In the years between my father’s death and the point at which my husband and I became parents, Father’s Day was an awkward pause in the calendar. After I was married, it was a bit of a relief to have a father-in-law who could receive happy returns — something to do, at last.
Mind you, Father’s Day was not associated with fond memories of great celebrations. My dad was prickly about receiving gifts, and uncomfortable at the idea of a Father’s Day to-do. I think in his mind he was always supposed to be the provider, and he disliked being provided for. It raises interesting questions about how he might have dealt with (or not dealt with) the challenges of aging, but it didn’t come up because he was 59 when he died of a heart attack, leaving questions like that unanswered.
One daughter with many unanswered questions about her father is the novelist Mary Gordon, whose father died when she was seven. It’s fair to say this was a defining event in Gordon’s life — probably the defining event — and she explores her landscape of loss in a beautifully written 1996 memoir, The Shadow Man.
Gordon’s book will strike a chord of empathy for many adult children who rediscover their parents as fellow humans, rather than the all-knowing beings called Mommy and Daddy. In Gordon’s case, things become very strange very fast as she begins to explore her father’s story as a researcher, not just an adoring daughter.
Family stories set in stone begin to crumble and re-assemble themselves. Gordon’s father, David, was a brilliant Harvard student whose Jewish family declared him dead after his conversion to Catholicism. One minor problem: The change of religions is the only fact that stands up to further examination. The more Gordon probes, the more she discovers that what she always believed about her father’s identity was a carefully constructed characterization, not a real person. (He wasn’t even named David.)
As for discovering the real person behind the stories, Gordon is only partly successful. Genealogy research comes into play in a long, fascinating section, “Tracking My Father: In the Archives.” Aided by a skillful genealogist, Gordon tries to trace her father’s footsteps in his Ohio hometown, where she discovers that the “Harvard student” actually dropped out of school in his teens to work for the railroad. The more facts she uncovers, the more bewildering the picture becomes. Sadly, Gordon’s mother, struggling with advanced Alzheimer’s, cannot provide any answers, either.
I have always loved this book, re-reading it to savor the lovely writing, but also to reflect on it as a cautionary tale. Genealogy is often a quest for connection, and on many levels, it succeeds in gratifying ways. But there are so many limits to what we can truly know with our research. Gordon’s is an extreme case, but an illuminating one.
It’s a riveting series of articles by Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo about what happened when, after a lifetime of being asked about his surname, he decided to research it. The more he found out, the more he realized that a crucial aspect of his family’s past had been hidden for generations.
This audio-enhanced slide show is an excellent starting point, but the articles themselves are beautifully done, and well worth taking the time to read.
The iconic American entertainer Lena Horne passed away on Sunday at age 92.
In a way, Horne’s bio was a precis of 20th-century American history. She lives forever in the mind’s eye as the beautiful, sultry singer of “Stormy Weather,” but she also became a pioneering NAACP member at the age of two, signed up by her redoubtable grandmother Cora Calhoun Horne. Her family was firmly rooted in an influential circle of well-to-do Brooklyn intellectuals, businesspeople and activists. Family friends included W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White and Paul Robeson. For much of her life, Horne carried the burden (and the torch) of being a standard-bearer in an age of change and turbulence for black Americans.
One of my favorite family history memoirs was written in 1986 by Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Its title, The Hornes: An American Family, pretty much says it all. Lena’s grandfather, Edwin Horne, was the “son of the only-in-America union of an English adventurer and a Tennessee woodlands Native American,” as Buckley notes. His wife, Cora Calhoun, was born at the dawn of Reconstruction, the daughter of a slave owned by a nephew of John C. Calhoun (Andrew Jackson’s vice president and quintessential defender of slavery).
Edwin was one of those energetic people who seem incapable of not excelling at something — teaching, politics, newspaper publishing, owning a prosperous drugstore, becoming a high-level New York City Fire Department inspector. Cora was an early feminist, a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women as well as an early supporter of the NAACP. In Brooklyn they raised their family in a world of comfortable brownstones, “Smart Set” garden parties and debutante balls, but above all in an atmosphere of high standards and high achievement.
After her parents’ divorce, little Lena Horne was put in the care of grandmother Cora, who laid down the expectations in no uncertain terms: “When I take you to meetings, I want you to listen,” Cora would say. “When you speak, articulate clearly — don’t use slang … Don’t hunch your shoulders. Always look at the person you’re talking to.” Cora Calhoun Horne doesn’t sound like the sort to be overawed at having a granddaughter in the entertainment business, but it stood to reason that in becoming an entertainer, Lena Horne would become the best. It was in the genes.
Buckley’s book was out of print for a while, then reissued in 2002. It’s well worth a read, not only for admirers of Lena Horne and her artistry, but for anyone interested in the history of a fascinating American family.
There is nothing better than a gigantic used-book sale, where you could spend a whole Saturday happily digging. I always expect to come away with a wheelbarrow’s worth of reading.
I don’t always expect to come up with a window into my grandparents’ lost everyday life, but that’s what I found at one book sale.
The window was Daddy Danced The Charleston, a vintage cultural memoir by Ruth Corbett, a veteran ad-agency artist. She also had a huge stash of memorabilia – a perfect source for her history of everyday life, circa 1920-1940.
Writing in 1970, Corbett aimed Charleston squarely at her daughter, a miniskirted mod-squader who giggled at flappers and raccoon coats. “Maybe she’ll laugh at her getup in 1990!” groused Corbett in her introduction. (No kidding.)
Corbett’s book resurrects vanished fixtures of everyday life, such as:
• full-service grocery shops
• irons you had to heat on the stove
• vacuum-tube cash-carrying systems in department stores
• oleomargarine you colored yellow with the capsule in the package
These are the details that bring old family stories into clearer focus. Corbett’s book is like the missing text to some of my family photos. Here’s the inside scoop on marcel waves, middy blouses, “Terry and the Pirates” and Fibber McGee’s closet. (If you ever had a mom or grandma tell you your room looked like “the inside of Fibber McGee’s closet,” you now know it wasn’t a compliment.)
Who knew that George VI’s unexpected accession to the British throne touched off a wave of coronation fever that swept everyday fashion in 1937, sparking a vogue for tiaras and brass coronet buttons on blouses?
And who can resist white-hot, now forgotten celebrities like the “girl diva” Marion Talley, “youngest lady to ever trill on the great opera stage”?
I can’t. And the book only cost me a dollar. I guess I got a pretty good deal.
It’s funny; I don’t have a huge genealogy reference collection. I have a lot of books on topics related to my family history – the Irish in New York City, for example.
I also collect books that deal with social history, especially anything that teases out the details of everyday life in the first 30 years of the 20th century. But I have relatively few volumes specifically about the genealogical method. Maybe that’s because there are three that I go to again and again:
Unpuzzling Your Past by Emily Anne Croom. My edition of this classic is very pre-Ancestry.com; later versions tackle the nuances of online research. I still like my edition just fine. Croom focuses on the rock-ribbed foundations of family history research: where to start, what to write down, how to organize it. Her clear, detailed thoughts on summarizing your findings transcend any debates over hard drive vs. three-ring binder. Croom’s book oriented me when I first started jotting down the
few genealogy scraps I knew, and I still turn to it to recall just why a mortality schedule is helpful, or which years New York State took censuses.
The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising. Once you’ve gotten far enough into family history research to hit brick walls, you’ll love this. Who can resist a chapter titled “Why Did the Census Taker Always Miss My Family?” Her case studies are detailed, interesting and challenge us with new approaches to old frustrations. My only personal quibble is the emphasis on land ownership and its paper trail – a huge resource, but not something researchers with tenement-dwelling forebears can count on! Overall, a wonderful primer for an intermediate researcher.
Evidence! by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This slim little tome packs a big wallop. It is to family-history citation what the Chicago Manual of Style is to term-paper writers. Mills efficiently outlines the process of identifying and properly attributing sources in genealogical research. It’s so important, because once we start writing our findings down for posterity, we really should state clearly why we know what we know, and why total strangers (i.e., our descendants) should take us seriously. Evidence! is a must have for anybody intent upon proper documentation. Which should be everybody.
Feel free to share any other genealogy titles you can’t live without.