Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts on Family History

8x8 inches, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas board
from a found black and white photo of two Wisconsin farm girls

Since retiring from teaching in 2006, I have been working at improving my painting, first in watercolors, later in acrylic and oils, and most recently in mixed media format.  Little by little I've been focusing on figures, especially those inspired by old photographs.  Sometimes the photos are from my family, and sometimes they are of anonymous people.  At first I fretted about whether I had achieved good likenesses in these small paintings, but I've stopped being concerned about that.  Since most of my work is very small, it's nearly impossible to include much detail, so I concentrate on the figure's posture, clothing, and attitude.  My hope is that people don't know for sure who the figures actually are, but see in them something familiar.  I hope the little paintings help people remember their own families.

I think my passion for old photographs come partly from my growing efforts in tracking down family history, something I have occasionally written about here.  I'm not sure where this comes from.  Mother collected old photos, repeated stories, wrote down as much family history as she could with her comparatively limited resources.  She often sent me copies of old photos, photocopies of diaries, birth certificates, and while I was mildly interested, I didn't put any effort into helping, or even encouraging her, something I now regret. After her death, I found myself with boxes of what she had collected, and decided to try and make sense of it.

I began with some simple genealogy software from Reunion, and that helped my understand family relationships better than I had on my own.  It also allowed me to print simple blank forms that I could give to family members to fill out, or sometimes served as a template to help me ask questions in an organized way.  But for me, the drawback was that my research was hard to share.  

The more I understood how my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and various cousins were related, the more fascinated I became.  I started doing online searches.  I began meeting distant cousins, documenting what they told me, and adding it all to the family tree on my computer.  I wrote to historical societies in other states, inquiring about people on our tree.  I took trips to meet my maternal grandmother's family in Washington, collected stories and photos there.  Besides doing Google searches, I began researching people on rootsweb.ancestry.com and familysearch.org, and findagrave.com - all free sites.  I joined the Genealogy Society of Walworth County, and pestered people there to help me find old newspaper clippings relating to our family, and I combed the old papers myself. I walked a lot of cemeteries.  I finally gave in and joined the subscription site, ancestry.com

Then I found a free online family tree hosting site, TribalPages.   I began transferring all my Reunion information to that site, which seemed simpler to me than Reunion, and allowed me to invite other family members to view the work, and also to add and edit information about their immediate families.  

One thing this process has taught me is that learning about my own family has helped me understand history much better.  I now have thousands of names in the data base, and in my mind I can see how people arrived in North Carolina, or Rhode Island, or Boston, or Montreal, and how the children and their descendents spread across North America, both in the United States and Canada, as homesteading land became available.  I've seen how interconnected we all are, and how completely Anglo-Saxon my ancestors were. We are mostly English and Irish and Scottish, with a few Norwegians and Germans thrown in.  For a long long time we were mostly farmers, teachers, preachers and railroad people, though that changed as the country changed, and these days it's hard to generalize about the work we do.  

Another thing I have learned is how wonderful it is to meet distant relatives, whether in person, or online.  Through this blog and my entries in Find-a-Grave, I have had people contact me through email and add what they know to the family story, a real thrill.  In the past couple months, two women who live far away contacted me and answered many of my questions about the Pierce family in South Dakota and in Canada.  I love learning more about these distant great aunts and uncles,and multiple times great grandparents, love the occasional photo that brings the names to life.

But I have also learned that many people are not interested in family history, and for a variety of reasons.  They might be young and busy with getting their own work and families started.  They might "only look to the future, not to the past," as one very mature cousin told me.  They might fear for their privacy, and be leery of questions. They might feel inadequate in using the computer.  They might just not be interested -  for whatever reason. I try hard to not antagonize them, though I try to keep the door open for their participation.

For me this research is a chance to understand how we all fit into history, how we are bound together by blood, and circumstance. It is a challenge, a puzzle, and an endless quest.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Week of Sunshine

Fort Lauderdale 'gator guy

I have been spectacularly unproductive this month.  Living in Wisconsin in February is often like living under a milk glass bowl, on a white glass plate, in the refrigerator.  It's colorless, cold, and slippery.  So, I was glad that we had booked a week on a Holland America cruise in the Caribbean for February. 

We flew to Fort Lauderdale a day early, just in case there were travel complications, and to avoid having to rush around.  It turned out to be a good idea.  There is that moment when you get off the plane someplace warm, and it just hits you.  You don't have to wear every piece of clothing you own.  Anyway, we walked on the beach, ate some seafood and downed a couple beers after we arrived.  Then the next morning still had time to take a tourist boat tour of Fort Lauderdale.  Who knew so many people are wealthy enough to have huge yachts?  No photos of those, but I was entertained by this man who told us everything we needed to know about alligators in Florida.  He didn't flip this bad boy over and put him to sleep, but he did show us the critter's pearly whites.

Diver at Grand Turk

In years we have been able get away in the winter, we usually have spent a few days at a resort in Mexico or Jamaica.  We decided to try a cruise just to see more places. Our first stop on this cruise was Grand Turk.  In many ways I would have been happy to sit like a slug on the sand, but we signed up for a boat trip on a semi-submersible.  I loved all the fish this guide was able to lure to the windows.

Our ship was on the left, the Westerdam.  This was our third cruise with Holland America, and  I was much less confused than on the previous trips, since the ships are arranged so similarly.  I like the smaller cruise ships because the lines are not as long, and they are easier to navigate.

Entering the San Juan harbor

I like being up high in the ship when we enter a harbor, so I usually go to a lounge called the Crows Nest.  This photo was taken through the window glass, which might account for the darkness, though the day was overcast.  I enjoyed our tour of Old San Juan, the El Morrow fort national monument, churches and folk art museum, the Museum of the Americas.

The museum featured all sorts of exhibits of costume, musical instruments, decorative and religious items.  I was taken by this carved hand with saints on each finger.

St. Maartin

St. Maartin was another island I had never seen before, and I was charmed by the turquoise water and white sand beaches.  We took a bus ride over to the French side of the island for some beach time.  I was startled when our bus hit a mongoose on the road.  Apparently they are an invasive species, brought over from India years ago to help control rats in the sugar cane plantations.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Our last stop was in the Bahamas, at Half Moon Cay, an island leased by cruised lines.  In many ways it felt like the least authentic of all the places we stopped, but the water was blue and the sands were white, so I would be foolish to complain.  

So now we are home, in the ice and snow and white world of Wisconsin winters.  I'm hoping my breif respite from flannel shirts and woolie socks will hold me until spring arrives.