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So, it was bound to happen, and it finally did.

Summer is a prime time for Marty and me to spend hours and days scouring ancestry.com in order to add to our family trees. We don’t indulge much during the school year, as it just gets to be too busy, with the exception of a few breaks. We’ve found loads of really cool stuff (a grandmother tried, and acquitted, for being a witch twice!), some properly documented, some that needs further research with documentation, and some things that are just ridiculous. I wish this tidbit I’d found was ridiculous, but it’s not.

I have slaveholders in the family.

Now, for years, I (foolishly) felt really good about not finding any direct ancestors who had owned slaves. While I did have ancestors that fought for the Confederacy, they were not slaveholders, at least not in any records I’ve found. When I’ve found new ones from the early years of the United States, I would always cringe a little when a census record would come up, hoping that there wouldn’t be a number listed in the “Slaves” column.

Friday night, I was researching a line that hadn’t seen much action before. There had been some muddling of it at some point and I determined to straighten it out. That being done, I suddenly got a leaf on one of my documented ancestors. For those who are not familiar with Ancestry, a leaf indicates a possible new piece of information about a certain ancestor. This particular leaf said that there was a will for this a grandfather I stumbled across, one of my 9th great-grandfathers who came to settle in Maryland sometime in the 1650s, the grandfather of this person I already had in my tree.

In his will, dated 1734, he gave “unto my dearly beloved wife Leaticia Dodson one Negro Man named Henry to remain hers during her life and then to return to my Dearly & well beloved son John Dodson to remain his life & then to my son Walter Dodson. I likewise give unto my dearly beloved Wife Leaticia Dodson the bed and furniture as I and my Wife lies on and also I give Two Thousand Pounds of good Tobacco to buy her a Woman Servant with and one Horse to her liking to remain hers forever.”

Also, “I give and bequeath unto my Dearly and well beloved Son Walter Dodson one Negro Man named Peter to remain his & his heirs lawfully begotton of his body forever.”

I felt slightly sick, and really sad. I found what information I could on Ancestry and then went to online Maryland colonial records to find out more information. Sure enough, he and his family popped up right away. There are family group sheets on the lot of them that corresponded exactly with what I had found elsewhere. To top it all off, there’s a court record of him reporting another slave, not his, for having an illegitimate mulatto child! As if she had needed any more grief in her life; God only knows what happened to her because of it. I can’t find the outcome of the accusation.

There was nothing for it then. While it doesn’t seem that he had a huge plantation, an ancestor of mine did own human beings in Charles County, Maryland. I’m not okay with this, I haven’t reconciled it in my head just yet.

Logically, I know that it was always a possibility, but I had a false sense of surety that no one in my family had ever owned slaves. When I found this new information out, it really took the wind out of my sails. I didn’t want to believe that anyone I was related to could ever do such a thing, but there it was in black and white. While he did pass at least one slave onto his oldest son, I haven’t found any evidence so far that his daughter, my next direct ancestor, owned any as an adult, so perhaps the chain, literally and figuratively, was broken with her generation.

All of this has made me think a lot more about the slaves mentioned: Henry and Peter, and the woman that his wife was to buy with tobacco. Who were they? What happened to them? This was 1734, the Civil War was more than one hundred years away so the chances that they were willingly freed are basically zero. Did they escape? Were they sold elsewhere? How were they treated? Did they have families? There is literally no other information to go on at this point, unless there are records from his farm. I can add that to my list of family research trips. I hope they were able to find peace, but I know it’s not likely.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this post. There’s no good way to end it. Like I said before, I’m still kind of dealing with this whole thing; it feels really personal even though I had nothing to do with it. I feel guilty, responsible for my family’s actions, helpless to do anything about it, and, of course, powerless to change it.

It makes me sad.

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Middle Child leaves for Europe this week. It’s the same kind of trip that Oldest Child took two years ago, a few days in France, a few days in Spain, but Middle Child will be going to different cities than his brother did. The same teacher is heading up the group and it’s a good, responsible, group of kids, so I’m not worried about logistics or crazy behavior. Of course, I am very jealous because I am a ridiculous Europhile, but I am genuinely glad that he’s getting this opportunity, the same as his brother did.

I had my first out-of-the-country experience when I was sixteen. Of course, I’d been to Canada several times before that, but as it is for any Detroiter, going to Canada was so not a big deal. No, I had the opportunity to go to Australia and Hawaii with the Michigan Lions All-State Band and it was a fabulous time. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go on about it too much, but that trip was a pivotal time in my life. It was on that trip that he realization sunk in that the U.S. was not the only place in the world, that there were other realities for other people, and that the places where they lived were just as important to them as mine was to me. Granted, Australia isn’t shockingly different from the U.S., and Hawaii, while culturally different, is a state, but it was just enough to give me a hunger to see what else is out there, not just in my own backyard. This isn’t discounting anything that is here in the U.S., there are some pretty amazing places in my own country, but I think for people to have a balanced view of the world, they should see more of it with an open mind, not with the expectation that everyone should be like us.

That is what I hope Middle Child takes away from his experience. His first trip overseas will be different than mine, however, because it will be to two countries where English isn’t the first language, and he’s in for a real eye-opener. Even if you take the time beforehand to study the language, using the words around native speakers for the first time is a scary thing. Of course, in the big cities, many people do speak English because there are so many tourists, but I found out that even a little effort to try the native language is appreciated by most people. Middle Child hasn’t done a lot of studying, so he may be in for some surprises.

I said that I wasn’t worried, and I’m not, but there is that part of me that is nervous about letting my baby go for an extended period of time over the ocean without me. It has nothing to do with the threat of terrorism, that’s a risk that we take anywhere we are today, unfortunately, but more of the I’ve-taught-you-everything-I-can-now-you’re-on-your-own kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a smart kid and he’s going to be just fine, but I think every mother would feel the same, at the least the first time. When Oldest Child went back to Europe this last summer for work study, I wasn’t concerned at all because he did so well when he went to France and Spain.

All in all, it’s another sign that my kids are growing up. They are moving on to make their own wonderful memories, and that’s a very, very, good thing. Middle Child leaves in just a few days and it’s taking a lot for me not to jump on that plane with him. Maybe sometime in the future, one of them will let me tag along.

 

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I bought a new pair of gloves today. It’s been overdue for a while. Obviously, the pair in the picture, the ones I have been wearing for the past eleven years, are pretty beat up and falling apart, but there’s a reason I’ve worn them for so long.

My grandpa gave them to me.

You see, for a while on my dad’s side of the family, the adults drew names for Christmas gifts because there were just too many of us to continue buying for everyone. The kids got, and still get, gifts from everyone until they, too, become adults. It got a little crazy with keeping it organized over time and we’ve since stopped drawing names, but it was fun for a while.

Grandpa got my name for Christmas of 2005. Along with our names to put into the drawing, we each had to make a short wish list in the price range, probably $25, but I don’t quite remember. I always wanted a pair of nice leather driving gloves, but for whatever reason, had never gotten myself a pair, so I put that on my list. Sure enough, Christmas Day, I opened the pair of gloves that you see above, only they looked much nicer.

“Are they okay? Is this what you wanted?” I remember him asking. Grandma shook her head.

“He picked them out all by himself and he’s been so worried that you wouldn’t like them.” There was no need to worry, they were exactly what I wanted. I’ve always hated big, bulky, poofy, winter gear and the streamlined leather gloves were perfect for me. (I do, however, concede defeat to the bulky stuff when the temperature gets into the single digits. My vanity goes out the window when it’s -5°,  as my friend Inez will tell you.)

I wore them immediately and often, getting them professionally cleaned every couple of years. Remarkably, I think it’s the only pair of gloves that I’ve ever had in my entire life where I haven’t lost one or both. They’ve traveled with me around the Midwest to various conferences and speaking engagements, always making it home safely. There was one time when I thought I had lost one and panicked, but it turned up on my classroom floor the next morning.

When Grandpa died, ten years ago this month, they became even more special. They’ve looked pretty bad for a few years now, but I’ve always resisted buying a new pair because he gave them to me and I want to keep him close. When the right thumb seam completely split this winter, the leather worn and frayed where I grip the steering wheel, I knew that it was time to put them to rest, but it’s still hard. Even going on Amazon to browse the (millions of) gloves felt funny, but I did eventually pick out a pair, which should arrive in the next couple of weeks. This pair will then go where most of my heartfelt keepsakes go, in my cedar chest along with other remembrances I want to keep forever. Hopefully one day when my kids and grandkids have to go through my stuff, they’ll remember this story and not toss them out, but I’ll understand if they do.

Those gloves were bought and given with love by someone who thought that I was something special, who saw things in me that I still can’t see in myself, someone who called me his “princess” and did his best for me in all the ways that he knew how. He’s been gone for ten years now and I miss him every day. Putting the gloves away won’t change that, but I did like having that physical reminder of him for all of this time.

As for the new gloves, they’ll be pretty. Again, they’re black leather with lining and definitely not bulky; I’m a creature of habit. I’m sure they’ll be fine, but my favorite pair will always be the beat-up veterans in my cedar chest.

A presto.

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I’m finding it difficult to get in the Christmas spirit this year. Actually, it’s been this way for the past few years, so I don’t blame any particular event of 2016. I still find the story beautiful and meaningful, the lights pretty, the cards welcome. I’ve done all the shopping, all of the wrapping (almost), and made a respectable amount of cookies. I’ve sung the songs and felt my heart stir with the beauty of the melodies and lyrics, but yet… I don’t feel it. The magic hasn’t been there.

I will love spending time with my family on Christmas Day, chaotic as it can be. I want to see my nieces and nephews in their joy, and even their eventual crankiness, with all of the excitement. I want to see my brothers and sisters (including the brother- and sister-cousins), parents, aunts, and in-laws that I don’t spend nearly enough time with. I will grumble when making dinner, as I always do, but it will be good-natured. I will drink too much wine, laugh too much, and get all of the dishes done Christmas night because I don’t want to wake up to a mess. I’ll crash into bed around midnight and sleep in the next day until 8:00 or so. (My younger self would have thought that pathetic, but she didn’t have kids.)

I know a lot of people feel the Christmas magic every year, but the last time I remember having the “magic” was sometime when my kids were smaller. I have such fabulous memories of dancing with Oldest and Middle Child around the living room to Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, watching them rock out over and over again in their Pull-Ups as Clarence Clemons belted out the saxophone part. They will disown me for sharing this memory, by the way, but it’s worth it. I miss the astonishment on Youngest Child’s face when Santa KNEW HIS NAME!!! I miss the looks of awe of all three of their faces when it was finally time to go downstairs and see what Santa had left on Christmas morning. I miss the absolute reverence of them putting Baby Jesus in the manger. They still do take turns putting him in, but that sweetness has left with their baby chubbiness. Decorating the tree was a BIG DEAL when they were small, now they’re doing me a favor. Their excitement fueled my own and as they got older, it’s still lovely, but not quite the same.

I don’t know if it’s “normal” to feel this way or not, but I don’t like it. I miss the magic. I want that feeling back. I don’t know if you have to be a kid or have a kid who believes for that to happen, but I want to feel Christmas again. Is it lack of time? Is it extreme busyness? Have I grown up too much, God forbid? Maybe it will come back when I don’t have so much to do, when I can focus on the mystery of the season. I told Mr. Marty Man that one year, I wanted to spend Christmas in Europe, just visiting ancient cathedrals, participating in local traditions, soaking in the feels. He’s not on board yet, but I’m working on it.

In the meantime, even without the magic, I will enjoy the next few days. I hope that all of my readers have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, Happy New Year, or whatever it is that you celebrate. I wish you love and a prosperous 2017. Thanks for reading.

Salute.

 

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My family held our memorial service for my grandma this past weekend. It was held in a little rural church and was attended by not only family, but friends from years past, some of them were my parent’s friends from before I was born. It was a small, intimate service followed by a luncheon that gave us all a chance to mingle and talk about our memories of Grandma.

My cousin had put together a beautiful video composed of pictures of Grandma set to music. The photos were delightful; I had never seen many of them. there was even one of her as a baby with her father, who died when she was three years old. There were pictures of our parents as they were growing up and many of us cousins, then our children. I spoke after the video, that had been scheduled beforehand, and then the floor opened up to let others speak.

My great-aunt spoke, telling us all that my grandpa once said he’d married an angel. My brother/cousin spoke (see previous posts for that explanation if you don’t know the story) about our family and the kind of woman that Grandma was. My aunt spoke, highlighting how Grandma would take care of anybody that was brought home, no matter what. My cousin, the same one who put the video together, spoke about how we were all important to Grandma, how she saved everything that we ever made for her, including some 30-year-old Christmas cookies that she found when going through Grandma’s many boxes of treasures. It was all at the same time heartbreaking and wonderful to hear that such a life had been lived, that one woman could have made that big of an impact on so many lives because of her love. Four children, nine grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren, and countless others are testament to that love.

So, here’s my question to you: How will your loved ones remember you when you’re gone? We’re all going to die one day, whether we like thinking about it or not. Some of us will have grand funerals with all the trimmings, some will have smaller, quieter services, and some, by request or other circumstances, will have no service. It doesn’t matter what your send-off looks like, how will you be remembered?

Were you kind?

Did you love openly and without abandon or was your love rationed out?

Did you give your children your time or brush them off?

Did you forgive those who hurt you or did you hold onto the pain?

Did you hold grudges on minor issues or did you learn to let them go?

Did you discriminate or did you get to know a person’s soul instead of their color or religion?

Did you do your share or let others carry you?

Did you learn from your mistakes or make them over and again?

Did you apologize to those you hurt and mean it, or did you shirk the blame and continue the cycle?

Did you have integrity? Did you do the right thing when no one was looking?

Did you blame others for your mistakes or did you suck it up and take responsibility?

Did you accept what life handed you or did you push to find your own way?

Did you laugh?

Could you find the beauty in life, even during dark times?

Were you happy?

I’ve been thinking about all of things in the last couple of days. We’re all flawed, sometimes in serious ways, and we usually get on the best we can. Sometimes we recognize what we need to work on, sometimes we don’t. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, there are things that I wish I could do over again that I can’t make right. I know that I have some things that I still want to get right that I can work on before my time comes.

The thought of death as something so final frightens us, depresses us, so we push it away to think about another day until it happens, and then we can’t, because it’s over. Don’t put it off until it’s too late; we don’t know how much time we have left. Put your phone away and play with your children. Tell someone that you love them. Patch up the silly argument that you had with your sister a decade ago and move on. Meanwhile, I’ll be learning from some mistakes and work harder at finding the beauty in life, among other things.

A presto.

 

 

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But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all.

~The Parting Glass

My grandma is dying. There’s no way to write that sentence differently that will make it any better or easier. My grandma is dying. It’s time to say goodbye, but dear God, I don’t want to.

I wasn’t yet blogging when my other grandma, Grandma Ruth, died, almost seven years ago now, or when my grandfathers passed away, but I wish I had been.  It’s difficult to let someone go mentally and emotionally, especially when that person was so much a part of one’s life since it began. Writing helps me to alleviate a bit of that pain. I think grandparents hold a very special place in one’s life, something different than parents. If they’ve been loving grandparents, as I was fortunate enough to have, the loss is felt keenly. I don’t think it ever really goes away.

I’d written about this grandma, Grandma Ballantyne, the last grandparent I have left, a few years ago when she seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Her memory, among other things, was rapidly declining, although she would try to fake you out if she couldn’t remember something.

“Of course”, she’d say when you asked her a question or tried to remind her of a person, or, “Well, that sounds about right.” It was clear that she knew she was supposed to understand who or what you were talking about, but she didn’t, and she didn’t want you to know that she was lost. It was heartbreaking. The last few months, though, she hasn’t spoken much, except to say, “I love you”. When I saw her last, on Saturday, she wasn’t speaking at all.

We’ve known for a while that Grandma has been declining, but even when she would forget where she was or she didn’t understand what was happening, there were still glimpses of her feisty self in there. Up until a year or so ago, I could still get her to smile when I would tease her about smuggling in some whiskey to the nursing home. We shared a liking for it and red wine, although I admit that these days, I enjoy sipping a nice Merlot a little more than a Jameson. Up until a couple of years ago, I would relay some irreverent message to her from Mr. Marty Man and she would still smile. They had always gotten along famously and she enjoyed his naughty sense of humor. He made her laugh. I love that she loved him so much.

Saturday afternoon, I was privileged to have some alone time with her, to tell her things that I absolutely had to say before she leaves us. Most of them are private, things that I will hold in my heart forever, but I will share one thing with you. I told her that she was my hero, that she always had been. When I said that, her eyes focused sharply on me and she squeezed my hand tightly. Say what you will, but maybe just for that moment, she knew me and heard what I said. That’s what I’m going to choose to believe, anyway.

Grandma was an amazing person to grow up with. She watched me frequently when I was little and when she didn’t have to watch me any more, she would have me over to spend the night, just because. She allowed me to pillage her closets and drawers, including her make-up drawer, and dress up in the most amazing outfits that a six-year-old could muster up. She had a long blonde wig that I was sure had to be the most perfect thing in the world and I festooned myself with it, tons of floaty scarves, and gobs of costume jewelry, convinced that I looked beautiful because she always told me so. She eventually gave me her tiara and black satin gloves that I adored. What little girl doesn’t love a sparkly crown? I still have them and will keep them forever.

I was a pretty solitary kid, for the most part, and she left me to my long hours of playing dress-up and pretend, letting me run a “bar” out of her kitchen and a beauty shop in her dining room. Lord knows that there was almost no limit to her patience as she taught me to cook French toast, pancakes, and smoky links. I still love smoky links, not so much for their taste, but just to remind me of those carefree days. Sometimes, we’d got to McDonalds for breakfast, a rare treat, and get pancakes and sausage in the old Styrofoam containers. She always made me drink orange juice, even though I hated it (I hate pulp) but I did it because it was Grandma, even though I gagged on it.

When the cousins came over and we all spent the night, Grandma would let us build huge blanket forts in the living room and we’d all sleep on the floor. If it was just my cousin, Erin, and me, as it sometimes was, we would sleep on the pullout couch in the back room, always with a cat or two, telling stories for as long as we could stay awake. She didn’t care how long we talked, knowing that we’d eventually drop off. It was a short walk from her bungalow in Allen Park to the corner store, Frances Market, to buy milk for dinner where the clerk always knew that we were “Jackie’s grand-kids” and would give us a long stick pretzel for the walk back. We were usually allowed to buy a candy bar, too. Hershey bars were a favorite, but so were the bubble gum cigarettes, loaded with powdered sugar that puffed like smoke. This was the eighties, remember. smoking was bad, but not too bad, yet.

She had a VCR before anyone else I knew and a camera to go along with it. Every band event, school play, and holiday was lovingly videotaped and labeled. My cousins and I wish that some of those videos would disappear, and maybe they have, but she was determined to record everything. She and Grandma Ruth were always in the audience of everything I ever did. Back then, it was expected. Now, it’s treasured. Just recently, I had the opportunity to appear on television. It happened to be the same day that I was going to drive down and visit her, so she was on my mind. Fifteen years ago, she would have been grilling me about when and what channel it would be so that she could set the VCR to record.

Grandma never told me that I couldn’t do something, or that I was silly for dreaming my dreams. She never worried about logistics. I wanted to go to college at Oxford? Why not? She thought I was brilliant. Veterinarian school, perhaps? Sure thing. I wanted to be a Rockette, just like in the movie Annie? Well, I needed to learn to dance, starting with the box step, so she taught me. I never felt stupid or ridiculous in her presence. No dream was too big, no movie star was unattainable for Grandma’s girl. (All four of us granddaughters were Grandma’s girls.) As I grew up, she treated me as if I were older than I was and talked to me about world affairs and life in general. When I started smoking real cigarettes, she knew about it before any other adult in my life (because I trusted her) and simply sat in the smoking section with me with no rebuke. With Grandma, I knew that my choices, even the bad ones, were my own and that she would respect them and me. She offered advice, but always in a way that made me think about things, to see both sides. I never once felt disrespected or tolerated by her. My thoughts and feelings mattered to her. I felt that; it’s one of the purest, truest feelings of my life.

When my kids were going to be born, she told everyone from the moment she found out. She was so proud to be a great-grandma, and a youngish one at that. I’m so glad that my boys had the chance to know her when they were small, before she began having strokes. She read them stories and played with them in the lake, just like she did with us when we were small. She has four children, nine grandchildren (including my two brothers who are not her biological grandchildren, but that didn’t matter one bit to her ), and twelve great-grandchildren. She loved us all, more than anything.

My grandma is dying. I hate this. I want her back. I want her putting me in the front basket of her bike, riding just down the street, just far enough to make me laugh with joy. I want to ride the bicycle built for two with her again. I want to ask her to read me Cinderella again and again and again, just like she used to until her voice was hoarse. I want her to rub my back until I fall asleep, safe and loved. I want to talk to her again, about boys and sex and love while I’m pretending to be sophisticated and grown-up. I still don’t feel grown-up sometimes. I didn’t visit as often as I should, life gets in the way, but I will regret not being there to visit as much.

I want her to rest. I want her to be at peace. I don’t want her to hurt or to be confused anymore.

My grandma is dying. She is loved.

I need to let her go.

 

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