Family trees, twigs and broken branches

Family comes in many shapes and sizes these days, a far cry from the traditional four-person family of the 1950s.  How fortunate for us.  If some of you have been bitten by the genealogy bug as I have, I’m sure you’re familiar with the requisite research-based websites.  There are also more than a few television programs that discover people’s pasts.  In some cases, they reunite adopted folks with a member of their birth family.  It’s always a happy ending, on tv anyway.

From the time I was old enough to understand (6 or 7), I’ve known I was adopted.  It meant, to me, that I was chosen to live with people who could provide for me and that, due to circumstances beyond control, my birth parents were unable to care for me.  Though my upbringing was far from easy, I was provided food, shelter, love, and a chance to achieve higher education.  My “home training” was well done.  I was raised to be kind to all, to demonstrate good manners, and to do my best at whatever I tackled.  I’m proud to be who I am.

Several years ago, I was vexed by a number of medical oddities that had befallen me over the years.  Spurred on by cautious curiosity, I made the decision to search for my birth parents.  I certainly didn’t want to cause angst or to shame anyone.  However, I did want to know if I was in store for more weird medical situations and I needed to understand what had shaped me.

For much of my existence, I’ve never felt as though I’ve belonged.  I was a tomboy who thrived as a child in Burlington, VT., because of the opportunities for tons of play time outdoors.  Moving to upstate NY was a huge change and put the brakes on the development of myself as an individual.  I learned quickly to fit in and do what was expected.  That said, I wasn’t afraid to create my own niche, that of “jock bookworm.”  If I wasn’t bouncing a ball, I was reading a book.

But I yearned to ride horses, play the drums, water ski, ride dirt bikes, and many other things female suburban teenaged girls were not encouraged to do.  I loved traveling back to Burlington each summer to spend time with my friends.  We swam, played tennis, rode horses and all that wonderful outdoor stuff I missed.  As life progressed, I began to work during the summers and old friends moved on.  I passed up a great opportunity to attend college in Burlington, but I can’t cry over spilled milk now.  I spent decades fitting in.  But I still wanted to know who I am.

After many years of research, endless hours staring at computer screens and at microfilm screens, perusing newspaper archives and making telephone calls, I can say I’ve discovered my roots.  Though the one meeting I had with my one living birth parent was less than idyllic, certainly not like the tearful, joyful things they show on tv, it was not awful.  I was not inspired to pursue that avenue much further but it didn’t dampen my spirits in moving through the family tree.

And you know what?  I’ve met some wonderful people.  Even better is they are my blood relatives.  My mother is the woman who raised me.  She will always be my mother.  She sacrificed tremendously to provide for me and I will forever love her for what she has given me.  But meeting folks with whom I share genetic components has been very humbling.  My mom and I are the last of our family.  And while that’s sad, it’s life.  I go forward knowing how much family I really have.  I’ve met several cousins now, mostly first cousins.  They are warm and loving people.

This past weekend I was invited to a post-Thanksgiving celebration where I met more relatives I’d never met before.  It was truly one of the happiest days I’ve had in decades.  It’s always a risk to step into the unknown but I seem to have a guardian angel.  Those I met this weekend:  an aunt, some first cousins, and several first cousins, once removed were so thrilled to meet me it seemed unreal.  It was a beautiful experience.  And it took place at a “cabin in my head” setting, like my very own Hallmark movie.  Did I mention they live in Vermont?

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Embracing the past…

In the past few years, I’ve done a tremendous amount of genealogy.  I find it fascinating and have learned things I would never have known.  Why is it important to me?  I don’t have a good answer but I am passionate about preserving the past.  History directs my movements, inspires me to write for our local historical association, and encourages me to document the history of our local school district.  There is so much that people don’t know about the past.

Back in 2010 when I was cleaning out my dad’s apartment after his death, I found some items I had never seen along with some I had seen for as long as I can remember.  One item was an old lamp, badly stained by decades of cigarette smoke.  There was never a question of me casting it aside.  The lamp was fashioned from an old jug.  Since then I’ve learned that vessels of this type are known as stoneware advertising jugs.  Once upon a time they contained various liquids, depending upon the business they advertised.  What I didn’t know was they are very collectible and there is a huge market for them.

My stoneware lamp says, “M. Dugan, Cor. Arch & So Pearl Sts., Albany, NY.”  What I know is that Michael Dugan was my great-great grandfather—my paternal grandmother’s grandfather.  I’d heard through the years he ran a bar or saloon and was a liquor peddler.  According to Federal Census records, he and his family lived on Arch St.  This is considered part of the South End in Albany.  The South End has always had a reputation for being a “tough area.”  I’ve searched through many records but do not know on which corner this establishment stood.  Two of the corners still exist, the others have been incorporated into a full portion of roadway and parking lot.

Of the little I know about Michael, he was born in Ireland in 1835 and came to the US before the Civil War.  Why he came to Albany, I have no idea.  He served during the Civil War as part of the NY 13th artillery, and had 6 children.  Cemetery records tell me two of his sons died young (14 and 19).  A third son I cannot trace.  Of his three daughters, one (Minnie [nee Mary]) was my great grandmother.  I am unable to determine the fate of the other two.  Michael died in 1906 having outlived one wife and leaving another to mourn his loss.  So there is no doubt that the stoneware advertising jugs I have are antiques.

The larger of the two came to me the other day.  In the past few years, I’ve searched for these on the Internet and would stumble upon auctions that had already occurred.  To find this one recently was a dream come true.  Plus, it’s a 2 gallon jug which I never knew existed (with the Dugan name on it).  I will continue to search because I want to bring home some more.  Why?  I don’t really know but I want them back in the family.

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Back to the cabin in my head…

I haven’t visited the cabin in my head recently.  Today is a good day for it as the weather here is gloomy, blustery and showery.  Things are hopping at the cabin.  The front steps are decorated with plump mums and varying sizes of pumpkins.  Corn stalks stand guard on either side of the stout oak front door while ropes of bittersweet festoon the top of the doorway.

It’s been busy here.  Last month a bunch of gal friends came by for a long weekend of canning.  We put up quarts of tomatoes, green beans, and salsa (great holiday or house gift) followed by small batches of cherries, blueberries, pumpkin purée and some chow chow.  We had a great time.  My friends help themselves to whatever canned items they want with the understanding of bringing the empty jars back to be refilled next year.

This year we had a surf and turf night complete with some cowgirl steaks on the grill, steamed lobsters, and roasted brussel sprouts fresh from the garden.  Since the weather is oddly warm this fall, our feast was enjoyed on the deck accompanied by a cheery fire in the nearby firepit.  Normally we are confined to the spacious country kitchen.

I make a point of structuring my writing to coincide with the changing of the seasons.  Therefore, the most recent draft of a mystery novel was sent to my editor prior to our special weekend.  With the holidays looming, I am apt to spend time plotting the next novel, decorating, planning the Thanksgiving menu, and fielding the suggestions from my editor.  

Smells like the pumpkin pie is done.  The book club is coming by and will also help me make some tea sachets from some of the dried herbs from this year’s garden!  Bye for now.

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The Flag of the United States of America

The symbolism of our country’s flag invokes lots of great debate these days.  For the most part, I think I’ve taken it for granted.  Our flag has looked the same for the vast majority of my life:  stripes and 50 stars.  As a student I dutifully pledged my allegiance to it, as a Girl Scout I learned to revere and respect it, as a teacher I continued to pledge my allegiance to it.  Honestly, as a kid I recited the words by rote and never stopped to think what I was saying each morning.

The Pledge is short and straightforward.  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”    The two most important phrases for me are:  “…the Republic for which it stands…” and “…with liberty and justice for all.”

Our country is a Republic.  The idea is that the people hold the power to elect representatives to act on our behalf.  It’s a very important concept framed within the Constitution and further empowered by the Bill of Rights.  All citizens are to be treated equally.  But there has never been total equality in our country.  The Native Americans were not treated at all well by the explorers and settlers.  Africans, and other races, were brought to this country unwillingly and treated as pieces of property rather than human beings (chattel).  Waves of immigrants, from whom most of us are descended, were each treated scornfully when they settled in this country.

We learned to be wary of people who were different.  Learn is the key word here.  We have learned to be xenophobic and intolerant.  I digress.

To me, the flag represents all that is good about our country, all that it promised our families who immigrated here.  It represents freedom:  the freedom to worship as one pleases, the freedom to work as one pleases, the freedom to believe as one pleases, etc.  The current leader of our country uses the flag to suit his whims.  He feels it only represents the military, law enforcement and first responders.  With all due respect to the aforementioned groups, I feel the flag represents each and every United States citizen.   Each of us is important to the fate of our country.  Do not let this debacle divide us.

I’m sure there are people who will disagree with me or twist my words.  This is my opinion.  Each of us is entitled to one. That’s the beauty of this country.  I don’t mean to slight the military.  Our flag is an important military symbol, I get that.  I’ve attended several funerals conducted with military honors, including my dad’s and uncle’s, and those flags mean a great deal to me.

But don’t forget, our flag is supposed to safeguard “liberty and justice for all.”  Not all citizens of our country are afforded those rights.  Ask Matthew Shepard’s parents, Ryan White’s parents and myriads of others.  If you only kneel to pray, that’s awesome.  Don’t forget those pesky Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom.  Yes, indeed.  Our flag assures your right to pray as you wish.  Don’t hide behind the flag and don’t make it into something it isn’t.  And, Lord knows, do not try to force your skewed opinion on me.

All of us citizens are afforded the same rights; it’s time we ensure everyone receives them.  Oh yeah, the whole Betsy Ross story is a myth.  Be careful.  Just because you’re taught something doesn’t mean it’s accurate or correct.

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Two fat ladies, Mick Jagger and a dainty savory…

img_0115.Intrigued?  Me, too!  If you read my blog you know my mind changes channels in a nano second.  Monday morning I received a surprise text from a longtime friend.  She was in town and had some free time.  Since we don’t get to see each other often, I looked forward to an afternoon visit.  Because the visit involved my mother as well, naturally I scurried to tidy and clean.

Though not necessary, I decided to make some sort of snack.  While the tea bags did their thing in the giant vat of boiled water, I pondered my options.  Due to the fact that I have eating issues, I don’t keep much in the house.  However I had some lovely snack crackers (very flat and crispy) and some whipped cream cheese.  Hmmm, what to do, what to do.  Aha!  Having watched the British cooking show Two Fat Ladies back in the 90s, Jennifer Paterson (one of the duo) materialized in my head (she can do that because she’s dead) and murmured something to me about a dainty savory.  Eureka, an idea was born.

Exit Jennifer and enter Mick and Keith of the Rolling Stones who began singing, “I’m just waiting on a friend.”  I remembered the video from that song (that dates me) and how I thought it was nice they were such good friends.  And it all fit.  I was waiting on a friend and indeed my friend is a dainty savory in and of herself.

My mother has always chuckled at me and my friend because I stand 5’9″ and my friend is much closer to 5′.  We’ve always been Mutt and Jeff, not Mick and Keith, in those terms.  But in my mind now she is a dainty savory.  Speaking of which, I came up with a smear of cream cheese on a cracker, topped with some freshly chopped rosemary from my garden, crowned with some sliced olives.  Not ignoring the “sweeter” side of things, I also created cream cheese on a cracker topped with lemon thyme and a few blueberries.  Alas, the crackers became a bit soggy but the snacks were still tasty.

All in all, it was a wonderful visit.  As my mom ages (now 89), one never knows how many opportunities one has to see said older person.  It was like being 14 years old all over again.  My mom and I caught up with our friend in the cozy confines of my home.  We laughed, we reminisced, we laughed even more.  Even better, my home passed the mother’s white glove test.

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Back to school…

but not for me!  Summer is so fleeting in the Northeast.  When I was teaching, I didn’t allow myself to “work” on school stuff until August 1st.  Then I could put all of the ideas that were swirling in my head on paper, plan units, lessons and materials.  My favorite part, though, was mid-August when I went shopping for school supplies.  I can’t put into words how I feel about school supplies.  Since I enjoyed using them in my teaching, it also meant I spent a great deal of money on them.  I know the general public thinks everything is supplied for us and that couldn’t be more incorrect.  If I wanted certain things to use in my teaching, I bought them.  Yes, we are allowed to deduct $400 on our taxes but I often spent closer to $1,000 each year.

One tactic I employed to teach main idea and supporting details (and annotation) was for the students to use a yellow highlighter to denote a main idea and a different color to point out supporting details.  Because I used this technique with each of my classes, I needed enough highlighters for approximately 130 students.  I started buying them by the case and a case of each usually lasted all year.  As they would run out of ink, I replaced each with a fresh one from my supply.  Cheap plastic pencil boxes housed each type.  Clear plastic was used for yellow and a color was used for the non-yellow highlighters.  It was a system that worked well for me and the students became very used to passing the boxes around in order to select the highlighters.

I digress, as usual.  To feed my fascination with school supplies, I set aside $25 to use when the sales hit.  Today I got to spend it.  Actually I spent $27.  But I got a ton of two-pocket folders, spiral notebooks, packs of paper, pencils, pens, a binder, dividers for the binder and a few other things.  Monday I will take it over to our Town Hall for donation. At the checkout I encountered a former student who was happy to tell me he is getting ready for his second year of college, majoring in biology in order to attend medical school eventually.  He remarked that he thought I was retired.  I said I happily am retired.  Then came the comment, “I remember you liked school supplies but why are you buying them when you’re retired?”

I asked if he was familiar with the “paying it forward” concept and he nodded.  “That’s what I’m doing,” I told him.  “I’m donating them to the Town’s program for kids who aren’t able to afford their own.”  He smiled and said it was a nice thing for me to do.  With a wink I said, “but that pack of yellow highlighters is for me.”

School-Supplies

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Did you save them?

imageI’m asking if you saved your high school yearbooks.  Many may think they are a waste of time and space but I’m here to tell you that they are important pieces of history.  History, you say?  Don’t be preposterous!  Ah, let me unravel the threads of time for you naysayers.

As some of you know I am engaged in writing the history or my local school district.  Thankfully many of the high school yearbooks are accessible online through our local library.  The first yearbook was published in 1929.  How is it historical?  Its age?  Well, yes.  The photos?  Affirmative.  One also has to be willing to look beyond the printed page.  Look at the language, how it is used, what they’ve chosen to document, etc.

I’ve spent hours looking through these yearbooks.  From the early decades where the editorial staff wrote a few lines about each graduate to when the pictures transitioned to color and each graduate had a choice to supply his or her own accompanying quote, each publication is a moment frozen in time.  The graduation portraits allow us to glimpse at the faces of so many young people on the cusp of adulthood.  We can also see the trends of the particular time period:  hair fashions, makeup, clothing.

Look through the candid photographs included in each book.  Time periods continue to be represented by the obvious hair and fashion trends, but look also at what is in the background of the pictures.  What do the cars look like?  What does the landscape look like?  What has changed over the years?  What hasn’t?

It’s interesting to note what was important to each class.  Oh yes, each yearbook chronicles the usual teenage stuff and it’s fun to look at the sports teams and activities.  The advertising section is a treasure trove of businesses past and present.  Many of the older yearbooks feature a “Class Prophecy” section which depicts the future.  The clever part is to see how they weave each student into it.

Delve beneath the surface of paper and ink.  Look at the artwork and illustrations.  Look in the backgrounds of the photographs.  Look at the examples of meaningful writing in the earlier books.  Colorful and jazzy is nice but so is substance.  Pick a year and scroll through it.  Familiarize yourself with what is on each page.  You’ll be a better person for the experience.

The photo collage depicts title pages from 1934, 1974, and 2014.  I chose 1934 as a starting point because it’s often the date used as the beginning of the school district.  In truth it’s the first graduation year for students in the Bethlehem Central School District because the district centralized in 1930.  I’m not a purist so I count the prior years when it was Delmar High.  Note the differences in just those pages.  In our modern time there isn’t a true title page, it skips right to the Table of Contents.  Rather indicative of the present society, n’est-ce pas?

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Please don’t call me “sir”

Yesterday I made a quick trip to the grocery store.  It went bad fast when the cashier called me “sir”.  I politely informed her that I was indeed a woman while staring down at my ample bosom.  I received a very half-hearted apology.  Yeah, I get that I’m a larger woman who prefers her hair cut stylishly short.  But, seriously?  I’m sure you’re chuckling.  It’s funny the first few times, but it happens several times a year.

Last December I took my boyfriend out to a very nice restaurant for dinner.  We walked in to the restaurant and the hostess said, “Good evening, gentlemen.”  Of course he poked me because he knows how much it bothers me.  I just stared at the woman while I took off my coat and thrust my DD’s in her direction.  Again, a perfunctory and non-genuine apology resulted.

Look, I kind of get it.  I’m a sporty dresser.  In the cold weather I favor khakis and sweaters.  In the summer I wear tee shirts and shorts.  And yes, my hair is short but I certainly don’t have it cut at the barber shop.  This is our society where the lack of eye contact is de rigeur.  Whatever happened to looking people in the eye when you speak to them?  It’s gone the way of the rotary phone along with many other respectful manners.  Do people avoid eye contact when they use face time?  I don’t use it so I have no idea.  It wouldn’t surprise me.

Just so you know…if you bump into me literally at Home Depot, please don’t say “excuse me, sir,” because I just might turn toward you very fast and that could be a problem if I’m holding a piece of lumber.  I am distracted easily…

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Schools and History

Both topics are important to me.  I enjoyed school and not just for the social aspect. Learning is something I love.  Always an avid reader, I’m just darn curious about almost anything.  And I love history.  If I hadn’t majored in English in college, I would have majored in History.

To that end, in my brief retirement, I’ve decided to write a history of our local school district (Bethlehem Central, Town of Bethlehem, NY).  Somehow I thought it would be easier than it’s been but I do love the challenge of digging for information.  In addition to research, I also wanted to include personal anecdotes, memories, photos, ephemera, etc.  That aspect has been a bit more challenging.  I’ve conducted some fascinating interviews with retired faculty, staff and many alumni.  As always I think big and want more, more, more!  The end result will be published as a book with proceeds being donated to one of the district’s scholarship funds.  It’s go big or go home and I’m not going home.  This district educated me and gave me a job teaching English for 25 years.  It’s an excellent school district.

I wanted to include the efforts of some present students but that was difficult to coordinate.  My thinking was to have them conduct some of the interviews, take some photos, etc.  But kids and teachers are so busy these days…  That has not come to fruition.

There are still folks out there with stories, I just know there are, but it’s hard to find them.  Even a wonderful recent article in our local town’s newspaper, The Spotlight, garnered just one phone call.  I’ve set up a Facebook page called Bethlehem Central History Project where people are free to post memories, photos, comments, etc.

I’m interested in hearing anything, though I must confess I am also very interested in the early years (1925-1945).  These are stories perhaps through family members, relatives, or neighbors.  I’d also like to hear about the histories of the fraternities and sororities.  If anyone knows anybody or anything, please direct them to my FB page or they can comment here.

Please help me preserve a precious commodity.  For nostalgia buffs, I am including a few photos.  On the left is the present Middle School around 1954.  Students were attending on a split-shift basis as the new High School was being constructed.  The picture on the right is a fairly recent picture.

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Write yourself well…

As some of you know, I struggle with weight issues.  I struggle with health issues.  I struggle, period.  I do grow weary of the attitude of “just get to it, do something for yourself.” Trust me, on some days the best thing I do for myself is to get out of bed.  I’m not immune to making changes and really do try to move forward each day.

I’ve decided that it’s way past the time to fuel my body better.  My body has been asking for better nutrition. It’s now receiving better nutrition.  And it has responded admirably.  My intake of insulin has been cut back drastically in just three days.  Plus I’m eating real food, making good choices, being accountable and preparing it myself. Some of you may know I don’t like to cook for myself.  It isn’t that I’m unable to cook, I’m pretty good at it. I just don’t enjoy it when it’s only to feed myself.  But even I am full of surprises.

Last night I looked at what was available in the fridge.  There were many good choices.  I decided to use some zucchini noodles paired with a small amount of thin spaghetti and shrimp.  But I needed a sauce.  I have some pesto but felt it was just too much fat since I would probably use more pesto than I should.  Having perused some recipe sites I came up with my own idea.  I put less than a teaspoon of olive oil in a small skillet and sautéed a little minced garlic.  Then I added some non-fat evaporated milk (maybe 2 T) and let that heat.  To that I added 2 T of low fat whipped cream cheese and a healthy dollop of dill mix and ground pepper as seasoning.  I added the shrimp to the sauce and heated them through.  I heated the zoodles and pasta in another skillet, then added the sauce and shrimp and tossed.  Voila!  A healthy and filling dinner.  And NO guilt.

I’m learning.  I need to learn that small steps are okay and I should find contentment in the little changes.  I’m doing things I’ve never done before and learning that these changes aren’t killing me…haha.  I will keep praying for the strength to take care of myself because I’m tired of watching the illnesses pile up.

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