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.