The Genealogist Cometh

Recently I heard of a cat named Oscar that lives in Providence, Rhode Island. It seems his accuracy to predict the impending death of elderly hospice patients has been documented in the New England Journal of Medicine. Oscar has successfully indicated impending passing’s in over 25 cases by curling up next to them during their patients final hours. What is even more eerie is that Oscars normal disposition to humans is to be aloof at best. It seems that the cat, which had been adopted by the home, patrols the halls sniffing at the doors, stopping only to visit during the patients last few hours of life.

Doctors are at a loss to explain the phenomenon!

Over the years, I have collected the memories of relatives and kin in hopes of preserving a heritage that is quickly slipping away. While I have managed to document thousands of lives, many of the more than 41,000 names in my records are nothing more than letters and numbers on my tree. With each passing day more information is lost.

I recently read a blog entry by thegenealogygirl in which she quotes Guy Black, who states that “family history is a perishable commodity”. Thegenealogygirl posted it because it addresses a question that had been posed in a discussion group she participated in, “What is the one thing you wish you had known when you first started working on your family history?” She goes on to say that this discussion is driving her current line of research.

Now at first glance the cat mentioned above and the genealogy blog may seem unrelated, but in practice I have struggled with the knowledge that the memories I am seeking are fleeting and in many cases my inquiries requesting information are tied with circumstances, most often than not, associated with death and dying. Much like the cat in the story, my letters to relatives end up resting on the laps of individuals during their last days on earth and unlike the cat I am unable to complete my mission of collecting their memories.

The coincidental circumstances of my letters arrival and the occasion of the relatives recent death always brings a pang of remorse at the missed opportunity to share their hopes and dreams that fed their movements through life. Each lost recipe, each fragrant memory of lilacs in the spring and the smell of bread in the oven are tragic.

Sometimes the realization that I need to hurry to visit one of my older relatives holds me back, like an unconscious desire to prolong their life by ignoring the passage of time. But in the end I know that in the majority of instances, my relatives want to share their information and I have been tasked as the “Family Historian” to gather these golden memories.

As one of the doctors in Oscar’s story postulated, perhaps he was only “seeking a warm blanket”. Sometimes I, like Oscar, am looking for memories to keep me warm on my own journey through life.

Karma Is A Slippery Slope!

Last night my wife got her car stuck in the driveway in the freshly fallen snow. She managed to get out of the car and trudge through about a foot of snow up the driveway into our house.

When she told me what had happened, I immediately rose (with manly manners) and said, “I’ll go out and drive the car up the driveway into the garage. — No problem!” With all the bravado I could muster I slipped on my tennis shoes along with a hooded sweatshirt and went out the front door.

Immediately my tennis shoes filled with snow from the deep snow drift that covered our sidewalk. Undeterred from the melting water in my shoes, I high-stepped my way to the driveway, only to notice that my wife’s car had been left very close to the side of the driveway very near a five foot pile of snow. “Boy” I thought. “She must have barely been able to slip out of the car.” I also started to wonder, “How I will be able to get between the car and that huge snow pile and still get in the door!”

Aware that neighbors were now watching my progress from the safety of their living room windows, I realized that my pride was at risk. “I would get in that car and I would gloriously drive it to the safety of our double garage (a mere 30 feet away).”

Pointing my right foot east and my left foot west, I edged my way alongside the car on the 6 inch ice covered gap between the two. Working my body into an entry position I reached with my left arm to the driver’s door. I felt both my feet slip slowly towards – then under the car. At the same time I fell backwards into the freshly piled bank of snow, sinking deeply in the welcome embrace of the wet and cold snow. It didn’t take me long to realize that:

1) I was trapped in the snow unable to get up.

2) The snow had slipped under my sweat shirt and was now melting in the small of my back and

3) Chances were very good my neighbors were preparing a “YouTube” video for upload to the Net.

As the blood found its way back into my brain, I worked on a plan to get up and out. The snow had me firmly imprisoned by the walls of the snow drift and my wife’s car, not allowing me to turn left or right. I was also unable to place my arms behind me (because of the deep snow) to help lift myself up. My only chance was to grab the door handles of the car and pull myself out of this predicament. With the resolve born of desperation, I grabbed both car handles and pulled as hard as I could – only to have the doors swing open above me, further pinning me to the snow.

As I paused there, considering if & when the spring thaw would arrive and save me, one of my neighbors ambled across the street and said, “Are you gonna get up?”

With humiliation creeping ever nearer, I made one last effort to crawl out backward, tunneling through the snow. Finally extricating myself from under the car, I nonchalantly brushed myself off. My neighbor said “Good! You got out.” and returned to clearing his own driveway.

Slowly I shuffled back up my driveway, through the snow covered sidewalk and finally staggered into my warm home, where I made myself some hot chocolate, all the while considering an early retirement and the overwhelming desire to permanently move south.

Fear Grips Minnesota as the Indian War 1862 Goes On

A Man’s body in tree since 1862 is found. – Wood choppers in Le Sueur County make gruesome discovery while working in woods. “Man hid in Hollow Tree, During Indian Outbreak. Unable to Extricate Himself.”

The Le Sueur News tells about a startling discovery made recently on the farm of Edward Gleek of Ottawa Township in the woods along the river. In clearing a piece of land, it became necessary to cut down a gigantic white oak tree which broke in falling, disclosing the fact that it was hollow for a distance of about fifteen feet, beginning several feet above the ground and the cavity ending in a large opening concealed among the branches of the lower side of the tree which leaned considerably.

Within this hollow was found by the horrified choppers the mummified body of a man, not at all decayed, but dried and shriveled by the lapse of time into something rivaling the best Egyptian art. Mr. Gleek, on being summoned by the frightened laborers, recognized at once in the mummy the body of Jean Le Rue, a former servant of Mr. Gleek, who had mysteriously disappeared from the farm August 20, 1862.

On the day, which was during the Sioux Uprising, a boat load of soldiers on their way up the Minnesota River from St. Paul to New Ulm, foolishly discharged their muskets many times as they steamed up the river above Henderson, carrying terror to the hearts of people along the river who were already about to flee from the dreaded Indians. At Le Sueur, one of the bullets thus discharged, wounding a small boy, Cyrus McEwen, in the leg.

Mr. Gleek says that when Jean LaRue heard the firing he seemed nearly to lose his reason from fear, rushed into the house, seized his rifle and some other belongings, including about $700 in money and fled into the woods. He must have known of the hollow tree, sought to hide there, slipped too far down, and being unable to extricate himself; must have perished there where his body, preserved in the living oak, failed to decay. His rifle, bullet pouch and powder horn were found by him and the money, $783.50 was found in his pocket.

Also there was found in his diary, which Mr. Gleek says LaRue always faithfully kept, and in it undated, but on the page following the one dated Friday, August 29, 1862, was written in trembling words the following: “Cannot get out, surely must die. If ever found, send me and all my money to my mother, Madam Suzanne LaRue, near Tarascon, in the province of Bouches, Du Phone, France“.

Through the consul at Marseilles, Mr. Gleek will endeavor to learn something of the dead man’s relatives, but there is not much hope of doing so at this late date.

— News Article Clipped from the Faribault, MN newspaper, Wednesday July 2, 1919.

History of Accounting

Long ago there was a glen surrounded by a cool mountain stream that could only be accessed by crossing an ancient stone bridge. This bridge was the home of a family of trolls that derived their income from the sheep that were driven across the bridge to graze on the grass in the glen by shepherds that worked for surrounding small farms. For each sheep that crossed over the bridge the trolls collected a small fare.

Because the fare was so insignificant, the troll would have to keep records of each sheep and which farm owned it. At the end of each month they could collect for the number of times a farm’s sheep crossed the bridge.

For many years, the trolls kept track by placing small rocks for each sheep in piles that was assigned to particular farms. At the end of the month they would count the rocks and send each farm a bill for each of their sheep that crossed the bridge to graze on the lush grass.

This system worked very well for centuries until one day, the king of the country decided he wanted to build a new palace. His wife decided that she wanted the castle to be built of stone, so he proclaimed that henceforth all loose rocks were to be delivered to his property to be used for his new home.

The trolls were beside themselves! How would they ever be able to manage their business without rocks? Their business would go broke.

Luckily the trolls recalled hearing of a magician that kept track of all of the king’s subjects that passed through fences. (For that was how the King taxed his subjects, each time they went through a gate they were charged a fee!) So the trolls called on the magician to inquire on how he did it.

The mighty magician explained that he maintained a list of all peasants. Each time one went through a gate he would place a mark. These marks were tabulated once a month for each peasant. Then each peasant was handed a “Gate Bill”

The trolls were excited! They wanted lists that would work for them too. So the magician created lists for them and named them “Spread Sheeps”.

And that is how, even to this day, we keep track of sales and receipts.

Restraint runs in the family

Most of my family is descended from Swedish, German and Polish Pioneers. These were the people that decided to settle on an open treeless prairie. A land which had temperature extremes that went from 110 degrees to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and thought “That’s not so bad!” My ancestor’s survived grasshoppers, draughts, prairie fires, Indian wars, blizzards, and diseases that weaned out all but the strongest. To say they were “hardened” was an understatement. These people were resigned to a tough life and did not waste energy on showing emotion.

Our particular combination of stoic skepticism was passed down through generations and was refined into a culture that was described as “restrained”. The mantra of my family was “We’ll see!” and my people did not appreciate foolish displays of sentiment. To this group “uff-da” was overkill.

For example, I can’t recall my maternal grandparents or even my parents displaying any overt signs of affection. It wasn’t that there was no kissing, hugging or hand holding allowed; it just wasn’t in the thought process. This did not mean we weren’t a functioning family! My “restrained” ancestors routinely produced families of 8-16 children (or whatever it took to man the farm.)

That restraint was evident in the females of the family too. I remember when I riding in the car with my mother and we passed a couple holding hands. My mother’s immediate response was “Yechh!” It was plain she thought any display of that sort should be kept hidden and was not for civic consumption. She believed we all knew we were loved and there was no sense in bragging about it to her children or the public.

This did not mean that there was no room for nurturing. If one of us came down with an illness, the combined knowledge of potions and cures were brought to bear on us. The family remedy for a cold was legendary. Grandma Holm’s formula involved water, chocolate, cinnamon, mustard, and pepper heated to just below boiling and served in a huge mug with clouds of steam rolling over the brim. I had seen it with my own eyes, that when faced with drinking that simmering brew a miraculous healing would occur. The stricken child would beg to return to chores or school before the drink hit their lips.

Grandma Holm’s knowledge of medicine was not limited to potions. Her understanding of the physical nature of pathogens was inspirational. For instance, when faced with the daunting task of lancing a boil, she would calmly explain that the “mean-ness” needed to be let out. When asked what caused the white spots on fingernails, she expertly replied that it was caused by lying. Grandma instinctively knew that disease was nature’s retribution for past acts.

Now combine this background with a Midwestern Catholic School upbringing and you had a system guaranteed to wring out ardor. The nuns patrolled their schools with a vengeance and looked to snuff out any type of emotional outbreak. When tending to the students who were occasionally injured, it was common to overhear the nuns say “Offer the pain up for the poor souls in purgatory!” or “Stop crying, this pain is nothing compared the burning fires of hell!” Now I didn’t know much about the pain of purgatory or the fires of hell, but I did know you didn’t go crying to a nun with an injury, unless your bleeding was messing up the school hallways. It was not surprising that one of the first religious lectures taught during the school year was based on the Stoics and their philosophy.

Once a year, our school took part in a religious retreat. It was a time of self examination and reflection. For some odd reason sex education was also incorporated with this experience. Because of that subject matter, the participants were divided by sex, with the boys’ lectures being led by the priests and the girls being lectured to by the nun’s.

I don’t pretend to imagine what experiences the nun’s had to share with the girls, but I can divulge some the thoughts shared by the priest on the subject of sex. We were exhorted to control impure thoughts that could consume our minds. We were to offer our personal struggle up to heaven. To help us, we were given blessed holy cards to focus our thoughts on. I’ve got to admit praying to a picture of the Sacred Heart with blood dripping from it did seem to have the same effect as a cold shower.

If a young Catholic boy were to select a saint to control our impure thoughts, if might have been appropriate to bend a knee to St. Christopher. St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and even more importantly, bachelors. Most Catholic had his image placed in their car to prevent accidents (even though, as we told by the nun’s, over 60 mph his intervention did not apply). If there ever was a need for a divine supplication, it would have been by a Catholic boy getting past first base in a car with a girl whose morals had been pledged to a life devoted to God by the Catholic Sisters and reinforced by the Sodality Club.

The last afternoon of the retreat, we were all brought back together with the boys on one side of the church and the girls with their heads covered with pieces of lace on the other. After being led through the Rosary, a special guest priest was brought in to conclude the event. I don’t recall the priest’s name or much of what he said, other than that the nuns were all aflutter. I do recall his last advice addressed to the girls concerning what to do if a boy offered them alcohol. “Drink! … Drink it all! Then, throw up all over them!” With that we were thrown back into the secular world, better prepared for any adversity.

With all that praying, chanting and drinking going on, it is no small wonder that most of us found happiness in mates who were from other religions. Restraint had its place, but now and again a little uff-da was nice.