The Corsage

Start at the beginning of this story: Ties.

Read Part 2 of this story: The Jitters.

++++++ PART 3 ++++++++

“Oh, Nelson, there you are,” Minnie said, as if he’d been hiding from her all morning. She held out the corsage for him, and he took it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wilson.”

“I thought it would be nice if you pinned it on her. A break in tradition, of course, but so is your seeing Bernice before the ceremony.”

“She’s calling it an elopement,” he said to ease the sting he sensed in her voice, “but I suppose it’s not really one if everyone already knows about it, is it?”

Minnie ignored the question. Nelson cleared the smile from his face and looked down at the flowers in his hand. He immediately regretted mentioning it. Their decision to be married in Indiana must have been the reason for Minnie’s countenance in the window. Probably she’d prefer their wedding take place in the Baptist church in town. A church as full of flowers as friends and their pastor presiding over the ceremony. Certainly, that’s what Minnie would prefer. Nelson looked back up at his fiancee’s mother and was surprised to find a small smile on her face.

“We spent all morning on Bernice’s hair, Wilma and I. It seems to be as stubborn as she is. Of course she wanted to look in the mirror and fuss over it herself, but I stood between her and the mirror so Wilma’s work would be a surprise. She’s nervous, Bernice is, she’s never been one to want attention, not like her sister. Well, you know that, of course, otherwise you would have decided to keep the wedding here . . . Look at you! You look fine, just fine. That vest, is it new? Seems like I would have seen it at church if it weren’t.”

The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.
The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.

“It is new, yes.” Nelson said, slightly disappointed that his hand-me-down vest was noticed but not his tie.

“Are you hungry? I’ve made a cake, Wilma’s whipping up eggs for us now, the dear, and Father just brought over a ham that would put the chef at The Durant to shame. He seems in better spirits today. He has his ups and his downs, you know. It was hard enough to lose my mother; seeing him dowse about in his grief all day may be harder still. Some days I have to pull him by his shirtsleeves out of that house of his. Of course, having him right next door keeps him from loneliness. I feel like a pest to him, but I do have to shake him about from time to time or he’d sit by the fire with his bowie and his twigs till services come Sunday.”

“It’s good that you do, ma’am.”

“Oh, Nelson, thank you for saying so. But, we’re to focus on happier things today, aren’t we? We should get you in to see everyone. Your family came by this morning with impressive zinnias and hyacinth, and Bernice’s bouquet? It’s gorgeous, just gorgeous. Between the flowers and the ham, my nose just doesn’t know what to follow. Now what’s taking her so long?”

Nelson followed Minnie into the house. Minnie continued down the hallway that led to the bedrooms—he assumed to check in with Bernice—leaving him in the parlor for a moment alone.

Jennie had indeed come by. A smell of the flowers had nudged him at the door, he had thought it was Minnie’s perfume. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the parlor erupting in vases of flowers—on top of the china cabinet in the corner, the side table next to Fred’s favorite chair, the low buffet along the window displaying all the pictures of the family, any flat surface had a vase. Some even had two or three. For a room so full of fresh flowers, the smell was not cloying. Probably because it was early May after a cold April. In a month when the flowers were more mature, the pollen would absolutely saturate the room, even now the sweetness was strong enough to make him pause.

He imagined these flowers hanging on the walls in the church, wreaths on every pew, every pew full of their family. He imagined the bouquet in Bernice’s hand. And then he remembered the corsage Minnie had given him at the door, still in his own hand. He placed it on the table with the pictures, moving two vases of flowers aside and picking up the photo nearest him. It was of the family, back when Bernice, Wilma, and George were still in grade school.

Minnie, on the bottom right of the picture, looked pretty in a way young mothers tend to be—self-assured, ready for whatever’s next, necessary. Wilma stood in the back on the left, her hair draped and pinned creating a veil over her left eye. George’s thin eyebrow cocked at exactly the same angle as his father’s beside him. His hand rested self-consciously on Fred’s shoulder: a pose that would never occur without the suggestion of a professional photographer.

And his Bernice, in her circular glasses set askew on her nose, her mouth pursed, her head angled slightly to the right toward her younger sister. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the sisters looked as if they may have been haggling for the center of the portrait a few moments before the picture was taken. It occurred to Nelson that this was his first look at his bride on their wedding day: a modest picture of an 11-year-old girl with the same unblinking look that had flashed on her face when he first suggested she marry him.

circa 1922
The Wilsons, circa 1922


The Gene Pool: Paul Fronczak and San Miguel

I find my time writing and my time researching are currently at odds with each other. My solution is to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in the media. I’m calling it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.


Item #1:

The mystery continues in the Paul Fronczak case. Have you heard this story?

Here's where the story starts. This is stuff you can't make up!
Here’s where the story starts. This is stuff you can’t make up!

Fifty years ago, a baby named Paul Fronczak was stolen from a Chicago hospital by a woman dressed as a nurse. Months later, a baby is found in a field in New Jersey and is believed to be Paul. The elated parents took the baby in believing him to be theirs. This was back in 1964.

Recently, the man raised as Paul Fronczak took a DNA test that revealed he was not actually the kidnapped baby. So he decides to find out who he is and what happened to the real Paul Fronczak.

Click on the newspaper article above or google the thorough (if somewhat smarmily produced) ABC news story if you haven’t heard it. It’s worth it; there are so many unexpected twists and turns. And thanks to advances in DNA mapping, we no longer have to rely on the shapes of baby’s ears to identify them.


Item #2, no spoilers:

The author of The Road to Wellville and The Women tackles yet another place and time. Two families living on a remote island off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, from the 1880s to the 1940s weather wars, the Depression, and a whole lotta sheep.

San Miguel by T. C. Boyle
San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle has long been a favorite author of mine. The way he weaves a fictional story around the hard data of actual events is masterful. The three segments of the book feel a little more like character sketches than a story with an arc. But the care with which Boyle writes about them makes up for the seeming lack of connection between the two families. This book made me realize that the fiction I’ve been writing about my family is heavily influenced by his work.

Boyle creates a solid tone and setting in the wind-swept, barren terrain of San Miguel island. He also manages to gently insert his theme of environmentalism into the story. The eventual mistreatment of the island leads directly to the outcome of their stories. The author also plays around with the idea of technology changing people’s lives. Nowadays, the internet is just another tool we use everyday. We don’t think much about the time it took to creep into our lives, how extraordinary it seemed at first, and the changes we made to fit it into society. Boyle’s introduction of the radio and the airplane into the Lester’s secluded life made me look at those everyday items as new and wondrous.

I got so caught up in the story of the living, breathing people upon which this book is based that I had to go into my Ancestry account and see what I could find on the two families. Here’s a couple items with no spoilers:


This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters's declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters’s declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
The Lesters 1940 census
And this 1940 census record shows that the mild annoyance of manning the weather station kept the Lesters afloat on the island.

I’m withholding my opinions about this book so as not to spoil it for any of you interested in reading it. If you do read it, and want to discuss it with me, please comment on this post! Comment on it anyway, let me know you’re out there, instead of just being a statistic on this site.

Flushing, a conflicted love note

With a title like that, this post could go a few different places, but that capital F is the proper-noun kind of capital, not the obligatory beginning-of-sentence kind.

Flushing happens to be a very pretty town cozied into the banks of the Flint River just downstream from Flint city. It is also the town in which I was born and raised. It supported a fantastic childhood and many good friendships. Before you ask, no, our high school mascot wasn’t a toilet, as rival schools often suggest. Yes, whenever I mention it without the Michigan qualifier, people assume I grew up outside of NYC and wonder why I don’t talk like Fran Drescher’s The Nanny.

Flushing's Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every summer. photo credit: lonniec61 on
Flushing’s Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every year. Photo credit: lonniec61 on
Case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a lie. Most of his family was in Flint by then, sailing across Lake St. Clair one at a time.
Another case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a fib. Most of his family was in Flint by then, having sailed across Lake St. Clair from Ontario one at a time.

When researching my family history, I geek out when I come across a record that hints at the algorithm of past decisions that led to Flushing becoming my hometown. At minimum, there were 1,024 decisions made leading to the actual event of my birth. And that’s just going back 7 generations (to about the early 1600s). Eight generations back would be 2,048 people (!) barring any kissing cousins in the tree. So let’s just say that’s the number of mothers and fathers directly involved in my, and each of our births in each of our towns in each of our countries. Even though we both know our ancestors didn’t just magically appear in the miasma of the 17th century.

Tangent aside, that means one thousand and twenty-four amazing stories had to unravel for you to be where you are sitting in your chair kindly reading this blog post. When you factor in all of their brothers and sisters, their cousins, their step-mothers, their pastors, their business partners, and the fact that there were significantly less people in the world the further back we go in time, that number really highlights how interconnected we must be.

When I actually lived in Flushing, I wanted nothing more than to leave. I was restless for getting out on my own; I didn’t feel I belonged there. We lived 15 minutes outside of town and it just seemed too quiet, like nothing interesting had ever happened there. For most adults with families the tranquility is a draw, but for a teenager (and me, still) it’s annoying to not be in the middle of things. So even though I don’t see myself ever moving back for many of the same reasons I left when I was 18, I find myself thinking about Flushing a lot. The more I research my family tree, the more I realize that Flushing and Flint are at its core. I have list upon list of records I’d like to look up there, graves I’d like to photograph, farmsteads I’d like to visit. I had no idea growing up that my history was scattered all around that little house in a field outside of town.

I thought that show was from the 90s, but judging from that outfit it must have aired in the 60s.
I thought this was a 90s tv show, but judging from that outfit and hairdo it must have aired in the 60s.

From what I’ve read, my Flushing owes a lot to The Nanny’s hometown. Back when NYC was just swampy farmland, Dutch settlers founded a town on an island that juts out into the ocean, and named it after a city that also juts out into the ocean: Vlissingen, Netherlands. When the Dutch government pulled out of the New World later, the English changed the spelling and pronunciation to something a little easier for them to say: Flushing. Later still, determined shippers dug the Erie Canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. The canal was finished in 1825. Many New York farmers living along the canal used it to move west to plots of Michigan farmland and points further west.

In addition to their belongings, the settlers also brought with them the place names they knew, just as the Dutch did before them. They named their new towns Rochester, Utica, Holl(e)y, Brighton, Troy, Gaines, Clarks(t)on; and their counties Genesee, Wayne, Livingston—all names of towns and counties on or near the Erie Canal and in eastern Michigan. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, they named a spot in the gentle dip of Genesee “valley” after the town of Flushing in New York.

So, that’s how a wounded Civil War veteran named Thomas Wilson, and his wife, Emily, ended up living near Flushing in 1870. They had packed up their things in Manchester, NY, got on a boat in the canal with their five children and moved to eastern Michigan to a large farm on the very outskirts of Flushing. Thomas Wilson, my 3rd great grandfather who passed away 95 years before I was born, was buried in Flushing City Cemetery. Those are some deep local roots. I’m planning on posting about Thomas soon. Of course I am. This is a blog about my origins and Thomas is 1/1,024 of my story.

Like Batman, Superman, the Joker, and the Hulk, we all have our origin stories. And each of our stories take place in Gothams and Kryptons – places that define who we are. They can be both our strength and our weakness, our pride and our shame. But there’s no denying that they are the source of our identity. In that way, we’re all superheroes . . . well, the heroes, at least, of our own stories.

Maybe I should start walking around wearing a cape and a tree emblem on my chest. Or not.

This postcard seems misleading. I don't remember hills that tall in my hometown. Maybe they're treetops?
This postcard seems misleading. I don’t remember hills that tall in my hometown. Well, maybe near Bueche’s, I guess. (Update: a fellow Flushingite suggested it’s the view along the river pre-Valley Golf Course. I think she’s right.)


For all you heroes out there: what were some of the best parts of growing up in your hometown?

The Jitters

The first chapter of this story can be found here: Ties.


The sedan sputtered because of the series of divots the spring storms pounded into Potter Road. He’d need to check the suspension before setting off for Indiana later. But once Nelson had passed the Conoco station and turned left onto Dillon, he heard the engine ease back into a sturdier rhythm, and he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel.

Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan, circa 1929 - source:
Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan – source:

Pulling into the driveway, he saw his soon-to-be parents-in-laws’ faces in the front window. The morning sun illuminated them. Minnie was saying something to her husband, Fred, her chin pointed toward her shoulder, but her eyes looked directly out the window at Nelson’s Chevrolet rolling to a stop.  She wore a red cardigan, and a skirt with a vaguely floral pattern of red and light green. Her hair was twisted back into a loose bun; she’d obviously been cooking recently.

Minnie’s right hand held the lace curtain to the side. The glare off the window blurred the line between her cuff and the curtain. To him, it looked as though her sleeve dripped with lace, like the overstated frocks Queen Victoria wore in her portraits. He imagined Minnie with a crown and a choking collar, but the image didn’t hold. Although she didn’t look too friendly just then, he knew Minnie to be down-to-earth, not at all a queen.

Nelson’s stomach lurched as he pressed down on the brakes. He could gauge Minnie’s tone of voice by the way Fred was standing behind her and to her left frowning: she was getting her way about something. Fred’s already arched eyebrow curled even higher. His eyes moved from Nelson’s car, past the houses across the street to the manicured Michigan fields of young soybeans and corn. Nelson was sure Fred was thinking of his fields, of the quiet, hard work of the farm to be done after the percussions of this morning. Nelson had always felt he had that in common with Fred: an appreciation for action over words.

Nelson jittered out of the car much like the engine of his Chevrolet sputtered. He checked the front wheel, patted the hood twice—all to prepare himself to be the center of attention for the day. It was a role he was not comfortable with; a role he would usually avoid. He looked up at the window again to smile or wave—a conscious decision to start the day out well—but saw that his fiancee’s parents had disassembled their tableau in the window and that Wilma and her husband, George, were seated around the dining room table. A pink and thickly frosted cake sitting between them. No sign of Bernice. He wished she’d been waiting for him on the porch. He felt like he needed her as a buffer, having never been around her family before without her. No occasion to until today.

He heard the side door open. Footsteps on the stoop. Minnie, holding a corsage of lavender zinnias and lilies-of-the-valley, was the first to greet him.


The folklore of our family members meeting their in-laws can give great insight into all of their personalities. Do you have any good stories about these occasions in your family tree?


Read Part 3: The Corsage.


Flushing, Michigan
May 1934

Nelson remembered to slow down before he came up on the Wilson’s house. He swerved between the patches of loose dirt to avoid kicking up dust. Starting this particular day out with dust on his clothes wouldn’t bode well for what was to come. He drove his Ford dressed in his finest clothes—a crisp, gray tweed suit he had bought with his first paycheck from the plant, a navy vest inherited when his younger brother stopped boxing and found that his clothes no longer fit, and a brand new tie.

He and his fiancee had discussed the necessity of a frugal wedding, but he just couldn’t bear the idea of walking down the aisle without something new. A keepsake of his life before marriage and family.

A few days before, he had driven down an entirely different street for Bernice. It was after a morning shift at the plant. He had stopped by his brother’s flower shop. He was helping his mother and sister-in-law unwrap the newest shipment of flowers from the farm when he mentioned his want of a symbolic tie. They tried to convince him he needed a woman’s touch.

“Bernice will be disappointed if the tie didn’t match exactly.”

“Men just don’t know how to dress themselves anymore.”

“Your mother and I can find you a deal and anyway it’s slow here.”

It was five days before Mother’s Day, just before the rush. After several minutes of debate though, he pinned up the argument with “Honestly. You two make it sound as if I’d show up to the church in just my stocking feet if you didn’t go with me.”

“It’s not far-fetched. Your brother nearly did,” Elsie said, cackling as she reached for the list of the day’s orders, and Nelson knew the subject was settled. They wouldn’t insist, and he was glad for that. He was 33-years-old; he’d soon be the head of a household. Making the purchase himself would be the first act he’d commit for the sake of his wife. Besides the proposal, of course.

The Harburns traded employment from one definition of plant to another when they moved to Flint.
A few of the Harburn men traded working with plants to working in a plant when they moved to Flint. Flint City Directory, 1931

He decided to drive the six blocks from the flower shop to the clothing store. Driving felt more formal to him and formality was what the occasion called for.  He sidled his car in between the other Fords along Saginaw Street, turned off the engine, and joined the spattering of people on the sidewalks. It was a Thursday afternoon and the first day of the year so far that the light breeze didn’t carry a twinge of moisture in it. The office workers from the bank were enjoying their lunches sitting on the benches scattered throughout the park across the street. The people and the flowers in the beds beside them pointed in the same direction– facing the sun, letting it nourish and warm them. These were the unwitting audience members of his processional.

"To suit every man's needs."
“To suit every man’s needs.”

He walked straight into Crawford & Zimmermans to the display of neckties. They were folded elegantly in six vertical lines across the broad plain of a cedar table. Each line of ties pointed with their ends in opposite directions, right then left then right again, as if ties could show modesty. The effect made the customer’s eye following the arrows to the finely-made suitcoats and felt hats that surrounded them.

Nelson thought a scarlet tie with a white maple leaf pattern would be best. The colors and pattern represented his native country. The maple leaf further added a sense of stability and growth he thought appropriate for one beginning his husbandhood. But there was a solidity to the tie with cream diagonal stripes trekking across a navy field that reminded him of the stars and stripes. He quickly decided since marriage was a commitment to the future, never the past, the navy and cream tie was the better choice.

He folded back the ties atop the navy blue one, plucked it from the series, and carefully reset the pattern to cover the gap he’d made. His decision was over before Mr. Crawford’s son, who had been occupied by a somber, walrus-mustached customer, could even make a salesman-like suggestion. When Nelson looked up, young Crawford was standing on the other side of the table from him.

“Ah, a man with aim, I see.” Mr. Crawford held out his hand to take the tie. “May I interest you in a homburg or a navy kerchief to match, sir?”

“No. Just the tie presently, thank you.”

Nelson smirked, more to himself than to Mr. Crawford, both his heels left the floor for a split second. Quick and concisely done, he thought as he opened his wallet and gave the man three coins, and this is how it begins.


It’s funny how the little things in life can signify such momentous occasions. Are there any similar stories like my grandfather’s marriage tie in your family tree?

Read the next ‘chapter’: The Jitters.

Putting Yourself Out There

American Idol is a depressing show and that is a depressing opening statement, but stay with me here. I know what I’m doing.

Oh, I was on board at the beginning– the deluded singers, the occasional star performer, the fun of figuring out which judge was the most drunk. But after a few seasons, seeing literally thousands of people get their dreams systematically annihilated for something as fleeting as the inability to generate a zazz moment on one’s very first time being on national television, I grew sour. I was bothered by the fact that the people who very obviously knew how to work a crowd never won. I was bothered by the product placement in every judges’ hands. But what bothered me most were the singers that walked out onto that stage and gave it all they got for three people who had been sitting there for way too long to respect the preciousness of that singer’s moment in front of them. (One could argue that the singers did it of their own volition; but for a homeless teenager living in a car, that audition is pretty much the ONLY way they’d get in front of a powerful music representative.)

How could anyone be expected to create a genuine special moment in such a sterile, manufactured environment? And if you do manage your moment, you are immediately shoved into a world of bright lights and expectations. As most of the past AI winners have demonstrated, stardom just doesn’t work like that. Most people’s success comes to a boil like a pot of pasta– after a few years, a bubble rises to the surface. After a decade, if you’re lucky, you achieve a rolling boil, and, from there it all happens so quickly: your pot’s boiling over and you’re hoping the world will at least keep you on its burner.

A week before my poem recitation. I would drop some major cash to be able to go back to this dude and tell him a few things. (I'm the dude on the left. Doing my best Chandler Bing Impression.)
A week before my poem recitation. Funny what we remember. (I’m the dude on the left, doing my best Chandler Bing impression.)

It all reminded me of the time back in college that I’d won a second-place award for a poem I wrote. I was a standard creative writing major. The guy that won first place was a sort of nemesis of mine. He’d entered the contest on a whim; he was an engineering major. He was part of the Honors College at the university and lorded it over people. As part of the “reward,” I got to recite my poem to a room full of people, including the snobbish guy who had won. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life. My rib cage was shaking. My stomach was roiling. The cankers of being emotionally naked in front of my nemesis, not to mention the other strangers in the room. No one booed; no one hissed. The guy even complimented my reading. But I was wrecked. I couldn’t just be happy with the award I’d received; I had to compare what I had done with my nemesis’s accomplishment. I couldn’t see past the fact that he was a dabbler of writing and he beat me. And it’s taken me 18 years to want to risk the comparisons again.

Now what roils is my frustration from all of that time I wasted. Like any of that matters anymore. Or that guy whose name I can’t even remember is sitting in an office somewhere evil-laughing at thwarting me. Another case of “Needless Obstacle Courses We Put Ourselves Through In Our Heads.”

A few days ago, I read an article in a genealogy magazine that said 63 million blogs pertaining to genealogy exist just on this site alone and I immediately felt myself deflate. So much discouragement. 63 million people on just one site.  I was not Mary Benn riding up into the mountains to kill myself a bear. I was just another sidewalk vendor on a city street. I wallowed in that feeling for a few days.

Then I remembered some of the rejected American Idol hopefuls who came out of their auditions, looked right into the camera, and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is what I want to do. I’ll keep trying till I get a chance.”

So, it doesn’t matter if I’m any good at this. My moments of insecurity about what I’m doing here are normal and show that I care. My effing numbers on this blog site’s statistics page do not matter. It’s just a blog. Many people have them and don’t make it a source of angst. I post things all the time on Facebook without fussing over who’s reading, who’s judging, or the quality of my output. Why would this blog be any different?

What matters is that I showed up for the audition. I got out of my own way. What matters is I’m not hiding from any drunk, jaded judges, real or imaginary. What matters is the asshole voice in my head has stopped nagging me constantly about not writing. Why aren’t you writing? Why are you avoiding it? Chickenshit. The voice has stopped nagging me about letting my fear of failure stop me. It’s fine you’re not writing anyway, because it’s all been said before. There’s nothing new under the sun. The inanity of not even trying to do what I love and have always loved doing.

Instead, I’m walking through my city’s streets mapping out in my head, like a star chart of constellations, the things I want to tell you. I’m waking up excited to research my story and find my voice in telling it. To introduce you to the cast of characters whose names I didn’t even know until a few years ago. I’m back to doing what I love. Researching my family motivates me to write. I’m finding answers to my questions. I’m creating.

And only good things can come from that.

So, fear or not, the stories are coming. I have the title of this blog to reassure me of my power, because the name of that guy’s first place poem all those years ago was The Cartographer. And now I have this note to myself to read when I get discouraged. And I will get discouraged again. I will change course or fall down. It all doesn’t matter.

At least I’m on stage.

Delano, Herbert Walker, and Hussein; or, The Stories Middle Names Tell

Don't be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.
Don’t be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.

Meet my 2nd great grandmother, Olivia. Or at least I think this is her. And I think that’s the name she went by. The truth is I’m not completely sure who she is or what she called herself. I do know that, despite her innocent look at the camera, she was a troublemaker. Confused? Let me explain.

One of my generous on-line relatives sent me this sweet picture of Olivia with a written note saying “This is a postcard picture addressed to Mr.  & Mrs.  N.  D.  James.  Someone wrote ‘Grandma’ on it. The question is who?” Mr. & Mrs. N. D. James are my great grandparents, which means at the very least I know that this woman is a relative. And despite the title of this entry, I know she was never President of the United States.

Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses
Back in the days of bonnets and awkward hand poses

Later, I was given the picture above with a note on the back that said it was Hazel’s grandmother on the James side. Even with the hat obscuring her face, I’m certain the two pictures are of the same woman. Hazel is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. N. D. James, so, if the writer of the note is correct, then this is definitely Grandma Olivia.

Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records
Scioto County, Ohio, marriage records: “I certify that I have joined in marriage Isaiah James and Olivina James May 7th 1848.”

Grandma Olivia was sneaky about her name. As you can see from the marriage certificate above, she is listed as Olivina. This record states Olivina married a man named Isaiah.  But I know that isn’t true, since I have further documentation that an Olivina and Josiah James married on this very date in this very county. I have chalked this version of Olivia’s name up to carelessness of the recorder.

The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory
The 1899 Council Bluffs, Iowa, phone directory: what do you think a City Scavenger does for a living?
The 1917 CB Phone directory
The 1917 Council Bluffs Phone directory

Researching her further revealed 6 more versions of her name: Olivielle, Lavina, Levinia, Olive, Olivinia, and, most ridiculously, Oliver. In the 1925 Iowa census records which list mother’s and father’s names of each person, I found even Olivia’s children weren’t sure what to call her. They either told the census taker that their mother’s name was Olivia or Levina.

These phone directories to the left show Olivia’s whimsy. The fact that she could list her name in the city directory and still be recognized leads me to believe that Olivia Levina were her first and middle names and that she was known by both of them.  Or perhaps she didn’t speak very clearly. I know from numerous census records that she couldn’t read or write; maybe not having to spell it herself made her more comfortable with having an ambiguous identity. Or maybe she was just sneaky.

You can imagine finding her records after her husband passed was difficult. I never knew how her name would be spelled or which name she would give. I would never have been sure I had the right woman if I hadn’t found the phone directories linking those two names to the same person.

I’ve since learned that in Olivia’s time, going by one’s middle name was very common. At a time when parents often chose the names of their relatives for their children, middle names were used to distinguish people in the household. (No made-up names like Hashtag or Krimson Tyde for them!) I’ve talked about Eliza Ruffe. Eliza happens to be named after her mother. I found her listed as Jane or Janey on several censuses throughout her life. I’m sure this was to help the family distinguish her from her mother Eliza and her sister, Elizabeth.

Sometimes the middle name stuck around after adulthood, and sometimes the middle name was adopted after the person had grown up. I have a great aunt who was listed as Mary C. Romine for twenty years of documentation. Then, she just dropped off the records after she moved out of her parent’s house. I couldn’t find anything on her, but I noticed this woman named Delia Kindred was about the same age as her and lived down the street from Mary’s parents. I discovered a Delia Romine married a John Kindred in that small Missouri town. Later, I found Mary’s birth certificate. The “C.” stood for Cordelia.

As is the case with mine, middle names also came from the maiden names of the women in the family. They can be important keys to unlock the harder-to-find maiden names.

Knowing a relative’s middle name is important. I’ve used them to narrow down searches for ancestors with common names (as in the difference between John Smith and John Mortimer Basterton Smith). I’ve used them as hints at the family names further back in my family tree (I would bet that Basterton is a family name). I’ve even used them to pick back up on a relative’s paper trail after they seemed to have fallen off the face of the planet (I’d totally search for Morty Smith, if this were my relative).

But it’s also important to not assume a middle name or initial used once in a record is correct. Take a look at my great-grandfather Noah James in the phone directory pictures above and you’ll see why.

Some items I came across while researching that may come in handy in the future:
I needed to know what a city scavenger was. Look up Scaleraker.
More awkward poses captured in photography. (CAUTION: Don’t click if you don’t want to see pictures of dead people.)
Turns out former Presidents middle names explained a lot about where their people came from. Look at the family trees here, here, and here.

Chasing Rabbits

Genealogists work in an economy of questions and answers. It seems like for every answer I find, 5 more questions pop up to take its place. The obituary of Mary Benn that I posted in my previous entry is a good example. Before I sit down to research, I try to focus on finding the answer to just one question I have about a family member or a document. This technique has worked well for me because I’m distractible. The question I was trying to answer when I found Mary’s tribute was, How did my relative, Eliza Kelley, meet and marry Hank Ruffe?

A little back history is required here, I think. According to census records taken in Council Bluffs, IA, our Miss Eliza lived in the same house with her parents until she was about 50. I lose her after the 1905 Iowa special census and pick her up again on her wedding day in Portland, Oregon, in 1912. For a while after I found it, I wasn’t sure their marriage record was the right Miss Eliza. I mean there she is taking care of her elderly parents and then suddenly she pops up as a wife in Oregon? It seemed unlikely. But, her brother’s obituary confirmed that she was indeed Mrs. Henry Ruffe of Oregon. Finding her brother’s obituary supplied an answer, but it also generated more questions for me. The following is what I call a list of rabbits:
1. Where was Eliza in the 1910 census? (US Censuses are taken every ten years starting consistently in 1790.)
2. Did she disappear from the census because she was traveling to Oregon?
3. What made 2 people well into their golden years (we’re talking 1912 remember) decide to retire their single lives?
4. How exactly does someone move from Iowa to Oregon in 1910?
5. How did she meet this man from Oregon after seemingly leading a sheltered life?

Let’s just chase #5 down the rabbit hole.

Obviously Mary Benn’s obituary alone doesn’t answer my question. It’s definitely interesting, though. She ran a cigar factory, she grew alfalfa, she hunted bears, she collected rocks for posterity. So, when the obituary mentions her father’s eccentricities, I had to look him up. How could Mary’s father possibly top his daughter’s ‘colorful’ life?

Turns out Mary Benn’s father founded Aberdeen, Washington. He sailed through the Panama Canal, and up to Olympia, WA. He then set off south, found a spot where 2 rivers meet, and decided it was going to be a town.  And since Samuel Benn was a founding father, his life and family are very well documented.

Samuel Benn, builder of cities
Samuel Benn, builder of cities

I have never owned land or a house in my lifetime. The idea of traveling somewhere, sticking a flag in the ground, and declaring it to be Oregon’s next BIG THING is just amazing to me. If I were to go to some remote part of the country and declare it  for myself, I would immediately be deemed as eccentric. Thankfully, when Mr. Benn was doing it, it was a highly respectable prospect.

This article mentions that Mary Benn’s mother was born and raised in Polk County, Iowa. That’s a couple counties over from where our Miss Eliza was raised. As Mary Benn’s right hand (so the obituary paints him), it would follow that Hank may have been introduced to Eliza as a freshly-arrived acquaintance of Mary Benn’s Iowan family. So, BAM! Question answered.

Well, a little bit. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to be able to wrap up my family tree in a neat little package. It’s messy work that never ends; it’s a kid eternally stuck in the “Why” phase.

The death of a brother; a cigar rolling ranch hand; a Native American artifact collection; the father of Aberdeen, WA. Answers to the questions we ask our family trees can take us on a journey to unexpected places. I never know where I’m going to end up.

All of this is to say that the questions and the messiness are worth it for the journey. In fact, they’re probably more valuable than the hard copy of my family tree. To put it a different way: the paper work is the body, the journey is the soul.

It’s important to mention also that Mary’s obituary may have solved another mystery. Its explanation of Michigan lumbermen in Oregon might explain some relative’s migrations on my mom’s side of the family, but the details of that clue aren’t important here.

This story continues. I’m awaiting the arrival of Eliza Kelley Ruffe’s obituary from the University of Oregon library. We’ll see where that rabbit leads us together. I can’t wait!


The subject of this post is also related to the song “Come As You Are.” Google Aberdeen, Washington, and look around a little; you’ll see how pretty quickly.



If you were to be the founder of a town, like Samuel Benn, where would it be in the world? Why there? How would you run it?

Mapping People

Growing up, my Pop rarely told stories about his childhood, but when he did I was riveted. I think his stories caught my attention because his childhood was so different from mine. You see, he was taken from his parents and raised by various foster families. He and his siblings grew up in three separate houses around town.

I couldn’t conceive of a childhood like my Pop’s: without siblings and parents. I marvel at the strength and independence necessary for him to reach adulthood. Because of his childhood, he never knew the basic facts of his family most people take for granted: the names of his grandparents, where they came from, and what kind of people they were. About ten years ago, I started asking him about his tumultuous (my word, not his) past. It wasn’t until his illness a while back (He’s fine.) that he told me the first clue I needed to find his relatives: his mother’s name.

So I set myself the task of finding out about her and her family. Suddenly, towns I’d never thought twice about before became important places: Council Bluffs, Iowa; Hensall, Ontario; Portsmouth, Ohio. These were the communities my family was a part of for generations. These towns were springboards for where my family is today.

“When a man’s stories are remembered, then he is immortal.” ~ Daniel Wallace, Big Fish

In my research, I’ve discovered mysterious and intriguing characters on both sides of my family. So, recently, I found myself telling a friend about a spinster great-grandaunt who left her small Iowa town in the 1910s to marry a cigar manufacturer in Oregon. A half hour later, my mouth was dry from talking and my friend was volunteering to help me research.

That made me think it was time to get these stories ‘on paper.’ This blog will be my funnel for the people I encounter in my research and a recommitment to my love of writing. Hopefully, this internet thing isn’t just a craze and my words will be available to future family members who share my curiosity. I will also include some of the history involved, as well. For instance, I found myself researching exactly what a 1910 cigar manufacturer did for a living. But, more on that later.

This is how I see this blog working:

Does anyone else think it's weird that her ranch manager is mentioned more than her father, and her husband wasn't mentioned at all?
Does anyone else think it’s weird that her ranch manager is mentioned more than her father, and her husband wasn’t mentioned at all?

Nothing will be posted about living relatives, except an occasional reference to my parents. Some of the posts will be my thoughts on actual documentation: census records, random certificates, photographs, and articles. Other posts will be fictional stories with names changed, if necessary. The stories will be edited for dramatic effect, but they will all fall somewhere on the ‘truthy-ness’ spectrum between the plain facts of a Civil War pension document and the outlandish tales of the book/movie Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. They will be cobbled together as my imagination interprets the information I have at the time. As I gather more information, the stories may change, but that’s the beauty of history.

My ancestors were mostly Midwestern farmers— not the most exciting bunch on paper, but their stories and relations often surprise me. If I find such interesting people in my humble family, I’m sure everyone else’s families are just as interesting. So I hope my stories and research will inspire others to look into their own pasts and share the stories they find.

Among other things, I’m working on telling what I know of the man who lost his government job because of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the significant ripple effects of that case of unemployment across my family tree. And the story of my sweet grandfather’s dahlias. And, of course, that great- grandaunt who found her cigar-smoking love, Hank Ruffe. The article at right is a hint at what’s to come. It is the obituary of Hank’s employer and sister-in-law, who seems to merit her own post based on her big-game hunting skills alone.

And with that, I’m off to write, Lord help me.