Saturday, March 30, 2024

News and Updates

1. The Elite 8 haven’t even tipped off and already our brackets are done. Kim has been declared the winner and will be awarded the Fabulous Prizes whenever we determine what, if anything, they are. Thanks for playing! See you all next year.

2. Somewhere in Hong Kong is a person using Chrome on a Mac who has been pinging this blog over a thousand times a day for the last few weeks and I have no idea what they’re getting out of this exercise other than older. There can’t be any money in it. Whatever useful information I might have was probably already sold by the guy in Singapore who did this a few months earlier. Drop me a note and say hello, my guy.

3. It’s not even April and we’re already making travel plans for summer and in some cases it’s clear that we might have waited too long but in other cases we’re pretty much good to go. We’ll see. But we’re going to take advantage of the opportunities as best we can while we can, because at some point there will come a time when those windows close. I’m already in my Travel Anxiety stage of thinking we could just stay home and relax instead, but I know from experience that I will have a very good time once the process is underway so I just ignore it. I have no baseline expectation of comfort and I do like being other places even if the set-up for it drives me mad. So on we go.

4. I went back to FamilySearch to see what new stuff was there, after a long hiatus where I have been mostly plinking around on Ancestry when I manage to find time to do this at all. FamilySearch organizes their search results quite differently, but once you get the hang of it you can find some interesting things. I looked up my grandmother and found a family tree she’s in, and if the guy who put it together is correct I may be somewhere in line for the English throne, as my grandfather – the one who flaked off in 1940 – can claim descent from Edward I. I find myself not terribly impressed with this, since a) far too many amateur genealogists claim royalty in their background and I won’t be convinced it’s even remotely plausible until I do the research myself since I’ve seen how other amateur genealogists have classified people I actually spent time with and from a reliability perspective it is … not pretty, b) large swaths of Earth’s population are in line for the English throne if you cast the net wide enough, and for me to exercise my claim would require a catastrophic depopulation event the likes of which would probably leave me as the only person in London, and c) Edward I was kind of an asshole even by the generous standards of English kings. But it was interesting to see.

5. Kim and I went to the nearest Apple Store the other day to go to one of their classes on how to get more out the iPhone camera, and it was useful if somewhat odd to go to a retail store for classes on how to use their product. The instructor was exceedingly enthusiastic and I did learn a few tips and tricks, and perhaps I’ll be able to do more than just point and tap with it. It’s lighter than my DSLR and raises fewer concerns from officious docents at historical sites when we travel, so we’ll see how it goes.

6. At some point one of the many felony indictments against der Sturmtrumper has to result in conviction, right? He can’t keep oozing his way through the system without consequences, right? Don’t answer that. I already know the answer and I don’t want to hear it.

7. I’m trying to go through some of the boxes of papers I pulled out of my mom’s storage unit after she died, most of which were untouched after my dad died, and it’s interesting what my parents felt was worth saving. I suspect my own children will have the same response someday, though perhaps I’ll try to edit things down before it gets to that point.

8. Did you know it’s Easter weekend? This came as a bit of a surprise to me, which probably says something about the current state of my life. It’s just going to be us this tomorrow, as the larger family event has been pushed back a bit to accommodate everyone’s schedules, so we’ll see how things go.

9. I finally ordered more Cooper Sharp cheese from the only place in the US which will ship it to me, apparently – if you go to the website for the manufacturer they redirect you there. It arrived promptly and then I had to take it over to the supermarket deli where they sliced it for me last time and then convince them that this was acceptable. Fortunately the manager remembered me and okayed it, and now I have a Supply. I am a happy Philadelphian.

10. The Flyers continue in a playoff position with less than ten games remaining in the season, which is a place that nobody expected them to be in back in October. They’re a fun team to watch and I hope they make it in. I suspect they won’t go far, but then they weren’t supposed to be this close at all so who knows what will happen. It beats paying attention to the news.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Meet Me In St. Louis (reprise)

I don’t really have a spring break this year. I have an online class that never actually ends – students sign up for 90-day periods and every month a new group climbs aboard and an old group falls off the back end. I teach a remote class for a campus whose spring break was last week, and Home Campus has this week off. Not counting the online class, I basically get two “half-breaks” with a weekend of overlap in between.

Naturally, we had to do something for that weekend.

Way back in 2011 we took Oliver and Lauren to St. Louis to get away for a bit from the swirling madness of Governor Teabagger (a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his assault on Wisconsin and we hit as many of the tourist sites as we could bounce off of on a long weekend. We went to the Gateway Arch. We sat in the Dred Scott courtroom. We spent a glorious day at the City Museum and if you have or know any children between 4 and 11 you must take them there – it is by far the best children’s museum I have ever been to. We had gooey butter cakes at Gooey Louie’s and spaghetti at Amighetti’s and generally had a grand time and many fond memories of the city.

This year Lauren had too much to do in her semester and Oliver preferred to stay home, so when we decided to go back to St. Louis it was just me and Kim making the trip.

We left Thursday right after work and headed south through the wilds of Illinois, which is a very long and very flat state. Pretty much the only memorable part of it was when we stopped for gas at some little town by the highway and I noticed the tall stack of Ammosexual Weekly newspapers right outside the men’s room, because clearly there aren’t enough people in this country defending firearms. I do wonder about this country sometimes. Well, most of the time to be honest. Not all the time. Sometimes I sleep.

The apartment where we stayed in St. Louis was on the fifth floor of a refurbished factory building in a neighborhood full of old factory buildings – one of those post-industrial neighborhoods that real estate people like to describe as “up and coming,” which means that it’s not as dangerous as it was five years ago but you still have to search a bit for amenities and everything you walk by is behind at least one fence and two locks. At one point we walked over to what Google Maps insisted was a grocery store that turned out to be a wholesaler for a local pizza chain. Needing to be buzzed in was probably a good tip-off, as were the rather puzzled (but friendly) office staff we found there. In the end it was a pretty nice area if you enjoy urban post-industrial landscapes, as I do. There was free parking right on the street in front of the place – we never did pay for parking the whole time we were in St. Louis – and there was a nice little café a few blocks away where we had breakfast on our first morning there. The café definitely catered to the post-industrial theme, all decorated in black and metal with the only real splash of color in the place being what might have been a raised dance floor shaped like a gear and painted bright yellow. The food was good, though.

The apartment was the sort of place that made you feel you should be wearing flannel and drinking an IPA. It was clean and comfortable and perfectly fine for everything we needed, but entirely made of exposed concrete, bricks, and a color scheme that was mostly black, white, and grey. I’m not sure why they coated the hardwood floor with grey laminate but I assume there was a reason. The kitchen had been stocked by someone who had heard of kitchens and thought they were fascinating but had never actually tried to cook anything or handle a hot saucepan. There were no hot pads, but there was a foosball table by the window. We thought that was a nice touch, if somewhat inexplicable. It had immense windows in every room but no curtains or shades of any kind, which is fine on the fifth floor but made for some early mornings as the sun came in. We’d watch the birds play around on the cell tower outside of the bedroom.

Also, the place howled when the wind blew. It would have been a great spot to have a small Halloween party.

Getting in took us a while to figure out. You needed an app. The rental place sent us a link and that took you to an app of some kind with a list of buttons, and you brought your phone to the sensor for the main gate and pressed that button to get it to unlock, and then you repeated this with the main door and the elevator. There were other buttons we never did use. I’m not sure what you would do if you forgot your phone.

Friday was the warm day so we spent as much of that outside as we could. We walked up to the café, then walked down to the pizza wholesaler (waving at the City Museum along the way) before heading off to see the Botanical Gardens. It’s late March so not much was in bloom but it was a lovely place to wander around and see the various plants and sculptures. The biggest thing was the Climatron, a giant geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller’s architectural firm and stuffed with tropical plants and blown glass sculptures.

We walked all over the place. There were a few things in bloom despite the season and some interesting things to see, and in the end I got to see what a tea plant looks like which made me unreasonably happy.

For lunch we went over to a place called The Foundry, which turned out to be – wait for it – a refurbished factory, though this one had been converted into retail space rather than apartments, in this instance a giant food court full of local vendors. There were a LOT of them, everything from Afro-Caribbean chicken to St. Louis pizza to desserts and wine. There were a lot of chicken places, actually. I decided I’d try one of the things that St. Louis is known for and have toasted ravioli, which is exactly what it sounds like and very tasty. I’m not sure what my Italian ancestors would have thought of it. My guess is that would have been puzzled but happy to eat it if you put it in front of them. Practical people, my ancestors.

From there we went out to the Hill, which is the Italian-American neighborhood in St. Louis. It is a mass of groceries, bakeries, churches, festivals, and brightly painted streets. We went to two different little grocery stores to stock up on whatever looked good to us and I can highly recommend the garlic butter at DiGregorio’s because that stuff rocks. The only issue was that almost everything there closes at 5pm, and the bakery we went to was actually closing at 4 when we walked in at 3:55 but they let us pick a handful of cookies and then wouldn’t let us pay for them. They were really good cookies. You can’t beat a good Florentine. We stopped at a homemade soap shop as well and they gave us the tour of the back room where they make the stuff. Kim and I had our own soapmaking business for seven years so we knew a lot of what they were saying but it was a very nice tour and I ended up buying a bar of their soap because I could tell it was good stuff and they were really friendly. We also found a little café that had cannoli, which we ate outside.

After resting a bit at the apartment we decided to try another of the foods that St. Louis is known for and sought out some barbecue. I love barbecue. It is one of my favorite food groups, and the main problem with finding barbecue in St. Louis is narrowing down your choices. We ended up at a place in a neighborhood called University City (for obvious reasons) and it was also very good. We ate well in St. Louis, though I never did get a gooey butter cake. I know how to make them, though. Perhaps I’ll do that soon.

The drive back to our apartment was kind of odd, though. University City is a fairly affluent area, as you would expect in a neighborhood that caters to college students, and our apartment was in an area that was a bit rough around the edges but perfectly fine. But in between we drove through literally two miles of abandoned houses – block after block after block of them, maybe one house on a block with lights on. The staggering inequality of this country jumps out at you now and then, and it was a bleak sort of end to the day.

Saturday was significantly cooler and started early, as the sun rose into our bedroom and the birds played in the cell phone tower.

Our first stop was the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, a gorgeous structure covered in glass mosaics. Whoever designed them was really good at their job because they have a way of glowing in the sunlight that makes them seem almost backlit and the whole thing really is amazing.

Also, they have mosaics for things that you don’t often find in cathedrals. One celebrated both the Religious Liberty Decree from the 1965 Vatican Council and the Racial Justice Decree from St. Louis in 1947. Another was the city seal of St. Louis.

Plus there was an intriguing mishmash of styles. This one has some rather classic Byzantine iconography surrounding what looks like an illustration from a 1950s illustrated Bible.

From there we went to the St. Louis Art Museum, or SLAM as it’s colloquially known. I am not making that up.

It’s free to the public, though they have specific exhibits sometimes that have a ticket price – there was a giant Matisse exhibit that we thought about seeing when we arrived but by the time we got to where the exhibit actually was we were pretty much museumed out and were glad to get back to the apartment. But in between those two points we had a good time. The museum has a pretty extensive collection covering a lot of periods and places – there are things from ancient Rome, from Africa, from medieval Europe, from Oceana, and a pile of modern stuff (I counted four Picassos), and you could happily spend a day there if you enjoy art. I liked this ancient Andean cat pottery, just because I like cats, and this 18th-century English soup tureen because it’s just turtles all the way down.

My favorite, though, was this painting. It’s Dutch, from the early 17th century, and I love the fact that she’s smiling in it. So many of the people in these paintings are just so deadly serious and it’s nice to see someone who looks like they might actually be enjoying their day.

Yes, I’m aware of what the painting actually is. No, I don’t care.

On our way back to the apartment we decided to take a detour and find an Eastern European bakery, since that’s Kim’s heritage. We got to know some of the roads in St. Louis pretty well over the weekend and never once ran into traffic, not even on the freeways during rush hour. So haring off in search of new bakeries seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan, and eventually we found a couple and made our purchases.

We also found this.

You can’t tell from the photo but the blades were slowly spinning. It appeared to be a restaurant of some kind, but it is a surreal thing to be driving down the streets of St. Louis in search of Eastern European bread and see a functioning windmill at the next traffic light.

Our final adventure in St. Louis was to go to a soccer game. St. Louis has an MLS team that was scheduled to play DC United that evening, and the stadium was all of three blocks from our apartment. You’re supposed to get there early, as they have all sorts of food vendors (all local) at the stadium and the crowd of supporters gets fired up long before kickoff. We walked over and found ourselves weaving through the massed superfans and their drums.

We found some barbecue and a good spot to eat it, and then headed to our seats. We were fairly close to the field.

It’s a really nice stadium, actually. It’s new – only a couple of years old, in fact – and the seats are a bit snug but the sightlines are great and it’s a good place to watch a game. The game was sold out, which tells you that the team gets a good amount of support. The superfans get the north end and there are signs warning you that you’re not allowed in that section wearing opposing gear and that your views might be obstructed by the giant flags people wave. It was interesting to see just how socially progressive the views of the superfans actually were. The guy waving the LGBTQ flag with the team’s logo superimposed on it was there all game, and on the way in I noticed one of the superfans with a large button prominently displayed on his jacket that said “Fuck Abortion Bans,” to which I could only nod in agreement.

Eventually they introduced the players, sang the national anthem, and started the game. Nobody sat down. The only reason they have seats at all in this stadium is so you know where to stand. The superfans kept up the drumming and singing for the entire game and they had some good songs. My favorite was the one to the tune of We’re Not Going to Take It, which went “We’re St. Louis City / Who are you?” – they did that at kickoff and at random moments throughout the game and we all sang along.

It was a pretty good game, though it was a lot chippier than the ref bothered to notice – there were a lot of fouls uncalled – and the opposing goalie was deeply annoying in his time-wasting tactics. After not doing much of anything for 87 minutes, the ref started handing out yellow cards like confetti after that, almost entirely for time wasting. There were originally going to be 10 minutes of added time but that got stretched to 14 so we had a lot of bonus soccer. We had a great time watching the game and it ended in a 2-2 draw after St. Louis was awarded a penalty kick late in the second half. There was a group of guys behind us who kept up a running commentary on pretty much everything that happened – they were a lot of fun to listen to.

We walked back to the apartment, wound down a bit, and the next day we headed off back home, back to our regularly scheduled lives already in progress.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

News and Updates

1. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, which is a strange holiday when a good chunk of your ancestry is Irish Protestant. It’s not really a holiday meant for me to enjoy, but I do anyway because it pleases me to do so and because it pleases me even more to annoy the sorts of people who gatekeep holidays. There is corned beef simmering on the stove and the place smells good.

2. I am getting ready to meet with the Tax Person in the coming days. On the one hand, this means gathering up all the financial paperwork that I’ve been steadfastly ignoring since the last time I did this and trying not to let the incipient sense of dread that I feel whenever financial matters come up take over my life. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to handing all of this over to the Tax Person since last year went so swimmingly well. It’s such a wonderful thing to turn this all over to a trained professional – one who is professionally insured for liability if they make a mistake – and then just let them handle it.

3. No, I don’t like paying taxes. Nobody does. But I do understand that taxes are part of the price one pays for civilization, and you can make whatever inference you’d like about the character of those who don’t understand that as far as I’m concerned.

4. Speaking of which, it looks like we’re going to get a rerun of the 2020 election now that the primaries are effectively over. Der Sturmtrumper seems to be going all in on the Psychotic Dictator routine now, and far too many Americans are happy to celebrate this, convinced that only the people they hate will suffer. Folks, this is not normal. This is a full-scale red alert for the survival of the American republic.

5. I have been trying to grade online discussion posts for three straight days now and so far have done exactly not a single one of them. It’s that time of the semester, I suppose. I will say that the first one – the post at the top of the page that I have to work my way down – made me laugh out loud, and three cheers to that particular student for having the gumption to say what they did.

6. Perhaps I will bake something tonight. That was always my solution in graduate school, way back when, and if it didn’t necessarily solve any problems at least there were good things to eat afterward.

7. I spent a good chunk of this week revamping a guest lecture for a friend’s course. It’s been four years since the last time I gave this talk – we were all logging in from home then, back when we thought the pandemic would be over by summertime – and now it’s a different friend teaching the class as the first one has retired, so there was some work to be done. It was fun work, at least, for certain values of fun that include academic nerdhood. I’m so there.

8. Is anyone else puzzled by the new GOP campaign tactic of asking “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” because that just isn’t going to help them. Four years ago people were storing dead bodies in refrigerated trucks because the pandemic that der Sturmtrumper insisted wasn’t worth taking precautions for was so horrifying that we ran out of morgue space. Four years ago the economy was so bad that unemployment hit levels not seen since the Great Depression and oil prices briefly turned negative. Four years ago der Sturmtrumper’s literally jackbooted thugs in deliberately anonymous uniforms were assaulting Americans in the streets and kidnapping peaceful protesters. And it all led to the Trump Insurrection a few months later. Am I better off? Damn, friend, who isn’t?

9. We’ve managed to catch a few Flyers games on television of late – they remain an entertaining team to watch even when they don’t win, as they demonstrated last night. I like when they win, but I don’t have any money on them. I just want to be entertained, and my but they do provide. My favorite Premier League team served up much the same “entertaining loss” experience as well yesterday – a game that went from 1-0 to 1-2 to 3-2 in the last sixteen minutes of play, with the final goal coming on the very last touch a full minute after stoppage time was supposed to have ended. Kim and I have even managed to watch an episode of Jodie Whittaker’s last season of Doctor Who, as we slowly work our way up to the new Doctor, whose name I have learned to pronounce but still can’t reliably spell. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the character. This all counts as a lot of television for me these days.

10. Kim spoke to one of our neighbors earlier this week – a man who does odd jobs for a living – and it turns out that he was perfectly happy to remove the giant overgrown shrubbery in front of our house, and we were perfectly happy to pay him to do so. So now the house looks rather barren, but I am sure that soon there will be new shrubbery of some kind. I’m also sure the mint will grow back. It always does.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Time in a Tube

I finished a tube of toothpaste a couple of days ago.

This is not something I generally note, either here in particular or in my life in general. You’re supposed to do that now and then. For all that dental hygiene is a nuisance, it is also something that takes very little time and provides positive, identifiable benefits, so you grit your teeth (the better to brush them, perhaps) and get on with it.

This is especially true for me, as I inherited my dad’s soft teeth and I suspect that the only reason my rate of cavities has slowed in the last few decades is that there’s not much room left for them to form anymore. I need all the dental help I can get.

This particular tube, though, was something of a traveler.

Last year’s Big Family Trip took us through any number of places, and you can only pack so much if you’re planning to do it all by carryon as we did. I figured we’d be in places where there were shops so if I found myself needing something I hadn’t packed or if I ran out of something that I hadn’t packed enough of, I could – through the simple expedient of handing over currency, either physical or digital – acquire it there.

This is how I ended up with a small bottle of wood glue, purchased from the World’s Smallest Hardware Store in Irsina, Italy. It is very nice glue, and I highly recommend that shop for all your hardware needs should you ever be able to locate it. The guy there was very friendly and forgiving of my attempts to speak Italian.

I ran out of toothpaste while we were in Prague.

Fortunately there were, by my count, at least four little cornershops within five hundred meters of the apartment where we were staying, all of which sold the unheralded things that people need to get through the days. I wandered down to one of them and bought the smallest tube I could find (75ml), since I didn’t want to get stopped by airport security on the way back or abandon it in Prague unless I had to, and it worked just fine.

I put my travel stuff away when we got home and it stayed there until December when I realized that I now had access to more normal travel-sized tubes and could take this one out for regular use. I put it in a safe place.

Eventually I found it again, put it to use, and worked my way through it.

It was a nice memento of a time and place, in a practical sort of way, and a good reminder of all the unassuming little details that happen in places where you’re just visiting. People live there. They do all the daily in and out things that people do, and you’re just visiting but sometimes you end up doing those daily things too.

Every time I brushed my teeth these last few weeks I remembered a wet, grey city far from my home, a city I enjoyed with my family, where I found good people and good times, and that’s a nice thing to do twice a day.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024


Way back last summer I started a Project.

I am a historian by trade and my main form of relaxation is reading. One of my favorite activities is to go to used book stores and see what I can find that looks interesting and costs me next to nothing. I tend to hang on to the things I acquire. And when you combine all of these things you end up at a place where my office is pretty much full to the brim with books, many of which I will never read again and which have no particular sentimental value.

They were standing in the way of further book acquisitions, and so they had to go. Plus, being on the clearing-out end of my parents’ stuff did sort of bring home the idea that perhaps I should do some of that while I am still healthy to spare my children from the same task. At least some of the same task, anyway.

So I went through the bookshelves and took out all of the ones that I didn’t see myself keeping. The “just in case” books. The “that might be useful someday” books. The “this wasn’t something I hated but neither was it something I plan to revisit” books. The “what the hell is this still doing on my shelves?” books. The “what was this book about again?” books. And then I took the books that I wanted to keep – many of which had been piled in corners or on the floor prior to this – and put them on the shelves, in a pleasing order.

This did require a few bookshelf purchases, but by the end of the summer – for the first time since we moved into this house in 1996 – all of my books were out of boxes, off the floor, and accessible to the casual browser.

The rest I put in boxes and stashed down in the basement. There were a lot of boxes. There they stayed while more pressing things occupied my time. Life is like that, I suppose.

This weekend, though, it was Time. A while back a friend had recommended a bookstore in Madison that does a lot of community literacy work, so I called and asked them if they still accepted donations. “Sure!” they said. “Is it a big collection?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Well, if it’s more than 50 books that would count.”

“Oh, my sweet summer child. This is 20 boxes of books.”




"If you took them out and repacked them there’s probably about 16 boxes worth that you can actually use,” I told them. “You can have them for free, but you have to take them all. That’s the deal. I just want them out of my house.”

Thus are bargains struck.

We drove up there on Sunday and eventually found the place – an unassuming brown building that looked more like a house than a shop – and wandered in. It seemed like a very nice place. If I hadn’t been dropping stuff off I’d have stayed to pick up more. Perhaps another time.

I let the much younger staff people handle getting the books out of the van and into their shop, and eventually it was done.

It felt pretty good, really. I hope they find new homes and new readers.

And now I can buy more books to replace them.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Standard Legal Boilerplate - A Family Story

I’ve been trying to unravel a family story for the last couple of weeks. It’s one of those stories that I didn’t know a whole lot about when I was a kid, then slowly pieced together over time, and eventually fleshed out most of the details when I was an adult to get something coherent.

And then it got weird.


Weirder. It was a pretty strange story right from the start in some ways.

All of the principals in this story are long gone now as are most of the people who were even tangentially connected to them when these events happened, so I figure it’s something I can put down here. And honestly I find myself sneakily proud of my grandmother, the main person in the story, for living her life the way she wanted to live it, as best she could.

So here you go.

My dad’s side of the family was pretty small when I was growing up. There was my dad, of course. There was my grandmother (his mother), who lived with us for the last dozen years or so of her life. And there was my great-grandmother (my grandmother’s mother), who died when I was eight, which was why my grandmother came to live with us. I don’t remember her much – she and my grandmother lived in the last rowhouse before you got to the 69th Street Terminal, in Millbourne which was at the time a gritty little suburb of Philadelphia tucked between the city and Upper Darby, and mostly what I remember is an old woman in a bed and the fact that the front door faced the train tracks behind the house, not the street, so you could watch from the doorstep as the Market-Frankfort El rumbled by on its way to and from the terminal. It was neither elevated nor underground at that stage of the ride, as it would be at different points for most of its route. It was just a light rail line at one end of its journey through the city.

That was it. That’s all of the people on that side of the family that I have ever met, even to this day.

My dad, as far as I knew growing up, was an only child. I had no evidence to the contrary and no reason to suppose otherwise. Only children are a fairly common and unremarkable occurrence, after all.

My grandmother was not married at any time that I knew her and I never met any grandfather on that side of the family. I didn’t even find out my grandfather’s name until I was in high school and it made so little impression on my mind that it took me years to remember it again after that. My grandmother had a brother who married maybe three or four times but never had any kids, and a sister who had a son that my dad once described as “a toad, just like his father” so the son and his father both fell off the family radar long before I was born. The sister died before my parents even got married, something my dad blamed squarely on the stress caused by her husband and son. The brother died about a month after my great-grandmother did, but he had been running a motel in Florida for years by that point and I never met him. My mom only met him once, ironically enough at his mother’s funeral a few weeks before he died, and she said he seemed like a decent guy.

My great-grandfather seems to have been created out of pixie dust and table scraps and even now I can find very little about him on the genealogical sites. Certainly no family came from his side that I ever met. I know he started life as a blacksmith and ended up working for a company that made railroad locomotives.

My great-grandmother was the third of nine girls, and one of maybe two or three who ever had children of their own. My dad would tell stories of some of his great-aunts – especially Aunt Bertha (“Birdie”) who apparently had a sharp sense of humor – but by and large it was not a tight-knit family. “They weren’t dysfunctional,” my dad once told me, “but they weren’t close.”

At some point in your life, as you get older, there is a little switch in the back of your head that flips over and you find yourself saying, “Huh. Genealogy. That sounds like fun.” I hit this point in my early 40s or so, and eventually I managed to flesh out my grandmother’s story and add to the pieces that I’d discovered growing up.

Just a note, though, before proceeding. My grandmother led a very interesting life in many ways, and only some of them appear in this story. You had to know her.

My grandmother, Beryl, married Russell in early 1929 and they would go on to have four children, not just the one. There was Robert, born later in 1929. There were James and Phyllis, born in the early 1930s, both of whom died very young from things that could easily be prevented or cured today. And there was my dad, born in 1939. Beryl and Russell divorced in 1940. Russell took the oldest kid, Beryl took the baby, and neither side spoke to the other again.


Please understand that at no time in the ensuing eight decades before the last one died did any of the four of them live more than twenty miles from any of the others. They could easily have kept in touch. But they didn’t.

The closest they came to doing so that I know of was a story my maternal grandmother told my brother of a day when she and my dad were in a shop in West Philadelphia, before I was born. At some point my dad took her aside and pointed to a man paying for his things at the cash register, told her that the guy was his father, and then just watched him walk out. This of course implies that my dad knew him on sight at least two decades after he’d left, which further implies a lot more stories that we’ll never know now. Much later, in a very different context, I asked my dad if he had ever thought about contacting his father. “No,” he said. “Never. What would I have had to say to the man?” Which is a fair question. Neither my dad nor his mother were ever really bothered about the guy that I knew of. He simply wasn’t part of their lives anymore and that was that. Nor was his son.

Beryl remarried in 1942 to a man named Charles, and on those few occasions where my dad would tell stories about his dad, it was Charles he was talking about. Charles was the guy who was there for him when he was growing up, after all. My mom met him a couple of times when she and my dad first started dating in high school. She said he seemed nice and treated her well. Charles died in 1959, and my grandmother never remarried after that.

That’s the story as I pieced it together from childhood stories and adult research. It’s got its odd moments, granted, but it’s fairly straightforward for all that.

So far, so good.

If you are going to do genealogy in this modern digital age you will end up on one of two websites, and probably both at one point or another.

The big one of course is, which is run by the Mormon Church. The Mormons have this interesting little theological quirk that says if you convert to the Church you have a spiritual obligation to go back and retroactively convert all of your ancestors. This occasionally gets them into trouble (such as when they repeatedly try to do this to all the Jews who died at Auschwitz, which is an arrogantly messed up thing to do to people who were murdered for the religion they already had) but it is also why they have the best genealogical records on the planet, bar none. It’s one of the things that the young Mormons can do for their missions when they reach adulthood – most of them go off to proselytize the heathens (i.e. us) but no small number of them go out and dredge the world for records that they copy and bring back to Salt Lake City. If you’re going to do genealogy online you’re going to work with the Mormon Church, and Ancestry is as close to a win/win as you get – you get access to all those records and can build your genealogy to your heart’s content, and they get access to more records that people upload on their own while paying for the privilege, which saves them on missionaries. I for one am perfectly happy to make this trade.

The other is, which is basically Ancestry Lite. It’s the free teaser version of Ancestry that they use to get you hooked so you’ll move up to the big site and pay them their subscription fees, which worked like a charm on me so kudos to them for their marketing strategy. They do know their audience.

So I dipped my toe into the genealogical pool and opened an account on FamilySearch, and it works pretty much like Ancestry does. You can put up a family tree that can be private or available for others to see, you can add documents and stories, and you can contact people who seem to be barking up the same trees you are.

I ended up talking with a guy named Mark, who was doing research on Russell’s side of the family. Mark is some kind of nth-degree cousin of mine – if you go back five or six generations there’s a pair of siblings and Mark comes down from one of them and I come down from the other – and he turned out to be a pretty nice guy. He had a lot of information that I hadn’t seen before and I had some things that were new to him as well, mostly because I had the physical documents in my possession and had scanned them. We had a good conversation.

At some point, though, he sent me a scan of a clipping from one of the Philadelphia newspapers. It’s pretty standard legal boilerplate, the kind of thing you’d see in the Public Notices section of newspapers back when newspapers were a thing, the sort of notice you’d have to publish for three consecutive weeks so your court case could go to trial. “Russell hereby notifies Beryl that he intends to sue for divorce, and if she does not respond by such and such a date judgement will be entered against her blah blah blah blah blah.” That sort of thing. Standard legal boilerplate, insert names and dates here.

Except that it’s from 1962.

Now, there are a lot of weird things about this, not least of which being that in 1962 Russell knew damn well where to find my grandmother. She was living with her parents, in the same house where she had been living in 1928 when she and Russell had started dating. Russell knew exactly how to get hold of her and advertised in the newspaper instead.

As for the underlying issue, though, there are three possible alternatives here, each one funnier than the next and all of them entirely plausible if you knew my grandmother.

First, Beryl and Russell really were divorced in 1940.

In this alternative, Beryl did the whole Public Notification thing as above, got no response, had judgement entered against Russell as promised in the Notification, and never bothered to tell him anything about it. In which case Russell’s lawyer is about to make a very expensive discovery. I can see this happening, really I can. “Why should I tell him anything?” my grandmother would have said. “To hell with him and good riddance.” I can, in fact, imagine this in her voice in my mind even now.

Second, Beryl and Russell were not actually divorced in 1940 and my grandmother was married to two different men for seventeen years.

Again, entirely plausible. I come from a long line of people who had very little interest in or patience with bureaucratic niceties or legal requirements, and in an age where you had to do a fair amount of legwork to find records – physically going to the courthouse(s), searching through folders, locating paper documents, and so on – I can easily see my grandmother just cutting Russell out of her life, forgetting entirely or simply ignoring the entire issue of whether they were still married or not, and then going on to get married to Charles. Russell was over as far as she was concerned, paperwork or no. If Charles wanted to get married, why not?

For corroboration of this basic attitude, consider that one of the first things that Mark did after we connected on FamilySearch was to send me all the information he had on my grandmother and ask me to check it for accuracy. I looked it over and said it was all correct except that he had her birthday wrong – it was August 9th, not August 10th. “But her birth certificate says the 10th,” he replied. “I’m sure it does,” I told him. “But I lived with the woman for a dozen years and her birthday was the 9th.” I’m pretty sure I know what happened. Either my great-grandparents filled out the form incorrectly because they couldn’t remember the date (it was a big day, after all) or just made a mistake, or they forgot about the form entirely and had to go back later to fill it out because some humorless official demanded they do so and then got the date wrong, and either way they couldn’t be arsed to change it. Beryl’s here, isn’t she? What does it matter what the form says?

Also, this is the same family where my dad had to take three weeks of shore leave from the United States Navy to sort out who owned the family house in West Philadelphia. It had been in the family for generations by that point. The original owners had bought it in the 1870s or 80s, and then they died and passed it down and those people died and passed it down and no one ever bothered to change the title so it was still legally owned by people who had died several decades and at least two generations of residents ago. The taxes were paid and the property was well maintained, so what did the title matter? Sorting that out with the city was an experience, my dad said.

So yeah, my grandmother being legally married to two different men and not giving a damn about it is absolutely within the realm of possibility.

Third, Beryl and Russell were not actually divorced in 1940 and my grandmother was just shacking up with Charles. For almost two decades. In the 1940s and 1950s, when such things Simply Were Not Done.

And yes, this too is entirely plausible. My grandmother was not terribly concerned with what other people thought of her life choices and by “not terribly concerned” I mean "not concerned at all."  She could in fact be rather contrary about them. She was a pack-a-day smoker from the time she was 17, during the Harding Administration, to the day she died in 1986. She smoked Benson & Hedges Gold, which she would send me down to the local pharmacy to buy for her and which, this being the 1970s, they’d happily sell to a 9-year-old boy, and she once told my brother that the entire reason she started smoking was because someone told her not to. Also, she worked outside the home for her entire adult life, she went by her middle name and hated her first name enough that she somehow managed to avoid having it appear on her Social Security records, and she had a very clear moral code that did not involve her getting too worried about other people’s choices or understanding why they should care about hers. Seven years into her marriage to Russell she got hit by a trolley in West Philadelphia and, according to the newspaper story that appeared the next day, when questioned by the police she gave them her own last name (not Russell’s), an age that was several years younger than she actually was, and an address that turned out to be a greenhouse. What business of theirs was any of that? She was who she was, and I have to admit I have always admired her for that.

The idea that she would decide that her personal life was not someone else’s to regulate or comment upon would have been entirely within character for her.

I first discovered all this when Lauren was about sixteen, and her immediate reaction to it was “Wow. Grandmom was a playa!” And I suppose she was, in her time. She had game. She did what she felt was right by her standards, and if that wasn’t the usual practice of the day well that could easily be defined as Someone Else’s Problem.

This story has percolated in the back of my mind for a number of years now, but for some reason I have recently been spending some time trying to get to the bottom of it. What actually happened? Which of these three alternatives is the one that they lived through?

There’s nobody left to ask, though.

Russell died in 1978 and Robert in 2019 or 2020 without any contact with us at all. My brother and I did look into finding Robert at one point – it’s astonishing what information you can find online if you care to search – but on further consideration it didn’t seem like a great idea (“What would we have to say to the man?”) and we let it drop. Beryl died in 1986. Both of my maternal grandparents died in 2000. My dad died in 2016 and my mom in 2021. They’re all gone and the web of stories and relationships in which they lived is gone with them. All that is left are the documents and photographs.

None of these people made much of an impression on the genealogical websites that I can find. Some, but not much. There are census records, for example, but those stop at 1950. I have Charles’ death certificate, which does list my grandmother as his wife, but I have not yet found any marriage record for them nor any divorce records for her and Russell, not even in 1962. You can’t prove something by absence, of course, and it is always possible that the records are there and I’ll find them eventually. But all of these people remain to this degree elusive, confined to a time that has long since passed. My dad and my grandmother (and to some extent my great-grandmother) live on in my memories, of course, but the documents remain an as yet unexplored territory.

So for now it’s a story, or rather a set of possible stories, and there is something to be said for that as well.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

News and Updates

1. Just in case you were wondering whether the climate isn’t what it used to be, in the last few weeks here in Our Little Town we were narrowly missed by the first tornado in Wisconsin’s history, then saw the temperature hit 73F (23C) before plunging to 13F (-11C) in less than 18 hours, the largest temperature swing ever recorded in that short a time in this state. We had about two weeks of winter back in mid-January and since then it’s been spring. Currently we’re back up to around 73F again – a temperature we normally see in May rather than the first weekend in March. We put the rabbits outside and opened up all the windows. Folks, the climate isn’t changing. The climate has changed. All we’re doing now is trying to figure out what happens next and mitigate the damages.

2. I hope those third-quarter profit statements and the thrill of Owning The Libs was worth it to all the right-wing fools who made sure that nothing would be done to prevent this back when we had the time to do so, because there is no going back.

3. In less critical news, I now have a lovely new work mug for my tea. For a long time I had one with the best line from Game of Thrones on it (“There is only one god and his name is death, and there is only one thing that we say to death: not today”) and I do still have it, but my brother gave me a new mug for my birthday back in December. It has a bright colorful design and underneath that it says “Joey No-Nuts” in cheerful letters. The fact that it is advertising an allergen-free bakery in Hoboken NJ rather than some doomed side character in in a 1970s Mafia film makes it just that much better. So far nobody has commented on it, but the year is young.

4. This may well be the year where I don’t even get to a dozen books for my annual list. I’m currently about halfway through my third book – a mark I usually hit by MLK Day – and honestly it just doesn’t look like it will get any better anytime soon. We’ll see. At least they’re good books.

5. On the plus side, we did finally send out the Christmas letters. Before March, even! One takes one’s victories where one finds them.

6. It always grievously bothers me when I screw up as an advisor, because it’s someone else’s life path at stake. It happens – you can’t avoid it, in the long run, as we are fallible creatures we humans. But it bothers me. I try to do what I can to fix things, but still. It does keep me up at night.

7. One of my students recently turned in an essay on the 1920s that spent a fair amount of time discussing the Ku Klutz Klan and that is the only way I will refer to that organization from now on. I have this mental image now of all those hateful little bigots with their pointy little costumes flapping behind them as they scurry about colliding with trees and falling down embankments trying to avoid the retribution of the just, and I treasure this, I really do.

8. Every few weeks I get yet another nastygram from yet another account we have about them not being paid because we had to get new credit cards in December thanks to a fraudulent charge that appeared there and I’d forgotten to make the changes for them. Everything is so linked now. So I go to their website or call the number and get everything verified that yes indeed this is the proper procedure and not a pathway to yet more fraudulent charges and then I cross that one off the list until the next one appears.

9. I have been trying to find information on an ancestor of mine to see if I can get to the bottom of a story that has at least three alternative narratives for what might have happened – each funnier than the next, really, and all of them absolutely plausible if you knew the people involved – but so far there is surprisingly little on the usual websites. Honestly, this is also absolutely plausible given the people involved.

10. On top of everything else my cousin and I are now working on another Long Term Family Project and we’re having a grand time of it even though neither of us really has the time for it at all but that’s the nature of these projects I suppose. We’ll see how it turns out!