life

Gratitude Part II

After writing about some of my family last week, I wanted to express my gratitude to some other family members: my aunt, my brother, and my sister. I am very grateful that my aunt found time to spend with her niece, and that my brother and sister have endeavored to stay connected with me despite the centrifugal force that characterises my family.

My mother’s sister was nine years older than my mother, with no intervening children; my mother always looked upon her as a mother, and I saw her more as a grandmother.  A big believer in idle hands leading to devil’s work, my aunt taught me how to knit, crochet, embroider, and tat when I was very young.  She was teaching my oldest sister, and I hung around like a pest and learned as well. She came to see us every month or so; we were always glad to see her, because she knew all sorts of stories and could bake the best pies and cookies I’d ever had.

Even though she always made me keep my hands busy with knitting or tatting while we talked, I looked forward to her visits.  I felt as though she could see me, when very few other grownups could.  She despaired when I became a perpetual student, often shaking her head at my explanations of why I studied all these things.  When I finally got married and settled down with my instant family, you would have thought she had been the matchmaker, she was so proud.  And when we added more children, she was ecstatic that I had given her more children to love.

Two days before my youngest son was born, Aunt Ellene felt ill, somewhat like indigestion, but worse.  The hospital gave her heartburn medication and sent her home.  Three hours later, she passed away from a massive heart attack.  My mother debated delaying her planned trip to help me with the baby, but she came the day he came home from the hospital, missing her sister’s funeral, because that was what my aunt would have wanted. My son is eighteen now, and I still miss talking with Aunt Ellene over our knitting or embroidery.

My brother didn’t become a human being until I was 11 and he went to college.  He actually corresponded with me; when he was home on vacation, he still acted like a jerk sometimes, but that behavior diminished through the years.  He married into one of those huge families that gets together for birthdays and holidays and weddings; I have never asked him directly, but I suspect he felt the same kind of attraction/curiosity at the concept that I did when I first saw this unaccustomed behavior.  No matter, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly, leaving my father to shake his head in consternation at how he and his wife travel cross country to see their kids and grandkids.  I stand back in admiration.

Last year, my brother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and had one lung removed.  I had not realized until that point how much I thought my siblings were immortal, nor how hard it would hit me.  He is still fighting, but it is a long path through the woods.  He cannot fly anymore, but he and his wife pack up the car and still travel hundreds of miles to see their families. I am so grateful that he has tried valiantly to establish the sort of relationship with me that his wife has with her siblings. I am thankful to them both for showing me that it could work when I was still young enough to do for my own family.

One of my sisters is four years older than I am; reportedly she told my father that I was not the fun kind of baby doll, and would he please take me back.  No luck, sorry!  After this bumpy start, my sister and I started to bond her senior year in high school.  I stopped being the “fairy child” who did not seem connected to the world, and started being able to see her.  During her college years, we shared hopes and dreams, despite long periods where one or the other of us would pull away to nurse our wounds in private–she, an abusive marriage; me, an early failed marriage, the abyss of graduate school.  Even now, she calls me regularly; I promise to call her, and forget (I am a very bad sister).  She and I are so different in so many of our world views, but we get each other, especially given the history of our family.  I am grateful that she continues to knock on my door and pull me out of my little world now and again.

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In my last Gratitude post I included a partial list of the people who follow my blog, as some small measure of thanks.  I’m continuing that list with this post; I’ve included some information about their blogs, if they have one.

http://thewriteproject.wordpress.com/ blogs about getting back into the practice of writing

http://studyingparent.wordpress.com/ chronicles the “learning journey” of a midwife who has gone to graduate school to study literature

C. M. Cipriani is an author who blogs about several topics:
http://onesmallpiece.wordpress.com/ is her blog about raising her autistic son
http://theoutlandishavocado.wordpress.com/ is her writing blog
http://theprimaltribe.wordpress.com is her blog about moving her family onto a paleo diet

Susan A. writes about books she has read and liked, as well as musing about life and writing: http://mistressofthedarkpath.wordpress.com/

Jennifer M. Eaton, author of Hidden in Plain Sight, writes about the lessons she has learned about writing: http://jennifermeaton.com/

Jillian Dodd, author of That Boy, has the tag line: glitter, bliss, and utter chaos.  The first two sum up her blog well, but I’ve never noticed any chaos. http://jilliandodd.wordpress.com/

Alex Laybourne, author of Highway to Hell, writes about helpful tools, writing, and general musings on life at: http://alexlaybourne.com/

Raelyn Barclay writes about Tarot cards and their use in writing; other writing lessons, and book reviews: http://raelynbarclay.wordpress.com/

Sharon Howard writes about mental health in a open and informative manner: http://showard76.wordpress.com/

Heather Ponzer shares stories about places she has lived and people she has met at: http://darcywords.wordpress.com/

research, This Day in History, Writing

Ellis Island closes its doors, November 12, 1954

Arrival at Ellis Island, courtesy of Scholastic.com
On this day in 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors, although it had not been the federal immigration center for 30 years.  From 1892 to 1924, immigrants to the United States through New York harbour had filed through its corridors, been checked for infectious diseases and mental problems; and then, if lucky, were released into the streets of New York.
When I thought of Ellis Island in the past, I always assumed that several of the Mitchells, Russells, Kanes, and other members of my father’s family came through this facility.  When I read that the facility was only open from 1892-1924, I realized that only one of my relatives would have come through its doors. Reading through This Day in History, I realized how little I knew about this icon of immigrant life. I was further surprised that Ellis Island only processed the third-class passengers; first- and second-class passengers disembarked at piers in New York or New Jersey to go through customs after a brief on-board inspection. Those at Ellis Island really were “the huddled masses.”
The Grand Hall, courtesy of Scholastic.com
I have not visited the Ellis Island museum, although I suspect walking through it would give rise to hundreds of stories. I cannot imagine waiting in the grand hall for hours, much less the days or weeks it would take before a family member was released from quarantine.  These photographs are taken from the tour on Scholastic’s teachers site; although the text is for 4th- or 5th- graders, and rightly so, the pictures are powerful in themselves.
It is very strange to think that only my paternal grandmother went through Ellis Island; to be honest, I am not even sure of that, although it seems likely.  The early life of my grandmother is largely unknown, which seems odd in modern times. Last week, the social worker who is helping my parents with assisted living asked my three siblings and myself for the history of my grandparents.  I was appalled at how little we knew about my paternal grandmother. The historical record is all too brief, and honestly, seems to have a bit of the Irish blarney attached to it.

One day in the 1890’s, a ship docked at Ellis Island from Cobh, Ireland. As the families filed out, there was a little girl who seemed to be alone.  She was about 3 or 4 years old, and had no family with her.  She only knew her first name, but left Ellis Island with a brand-new, patently made-up last name, O’Smith (oh, that’s very Irish).  The story goes that she had a piece of paper with the name and New York address of a first cousin pinned to her dress, and that he raised her as his own.

I have several problems with this story. First, how does a 3-year-old get on a ship in Cobh?  If her parent or parents died on board, wouldn’t the ship’s captain or purser know about it?  Would the officials on Ellis Island really just send a little girl off to the address given on a paper pinned to her dress?  And if this address is that of a first cousin, why didn’t he give her either his own name or restore her original one?

According to what we know, she did grow up in New York with her first cousin’s daughters, and she kept the made-up name of O’Smith until she married my grandfather. No one knows how old she was when she died in 1947, having taken to her bed several years before when she gave birth to a Downs syndrome child. It was whispered that the root cause was alcoholism, but no one knows much of anything about her life.  How can someone living less than 100 years ago, who married and had six children, be such a mystery?

Her story draws the writer in me; I want to know what she felt, dreamt, loved, lived.  I have always been fascinated with history, of a place, of a family, of a person.  My grandmother’s story would have to be fiction, but it is a story I am itching to write.

Do any of you have mysteries in, or mysterious members of, your family? What are your stories?

Campaign Challenge

Second Campaign Challenge entry

Imago feminae

“Christine, please pay attention to your spinning. It is a disaster, yet you refuse to learn. You must use both your hands in rhythm.” Christine thought, Synchronicity, like Papa explained about the celestial spheres.

Her mother continued her rant, “Your father thinks because I did not bear him a boy, he can make you into one, stuffing your head full of Latin and science. How we will ever find a husband for you, I do not know!”

Stifling a yawn at the perennial subject, Christine searched through her Latin. Oscitate, yes, that’s yawning, she smiled to herself. And that hole in my spun fiber, that’s lacuna. Out loud, she said dutifully, “Yes, maman, I will try harder.” She picked up more roving to bear out her promise.

She loved her maman, but she wanted to be a scientist like her father. She wanted to discover whether the pestilence that had ravaged the world was due to the conjunction of three planets, as some thought, or from a miasma, a mala aria in her native Italian. She would be as famous as her father, some day, and not for her spinning. She would be a new sort of woman.

198 words and my very first piece of flash fiction (Yay!) Go read all the entries and vote on the ones you like at http://www.linkytools.com/wordpress_list.aspx?id=108291&type=basic

Writing

Writing from life, or to escape from life

This past week, I’ve had several things present themselves that have made me think about childhood in general and my childhood in particular. Once I got somewhat older, I realized what an odd childhood I had. Let me rush to say that my parents never did anything to hurt me, and in fact did the best they could; they had odd, neglected, emotionally barren childhoods themselves, and really did not understand children. I responded by withdrawing, at a very early age; I also tried very hard to fit in with my older siblings, by learning to read very early, by helping my oldest sister with rote exercises in high school French when I was four. I tried to be invisible; when very young, curled up reading in an overstuffed chair; when older, by outfitting the box our new couch came in for a retreat in the attic, complete with cushions and lamp for reading.

My aunt was one of the adults who connected with me, teaching me embroidery at age five, knitting the next year, crocheting the next, and tatting when I was eight. She was brought up in the Southern tradition of keeping one’s hands busy. I heard a statement this past week about how young girls in the nineteenth century were taught to knit at age four; while the crowd around me shook their heads sadly, I realized that I wasn’t much older. Childhood was certainly not a concept in the early nineteenth century, but it wasn’t a concept in my home in the late twentieth, either. I remember when I first tried to play with my step-daughters, who were five and three at the time. I was at a loss how to play with dolls or hide and seek, to swing high in the air or slide in slippery freefall. I don’t think I ever told them that they gave me a childhood that I never had.

As a child, I read and wrote. Once I went to school, I got into trouble constantly for my “vivid imagination.” I observed the popular girls, the other families. I wrote about lost children finding their parents, of girls with friends and the parties they would have. In high school, I wrote about imaginary boyfriends, in terms that, although really quite innocent, horrified the nun who was teaching English. I learned then to be very careful who saw my work, and most of it went straight into the file drawer. More recently, as I said in an earlier post, I write about misfits who manage to conquer their oddities. Perhaps “misfits” is too strong a word, but people who have to work at getting what they want.

Writing has been my escape for the greater part of my life, but I am slowly working around to being able to use my experiences as well. I don’t think I’ll ever abandon the escapist writing, but I’m finding deeper corners to explore as well.