Uncrumpling notebook paper, he found his own face staring back at him: his masseter muscle dissected, bleeding, needles poking his retinas. A student’s drawing perfectly placed on his chair. He will feel that gaze stalking his nape as he teaches tomorrow’s lesson.
I recently realized while reading a few insightful blog articles that I’ve seen the changes in attitude toward social politics unfold before me just by logging onto my genealogy website.
When I first started researching on Ancestry.com, there was no way for me to enter my spouse as a man and there was no way to enter my father and his siblings into the database without falsely implying that my grandparents were married.
I get it; the family tree is all about procreation. And for a very long time that meant filling out generation after generation of pink and blue boxes. As humans, it’s natural for us to want (need?) that kind of order. For genealogists it’s especially true. There are to-date 2,679 people residing in my family tree. If I’m going to make any headway learning about all of them I need to have some systematized way to organize and research them. I admit in order to jimmy people into my family tree I’ve had to pigeonhole them.
But I realize the danger in that. Genealogists must stay open minded because they “encounter” a huge variety of people. It’s impossible to plug every person into your tree– let alone in the world– into the same set of 10 categories and expect them all to fit perfectly. The genealogy databases must have realized the error in that as well. Most databases have since widened their nets, so to speak, on their categories.
Plus, complying to those given categories cuts off the good stories for which we genealogists are searching. For instance, in the case of omitting my partner from my family tree due to a lack of options, I would be slicing off a loving and enduring relationship to future generations. They also wouldn’t see that they had a gay relative (which I can tell you is important, especially for younger gay relatives). In the case of my grandparents, if I left the “Married” box checked I would be leaving out a whole rich (and long) story to tell of why they never married. Which is a story for another time.
Here’s an every-day example: I had to fill out insurance forms recently. When I got to the marital status part I was at a loss. My marital status was not listed as an option. But filling in the circle next to ‘Single’ felt like an insult to my partner of 13 years. And filling out ‘Married’ felt wrong too. I was an exception.
Let’s face it, sometimes the answers to those form questions are complicated. Race, occupation, religion? And the exceptions we take when answering them are some of what makes us interesting and defines who we are. These personal, lovely exceptions should not be disqualified or marginalized simply because they’re not listed as someone else’s set of options.
This point was reinforced to me when I read Kat’s tender piece Tips for Dealing with My Child (and Me). Obviously, I knew transgendered and intersex folks had parents and siblings and grandparents who loved them and wanted to include them on their family trees. But Kat’s piece drove home the fact that there is no option in most family tree databases for people who do not consider themselves either male or female . The data field requires a check in either box Male or Female.
Not long after I read Kat’s post, another Kat posted a narrative of the day she changed her name: What’s In A Name? I can imagine it’s possible that, for whatever reason, she is entered into her family’s tree with her dead name. But she gives a thoughtful and incisive argument as to why she shouldn’t be. (Note: Some transgendered people prefer she or he. Some opt for the pronoun see, or they. When in doubt, politely ask.)
Having volunteered for years at a GLBTQ Youth Group in the past, I had thought myself well informed on the subject. But after reading these pieces, I realized that I really didn’t know much about the Transgender and Intersex issues of today, such as the vocabulary I’d never heard: cisgendered, cissexism, genderqueer, transphobia. But these posts made me want to dig deeper into the topic. I watched this informative movie at transjersey.org’s blog to get me up to speed: Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She.
I’m very grateful to all of the bloggers for the reminder that categorizing comes at a cost, and that our exceptions add beauty and truth to our lives.
Whenever my partner enters the room while I’m digging into the past, I’m either bent over the laptop taking notes, furiously typing another search into a search engine, or, and most likely, I’m muttering to myself. I’m sure, to him, I have the same constipated look on my face as Russell Crowe’s characters in 80% of his movie.
But concentration is necessary. I am resurrecting lives after all.
Case in point: reviewing the document at left that was in the pile of papers my family received from my Genealogical Fairy Godmother.
On December 17, 1888, a seventy-year-old woman named Christiana Chamberlain trudged into the office of a county clerk in Wellington, Kansas, and asked him to write an affidavit. She swore an oath to the man that what she was about to say was absolute truth. The lawyer reached for a piece of lined paper and his quill pen and began to write.
Christiana tells the lawyer that she was present at a wedding some 45 years before in a place called Mascedonia, Ontario County, New York. (Click here for larger version and transcript of the affidavit.) Pretty straight forward, huh?
The reason she took the trouble to tell a lawyer this was to help a widow reclaim money from her late husband’s Civil War pension. That widow happens to be my 2nd great-grandmother, Emily Chelesta Patterson. I knew very little about Emily’s life before she married, just maiden name (Patterson), the state in which she was born, and a rough birth year. And I knew even less of Emily’s mother or father, nor any siblings she may have.
That’s the trouble with finding our female relatives’ stories: they’re as integral as the men to the plot lines of our families, but their childhoods are hidden behind their husbands’ last names.
Up until scrutinizing this old letter, my family agreed that Emily’s husband, Thomas Wilson, had been married twice. The snippet below from the 1850 Census lists a woman named Anna living with Thomas and his children. Every census after that lists Emily as the woman of the house and mother to George, Mary, Ambrose, Joanna and Emogene. The names Anna and Emily are different enough and different ages and places of birth were listed for them. We had each looked at this record and assumed Anna had passed away, and Thomas had married Emily to help him care for his 5 children. But Christiana’s statement verifies that Emily was Thomas’s wife when the 1850 census was taken. So Anna was Emily, and I had the happy task of erasing a name off my To Research list.
But then it occurred to me that the 45 years between the marriage in 1843, and the affidavit written in 1888 was a mighty long time. Christiana lived in Wellington, Kansas, at the time she gave the affidavit; Emily lived in Shiawassee County, Michigan. They must have been very tight for Emily to have asked such a favor from so far away. Seems like Emily could have asked younger family members to attest to the marriage—siblings or cousins who might have attended. The two women would have to be as close as sisters to maintain such a friendship for so long. Sisters? Wait a minute.
So, I started researching Christiana, tracking her and her family back in time from Kansas and sure enough, I eventually found a marriage record that a Christiana Patterson married a man named Chamberlain in Illinois. After living in Kansas a while, the Chamberlains moved to Orange County, California. When Christiana passed away in her home in 1908, her niece Joanna (Emily’s daughter) lived in a house around the corner. Ha ha, success! I still have to do the work to prove that my theory is correct, but I now had strong clues to follow to research my enigmatic great-grandmother.
(You might be thinking: Why didn’t the affidavit mention their relationship? Well, the statement goes on to attest that Christiana had no personal stakes in Emily receiving her husband’s money. Mentioning their relationship could have marred her integrity.)
That’s what I mean by resurrecting people’s lives. I had to go back into the “fantasyland of the past” to get into the circumstances of the people involved in that affidavit in order to piece together that Emily and Christiana were sisters (allegedly, probably).
And to think if I hadn’t gone through my Fairy Godmother’s papers for the 101st time I might not have ever made that important connection. It really is so gratifying to solve another piece of the family history puzzle, like Sudoku only using people to fill in the boxes instead of numbers!
*This post was inspired by the DPWriting Challenge, whose prompt this week was to teach something.
“I was completely buried in the unremembered, much disputed, fantasyland of the past.”
—We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, p. 247
Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.
Item #1: Oh my god, you’re European!
via the Internet
Samantha logged onto Facebook one day and read a message from a woman in England telling her that she had a doppelganger. She clicked a link to the woman’s Facebook profile and couldn’t believe what she saw. A year and a half later they’re documenting their story. I love this kind of stuff.
Read more here.
Item #2: No Coincidence, No Story
via radio and the Internet
Family researchers often find themselves in situations where they have to decide whether a coincidence is happenstance or a pattern taking shape. So, when I heard the first story about coincidences on an NPR broadcast, I was hooked!
After hearing the hour long broadcast, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I saw about the significance of a man giving his girlfriend a dollar with her name written on it (minute 22 in the podcast below), or the odd story of a man being given a picture of a toddler in a stroller taken 18 years ago and noticing his own grandmother perfectly framed in the background (minute 9:14 in the podcast below). And the other 13 stories gave me goose pimples, too.
Listen to the broadcast here. This one is a bit of a time commitment, come back to it when you’re washing dishes or cleaning house this weekend. I promise you won’t be sorry.
Item # 3: History Detectives
I’m really late to this party, but I figure if I wasn’t aware of PBS’s History Detectives even after 10 seasons of being on the air, then others might not know about it either. It is exactly the kind of tv program someone who knew me pretty well would tell me about!
It’s similar to Antiques Roadshow, only instead of appraising objects from the past, the detectives research the story behind the objects. In a recent episode, a woman inherited a beautiful electric guitar from her father who had worked in the music business. Her father told her it was the very guitar Bob Dylan played at his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. So the detective went out to verify the story.
That example is a little less genealogy oriented, than others. They’ve also investigated the story behind two stolen Civil War derringers (I had to look up the word) and the validity of a woman’s claim that she inherited royal jewels. My point is that this show covers the whole gamut of people’s interests — music, art, culture, writing, architecture, sports, military– not to mention my three blogging loves: history, sociology, and genealogy.
Check out their website or watch a segment about a book of African American spirituals:
Like what I did here? Read my first Gene Pool installment!
Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.
Have any interesting coincidences happen to you lately? I’d love to hear it. Or just tell me what you thought of my finds.
I’m finishing up my Liebster Award nominations. This is the part where I answer questions posed by another blogger. While it’s not completely genealogically oriented, I did try to throw some family history in there.
Who is your favourite literary character?
This one is difficult as it probably changes every week. I’ll say Patrick from Perks Of Being A Wallflower. Let’s just say I related to him immensely.
Who is your weird crush?
Neil Patrick Harris. It’s weird because it started as puppy love with Doogie Howser, M.D. when he was 13 and I was 12 . Then it became full-fledged when he was in the musicals Assassins and Rent and I suspected he might be “on my team.” When he came out we were both married to other people, so my crush settled into respect for his many talents and admiration for his graceful demeanor with media. But he’s still got it.
In which period in history would you have most liked to have lived?
The Roaring 20s. There was so much change happening, and the world was rejoicing over the end of the first world war. Plus I can rock a homburg pretty nicely.
What could you not live without?
What? Or who? Ok. I’ll take that question at face value. I cannot live without decent water pressure. It’s the first thing I check when I’m checking out a new apartment. Materialistically speaking, nothing is better than a good shower after a difficult day.
What is your movie star name? (in America, it’s the first pet and the first street you lived on)
What is your best feature?
the creases under my eyes. I used to hate them; but then I was given pictures of my dad as a boy, his mother, and her father (the man below, whose name I share btw) and we all had those tell-tale creases. Now I consider them a badge of honor.
What would you have for your last supper? chicken alfredo, grilled asparagus and red onion, and tiramisu for dessert.
Who was your first love? I’m married. . . well, domestically partnered to him.
Which song is your getting ready to go out song? Temptation by New Order — “Oh, you’ve got green eyes, oh, you’ve got blue eyes, oh, you’ve got gray eyes!”
What is your favourite smell? peach cobbler baking in the oven
What would your Archvillain name be? “Sarcastro”, and my superpowers would involve melting my foes with a single peeved look
Read these answers in short story form: “Straight From the Diary of Candi Partridge.” Candi is my clueless teenage alter-ego stuck in 1989.
I am not a morning person.
It’s not that I’m angry or sad or upset (my morning thoughts are usually pretty upbeat in fact), it’s just that it takes some time for any social skills or an ability to express emotions to kick in. This is not something my poor neighbor across the hall knew about me when he met me one morning.
Here is the ensuing conversation — the parenthetical statements are what my brain was thinking, the regular text is what my mouth was saying. You will notice grave differences between the two, unfortunately. Keep in mind that my dialogue is said extremely deadpan.
The set-up: We were both standing on the landing locking our facing apartment doors. It was 7:30 am on a weekday. He was dressed as if to go to work, as was I. He smiled and commented on all the rain we’d had recently.
Me: (Yes, it has been rather rainy lately. I hope you remembered your umbrella!) Yeah, it was coming down so hard when I woke up this morning I was thinking of showering out on my back porch.
Unwitting Neighbor, with concern in his eyes: Hah, uh, yeah, but I bet those pesky public decency laws stopped you, right?
Me: (Yes!. . . No! I would never go out in public naked. I blush when someone says the word “Cockney.”) No, it was the pigeons that stopped me, actually. I thought once it stopped raining and the sun came out all of those suds from the shampoo and soap would make the porch all sticky. . . and then I thought what a pain it would be to have to go outside every half hour or so and pluck the pigeons from the roof. Or what if they liked the taste of the suds?
[Pertinent sidenote: My back porch was also simultaneously the rooftop of the video store underneath us.]
Unwitting Neighbor, no longer smiling: Huh. Well. I’m glad you didn’t because I wouldn’t want to look out one day to see you rinsing off. No offense.
Me: (Oh my god! I’m sorry! I have gone way off the tracks here, but I just don’t know how to stop the awkward now.) Come on now, it’s not that bad. I work out. You could do much worse. [Yes, I actually said that.]
Unwitting Neighbor: Are you hitting on me?
For the next 2 weeks, I worried and worried about what I would say to that guy if I saw him around again. My partner had to talk me down a couple times. Thankfully, he is rather used to my awkward morning conversations and, occasionally, he even finds them charming.
Here is basically what my partner said to me during one of the said talking-downs: I’m sure that guy is telling that story to all of his friends at parties. And if you run into him again, he’ll either avoid you completely or he’ll ask you how the pigeon-plucking business is going. Either way, he will never ever forget meeting you.
I love him for that — my partner, not the neighbor. He reminded me that my morning awkwardness is just a side effect of having a personality. It’s really not that uncommon.
In this blog class I’m taking, we were challenged to comment on four new-to-us blogs, then write a post expounding on one of the comments we’ve left. I read Crystal’s funny account of forgetting to buy pepperoni for a birthday dinner and the mental fall-out that ensued. I read Andy’s lament of reading Hemingway and being subsequently ruined on writing anything ever again. And then I read about Meg’s defiance of a cranky (and absolutely wrong I might add) hipster who commented unkindly about something she’d written. I found a very common theme.
And that leads me to my point in sharing my mortifying neighbor story and its aftermath:
I call it the “Needless Obstacle Courses We Put Ourselves Through In Our Heads”. It’s acronym is unwieldy and despite its length, its effects make us short-sided. Crystal and I sweat over the small stuff. Andy, Meg, and I (along with about 95% of anyone who writes) are insecure about our writing abilities. Those two obstacle courses make us focus on the miniscule and forget to acknowledge the big picture. As Crystal said, her husband wouldn’t be upset by a missing pizza ingredient. What mattered was the thought. I think Andy, Meg, and I just needed to be reminded that writing isn’t a contest. What matters is that we enjoy doing it.
In all of our articles we move forward. Crystal goes on to remind herself not to beat herself up. Andy opens up to the possibility of revisiting some of his work despite the scars Hemingway lashed upon him. And Meg continues to write her blog. Together they remind me that all of our misgivings, beatings, and worries are self-inflicted. They’re all in our head.
Perfection isn’t the goal; simply trying to get out of our own way is the goal.
And, maybe for me, avoiding that neighbor I inadvertently hit-on for the rest of my life.
This post has little to do with this blog’s intended topic. Since I’ve made so many new friends here who know very little about me, and since I’ve been nominated twice in quick succession for the Liebster Award, I decided to make an exception in my blog plan and hope that I might meet even more new friends.
So, here are 22 random facts about me. I am currently writing two short stories that will answer the 22 questions they’ve asked me to answer. I will post them, my questions, and my nominations when I’m done.
1. I find it’s easier to be more brave, daring, and open-minded when I travel– traits that don’t come as naturally to me in my every day life, for some reason.
2. I really enjoy learning how other people/animals live. Hence, my favorite tv shows are travel-, culture-, and animal society related (like Meerkat Manor). I figure if I learn about all the possibilities of how to spend my limited time here on earth, I’ll be more likely to spend it more wisely.
3. My favorite childhood memory is of my mother pruning a bush outside my bedroom window the summer I was 11. I couldn’t actually see her, but she was humming and there was a warm breeze carrying her tune to my ears. It’s a moment I’m sure she doesn’t remember, which makes it much more precious and comforting to me. I wrote about it here.
4. I have an irrational fear of expired dairy products and cross-contamination.
5. My favorite food is peanut butter. Easily. It makes breakfast, elevensies, lunch, dinner, brunch, linner, dessert, and my midnight snack much tastier. The peanut butter/salmonella contamination a couple years back just about erased my faith in mankind (see #5).
6. I’ve pinned my great grandfather two Missouri counties away from, and at the same time as, Jesse James’ shenanigans. This is important because my last name happens to be James. So I have a pretty strong conviction that somewhere along there I am related to him, and am determined to find out for sure. Also, see the last line of random fact #13.
7. I have never mown a lawn in my life thanks to the three tractor fanatics in my family, and my decision as an adult to move to an apartment complex. I have every intention of maintaining that record.
8. I haven’t owned a car in 12 years. I have every intention of maintaining that record as well.
9. I named my cat Daphne after the mythological heroine that outran Apollo because she was always running away from me whenever I wanted to spend time with her. The Daphne from the myth is the reason ancient Olympian winners wore laurel wreaths on their heads. Apollo turned her into a laurel tree when he couldn’t catch her.
10. My partner* and I named our kitten Link for three reasons: Legend of Zelda; Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp; and the fuzzy, black hairs he has that shoot past the tips of his ears like a lynx’s.
Man, they’re cute.
11. I used to intentionally confuse Star Wars and Star Trek trivia to my friends that are fans just to annoy them. They were/are surprisingly touchy about it.
12. I am very adept at stopping sports conversations dead by apologizing and saying “I’m not even sure which sport you’re talking about.” 85% of the time I say it, it’s true. The other 15% I just don’t want to fake my way through the rest of that conversation.
13. I avoid waiting in lines as much as possible. You know that Seinfeld scene where Elaine is stuck in a dark crowded subway car screaming in her head out of frustration? That’s me waiting in lines. I think it might have something to do with being the youngest of 3 boys.
14. I permed my hair in 8th grade because I wanted to look more like Mike Seaver from Growing Pains & Alan from Head of the Class. I wish I could find that school picture — it’s hilarious.
15. I don’t watch fictitiously violent movies. So I haven’t seen most action and horror movies. I just think the world is too violent already, and I don’t enjoy watching the unnecessary generation of more of it.
16. I am the opposite of a pack rat (see #3). If I could get rid of everything I don’t use on a daily basis, I would do it in a heartbeat.
17. I am virtually incapable of distinguishing one car from another. Not a good thing considering I hail from around the Motor City, where there was a time when neighbors wouldn’t speak to you if you had a foreign car parked in your driveway. My inability also makes finding my rental cars in parking lots virtually impossible. Hence, #9.
18. For the decade I worked in bookstores, I had to fight being a book snob daily. The bookstore chain for which I worked often expected me to recommend books I had never read. I’ve been burned on several occasions when someone wanted to talk about a book I’ve recommended to them and I had to admit that I haven’t read the book because I disliked the author and/or the genre. I realize this doesn’t paint me in a good light. But we all have our faults.
19. I am known for my D-list celebrity knowledge. For instance, I know that Khrystyne Haje and Dan Frischman also starred in Head of the Class with Tony O’Dell (whose picture is above). But I cannot for the life of me explain why my brain sponges up info on that subject instead of, say, consistently remembering my debit card pin.
20. The only place I’ve traveled that I have not fallen in love with is Atlanta. (Sorry, Atlantans!) The cool areas are too spread out. It’s beautiful but not interesting. Also I was reminded repeatedly by natives while I was visiting there that the city has the highest pedestrian death rate in the U.S. See #9.
21. I have always wondered what the big deal was with the sound of nails scratching chalkboards, until someone ripped a bedsheet about a foot from my ear at a set build for a high school play. Then I totally got it. The mere thought of ripping fabric jitters me bones.
22: My favorite song is Les Poissons from the Little Mermaid soundtrack. All you have to do is ask, and I will sing it all to my fullest ability.
“I pull out what’s inside and I serve it up fried! God, I love little fishies, don’t you?”
I am under the bed
pretending to be hungry
Windows wide open,
the walls expand,
the room is midsummer’s lung.
Carried in is the sound
of a snip and a trim–
my mother outside pruning the forsythia.
She hums, then dah-dah-dahs
a song with no lyrics.
I am under the bed
pretending to be a bear cub
in a carpeted cave
awaiting my mother’s return.
My favorite part of this childhood memory is I don’t think my mom knew I could hear her singing. She isn’t one to sing in public. She is the main person I’m talking to when I’m creating a new post. It might make me sound like a mama’s boy, but it’s true.
I chose to write this as a poem to celebrate National Poetry Month. I think poetry gets a bad rap. I blame school curricula for teaching only the stuffy classics that are hard to relate to when you’re a teenager. And for teaching that there is only one way to interpret it and any other way means you ‘don’t get it.’ The truth is that poetry is just like fiction. There are voices that will stick with you and voices that you would rather skip.
Poetry is all around us: on the radio, in tv jingles and print ad campaigns. It’s all about using words creatively to make people feel differently after they’ve read your poem. That’s all. Shake some of that bad poetry mojo (if you have any) and celebrate Poetry Month:
Listen to other poems read by actors: Poetry Out Loud : Listen to Poetry.
Read the lyrics to your favorite song. Try not to hear the melody while you do 😉
Watch and listen to one of my favorite poets read his own work:
Combine those three facts and you can see why genealogy is an interest of mine. I’ve been researching my family off-and-on for 12 years now. I have broader interests that will probably come up from time to time (roller and ice skating, living in Chicago, watercolor painting (not the kind with numbers), using parentheses inside parentheses, LGBTQ issues, and poetry to name . . . well, quite a lot, actually), but I think what I write here will center around my origin story.
I named my blog The Relative Cartographer because I often find myself hunched over a blank map with a black Sharpie in my hand, plotting out the migrations of my ancestors. The word cartographer has a special meaning to me too; I wrote about it here.
I’ve started this blog about my family tree for several reasons.
First, I wanted a place to write down the stories I’ve heard about my relatives or that I find in my research, so they will be available to people in the future. I want to be able to share them with anyone who is interested, but I also want anyone who is interested to be able to share their own folklore with me. I’m just as interested in other people’s origins as I am my own. Hopefully my posts convey that. Plus, over time, this blog has the potential to serve as a hub for family and friends, a sort of cyber family reunion. That’s an exciting idea to me.
Second, I graduated from college some time ago with a creative writing degree. I’d like to use this blog to get back into the habit of writing creatively on a regular basis. And nothing inspires me to write my own fiction more than the stories I dig up on my ancestors. So, some of my posts will weave what I know about my forefathers with fictional conversations and events in history (in my head they’ll be like the works of authors T.C. Boyle or E.L. Doctorow, but we’ll see). My stories may not be absolute truth, but hopefully they combine the hard facts of my relatives’ lives with a soul or spirit that captures who they were and how they lived. Having an audience will give me some accountability so I can’t just say to myself “No one will care if I don’t face up to writing the end of that story” and then shove it in a drawer for a decade. I’m sad to report that I’ve actually done.
Finally, I started researching my family tree when I was a bookstore clerk (read in: poor), so I think I have some good tips to share about doing it on a super tight budget. I aim to share some of my cheapskate tricks on my blog for anyone that is in the same position.
I’ve already started writing down some stories. Please let me know what you think.