Friday, December 26, 2014

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Ed is keeping the family well represented in the writing publications department.  Here is a brief intro and poem about him that appeared in the Christmas Day edition of Keeping Our Eye on Sun Valley .  The pictures aren't included, so I'll put the actual link at the bottom.

It came Upon a Midnight Clear
                Ed Northen, a retired fire captain and paramedic who worked in the field in southern California for 34 years, could be considered the poet laureate of the Wood River Valley…along with former Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig, of course!
Northen, who has been writing poetry for 20 years, has been published in Word Gathering, Ariel, Chimera and Poetry Works and reads at local poetry gatherings.
                He kindly allowed us to use one of his poems to brighten your Christmas Day!
                When he’s not writing poetry, you can find Ed at Galena Lodge where he volunteers on the BCRD Nordic Patrol. Or you can find him out practicing environmental stewardship, hiking, trail running and fly-fishing as a guide for Silver Creek outfitters.

                             It Came upon a Midnight Clear
From the Mountain top
I peer through layers
Of wintry firmament
Air so translucent
It has dimension
I see beyond the stars
Whose gaseous state 
Burn brightly
Like fiery diamonds
Heaven is not far
Not in distances
Of light years
But in the invisible
The unseen
Which envelops me.
My vision is clearer
Among the celestial luminaries
When society’s chaos is removed
And I am left
With the sparseness of
Essential thoughts
I consider the forest
Resembling matchsticks far below
Living trees
Which need not be cut down
Except one
To make a cross
On which God
Must hang
To become the propitiation
And I, an heir
A bloody beneficiary
Of Love
On this sparse summit
Suspended in air
I abandon self
Until my voice erupts
With spontaneous chorus
This Eve of the Christ’s birth
Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Easiest Family Vacation Quiz Ever

One of the great events of the year was the Northen family reunion at St. Simon’s Island.  We all had a lot of fun, but now that we are headed into winter, how much do your remember?  This is the easiest quiz ever because you were all there, but let’s see if you remember who did what? Some questions can have more than one person for the answer. 

1. Who spotted a shark on the beach?

2. Who climbed up on the fireplace mantel to find a toy lizard?

3. Who slept in a closet?

4. Who had an alligator on their head?

5. Who had their arm in a sling?

6. Who ran around naked by the swimming pool?

7. Who lead an ice cream making activity?

8. Who saw a wild horse?

9. Who slept overnight in an airport?

10. Who won the most games of ping pong?

11. Who had the biggest bedroom?

12  Who was the best paddle board rider?

13. Who used an app to name all of the constellations in the night sky on the beach.

14. Who had a visitor during our stay at St. Simons?

15. Who was the last to leave when the vacation was over? 

We took turns with various meals.  Name the family or person that was in charge of each meal.

16. Stuffed Shells

17. Taco night

18. Seafood jambalaya

19. Southern Soul barbecue

20. Roasting marshmallows and s’mores


1. Ryan 
2.  Eli 
3. Evan 
4. Jack and Liam 
5.  Lora 
6. Maggie and Owen 
7. Mary Beth 
8. Pat’s family 
9. The Cotters 
10. Connor 
11. Pat and Rita 
12. Melissa 
13.  Dan 
14.  Maya 
15.  Maura and Dan 
16. Pat & Rita 
17. The Cotters 
18. Maya and Ryan 
19. Maura and Dan 
20. Eli

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Thanksgiving Remembrance

Growing up in a large family fifty years ago, Thanksgiving was always a huge event in which relatives who may not see each other at any other time of year gathered.  Even today those memories still filter through. Ed has written a poem remembering those family Thanksgiving.  It is interesting to me to think about in what ways our perceptions were the same and how they were different.

Thanksgiving  Remembrance

We were ordinary people
Living in the dark secrets
Nobody talked about

A Catholic family
Seven kids
And innumerable 


On Thanksgiving
The clan congregated
In our modest tract home

Every open space
With food

Dip made with Lipton soup

Ranch Dip

The counter overflowing
With single and
Double crusted pies


All the kids
Were sequestered
Out of the house

Until the feast
Was spread
In true Rockwell style

I don’t remember
If  grace was said
But these survivors

Of the Depression
Dust Bowl
And World War II

Had gratitude
In their DNA

I imagine
The short

For health
And Strength
And daily food
We praise thy name O Lord

Would be a sincere
And accurate prayer
For these South Dakota transplants

Multiple tables were set
Children ate on card tables

To share this feast
With a cousin
You did not like


Mashed Potatoes
Candied Yams
Sweet Rolls

Green bean casserole
Brussels sprouts ( for the adults)

More food
Then we would see
In most months

As our family
Would receive
Bags of groceries

Left on the doorstep
So not to embarrass
For which we were grateful

After dinner
We were sagely
Obligated to wait

Until our normally
Shrunken bellies
Now stretched to capacity

Had room for dessert
Which when allowed
Was devoured with delight

This one day a year
When indulgence
Was not a sin

Tables were cleared
The adults sat down
To talk

Or engage
In a fractious game
Of Pinochle

While my brothers
And sisters
Emptied sink

After sink
Of dirty dishes

They sparkled
Returned to their place

The leftovers
And distributed

Like care packages
Which would be made
Into next week's dinners

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The End of the Book

 I’ve just finished listening to a series of tapes called Writing and Civilization, which traces the origins of writing and the development of various writing systems throughout the world including how scholars of languages have worked to decode writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan glyphs and Linear B.  In the final episode, the lecturer, Marc Zender,  made the claim that by the year 2050 printed books will for all practical purposes be dead. Our children’s will no more look at books made of paper as something to read than we would at quills and ink as something to write with.  This seemed an amazing claim coming from a Harvard professor who is not only a self-professed bibliophile but whose entire career has been devoted to the study of writing.  At the same time, it seems extremely logical.

Taking the long view, this does not seem a surprising development.  Such radical change in reading media has taken place before.  The development of the codex (i.e. the book with pages) from the scroll and development of moveable type that made writing books long hand unnecessary are two obvious examples.  Moreover, as Zender points out, in the same way that from our current point of view the use of the printing press had advantages that made continued writing of books by long hand seemed doomed to obsolescence, the modern ebook (or any “book” on electronic media) has the advantage of  being cheaper, more portable and easier to replace than hard copy books, making the continued production  of traditional books other than as an art form unlikely to continue very far into the future.

Writing this, I am sitting in my own library surrounded by shelves and shelves of books. As someone who loves the physical feel of a book, who likes sitting with a cup of coffee 
and relaxing sprawled in a comfortable chair with a book on my lap, or simply pulling  a book off of a shelf and diving at random into the mind of some person at a distant place and time, the prospect that a generation after my death all of this will be mulch, or at best, vying for a spot on Antique’s Roadshow, is a bit daunting.  At the same time, as Zender points out, the scribe who worked by hand on manuscripts not doubt looked in the same way at the advent of the printed book with the same sense mixture of concern and wistfulness – as though some integral part of the civilization he knew and that seemed natural to him were being lost.
Nothing is going to stop the continued advent of the technological revolution.  It isn’t even an advent anymore, but an established fact.  Those of us old fogies who are refugees from the world of books and think that because we happen to be on Facebook that somehow we have made the transition should take another look at our lifeboat. It’s already sinking. Our children’s children’s world will be a new one, speaking a language that we are probably constitutionally incapable of learning. There is neither praise nor blame in this.  It is simply the way that history is moving.  I never rode to school on a horse as my father did, but we both got to where we had to go.

Being the visually oriented person I am, though, I do feel luck to have been born into history at time when print was at its apogee.  When you stop to think that before Gutenberg only the very rich could afford books and that it is only that for the past one hundred years of our country that most people are even literate and books readily available, it has been a great time to be alive.  Except for this very recent time, culture has been predominantly oral.  The bulk of the population did not learn by reading or communicate through print – they talked and listened. I think that I would have been a very bad fit for that kind of culture being both poor at expressing myself orally and not much better at remembering what I hear. With the unrepentant ramping up of electronic media, the chances are that we are returning to an oral culture once again.  Writing has become tweeting and it won’t be too long before the keyboard is obsolete.  We’ll simply talk to the computer and it will answer us.  We will be able eliminate the intervening printed media. It is more than just a bit ironic that those who used to laugh at the idea of the stereotypic paternalistic boss who dictated to his secretary rather than simply write for himself will once again, in effect return to dictating, albeit with an electronic secretary.

As Zender points out, books made of paper won’t disappear overnight. Those of us born into the print culture will continue to read and buy them (that is until book stores turn totally into Kindle and Nook stations) and we will still sit down and read those same storybooks our parents read to us to our grandchildren, passing on a tradition even as it ceases to be.  I’m not writing a requiem.  Quite the opposite.  It is fascinating being poised on this point in history, both able to look back on the history that has made us who we are, and looking forward to what the future might be for those that come after us. In the short run, however, I think I will just get up and grab a book from the shelf.    

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day

As anyone reading this blog probably knows, I just returned from Paris.  I with Lora, Maya, Lora’s brother Mike, his wife Bev and my niece Lauren.   It is hard to limit the number of superlatives one can toss out about Paris, but, as wonderful as that city was, the aspect of that trip that stands out the most in my mind today, was the side trip that we all took to Normandy.

Bev's father had been a decorated American fighter pilot in World War II. She had the diary that recorded in Hemingway-like sparseness, her father’s experiences during the invasion of the Allied Forces into Normandy in June of 1944 and wanted to visit the site where it had happened.   As someone who refused to be drafted during the Vietnam conflict, I've never been an aficionado of military history, but the day we spent on the Normandy beaches made us all take some baby steps towards the reality of the war for all those involved there.    We set out from Bayeux where we were staying, passing through the countryside where the German troops occupied the small towns and French resistance fighters snuck out of their homes at night to do whatever they could to thwart them.  We passed a church in one of the villages that is still being rebuilt and others, our guide explained,  completely disappeared.   

Our tour was limited to some of those beaches that American soldiers breached -  Utah, Pont Du Hoc and Omaha.  Walking across the landscape where concrete bunkers and remnants of fortifications still sit and where the surface of the land is still sculpted by the bombs that hit it gave a materiality to the events that took place there that all of us felt.  But for me, the moment that came closest to revealing some clue of how it must have felt to be there on D-Day was when we stood on Omaha beach at the edge of the water looking up at the cliffs where the German guns were sitting on that day and knowing that the only way there was to move was forward. 

In the twenty-first century, everyone knows that history is not a fact, but simply a narrative constructed by the winners to tell their story.  Even with the shards that we have to build it from – the diaries, the abandoned bunkers, scared landscapes – it is always going to be a protean tale.  Still, I think that having had the chance to visit the site where events occurred that have long since been subsumed into American mythology gave me the chance to toggle my own views.  I still won’t be rushing to join the Sons of the American Revolution, but at least, it has given me a bit more of an ability to participate in the collective memory that today, Veterans Day, represents.  And, if  I’m not mistaken, that is what national holidays are all about.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Another Family Quiz

Everyone knows that the stories we tell about our lives are constructions. They are a way  of stringing together what we take to be facts into a tale that helps us to explain ourselves or perhaps to project the image that we want others to have of us.  Facts in themselves mean nothing.  They are like a floor full of scattered beads; until we link them all together in some configuration, they make no sense.  This is a problem not just for writers of memoir and autobiography but for historians, philosophers and archaeologists as well, and as such not one that is going to be solved in a blog post.  What I wanted to do was to simulate how it is to arrange these events to tell a story. 
If you were to take ten events from your life, write them on slips of paper and throw them in a baseball cap, would your best friend, daughter or significant other be able put them order.  I thought I’d try.  To make this a bit easier, I will take events not strictly from my life but from that of the Northen family of my generation. Just number them from 1 to 10 in the order that you think happened. (Hint - #1 is a gimme.)

___Steve was killed in a car accident.

___A fire burned down the garage and back bedroom of the house where we were living.

___Our family lived in Hawaii.

___Dave got married (first time).

___Mom was hospitalized with a blood clot for six months and nearly died.

___Brother Pat was born.

___Maya was baptized at San Juan Capistrano mission.

___Judy moved to Tennessee.

___I was hit by a car driven by an uninsured 16 year old girl.

___Dad joined the Navy.

Even when you have a sequence, though, it is still not a story.  What are the connections? What are the causes/effects?  What is missing and how are the gaps filled in?  As a writer, and to a lesser extent, an amateur genealogist, these are the really interesting questions.  Given this bare set of facts or the bare facts of your life and fueled by their own imagination, what story would your son or daughter write?

Answers:  7, 5, 2, 8, 3, 6, 10, 9, 4, 1

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Filling in the Picture

     Hanging on the wall among the pantheon of family pictures in upstairs guestroom is  a copy of an old black and white photograph that has been hanging there for years. In it, a family is sprawled across a yard in front of a mid-west style farmhouse. The clothes they are dressed in – the men including boys in long sleeve white shirts, vests, coats and hats, the women in floor length dresses with long doily-like collars around the neck – suggests that this picture is from the end of the 1800’s or beginning of the 1900’s.  A man, looking like the family patriarch, is sitting in a chair with his arms crossed,  and a woman, presumably his wife, stands near him with hands on a baby carriage.  In front of them, the children all lounge in the grass and to the side a robust woman stand beside a man who may be her husband but comes barely to her shoulder.
      I’ve always vaguely known that it was somehow related to my mother’s side of the family but I was never sure just how. Yesterday, through a stroke of luck I discovered who the family was. I was viewing a copy  of a page from the June 30, 1969 Centennial edition of the Le Mars Sentinel, the newspaper of Le Mars, Iowa.  The page was titled, “Some Early Houses of Plymouth County.”  In the middle of  bottom row of pictures was one with the captain “The barn and farm of Valentine Sitzmann.”  I recognize the name immediately, of course. The pictures on either side were labeled “Walnut Rose Stock Farm, Residence of Valentine Sitzmann” and “The Residence of Joseph Sitzmann,” respectively.  Valentine and Joseph Sitzmann were the brothers of my great-grandmother Katie Sitzmann. 
     The pictures themselves looked to have been photocopied so much that no detail was visible. As in a photograph taken by high contrast film, all that remained were the vague outlines of shapes with white spaces between them.   In staring at the darkest of them, that of Joseph Sitzmann’s residence, however, I began to recognize the outlines of the shapes and realized that it was exactly the same picture as the one hanging on the wall in the upstairs bedroom.  This told me not only whose family it was but, by default, also where the picture was taken.  It was on the land the Joseph Sitzmann owned in Lincoln Township, Plymouth County, Iowa. (The one I described in the Northen History blog post “Unscrambling the Map: Notes on the Sitzmann Family” a few weeks back.)
     The man in the chair is obviously Joseph Sitzmann, but who were the others?   I located Joseph Sitzmann in the 1910 federal census when he was 41 and his wife Eva was 40.  The census lists the children as George (20 years old), T. Mary (18), Edward (15) and James W. (13) and then stops, although quite obviously Joseph did not.  That is as far as I’ve gotten. I need to investigate further, so for now I’ll leave it to anyone reading this to try to match names with faces in the picture.
Staring at the old picture on a wall did make me wonder about the people in it, who they were and what their lives were like.  I wonder what it would be like for someone a hundred years from now uncovering a family photograph and trying to figure out who the people were, how they were related and what was going on. Take the following family picture for example:

What would one of our descendants who stumbled across this in year 2114 make of it?  One can only guess.

Sunday, July 06, 2014


     I’m not what most people would call a fashionista, but when I go to the closet to grab a belt, I am always amazed at how many I have.  They all hang on a circular fake brass ring that is suspended from the closet pole by a similar piece of brass shaped like the top of a hanger.  By nature, I am loathe to throw out something that still has use, but in the case of these belt there is something added.  When I pull off a belt off of a ring, I’m also pulling off a piece of personal history. And, admittedly, some of them look like it. Which would I toss?
     The oldest belt is a wide, caramel-colored leather belt with designs etched into it. It was bought many years back when I first began teaching elementary school at La Purisima school in El Modena, California.  The students I taught in that sixth grade class are now in their mid-50’s.  It reminds me of the high ideals and hopes I had, the belief that teachers really could make a difference for children, my excitement about being part of that.  I have to almost laugh when I think that one of the more influential parents in the school tried to get me fired for being a Communist.  No, despite the fact that it is tearing around where the buckle snaps on, I can’t give that up.
     There is another old belt that I rarely wear, but also cannot give up.  It too is a thick western style belt, with an iron buckle so heavy it almost pulls me forward.  On the buckle is an engraving of some sort and the words Panama Red.  The irony is that it belonged to Lora’s father, a Buffalo accountant and very unlikely cowboy, who probably had no idea what the words on the buckle meant.  He died of ALS less than a year after Maya was born, so, of course, even though I may wear it only once or twice year, it is not going anywhere.
     The belt that I wear the most is probably a mere fifteen years old.  It is a medium width brown belt, with a light brown strip running down the middle.  It can go with anything but is probably among the most beat up of the belts on the hanger.  It is a belt that I purchased with a gift certificate given to me by my supervisor, John McClafferty, shortly after beginning my job at Inglis House.  John had given me a gift certificate to Banana Republic, a store normally out of my price range, but it just covered the cost of a belt.  I’ve had no actual friends as an adult - my life and personality just have not allowed for that - but in the last twenty years, John is the person who has actually come the closest.  When you are a person like me, you don’t throw out the those reminders that friendship may be possible.
     One belt that probably would surprise people to see in my closet is a meshed metal belt, the color of aluminum.  It is studded with faux-turquoise and designs that are no doubt supposed to invoke Navajo work.  The tip is a single piece of metal shaped in the approximate shape of a pit viper.  The belt belonged to Eli when he was in high school and speaks of a time when he was into experimenting with the next edgy fashion.  No doubt when I wear it in the year 2014, anyone who bothered to look in the first place would probably also be looking for a rainbow on my shirt.  I don’t care. Both my youth and my children’s has gone fast enough.
     There is one belt on my hanger that is functional in the extreme.  It is that shiny imitation leather a Walmart shopper would take as upscale.  One side is brown and one black and the handle twists so that it allows me to use either side – the kind of belt that makes it the only one you need to bring on a trip.  It is not for functionality, that I keep the belt but for the occasion on which it was bought.  I was heading from Philadelphia to Orange for Mom’s funeral when  after sitting in a plane out on the runway my flight was cancelled. I caught a flight, but my clothes were delayed. Ed and Eli (whose plane made it before me) raced around town to try to come up with an outfit for me so that when I landed I would not have to show up at my mother’s viewing in old clothes.  Whenever I put it on, I’m grateful for their effort and the memory the belt leaves me with.
      A sixth belt, a middle of the road strip of rawhide with a basic buckle that pretty much blends into any work-a-day clothing without being seen is probably the one that represents me best, but all of these and the half dozen other belts hanging from the ring each find their use.  The belts represent a bit of a conundrum – a personality crossroads, if you wish.  On the one hand, my mantra is that belts are like pairs of shoes: you really only need two. One to wear and one just in case something happens to those.  On the other hand, I’m congenitally pre-disposed never to waste or throw anything out whether it be food, old clothes, letters from family or belts.  I suspect all of these belts will be hanging there in the closet for quite some time. Or until I awaken one morning and find that by the graces of some well-meaning elves, they have disappeared.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Father's Day Quiz

Father’s Day Quiz
Father’s Day is coming up and it is a bit sobering to realize that my dad has been dead for fourteen years already.  Though there is a lot that I could say about him, the main thing that I have to thank him for is that in an age when males dominated their families, and women were often treated as second class citizens, Dad shared the housework and treated Mom as an equal partner.  That is a legacy that I hope he has passed on to his sons and grandsons.
Rather than saying more about someone that my children actually never really got much chance to know, I thought it might be fun to re-employ the quiz format to see how much every knew and let them find out more about him.  Siblings should be able to get an 8 on this, but for others, a 7 would be a great score.  These are all true or false.

  1. Dad came from a family of mostly redheads.
  2. Aside from mutton, the only two foods Dad said that he did not like were hominy and fried green tomatoes.
  3. Dad was raised Baptist, when he and Mom wanted to get married he first had to convert to Catholicism.
  4. Once when Mom could not get the laundry done, Dad had to wear her underwear for the day.
  5. Dad did not want any of his sons named after him.
  6. When we were young, Dad took the boys every two weeks to the barber shop to get haircuts.
  7. Dad was pretty style conscious, so that probably helps to explain why all of his sons are the same way.
  8. When he went he graduated from high school and went to join the Navy, Dad had to change the way he had always spelled his last name.
  9. Though most of Dad’s family had blue eyes, Dad always listed his eye color as green.
  10. Dad did not believe in corporal punishment.


1.       True. Dad’s father, one sister and the majority of his brothers had red hair.
2.       True. Dad would eat almost anything. After having mutton for three months straight when stationed near Australia in the Navy, he said the site of it almost made him nauseous.
3.       False. Dad had to promise to raise the kids Catholic, but he did not actually convert himself until much later in life.
4.       True. I don’t think he advertised it, though.
5.       True.  But Steve had his first name as a middle name (Stephen James) and Ed has his middle name as a first name (Edward Charles).
6.       False. Dad bought a barber kit and cut all of our hair himself.
7.       False. Have you seen the family pictures?
8.       True. His immediate family had always spelled the last name Northern and so had he up  starthrough high school, but his birth certificate read Northen, so the Navy made him use that. His grandfather, William, by the way, had spelled it Northen.
9.       False. While Dad’s eyes had a lot of green in them, he always listed his eye color as hazel.
10.   False. Dad was not big on physical punishment. Mom was always the one who said “wait until your Dad gets home” but he would spank us once in a while when we misbehaved and on rare occasion got out the belt.

How'd you do?  Post comments, results, corrections, etc. below.

Monday, May 26, 2014

"Talking Yourself Into Success"

I’ll admit it – I’m not a Dr. Phil fan.  I don’t read self-help books and I consciously avoid self-described “inspirational” literature.  Perhaps it is just ego on my part, but I have yet to meet the person who has their life so together that they are in the position to set themselves up as a model of how I should live mine.  I already know my daughter Maya is a talented writer (and if anyone needs proof, all they need to is check out her review of Liz Schumer’s novel Buffalo Steel in the current issue of Wordgathering), but when the book to which she contributed a chapter, Playing and Staying at the Top of Your Game, was published and available on Kindle last week bearing the subtitle “Inspirational Short Stories by Women for Women,” I had to temper a proud parent’s enthusiasm with a certain amount of caution.

 I need not have worried.  Maya’s article “Talking Yourself Into Success” is a terrific piece of writing.

I was only a few sentences into the article when I completely forgot it was my daughter who had written the piece and began hearing the self-assured voice of a professional. It was lucid prose uncomplicated by jargon that - as an erstwhile instructor myself - I could easily see taking its place in an introductory college business course.  As Maya, points out, it challenges potential business owners to ask themselves questions that a standard  course on business organization is not even going to see in the landscape, but which are critical, especially for someone with a dream of owning their own business.  Moreover, the applicability of the article is not limited to business owners or even business professionals.  I think anyone who has a career or job that they feel themselves invested in will come away from reading the article asking themselves a few questions. If they can’t, perhaps its time to turn on Dr. Phil.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mom's Birthday Quiz

Mom’s birthday is coming up in a few days and whenever it comes around, I always feel the impulse to reflect upon her life a bit.  Usually that is through a poem or written reflection – and I may still do that – but I decided to do things a bit differently.  So many stories swirl around Mom’s memory that I thought  it might be fun to devise a little quiz to see who can separate fact from fiction.  All of the questions  are true or false. A score of 8 or better means that you knew Mom (aka Grandma Northen) pretty well.   A score of less than three means you are probably reading the wrong family’s blog.
      1. Mom got her tongue stuck to a gate post once.
           2. Karen was Mom’s favorite sibling.
      3. Mom lived outside of the United States for a year or two.
      4.  Mom’s motto was, “If you can’t say something good about somebody, don’t say it at all.”
      5. All things considered, Mom had a pretty darned easy life.
      6. The first time Mom kissed a boy, she went home and told her mother she was pregnant.
      7. For many years Mom had a huge running ulcer on her ankle.
      8.  When my family lived with my grandparents in Santa Ana, Mom tied my brother Steve to the clothes line.          
      9. Even though she was born in North Dakota, Mom became a pretty good swimmer when she moved to California.
     10. When she was growing up, Mom wanted  be a home economics teacher.

Here are the answers.   Feel free to add some of your own questions in the comments .

1.  True. When Mom was little and lived in South Dakota, she decided on one cold winter day to lick the gate post to see what it tasted like.  Her tongue stuck to the post because of the cold and she had to have help to get it off.
            2. False. Sister Karen was the sibling that was over at the house the most, but they had a running feud  Whenever Sr. Karen left, Mom would always be up in arms.
            3.True.  At least technically. when we lived in Hawaii in 1948-49, Hawaii was not yet one of the states. It was not admitted to the union until 1959. 
         4.  False.  That was Dad’s motto.  Mom had no problem expressing her opinion about other people.
         5.  False. Are you kidding?
         6. True. Grandma and Grandpa Wilkins weren’t exactly in the forefront of teaching their kids about sex education.  
         7.  True. Through most of my high school years and beyond Mom had a huge purple ulcer on her ankle that perpetually oozed liquid. She had to keep it wrapped and put ointments on it all the time.
         8.  False. It was Dave that she tied to the clothes line.
         9.  False.  When they were first married, Mom nearly drowned in the ocean. Dad had to save her.  After that she was very leery of swimming at the beach and never really learned to swim.
            10.   True. Unfortunately, her father made her quit high school and go to work. 

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Daniel and Alice

     One of the things that becomes clear in trying to do family history research is how patriarchal our society. Records are kept for male family members, but other than censuses it is a lot harder to find information on the women. This was particularly evident with researching the Northen family on my father’s side, when the families continued to live in the same county. Elizabeth was such a popular name, for example, and remarriage because of early deaths so common, that finding a woman’s surname at birth can prove nearly impossible. Because of that, it is interesting in researching the Roeick branch of the family, that it is one of the women that seems to tie all of the pieces together. That was my third great grandmother, Alice Beale. Here is the story. My second great grand father on my father’s mother’s side was John Ball Lewis. After his first wife, Nancy Wroe died, he remarried a woman named Alice Roeick. Trying to find the true spelling of Alice’s name is a challenge. Roeick is the name on her grave. On her son’s marriage license it is listed as Rhurisk, but elsewhere and in her daughter’s middle name it is spelled Ruic. Alice’s father’s name is William and his last name is variously spelled Ruick, Reuick, Rueick and her grandfather Daniel’s name is Ruirek and Ruark. You see the problem. Trying to put these pieces together is pretty iffy but to make things easier I’ll use Ruick as the last name since that is the one that seems to pop up most often. Daniel Ruick was born in 1748 and apparently came to the United States as an indentured servant in 1770. Where he was born and where he came from we don’t know, but we do have this handwritten notice from the Westmoreland County, Virginia archives:

      By March of 1793, however, Daniel is a tailor, living with his wife Alice in Farnham Parish of Richmond County Virginia, where they are selling off four acres of land in Westmoreland County that Alice inherited from her father. How he fared after that we don’t know but he was dead by sometime in 1806. In 1807 his son William was called the “orphan of Daniel Ruick” and a man named William Smith was appointed as his guardian. William married Nancy Ann Hudson in January of 1820 and seems to have stayed in Richmond County, but he too had a pretty short life because by 1835 Nancy was a widow. William and Nancy’s daughter Alice was the woman who married John Ball Lewis and became our third great grandmother.
Here she is. Alice must be the person from whom all the Northen women get their good looks. It sounds like a pretty straight arrow story. Daniel was the father of William, William was the father of Alice and Alice married John B. Lewis. If Alice Beale was the only wife that Daniel ever had, its reverse was not true. Alice’s father, Thomas Beale owned land in Westmoreland County Virginia where his family had been for at least four generations. Thomas Beale’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been named Thomas as well, coming to Virginia through York County in 1646. So unlike Daniel, Alice was well-established. Moreover, Daniel was Alice’s third husband. In 1777 when her husband gave her a piece of land, her last name was Ste;phens, and from that marriage she had two children, Elizabeth and Thomas. In her father’s will of 1786, nine years later, her last name is Rust and she may well have been married to Peter Rust, “a gentleman of Richmond County.” It could be this marriage that explained her move to Richmond County. By 1793 she was married to Daniel. In 1806, Alice’s oldest son, Thomas made a will leaving half of his estate to his brother William Ruick. No mention is made of whether Daniel was still alive at that point, but by 1810, Alice was married once again. This time to John Efford.
      In her history of the Northern Neck of Virginia, which includes Richmond , Westmoreland and Northumberland Counties, Miriam Haynie writes, “Due to distances and lack of transportation the widow’s hand was sometimes spoken for at the funeral of her husband by one of the guests who was afraid that he might lose out if he waited to make another visit.” While this may not have been the case with Alice Beale, it is true that if a woman had a bit of land, as Alice did, it made her more attractive – especially to a widower who had children of his own. For a widow’s part, if her husband died, it left her in bad straights economically, so she may have been quite eager to remarry. In 1800, the combined population of Richmond and Westmoreland County was 13,000 and throwing in Northumberland added another 7800. The fact that many brothers seemed to marry women with the same last name (often sisters) and, not infrequently, their own cousins, argues for the fact that people tended to marry whoever was eligible and at hand. This may be the reason that Alice, who came from a once prominent family ended up with Daniel, an ex-servant and tailor.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Picture is Worth...

I just came across an old photograph of my Grandpa and Grandma Wilkins. They are standing on the side of their family home in Santa Ana, California – a house that was also my home from the end of seventh until the beginning of eleventh grade.  I’m really glad to have this picture for all of the memories that it triggers, and, of course, so that I am able to picture my grandparents themselves.  There is one realization, however, that is very disconcerting and that is that  my grandfather, whom I always considered  to be the epitome of an old man,  is actually almost five years younger in this picture than I am as I write this.  It does not help a whole lot, either, that Lora is exactly my grandmother age here. 

One thing that age does give you is perspective.  It seems  that  real life  is almost exactly the opposite of what famously happened in A Picture of Dorian Gray, where the man  was able to keep his young looks for ever, while his picture in the mirror continued to age.  When I look in the mirror and see my aging face with all of its wrinkles, I am always taken by surprise because in the mirror inside of my head  I am still not even half of my age. At least that is how it feels.  I imagine that my grandfather as he sat there also must have thought of himself as much younger than he looks in this picture.  While I don’t believe, as the old saw says, that with old age comes wisdom,  I do think it reveals to you just how much you didn’t realize when you were younger…and perhaps that’s a good thing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, occurred just a couple of weeks ago. Having been raised in a household where the beginning of Lent meant the family saying the rosary together each night and visiting the church to follow the Stations of the Cross, the onset of Lent use to be a real time of reflection for me, and that reflection would often culminate in the writing of a poem.

In recent years, I have been so caught up in the day-to-day busy-ness of life that I often skim past the  beginning of Lent without it even registering  that we are into the Easter season.  Fortunately, Ed is much more attuned than I am.  Yesterday, he sent me a poem he had written that I think does a remarkable job of being on both an observation on the transmutation of language and a reflection on what the season means.


To lengthen

To unpack
The soul
Which is

So tightly

It remains

It’s perilous
To loose control

To have paradigms
Like tectonic plates

The Lenten journey
An opportunity
If embraced

To nourish
Gather light  
Permit oneself

To stretch

Like a shadow
In the late afternoon
Of a rescinding winter

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Flood

     Anyone who knew Mom and talked with her much new that eventually Mom would mention “the Flood.”  Even as recently as October the year that she died, when Dave  and I visited her at Chapman hospital, she was telling stories of the early days in Santa Ana and mentioned the flood. It has always been  hard for me to get a handle on just exactly where and when this flood took place other than it was when she was still a teenager living at home with her parents, so I knew it took place somewhere in the first decade after they moved to California. The main point of the story, though, was that in the flood, her family lost everything.
     Yesterday I was attending an event called Ancestry Day at the Philadelphia Convention Center.  As the conference was just about to wind up, the main speaker was telling an anecdote about her grandmother who claimed that she used to ride her horse in the river bed of the Los Angeles River, something that the speaker disbelieved because the Los Angeles River is now cement.  Upon researching, however, she found out that it was now cement because of the great flood of 1938 I Los Angeles.
     The mention of a huge flood in 1938 in Los Angeles immediately caught my attention.  I went home and tried to find out what  could about the flood.  By coincidence, I also discovered that one of the few public records that I have of my grandfather Victor Wilkins other than census data is a 1938 list of registered voters o f Orange County.  He is listed as living in the west Santa Ana district.
     At the time of the flood, Orange and Riverside counties were predominately agricultural area  inhabited mostly by farm families.  As a result, most of the news about the Los Angeles flood ignores them and focuses on Los Angeles.  What the accounts do say, though is that Orange County because it did not have an infrastructure like Los Angeles was much harder hit.  Beginning Feb. 27, 1938 nine inches of rain occurred in a period of twelve days.  The first deluge did a fair amount of damage, but the real jolt hit on March 3 when the banks of all of the rivers began to overflow flooding  everything.    Jefferson Ave., which is now Tustin Ave. and runs down the center of the city of Orange, basically became a funnel for water and took on the appearance of a river with four feet of water.   In Anaheim, alone, 19 people died and there are varying conflicts about the whole amount but they seems to range between 40 and 100.  Here is a link to a video of the little town of Olive, that is just about Orange.
The Anaheim paper of the time, the Anaheim Colony, reported that the National Guard had to be sent in because of looting going on.  Over 200 Hispanic people lost their homes and one small Japanese settlement was completely wiped out. 
     Although, no one can know exactly what the experiences was like for Mom and her family, this gives at least some idea of  what the situation was like.  It is amazing to me that, unlike many stories that our memories magnify, this was no exaggeration on Mom’s part. I remember her telling how their chickens all drowned, but little else.  I’m interested to know if anyone else in the family remembers Mom’s account of her experiences.  I did find out that the newspaper of Santa Ana at the time was called the Santa Ana Daily Evening Registered (which in 1939 became The Santa Ana Register that I delivered) but the archives for that year are all in local libraries that I do not have access to.  If anyone in the family feel the urge to see what they can find in them, it could be something interesting to add to our family history.

Monday, January 27, 2014

School in the 1930"s

     I’ve been gradually reading back over my old journals to stoke my increasingly fading memory and in my journal that covered the month of July in 1986, came across that period of time when Mom and Dad went to visit Dad’s remaining family in Wicomico Church, Virginia and, we (Lora, Maya, Eli, and I ) went down to pick him up.
     During the time that he stayed with us, Dad told me bits about his time growing up and this is one of the paragraphs I have recorded in my journal:

 "My dad said that he started his schooling at 8 and was placed in second grade. The way schooling worked (it was all mixed grades in one building)) was that at the end of each year you took a test to see if you passed to the next grade. If you didn’t you stayed in the grade that you were in. Dad said there were grown men 16-18 years old in the sixth grade. Most boys only went to school in winter and very few graduated. There were no compulsory attendance laws, so whenever there was work to be done, school stopped."

     It is interesting to think about how different the American education system from that time and in some ways you it is the same. Take our “No child Left Behind” policy in which the only thing that counted. Just this weekend there was a cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquirer where a young couple was pushing a stroller up to a school and the cartoon showed the weeks class schedule: Monday – testing; Tuesday – testing; Wednesday – testing; Thursday – testing; Friday – testing. The cartoon said, “We were going to try to send him to school in the city, but I think we’ve hit a roadblock.” I can still remember teaching in Georgia and having a 16 year old in the seventh grade who could have passed for a man in any bar or college campus. I guess we haven’t come all that far from the day as when Dad was in school. The results back then that out of eght kids in the family, my Dad, his younger brother Colvin, and his sister Elizabeth were the only ones that graduated from high school

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Guess Who...?

No one can deny that that 2013 was a year of changes and events for family members.  Certainly among these are Maura’s encounter with cancer, Lindsey’s passing her nursing examines and beginning work in a hospital ER, and Pat & Rita’s addition to their house and temporary relocation were among them. Nevertheless, there are many, mostly smaller events, that happened to family members, too.  I written down some “Guess who?” to test your family connection IQ. If you get 8-10 right, you really keep up with the family. If you get 3 or less right you were just lucky.  (Of course, it is possible that some of these answers may need to be changed.  If you have added information – make your comments.)

Guess who...?

  1. Ran naked on the beach? 
  1. Had to evacuate their house? 
  1. Rode a horse for the first time? 
4.                4. Worked with professional foot ball players?

  1. Had a raccoon in their house? 
  1. Was on a plane hit by lightning? 
  1. Dressed up like Michael Jordan? 
     8.  Got a new dog?

  1. Bought their own boat?
  2.   Has their middle name spelled wrong on their birth certificate?

Check out the answers below to see how you did.

1. No one went to a nude beach. It was Owen at Sea Isle City, NJ this summer.
As tempted as I am to post  pictures, I think I will save them as blackmail for when he is a teenager.

2. Ed and Carmen.  This was no joke.   The large fire on in the vallwy where they lived made the national news. Though Hailey residents were asked to evacuate overnight and Carmen did, as an ex-fire fighter, Ed stayed behind to help as the fire approached their town.

3. The answer is Dan.  After some post ponements, Maura and Dan made it to the cowboy town of Winthrop in east Washington state.  It was Dan's first time on on a horse. But I also learned that Maura had taken horseback riding in college - a fact I did not know.

4.  Eli.  He has been involved with work for the United Way in Baltimore. There was a day when inner city kids were invited to a training camp with wide receivers from of the Baltimore Ravens.  Eli was there as a representative of his firm. (Perhaps the Ravens should have recruited some of those kids.)

5. One might think this was Ed but he was the one with a moose in his yard.  The real answer is Maura and Dan again.  Kitty spotted the raccoon - it wasn't pretty.

6. Triple answer here. Maya, Lora and Mike.  They were on a plane flying out to Las Vegas during some potentially turbulent whether when they felt - depending upon who is telling the story - either a slight bump or a near explosion.  No damage was done.

7. Andrew.  Andrew's school has a "Wax Museum" in which each year student picks a person that they admire to study, dress up like and then give a speech about when visitors come up and activate them by touching their hand. Anrew picked Michael Jordan.

8. Andrew wanted a dog, Maya inherited a dog, and Melissa, sadly, lost her dog of many years, but it was Amelia who got the new dog.  She named it Poppy. Deja vu.

9. Judi and Pat. They have an RV parked down near the boat so that now they can just go down river on the boat to visit Brandi, rather than drive.  I guess in some cases retirement and fishing really do go together.

10. Elvera Northen.  Kind of a trick question, I know, but I sent for my parents' birth certificates this year and when I got Mom's her middle name is spelled "Cathrine" rather than "Catherine." Bonus question - do you know who has no middle name on their birth certificate?