Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Family Aunt Betty


I have a confession to make.  I'm addicted to Who Do You Think You Are which airs on TLC Tuesday nights at 9pm.  And before you ask, the answer is no.  It has nothing to do with the particular "stars" the show has chosen to feature.  The producers could have picked random members of my local golf course maintenance team and I’d be just as intrigued.  Why?  Because unless your family has that particular and oh so studious Aunt Betty who's done all the work for you, I'm willing to put a Starbucks wager on the fact there’s a lot of stuff you don't know about your family.

I've always been fascinated by family history and as a young girl, I loved to listen to my grandma tell stories about our family.  Then again, I have a great Aunt Bunny and an Uncle Duck so it could've been I thought my grandma was reading me a fairy tale.  And therein lies the problem many of us face when we start climbing our family tree.  As dear as those memories are to me, the fact that none of the real details about Bunny and Duck ever got written down doesn't make for a very complete family tree now that I’m old enough to really care about preserving history.  Not to mention my grandma’s been gone ten years. 

For the past several weeks I’ve been an active occupant of my family tree, climbing up and down branches, looking for links between limbs and researching new growth.  While I attempted a similar thing many years ago, this time around, I’ve been met with tremendous success and the journey’s been nothing short of amazing.  For all of the unsavory avenues we can find ourselves travelling on the Internet, the lengths to which the National Archives, the Office of Military Records and many similar organizations have gone to to update and strengthen their databases is incredible.  To date I’ve learned of men of tremendous character who literally set aside their livelihoods on a moment’s notice and walked arm in arm with their neighbors and brothers into battle.  I’ve learned of the women that loved them.  I’ve found Union and Confederate soldiers sharing a branch, kissing cousins and a great great great great someone that stated in an 1820 census he owned eleven people.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to prune that branch but nonetheless, I’ve got archived documents to line the path and verify the good and the not so pretty branches of my tree. 

As you might have guessed, the Bunny and Duck from my grandma’s stories weren't actual names I was going to find on a 1930 Census form all these years later.  In fact, names are a funny beast on this journey.  While I remember laboring over decided what to name my own child, I never once thought about how that name might get mangled years down the road.  We have a Laura turned Lula turned Lulie.  A Siota turned Scota turned Siot turned Sophie and a Dilly, and Effie, a Mally and a Barbee.  But wait for it.  Barbee’s a guy!  My Grandpa!  In one census they spelled his name correctly but listed him as a girl.  In another they changed his name all together.  On the other side of my family, my great grandpa came through Ellis Island in 1910.  My great aunt documented her father’s life story in her thesis work when she was in college and while I remember she and my grandma talking about how names often got changed, it wasn’t until I found his immigration documents and saw it with my own eyes that it made sense to me.  The men and women serving as document clerks at Ellis Island often changed names based on their own levels of education and understanding.  For example, my great grandpa got on a boat in Patras, Greece as sixteen-year-old Demetrious Eusthathis Kakavecos and stepped into New York as James Kallas.  There’s a note on his immigration paperwork that he contested his new name and his real name is written off to the side in a different penmanship than that of the rest of the document.  A U.S. census taken just ten years later lists him by his correct name, married to my great grandma, a couple of kids in tow.  Hhmm.

Speaking of penmanship, when you start to research your own tree, get ready for some scrolls and cursive the likes of which deserve to be preserved by the National Archive.  It’s like the smaller the lines and the ledger, the more decorative the recorder tried to write.  Maybe these clerks were trying to make up for the sins of their Ellis Island document-recording kin.  Who knows?  In an effort to show the world their gorgeous penmanship, more a’s and e’s and o’s and i’s and c’s got flipped than pancakes at the local breakfast joint on a Sunday.  I can only imagine one of my great great grandma’s telling someone standing on her front porch to kiss her grits.  We’re southern.  Way southern.  I’m pretty sure one of the ladies in my tree would have said something like that.

So, too, will be the story of your tree.  There will be branches to keep, dead limbs you want to hide and leaves that either catch the light oh so perfectly or fight to exhaust it all together.  Yet through it all, if you’re willing to wade in and just start climbing, there’s a puzzle waiting to be put together that has your name written all over it.

Indeed I've become my family’s Aunt Betty and if anything, all of this research has shown me that it’s probably just as well.  I’ve been called Mary Beth, Theresa Beth and Betta Ann numerous times in my forty-three years so I’m certain I’ll get listed as Betty Ann in a census one day.  And while it won’t technically be correct, I have no doubt it will all work out in the end.  I’m counting on the fact my great great grandchild will be a climber.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Free Fallin'


I’m a jumbled mess today and while I’m completely ready to blame it on Friday, I can’t point to that as the source of the problem.  It’s Tom Petty.  I have no idea what he had in mind when Tom and his writing partner, Jeff Lynne, wrote the words to the song, but when Free Fallin’ was released, I nearly gagged.  Someone was kidding, right?  This wasn’t music.  It was terrible.  Tom’s voice was craggy, the song was pitchy and honestly, it sounded like something most likely written in a chemically induced haze.  I never gave Free Fallin’ a second thought.

Until yesterday.  Knowing how much music matters in my life, when we jumped in the car after playing tennis last night, my husband turned to me and said the words I often dread.  “You’ve got to hear this.”  That’s the kiss of death for me liking a song.  Seriously.  Words like ‘oh no, what is that and where did you find this” are often spoken in our family.  Brad and I don’t often agree on music to a make it stop degree.  “No sweetie, that’s okay,” I reply, reaching for my ipod and desperately trying to start one of my own playlists before he can take control of the radio  “Thanks but no,” I add.  “Let’s just grab some dinner and get home.”  But not this time.  It isn’t to be.  And it’s all Tom’s fault.

When my hubby says “it’s John Mayer,” he knows he has my attention.  But just a little.  I know where he’s headed.  We’ve debated this all summer.  He wants to have another go at me and hear me go into graphic detail about why I think Walt Grace is building his submarine and running away from his family.  Even our twelve year old has a theory on this.  Then my hubby hooks me with two words. “It’s acoustic,” he offers.  When John Mayer plays guitar, it’s pretty magical.  But when John Mayer picks up an acoustic guitar, that’s a sweet spot the likes of which is often unreplicatable in my book. No, unreplicatable isn’t a real word.  But John and an acoustic guitar transcend mere words. Brad knows he has my attention now.  So I give in and when the song starts, John plays it in and I’m not really certain what song it is.  Original?  Cover?  I’m clueless.  Finally, we get to the first two words and of course, I know the song and I groan.  I don’t like this song.

Then it happens.  John Mayer’s 2007 Live in Los Angeles rendition off Free Fallin’
gets to the chorus.  I listen to it once and don’t think a lot about it.  I’m into the guitar and the downbeat blues rhythm John added, making the song his own, so I don’t really let the words wash over me.  Then Brad plays it a second time.  Yes, we’re those kind of people.  We hear a new song and play it over and over until we pick it apart, memorize it and own it as ours.  Five times.  Fifiteen.  It doesn’t matter if we like it.  Being a lyric girl, when I listen to Free Fallin’ a second time, I’m trying to catch every word but I miss a few so when I fill in the blanks with what I think John is singing, a couple of lines don’t make sense.  So we play the song again, me intent to get every word and piece this story together, Brad intent on making sure I pick up the specific guitar lick he wants me to hear in the middle.  I’m a sucker for acoustic guitar and learning to play is on my bucket list.  Brad knows this about me and he knows I’ll appreciate the intricacy of what John’s added.

So I listen closely and I get the story.  A bad boy hurts a good girl and in his own way, he knows he’s done wrong and there’s a part of him that’s sorry, that wants to reach out and right a wrong, but it’s too late. 

That’s when Brad turns to me and asks about the guitar lick and I just stare at him.  “I missed it,” I blurt out to which he laughs and says “you always do that.  Let me play it again.”  It was the 3rd time that did me in.  What Tom and Jeff couldn’t capture for me with Free Fallin’ way back in 1989 John seemed to snag me with in an instant.  John took a well know song and made it his own.  And in the time it took to get from the racket club to my driveway, I’d done the same. 

These last days before a new school year starts always leave me feeling flattened.  It pushes me back to a world where it seems like there are more mean spirits than good guys.  Have I made enough good memories to counteract the tough days that will surely come?  Have we laughed enough to make sure the smiles shine brighter than the scowls the world so often greets us with?  Have we played enough?  Have we laid on our backs and stared at the stars enough or did I rush us in my ever present, over programmed, micromanaging way, chanting hurry up at every turn, rushing to an end I don’t even really want?  This is the time of year when doubts rush in and overwhelm me and while I’m usually loud enough and busy enough to keep them at bay, the truth is, I’m free falling, caught in no man’s land, praying I’ve done a good enough job to make a difference.  Hoping it’s enough.  Hoping I have broad enough shoulders to make it happen one more season while honoring those I serve. 

To me, at its heart, Free Fallin’ is a song about doubts and about knowing something’s just not right.  This guy wanted to fall, he wanted to check out and leave it all behind for a while because he knew something just wasn’t right.  In his case he knew he’d done wrong, but in my case that’s not the case.  In my heart, I know it’s just a new season for our family, but still, I can’t help but feel things won’t ever be the same.  Time marches on whether we want it to or not.  I don’t truly know what experience Tom pulled from when he wrote Free Fallin’, but I’m thankful John sang it in a way that it could wash over me anew.

When I got in the car this morning to drive my son to tennis practice, I queued up Free Fallin’ and at first, he didn’t know what we were listening to.  “I downloaded some new music,” I said eagerly.  “Check this out.”  He smiled and said okay then John sang the first few words and I heard that oh so familiar groan.  “Mom!  This song is terrible,” my son lamented.  I understood.  I’d been there myself.  So through watery eyes with a smile on my face, I shook my head and said the only thing I could.  “I know son, I know.  Blame your father.”