Monday, December 31, 2012

Steve's Last letter

As each year winds down, I  look back over the journal that I have kept to remind myself of the myriad things that have occurred during the year, many of which I’d never expected and  most of which I’ve already begun to forget. One of the most surprising things that turned up in 2012 was a letter written from my brother Steve to Mom in August of 1967, just a few months before his death.  Though we now know what Steve did not about his future – something that imbues the letter with an even richer meaning  – I think it is a really appropriate letter for reflection on a day given to thoughts about renewal and new beginnings.  On a more personal level, I think it gives Steve a chance to let him tell those in our family who never really knew him a little something about himself in his own words.  I wonder how many 19 year-olds today in comparable situations would show the same kind of independence, work ethic and character that this letter hints at.  (I’ve kept all the original spelling.)

                                                                                            August 25, 1967

     Just thought I would write a couple of lines to let you know what I have been doing.  Right now George and I are in San Fransico, it was so hot at the river that we decided to come up here and see what was going on.  Both of use are okay but we have had a little trouble with the car, we think that it has a burnt valve but we are really not sure.  We went to a garage the other day and they said that it would cost between 65.00 and 80.00 dollars to have it fixed.  Neither of use have any money and we are going to work up here until we can get up enough money to get the car fixed and return home.  I got a job yesterday working at a place called World Carpets Inc, but it is only for three days.  George is still looking for a job but hasn’t had much luck.  After this job is finished we are going to go to this place and get a job picking peaches.  We figure we will have enough money to get the car fixed by Thursday or Friday so we will probably be returning home late Friday nite or early Saturday morning.  I am really looking forward to getting home, because it is frezzing up here and we have been sleeping in the car and it’s pretty cramped and I’m starving.  Well at least I think that I have learned one thing out of this trip, and that is that I don’t want to go on being a bum the rest of my life, after seeing all the bums and panhandlers down here it really makes you stop and think. I sure would hate to think of me being like that in 10 years or so.  So I have decided when I get back home I am going to get a job and save money, then go back to school the second semester, because I doubt if I could get in this semester I think it’s too late.  When I get back in school I am really going to try.  This may sound like a lot of hogwash to you, but I really mean it this time.  This place has really made me see how important it is to get an education and make something of yourself.  Well enough that subject for a while.
     Well like I said I will probable be home Friday or Saturday depending on how soon we get the car fixed. How is everything down there OK.  I hope. Well I have to get going now I am at work on my lunch hour and I have to get back.  I just wanted to let you know I am ok.  Say hi to Pat & Mary and everybody down there and I will see you on Saturday (I hope).


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Remember...

Christmas is the time of year when we all seem to dig back into memories to recall our traditions and the experiences we shared with our families when we were younger.  This year has added to it the knowledge that it has now been one year since Mom died.  Looking back, I am glad that two Christmases ago we were able to put together a small book of  memories of  the times we had growing up in Mom's house to give her as a Christmas gift. 

My memories of childhood are not always the clearest so a few days ago, I sat sat down and wrote a stream of consciousness, “I Remember” list.  It is a technique that writing teachers have traditionally used to get ideas for writing, but I just used it to try to help bring some of my memories back to consciousness.  There is no particular organization to it. When I was done, I looked at it and thought that perhaps other family members might be interested in seeing it because it might trigger some of their own memories, so I’m posting it and inviting anyone who has things to add to it or post a list of their own. (See below the list for how to.)

I remember the time we were driving our '49 DeSoto to San Diego from Santa Ana and it died, so the whole family had to hitchhike.
I remember Grandpa Wilkins' coin collection.
I remember piling in back of the rambler station wagon and singing at the top of our voices.
I remember trying to deliver newspapers in by bicycle in the hot Santa Ana winds.
I remember seeing a fire from the playground of Willard Jr. High school and running down the street to see it, only to find out it was our house.
I remember Mom clicking her teeth at all of the grandchildren.
I remember Mary answering the door at Grandma’s and calling out, “there’s a woman at the door and she’s really fat!”
I remember how Dad liked mincemeat pie.
I remember how we used to dry our clothes by hanging them out on a clothes line.
I remember that the bulbs we used on the Christmas tree were much bigger than the ones today and that the tinsel was real tinsel, not plastic.
I remember that we had to ask permission to take anything out of the refrigerator.
I remember that peppermint was my favorite flavor of ice cream.
Of course, I remember Mom fastening Ed to the clothes line by his suspenders.
I remember the whole family watching Bonanza, the Ed Sullivan show, Disneyland or Lawrence Welk on Sunday nights.
I remember how we would all kneel down to say the rosary each night during lent.
I remember going to watch Pat’s little league games
I remember the Christmas when Steve and I got our first bikes.
I remember having cow’s tongue for dinner.
I remember when the Mass was still in Latin and we would sing Adeste Fidelis in the original words.
I remember that two years in a row, a box with food for Thanksgiving dinner was dropped off at our house.
I remember that Grandpa Wilkins would ring the necks of the chickens he raised.
I remember family pinochle games at holidays.
I remember ping pong matches on the backyard patio.
I remember walking past a pet store on my first day of kindergarten.
I remember the smell of the campfire at the camp for at risk youth during the summer after eighth grade.
I remember spam and Ovaltine.
I remember Mom making syrup for hotcakes out of mapeline.
I remember lying in bed earlier Christmas morning in the dark unable to get back to sleep.
I remember the first time our family went out to a restaurant together and eating Chinese food.
I remember that mom always called pizza “pizza pie” and pronounced Italian with a long I.
I remember Mom’s stories of getting her tongue frozen stuck on a gate.
I remember climbing the apricot tree at Grandma’s.
I remember how Dad used to give us all haircuts and one time he let Mom try to cut his hair.
I remember planting the redbud tree in our front yard when it had arrived in the mail as a twig.
I remember boils, pinworms and impetigo.
I remember lining up in school to get vaccinations.
I remember grandma’s ringer washer.
I remember fried chicken and mashed potatoes on Sundays – Mom’s was the best.
I remember Mom always wore clip on earrings.
I remember the silk jackets Dad brought Steve and I back from Korea.
I remember that Dave always had the best penmanship in the family.
I remember sitting in front of the television watching the test patterns and waiting for shows to come on for the day.
I remember oyster stew on Fridays
I remember Mom reading our first books to us, “The Little Red Hen” and “Peter Rabbit”.
I remember using hand signals to drive.
I remember taking accordion lessons and wanting to be able to play “Lady of Spain”
I remember on Christmas that we could only open one gift before attending Mass.
I remember the year I learned there was no Santa Claus and had to keep the secret from Steve.
I remember how much I loved Mom’s pineapple-upside down cake.
I remember Dad saying the only two foods he didn’t like were parsnips and tomatoes, and that squirrel tasted greasy.
I remember that we always shared bedrooms. 
I remember Mom always said Dave “was like a long drink of water.”
I remember that when we lived with grandma, on weekends we would put the names of the chores to be done in a jar and each draw out our jobs for the day.
I remember that when we brought report cards home, Mom always looked at the conduct marks and effort first.  She said the most important thing to her were that we were good people.

As for posting to Northen News, Maya made the serendipitous discovery a week or so ago that if you already have an account with Blogger and I have sent you an invitation, Northen News will automatically pop up as one of the blogs that you can add to, so you can write a new one at any time.  If I didn’t send you an invitation, but you want to post on Blogger, let me know and I’ll send you one.  All, I’ll need is your email. Of course, you can always just leave a comment.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

St. Martin's Photo

Melissa was asking whether or not there was a picture of St. Martin's Catholic Church that I mentioned in the previous blog.  The pictures are scarce, but here is one I found on the web.

I'm not sure which part is original but it still looks pretty solid. If anyone finds a better one, please share it.

St. Martin's Church

In Springfield, Wisconsin there is a Catholic church called St. Martin’s that is both a part of our family history and one of those small pieces in the puzzle of American history as well.  Johann Adam Sitzmann, my great-great grandfather, was a stone mason who had recently arrived in the United States from Germany when the building of St. Martin’s began to be built in 1850.  According to local history, it was only in 1841 that the first white settlers had come permanently to this area.  Most of the land still belonged to Native Americans, and that included the land that he thought he had a deed to, as he later found out.   
In history context is everything.  Sitzmann was working on St. Martin’s prior to the Civil War.  It interests me that the church he was helping to build was a Roman Catholic church at a time when there was still a deep prejudice in this country against Catholicism.  No doubt, our tobacco-farming Northen ancestors would have driven them out of town, had they shown up in rural Virginia.  St. Martin’s went on to have a school.  While today we simply assume every child’s right to public education, in the mid-1800’s education was still basically a private affair.  Those parents who had money might send their children, but even then, Catholics were often not allowed, so no doubt St. Martin’s school played an important role in the community.
Because of the dubious claim to his property, Johann Adam Sitzman ended up moving on to western Iowa becoming part of the mass mid-century expansion westward.  St. Martin’s, of course, remained behind.  In one of my imaginary drives across the country to visit all those places that played a part in our family becoming what it is today, Springfield is definitely one of my stops.  It is amazing that today, though expanded and updated, the original church of 160 years ago is still standing.  It was built of stone and meant to last. I’m intrigued with the idea that if somehow Sitzmann left his own fingerprints, his own mark on it.   I doubt many buildings we put up today will be standing 160 years from now, when our descendents look back at us. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Trout Field Trips for Children

 The following blog is from Ed Northen.

 Trout Unlimited already has a program in place called Trout in the Classroom. The program is a new one. It is done all one the country and is quite successful.  That program allows children in a classroom to raise trout from eggs and watch them develop.  They then learn about the habitat, food sources and anatomy of trout and after they are grown release the trout into a local river. It is a good program and well established, the only down side of it is, it all done using trout raised in a  hatchery, not wild trout and their is a significant difference if you were ever to go fish for trout.  The difference can be compared to if you were to go hunting for Elk or for cows.  

The program we are doing is a pilot program and is focused on many of the same things.  We have a classroom take a field trip to the river and then we will catch fish by either electroshocking the water, which stuns the fish momentarily and allows us to net a few or flies with barbless hooks and catch the fish.  They go into a live well and then have a transmitter placed in them by a professional  trained to do this.  The kids release the trout back into the water and then will use a computer program to track the habits of the Trout.  While on the river the Kids will also have the opportunity about healthy trout habitat and some of the insects [entomology] which Trout use for food.  During the year volunteers will go into the classroom and be a guest teacher on any number of subjects related to wild trout and their habitats, plus do something fun like have  the kids tie a fly, cast fly rod, learn a knot used in fishing, etc.  They will also discuss the movement of the trout and it reinforces the need for healthy habitat and ecosystems as the children see how the fish move and where they live as the water levels change in the course of the year.  

Yesterday, unfortunately we had to cancel the field trip and have rescheduled for Oct 30th.  The rain was pouring down and we had winds up to 45 mph.  We had a lot of trees come down in the land trust near our house and our friends had a tree fall and crush their fence and intruding the yard of the people who live behind them. So today  am going to go with a chain saw and help him cut up the tree and repair the fence, the tree is probably 40 - 50 feet tall.   Then this afternoon at 4:30 we will go with our Trout Unlimited Chapter and rescue some more of the trout who get trapped in the canals, they shut of another canal yesterday.  I suspect that we will get another  4,000 - 5,000  wild trout.   

(Ed is the president of the Hemingway chapter of Trout Unlimited. You can see his newsletter at

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Navy Beans

I’m cutting the last of the ham off the bone, laying aside slices that I’ll wrap up and freeze for sandwiches or scalloped potatoes, but I know what I’m going to do with the bone.  I‘ve left some of the fat and gristle on it and a few bits of meat in hard-to-get-to places where the bone curves it. It is going for Navy beans.  There are some things you can’t let go of despite flow of time and fashion and, for me, one is my mother’s admonition never to waste anything. 
Growing up, Fridays were tuna casserole or oyster stew, Sunday (if we were lucky) could be fried chicken with mashed potatoes and Tuesday might be meatloaf, but somewhere in the week there was sure to be Navy beans.  When I’m done cleaning up the cutting board, I’ll get out a large pot and dump the beans in to soak them overnight.  I could take the easy way out and use canned beans but it makes a lot more this way and I like to have the leftovers. I’ll add plenty of salt and pepper and a bay leaf, as my mother did.  One thing I won’t do like my mother is to add onions.  As an adult, I use onions regularly in all kinds of cooking, but as a child, they were one of the few things that completely destroyed the taste of a meal for me.
Of course, I ate them anyway.  One of the rules of our family was that you never left anything on your plate.  If you didn’t want seconds, fine - with seven children around the table there was always someone willing to eat what you didn’t like - but you didn’t waste.  We’d say our prayer before meals and Mom would dish us all out a big bowl of  Navy beans, usually with cornbread.  The syrup that we poured on the cornbread was made with something called Maplene that I think disappeared with the sixties. She’d heat up sugar on the stove with some water in it and then pour in the Maplene until it thickened enough to become a thin syrup.
After dinner, whoever’s turn it was to do the dishes would always clear up the table. Two of us each night, one to wash and one to dry.  I always preferred washing.  If Mom were helping with cleaning up in the kitchen, we’d sing together as we washed. Whether she was cooking or cleaning, my mother always sang as she worked. She sang in the car with all us packed in the back of a Rambler station wagon before all of the seatbelt laws.  Before seatbelts. 
A little over a year ago when my mother could no longer walk or dress herself without help and was living in a group home,  my brother Ed flew out from Idaho, my sister Judi from Tennessee, and me from New Jersey to celebrate her ninetieth birthday with her. One afternoon, we took her to Red Lobster - my mother’s idea of a five star restaurant - and she ordered a huge meal.  As she finished the last bite, my brother Ed laughed and said, “And she’s going to eat every last one of those depression era beans.”
I’m humming to myself as I fill the sink with water and wash off the cutting board and knives.   My mother died two days after Christmas.  Despite her best efforts, my faith has gone the way of fish on Friday, scapulas and stations of the cross.  But I don’t need a heaven to justify her life.  I have the memories of childhood.  I have the feeling of the song that rises from the warm dishwater.  I have the Navy beans. That is enough.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

We KNEW We were Royalty

Like almost everyone else in the U.S. who has a family member that originally came from England, we can trace our family back to English royalty.   Maya and I were looking at all of this yesterday and thought it was fun, so just thought I would post it.  I just copied this from so it is really in reverse but just goes forward from Henry IV and comes down to me and, ergo, anyone in the Northen family.

Henry (IV) Plantagenet Plantagenet (1367 - 1413)
is your 19th great grandfather
Son of Henry (IV) Plantagenet
Daughter of Humphrey
Daughter of Antigone
Daughter of Elizabeth
Daughter of Margaret
Son of Ermine
Son of Roger
Son of Richard
Daughter of John
Son of Margaret
Son of John
Son of Edward
Son of Thomas
Son of William
Son of Willoughby
Son of John
Son of Charles
Son of John Ball
Daughter of John Pierce
Son of Mattie
You are the son of James Edward

Of course, there could be some broken links in the chain.  Once you get to Henry IV it goes back through a couple of  other kings (for example King John of Robin Hood fame and  to Eleanor of Aquitaine and beyond.  I thought it was fun.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

An Old Northen Will

Edward Minty is my sixth great grandfather and the father of Abigail Minty, whose famous quarrels with her husband William Northen were the subject of a previous blog. (I believe it is also through Minty that the name Edward entered into and became a staple male name in the Northen line.) I recently came across the will of Edward Minty through the courtesy of a distant Northen relative descended from William Northen after his relocation to North Carolina.

I thought Edward Minty's will was interesting on a number of levels.  First, of course, it is an historical record linking directly to our family, but I think that the content of the will is extremely interesting.  What did people who died thirty years prior to the American revolution value and leave in their wills?  The spelling in the document is interesting as well because much of what is in there that appears to be misspelling is not, but was either the way that the word was actually spelled at the time or was a variant of a word whose spelling was still in flux. Finally, it is interesting to note that Edward Minty, who was born in 1690, like most Virginians was probably illiterate inasmuch as his signature is "his mark."

Will of Edward Minty
September 2, 1745

I, Edward Minty of the County of Richmond and Parish of Lunenburgh being very sick and weak but in perfect mind and memory, having a mind to settle the affairs of this work knowing that all men is bound once to die, do make this my last Will and Testament. First bequeathing my soul to all mighty God our heavenly Father and my worldly goods as follows:
Item: My will and desire is that my wife Margaret Minty her choice of my cows and calfs.
Item: I give and bequeath to my son-in-law John Purcell his now choice of my beds and furniture after my wife has chused.
Item: My will is that my son-in-law John Purcell should have his choice of all my sows that is with pig.
Item: I give and bequeath to my wife Margaret Minty her choice of ewes and three lambs.
Item: I give and bequeath to my wife Margaret Minty my old mair and saddle and furniture and bridle.
Item: I give and bequeath to my wife Margaret Minty my land during her naturall life and after her cecease to be equally divided in quantity and quality between my two daughters, Abigail Northen and Margaret Purcell.
Item: My will and desire is my horse Joe should be sold to the highest bidder.
My will is that my two guns and all my coutrements for muster be sold to the highest bidder.
My will is that my wife Margaret Minty may be my executrix and William Northen and John Purcell Junior to be my executors with her.

Teste: Edward II Minty {his mark II}
John Landman
Tobias Purcell {his mark T}
At a Court held for Richmond County the second day of September 1745.
John Landsman and Tobias Purcell being first sworn in Court severally and jointly depose that there were present when Edward Minty deceased made his last will and that after he had finished and the will was signed and sealed up the said Minty told them he had left out something which was that the rest of his estate undisposed of should be equally divided between his wife, William Northen and John Purcell, Junior and that as the time this making his will and speaking those last words the said Minty was in his perfect sences to the best of those deponents understanding and further they say not.
Teste: M. Berryville
At a Court held for Richmond County the second day of September 1745.
This will was proved in open court by the oaths of John Landman and Tobias Purcell, witnesses to an admitted to record.

Transcribed from a copy of the original record by Nancy Slater Thompson 23 Mar 2002.
Received from Tamara Bigham, Sept. 1, 2012.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Family History Intrigue

When I wrote the 1940’s Census blog on  August 4, telling what the census revealed about my mother’s family in that year my it also left me with a couple questions…mysteries if you will. The biggest one for me concerned my grandfather’s mother, Catherine (Sitzmann) Wilkins. According to the 1940’s census, she was living next door to my grandfather by herself  but was listed as married….but with a line through the M. Yet I knew that her husband, my great-grandfather Wilkins did not die until the mid-40’s.  Moreover, the census also revealed that in 1935 she had been living in Long Beach, California, so clearly, at that point she was not living next to my mother and grandfather who were still at the same address.  What was going on?

I decided to try to see if I could locate my great grandfather Ed Wilkins.  I found an Edward Wilkins listed in Yuba City, California quite a distance away.  His age was approximately that of my great grandfather but a couple years older.  He was listed as a handy man at what appear to be a campground. Moreover, he was listed as living at the same address as a housekeeper (I believe her name was Ella Longley) who was two years younger and originally from Canada.  Because both Edward and Wilkins are common names, the possibility that this was my great grandfather seems pretty slim, except for two things.  He was listed as having been born in Missouri, the woman listed as a housekeeper was listed as widowed while Ed was listed as being married, and, most importantly, to the question of where he was living on April 1, 1935, the answer was Long Beach, California, the same city that Catherine A. Wilkins was living in.  Moreover, his original age had a line through it, changing it to 77, giving him a 1863 birthday.  All of this is circumstantial, but pretty convincing to me that he was the same man.  This does not answer the question, though, of why Ed and Catherine were separated (if still married) and why Catherine was living next door to my grandfather and listed as married but head of household. What happened between 1935 and 1940?
                            This picture shows a few of the players in the drama above.
                            Starting on the bottom left is my grandfather, Victor Wilkins.
                            next to him is his mother Catherine and next to her his father,
                            Ed. My mother's Uncle Ray (for whom she did child care)
                             is standing in back. He'll be the subject of a future blog.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Maya's TV Interview

In June of this year, Maya traveled to Las Vegas to attend  a conference that met at Technology and Marketing University.  While there she was interviewed by Austin Wright, the host of Stay Ahead TV and filmed for local television.  The interview was great and can be seen at Sabre Travel NetworkTo see the interview just scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on Maya's picture.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Education and Generation

One of the things that looking through family censuses and other historical documents has shown me is just how each generation has increased in the number of years of schooling they had.   Using myself as the referent point, I’ve taken a look as far back as I have information for on my mother’s side.

Relationship to me
Years of Education
Ed Wilkins
Great grandfather
Victor Wilkins
Elvera Northen
3 years HS
Michael Northen
College grad
My children

College grad

My grandfather's younger brother, Raymond also had eight years of schooling so that seems pretty reliable for people born on a farm in his generation.  I could also note that my dad (James Northen) graduated from high school, but that is a bit deceptive because of eight children in the family, only he and his sister graduated high school.  Another somewhat misleading stat here is my graduation from college.  Although I was fortunate enough to be able to go to college and graduate, none of my brothers or sisters did.  At the time I graduated in 1964, graduating from high school was a real accomplishment and considered sufficient education.  It was probably about evenly split between those who went on to college of some kind (junior college in my case) and those who didn’t.  By the time my children graduated from high school, though, college had become an expectation.  Whose knows what my grandchildren will face?

Up until 1862 when Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act, most colleges were private and it was only those who had the wealth and leisure to attend college that could go.  The Land Grant Act was intended to allow those like my great-grandfather Ed Wilkins who lived on farms to be able to better their lot by attending college. Obviously, it took quite a few years for our family to be able to take advantage of those opportunities.  When I began Fullerton Jr. College in California in 1964 it was pretty much of a case of paying for your books and a few student fees.  The great irony to me is that “what goes around comes around” and we are now in a situation where once again only the rich can afford college without having to taking out a loan that mortgages their future to do it.  As I said, who knows what our grandchildren will face. 

Of course, there is a partial solution.  Make the first two years of college free the way high school is. But God forbid that we should have to pay higher taxes so that our grandchildren and everyone else’s can have a better future.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

1940's Census

             For at least the last six months, has been touting the fact that the 1940’s census is going to be released as public information and little by little the release of each state’s information has been completed.  This is a time period that is of real interest to me in our family history because Mom’s family had left South Dakota during the depression and then turn up again in the 1950 at the Van Ness St. house in Santa Ana where we eventually came to live. Yesterday I got an email saying that the full census was available and each state’s information complete.  I immediately did a search in the 1940’s census for my grandfather (i.e. Victor Wilkins, my dad’s father was dead by then) and actually found it a listening for him.  Moreover, a bigger surprise to me was that my mother was on that census, too.  Despite the relatively few clues censuses give about flesh and blood people, they are like a mystery to me from which I enjoy reconstructing the narrative of their lives.  Here are some of the things that I found.
            They lived at 1415 West Fourth St. in Santa Ana.  Other than her parents, my mom was the oldest person in the family listed at that address.  She was 18.  Since she was the third oldest in the family what that means is that her oldest sister, my aunt Lucille was out of the house and probably married and that her next oldest sister, Elaine, had already died of diabetes.  My mother is listed as having finished 3 years of high school, and as working as a housekeeper for a private family.  The census reveals that from March 26-30 she had worked 48 hours, which confirms the story Mom always told about having to live at her Uncle Ray’s during the week and bring the money back home for the family.
            Another interesting fact is that right next door at 1405 a Catherine A. Wilkins is listed.  This has to be my grandfather’s mother (Katie Sitzmann)  since she is listed as 73 years old and having been born in Wisconsin.  I never realized that she had actually lived so close to them, though I vaguely knew she had been in California at some point. At that point, my grandfather and Mom must have been supporting her.  Unfortunately, for some reason it does not list my grandfather’s occupation.  Catherine Wilkins is the only one listed at her address and is listed as the head of the family.  Where the marital status is designated, she has an M but the M is crossed through and something that looks like a lower case l is there instead.  Others on the page have a W or D next to their name to indicate widowed or divorced, but she does not and since Ed Wilkins (her husband and my great grandfather) was still alive at that point, I’m curious about what the situation was.
             The 1940’s census also helps to narrow down the time that the Wilkins family moved out to California.  The three youngest children in the family Alice (aka Sister Karen), Shirley and Armond were all listed as born in California and the next youngest in the family Ardell was born (and is on the 1930’s census) in South Dakota.  Sr. Karen was 8 years old in the 1940’s census which means that the family must have come out some time around 1931.   We have all read about the Great Depression and how it changed the lives of people in this country and in the landscape of the country itself, but to see how it affected individuals in your own family specifically, really makes history come alive. Obviously, I get quite carried away with these things.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Family Blogs

It is no secret that when it comes to creativity, my kids have it covered: Melissa in music, Eli in photography and art, and Maya in writing.  These were established well before the computer became everyone’s everyday addiction.  But with the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, they have all taken on another angle. They’ve all emerged as bloggers.

While there are any number of blogs out  in cyberspace to choose from,  I thought at the very least, we could check out what our own family members have been up to on theirs. To that end, I’m laying out the basics on three of the blogs closest to my heart.  For each one I’m giving name, URL, purpose and a sample paragraph from one entry. Oldest blog (and coincidentally blogger) goes first.

Melissa’s Blog: Swell Notes

Melissa’s description: “These pages are dedicated to women committing theirs lives and love to family and home.   Here, I write about my quest to seek everyday beauty, alone and with my children.  Join me as I share my love of music, creative arts, food, nature and play.  I hope you will share your inspirations and ideas here as well.”

Sample post:
Lately, I have had thoughts that I never expected.  I have been thinking about going back to work.  Granted, “back” to work doesn’t quite fit me.  I never had a career that took flight.  My degree in sociology never led me to abundant opportunities.  In all honesty,  I never expected to work for all that long.  I knew that I wanted to have a family.  I knew that I wanted to stay at home with my children.  So, these new feelings have gone against who I thought I was a mother.  More accurately, they go against who I hoped to prove to be as a mother.

* * *

Maya’s Blog: Lilies and Elephants

Maya's descriptIon: “Lilies and Elephants is a collection of my thoughts, musings, ideas and stories. I blog for my company, Chimera Travel, but I like to depart from the business end of things and simply scribe my personal impressions. I write about life, thoughts, curiosities and more.

Sample post:
I took a family vacation to Cape Cod and made a decision to unplug as much as possible. All of my travel this year has had some business component to it and I wanted to spend time with the family without the constant urge to check my email and social media outlets every five minutes. If you don't know me well enough to know how difficult a challenge this was, let me give you a few examples - I've actually emailed from a game park in Botswana, posted on Facebook from the rainforest, and tweeted from Macchu Picchu. Plain and simple, I like to be connected and my job very often requires it - even at odd hours of the day and night, since my clients aren't always on the same time zone.

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Eli’s Blog: ENformed

Eli’s description: “Tips and news from designer and photographer Elijah Northen, the founder of ENform. This is a companion blog to our full website: "

Sample post:
Have you ever noticed that you can rotate a camera 180 degrees?  Well, I'm sure you have, but how often have you done it?  Conventional wisdom presents us with two formats: portrait format (90°) and landscape format (0°).  Considering the fact that these are only 2 of the 180 possible angles, that means you're probably only exploring 1.1% of the available options - sounds pretty absurd when put that way, huh? 

As Eli’s description suggests, the blog is a spin off from his websiteENform which “lies at the intersection of synthetic space and practical utility.  Founded by Elijah Northen, a registered architect and photographer, we search for questions by means of artistic exploration and answer them through thoughtful, yet practical design.”

 These are the family blogs that come first to mind, but if you are related to the Northen family in some way and have a blog, let me know in the comments.  We'll make sure we give yours equal billing.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

More William Northens

            On June 7, I wrote about the turbulent marriage of William Northen (my fifth great grandfather)  and Abigail Minty.   Shortly after his wife sued him, William moved down to Edgecombe County, North Carolina and, apparently, several of his sons moved with them.  One of them who moved with him was his son William.  William Jr. married a woman named Margaret Dickens in North Carolina and moved  down to Jones, Georgia before his death.  William and Margaret had a number of children, one of whom was named Peter.  One of Peter’s sons, William Jonathan Northen was the governor of Georgia from 1894-1898.  If you’re interested in checking out what Governor William Northen did as governor you can read about him at  Note that he traces his ancestry to the same original person that we do – John Northen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Poem Meets Painting

On Wednesday of this week, I had the rather strange sensation of realizing that several years ago I wrote a poem that describes a painting I saw for the first time only yesterday.

Thanks to a gift of the membership to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Eli and Maya, I was able to attend an exhibit yesterday called “Visions of Arcadia” that centered around the works of Cezanne, Matisse and Gauguin.  The main idea of the exhibit was to trace elements of pastoralism and the bucolic life as an idyll or ideal from the Greeks and Romans (especially Virgil’s “Eclogues”) in the movements of 19th and 20th century French art. 

In addition to the big three painters that everyone knows, however, were a number whose work was unfamiliar to me.  One painting that especially struck me was Robert Delauney’s massive “City of Paris.” Like the work of Picasso and Braque, whose paintings flanked it, it was an experiment in cubism, having a fragmented Eiffel Tower on the right and a scene of the bridge and river on the left, but in the middle, in keeping with the theme of Arcadia, were the Three Graces from classical painting.

For some reason Delauney’s painting stuck in my head, perhaps because it was at once still representational enough that my conservative mind could recognize elements of it but experimental in a way that even I could follow.  Of course, I also liked the idea of pulling an ancient theme into a contemporary venue.  I was driving through Philadelphia, on route to bringing my grandson Andrew’s birthday gifts out to him with the idea in mind that  Delauney painting was ripe for some kind of ekphrastic poem when I realized that I’d written a poem years ago that actually came close to accomplishing what I wanted to do. 

The occasion had been Maya’s wedding.  Judi had flown in and, one at a time, Dawn, Amber and Brandi also arrived.  I don’t think that Judi even know that all of them were coming.  I had not seen them in a number of years and their presence in Philadelphia, a city that prides itself on its tough image, was just such a total “breath of fresh air” that it caused me to rescind my cynicism for a while.   Here are the first two stanzas. (I’ll spare everyone the saccharine third stanza which I have never been happy with):

Philadelphia embraces its hard edges.
From the phallic thrust of skyscrapers
To the corner pretzel sellers caw
To the plosive me-me-me of horns in traffic
To the hip hop slam of words and dance
Disparities pile on like a Raushenberg collage
Or an overstuffed deli sandwich too large to bite.

Into this summer clamor you unfurl
Three summer julian breezes, muses of the south
translating  through guileless grace
the city’s ersatz hardness into tunes
unbound by fevered beats and gattled raps
seeing through unembittered eyes
Homophony in all the newness that you meet.

True, this is about Philly, but it struck me that considered visually it is virtually a translation of  “City of Paris.”  Though I had never really had occasion to think about it, phrases like “muses of the south” and “guileless grace” clearly juxtapose my nieces to the fragmented barrage of Philadelphia that they have stepped into in the same way that Delauney’s Three Graces (which, I believe, were originally a separate painting in themselves) both intrude upon  yet at the same time become part of the fabric of Paris.

Whether I will actually ever finish the poem, now that I’ve seen Delauney’s mural is subject to question, but having this kind of a head start, I don’t know that I have a whole lot of excuses.

Friday, June 15, 2012

For Fathers in 2012

                                                            Three of my favorite dads

In my father’s generation, the qualifications for being a good father basically consisted of bringing home a paycheck, making sure the family had a working car, and taking out the trash.  Dads today who meet only those requirements would be lucky to receive a C- rating.   For most modern Dads, part of the normal week includes cooking meals, doing the grocery shopping, getting the laundry done, and sharing equal responsibility for child care.  Going out with the boys after work means coming home to their sons, not a trip to the local pub. 

I was reading a Father’s Day card in a drugstore today that said  -
Question: Why is Father’s day in June?
Answer: Because a month after Mother’s day, some guy said, "Hey, wait a minute…”

For men of  my generation, this characterization of  the status of Father’s Day might have been spot on.  Films like “Three Men and a Baby” were probably an accurate portrayal of the kind of parenting most of us were capable of - but for twenty-first century Dad’s the bar has really been raised dramatically.  They have a lot to live up to.  I’m glad to say that the three of them that I know best clear that bar easily – they would have no problem figuring out how to change a baby. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

War of 1812

Eli has had a front row seat to an amazing sight from his office overlooking the Baltimore Harbor.  In celebration of  the bicentennial of the War of 1812, huge sailed ships from countries all over the world have been gliding right past his window, and, as his photograph above shows,  he can walk right out to the dock and take pictures.

Baltimore is a natural place for this celebration.  It was one of the country's largest ports in 1812, and Ft. McHenry was one of the most memorable battlegrounds of the war.  It was from watching the British firing on Fort McHenry, of course, that Francis Scott Key drew his images for writing the Star Spangled banner (which he set to the tune of an old British drinking song).  Aside from that, however, very few Americans today know much about the War of 1812.  It is the forgotten war.  At least, that is what the show about the war that I saw on PBS last night said, and it is certainly true of me.

Another thing that the PBS documentary pointed out was that while the British troops were very disciplined and belonged to the most powerful country in the world at the time, the United States relied on a volunteer army of its citizens, primarily farmers.  One of those involved in the war was a Northen family ancestor named Edward Jones Northen. He was a captain in the 41st regiment of the Virginia Militia.  More than likely he was a captain not through any training but because his father owned a fair portion of land and was influential in the town.  The records don’t say anything about skirmishes he was involved in, but we know that he was on duty in the summer of 1814 along with a servant because he put in a request to be reimbursed for expenses after the war.  That was about the time, though, that British troops tried to invade Richmond County where Edward Northen lived and were turned back at Farnham Church.

Edward appears to have been a more upstanding man than his grandfather William (see last blog) whose only effort during the Revolutionary War seems to have been to sell men rum.  Edward became town constable as well as holding other positions, as did his son after him.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Domestic Problems are Nothing New

 In doing research on the Northen family, most of  the material that  I run across are lists of names and dates, but occasionally something colorful comes along that shows what some of our ancestors were really like.  That is the case with William Northen and his wife Abigail.  William was born in 1719. He and  Abigail were married in 1738 and lived in Richmond County, Virginia.  In 1775 (one year before the Declaration of Independence), Abigail sued her husband. What happened?

Apparently William posted  a note on the courthouse door saying that he was selling four or five hundred acres of land long with all of his cattle, household goods and eleven slaves.  Abigail went to court to stop him.  Why would she want to do that?  Well, they had seventeen children and he had not supported them in any material way for the past two years. Abigail claims he had not even given her linen to make clothes for the kids. 

The truth is, William had not been around for some time.  Six years early he had built another house for himself about a quarter mile away. The reason for the second house originally was that it was a sort of store for him to sell the brandy that he made.  As marital problems increased he began staying away more and more at the second house.

For his part, William claims that one night  he had to stay late at his store. When he climbed into bed with Abigail that night she told him that she was going to cut his throat.  Given the predicament he left her in, it was probably lucky that was the only thing she threatened to cut.  He began sleeping in a different bed but did come home for dinner until according to William one day she said she was going to poison him, so he set down his knife and fork and moved out. William claims his old place had become "a Harbour of horse roges and bastards."

It seems as if the court decided  in favor of Abigail, but eventually William  did sign over his property to one of his sons, Peter (unfortunately, not our direct ancestor) and moved down  to Edgecombe County, North Carolina.  I guess he couldn’t take the heat.  If there's any moral to the story it's probably  that, as much as we may romanticize the past and talk about how great family values were in “the good old days”, they probably had the same basic problems we have today and weren’t coping any better.

An interesting note on the Northen name is that some of the court papers spelled it Northen and some spelled it Northern.  What eventually happened  was that those family members who moved to North Carolina  began spelling it Northern, whereas  those in Virginia (up until mid 1800’s at least) still spelled it Northen.

By the way, William’s son, George, our direct ancestor, was given a hundred dollars and cut out of his father’s will.  He inherited nothing.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

 There are some occasions when a number of events converge for me, and this Memorial Day is one of them.  It is the first Memorial Day since my mother’s death; I just returned from visiting Pearl Harbor; and the United States is still at war in Afghanistan.

Not only have I had a decided anti-war bias since the Vietnam War but I am profoundly bored by talk about guns, ships and planes, so I was unprepared for what I experienced on my recent visit to Pearl Harbor when I went to see if I could discover where Dad’s ship, the USS Case, was sitting on December 7, 1941.   I’d expected the air to be full of military pheromones and American flags.  What I found instead was a quiet sense of respect for all who had been involved in the conflict that day and an attempt to give visitors some sense of what it must have been like. 

Dad really never wanted to talk about the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing.  He would only say that it was early Sunday morning and no one had expected it.  He may have mentioned seeing fires on the ship and oil burning on the water.  An account from someone who had been on the Case mentions that later when they passed by the Arizona, they could see it all in flames.  The sheer magnitude of the attack must have been staggering.  Last night on television, there were interviews of soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, many with post traumatic stress syndrome, describing not only what being in the war did to them in while they were in it, but the difficulty they had with returning to an ordinary life when they came home to their families.  Most of them were just out of high school, college age.

I always forget that in 1941, Dad was only 21 years old.  He was no older than those faces I see on television and wonder how our country in good conscience can send over men not only to take part in killing first hand, but, if they survive, to live with that experience the rest of their lives.  Dad was that young.  Just out of high school when he enlisted.  I have to make myself remember that he was not even married to Mom at that point.  Researching our family history has helped me to realize just how traumatic it must have been for him coming from a small backwater town into the war.  It was not that he did not know hardship, since with his family background he certainly did, but he had never seen violence on anything of that scale.  His mind when he married Mom must have been still fresh with the images of the fires, burning oil, sinking ships that he saw.  He brought those into the marriage with him and they must have been with him again as he sailed out seven days after marriage to face what, for all he knew, might have been another Pearl Harbor.  I’ll never knew what he went through, nor would Mom have either, but I wonder, when young, what he told her about them and if they filled his dreams at night.

I still believe that one of the greatest services anyone could do for our country would be to expunge military metaphors and idioms of battle from public debate, but at the same time I have a renewed belief that it important to try to re-envision what it was that people like my father went through and to try to appreciate the effect that it had on them and on the lives of those they loved.  Perhaps if we do, we may eventually come to recognize what the poet Wilfred Owen so vividly tried to tell us back after World War I, the reality of  “The old Lie: Dulce et  Decorum est/ Pro patria mori.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mother's Day

A year ago Mom had just celebrated her 90th birthday and I don’t think any of us would have really believed that by Mother’s Day this year, she would not be with us   I think that pretty much all that can be said about mothers and mothers day can pretty much be said but I just wanted to acknowledge not only Mom, but the two Northen family Grandmothers.  To say the least, they all lead hard lives, but they too were young at one time and as beautiful in their day as many of the younger Northen women in their twenties and thirties are today.  Rather than seeing them as grandmotherly, I think it is rather nice to think of them as young women who had many hopes and dreams themselves.

This is a picture of Laverna S. Wilkins – aka Grandma Wilkins – at 18.  I never knew what S. stands for, so I’m glad if anyone wants to fill me in.  We all know about her having to raise eleven kids and work at Kerr Glass company later in life, to boot.  As for being young, Grandma always looked old to me from the time I was little, but she was like a portrait, as the years changed and everyone grew older, she never seemed to.  When she came to visit me in Buffalo in the 1970’s her hair was as black as it was when I was a child.

I never met my Grandma Northen, Mattie Lewis.  Unlike Mom and Grandma Wilkins who made it to 90, she only lived to be 45.  There are few stories about her, though we all have heard the one about her drowning in the river  In this picture, though she is in her wedding gown.  At 22 she was three years older than her husband, and as was common in her day, married in her father’s home.
As I look at these pictures, I wonder what they must have been thinking, what they thought their lives were going to be like, and what secrets they kept themselves that we will never about.