Monday, November 11, 2013

A poetic collage of rattlesnakes, plastic pliers and cute kids

Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida 

A Cherokee boy climbed a high mountain, seeking his vision.  As he toiled upward, an old rattlesnake begged, “Please pick me up.  I want to see my last sunset from the top of the mountain.”  Wisely, the boy ignored him, but the snake persisted: “Please!  I’m cold!  I won’t hurt you!”

Finally, the boy picked up the snake. He carried it up the mountain and together, they watched the sunset.

As they started down the mountain, the snake bit the boy and the boy cried out in protest.

The snake said, “You knew I was a rattlesnake when you picked me up!” 

I’ve had the same experience.  Not with snakes and vision quests, but with Christmas gifts. 

Last year, at the last minute, we decided to spend Christmas out of town with one of our children and her family.  I had procrastinated buying gifts because life was crazy and I thought I’d take care of them after Christmas when we’d planned to go.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, when we should have been leaving, I was ransacking the house for gifts.  I found books for some of these grandchildren, but I had nothing for the five-year-old boy.  Nothing but a set of dollar store plastic tools.

I wrapped them and we hit the road. 

The next morning, our little guy opened his gift. 

“That’s lame,” he murmured, going in search of large, tantalizing packages. 

My husband gasped.  “That’s REALLY lame!”

From the floor, orange plastic pliers opened their jaws and said, “You knew we were lame when you wrapped us up!”

Immediately I switched from Christmas mode to New Year’s mode and made two resolutions for 2013:

1.     My husband would shop for the grandchildren’s Christmas gifts.

2.     I would create something memorable for the grandchildren for their birthdays. Something not lame.  But not expensive.

Finally, I had an idea. The online service where we develop digital photos has a “collage” option.  I could create a collage with five to six photos of each child and—here’s the good part—write a poem about the child as part of the collage.

It worked. The kids loved their collages—how can you not love your pictures, and a poem all about YOU?

Want to try it?  Try to start at least a couple of weeks ahead of your final deadline—creativity takes time. First, select no more than six digital photos, and think of them while writing the poem. Focus on your loved one’s special qualities.  Write two or three drafts; do your best, but remember your loved one is not a poetry critic. If writing poetry is daunting, write a sweet message.  

Type the poem in your word processing system. Center it, using a font that reflects the poem’s mood. Use boldface type and the largest type size possible (perhaps + 24 point) while keeping the message on one page.

Print the poem, scan it and save your scan as a .jpg or .jpeg file, so the photo lab will recognize it as a photo. Place this .jpg and your photos on your computer desktop, then go to an online photo lab site and upload them. Place them into an 8 x 10 collage.  The software shows different arrangements until you find the ideal collage.

Order, and voila’!  A gift that isn’t lame. With a frame, it costs about $7. 

And if you see my husband—ask how he’s doing on that resolution!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Television programs solve mysteries of family histories

Genealogy Roadshow, a new series on PBS, successfully uses the Antiques Roadshow formula: move from city to city, using historical sites as backdrops, and line up crowds interested in solving their familial whodunits.  Then, stand back and watch genealogists unravel the conundrums.

The program delves into the family lines of six or seven people in every program, unlike the popular Who Do You Think You Are? which  explores the ancestries of celebrities.  Co-hosts Joshua Taylor, president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and Kenyatta Berry, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists, utilize glitzy computer graphics to show pedigree charts that prove or disprove whether someone is related to, say, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

In other words, Who Do You Think You Are? shows the sometimes-commonplace ancestors of celebrities, while Genealogy Roadshow shows celebrity ancestors—such as Juan Ponce de Leon and Benjamin Franklin—of common folks.

The professional genealogists solve other questions. In one episode, a woman saw photos of a father she’d never known. In another, a woman learned that her father died because he resisted the Nazis in Poland. DNA testing provided answers to another guest.

The series explores race relations, illegitimacy and potentially uncomfortable situations with tact and honesty. Selected guests often seem relieved to hear and understand the truth, and sometimes onlookers (and viewers) wipe away tears. Those emotional moments make Roadshow similar to Who Do You Think You Are?

Tonight at 8 p.m. the show goes to Austin, Texas, for the last of four programs. Others were set in Nashville, Detroit and San Francisco—all are available through PBS on IOS and may be downloaded on Itunes. Or, check local listings for re-broadcast times.

Guests who try out for Genealogy Roadshow submit questions and available documentation, and professionals then do additional research. Genealogy blogger Dick Eastman corresponded with two featured guests, who said they received excellent books detailing the research after the show.

In each city, local historians provide insights on events such as the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and hosts, guests and historians stay in one place. This is different from Who Do You Think You Are? which spirited famous people all over the globe to tell them genealogical facts in their lands of origin.

 NBC launched Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010, sharing ancestries of 27 famous people before cancelling the show in 2012. TLC picked it up and broadcasts it on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Episodes are available via the Internet TLC site. Recently Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory found ancestors in France who share his passion for the arts, and actress Zooey Deschanel discovered an abolitionist ancestor.  

I enjoy both programs.  They add pizzazz—dramatic music and modern media bells and whistles—to the tedious process of research. In reality, if we watched someone trace a family line ten generations back, we’d fall asleep! 

However, as any family history researcher can tell you, it’s the “Aha! Moments” that keep us at it—and both shows have enough of those to make them fun and entertaining. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Discover your roots, absolutely free!

With the power of the Internet, we can connect to distant cousins, find long-lost ancestors, and see photographs we never knew existed—without spending a dime.
Remember:  On many sites, some information is free, but users may be invited to pay a subscription for additional information.  Be aware of this, and opt out unless you truly want to subscribe. The government provides census and some other information free for everyone.
My husband and I have enjoyed using the following sites—to protect privacy, no last names are shown in the examples:

United States Census:

On the back of a photograph dated 1928, a family was identified as “Jesse, Iona, Vonola, Juanita, and ?”  We thought Jesse, Norm’s great-uncle had only one child—Juanita—so we started searching.
We did an Internet search for “1930 Census.”  Many hits appeared, and at we entered Jesse’s first and last names, and “California” where we thought he lived. Several non-census records popped up, so we hit “Exact matches only,” and there was a record for Jesse, his wife “Leata I.,” Juanita, and his stepchildren, Venola and Herbert—he was the? in the picture.  One mystery down, another to go—Leata I. turned out to be Leota Iona—names are often misspelled, and middle names and initials get mixed up on censuses.

Family Search. Org

This website sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is free to everyone. 
After we set a username and password, we entered information that tied us to our family.  Now, we use the “Family Tree” and the “fan chart” views to see our family lines, some of which go back hundreds of years. With the exception of our immediate family and ourselves, we only see information on deceased people due to privacy laws.
Besides names and dates, users post photographs and stories to their ancestors’ “Person pages.”  From Family Tree, we may visit our ancestor’s “Person” view and to see photos and stories that have been uploaded. We have posted some ourselves.
Also on the “Person” page is a “Search Records” link, which shows a list of online records citing the deceased person’s name.

Find a Grave

My friend and I tried the above sites and the excellent subscription site “” with little luck while seeking an ancestor named Robert Loren. “Robert” and “Robert R.” were on censuses, but we weren’t certain he was “her guy.” 

Knowing he’d lived in Missouri, we searched “Find a Grave,” in which volunteers upload information and pictures of headstones. (“Billion Graves” is similar.)  Using his first and middle names and initials, we got no results.  Finally, we entered only his last name, which was a bit unusual, and “Missouri.” Robert Loren was among the many hits that appeared!


My husband found his Dad's cousins on "Find a Grave." Brothers William and Wayne have a double headstone in Washington State.  William passed away in 2010; Wayne is still alive. Norm looked through online directories to find Wayne's phone number, and now he and his Dad will call their cousin, Wayne!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tough uncles, tender lesson: Grab the moment

Mom was in middle of her family, between three older brothers and three younger brothers. We lost the last of the older uncles, Ern, in 2005, and it made us want to hang onto those younger three:  

Though hard working and tough, Uncle Verl was a poet at heart, a soft touch for anything fun for kids, from pennies for candy to dollars for the drive-in movie. He had an impish sense of humor and loved singing and music. 

Uncle Bud is handsome, built like a wedge, with black curly hair (well-- gray now!) and a ready grin.  My favorite “Bud” quote is: “You can learn a lot from a dog—he doesn’t just gobble up a pancake, he flips it over to see if it’s burnt.” 

Uncle John was the baby of the family—he gave great bear hugs, wrote poems about outhouses, and always had a dog or two at his side. Somehow Uncle John reminded me the most of our Grandma Rhodie, his saintly mother.  

All served our country in the military; all have sweet wives.

On New Year’s Day, 2008, Uncle Verl went to start the car before church, slipped on the ice and hit his head.  Surgeons operated on the subdural hematoma, but three weeks later, he died.

In May, Uncle John was on his daily walk with his dogs when he fell and hit his head.  A week later he died.

After John’s funeral, I regretted once again all the times I haven’t visited, or phoned, or written my uncles and aunts.  I firmly resolved to take some family artifacts to Bud, our last remaining uncle “soon.”

I hadn’t visited by July, when Bud fell in the bathtub and hit his head. We feared the worst—that after this third strike, we’d be out of uncles.

At age 87, Bud seemed to agree. When the neurosurgeon gave him two options—have surgery and live, or go home and die, he said, “Take me home.”  Someone called his son, Jody, and handed the phone to Bud; ten seconds later Bud said. “I’ll have surgery.”

Nobody knows what Jody said to Bud, but growing up on a dairy farm, Bud had often warned Jody about a kick in a tender part of his anatomy if he didn’t finish a job.  Perhaps Jody reversed the threat. 

Brain surgery patients often fight hard coming out of anesthesia—it took four male nurses to hold Bud down.  I felt sorry for them—Bud has wrestled cattle all his life! Still, this man who had never spent a night in a hospital spent several worrisome days in the ICU.

Eleven days post-surgery, we slipped into Bud’s room in rehab.  Thirty staples zig-zagged across his scalp, but his grip was strong, and many younger men would envy his biceps. His wife was finally sleeping at night.

He’s home now.

Isn’t it ironic that we communicate with numerous “friends” online—if you call forwarding recycled items communicating—but don’t make time to give undivided love to uncles, aunts, and other precious souls? 

Maybe this song IS sentimental but it’s true: “Go gladden the lonely, the dreary; Go comfort the weeping, the weary; Go scatter kind deeds on your way—Oh, make the world brighter today.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

Volunteering—a win-win for everyone!

Volunteerism is a family value that children learn from their parents and grandparents.  Our friends Derrick and Bubba Legg coach Special Olympics and their kids’ basketball teams, just as their parents, Stan and Merlynn Legg, gave years of their lives to 4-H and other youth groups when our children were young.

My Dad wasn't a member of the Lions Club or the Rotary Club. But he was a great volunteer.

On winter nights, between rounds as a night watchman at a sawmill, he loaded his pickup truck with cull wood—which would have been burned as waste—and later took it to needy folks with wood stoves.

The face of volunteerism is changing, and our communities are scrambling to pick up the slack.  A recent report noted that nowadays, fewer people join service clubs, but large numbers still turn out for efforts such as “Paint the Town.” 

The fact is, we need both kinds of volunteers. We need folks who go about quietly doing good, scheduling a service day now and then, and we need organized groups which carry out long-term plans that benefit the community—such as the Exchange Club’s yearly Parade America in Nampa, scheduled May 18. 

What would hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, churches, retirement centers, sports teams and youth groups do without volunteers?  City and county governments rely heavily on volunteers to serve on boards and commissions that assist such departments as planning and zoning, airports, the arts, storm water management and so on.

Are you voting on May 21?  Folks who serve on election boards are paid a little, but they have to sign up!  They are the same people who cook meals for bereaved families, tutor kids for free, and make quilts for the needy. Many take a day off from their regular work to assist at the polls.

On the ballot, we see volunteers—often, we vote for them.  In a school board election, many vote for the person who has served long and hard in a parent-teacher organization or with youth groups. In local government, most would vote for the person who has sacrificed hours of time and study in setting budgets, listening to all sides of a problem, and solving difficult challenges on a board or commission above the person who just has an axe to grind.

Studies show that volunteering not only benefits the community, but also provides profound psychological benefits to those who volunteer. offers these tongue-in-cheek reasons to volunteer:

  • When you stay home, you get too many telemarketing calls.
  • Your family could use a break from you.
  • You may need help yourself some day.
  • It’s hard to win a game of solitaire.
  • Soap operas all sound alike.
  • If you don’t go out each day, you get old.
  • The car needs a workout.
  • Your mom would be proud of you.
  • Who cares about money?
Don't think you need more skills to be a volunteer--remember, "Noah's ark was built by amateur volunteers. The Titanic was built by professionals."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mud on your face? It’s no disgrace!

The mother was horrified—her child had toddled into a microscopic clod of mud.  She scrubbed it with one of the wipes found in all right-minded supermarkets, then sanitized an entire shopping cart with wipes. My Mama called that a “cat bath,” only Mama did it on my face with a pocket-handkerchief moistened with saliva!

 I sighed. Little Mr. Clean may never touch mud again. His feet will go from carpet to tile to sidewalk to paved street without ever stepping in dirt, let alone mud like we knew on the dry farm where I grew up.

 I was not Little Miss Clean as my red overalls show. 
My brother Rex was not Little Mr. Clean, either.

Cousin Nelda and sister Brenda and I (blue swimsuit) sprayed 
each other with the hose before making mud pies.

I don’t know how to say this without sounding prideful—we made gorgeous mud pies. We stirred up dirt and water from the hose, patted it into shape, and covered it with wild flowers.  Then came the magic—tiny blue butterflies fluttered over, around, and on our pies.

Watching, we squished mud through our toes.

When it rained, dust in the low places on our road turned into a quagmire whose consistency ranged from molasses during the storm, to mayonnaise a day later. With three of these holes on the road from our house to the spot where the county graveled the road, we got stuck a lot.

The test of a good driver on dirt roads is how well you steer through a “puddle” or “mud hole”—actually, a small swamp.  Avoid the worst ruts, and hit the better spots at the right speed: not so fast that you fishtail and dig the car in deeper; not so slow that you lose traction. “Too fast” or “too slow”—you’re stuck; “just right,”—you’re on your way.

“We’re stuck!” Universal groan. With everybody out to reduce the car’s weight, a skillful driver might rock the car back and forth from first gear to reverse—a lot of gear shifting and clutch slamming with a standard transmission!—and eventually pick up enough traction to crawl out of the bog.  Usually, this didn’t work, and the passengers pushed. Skillful driving was still required.

Once, our uncles got stuck on the way to a Saturday night dance.  Cousin Ted spun the wheels while Uncle Bud pushed, catching a wake of mud. Then Uncle Verl sacrificed his best clothes; finally the car labored out.  Of course they dragged Ted from the car and plastered him with mud!

Our youngest uncle, John, seldom had anything new to show his brothers, so when he brought home a motorcycle, Bud and Ted jumped on for a quarter-mile ride.  They hit a bump—Ted shot off and landed in the puddle, then Bud landed face-first, stretched out in the mire. 

Later, when my cousin Marilyn and I were 14, and Driver’s Ed was still on the horizon, we caught the scent of spring mud.  Marilyn had driven hay trucks since she was nine, so we jumped into their Oldsmobile for a joy ride.  No need for shoes—we were in the car, right? 

An hour later, after trudging a mile through thistles, we got to a phone and begged Uncle Ern to bring the tractor.

Sometimes, even rocking and pushing aren’t enough.   

Monday, March 11, 2013

Who is going to write your story?

Andrea, 5, and Debbie, 10,  playing in the sandbox at the farm.

Debbie about age 9 reading a book--her favorite pastime.

Every time I visit my friend, she pulls out her photos. She shows her childhood home in Kansas, gorgeous portraits from high school days, and her four daughters in bouffant 1960s Easter dresses that she sewed.   

Every time I ask if I can label the photos and jot down the memories.

Every time she says, “Some other time.”

I recently met another lady who is pushing 100.  Hard.  In two months.  She says she has “seen it all.” But do her children and grandchildren know the story she told about shelling enough peas to can them in loads of two-quart jars? 

This story was one of many that flew recently at the Nampa Senior Center, and here are snippets of others:

--One man’s father delivered mail on horseback in North Dakota, year-round.

--A woman said she could cook anything on a wood burning stove. (Modern children don’t even know what such a kitchen range looks like!)

--One woman was a six-week-old baby on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941.  Another had just given birth to her second child.   

--When asked what she did for fun in her youth, a woman said, “I worked in peach orchards with other teenagers!”

I hope everyone at the center that day plans to record his or her stories.

Author Lee Nelson says he wrote his personal history because he thought, 

“What if I died without writing my story and one of my sisters attempted to write it? Both of the sisters who might try such a project are intelligent, college-educated adults.  Having known me all my life, either would be able to produce a beautiful piece of work. And while they were doing it, I would be turning in my grave. No matter how good and noble the intent would be, they would get it wrong. They could not help but get it wrong. They would not be able to tell my story the way I remember it, nor in the way I want it told—not even close.”

Who do you want to write YOUR story? As my mother used to say, “If you want something done right, do it yourself!”

As I prepare to teach a class on this topic at the Nampa Rec Center this week, two pointers come to mind:

--Most of us freeze up when faced with a blank paper or laptop screen. So, write a prompt such as these on a card: memories of my grandparents, my first job, first grade, fun I had as a child (or teenager), why a certain heirloom is special, what I was doing on—choose one—Pearl Harbor Day, the day Sputnik was launched, the day JFK was assassinated. Carry the card with you and jot down thoughts that come, then write that part of your story.

--Write your story as if you’re talking to a friend; your high school English teacher will never see it! There’s no need for big words or flowery language.

Nobody knows your story like you do. Your posterity will never know it if you don’t start writing!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

We need mentors for more than a few good men

Family history isn’t just about yesterday.  It’s also about tomorrow.

My father-in-law turns 83 today.  I have a mental picture of him at 22—a two-year-old son hangs onto his right pant leg, a one-year-old onto his left.  Their future is in his hands.

They turned out to be good hands.

Years before, when napping on the floor after a full morning of farm work, four-year-old Garth clutched the straps of his Dad’s bib overalls so he’d be sure to wake up when Dad went back to work.     

As his father had done, he taught his sons and a daughter how to work.  Even in their play, they dug tiny irrigation ditches and channeled water through them.  They learned to complete every season’s farm tasks, and along the way, how to stay focused until a job was done.

When Garth was 32, a derrick pole fell on him, breaking his back. Eventually, he went back to work and has been on the job ever since.

Besides a work ethic, he gave them an “ethics ethic:” be kind to people and animals, be a good citizen, keep your word, give a day’s work for a day’s pay. He served for many years on the local school board, and made sure his children went to college. My husband was blessed to be loved by such a great dad. 

Garth is completely opposite from a character in a new sit-com, said to be “an alcoholic father who scams friends and family outrageously and disappears for long periods of time.” 

That’s not comedy—it’s tragedy.  Other leading men aren’t much better—scripted as incompetent, immature or self-absorbed. In the media, “Dad” means, “Kick Me.”

With role models like that, I worry about the boys of tomorrow.

Experts report, “By eighth grade, only 20 percent of boys are proficient in writing and 24 percent proficient in reading.  Young men’s SAT scores in 2011 were the worst they’ve been in 40 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, boys are more than 30 percent more likely than girls to drop out of both high school and college.” (The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do about It, (2012) Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, e-book)

Today’s boys face not only peer pressure, but also digital peer pressure, including cyber bullying. Unlike Garth and his sons, they don’t have meaningful physical work that makes a difference for their family and builds their self-esteem. How can we keep them from drifting into dead-end lives?

None of us has the answers for all boys, but most of us have influence on a few boys—and a few girls. We can mold our children, grandchildren and neighbor kids into responsible adults. We’ll have to be tolerant, patient and creative in this world of video games and busy after-school schedules; we may even have to bribe them with their favorite foods—but think of the rewards! Here are some ideas:

--Notice them. Say hello and use their names, even if they act sheepish and embarrassed. Gently teach them to look you in the eyes, greet you and shake hands. Someday, these social graces may make the difference between whether they are employed or unemployed. 

--Mention their positive traits with love, and as my mother often spelled to her older children when a youngster was acting up—i-g-n-o-r-e their negative ones.

--Talk to them; tell them the stories of your life.  Build a loving relationship with hugs if they allow them; high fives and fist bumps if they don’t.  And learn their language—“Friend” them on Facebook and text them—be part of their world.

-- Remember, LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E – take time to show them their unique gifts. If they don’t know what those are, work with them to find work, hobbies or sports that they are passionate about.

--Teach them to work.  Even ten years ago, kids delivered papers, washed dishes and de-tasseled corn—jobs that have disappeared for today’s young people.  We need to get creative and find these kids some work, because nothing builds self-esteem like learning how to do a job well.

--Hold them responsible to show up, be on time, dress and speak appropriately and do their best in school. We do them no favors if we’re soft, because the world will rough them up if they are slackers.

-- Encourage school and community leaders to look on each child as a unique individual with the ability to lead and excel.  If we build this expectation in the folks who help us train our children, and if we live up it ourselves, there is tremendous hope for the future of our boys and girls.