Finally Learning Who I Am

scenic view of forest from car
Photo by Stephan Seeber on Pexels.com

 

If you’ve followed my blogs even  intermittently you know that I have researched my paternal grandfather for many years all to no avail. I literally cannot find records of him until 1930, even though he was born in 1879. I’ve looked for his father and again there is no sign of him ever providing data for  a census or a document certifying his death certifying his death. Grandpa’s mother is even more of a phantom because she died in childbirth when she was evidently quite young.  My grandfather was supposedly raised by a grandmother, and I have found women with the same name as hers but none of them fit the profile that Grandpa gave me. I’ve had the best luck learning about the man who eventually became my grandfather’s guardian, but I cannot find a familial connection between him and my Grandpa. I once wrote to some of John Little’s descendants and none of them had ever heard about him being a guardian for a young orphan. So there it has stood and my frustrations just grow and grow, but I think that I may have contrived a plan that will unlock the mystery of my heritage. I’m convinced that I will receive a treasure trove of information if I have the courage to set the idea in motion.

So, I am officially throwing my hat in the ring for the presidency in 2020. I’ll be running as an independent because I don’t think either party will have me, and I’m not so sure that I would have them. I disagree with both on far too many issues, so mine will be a lone wolf attempt at winning the highest office in the land. I’ll begin by being open about who I know that I am, and then I’ll let the journalists and politicians do the work of uncovering my past to provide a more complete picture. I suspect that I will learn a great deal that I have never known, and since it really doesn’t matter whether I win the office or not, I’ll at least get the information that has so far eluded me.

I like to think of myself as being like honest Abe. In fact in one of those little quizzes that show up on Facebook I learned that I am most like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. I don’t have anything that I want to hide, so I will provide an outline of what I know to be true.

I joined the Students for a Democratic Society when I was at the University of Houston. There is a photo of me front and center in one of the school yearbooks. It was some time later that I learned what a radical organization SDS actually was. My sole purpose back then was to speak out against a war that I felt was steadily going in the wrong direction. Of course, nobody is going to believe in my innocence when I run for office but it will be worth the brouhaha just to find out about Grandpa. I’ll be branded as a radical, but that’s okay since I know that I’m a rather boring sort and always have been.

Both my maternal grandmother and my mother suffered from mental illnesses so I suppose that someone will decide that my quirks make me appear to be a bit flaky in my own right. I’ll own the fact that I can sometimes be a bit cray cray, but so far I’ve made it without an official diagnosis. I probably could have done a better job of finding help for my mom, but in the long run I feel comfortable in asserting that I did my best.

With all of my years in education there is surely someone who disliked me who will step forward with assertions that may shock me. If I wronged anyone I am greatly sorry. Forty years of working with children can be quite stressful, and I suppose that I may have uttered my frustrations a time or two. I know that when I was in charge of the educational program at one of my churches I, along with my co-director, was accused of being an agent of the devil because I was not a nun. That may eliminate a few potential voters along the way, but surely my own story is so mundane that someone will decide to reach far back into my history to find some obnoxious ancestor to darken my reputation. I’m in the hopes that when they do they will finally solve the mystery of my grandfather. I am tired of wondering if he simply sprang up in a cabbage patch.

He admitted that his father was a n’er do well, so I won’t be too surprised about what will turn up in that regard. I know that my great grandfather was a heavy drinker who preferred good old Virginia moonshine, according the Grandpa’s recollection. My grandfather himself even went through a period of inordinate imbibing until he became disgusted and decided to become a tee totaler. I’ve never cared much for anything more than a glass of wine or a Margarita, so my reputation should remain intact in that regard.

The funny thing is that I have more records about my grandparents who travelled to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire than I do about my Grandpa Little. I know what boats they came on, what port they arrive in, and even who their parents were and when they were baptized as infants. It’s always seemed strange to me that somehow my paternal grandfather should remain such a mystery. So I can’t wait to use my campaign as a way to launch an investigation. If the FBI can’t vet me, then surely some hungry journalist will do the job. Maybe I’ll even get a spot on that program on PBS that find the formerly unknown ancestors of celebrities.

I’ve got a thick skin, so it won’t matter if they find some embarrassing facts, I just want to be certain that nobody makes things up. I’m looking for accuracy here so I can finally tell my siblings and our children and grandchildren from whence we came. Who knows I might even shake up the race a bit with my really strange amalgam of ideas about how our country should be governed. That alone will probably bring out more information that I actually need.

I think I may be on to something. I’m looking forward to finally knowing who I am.

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Happy Birthday

4760252204_d1ab50cd7f_oToday marks the birthday of the United States of America, at least in terms of being the day that the Founding Fathers published the Declaration of Independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. That makes our country 241 years old which means that we are still really just youngsters in relation to other countries around the world.

Our government has made it through almost two and a half decades but not without a few ups and downs. Somehow our democratic republic has managed to stay intact thanks to the wisdom of the men who designed our Constitution. For better or worse their ideas appear to continue to work, but all of us sense that we have yet to achieve the perfection that we desire. In the long history of the world there has yet to be a flawless union of diverse people and ideas, so perhaps we are sometimes a bit too hard on ourselves. Still we long for a land in which people of varying cultures, backgrounds and beliefs will be able to live together in harmony. Perhaps ours is a pipe dream but it is built on what was perhaps the most audacious and daring experiment in freedom that history has ever witnessed. It seems to be in our DNA to want a nation in which everyone enjoys a full measure of justice and opportunity.

All of us can recite the problems that our country has sometimes ignored and other times attempted to unravel. We might spend hours outlining the injustices that were part of our past and some which continue into our present, but what’s done is done and our only goal should be to continue to move to an ever more just system. It does little good for any of us to stand in judgement of our nation’s architects given that we did not walk in their shoes.

I suspect that those men who developed the idea of becoming a free and independent country understood that getting everyone to agree on one document would be almost impossible, and so they were willing to make compromises along the way in the hopes that one day as the nation evolved the citizenry would be willing to accept new ideas and make changes to help our country grow ever stronger. To a large extent we have accomplished just that, but at the same time the world itself has become more and more complex. It is very difficult to read into our future because we are members of a massive global community in which there is a very delicate balance. As the saying goes, if a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa we all feel the effects of the flutter.

The world as we know it today is chaotic. People everywhere are searching for answers to very difficult questions. Just as with the ultimate design of our Constitution, there are no simple resolutions. Sometimes we have to compromise to keep the steady heartbeat of democracy alive. We find ourselves more and more often wondering just how much change is good and how much is too much. These were the same eternal questions that kept the signers of the Declaration of Independence awake at night.

Some of my ancestors stayed to fight the battles and some of my husband’s left for Nova Scotia to remain loyal to Britain. Who could have known back then where all of the furor would lead? Who would have dreamed that one day the entire world would be looking to our nation as a power?

In spite of my reservations about the ways in which our government runs on this day I still believe that I live in the best land on earth. I have traveled to other countries and viscerally felt the difference between our nation and theirs. On a recent trip to Mexico I was treated kindly and felt very welcome. The experience was quite lovely in all regards, but in the background were the heavily armed guards at the airport whose presence in military uniform was difficult to ignore. I enjoyed visiting the ruins of the Mayan civilization but could not help but note that the rest stop where we lingered just long enough to take care of our needs was surrounded by men in body armor who bore big guns at the ready in case of trouble. Our tour guide joked about such things and then reminded us that we should not try our adventure alone. I felt safe but had a strange sense of foreboding that I do not encounter in the place where I live.

We have a president who is struggling with his role and a Congress that seems to be incapable of working together as our Founding Fathers once did. We insist on all or nothing in our governing which has led to a great divide that far too closely resembles the state of affairs when our nation was not quite one hundred years old. We toss aside politicians who appear to want to compromise for the betterment of everyone and instead cast our lots with rabble rousers who refuse to acknowledge the things that we have in common. We forget that the our beginnings were imperfect but managed to give us a starting point. Today’s atmosphere would have kept us under the rule of Britain and we’d all be singing “God Save the Queen” if men like Madison and Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson had not been able to come to an agreement that began the process of establishing our republic.

I love my country and continue to have great hope for it. We will soon enough settle down and find ways to move forward together. It is something that we always seem to eventually do. I long for politicians who will unite us rather than divide. I believe that incremental progress is inevitable. So Happy Birthday, United States of America. Long may your banners wave. Let’s hope we can guide you through your adolescent years and into a future that will unite us as never before. I have faith in you. God bless.

Bliss

18622147_10212589589995817_4316414510225396392_nI got my first real job when I was fifteen years old. Our family physician was looking for a summer replacement for the receptionist in his clinic. In spite of the fact that I looked about ten years old at the time he took a chance by hiring me. After that I worked for him each summer until I graduated from high school. I also did babysitting on weekends from the age of twelve, and I was particularly popular because I was always available since I was a dateless wonder in those days. My foray into the world of work continued unabated from those times until I finally retired a few years back. If you count tutoring gigs that I still do you might say that I have never completely stopped earning a paycheck, but I have definitely slowed down. Now I am still constantly on the go, but mostly in the form of trips here and there. I like to travel whenever the opportunity presents itself because I am fully aware of the reality that the day may come when I am no longer able to do so.

I take great delight in my little jaunts no matter how simple they may be. I find it quite exciting to leave my own backyard and venture to places that are far away from home. I’ve learned a great deal about humans and nature and how much we are actually alike from my travels. The people and places that I have encountered have generally been quite welcoming, and I discover something new each time that I explore new horizons. Still, I have learned that there is much to be celebrated right at home. I don’t have to hit the road to find the bliss of adventure which is often staring me in the face in my own hometown.

After travels to New Orleans and Cancun this summer I needed to recharge my batteries so to speak by sticking around Houston for a time. When I learned that my daughter was embarking on some landscaping and renovation projects around her house I eagerly volunteered to be part of the work crew because being a fixer upper is in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers and builders and somehow I feel a spark of genetic compatibility with them each time that I hold dirt in my hands or transform broken objects and rooms into things of beauty. In an unexplainable way I get as much joy out of such enterprises as jetting away to picturesque destinations.

Thus I found myself spending three days working the soil and puttering with the plants in my daughter’s backyard. I listened to the birds chattering and announcing my intrusion into their domain and heard the dreamy sound of a train whistle in the distance. Somehow I felt a kinship with all of the ancestors whom I had never met but felt myself to be so much like. I wondered what they would think of me and my family, their descendants who have done so well. We are all educated and part of the middle class while they were lucky to go to school beyond the fifth grade. They tilled the soil to make the food that would carry them through heartless winters while I was creating a tropical paradise beside my daughter’s pool. I thought of how far our family had come, and I felt a burst of pride and gratitude for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as a direct result of the extreme sacrifices of my family members of so long ago.

A few days later I was feting my father-in-law with wine from the Texas hill country, shrimp from the waters around New Orleans and steak from our local HEB. It was an intimate gathering with just me, my husband, and my in-laws. We laughed and spoke of this and that and I thought of how much I loved being with them. In fact if I had to choose between a junket to Europe or an afternoon with them, there would be no contest. I would want to spend my time just enjoying their presence.

I suppose that I have reached that age of wisdom when I understand what true bliss actually is. It has little to do with great wealth or possessions and everything to do with treasuring the moments that we have whether they be simple or extravagant. Being truly and fully part of the passing parade that defines our lives is what matters most. In the long run all of the money on earth can’t buy contentment. It has to come from inside our hearts.

I fully understand that each of us needs certain material possessions to insure our well being, but our constant pursuit of greater and greater riches is a poor way to spend our time, especially when we consider that we never really know how much more of it we will have to enjoy the people and places that bring us joy. It is up to us to find pleasure no matter where we are, and it isn’t all that difficult to do.

My husband and I have taken to eating dinner outside each evening when the temperature cools down just a bit. We like to watch the wildlife that joins us during our nightly meals with great regularity. We enjoy the antics of a particular lizard whose injured tail has given him the dubious name of Stubby. We listen for the doves who greet us from the rooftop and the bluejays who fly from one tree to another. We catch quick glances of hummingbirds who flit around the yard so fast that we can barely keep up with them. Our little routine is a joyful experience that brings us together quietly and with little fanfare. It gives us the kind of bliss that we have learned to more fully appreciate.

I am no fool. I realize that I have been truly blessed and that there are those who never received the gift of time to rest and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. Even more so because I understand that truth, I am grateful for the small and the great pleasures that come my way. I have learned to find the exquisite beauty of a moment and it is a wonderful way to experience life.

The Importance of Stuff

antiques-booth-1My eyes used to glaze over whenever my mother-in-law began recounting her family history. She had worked quite hard to unravel the mysteries of her ancestry. Her quest for answers paid off with a great deal of information that she excitedly related to us in the hopes that we would remember. At the time I suspect that I was a bit too young to truly care about the names and the tales of which she spoke. Now I am duly fascinated by learning not only of her kin but my own. In some ways my husband and I have become the family historians, the keepers of the the tales and artifacts that bring long dead relatives back to life. I now see such responsibility as an honor and I am belatedly scurrying to preserve the information that I know lest it evaporates when I am gone.

I have rooms of my home filled with furniture and objects that once graced the homes of the people from whom my husband and I descended. I treasure them not so much for their value as for the lives of the people that they represent. I try to tell my children and grandchildren who they belonged to and what they meant to those individuals. I’m not certain that they truly understand. Sadly they are still mostly in the state of mind that I had when my dear mother-in-law tried so hard to get me interested. I suppose that something must have stuck in spite of my lack of enthusiasm, because now I am quite driven to learn even more lest we forget. In fact one of my girls recently laughed at me and called me “Granny” the name that she had for my mother-in-law because I was so insistent that she pay attention to the information that I was conveying.

The world is changing rapidly, sometimes far too quickly for my taste, which is a definite sign of age. I recently read that today’s young people view the antiques and collectibles of their parents and grandparents as junk. They prefer more modern furnishings and tend to donate any old things that they inherit to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. They have big estate sales to get rid of the unwanted items. It makes me a bit sad and worried that so much of what presently resides in my home may one day just become a nuisance to those who are left when I am gone. I would like to believe that in between my two daughters and seven grandchildren surely there will be someone who will step up to be the next keeper of the family flame. My treasures are important to me because they represent real people and are part of the hopes and dreams of their lives.

I have a very old pitcher from my great grandmother, Christina. It doesn’t look like much but it feels magical to know that she once held it in her hands. From my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, I have discharge papers from the Union army at the end of the Civil War. They hold his signature, the only image of him that I have. That scroll across the paper makes him very much alive in my mind. My grandmother Minnie gave me these things when I was still a very young girl and urged me to care for them always, which I have even when I still did not understand their significance.

There is far more from my mother-in-law. We have beautiful furniture that belonged to her mother, aunt and grandmothers. It is truly quite lovely and enhances our home with style and intersting stories of the people who once owned the pieces. I have to admit to being quite happy that my mother-in-law worked so hard to preserve those memories for us. They link us to both our past and our present and are physical signs of the lives of their owners.

I have dishes, linens, and tableware. Sadly there are books about which I worry because the pages are becoming weak and will one day fall apart, which I suppose is the natural way of things. My favorite is a child’s book that once belonged to my father. It may well have been the first thing that he ever read. Perhaps it even began his love affair with reading. I enjoy looking through the pages but I have to be careful because it has become quite delicate. It must be getting close to being one hundred years old.

I can only hope that there will one day be another who cherishes the humble offerings from the past. Perhaps both of my daughters will truly appreciate the photos and stories that I have saved. They loved their grandmothers so and I suspect that they will want to keep their memories alive at least for the time being. It will be interesting to see who among my grandchildren has a bent for sentimentality.

I try to visit the grave sites of my parents and grandparents and those of my husband’s kin as well. We regularly make a day of bringing flowers and spending time remembering the people who were so much a part of our lives. I sense that we are the only ones in our families who do this anymore because there are no signs that anyone else has visited. It makes me a bit sad to think that the time will come when nobody remembers them or goes to honor them.

I know that many people today think that cremation is the best way to handle death. It is not particularly expensive and it is environmentally friendly. They see little reason to set aside land for eternity just to keep the dust of those who died long ago. They may have a point but there is still something a bit reassuring in those everlasting memorials wherever they may be. I was greatly touched by finding the grave site of my great grandmother Christina. I felt a thrill in being beside her ashes or whatever is left of her. I wanted her to know how things had turned out for at least one of her twelve children and their descendants. I stood in a lonely field with the wind blowing across my face. It was deadly silent save for the chirping of nearby birds. I felt a communion with her that I might otherwise never have had. It was a truly moving moment in which I sensed her life and that of all the women before her. I am but a single link in a chain that will hopefully continue infinitely.

Perhaps I am becoming a bit silly as I grow older. I find myself appreciating things that my mother and mother-in-law did and said far more than I once did. I like thinking about the stories that they told and feeling close to them just from recalling those tidbits about their lives. I like visiting with them in the places where they are buried on sunny afternoons and leaving posies to brighten the places where they now rest. I really do hope that the very young come around in their thinking about the artifacts that were left behind by their ancestors just as I finally did. Things are not so important but the people that they represent are the stuff of who we are.

Murder and Adventure

140812163037-blood-countess-slovakia-castle-horizontal-large-galleryMy grandson Jack is quite active in theater arts in high school, so much so that his senior superlative award deemed him the most likely to win an Academy Award. Ironically his life plan is to become a computer specialist and his intent is to put his acting days to rest while attending Texas A&M University, so the probability that he will fulfill the prediction regarding his thespian abilities appears to be slim to none, unless he uses his computer skills at Pixar one day.

Jack’s final role will be in an original one act play written by his teacher about a Slovakian, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, believed to have been one of the most prolific serial killers in history. In a twist of irony she lived in the very town, Cachtice Slovakia, where my grandfather, Pavel Uhrik, was born. As was common in that part of the world well into the twentieth century, the ruling class held sway over the peasants to such an extent that the common folk lived in dire want and virtual obscurity. If a woman living in a castle hired one of them to work for her and then that laborer disappeared few would have thought much of the incident, especially in medieval days. Life for the vast majority of Slovakians was a dreary affair with the quest for work and food always the main concern well into the twentieth century. Little wonder that my grandfather Pavel Uhrik ultimately chose to immigrate to America just before the outbreak of World War I.

When I study the history of Slovakia I begin to better understand Pavel and why he chose to live his life the way he did. He came from a highly stratified political culture in which landowners held sway over the majority of the population. While the wealthy owned vast areas of land, their workers were tenants subject to the whims of their masters who all but owned them. They often lived in small cramped huts without running water or electricity. Hunger stalked them like a marauder. Few had the time or the means to pursue education beyond the fifth grade so among them there was an exceedingly high rate of illiteracy. The very conditions that made their lives so miserable also made them targets of prejudice. Without opportunities for change they either resigned themselves to the hopelessness of their lives, or found a way to leave their dreary situations behind by becoming immigrants to places like the United States.

I never met my grandfather but I heard countless conflicting stories about him. He was proud to be Slovakian but even prouder to be an American. His children knew little about his past life because he tended to be secretive which is true of many immigrants. In retrospect it seems likely that his former life had been so harsh that he found little to boast about. He was a practical man who believed in moving forward rather than looking back. He would have had little reason to speak of a time when he lived in miserable and perhaps even humiliating conditions.

Pavel was also an exceedingly stoic man. He worked hard everyday to provide for his family and almost furiously rejected even acts of charity. Perhaps accepting gifts or money that he had not earned made him feel too much like owing something to another and he fiercely insisted on maintaining the freedom that he had secured in his new country. He paid cash for every item that he purchased and carefully saved from his small salary so that he might build a home for his family. He purchased land and livestock and boasted that in America he was a man of substance, something that might have been impossible to achieve in his old country.   

He filled his home with books, a grand luxury and sign of his personal success. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the educational opportunities that were afforded them. On Sundays he often read to them from the many volumes that he collected. He insisted that their futures were to be found in learning and hard work. He noted that he was the master of his own destiny as they were as well, and that nobody makes it anywhere without effort.

He was not always treated well by his fellow Americans nor were his children. They endured taunts and were victimized by misunderstandings caused by their cultural and physical differences. He counseled his children to ignore the slights and to prove themselves with positive accomplishments. There would be no whining or self pity allowed in his home. They were to hold their heads high and be satisfied that they had a safe, if very small home, and food on the table every single day. While he never alluded to want in his native land, there was an understanding among his children that they were quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things.

All of the aspects of having made it that most probably had been missing in Pavel’s early life were found in his great adventure in America. He was eternally grateful to the country that had made his existence and that of his children so much better, even when its treatment of him lacked hospitality. He knew all too well how horrible the alternative would have been and so he counted his blessings rather than focusing on the imperfections. His children would follow his lead in this regard, urging all of us from the third generation of Americans to appreciate our good fortune and to abstain from comparing ourselves to others.

Our own children and grandchildren are now so distant from the realities of Pavel Uhrik that they are hardly able to imagine their great great grandparent’s worldview. The extended family has become so successful and so Americanized that few would think that a little over a hundred years ago the founder had sailed away from a life without prospects to one with ill defined but exciting promise. He had moved from a town in which a wealthy woman was free to murder almost six hundred innocent souls simply because nobody had enough energy to check on the nameless peasants whose lives had so little value that they easily faded into obscurity.

Now Pavel’s great great grandson Jack will play the part of a man determined to change the fate of the unwashed souls who were being so horrifically tossed aside in his ancestor’s old land, someone who stood up to a system that was so unfair. Because Pavel took a courageous risk, Jack is well on his way to fulfilling his own dreams. He has both benefited from and taken advantage of the opportunities that were a gift handed down through the generations from Pavel. In a twist of fate the circle of life begun so long ago has returned to it’s beginning and provided an opportunity for all the sons and daughters of Pavel to give thanks that we are exactly where he might have dreamed that we would one day be.