The Withered Leaf: An Ancestry Story

I met my mother’s father once. I was very small, he was very quiet and together we sat on a piano bench as he played a tune. I was told he was rather brilliant and could play multiple instruments. When we parted, I went back to my home where my parents watched over me and he went back to his home, where attendants and orderlies and case workers watched over him. He was institutionalized most of his adult life.

No one talked about him. No one really knew him.

I went looking for him.

On my journey I discovered his mother, her name was Ruth or maybe it was Katie Ruth or Catherine, but my guess is she was more commonly known as Ruth. I had always believed she died in North Carolina an elderly woman. In fact, I believed my grandfather and his siblings had moved to Dallas while their parents remained back in their home, several states away. I had it all wrong. Through a small amount of research, it turns out she was born in Texas, as were all her children, and she actually died a building or two away from a building I once worked in. I never had any idea she was in Austin. It was strange to think about. She spent her remaining 5 years here in an institution and died at the age of 49. Recently, I was on that campus for a meeting and my stomach flipped as I looked up at the windows wondering if she had ever looked down on the spot I stood on. In the 1930’s, was she ever allowed to walk where I walked?

I had been told no one in the family liked to talk about her. Not even her other children, so I know no stories other than what I can glean from a census or two.

I found her father’s, my great-great-grandfather’s, death certificate – also institutionalized. He died of exhaustion after a manic bout. Our history unfolds.

I grasped at the names of Ruth’s siblings and landed on Winnie. Oh dear Winnie! The newspaper articles my co-worker found chronicled her singing in the town’s glee club. She was an auditor at a hotel. Not a teacher or a secretary, which I would expect to find. Winnie. Doubtlessly smart and clearly talented. Finally, someone in this family was ok. Unfortunately, she died at 38, her death certificate said, a head injury sustained “in public”. A young divorcee dying “in public” had to be news worthy. I went searching for an article about it. This was 1935 when the paper seemed to think “Mrs. Miller was visited by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Patterson” made for an interesting piece. Sadly, I couldn’t find one. This was probably a cold case! Before I could even begin to spin-up an amazing tale of murder, betrayal and likely choral glee jealousy, my co-worker came across her obituary. It said she had died in a sanitarium. My face fell when I heard the news. My only rational thought on the matter is that perhaps the head trauma lead to her being briefly in a hospital before she passed away, because it was the 1930’s, maybe it was just called a sanitarium.

(Around this time Jay asked me to see if he was related to Seco Smith. You know, good ol’ Seco. A pioneer’s pioneer. A real Texan whose adventures were chronicled repeatedly in the Frontier Times. I looked, and of course he’s a great-great-more greats nephew of this larger-than-life feller. I gave him the stink-eye. Ancestries are clearly not fair.)

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this awful legacy. These people we don’t talk about.

In this ancestry search, the kind they don’t show on the commercials, I’ve chatted with some of my third cousins on this side. They’re very polite and very curious. “We don’t know about your side, please share what you can.” To which I’ve honestly replied, “neither do I, but when I do I’ll be glad to pass on the information” knowing there’s some I never will.

So, last night, inspired by one of these third-ish cousins, I reached out to my second cousin – my grandfather’s sister’s granddaughter. I awkwardly explained who I was and told her I was researching our family. I asked if she’d be willing to share information. (I would just like to know what our great-grandmother’s full name was or even have a picture of my grandfather’s siblings.)

The only photo I have of this side of the family. Taken around 1900. The gentleman in the middle row, third from the right is my great-great-great grandfather, Daniel. His second wife sits before him and in front of her my great half aunts and uncles. His brothers, my great uncles are the two men that stand next to him.

I can’t possibly convey how that simple request has my stomach in knots knowing that my grandfather’s siblings, including her grandmother, did not like talking about my grandfather. His illness was an embarrassment to the family. And despite being cordial, they never had much to do with my mother or her sister. How do you bridge the shame? Do you say, “Hi, I’m Beth – Jim’s granddaughter, you know “that” Jim. So far I’m asymptomatic for crazy and am allowed to roam “mostly” unattended outside of the house. I even hold down a job! Please be nice to me and tell me what my great-grandmother’s full name is. Do you like hugs? I don’t. I was just curious. Is this weird for you? XXOO Beth”? (Ok, I may not have put it quite like that since I do actually want information.)

You see, I’m the family they don’t talk about trying to ask the “good” side if they’re willing to have a conversation. My pedigree, as it were, from the other sides of the family don’t matter. What apparently matters is that I’m descended from a crazy man, who was born to a crazy woman, who was born to a crazy father and because of a chemical imbalance, there are stories of how they damaged their families – stories I played no part in.

Each hour that she doesn’t respond heightens the anxiety. I want to know these people (within reason and that doesn’t involve a BBQ or slumber party), I want to see these people (a picture or two?), but I know I’m marked by this terrible stigma of insanity and it weighs heavily on me.

Fifi & Mr. Pickles

Another shoot featuring one of my favorite people that was written, directed, and edited by another one of my favorite people, and filmed and sounded ummm soundified? soundied? by more of my favorite people.  And to get Executive Producer, all I had to do was offer up my garage (you’ll soon admire how fancy it is), eat cookies and occasionally shout out a line when needed (only occasionally… sometimes not at the right moment, but meh I made the credits! Go me!

You may remember this shoot was mentioned in a previous post where a crazy neighbor stomped on my porch and let us know she didn’t want this kind of thing in her neighborhood.   “…people popping up and down…”  The scandal!

Well, now you too can enjoy the scandalous shoot that shocked a neighborhood in all its scandalous glory.  Starring Holt Boggs & Jonathan Spear!

Abra-ka-what-what!

You may recall that last August our little gang entered our first Austin 48 Hour Film Project.  I may have written (vented?) about it in a behind-the-scenes post.

While we were able to turn-in a completed film, it wasn’t the film in its entirety.  (If only we’d had 49 hours!) But today, thanks to our DP/Editor, Richard G. Bingham, II and our writer/actor Topping Haggerty, we give you the full video.  Keep in mind this was all written, shot and edited (save the middle section which had to be scrapped to make the deadline) in 48 Hours.  Also, note that no children were harmed despite accusations from a disgusting little HOA hobgoblin (who has since inspired an original song and sketch ideas – our little troll muse, as she were).

Don’t Ask About the Violin: A Different Rant

I hate the violin.

I know, I promised a different rant, but here it is.  I just hate it.  I’m also not particularly partial to the piano, but really it’s the violin that earns my complete disdain.  Truth be told, I’m also not particularly fond of violinists either, but that’s a different subject.

See, the thing is I played in orchestras through most of college and a bit outside of it.  I’ve been paid to play.  I’ve played on large stages with box seats and multi-tiered balconies. And because I played in orchestras, and have even played in decent orchestras, people seem to think that equates to a love of the violin.  I do not.

It came up in conversation today. It being “the violin” and not “my utter loathing”.  A person asked me if I knew who some person was and I said “no idea” hoping they’d move along, yet they stayed and followed with, “oh, it’s a violinist, I thought you’d know.”   So, in addition to detesting the violin, I’m also not burning precious brain space by cataloging violinists.  See violinists tend to play the violin and I wouldn’t want to keep a mental database of people I’ll never understand or even want to know in my brain.  (Except for Erika, I love you!) Sure, there’s famous people you can’t help knowing like Itzak Perlman playing his Stradivarius (an overrated instrument with questionable sound quality beloved because it hasn’t completely fallen apart in 300+ years). I’m sure he’s a delightful man… for a violinist.

I’m a violist or was a violist if we’re going to be accurate.  It’s an instrument with a deeper and richer sound that is decidedly not a violin and doesn’t need two sections in an orchestra to make a point.  If you’ve played a viola, you become acutely aware that really all an orchestra needs are you, a few cellos and a bass, but do you get that? Nooooo.  In come a pack of the screechiest instruments known to man stealing all of the melodies with their ear shattering, high-pitched, over-vibrato’ed noise.  Blech.

For the record, a viola is not a violin.  I wanted to clear that up.  Not because I’ve encountered that before.  It’s just a random comment.  But come on, you learn about instruments in the orchestra in elementary school.  Like an oboe is not a clarinet – a viola is not a violin.

Please note, this rant is entirely fact filled and unbiased.

Also please note, don’t ask me about violins.

Disclaimer: I was never personally teased by a violin (that you’re aware of) so this hostility is umm… well-founded. That’s right.  That’s a logical statement.

Now enjoy the viola. (A concerto that all violists learn to perform. It nearly makes me want to practice.)

Clogged

Recently, I’ve been a bit blushy (this is a word) after receiving some highly undeserved praise and encouragement for my writing.  I’m never sure what to do with the compliments.  It’s a bit like hearing all of your hopes whispered into one ear while balancing it against reality. So, let me first say “thanks” to those folks and then finish with some “bless your hearts”.  I admit, I do feel somewhat guilty for not writing, but the truth is I don’t have a good story to tell. Right now, when I think of writing, it manifests into rants.  I seem to walk a weird line between telling anecdotes and screaming about perceived injustices – no real middle ground.  Unfortunately, I live in that middle ground and when it comes to writing about it I struggle.  I just find it boring.  It’s the land of the uneventful – the mundane – the grocery store adventures, the long drives between destinations, the day-to-day.  I’ve always relied on my knack for tweaking the details to make the mundane more entertaining, but I guess I’m a bit blocked.  I blame the rants that are clogging up the works.

So, I guess this is warning of sorts that I may come blasting out on my blog.  Thankfully, I’ll only offend a few of my 10 readers.  You guys may want to just skip the next few posts.  Once I get all of that out of my system, I can go back to topics like:

  • Celebrating Dad’s 70th Birthday: A Perfect Rainy Day (Aside: huge love to Ernie for sending Dad a special card that really made his day – that card now has a special place on the fridge)
  • Fist-bumping cashiers in Centerville, TX
  • Auditions for my upcoming shoot – thank you, ONE guy
  • New job!
  • There’s Always a Cop When You Need One: Cackling at Other’s Misfortune (well, he pulled out into my lane and just stopped there) – whoops, I think I just told the story.
  • Sewing with feathers

Until then, brace yourself for “Who is Your Mother: Why I “Love” Drunks” – the working title of the rant that’s in my head.

I Am American

I am  American.

When you shake the branches of my family tree, you find ancestors that fought in the American Revolution, ancestors who fought in the Civil War, ancestors who fought in both World War I and II.  In fact, you’ll find we arrived on the Mayflower on one side and settled in Jamestown on the other.  My family helped lay the foundations on which our country is built.

I am American.

I am also white. In high school we moved to a new area of town, a richer area, a whiter area.  When that happened, I requested to be transferred to a school where I was a minority.  A school where my childhood friends attended. I was granted that request because of my race, because the school district wanted more racial balancing in its schools. Many of my classmates were first and second generation Americans.  Many spoke English as a second language. (Many could actually speak a second language.)  I only mention this so you get a glimpse at my background and mindset.

In 1883, an American poet of Jewish heritage and Portuguese descent, Emma Lazarus, wrote a poem:

“The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In 1903 it was placed on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Emma Lazarus was American.

In 1814, nearly a century before, Francis Scott Key a second generation American of British descent wrote the most patriotic of songs, our national anthem.

Francis Scott Key was American.

You probably have guessed where I’m going with this, but before I get there, let’s look at some statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau:

I am among the 7.2% that are classified as “American”, which means 92.8% of the entire population in the United States as of 2000, came from other areas around the world.  One could conclude then that being American goes well beyond being “American”.

Let’s talk about the idea of the “melting pot”:   “…a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture.”  The term was in use by the 1780’s to describe the coming (or melting) together of our very diverse cultures.

At one time we celebrated this ideal of blended cultural harmony.  We used it as a way to define what it meant to be American.

… and that brings us to Katherine Lee Bates.  The woman who wrote the poem “America the Beautiful” set to the hymn “Materna” by Samuel Ward.  The woman who said the song was inspired after a trip to Pike’s Peak where upon arriving near the top she said, “I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”  A song about the beauty of her country, our country.

Our song, if we can truly claim it as our song as Americans, is a song for all Americans from all cultural backgrounds.  It is a patriotic song.  Despite what some believe, it is not our National Anthem.

So, let’s talk about the Coke ad and let’s talk about it from my perspective as a daughter of the Mayflower, a daughter of Jamestown, a daughter of the American Revolution, and as a person hard-pressed to find any ancestor who came to the United States after 1700. A time before we could call ourselves the United States.  The 7.2%.

What I see is beautiful.  What I see is America with all of its wonderful diversity celebrated by singing about the beauty of America.

What I feel is abject disgust at some of the reaction this video has received. What I see is racist, intolerant and ignorant.  Let’s address one of the major issues – that America’s song wasn’t sung in English as “it should be”.  Fun fact – English is not the official language of the United States.  In fact, there is no official language of the United States.  States have the right to choose and in some states, in our very own hallowed country, they recognize other languages. Languages such as French and Spanish.  And while people are not required to speak English to live in this country, non-native speakers do actually understand, without being harassed, that being able to speak the language is often helpful to do things like get around, complete forms, go to the grocery store, etc.  Much like it would be helpful if you spoke Latvian if you moved to Latvia. (Although as Americans, we would never do that.  We tend to believe the rest of the world should also speak English and will belligerently plow ahead speaking English in foreign countries.  It’s one of those traits that foreigners find so adorable about us when we travel.)

Many things have been translated into English.  Let’s talk about one of the more popular ones, the Bible.

The Bible was written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek which, as you’re aware, includes Psalms.  Psalms can be translated as “instrumental music” or “words accompanying the music”. Please note that English is not among the languages mentioned there.  I mention Psalms specifically because we’re talking about music.  If I were to quote Psalm 84, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. For the Lord is a sun and shield” to any of my Jewish friends, I doubt that they would throw an epic conniption fit that I’d just spoken it in English.  They wouldn’t want to burn down the Bible for my offense, as a relative’s friend said she’d like to do to a Coca-Cola bottling company, because that is absolutely absurd – as absurd as what she said. Now while arguably this a different type of “song”, it is a song nonetheless.  One that was translated into many languages and spoken in many tongues.

The Bible was translated to make it accessible to the masses and while I’m sure there were many clergymen who didn’t approve and who likely argued about the meaning being lost in translation they ultimately relented.  The earth continued to spin. The Message was still heard. It did not become abhorrent when the first English speaker spoke it out loud.

Many would argue that the Bible is more sacred than a poem set to music from the 1800′s.

Any number of books and songs have been translated into English in the name of accessibility and I’d like to think the heads of the native speakers of whatever country that work came from didn’t spin off or explode when the first English speaker dared to utter their “sacred” words.  I know mine didn’t explode when I listened to a song/poem about the beauty of America as written by a woman, who incidentally was a lesbian, and sung by Americans in different languages.

Katherine Lee Bates was also an American.

America is supposed to be accessible.  Accessible to the huddled masses.  Accessible to those fleeing tyranny and oppression.  So, when I hear “America the Beautiful” sung in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi and Arabic, I hear the beautiful voices of my friends – I hear Americans.  I don’t ignorantly insist that it’s beauty as a song is some how diminished, because I heard the words in Hebrew.

My ancestors lived, fought, bled and died for this country before it was a country.  They fought for safe shores, for a refuge from oppression.  They even fought for the right of its people to be ignorant, judgmental and exclusive – the right to turn our back on the ideals that shaped our country, the right to deny people from around the world who have enriched this very country – the people who built our railroads, worked our fields, harvested our fruits, sewed our clothes, made our food, cleaned our houses, drove us around our cities and who for some inexplicable reason we despise because they had the audacity to sing “our” song in their native tongue.

And who is the “us” that makes the song “ours”? The 7.2%? or is that “us” also a group of immigrants and refugees who wrongfully feel more entitled because they can say they’re 2nd or 3rd or 5th generation Americans – not lowly newcomers with their foreign languages, their foreign beliefs and their foreign customs.

America wouldn’t be America if it prized closed-mindedness and uniformity.  It is our diversity of belief, our diversity of culture that makes us strong.

I am American.

I am disgusted.

Writing, Lists and Other Random Thoughts

I promised myself that this year I’d write more. I didn’t promise I’d necessarily blog more, since I tend to wait on life to be randomly absurd before making a post, but I decided I’d write a few more sketches.  While I have managed to work on a sketch (just one while I think of a new one), I still feel like I’ve neglected my blog.  My excuse has been that life hasn’t thrown anything overly zany my way to warrant a solid post.  So, I’m in a bit of a writing limbo where I’m not writing and thus you get this thrown together post – some randomness from my head which will allow me to put a mark in my 2014 writing book that means “hey, I wrote a thing! Go me!  Kudos GIRL!”  I may high-five myself at the end – not because of the content of what I plan to write, but because I made words.

Without further ado…

One of the many things I hate about FaceBook is that every now and again someone will create a status update that outlines a peeve they have that serves as a general notice to their many friends – a warning.  For example, they’ll post a shared photo that points out how people use language or turns of phrases incorrectly.  Your job as a friend is to take heed and ideally respond that you are either of a like mind and equally offended by the foolish masses that clearly cannot use language or you confess to your own writing indiscretions and vow on bended knee to make changes.  On the one hand, it’s a fine way for you and your nearest and dearest to feel quite smug about your superior grasp of language (aka a bonding moment) and on the other it allows the huddled ignorant masses to see you as the bright shining beacon of intellectual superiority you always knew you were and genuflect accordingly (as is your due).  Thankfully you are content knowing both spoken and written English haven’t evolved since the first spoken word was, well, spoken.   I mean, who can’t read the works of Chaucer or the poem Y Gododdin without translation? Imbeciles!

Ultimately, I suppose I could care less about this. (That’s right language snobs, I threw down that gauntlet!)

By that same token, I also hate those lists people post of books you’re supposed to have read to be considered intelligent.  They usually invoke a line about how the British or possibly some British publication has actually made the list, so your job as a patriot is to show the British that you can read words on paper.  Now go ahead and substitute “British” for “you” since Snopes has fact checked the truth of that statement and found it to be false.  The British may suspect (and likely do) that we’re idiots, but they’re savvy enough not to put it in a major publication, which means I’m supposed to prove to you I’m well-read.  Here’s a fact: I will never read “Far from the Madding Crowd” nor will I read “Crime and Punishment” to prove to you I belong in your book club.  You’ll have to continue to love me for my belligerent idiocy.

So, I decided in honor of all of this recently getting under my skin, I’d make my own list of pet peeves that my friends can work their way down to see if they conform to my ideals of a good world citizen.  In my opinion being an offender of any of these makes you a lesser person and me better.

  • People who stand in line in front of me.  I don’t have time for you to shop.  I’ve got pressing things going on and need to leave before you. Your behavior is rude.  Move along.
  • People who enter an aisle at a store that I’ve claimed.  I’ve claimed it by being there.  Please peruse the end cap until I’ve exited the aisle.  Definitely, don’t snuggle up next to me. It’s too close to hugging and you’re not family.  I don’t want stranger hugs while I’m trying to locate the wheat flour.
  • People who drive near me and are not going the same speed, but are either going faster or slower.  The perfect speed is the one I’ve randomly chosen.  Please choose another road.
  • The word “cause” being used instead of “because”.  If you use “cause” please follow up with an “effect”.  I don’t want to be surprised when you start blurting out an excuse and I’m expecting something grammatically different.
  • Lottery-style games that are rigged against me.  If you’re going to give me the opportunity to win a Big Foot costume to promote the upcoming movie “Big Foot Wars”, then I want to win.  I don’t want to be in a pool with others and you draw one of their names. Don’t make me angry at statistics. This holds true for my chances of winning an autographed book by Josh Gates (host of “Destination Truth” as you know) and any other drawing I’ve recently entered.
  • People who make me take knitting classes with them when knitting classes are up there with poke-myself-in-the-eye classes on a perfectly good Sunday like today.  Especially those same people who ditched the Special FX makeup class I signed us up for, which was by all accounts (made by me) a better class. By better, I mean “cooler”.  This is a random item on my list. Honest. A hypothetical. I’m not stuck in a knitting class today as 2 1/2 hours of my life drains away.
  • People who don’t appreciate how much I typo in a blog and don’t understand that it will take me reading a post through at least 50 times before I catch most of my errors.  This quirk makes my blog charming.
  • People who make ridiculous lists and expect people to live up to their standards.  Wait… ummm….