in trim little boxes. I remember one year at the family reunion someone had tacked up the family tree on a wall of the church’s banquet room. Photos of most of the family were taped up next to their entry on the tree. I watched as my relatives would bring their son or granddaughter to the chart and show them the box in which their name was written and then trace their branch up the chart. Inevitably, they would turn to the room, and the older person would point at various people the child knew and tell them their relationship.

“That’s your great-aunt Margaret, Nicky. She’s your papa’s sister. See her over in the flowered dress talking to daddy?”

It was nice. If anyone felt insecure about their place in the family, they could look to the large tree drawn on the wall and know that they belong. It felt as if the ties between us were tangled beneath the grid of tables filling the room.

Wilma and Bernice Wilson, date and location unknown
The author’s maternal grandmother (right) with her sister, 1930s

My favorite photos of them are of when they were young. Seeing my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my parents before kids and divorces and funerals. All of the lifetimes they had before I knew them.

That was my mother’s side. The known side. My father’s side was hazier.

Dad grew up in foster care from age 8. He knew his brother, sister, half-sisters and half-brother, parents, aunts, and uncles lived in town, but he also knew he barely spoke to any of them, let alone lived with them. He knew his mother’s last name because it was written on his birth certificate. (We would later discover that last name was incorrect.) There were no photographs of these people, no stories. Occasionally Dad would mention something about his childhood—how his mom made the best blackberry cobbler or how the horses at the job he held in high school always seemed to buck when it was his turn to clean their stables, but he never lingered long in those memories.

Mary Lou
The author’s paternal grandmother, c. 1940s

I started researching his family with very little to go on. The first names of his mother and siblings. Found out dad had close family members living all around where he grew up. Found out I had deep roots in two unfamiliar states: Iowa and Missouri. I was lucky there was a huge network of researchers on that side of my family who posted to Ancestry. It didn’t take long for me to discover photos of my grandparents.

That first glimpse was a lightning strike. There was no doubt they were family. Seeing their familiar faces was like meeting ghosts who had haunted my childhood home. I even found a photograph of my dad as a boy. In all the shuffling around of his childhood, he hadn’t held onto his keepsakes.

These are my favorite photos of my dad’s side. The unknown side. That light I’d felt when I’d seen my grandparents’ faces and recognized my dad, my brothers, myself in them is what keeps me researching my family tree.

(The featured photo of this post is my maternal grandfather (in the hat) with his younger brothers, c. 1918.)

Writing for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors.

Henry Ford’s Brain

It seems like at the end of every episode of Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? each guest tells the host or the person holding the camera that they have a different sense of themselves after finding out they are Arcadian or they are related to William the Conqueror. It’s my favorite part of the show because I came to those same conclusions, although there were no cameras to capture it. I felt that same inner light when I learned who my people were and how I got here. A certain kind of relief comes with the knowledge that who you are isn’t entirely your responsibility, that the chapter you are writing of your life isn’t the first in the book.

I definitely started my own research looking for my place, trying to find out where I belonged, and I quickly learned that I owe my entire existence to Henry Ford. Before the auto industry, my foreparents were scattered in Upstate New York, Ontario, the boot-heel of Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

My New York relatives, the Wilsons, were the first to settle near Flint. They were farmers who were pushed out of the Rochester, New York, area due to a population boom and a land shortage. Thomas Wilson moved his family to New Lothrop, Michigan, using the money he received fighting and being injured in the Civil War. By 1920, all of his grandsons were employed in the factories or in auto-related businesses in Flint.

The Harburns, my Canadian family, immigrated to Flint in 1919. Having been farmers of flowers in Hensall, Ontario, they moved to Flint to become the official florists of the Ford Motor Company. It was just after Teddy Roosevelt and his conservationist movement took hold in the United States. The auto industry was getting flak from residents of the city for polluting the Flint River. Ford Motor Company hired my family to refute the conservationists’ claims. The Harburns were given a deal on a small white house just a little downriver from a car plant and grew the flowers for the company’s corporate events. The company hoped to prove the purity of the river with my family’s success. Unfortunately, it worked. Growing up, I only associate that river with stink. Swimming there was always considered a feat of daring; eating fish from there was downright nuts.

My Missouri folks, the Romines, had been struggling for decades to make a living by farming near Parma and Malden. It was the Depression when my 2nd great-grandfather moved up to Flint because of Ford’s promise of jobs. Once my 2nd great-grandfather was established, my great-grandfather followed, leaving behind his young family and marrying his second wife. Abandoned by her father, my grandmother left her own family in Missouri to find her dad. This abandonment was the end (thankfully!) of a long pattern in the Romine line.

The Jameses had been living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, since the 1870s. All but two of the eight siblings stayed there. My grandfather followed his older sister to Flint in 1941 after going through a bitter divorce and being fired from his job as county engineer in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). His sister owned several bars in Flint, and he was made a bartender in one of them. That’s how he met my grandmother, who worked as a cook in a restaurant that catered mostly to factory workers.

Henry Ford. As far as I know, I have no relation to him, but he was absolutely responsible for putting my grandparents in the same place at the same time. Before learning this, I’d never thought twice about cars or the role the grubby factories we passed along the highway played in the history of my family and virtually every other family near me.

Writing this for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors.

Photo is of my grandmother, Bernice Wilson, posing in front of the family car c. 1932.

Tether

Cal noticed when I walked into the bakery. He wiped his hand on the black sky of his apron, and a shy smile had spread across his face before the doorbell finished chiming. The smears of flour at his hips made me think of sex.

I decided to sit as far from where he was working as possible to test the tether between us. We’d only been dating five weeks, but I found myself wondering if I could resist his gravitational pull?

I placed my laptop on a table and arranged a few sample books for the Fogerty house. But blueprints and furniture catalogs could not compete with the spectacle of Cal in his natural environment. His biceps flexed as he kneaded dough; his large hands shaped and molded small planets of rye bread. His every action seemed risqué. And he knew I was watching him, too. He checked me with his eyes each time he ducked into the back room. He looped his thumbs around his tied apron strings and did a little tap dance while waiting to ring up customers.

After a half hour of this, he came over to my table and whispered, “You gotta stop watching me, dude.” He beamed; his crooked smile, pale eyes, and five-o-clock shadow reminding me again of some action/adventure star I’d seen somewhere. “I can’t concentrate.”

“Can’t help it. There are too many sweet things in this place.” His blush was a trophy. “All right. I’ll get to work.” Sighing, I plugged my ears with headphones and, as much as it pained me, ignored him.

Eventually, I fell into my work. The next time I looked up, about a half hour later, Cal was at the end of the counter talking to a pony-tailed woman with a thin pink scarf looped around her neck. I had to shift in my chair to see her face: the bridge of her nose rounded from brow to tip and her chin was soft. She looked nothing like Cal, whose face was all hard, straight lines.

Taking my headphones off, I heard her say she couldn’t wait for Saturday, then she shyly took both of his hands and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. Cal’s eyes shot to me as she did it, giving me the answers to all of my questions.

Without thinking, I stood. “What the hell, Cal?”

One of my notebooks slammed on the floor. Everyone in the room was staring. The woman—still holding one of Cal’s hands—moved behind him. We stood like that for what seemed like forever.

“Cal?” the woman finally said. “Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know. Is something wrong, Will?” There was a warning in his words.

Yes.

No?

His lack of shame confounded me. Wasn’t he in the wrong here? This was about the time in the relationship when you’d find out you were with a cheater. It’s a risk you took with online dating—the Netflix and Chill guys, the polys—it’s all fine if that’s what you’re into. But that’s not what I was into. I thought I had been clear.

“I thought…” I didn’t want to admit it. “I just thought I was the only one.”

People in the bakery weren’t staring anymore, but all ears were aimed at us.

“You’re gay, Cal?” the woman gawped, and I realized she was younger than I thought.

“Yeah,” Cal said with a shrug. “Cara, this is my boyfriend, Will. Will, this is Cara Wilson, a friend of the family. ”

Embarrassed, I returned her hello and shook her hand. As we talked, Cara mentioned that Cal was catering her wedding for free. I asked about the wedding and the menu, giving Cal praise for his kindness. Anything to smooth this situation over. Within a few minutes, Cara said she had other errands to do. She hugged Cal, whispered something in his ear, and then she was gone.

Cal put a finger up. “Hold on.” He walked in back and returned with a co-worker to replace him at the counter.

“Follow me,” he said to me. Outside, he turned onto a side street before he spoke.

“I guess I’m out to my family now.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. My big mouth.”

“Nah, I was going to do it soon anyway.” He took my face in his hands. “They should meet you.” He kissed me softly, then put his forehead to mine. We closed our eyes.

Doing something new for the fiction|poetry challenge: two required prompts. This week the prompts were the word “baker” and the sentence “We closed our eyes.” Sound fun? Join us! Click the badge above for more info.

Mount Baker

Your eyes are spoons and forks. You ask me, “Above the clouds, do you sleep?”
I nod and show you nylon sheets, metal rods, carabiners, every magic charm
needed for floating thousands of feet above. You ask me, “Do you enjoy

the harnesses and helmets? Is it the perspective you most enjoy?”
I don’t say it’s knowing you’re somewhere in this same world asleep
wishing I lay next to you that tethers me to this peak. You charm

me more than summit, goat, grappling hook, crampon; there is no charm
in risk if there’s nothing to risk, and you, you are everything. I can’t enjoy
the pulling away, the ascent, the rappel, the landfall, the unpacking, the sleep.

So sleep; charm my dreams. Like me, enjoy the sweet suspension.

Writing for YeahWrite’s weekly challenge. Click the badge above to read more poetry and flash fiction!

The Living-

there are black holes in the living-
room, mostly beneath the furniture,
but one is always underfoot

the largest clings to the cotton knit blank-
et though I’ve washed and shaken it out
there are black holes in the living

one naps beside the wandering night-
stand sucking in the light that normally fills the crevasses in this
room, mostly beneath the furniture

the rug in front of the front door, the moon-
scape of each couch cushion, I’ve tried sweeping up the holes
but one is always underfoot

h heyerlein

This Dimming Light Between Us

The days, you keep tying them to hooks on the ceiling. Clay ornaments on strings knocking together like wind chimes in a summer storm or the eerie jingle of the Good Humor truck driving by. Somehow both immediate and fleeting. They make the most delicate clamor

The noise sends me out of the house late at night after you’ve drifted off with the raft of our bed. I dig up the neighbor’s yard, catch raccoons in the garden, walk to the bar on the corner and ask the bartender for something, anything. I make the most delicate clamor

She ducks under the counter and pulls out a pickle jar. Small holes in lid. Label advertises Dill Spears. I am not afraid of the fluttering moths inside, their wings outspread, anticipating flight. I find you at the kitchen table when I return. We make the most delicate clamor