Tag Archives: family history

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Like most Americans, my ancestry is a bit of the mutt variety. Dad’s people came to this country from Protestant England and Northern Ireland and were established on farms in southern Illinois well before this country’s Civil War. Mother’s family were redheaded Catholics from Scotland on her father’s side, most likely from northeast of Edinburgh. Her grandparents on her mother’s side were born in Ireland in the midst of the potato famine, and shortly after they married, they boarded a ship to America, settling in Springfield Ohio just after the Civil War.

Irish-Blessing-St-Patricks-Day-Free-Printable-by-Five-Heart-Home_700px_Print-1When my children look back on their ancestry they must include the great- grandparents on their father’s side who left Scotland after their highlander Great Grandmother, who lived in the Lightbody Castle, married their Great Grandfather, a lowlander, and the gatekeepers’ son. Upward mobility for their offspring meant moving to a country with a less rigid class system. On their other Great-Grandfather’s side, there is the mystery of where he came from before he boarded a ship in Liverpool England to seek his fortune in America in the early twentieth century. And to complete their pedigree, they must include the woman he married who was from the Netherlands.

By the time my grandchildren get the St. Patrick’s Day card I send to them each year, I’m sure they are shaking their heads wondering what St. Patrick’s Day has to do with them. They are surrounded by relatives on their father’s side, all descendents from the same ethnic group, Germans from Russia. These people immigrated to Russia from Germany at the invitation of Catherine the Great to bring their farming skills to Russia. They agreed to come as long as they could keep their own language and religion, and be free from the duty of military service. After 130 years, the Russian government cancelled the agreement and my grandchildren’s ancestors were among the million or so Germans from Russia who settled in the Americas after the Russian Revolution. The center for Germans from Russia is in Lincoln Nebraska where my grandchildren live.

Getting back to my insistence on sending St. Patrick’s Day cards to my relatives, I’ve always wondered why my mother’s Irish heritage seemed to stand out from the array of other ethnic influences in my background. Leprechauns_SingingPerhaps it was the fact that her Irish Grandmother raised my mother and that influence never left her. Perhaps my close relationship with my auntie, my great-grandmother’s daughter, grafted me to that branch of the family tree. Or maybe it’s something to do with the spirit of the Irish in general. Wherever they are, in whatever community they live, on St. Patrick’s Day, they lift their glasses and invite everyone to join them in being Irish, just for that day.

Trouble in Paradise

It’s raining in paradise. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise since the paradise I’ve been living in for the past week is a tropical rainforest in Jamaica.  Palm tree leaves blow sideways in the wind, and water splashes upward from the pool into the air as the grey clouds forcefully empty their load of moisture onto the ground.  Members of my husband’s family and I, who have gathered from various points around the U.S. for a family reunion, have been spoiled, – not only by the villa staff who have seen to our every need, but by the weather. Except for a couple of short flurries, like some that happened last night to interrupt our group’s stargazing on the beach, it has been continuously sunny and mild.


As thunder rolls across the hills, there’s still plenty to do at the villa. We’ve teased about needing to get the scissors, sparkle glue, and craft paper out to keep us fellow “campers” occupied, but between books, I pads, smart phones, cards and Monopoly games, we’ll never run out of rainy day things to do.

Truth is, I haven’t done much since arriving except relax. I’ve taken a walk most mornings, a yoga class the last two, lounged by the pool reading a book, intermittently jumping in to cool off, taking breaks for afternoon naps or a chance to chat with a particular relative. We’ve focused a lot on pictures, both taking them and reviewing past videos and stills. We’ve shared significant handwritten letters from a time when that was the preferred mode of long distance communication.  Someone in the younger generation instituted a system for sharing photos on our smart phones, though mine isn’t smart enough, apparently to get in on that system. It’s definitely time for an upgrade.

Eating is a major vacation activity, and the chef and his staff has prepared delicious meals, but my diet isn’t quite like everyone else’s, and the timing isn’t what my tummy is used to. This of course, is what Rich would call, “a first world problem,” and hardly something to complain about. I was able to bring greens from home and replenish them from the resort commissary because I had the determination and the money to do that. Not sure the staff always appreciated my interruptions of their usual routine, but then, I’m not used to having servants wait on me, so the discomfort is probably mostly mine.

And there is discomfort that outside the resort I know the streets are filled with people experiencing poverty and its effects, people who are in a state of want for basic needs like food, shelter, and education. I hope that the money my family brings in and spends here helps the economy and the people who do the work to make our vacation the luxurious, delightful experience it has been.


My focus on eggs started with the picture my daughter-in-law sent of my twenty month-old granddaughter, Kyra Joy. She’s outfitted in a pink princess-like dress and tiny white shoes.

kyraShe’s standing in a park in the high desert of California to participate in her first Easter Egg Hunt and she’s holding an empty basket. My daughter-in-law said the event started at 9 am and by 9:05 the older children had collected all the eggs in the field with help from some of the parents. The look on Kyra Joy’s face tells us she hasn’t yet figured out what the game is, let alone how to play it.

Now here is her grandmother in Pittsburgh, searching for eggs in my backyard, which contains the Allegheny River and its shoreline.  Having lived here for nearly ten years I noted this year the sea gulls were exceptionally numerous. They say it was due to the long winter freeze on Lake Erie. But they’re all gone now, except for one lone gull. We noticed him (or her) splashing in the water and swooping back and forth overhead, sometimes landing to perch on the pole at the entrance to the small harbor beside our home. I wondered what was keeping him here after all his buddies had flown home. gooseflight.images

Canadian Geese return each spring to the place of their birth to begin their new families and for a community of twenty-five or so, our waterfront is that home. Each spring we try to see if we can discern where some of the nests might be. Once we identified a nest in the rubble of an old dock, alerted to its presence by a male goose circling slowly in the water near the shoreline. This year a goose is stationed in an odd spot near the road, not necessary a place to hang out, so it’s clear he’s protecting some eggs nearby.  

egg imagesTwo day ago I went for a walk on the river trail just before dusk. I walked further than people usually do unless they’re intent on fishing. I followed the curving trail around to the harbor and was startled to see in plain sight, a large white egg. It sat not in a nest, but amidst twigs and brush, and seemed to be totally unprotected from predators. There were no papa or mama birds around, no geese or that single gull, though this could have been a reason for him to stay behind.

On line research ruled out the gull as the parent because their eggs are speckled. But the size and color of the egg is consistent with the photos I found of goose eggs. I learned the mother doesn’t sit on the eggs until she’s laid them all, usually one a day until she has five. I visited the spot again yesterday and the one egg was still there by itself.

goose-eggs-in nest-in-southern-wisconsinToday I found it again, still alone but this time a large goose circled over my head and landed in the water nearby. I got the message. He wanted to be sure my basket remained empty.

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

Dancing With Death

Death, grief and the end of life, have been major themes in my life recently. Last week a 23 year-old man collapsed at the Pittsburgh Marathon and became its first casualty. Friends and family were shocked, there had been no personal or family history to indicate his risk, and the story became international news. “Such a young man, such a terrible tragedy,” people chanted to one another.  Afterwards doctors discovered an undetected heart defect, most likely present from birth, but with no warning signs, the man had no reason to suspect his vulnerability.


A few days later I received an email from a former high school boyfriend’s wife that after successful back surgery he had collapsed in his hospital room and medical personnel were unable to revive him. We had recently reconnected through the Internet and exchanged a series of emails. A couple of days before his wife’s email, I had received an envelope in the mail from him with a photo of the two of us, fifty years ago, formally dressed for a school dance. His comment, “Where did all those years go?”   

Yesterday, a friend left a message on my cell phone. A mutual acquaintance, probably younger then either of us, is in her last hours. She had been fighting cancer but the call was a request for prayers to help her cross peacefully. I could respond to that request. As a mother of two adult children who have predeceased me, I have had the honor of being present at this ceremonial time, and I know it to be holy. In fact, when death comes too swiftly, it can be hard to not have the time to say goodbye.

bell2.imagesWe don’t admit it often out loud, but death is one of life’s few certainties. It’s lessons include an encouragement to savior life, every beautiful, terrible moment of it, and to learn to dance with the uncertainty of when, as John Donne suggested, the bell will begin tolling for thee. 

Children & the Stories Elders Tell

“That happened in the olden days,” my children would tell me. Their dismissive tone indicated they didn’t see any relevance to what I was relaying about the past and what they were experiencing in the present. I, on the other hand, have always been curious about “the olden days,” especially as far as family stories are concerned. My siblings and I would beg our Auntie to tell us stories of our mother when she was growing up. We questioned anything that seemed odd, like the fact our mother lived from ages 3 to 14, around the corner from her own parents and siblings, in her Irish grandmother’s house.

StoryMemoriesOne summer, getting the basement sorted out so I could teach dancing there, we discovered a box belonging to our father, filled with memorabilia from his college days. This provided a gold mine of information about parts of his past he never spoke about. From his photo albums we learned he had performed in a theater troupe, and since my brother and I were involved in theater and dance, we were shocked that our engineer father had never seen fit to mention this to us.

Recently I learned of a study that demonstrated strong benefits to children when they know about their family history. A team of researchers at Emery developed a “Do You Know? Scale, which was a series of 20 questions for children to answer about their families.  Questions such as; Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?


The results showed that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. Even if the family narrative is not all goodness and light, the fact that family members overcame challenges in the past says to the next generation, you can do so too.

Knowing that my mother was sent to take care of her grandmother when she was a small child helps explain my mother’s and my own sense of the importance of care-giving roles in families and communities. Knowing that my father was a thespian helped me to see that people are not just their job or professional roles. We all have many dimensions and hidden talents to discover and explore.

I loved getting confirmation for the important role elders and their stories play in a family and for the next generations. Since one of the most important things for children to know is a family narrative that shows they are part of a larger big body, one that has survived to this point, and likely to do so moving forward and beyond.

Is The Story True?

In a recent column, Maureen Dowd raised the question, “Why can’t filmmakers tell the story as it actually was?” Lamenting the creative license taken in Oscar nominated films, she objected to the fabricated car chase in Argo, done for dramatic effect, and the historical inaccuracy of the voting process for the 13th amendment in Lincoln, done reportedly for simplicity sake.

Creative non-fiction writers have been dealing unceasingly with the issue of truth, since their motto is “True Stories, Well Told.”  In finishing my mother’s memoir due out this summer, I recognize I’ve learned a great deal how complex truth actually is. In my family, as most likely in yours, people who were present for the same events have quite different perspectives on them. My book, Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals that Heal tells events from my perspective. My daughter’s then 12 year-old son, her husband, or my son’s stepfather would each have their own views of the events we all shared. As a social worker, I know it’s not productive to ask who’s right? Everyone is right from their own perspective. In literature this is called point of view.

In my retelling of events I discovered that I sometimes misremembered details. An email exchange with my son-in-law resulted in some fact checking on some items I got wrong or didn’t give the emphasis they deserved. And any telling of a long complicated story involves selecting what to include and what to leave out. This selectivity becomes by its very nature, not telling the whole truth. When given the assignment at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival to write a scene from the perspective of someone who is likely to see it differently than me, I discovered that there was a previous scene to the one in question that I hadn’t included. From my perspective it wasn’t important. But telling the story from this other person’s perspective, meant the previous scene had to be included. Later, I decided to leave it in because it added a rich layer to the story.

“Truthiness,” Stephan Colbert’s made up word is defined as something that feels true, intuitively, without regard to the evidence. In spite of it’s being all in fun, I think he’s on to something. In a radio show recently I heard Maya Angelou say that truth is not the same as facts, and that in some instances, facts obscure the truth.  Since the meaning of a communication is in how it is received, I like the notion that feelings are facts too, just a different kind.  

Then there are the secrets withheld, to protect the innocent, the guilty, or to maintain peace in the family. I wrote a paragraph that involved my son but when I shared it with him he said that wasn’t what he said. His denial did not convince me because in my training as a therapist I was taught to write my client notes so carefully that when called upon to read them out loud in a courtroom under oath, I would feel confident of their accuracy. But whether he said it or he didn’t, I took it out and replaced it with another truth we both could agree on.

The Effect of Feedback

Feedback – The process by which a system, often biological or ecological, is modulated, controlled, or changed by the product, output, or response it produces.

It must have been the end of the summer because I remember the floral lightweight dress I was wearing. Our family car, a striped down Chevy or Ford, (the only kind my dad’s company ever provided), was parked on the street in Detroit, in front of our aunts’ studio apartment. The sky had turned dark, and standing in the doorway of the car, I was focused on the sky that was filled with thousands and thousands of stars. As I gestured upward, to point out this amazing discovery, Whack! Dad smacked me across the face, yelled a cuss word, and pushed me into the back seat of the car.

Unable to process what had just happened to me, and what I had done to bring it about, I felt stunned. Sitting in the back seat beside my younger sisters, I wrapped my arms around my shaking body, nursing my hurt feelings, determined not to cry and get myself into even more trouble.  I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong at the time but, looking back it’s clear that wherever we were going, we didn’t have time for stargazing.

I’m not sure how old I was but I had to be 7 or 8 because it was after my first communion and I remember preparing to go to confession, sometime shortly after this incident. At the Catholic school I attended we had been instructed as a way to remember our sins, to ask ourselves how many times we’d disobeyed our parents. I had already developed my own short cut for this task. I would count the number of smacks or spankings, or scoldings I’d received, and then tell the priest I had disobeyed my parents that number of times since my last confession.

But this event, the evening I was distracted by the stars, didn’t seem to fit neatly into my system. I obviously didn’t do what my Dad wanted me to do, given that he whacked me across the face and yelled at me to get into the car. But I hadn’t disobeyed him. I was doing what he wanted. I was just taking longer than he wanted me to take. Kneeling in the church pew, preparing for my turn to go to confession in one of the small little chambers on either side of the priest’s compartment, I came to the conclusion that I had not disobeyed my father. I had only displeased him and there wasn’t a commandment for that.

All these years since I have to admit I haven’t done much stargazing in my life, in spite of being around people, like my husband, who have a strong interest in the galaxy above. Could that instantaneous dramatic feedback on that evening long ago still be connected, in my psyche, with admiring the stars in a night‘s sky?

The Path of a Warrior Mother

In looking at images for the cover of my book, Warrior Mother, I discovered early on that pictures of a skinny woman, dressed in battle gear, brandishing a sword were totally irrelevant. I found in Native American folklore, references to the path of the spiritual warrior, which was more what I had in mind. A spiritual warrior lives everyday, closely aware of his or her own death. And since death is guaranteed to happen to each one of us, no exceptions, spiritual warriors face that possibility every day.

Warrior Mother is the story of my journey as a mother, through the diagnosis, illness, and deaths of two of my three adult children. Looking back, as soon as my 20s something son Ken was diagnosed with AIDS, he was staring death in the face, and so was I. I become a warrior mother because I didn’t want him spending his then waning energy having to take care of me. As a model for him, I felt I needed to be brave and positive. As Dr. Bernie Siegel, who worked with those exceptional patients that defied the odds, said, “In the absence of certainty, there’s nothing the matter with hope.” http://berniesiegelmd.com/

In my readings I discovered the notion that what makes something sacred is sacrifice, not a popular concept in today’s world.  But when my 40-year old daughter called me, five years after her brother’s death, to say she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, I did whatever I could to help her. It wasn’t want I’d planned for that time in my life, but when the mother of my three grandchildren said, “I want my mom,” that became my sacred assignment.

From all that we learned as a family from these experiences, lessons I hadn’t read about in other places, it seemed I needed to write about them. And since no family will escape having members become ill and die, it is my fondest hope that these stories might be helpful to others facing their own life and death situations. As Peggy Andreas writes, “This relationship with her Death calls the Sacred Warrior to be who she truly is, to live her life fully and completely, to use the power-from-within.” http://dreamflesh.com/essays/warriorpath/