Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking for my grandfather

My grandfather Myron died of a ruptured appendix in 1931, at the age of 43. That was almost 20 years before I was born. My mother said he and my grandmother were crazy about each other. I know he wrote a little book of flowery poems about the joys of marriage and family; I have a battered copy in my nightstand.

But Myron was a mysterious figure when I was growing up. There were whispers of some kind of scandal, some other woman. One statement, attributed to Myron's mother (my great grandmother Alma) was, "He was more sinned against than sinning." Such a curious comment from a devout Baptist.

I'm a genealogist, and I've been looking around for years for information about Myron. But sometimes I miss things. Just this year I checked out the 1910 census again. He was living in California with a roommate, which I'd seen on previous visits to the census record, but this time I noticed that he was listed as "married".  He didn't marry my grandmother Ethel until 1912, so this was a different marriage. I called my oldest cousin, Bob, and asked if he knew our grandfather had been married before. He said no.

I tracked down the Colorado marriage record. February 1909, to a young woman named Edna. And the  Colorado divorce record in August 1910. The only appearances in court on the divorce date were Edna and her mother Annie. No Myron. He was in California by then.

I remembered, "He was more sinned against than sinning." I wondered if there had been a baby.

I checked out the 1910 census record for Edna's family. Her parents William and Annie had three daughters: Edna (with my grandfather's last name), age 18; Wilma, age 16; and Dorothy, age two. William was in his early 40s and Annie in her late 30s. I noted the number of years between Dorothy and her two older sisters and I wondered if Dorothy might be the child of my grandfather Myron and Edna. Might William and Annie be raising their granddaughter as their own child? That did happen back then.

I continued searching. In the online records for a cemetery in Greeley, Colorado, I found a family plot. William and Annie are buried there, and Edna and her second husband Wilbur, and Wilma, and Dorothy and her husband Harry. The person who had made the arrangements for the most recent burial - Dorothy, in 1994 - was Sydney, her daughter. I followed the trail. In another Colorado town, I found the mortuary who had handled the arrangements for Dorothy's husband Harry. Their records included an obituary. I asked for a copy.

I found Sydney. She is 80 years old and she lives in Honolulu. I called and left a voicemail. I didn't hear back. Last week I wrote her a letter. I told her about my research and my curiosity. What did Sydney hear about her Aunt Edna's first husband when she was growing up? If her mother Dorothy was my grandfather's daughter, we are cousins. I told her about DNA testing and offered to pay for one if she was interested. 

So far, I have not heard from Sydney. Maybe she is on an extended trip, or maybe she's sick, or maybe she's not interested, or maybe she feels threatened. I need to honor all those possibilities.

Harry's obituary includes the name of a granddaughter, Kimberly. She would be close to my age. I'm thinking about seeing if I can find her. But if I don't hear from Sydney, most likely I won't.

I'm still looking for my grandfather. I noted a newspaper article in 1922, from Bakersfield, California. He lived in Long Beach, California by then. He had stopped in at the home of a young woman in Bakersfield on his way back from school in Chico. His wife, my grandmother Ethel, was six months pregnant with my mother then. Who was the young woman in Bakersfield?

"He was more sinned against than sinning."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sliding into home, churchwise

I have been unchurched for almost 30 years. When I got divorced in the mid-80s, the church I'd attended for 15 years - the one where I'd served as a liturgical musician and youth retreat leader - didn't know what to do with me. Or maybe I didn't know what to do with it. When I moved from a small town in Oregon to a large suburb in Washington, I didn't seek a new church in my denomination or in any other. And the longer I stayed away, the easier it became. I remembered all the things about the church's doctrine that I didn't believe. There was some relief to my nonparticipation as I moved on with my life.

In recent travels I've been reminded of my separateness from a religious community. Three years ago, in Italy, I visited Assisi and learned about Francis, the bad boy who renounced his family's wealth and chose instead to live simply and walk in the footsteps of Christ. That would be love and service, I thought. I visited the Vatican and saw a lot of gold and thought about how many people that gold could feed. I visited art museums and felt grateful for the role the Catholic Church played in supporting Renaissance artists. On that trip I was able to clarify my convictions about the role of spirit and of religion and to release old guilts and resentments.

Last month I visited a village in Kenya where the people sacrificed a goat we had bought from them, drank its blood, and shared the meat with us. I noted the similarity to sacred rituals in churches and wondered whether those rituals happened first in villages or in churches. I'm pretty sure it was in villages, to celebrate love and community.

When I got home from Africa I was invited by a friend to attend a church service in a denomination I'd never known much about. I explored the website and decided to give it a try. From the moment I walked in the door I was comfortable. The service was a celebration of life and community, of love and service. I believed every word spoken during the service. I went back two more times. I still felt comfortable. People welcomed me and shared their own experiences. I have decided to attend this church.

It's been a journey traveling around the bases. I don't regret a single step. But I am glad to feel like I'm sliding into home.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The heat wave and the veterans

My husband Art had been asked to speak to the Viet Nam Veterans of America at their monthly meeting in Roseburg, Oregon. We've written a book about his experience in Viet Nam in 1968, when he originally served, and in 2005, when we returned to the country on a journey of reconciliation and healing. The veterans wanted to hear his story.

There's a heat wave this week in the Pacific Northwest. We drove the 380 miles from Seattle to Roseburg. As we passed through Portland, the thermometer read 100 degrees. When we got into Roseburg, it was down to 97.

The VA auditorium is an older building and on this early evening it was cooled by several noisy fans. A semicircle of folding chairs was three quarters filled with 60-somethings, mostly men, mostly wearing hats or vests displaying their branch of service.

After a short business meeting, the fans in the room were turned off to cut the noise and Art was introduced. For this event he'd decided to wear a pair of tan shorts, a yellow shirt and sandals - plus his Viet Nam Veteran-United States Marine Corps hat.

Art is not an experienced public speaker, but he is an experienced veteran. He didn't talk much about his first time in Viet Nam. Instead, he talked about his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it affected him and his family. And he described his return to Viet Nam and how that trip has changed his life.

It was probably 85 degrees in that auditorium. For the 20 minutes Art talked, no one moved. No one went outside to get a breath of air or smoke a cigarette. No one got up for a cup of coffee or a bottle of cold water. Even the refreshment ladies in the back of the room were quiet. Everyone was listening.

We took a 15-minute break. Four men came up to Art to talk. All of them bought a book and asked him to sign it. He got up to speak again after the break. Not a single person had left. They stayed in that old auditorium, all those veterans, to listen to one of their own.

When the meeting ended, more men talked to Art. Two women talked to me. Two more books were sold and signed.

We were among the last to leave the building. It was 8:30 p.m. and still over 90 degrees outside. We went for ice cream to celebrate the veterans.