I was telling a friend the other day about my dad, who was a wonderful singer, a real Irish tenor, and who was also kind of terrifying when it came to Irish music. And Irish accents. And Irish everything.
It was all about the authenticity. I wouldn’t say my dad was a stickler for Aran-Islands style authenticity in these matters. But I suspect he knew what he knew — the accents of his Irish-born maternal grandparents, and the kind of Irish immigrant culture you used to find all over Red Hook once upon a time. And he was a merciless critic about Irish music that was not being done right.
Whatever that meant. I mean, we were all Americans, what did we know, really?
I was about to go away to college when I screwed up the courage to ask him for his version of “The Wild Colonial Boy.” He considered for a bit and said he’d see. I expected him to sing it for me, if he were to agree. But at the end of the working day he presented me with a typewritten version of the verses, which is the version I use to this day. (For more thoughts on the “Wild Colonial Boy,” see link below).
Every so often, through the magic of YouTube, I encounter some Irish music I believe even my dad would have loved. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day offering is a crystalline version of a song called “Love is Teasing,” sung in 1967 by a radiant Dolly McMahon.
Past posts on St. Patrick’s Day matters:
If that headline doesn’t ring immediate bells, it’s because she is somewhat better known as “Dear Abby.”
Although her column continues to be written by her daughter Jeanne, Phillips’ passing severs a link to a golden era in syndicated advice-giving. Phillips and her twin sister Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, were media superstars, their nationally syndicated columns daily institutions for countless readers. It’s difficult to describe their massive audience, their appeal and authority, to the children of an age in which the answer to just about any problem is “Google it.”
In my childhood, Ann and Abby were a zinger-slinging Greek chorus. They dispensed wisdom to the nation on every imaginable subject and some unimaginable, including love, marriage and the best way to hang the toilet paper. (True fact. Landers, who fielded the toilet-paper question, once said that it generated 15,000 responses, making it one of her most commented-upon letters.)
I can’t be the only voracious reader for whom their work provided an education on many topics — some of which my mother would rather have left alone a while longer. I still remember my nine-year-old self running down to the laundry room, where my mom was folding the latest load, to ask what was the big deal about unwed mothers.
“What?!” Her voice went up several keys. “Where did you hear about THAT?”
“Ann Landers wrote about it,” I said.
“Ann Landers writes about a lot of things,” my mother replied tightly.
So did Abby. Like her twin, she did not shy from the controversial. As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls, Abby “replied to letters about serious social issues such as teen sex, divorce, alcoholism and AIDS, and answered them with a mix of candor, common sense and an occasional wisecrack.”
Personally, I suspect that future family historians seeking context and flavor for describing Americans in the mid-20th century could do a lot worse than Dear Abby and Dear Ann. Yes, the advice column survives today online and in print media, but today’s successors don’t have the breathtaking ease with which the sisters moved between deadly serious issues and day-to-day dilemmas. They could reach out to a domestic-violence victim one minute and the next, weigh in on what to do about a bad case of acne.
Though their styles were very similar, consensus often held that Ann (who died in 2002) tended to be the straight-shooter, while Abby had a matchless flair for witty one-liners. The writing from their heyday still has a startlingly fresh appeal — bright, succinct, with a tough-mindedness behind the humor that lent authenticity to their advice-giving. “The audibly human voice … rising above our collective impersonality, ” was how Cornell University professor David I. Grossvogel described Ann’s appeal, and that could be said of Abby’s as well.
(A compilation of Pauline’s columns, The Best of Dear Abby, appears to still be available, at least in Kindle edition. Grossvogel’s out-of-print study, Dear Ann Landers, is worth seeking out for those interested in the evolution of Eppie’s advice over the years.)
And truly, Abby had a way with a zinger that you just don’t see anymore:
Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.
Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.
RIP, Dear Abby.
Here’s a dark secret about the blog: When I started it, I just wanted to write. The tricky part was, I needed a topic I liked to write about a lot.
Genealogy was the perfect choice. Writing has always been a way for me to work out knotty problems, and what’s knottier than your typical genealogy puzzler? Plus, if I wrote about my genealogy I wouldn’t necessarily have to talk about genealogy so much, and my family would like me better.
In the past several months I haven’t lacked for genealogy to write and think about. But a lot of it has been just … percolating. I took the genealogical research course through Boston University last fall, which was an incredible experience that gave me lots of new ways to think about research. Accordingly, I’ve been busier than ever with genealogy, for myself and for others. If you could see my desk, which I’m glad you can’t, you would see lots of torn-off bits of paper with scribbled topics, underlined a lot, with comments like “Yes! Write A Post!“
Also, I noticed the family stumbling around with glazed-looking eyes, so I realized I was talking a lot about genealogy again.
So I’ve started heeding the scribbled comments, and I now have a neat and growing pile of posts. The pile of torn-off paper bits is slowly shrinking. As this has been happening, some new directions for what I do in this space have emerged.
• I’m officially giving up a links roundup. Obviously, I haven’t done one in a while. They were fun, but increasingly, the time spent compiling them felt more and more like time stolen from other things I’d enjoy doing more. Like:
• Heritage recipes. I want to write more about those. I am fascinated by the way cooking and stories about cooking reverberate in families. But I’m also fascinated by the practical challenges heritage recipes can present. For instance, one of my treasured cookbooks is The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook, with its wealth of wonderful family stories. And many of the recipes in the book are great examples of what we all face when confronted with great-grandma’s pinch-of-this, dash-of-that directions. This warms my heart, as a former food-section copy editor who checked recipes for a living. So once in a while I’ll be trying out fuzzy recipes and figuring out how to adapt them to modern cooking practices.
• Another writing challenge: Family history profiles. I’m still experimenting with ways to package the research I’ve done so that non-genealogists will honestly like to read it. Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy writing properly numbered and cited essays. But one of the absorbing aspects of writing is flexing it in different ways, using different colors and textures. So there will be some of that, from my little ancestral-history collection.
• I expect to be having more fun with genealogy blogging memes, too. They are such great writing prompts. And when it boils down to it, I really like to write. Maybe that’s a retro thing to say.
But as my kids will tell you, I just have no shame that way.
In family-history discussions we often talk about the power beloved family recipes can exert in bringing warm, vivid memories to life.
Not long ago, I got an unexpected reminder that bad food memories also pack a punch. One of my favorite non-genealogy reads is David Lebovitz’s beguiling blog about cooking, eating and living in Paris. My epiphany there came in the comments section of a recent post on French charcuterie.
As you might imagine, one reader’s ick is another’s addiction, especially when it comes to charcuterie. So the comments inevitably turned to the question of foods people absolutely Will Not Eat, and why entire cultures sometimes put certain foods on the Will Not Eat List.
For instance, David speculated that the reason rabbits remain off-limits to many people might be that “perhaps they are associated with hard times.”
One of his readers from the U.S. chimed in to agree, saying he had once encountered an elderly neighbor who wouldn’t touch rabbit for very specific, personal reasons. For years during the Depression, this woman’s enterprising mother raised rabbits in backyard hutches, bartering them for goods and services and, of course, putting them in the stewpot nearly every day.
My mother, on the other hand, hated lentils. Lentil soup was on the menu every single Friday night of every year she spent growing up in her parents’ strictly Catholic home, in the days when all Fridays were meatless.
And my mother-in-law cannot stand spaghetti. This is because her Great Depression was spent in a small farming community in South Dakota, where spaghetti was the only reliable entrée for weeks on end, during a particularly desperate stretch. So desperate did this stretch get, that there was actually a food drop from an airplane bearing government-surplus supplies. My mother-in-law and all the other children scrambled out to the field, excited beyond belief at what might be there.
“And what do you think they dropped?” she asked. “Spaghetti!”
The bitterness in her voice was still sharp after more than six decades.
Or consider the case of a gentleman from Rostock, Germany who finally decided to open and taste a 64-year-old can of lard he’d been saving “for emergencies” ever since he acquired it in an aid package in the devastation of postwar Germany. (The verdict? “Gritty and tasteless,” but edible.)
Bad eats can be a potent catalyst for memories, just like good eats. And the stories are just as absorbing.
Geneabrarian’s thoughtful post on genealogy/hobbyism/professionalism/identity, along with equally thoughtful commentary from Elyse Doerflinger and Thomas MacEntee, really got me thinking, even with a sinus headache raging in the background.
Although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with genealogy-as-hobby, I hate that word. I have a totally personal dislike of describing serious concepts with words employing that “-y” sound. For instance, I also hate the term “bullying.” In workplaces, you’d call it harassment. In school, we call it “bullying,” which gives out a cuddly, nursery-school vibe. It minimizes. Similarly, “hobby” sounds trite as opposed to, say, “avocation” or even “pastime.”
And yet, from very early on I have shied away from calling myself a “genealogist.” For one thing, as I wrote a while back, it could get people’s backs up, and wreck perfectly good parties. Then, too, there was the little matter of the complete lack of credentials. Without a C.G., was I a genealogist? Could I be? If not, what was I?
Thinking over Geneabrarian’s post, I realize that for years I have been sidestepping this issue by describing what I do, not who I am. “I’m tracing my ancestors in upstate New York,” I began saying not long after starting in genealogy, in the early 1990s. I was still a working journalist at that point, and this sort of language clicked with colleagues. But this method has continued to be useful in that it expands to fit the situation. “I write family histories.” “I help people retrieve records for their genealogy research.” And so on.
Yet a unified brand makes sense. So much of communication today revolves around the instant sense of connection, the strong first impression. But this is a challenge when applied to the world of genealogy. Some of us are trying to earn an income from genealogical research. Some are not. Some are thinking about it. Some are combining genealogical interests with other professions.
Right now I’m at a loss for a noun that works for all of it. Maybe a phrase — like “people who rescue the history of everyday citizens.”
Unfortunately, that would look like hell on a logo.