23 September 2013


Thank-you, had to let that out.

When one begins digging into one's family tree and history in the absence of reliable oral and physical history, one finds things that are at first disappointing. All I can say is do more research, and most importantly, continuously think of your ancestors as people to remember they were people, and in context with their times.

I've lived in Scotland now for over three years. Living here has made tracking down my family a lot easier; surprisingly I've found more info re the American side since living over here than I ever did whilst living in the US. And I've found out so much more about how my Scottish side of the family got 'over the water' and to the US.

Now, that comes with some (OK, lots!) of frustration. For example (and right now the most aggravating!) finding my father's US Army record hasn't been a great experience- according to the currently available info my dad only finished two years of HIGH SCHOOL but I know that's not true because I had his high school diploma - he graduated with honours from a Los Angeles high school in 1937 aged 16. By 8th December 1941 aged 20 he had two years of college towards a mechanical engineering degree under his belt, and I also had the paperwork to prove that.

Until Hurricane Ivan. When I lost just about everything I owned including my dad's things.

So when I contacted the Veteran's Administration to make the corrections I had to have copies of the paperwork that will prove the errors and instigate corrections. This is a long involved process, the high school wasn't terribly helpful in helping me find out the correct department of the Los Angeles School District administration offices to go through, and the college wasn't all that helpful either. In fact, the attitude from both was 'Gosh, that's ancient history, why does it matter now?'

Well it matters to me, to my son, and eventually it will matter to my grandson. How do I know this? Because in the process of finding my dad's info I found my granddad's, and my great-granddad's, and a lot of that is wrong too, and it matters A LOT to me as a grand and great-grandchild. So far my son is nearly a perfect chip off this old block and his son is showing a lot of the same 'chipedness', so it will likely very much matter to them as well. Hmph to anyone who doesn't get this.

I'm making my way through it all. The Veteran's Admin assures me that while the oxen are slow the wheel does grind and eventually not only Pop's but Granddad and Great-Granddad's info will be adjusted. Good. Sooner the better.

Interesting info about family is also available via released Census stats on both sides of the Atlantic. One very interesting thing I found out was that during The Great Depression my paternal grandmother kept the family going (and rather nicely I must add!) by becoming a seamstress - she earned roughly five times the average annual salary as a 'dressmaker' but there is so much more to it than the dry entry to the 1940 Census - she earned that astonishing sum because she had three sons to put through university and so took her sewing skills to Hollywood. Now I understand why my family knew so many 'movie stars'.

When finding these sparse, bare 'facts' one has to take it all in, including what may appear a disappointment at first (until thinking it all over). A good example of this is the US Census 1880 entries for my great-grandparents. Lovely thing, the Census, on that one it lists where my great-great-grandparents hailed from and it was a bit of a shocker to learn my older sister hadn't been dreaming when she claimed our great-gran Sophie was an Ashkenazi Jewess.

The reason for the shocking part to me isn't her being Jewish, so if you're anti-Semitic, sod off now.

I'm proud of that. I'm proud of her having the courage to marry outside her faith for the love she had for my great-granddad, and gratefully proud of the prudence of my great-great-grandparents for getting the hell out of Hesse Darmstadt before Hitler was born and grown to have murdered them off.

That side of my family tree had been in HD for many centuries; before sensing something rather awful was going to happen my Hessian ancestors had been religiously, socially, educationally, and financially successful. But pogroms were starting against Jews in parts of Germany in the early 19th century and my g-g-grandparents had the sense and courage to up-sticks to the US. May they rest in peace forever, I thank them for their good sense.

No, the shocking bit is that my older sister managed to know that and wasn't just fantasising. She had a habit of that so I'd discounted her 'version' because research from the American side of the Atlantic showed me my great-gran's maiden name was quite common in the Caithness area of Scotland (still is, btw).

But the 1880 Census sheet is clear - she was the daughter of immigrants from Hesse Darmstadt and from there it was a simple matter to find out they were Jewish. And that explained why they were living in a Buffalo, NY Jewish tenement in 1880 despite the fact my great-granddad was a Roman Catholic Scot with two university degrees (nice to find out that bit was true:).

After thinking it all over it explained why our branch of the family was called the black sheep, why family legend recounted a huge estrangement (sadly, given the times, it had to be over the marriage of an RC to a Jewess), and why in-spite of those two engineering degrees my great-granddad had to support his growing family for a time as a coachman.

When I first read that bit about his being a coachman I was very disappointed, just as I was at first when I read the abbreviated military record on my dad.

 A coachman! And Great-gran was listed under occupation as 'Keeping house' - WHAT?! A housekeeper, oh ick! (Yeah, I know, I can be a bit of a snob. I'm working on it). Again, as I wrote above, further research and considerable hours thinking about it brought me to a better understanding.

He couldn't find employment as a civil engineer (his training) married to a Jewess in late 19th century NY state. And back then the Census listed homemakers as 'keeping house'; a real housekeeper would have listed a 'Housekeeper for (insert employer name here)'. FTR, he eventually did find employment as a civil engineer working for the railroad, work that moved the family to the American West. He also was buried in a National Cemetary when he died in 1905 by virtue of his military service as a US Marine during the American Civil War. Semper Fi!

Just as I managed to recall (finally, it took me an hour or so) that 'Hey wait a sec, I know I had Pop's high school diploma and college transcripts, dammit! This thing is wrong!', I recalled that when I showed a bit of aptitude for maths in high school myself my father proudly awarded me one of his most treasured family heirlooms - his grandfather's slide rule.

Coachmen of that era didn't ordinarily have slide rules to pass on through the family. So I dug deeper. And as I did I thought about what my own 'paper trail' would have to say about me. Food for thought and more items to add to the Do List - make sure the descendants never have to go through this by leaving a reliable (meaning non-fantasist or glossing over) oral and written history.

I'm OK with it all now 'though it's taken some time to be 'OK'. You see, I've found a bit more of my family, warts and all with the biggest wart being not incorrect information hounding them down the centuries but the estrangements. I suppose in a way OK with that now too because it does explain sooo very much.

Although naturally I'd be a lot more OK if estrangements in this family weren't such a blasted family tradition!

11 September 2013

It's that day again. Twelve years have passed.

It's almost noon here in Scotland so in NYC and some parts of the central US people are waking up to start their day. I hope with all of my heart it's the most boring uneventful day of all their lives. 

In some ways it's almost a distant memory but in most ways it's as though it happened this morning. Some years the anniversary passes 'easier' than others; for some reason today I know is going to be one of those harder days. I woke up this morning and my first thought was 'It's 9/11'.

I clearly remember coming down the stairs to see the South Tower crumble and dropping to my knees because I knew my former hospice parishioner who'd become a much loved member of my family was there and I knew I'd just seen him and countless others die. I knew there were people from my ex's business in those towers, too, so when the North Tower came down I knew I'd just watched more people I knew die.

My son had already gone to work. I left the house in a daze and drove down to the bookstore he worked in at that time - he threw his arms around me and sobbed.

I filled the petrol tank. I'd expected to see long queues but there were only three or four of us in the Citgo; as we waited in turn to pay for the petrol an older woman said to me that she was surprised to see so few people getting gas because she remembered Pearl Harbor and how the first thing everyone did was rush the filling stations. This was two hours after the North Tower fell, I think most of Dothan at that time was still glued to their telly in total shock.

That shock lasted long enough for me to get to a couple of groceries and stock up on bottled water, food, and medical supplies - who knew what was going to happen next?! I remember one clerk asking me if there was still water on the shelf because she was going off shift and hadn't stocked her hurricane pantry yet. Clearly she 'got' that 'things' might become extremely bad extremely quickly.

My son got home about six hours after the North Tower fell and by then the immediate shock had worn off, he said the filling stations and grocery car parks were stacked with people circling the block. By 9pm that night a lot of the grocery shelves were bare.

And all that day the sun shone in a clear blue sky devoid of aircraft; the breeze carried a hint that it was Autumn and winter would be coming. It seemed a mockery, that picture postcard crisp American fall morning, it really did.

I can still hear Joey's voice in the voice mail he left (because I was in the shower and didn't hear the mobile phone buzzing; by the time I found it, of course, Joey was dead) as he and his attorney tried to make it down the stairs of that South Tower; oh God help me.

"Listen, Sunnie, I'm in the South Tower stairwell with my lawyer, we're trying to get out of the building. This is bad, kid, really bad. I don't know what exactly happened, I think terrorist planes hit both of the Twin Towers and I don't really think we're going to make it out of here so I need you to make sure those scholarships go through." He was still talking when the voice mail limit cut him off.

I kept that voice mail as long as I could but accidentally deleted later changing handsets.

There were other voices - the most haunting to me was the man identifying himself as Stephen and repeating "Please, can you call my wife? Our number is ??X-X?X-XX?? and I need her to know I won't be home to read to the boys tonight. Please, can you call my wife? My name is Stephen and I was on the 102nd floor. Our number is...Please, can you call my wife?"

If I could have heard the whole number I think I might have called his wife just so 'the boys' could hear his last thoughts were of them. To this day I still hear his voice over Joey's and I don't think I will EVER, EVER get those words and his voice out of my head.

"Please, can you call my wife?"

This morning I took a walk through town. For a good long part of the walk all I could think about was that man's pleading, and how old were his boys now, 12 years after his death? And I keep hearing his voice.

"Please, can you call my wife?"

Rest in peace, Joey, John, and all those others who were so brutally murdered that awful, terrible, horrific morning when everything changed forever and ever and ever.