Great Great

This is William Lincoln Palmer, my 2nd great grandfather. My great grandfather’s father – the one who married Mary, the almost famous opera singer but she chose him and a family instead, Mary. The father of that guy. My mother’s great grandfather. I, of course, never met him and don’t recall any juicy stories about him and his lovely, but quite stern looking, wife, Susan. But I really like his face. And I have unearthed evidence that he was a hard worker and good provider who continued to be off service until he died of pneumonia at 76.

Besides, he’s who floated to the top of the ancestry soup today.

He was born 102 years and some months before I was in York County, Pennsylvania. Almost all my kin hail from somewhere around Harrisburg and have been in this country for generations. The Palmers – this line – trace back to the early 1800s before I lose them. William’s wife, Susan’s roots go back to the late 1600’s and before that Germany, Switzerland, Estonia.

I’ve found similar results on other arms of this lineage. We were among the first Pennsylvania Dutch. Which has nothing to do with The Netherlands, by the way. Deutsch. German. Still fair skin, hair and eyes no matter how you slice it.

William was in the exact middle of nine children. Nine. That’s a lot of mouths to feed on his father’s blacksmithing salary. Of course, every boy was put to work laboring on the family farm once he turned 10 and every daughter helped her mother in the house as soon as she could walk.

There was a mysterious servant listed on one of his father’s censuses named Ida Gregg, but I’ve yet to ferret out any intel on her. If I were to embellish, I would say she was hired on when the young Palmer’s were midway through birthing their own baseball team, to assist the bedraggled mother and ensure the Mr. and the children were fed a proper meal. Could happen.

Throughout his adult life, William would rent several homes in and around Harrisburg. In this ward or that. Once he married he traded blacksmithing for railroad work, first as a Brakeman, then as a Lineman, then a Switchman on the Steam railroad. He worked on the railroad (please resist the urge to sing or hum the song) until he was 69.

Hearty stock, hard worker.

But by the end of his life he was a store owner – I have yet to uncover what type of goods – and he would own the title to his modest home valued at $1,400 in 1930.

He and Susan had six children, three of them lived less than a year. One of the survivors, my great-grandfather, John Calder Palmer – whom I did know until he passed when I was 21 – would follow in his father’s footsteps and take up blacksmithing as a young man, but went on to enlist in the Army for The War and work for the postal service after he discharged.

I have always felt very connected to my maternal grandmother and her lineage. Perhaps it’s because her birthday was one day before mine (plus 42 years) so we understood the gifts of stubbornness and the need for decisiveness. And a little bit of that confidence in whatever we were doing even if we didn’t know what it was. I don’t think I resemble her but I had a second cousin thank me for looking like her Aunt Mimi once.

All of his children – my grandmother and her five brothers – worked hard and made great lives for themselves and their families. I mean, they were somewhat scandalous, there were multiple marriages in one lifetime, children out of wedlock, a couple of gay uncles – that I know of – and aunt who realized she was gay, actually two, and a ex-wife who was accused of killing her husband before she joined our motley crew, but no one was broke.

Cousin Eddie

This is young me and my cousin Eddie. He was the son of my great uncle Ed of many wives. Big Ed was the same age as my father when when Eddie and I were born, an ancient 36 in those days, which made them fast and dangerous friends.

I don’t remember much about Eddie, but the elders of my family used to say things like, “remember that time you and Eddie did….” To which I’d usually smile beatifically and nod. Weren’t we such scamps?!

I doubt the photo was staged, I’m sure we were randomly pounding out nonsense. My family though, was pretty creative and musical. I grew up with a piano and harp in my house. I took seven years of piano. First from Mrs. Russo, a relic of about 40 that made me practice and play the classics only. Then from Mrs. Turner, a hippie by comparison, who let me choose what I wanted to play. As a result I can play the beginning of Fur Elise, a few bars of The Entertainer and most of Annie’s Song by John Denver. I can still read music, but it’s a struggle, although I do now have a piano in my home again. And occasionally I’ll sit down in front of it.

I wish I could remember more about Eddie, about our silly antics that seemed to have delighted our relatives. I’ll just have to trust that we were adorable and got into the cutest trouble. And appreciate the photographic evidence that these times did exist.

The Mom Chronicles

I have a project, a book idea, that I really want to start. At least I say I do. I think I do. My body, though, is offering some sort of different direction.

I have bazillions of family photos, maybe a literal ton. Somehow, I have become the family historian. I completely embrace it, but now that I want to do something with all this history I’m stuck. Memoir? Novel based on imagined histories? Something else yet to be revealed?

There is this clear chronological plan in my head: take all the photos from the 1800’s through today and organize them by year, or decade if the specific year is unclear. So I started. And as I am sorting I feel so much tension in my core. Angst even. It doesn’t matter what decade it is, my body does not like this. A tiny little voice, and sometimes “random” outside influences, whispers, “let go of the past.” But I’m not holding onto it. Am I?

I’ve said all along that I’m not sure what I’m supposed to glean from this project. There is not a ton of hidden history. I mean, I’m on a first name basis with all the skeletons. And deep dives into my ancestry show pretty solid hard workers, no slave ownership, northern stock, farmers, railroad men, way too many children for each household. For sure there are secrets I’ll never uncover in the way back. For sure there are hidden truths within my own lifetime. But that doesn’t resonate as a plan or feel like the source of this unease.

I’m shifting my focus, changing up my process. I will gather all the photos of one person regardless of decade and create a timeline. But what about the other people in that person’s life? Where do they go? Why am I doing this anyway? There is something I need from all of this. Maybe the clenching in my gut is a sign to keep going. To find the right path. I hope there’s juicy dirt or ridiculousness hiding for me.

Whatever the case, I am going to choose one photo a day to write about. Could be of anyone from any era. Whether my writing is rooted in the truth or a complete fabrication will remain to be seen. The process is to write. To connect words with the image.

So here goes.

This is a photo of my mother and an unknown friend. It’s the mid 1940’s and she is living in Texas with her mother, new stepfather and new little brother. Her new dad is in the military and will use his training and GI Bill education to become an engineer like his father. He loved my mother, adopted her the moment he could after he married my grandmother. Her young childhood was good, sandwiched between a traumatic entry into the world and the realization, around 7, that her step grandparents preferred to believe she didn’t exist. She wasn’t blood. They would shower her younger brother with gifts at holidays and leave her with nothing. They doted on him while turning away from her, adhering to some antiquated code that made no sense to a young child. Or even her grown parents.

But here, in this photo, at this time in her life, she was free and happy.

There are parallels between my mother’s life and my own. Her birth story is quite dramatic, mine less so, but still not ideal or average. Her younger brother would garner the lion’s share of positive attention. Mine did the same, especially from my father who already had two daughters by another before I came along unexpectedly. If he had to have another unplanned child, at least a golden boy child was bestowed upon him.

But back to mom. She’s not around anymore to query about the mysteries of her past, but she did share a fair amount while still living. I love a good story so every opportunity I had I would throw out a few questions while pouring her another glass of wine. Maybe as I pluck photos from the past some of these stories will resurface and I can share them.

If not, I’ll make something up that sounds feasible and hopefully entertaining.

Personal History

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I am lost in a sea of personal history. Memories and emotions gently rock my present, nudging my attention this way and that.

My room: the repository of my past. Photos from as far back as 1800 and something. My great-grandparents parents photos and maybe their parents too. Some I know, some are magical ghosts of my DNA.

My room: the sanctuary of my creative aspirations. Over 20 boxes of hundreds of beads – many semi-precious stones that I could just caress for hours. I am partial to rubies, they feel mysterious and rich. Aquamarine gives me space, I can’t help but take a deep breath in when working with them. And sapphires are the keepers of  secrets. In boxes in my closet are unpainted canvases, paper cut for projects forgotten and photos I’ve taken and left to die in the back of a drawer.

My room:  the organizational nerve center. Four file drawers hold the remnants of an abandoned organizational system, files numbered and lettered but empty. Files full of bills paid, places to visit, the history of my pets and cherished documents that allow me to wander the earth.

My room: holder of tiny sacred spaces. An altar that continues to grow even though there appears to be no more room, sits atop a large bookcase. As I was counting it I thought I’d find new homes for some of the excess Buddhas and rocks, but there appears to be no such thing as excess Buddhas.

This was to be the last room on my list but something compelled me to “knock it out.” It’s been a week. More than. I’m almost done counting. That was supposed to be the easy part. But to count photos you must touch them and I don’t know about you, but I must also look at them. And as I do I am mentally eliminating some and finding purposes for others. I am sorting and organizing memories as if I can come back to them when I’m ready.

There are just a few boxes of photos left to count and then all the jewelry supplies. I have set a goal to complete the counting by the end of this week – Sunday. In the meantime I am surrounded by a mine field of unfinished projects. And it’s creating heaviness, filling spaces that I need free and open. Cards that need to be cut, photos to be sorted and culled, letters to be read and overall purging. This is just round one.

As I sort through the stuff that has built me I wonder what I am really hoping to gain by this process. My goal from the outset been space and time. I want to be able to walk into my home and not feel compelled to straighten up, but I sense something much deeper at work.

Urgency. I carry with me, deep in my gut, this sense of needing to get things done. Organizing, categorizing, sorting then storing. Get it done, check it off. But when it’s done will I be sad? Will I look for the next thing to accomplish no matter how trivial? Maybe that need will abate once things are ordered. Maybe not. This is the work of the process. This is why to abandon it or hold fast to rules would dilute the outcome.

It’s cranky and itchy, the process, but in a most informative way. It’s doing its work on me and I like, don’t like it. I think that means it’s working.