Monday, October 24, 2016

War is never civil

In the narrative genealogy I'm working on, I've just started researching how the Civil War might have affected my ancestors who all lived in Missouri at the time. I've been reading about the election of 1860 which ended up with 5 candidates. The winner, Abraham Lincoln, received less than 40 percent of the vote, concentrated in the densely populated northern states.

But in the backwoods counties of Missouri, where my ancestors lived, he was practically unknown. In one county, Lincoln received seven votes or less than 1 percent. Although slavery was legal in Missouri, very few of these poor farmers had slaves. Missouri's electoral votes actually went for Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat from Illinois, who believed in popular sovereignty, or allowing each state to decide whether it would allow slavery or not.

It was a very divisive election. I imagine my ancestors feeling much like we do today, wondering how friends and relatives can support a candidate whose ideas seem so abhorrent. Maybe they ignored the election. They probably had no idea that less than six months after the votes were cast -- only a month after this unknown Lincoln guy took office -- that this new president would be demanding that Missourians take up arms against each other and against the people in the states where they were born.

Makes you think.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Rally Round


I just realized tonight that I have been attending political rallies almost 50 years.
           Tonight it was my privilege to hear Bernie Sanders address a thunderous crowd in Grand Rapids. We had waited, standing in that hot and airless gym for more than an hour, and yet the enthusiasm when he eventually arrived was not dimmed. We applauded almost continually every point he made. It was invigorating just to be part of that diverse company: African American young men with dreadlocks, Muslim women with scarves, a lesbian couple, white-haired gentlemen in suits, mom with baby tied to chest... all ages, all races, all lifestyles, united and cheering together. "America's already great" proclaimed a baseball cap on a tall blonde young man. The slogan definitely rang true.
Me at 1976 rally for Ford
           My first rally was 1968 for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. I was a college student but the event I attended that year was a dress-up fundraiser. A single minister who was a friend of a friend had received an invitation for Mr. and Mrs. and invited me to use the Mrs. ticket. I was so excited to actually see a senator who was opposing that awful Vietnam war.
           Eight years later, 1976,  I was a reporter for the Aurora Beacon-News covering a rally for president Gerald Ford. His son Steven represented the President at an event in a hotel in St. Charles, Il. The newspaper's photographer took a picture of me that I kept all these years. Both of these events were more subdued than tonight's rally.
           Another eight years, 1984, and I was attending a rally for Walter Mondale at a union hall near Joliet, Il. I was assistant city editor for the Joliet Herald-News at the time, but I didn't attend in an official capacity. I went because Mondale's VP candidate ... Geraldine Ferraro... was the guest of honor. I was so excited that a woman was actually getting that close to becoming president. I wasn't the least subdued. I was ecstatic, yelling like a girl at a Beatles concert.
          Just four years later I went to a large outdoor rally for George H.W. Bush. I was dating a man who was a Republican although my interests often followed the Democratic platform. Each of us had 11-year-old sons. We took the boys to the event. My experience in newspapers and dealing with Secret Service helped me to guess where Bush would be in the crowd. I steered the boys in that direction and both were able to shake hands with the candidate. Meeting the vice president  was the whole goal of the day. I don't remember any speech at all.
          I remember one day when a political rally was held at Calder Plaza, just outside the Grand Rapids Press where I was working at the time. Several of us attended just to see what was going on. I'm not even sure what year or candidate.
         It's good to recall these events and realize how much things have changed, and how much they have stayed the same. Sometimes the mud slinging gets ugly but the actual process is exciting, invigorating, and very hopeful.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


          At church this morning a familiar statement attributed to John Wesley was projected onto the screen.
         “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
         Although some bloggers claim Wesley didn't say this, it is spouted often in the Methodist church and attributed to the founder. 
        When I read those words this morning  I couldn't help thinking about Hillary Clinton, growing up in a Methodist church, probably hearing that quote often, seeing it in church publications and displayed prominently. 
        I thought how that quote seems to describe the way she has lived her life, working for the underprivileged  before she was even out of college. I thought of all the good she has done already from helping families in Arkansas to helping create the Children's Health Insurance Program that covers so many children in this country to working for care for the survivors of 9/11 and working for women's rights around the world.
           Even in the face of lies and unwarranted criticism she just keeps on doing all the good she can. At all the times she can. For all the people she can. As long as ever she can. 


Monday, August 29, 2016

End of an EAR-a

Last night Steve and I went to one of our favorite venues -- Kresge Auditorium at Interlochen -- to hear blues artist Buddy Guy. Since Steve and I started dating in 1995 we have seen anywhere from two to six shows each summer at Kresge. I fear this will be the last.
       From the first note of the opening act -- Jonny Lang -- I knew the sound system was set painfully loud. With my fingers in my ears it was tolerable, but Steve was uncomfortable so I suggested we wait outside until after the intermission. Many others had made the same choice. It was just too loud to stay in the theater. Even outside the theater the music was loud. Only one song in the set was at a moderate level so you could actually enjoy the music.
       As we reentered the theater after intermission the ushers offered us ear plugs, which many of the audience members were taking. Funny, my definition of good music doesn't include ear plugs. But without them I wouldn't have been able to withstand 5 minutes of Buddy Guy. The whole place vibrated the way the windows do in the house when some teenager with too much bass on his stereo drives by. It was tiring and detracted from Guy's otherwise entertaining performance.
         If we had selected a rock concert, I might have expected to need ear plugs. But the blues are meant to be intimate, smooth and soulful. Not ear splitting. I went to bed at midnight and woke up four hours later with my ears throbbing. I had to put on an ice pack.
         We had been looking forward to this evening. We spent the afternoon playing Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang videos on You Tube. It was much more enjoyable than the performance we paid $100 to see. From now on, I will save my money. Buy a CD and donate the rest to charity.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Power outage

           The bathroom light flickered and went out. I would have thought a bulb burned out, but there are two bulbs in the fixture. Power must be out.
             I left the windowless bathroom for the brighter kitchen. The electric tea kettle had already heated the water before the power went out. I enjoyed a cup of tea and a bowl of cereal while I read my daily Bible reading.
             Then I headed into my office. I sat at my laptop and resumed the genealogy I had been working on the night before. I must have worked 10 or 15 minutes with the document on my screen before I wanted to know more. I clicked the keys to do an Internet search.
            "Server not found."
            What? I clicked again. What was going on? Then I glanced at my AT&T  receiver. None of the little green lights were on. I had completely forgotten that the power was out. The computer was going on battery; the light was coming in the window. I had gotten by perfectly fine without electricity for a little while but suddenly, I felt unable to do any of the things I had planned. I couldn't search the Internet or bake cookies or do the laundry. Why even my phone was almost out of juice and would be going dead soon. I was feeling panicky.
             I often think God is like electricity, unseen but undeniably powerful. Yet how often do I take him for granted and fail to plug in regularly, recharge my batteries? How often do I stumble through life with the lights out and never even realize it? Better make sure my spiritual batteries are fully charged for the storms ahead.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mennonite mystery, ehh?

Julius Otterbein was born in Canada
For a mystery writer like myself, genealogy is the perfect hobby.  It's full of quandaries that are fun to solve.
         My most recent mystery involved the German ancestors of my friend Steve Otterbein. His ggggreat grandfather Germanus Otterbein immigrated to Baltimore in 1851 with his wife and two kids. By the 1860 census he had moved his family to Grand Rapids, MI., where Steve grew up a century later and many relatives remain today.
         The census revealed, however, that Germanus made a detour between Baltimore and Grand Rapids. Three of his six children on the 1860 census were born in Canada. He and his family must have lived there from 1852 to 1857. The plot thickened when I searched online and discovered mention of Germanus in the Mennonite archives in Waterloo, Ontario.  The Otterbeins have always been Roman Catholic. Why would they be in Mennonite archives?
          At the Otterbein reunion in Colorado this summer, I found the answer in a notebook about some Canadian Otterbein families. According to "The Trail of the Black Walnut," a 1957 book by George Elmore Reaman, many immigrants left Germany because they were trying to avoid military service. They arrived here with few possessions.  Mennonite settlements took them in and gave them work to do until they could get on their feet again. Sort of like the way modern churches provided assistance to Vietnamese and Sudanese refugees, and undoubtedly will help Syrian refugees.
           It's humbling to realize we all need a helping hand now and then, and gratifying to know aid was handled in such an organized manner more than a century ago. But it's going to confuse some Syrian genealogists in the future.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Dusty dust


Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
        That Bible verse seemed particularly appropriate recently as I dragged my mother and brother all over Missouri trying to track down the graves of ancestors we had never met. I even recruited a long ago family friend, Paul Heiholt, who was a neighbor of my Grandmother many years ago.  Now Paul is the manager of a huge ranch that has encompassed the land where the graves of my grandmother's grandparents are located.
        With Paul's help, and his all-wheel drive truck,  we rumbled across the hayfields, dry creek bed and Missouri hills to the little square patch where C.P. Tharp, two of his wives, four of their daughters and a couple grandkids were buried between 1848 and 1897. Recent rainstorms had knocked down branches from a tree in the small graveyard. Paul had to haul out branches and set up a couple broken stones so we could see them, but many of the other stones were buried or too broken to stand up.
       Paul said he plans to be cremated when he dies. "In 20 years nobody cares about the graves anyway."
        Except genealogy nuts like me. Earlier, my brother and I had driven way back into the Mark Twain National Forest looking for Mill Creek Cemetery where John Wesley Merrell, my great-great-great grandfather, was buried along with many other Merrell relatives. I braved a "beware of dog" sign to knock on the door of a purple house to get permission to drive through a fenced cow pasture to complete our quest. We discovered that John's tombstone had survived beautifully but most the other graves we sought that week had not.
        High on a hill near Bismark, Mo., we looked for the Tullock ancestors who had moved to Missouri long before it became a state in 1821. Weeds had swallowed up most of the stones, and those we found were unreadable. We discovered another small Tullock cemetery in a grove of trees in the front yard of a fancy subdivision. The homeowner's dogs sniffed and barked as we felt the stones trying to read the letters etched away by time.
        Dust to dust applies to more than our bones. The granite markers wash away too. Even the stone erected 50 years ago for my mother's mother had been attacked by lichen since we last visited five years ago. We scraped it away as best we could and left the flowers we had brought. A little vanity against the ravages of time.