Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought him back

About 25 years ago, I made a concerted effort to find out more about my family’s genealogy.  It was a frustrating search.  Not only was I up against old and far-flung records, but many in my family were ill informed at best, or downright devious. At the time, I thought I might find the ship that carried my maternal grandmother here around the turn of the last century but all I uncovered were more questions.

Me, with the next generation.  
Enter DNA testing and in a matter of weeks, I have filled in many blanks. I now know my father’s line goes back to colonial days in this country and originates in either Ireland or Scotland, not Germany as I was told as a child.  While a noted Civil War general I had been told was my great-grandfather, is not, I have many soldiers in my father’s line going back to the American Revolution. 

My mother’s line is still mysterious, due less to deflection than to distance and language.  Her parents immigrated here separately from Ukraine and no family lore or records exist – at least in this country.  I never did find the ship my grandmother took to come here.  According to my mother, she arrived in Baltimore, but according to immigration records she had to have come in through Ellis Island.  Such “mistakes” can derail a search and make one wonder why this simple fact was gotten wrong.

I have found hundreds of records about my father’s paternal and maternal lines and I have found dozens of distant cousins through my DNA test.  What I will probably never know is the why of all the misdirection.  So, I am doing my best to make it end with me.  I am compiling the records I have found and will make them available to any and all in my family. 

We all do things about which we are not proud.  But those things should not define our lives nor should they color our history with shame.  And they certainly should not confuse our children or their children into future generations.  Whether our beginnings are humble, like mine, with farmers, laborers, and soldiers, or illustrious, we should claim them so that we can see, not just from whence we came, but also how far we have come.

Some sites can track one’s DNA back to ancient civilizations.  Perhaps the most satisfying thing in my search so far has been that my DNA links me to two civilizations known for their pottery.  I have always believed that I had a genetic link to clay because even as a young child, I felt the pull to handle the earth and make vessels.  Long before I could define the word, “potter,” I identified as one and can still recall my excitement at seeing a short documentary on primitive pottery on our newly acquired TV in the mid-1950s. Other girls wanted ponies.  I wanted a potter’s wheel.

Sometime this fall, the sole relative I have discovered on my mother’s side will travel from his home in Russia to Ukraine to do genealogy research into his family.  He will take with him the little I know of my grandparents and try to find out more for me.  I hope he can find something but I suspect my grandparents were of so little importance, and the time was so chaotic, that few records will remain.  While I would love to know more, I feel quite satisfied with where my search has led me. 

The next time I travel to Florida to visit my sister-in-law, I will also meet a third cousin who lives nearby. My parents and siblings are all dead and I am unlikely to live to see another generation beyond my five grandchildren, but I am content knowing that I have finally found the facts – if not the full truth – about my father’s line.  My search led me to answers concerning the likely cause for the lack of reproductive success in my mother’s line.  I carry two mutations, one responsible for my grandson’s defect, and one responsible for neural tube defects, a common cause of spina bifida, and miscarriages.  Knowing this may cause my grandchildren to avoid the pitfalls to which their parents and grandparents were blind.

Some people have asked me why I wanted to know about “all this stuff.”  It doesn’t change anything for me, but it might have, had I known about it sooner.  I might have followed my earliest instincts to create pottery and become accomplished while still young.  I might have avoided giving one daughter spina bifida with the simple addition of the right supplement during my pregnancy.  I might have avoided my several miscarriages.  I might have gotten to know aunts and uncles and first cousins.  Who knows where it might have led? 

The bottom line is that I was curious and now I know.  And I’m glad I know. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

DNA - What does it matter?

Growing up I got used to hearing, "What does it matter?" from my mother when I would ask about my father's family.  He had used an alias for much of his adult life and I wanted to know why.  I wanted to know when they got married and why my brothers had a different last name.  I wanted to know but Dad died young and Mom wouldn't talk about it at all.

Dad with either my brother Jim or
Floyd. Why was this photo cut?
Was someone intentionally cut out?
In January, I spit into a tube and found out.

DNA has played a pivotal role in my life in the last three years, ever since a grandson was born with an extraordinarily rare genetic defect.  That led me to research the topic and write a book about it.  Things got a lot more personal when I turned the search toward my own DNA.

Through simple records searches, I and a few family members found some answers.  But Dad had intentionally obscured his family line, and when real names and dates are unavailable, it is much more difficult to search documents.  DNA changed all that.

After nearly seven decades of knowing next to nothing about my father's family, I have unearthed his line back into the 1700s, at least.  I have located a few not-so-distant cousins, but unfortunately, most of my aunts, uncles, and first cousins have all died.  I still have a few to track down, but I don't hold out much hope of finding them alive.

In the last year, this took on new urgency for me as I lost both my remaining brothers, my only siblings. I felt the press of time and have devoted more effort to this than may seem necessary to some.  At one point in recent years, I decided to just make up a narrative about my family as the truth was so elusive, but this is so much more satisfying.

I only knew my dad for seven years.  I knew him to be gentle but a stern taskmaster.  I knew he expected me and my brothers to toe the line, do things right, to not cut corners, to be honest, and live right. I now know that stemmed from his own early life of crime and deception, a fact he left out of his narratives. For while he tried to instill in us these virtues, he did so with lies and with subterfuge. Whether he did so out of shame or fear that telling us the truth would burden us with his sins, I will never know.  What I do know is that this cost me and my brothers a family we might have had.

Most of the death dates I have found on close relatives are within the last 30 years.  I might have met them.  I might have liked them.  They might have had stories to tell.  But it is too late now. I believe I may be the only person left who knew my dad, who cares.  And it still matters to me.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

When the impossible happens

Over the years, I have adopted any number of strays, some for days, some weeks, and some, forever. These usually come with problems related to why they are strays in the first place.

Which brings me to Clark.  Clark is a 15-year-old lab/pit mix who arrived in my neighborhood full of spit and vinegar about 13-14 years ago.  He was so fast!  And so destructive.  He would tear up and down the street, rampaging through carefully tended gardens and delighting in finding newspapers on anyone’s front lawn.  These he would toss high into the air, shredding them into black and white confetti, before loping off to the next yard. That is when I named him Clark, after the newspaperman, Clark Kent. Animal control was hot on his heels and he didn’t care.  He was the fastest thing on the street. 

I knew he would eventually be captured and probably killed so I trapped him myself thinking surely, he would warm up to me, to my airconditioned home, to my other dogs, and settle into being a pet.  I was wrong.

Clark had and has a deep distrust of humans. It took me months just to pet him.  In all that time he never came inside. Instead, he claimed my large backyard as his domain, carved out a home for himself under my pottery studio, and made it his mission in life to keep the yard free of all vermin.  I picked up countless dead racoons, squirrels, rats, moles, even hapless cats.  I did not enjoy this carnage, but I did appreciate his work ethic. He also kept my yard free of human interlopers as he is a big dog, black as night, with an intimidating pitty head and a ferocious bark.

Over the years I have tried to tame him, to get him inside on blisteringly hot days, away from the flies, and on bitter cold days.  He would often come to the door, but would never walk through.  I always thought he wanted to but just could not bring himself to take the first step. All efforts to collar him and drag him inside only proved his superior strength and served to frighten him.

As age crept up on both of us, he could no longer make his hips cooperate to go under my studio and he took to sleeping exposed under the overhang of my studio.  He eschewed the magnificent dog house I got for him but would deign to lie upon a dog bed on the ground.  My worry for him finally grew so great I resorted to creativity to keep him warm.  Last winter, I cut the side out of the pack-n-play my grandchild no longer needed.  I padded it well on all sides and put his dog bed in it.  I stuffed insulation under it so no cold wind would find him that way.  He was highly suspicious of this device and dragged his bed out a time or two, but eventually wound up using it.  This winter I added a heavy blanket over the top to try to conserve his body heat.

Since then I have been going out each night with my mother’s old fur coat to cover him up and tuck him in.  I know he has liked that but still, I worried.  This bomb cyclone was sure to kill my aged dog.  As he stood, flummoxed at his frozen water bowl trying to drink, I nabbed him!  I pulled him into my back porch then forced him up the three steps into the house proper.  Though confused, he wandered around and finally lay down heaving a deep sigh by the fire.  That was four days ago, and finally, after all these years, I have gotten him to walk into the house on his own, sleep in my room (still on my mother’s coat) and let me tend to his cancerous leg. 

Yes, he is old, half blind, more or less deft, a little lame, incontinent, and probably in some pain from his leg but this is a happy dog.  He’s decided he loves hanging around with my other black lab, Elvis, even though Elvis can be a bit of a pill at times.  Yesterday when I let him out with Elvis and Sweetie, he raced with joy to the back fence, leaping a little and looking around. After a spin around his domain, he trooped back in like he’d been doing it for years.

Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I can't believe you said that!

The #MeToo movement has uncovered a lot of poor behavior, mostly by men and mostly aimed at women.  There is outrage on all sides, confusion on the part of some men, and an overwhelming sense of “finally!” on the part of most women.

Never one to avoid the fray, let me enter here.

I could list all the personal examples of sexual harassment I’ve endured but I doubt that would add anything to the conversation.  It is enough to say that I believe women when they say they have been groped, propositioned in the workplace or by strangers, intimidated by coworkers, bosses, or others in authority over them, or just raped.  I believe them.

I also believe that most men are just gob-smacked by all this. There are men who would never think of saying or doing anything inappropriate to any woman.  I know a few men like this.  There are probably an equal number of men who are simply gross, taking every opportunity to turn an ordinary remark into an innuendo, getting handsy, spewing “compliments” on strangers, and taking offense when such are not greeted well.  The majority of men fall somewhere in between. 

A woman who smiles brightly is not inviting men to bed.  A woman who passes pleasantries with you is not asking you to grope her.  If a woman is ignoring you, that’s a good sign that you should stop whatever you are doing and direct your attention elsewhere.  If a woman greets your off-color comment with silence, she does not need you to go into detail so that she “gets it.”  She needs you to stop. This goes for women you know as well as for strangers.  It’s not that hard, guys. 

We women are tired of being told how to avoid getting raped.  We are tired of being told by strange men to smile.  We are tired of up-skirting, chest-staring, stalking, and other tasteless behaviors by men with whom we associate.  We are tired of checking our hotel rooms for hidden cameras, and tired of being told how to dress.  It is exhausting, demeaning, dehumanizing, and we have had it!

By all means, tell your coworker she looks great.  But don’t ask if she’s had a boob job.  Ask if she has the report you worked on.  Smile at a stranger and then fix your attention elsewhere.  Don’t be a creep.  It’s not that hard.  And when I say “hard,” you know I mean difficult, so don’t turn it around to the status of your dick.  Not cool.

Women who don't warm up to your unwelcome shoulder rubs, demands to smile, suggestions on how they might dress so they look sexier, etc. are not humorless lesbians.  They are simply uninterested in you!  Shocking, I know. 

The bottom line here is this: just treat women with respect.  That's how real men behave.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Coat Conundrum

Nearly every woman I know has kept her wedding dress.  Not all have kept their husbands, but the dress is separate, existing as it does, skirting the line between fantasy and reality.  I even kept mine and it was just an eyelet lace dress, not a real wedding gown.  The point is, there are some garments one may certainly outgrow but which never quite make it to the Goodwill bin.

I have a laundry basket filled with such items.  There are favorite shirts, worn at their creases and faded; dresses my late mother sewed for me replete with tiny hand stitches I cannot just discard, and a couple of handmade quilts I earned during my time living in Vermont.  One item stands out. 

When my mother moved in with me in her very old age, she brought her old Borgana coat.  Borgana, or Borganza, as it is sometimes called, looks and feels rather like beaver fur but is a synthetic.  When I was 14 she bought me one and I did not appreciate it.  As a short person, the last thing I needed, especially at that age, was something that added width, subtracted visual height, and made me self-conscious. I accidentally ruined that coat by leaning up against a hot radiator.  Though Mom was angry, she did not replace it with another.  Instead, I got a pea coat, which was what I wanted in the first place.

When Mom died, 10 years ago this month, I got rid of all her clothing the next day.  That sounds unfeeling, but I knew if I kept them, they would only deepen my grief.  Later, I found her coat and could not part with it.  Every year since then I’ve debated what to do with a coat older than my grown children, stylish as pillbox hats, and as likely to be used as the hatpins they required. 

A few weeks ago, I tidied up my office and took the coat out of the closet.  I thought, “It’s time.” So I gave it a little more thought and found the perfect use for that old, beloved, besmirched, coat.  I’m giving it to Clark, my 14 year-old black lab.  Mom liked him; buttered English muffins for him and loved his gentle ways.  But Clark has a quirk.  He won’t come inside the house and in recent years I have kept him warm by creating a bed for him out of an old pack-and-play lined with blankets.  Before I retire for the night I tuck him in.  This winter he gets Mom’s coat. 

I went out last night with it for the first time and tucked in my crazy old dog.  He groaned with joy as he felt the furry warmth surround him.  Even this morning, I saw him return to the bed and nuzzle it happily, preferring it to his usual hole in the ground beneath my bedroom window. 

Somewhere, I think Mom is both mad and smiling that someone finally appreciates that coat! 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Button Up!

Too dressed up (Thanks, Mom)
As far back as I can remember, I’ve worn shirts.  Not blouses, not tee shirt, shirts.  As the youngest and only girl, I was sometimes dressed in my brother’s hand-me-downs, paired with what we then called dungarees, and I preferred them to the fussy clothes my mother would lovingly sew for me. I eschewed tiny buttons, ruffles, and (horrors) crinolines.

It is no wonder then, that now that I am out of the workplace where I once sported suits (remember Dress for Success?), silky blouses with bows at the neck (the ’80, yeah), pumps, pantyhose, dresses and skirts, I now stick to comfortable shirts.  Now that I am either retired, or part of the gig economy, (depending on how you look at it), I work at home, in the comfort of my own office – dressed in shirts.

Me, happy in a paisley shirt!
My collection is made up of either shirts I’ve gotten for free, for instance from my significant other, my younger daughter’s high school boyfriend (now middle-aged), my dead brother, or from finds at second-hand shops.  I will admit to once or twice finding a fabulous shirt at retail, but that was when I was working and could easily afford a $20 shirt.  Now my limit is $5 a pop and the thrill of the hunt is part of the fun.

I do have a few shirts made for women, but I avoid those that are weird, with oddly placed pockets, strange darts, embellished collars, or those awful tiny buttons.  Most I own are men’s shirts. I look for patterns; paisley is my favorite.  They are few and far between but I’ve hit pay dirt a time or two. I usually stay away from stripes and plaids, so that helps me narrow the field down significantly.  Solids come down to fabric.  I prefer a high proportion of cotton or linen, and any I can find on the rack that have a soft feel might persuade me.  I do have one plaid shirt I wear for my grandson who loves plaid. 

This week I looked at one of my favorite shirts as I donned it for the day.  It’s one I bought maybe 15 years ago when a local department store went out of business.  The collar is beginning to fray.  I almost panicked.  I eventually wear out all my favorite shirts and jackets at the collar and I hate it. So much so that I have a laundry basket filled with old shirts with tattered collars I keep thinking I will somehow fix.  This discovery of this newest defect told me it was time to hit Goodwill and Salvation Army.  I scored!  One paisley in a dull green/grey I wear well, a red shirt in a tiny check that just looks sharp, and one in a very soft cotton with a feather motif.  Love ‘em!

My pet peeve in men’s shirts is the permanently stiff collars and cuffs.  Why do they do that?  Ugh.  I have a few shirts like that but I don’t wear them often.  Mostly they remind me of people, so I keep them. 

So today, among the things for which I am grateful, are my shirts, garments that fit me to a T.

Monday, September 18, 2017

A brother's death

Broken Oak by Jim Cole
It's been a tough year.  I lost my brother.  Jim was my oldest brother.  Floyd, the middle brother, died some years ago and Peter, the brother closest to me in age, took himself out of the family picture as soon as he left home at 18.  So, Jim was really like my only sibling.

We were 15 years apart and different in many ways. He was an engineer and spent his career working on the early Apollo space shots and later working in high-powered jobs that took him all over the globe. I was just a writer and potter, usually just scrapping by.  He bought all the homes and toys his substantial salary would allow; I've struggled just to keep my modest home and keep my car running. He was a Republican, though not exactly a true right-winger, having eschewed religion some years ago;  I have been a liberal Democrat since attaining voting age. Yet we had one thing in common.

Jim had his photography and I had my pottery and my writing.  This bridged a significant gap in our years and lifestyles.  Jim had his photography equipment and studio; I had my pottery studio and tools.  We understood that about each other. We understood art and the need to create.

Jim's motto, if he had one, was to try to have a little fun every day.  At the end, he was having no fun and he chose to refuse treatment for his ongoing problems in April and died.  I even understand that.  He fought as long as he could but when he was done, he was done.  I suspect I will leave this life much the same way. There is something to be said for retaining control over one's death, as one has in life.

Still, it has been hard.  Jim went into the hospital for an elective surgery about a year ago.  It went all wrong and led to another, major surgery, which in turn led to a major lifestyle change for Jim.  It sapped a lot of the joy from his life. It turned him into a patient. In March, he returned to the hospital for another surgery and it all went downhill from there.  Five years ago he beat lung cancer but when he contracted hospital-acquired pneumonia in March, it was all over.

He was in and out of intensive care, had repeated procedures, and finally he just quit eating.  I had to get in his face and make sure that he understood that not eating would lead to his death.  He understood.  When his wife and I walked out of his hospital room that day, it was grim. His final words to us were, "I love you guys." The next time we saw him was in hospice.  He was unresponsive and so ravaged by the pneumonia that we had to gown up and don face masks and gloves to go into his room.  It was more than his wife could bear.  We did not go back.

It was a beautiful day at the Cape Canaveral Military Cemetery when we finally interred Jim's ashes.  They played Taps and folded a flag, presenting it to his widow.  I held her hand.

Grief is complicated.  A lot depends on one's relationship with the departed, how close it was, its quality, its essence.  Sometimes grief cuts a relationship short that is unresolved and that adds a measure of angst.  Sometimes it creates such change for the one left behind that added stress can make it intolerable.  For me, none of that is so.  I am simply without my brother.  I have his photos, and they are like part of him.  Here is one I like.