November 26, 2013

Connecting to the Past

I stumbled into my blog the other day, and was surprised to see that it had been two years since I had posted anything. I knew it had been a long time, but I thought it had only been about a year.

I reflected on why it had been such a long time, and I found myself spontaneously writing a post about the events of my life since that last posting in November 2011. That writing led to reflections on my time with my mother in what turned out to be the last year of her life, but it seemed too personal to post so publicly. Not that I have a large following, but I am still actively grieving her loss and dealing with the aftermath of her life.

The process of cleaning out her house has been tedious and discouraging, as expected. But what has been unexpected has been the unearthing of long hidden family treasures – photographs, letters, documents and all sorts of unexpected memorabilia from several generations of my family, especially my mother’s family. A cousin has come to help me on several occasions, and since we share half of this ancestry, we have both delighted in some of the things we found. We've also been dismayed that there are pictures of people and places we can’t identify, nor do we know some of the stories behind those people and places. Sadly, the people in those pictures, along with their descendants, are no longer around to tell us about any of them.

My cousin and I spent many hours going through stuff and talking about what we do remember of our extended family. Our mothers were sisters and lived in the same area, so we, as cousins, spent a lot of time together. There were even times we lived under the same roof. Best of all, we delighted in remembering that we often had holidays that included our mothers, our mutual grandparents, and our great-grandparents. And we have the pictures to prove it. What we also found were pictures of our great-grandparents as young adults and young parents to our grandmother, who was their only child. How delightful to see a picture or our 4 or 5 year-old grandmother sitting in a tree! And our great-grandmother, the rock of decorum and stability,  as a young woman peeking out from behind a bush with a mischievous look in her eyes!

I take comfort in the fact that, even as young as I was, I do have personal memories of my great-grandparents, my mother’s grandparents, and my grandparents, also on my mother’s side. I even remember trips to her native Connecticut and meeting many relatives long ago. Of my father’s side of the family, I know very little, but I did find pictures of those I did know when they were younger. My father’s parents both died before I was born, and his brother was 17 years his senior. My oldest cousin, his brother’s daughter, is closer in age to my mother than to the rest of us. We did visit my father’s two sisters fairly regularly, so I did know my other first cousins on my dad’s side. But I was the youngest, and those memories are hazy at best. My father was the youngest of his family, also, with six years separating him from his closest sibling.

Four generations, great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and the kids

Other distant relatives have traced Kabrich family origins for years. I remember my father corresponding with a relative in North Carolina, and in the early 2000’s someone contacted me by email to ask for information about my family. He generously shared his research, most of which coincided with what I already knew, but it was nice to have the information presented again. I also knew something of my great-grandmother’s genealogical research on my mother’s side of the family, but all of it was no more than a passing interest. It was not until my mother’s death that finding out more became vitally important to me.

Perhaps it is because I am older, perhaps it is because I watched my mother’s decline over the years as she aged. I’m sure losing my father unexpectedly nearly 20 years ago also played a part. Finding all of the pictures, documents, letters, even textbooks that belonged to my parents and grandparents, all of this sparked a desire to really know my familial roots, the heritage passed down to me from both my parents. So, I've become an avid, amateur genealogist, tracing family back as far as I can possibly go with the tools available to me today.

My great-grandmother, anxious to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), did extensive research on her and my great-grandfather’s family back in the 1940’s or 1950’s. To be admitted to the DAR, one must trace one’s lineage directly to a family member who contributed either to the American Revolution or to the cause of freedom. I am completely in awe of my great-grandmother, who was able to find out that my great-grandfather’s family, Pike, arrived in Massachusetts in 1635, and her family arrived on the Mayflower. And she did all of that without the Internet. I have copious amounts of letters to attest to the diligence of her research efforts. The same cousin who helped me with my mother’s house also generously shared our great-grandmother’s research with me. I've expanded that research, and I find myself increasingly humbled by the fact that these people gave up everything, uprooted their families, and came to the harsh and primitive lands here in North America. They forged out new lives, and they thrived and lived on through the years. In fact, up until my great-grandfather, this family still had the same last name as the original settlers. His only child was a daughter, but her son and her daughter’s son were named to honor those ancestors and to keep the name alive in the family.

My father’s side of the family has equally interesting roots. Kabrich is, in many ways, an easier name to research in that it is not so common, but trying to track when the original immigrant came to North America has stymied researchers because of the variations of spelling of the German surname. Tracking my father’s maternal roots has been challenging because it is so common a name – Harris. Thanks to the Internet, I have had some success in tracing my paternal origins and was surprised to discover that there are Scottish and British roots on my father’s side of the family. I've long known of the British origins of my mother’s family, found evidence of Scottish roots that I’d heard of, but to discover the same on my father’s side was a surprise, although considering our country’s origins it probably shouldn't be.

I find that I truly enjoy digging into the past this way, discovering family connections, and taking note of the historical context in which our families lived and grew. My father’s family always conveyed a sense of pride in the Kabrich surname, just as my mother’s family was justifiably proud of its Pike heritage. Our family has never been particularly close, so I often wonder if my niece and nephew are aware of the rich heritage of their ancestral lines. I have no children of my own, so I think part of my motivation in so avidly researching family history is a way of leaving something behind for future generations. Both of my parents lived through some monumentally historic times, yet they never told stories about the history they had seen. I got my father to write down part of his own story, but he was never able to finish it. Most of my dealings with my mother were about the practical aspects of daily living – groceries, bills, doctor’s appointments and such. Talking about family history just didn't seem relevant or important at the time. I broached the subject a couple of times, but I could never quite find the right way to get her to talk about such things.

I've enjoyed the research so much that I have even taken on researching other families. Even though there is not the intense personal connection, I find satisfaction in piecing together families that are total mysteries to me. In fact, I enjoy this activity so much I have been considering making it into a business. I started reading a book, Start and Run a Personal History Business, by Janet Campbell, and in it she expresses many of the reasons I find myself compulsively researching family. She makes a distinction between a genealogist and a personal historian. The genealogist is concerned with the research, the data, the facts and figures, whereas the personal historian takes this sometimes overwhelming amount of information and weaves it together to preserve the personal story of an individual, a family, a community, or any other entity. I find that I want to do both. I like doing the research, but I also want to put the things I find – the documents, the pictures, the stories – into some type of coherent whole that tells the story of where I, or someone else, came from.

As the youngest of my generation on both sides of my family (well, some did come later on my mother’s side, but not until I was 10 or older), I've often felt disconnected and detached from my family. As an adult, age differences don’t really matter so much; there is enough common ground to permit emotional connections. As a child, however, a 3 to 10 year age gap makes a tremendous difference in how one relates to family members. So much of the time I really didn't understand what was going on. Conversations always seemed to be just beyond my understanding, but I could nod and fake it with the best of them, so family often didn't realize how clueless I was. I always felt so different, as if I didn't quite fit in my family.  That feeling persists as an adult because of the nature of our lives – we are spread out geographically, have completely different interests and approaches to life, and just don’t talk much. As Ms. Campbell says in her book, “Technology is speeding up communication but making us hungry for meaningful connections.” That sums up my feelings in a nutshell. Tracing my roots helps me feel connected to the bigger picture of my family’s history.  And I hope, one day, that it will help the next generations feel that connection, too.

November 22, 2011

Animal Magnetism

Anyone who knows me - even just a little - knows that I love animals and animals love me. The shyest cat, the most timid dog, guinea pigs, even wildlife - they are all attracted to me. My mother likes to tell a story about me and a squirrel when I was about 3 years old. But first, a little background information on my family. I grew up with one brother, three cousins, and my mother's best friend's kids, whom we also called cousins. I was the youngest of my blood relatives. My "aunt" had a lot of kids, and my brother and I were in the same age range as two of hers, a boy and a girl, and - you guessed it - I was the youngest. It was like being part of one extended family and having three different places that felt like home.

I've heard in the past few years that "getting old isn't for sissies." Let me tell you, growing up the youngest of the 7 kids I was around the most wasn't for sissies, either. I was painfully shy and only talked to these particular people. I was quiet (OK, stop laughing!) and had a gentle and trusting nature, of which my "siblings" took full advantage for their amusement. They teased me, told me all kinds of things which I believed, and even taught me to say silly things that I would repeat, much to their amusement. It took me years to learn to stand up to them, and even now I have to be careful not to let anyone take advantage of my generous nature.

My mother and my "aunt" lived one street away from each other when I was small, and a shortcut through a neighbor's back yard made the distance very short indeed. That is to say, we were frequently at one house or another. I can still picture the neighborhood and both houses quite well, even though we moved to a different neighborhood when I was only five. This one particular afternoon we were at my house. My mother and my "aunt" were visiting with each other in the kitchen, and the four of us - me, my brother, and two of my aunt's kids were outside. My boy cousin, just about a year older than I am, was a boisterous and mischievous child, so adults tended to take his announcements with a grain of salt. The story goes that he came barreling in the back door booming that "Robin has a squirrel on her lap." The women were, of course, dubious. He had to repeat it a couple of times and say, "No, really - look!" So, they got up and looked out the back door. There I sat in the middle of the yard, with a squirrel sitting quietly on my knee. To this day my mother tells this story with a sense of wonder, and I mark it as the beginning of my affinity with animals.

I think I inherited this affinity for animals from my father. He, too, had a quiet and gentle soul that animals instinctively trusted. His job included home visits of the boys he supervised on probation, and the family pets, especially cats, inevitably wound up around him or settle comfortably in his lap. The families were always amazed when "Shadow," the cat who never showed itself when the family had company, would wind up purring in my dad's lap. Thus it was with the me and the squirrel. To this day animals that trust no one will trust me, maybe not instantly, but eventually. And that, dear friends, was only the beginning of my lifelong love of animals.

We always had pets when I was a child. I remember mostly having cats and how I always asked if we could please, please, PLEASE have a dog. We had had a dog that bit the newspaper boy, and my parents were forced to find another home for him because of the fuss the boy's mother raised. They were, understandably, reluctant to get another dog because of that experience. I, however, longed for the companionship of a dog. If reincarnation is real, I swear I must have been a dog in a previous life because I share so many of dogs' personality traits - wanting to please people, affectionate, loyal - you get the picture. Eventually we did get another dog when I was around 11 years old. My "aunt" had to move into an apartment, and my mother took in her Collie-German Shepherd mix named Sheba. Sheba and I were inseparable and I loved her dearly. I always knew it was temporary, but that turned out to be a couple of years. One day my aunt came to collect her dog because they had moved into a house with a large yard and could now care for her. I was heartbroken but put on a brave face and the "stiff upper lip" my New England raised mother had instilled in me.

Because Sheba was 3/4ths German Shepherd, my uncle decided that they should breed her to a full-blooded German Shepherd. Lo and behold, Sheba produced a litter of 12 puppies, and I was promised my choice of these squirming balls of fur. I remember looking in amazement at all those puppies - talk about an overload of cute! I made my choice, a smallish female with an uncanny resemblance to Sheba, and then went home to wait for her to "come of age" to come live with us.

Next comes another family story which I remember quite clearly. I was in Junior High School by then (Middle School to you younger folks) and fancied myself more grown than I actually was. The owner of the German Shepherd who fathered Sheba's puppies was entitle to his "pick of the litter" as part of the stud fee for his dog's "services." Much as I had done, he observed and interacted with the puppies for a while, and then he began to make his choice. To my aunt and uncle's dismay, he seemed to favor the same puppy I had chosen. My uncle then did something for which, to this day, I still love him dearly. He spoke up and said, "Isn't that the same puppy that little Robin wanted?" The man then decided he preferred a different puppy. I was so ecstatic that my puppy was "saved" that I even forgave my uncle for calling me "little" even though I was such a mature 13-year-old! He said just the right thing to pluck the man's parental and human strings to not want to disappoint a little girl by taking "her" puppy!

I started writing this post intending to talk about animals who have owned me in my adult life. These animals, mostly dogs, have played a prominent part in  my life. They have been companions, sources of both joy and anguish, amusing, my teachers, and my surrogate children. I found myself, instead, backtracking to tell you a little something about myself that I hope will help you understand the stories to come and the profound impact they have had on my life. So please, come back soon to read the stories I have to tell about the animals who have owned me!

October 15, 2011

This Sojourner's Truth

Welcome to my blog! I set it up months ago, but in typical me fashion, I am only now writing on it for the first time! My first roadblock was - what do I call this blog? I could dedicate the blog to particular things, like education, pets, dogs, reading, teaching, history, even maybe religion. The truth is, I am interested in so many things that I couldn't choose just one. I didn't want to be dull and just call it Robin's Blog, either. So, after much toying about with possibilities, I came up with "This Sojourner's Truth."

I thought of this name for two reasons. First, I think of a sojourner as a traveler. Second, I am a history buff and I thought it was a clever twist on Sojourner Truth, a former slave who gained her freedom before the Civil War and became a traveling preacher and activist. I looked up the word sojourner, thinking of it as meaning "traveler." I discovered that the word "sojourn" actually means a temporary stay. After thinking it over some more, I realized that this name does, indeed, cover my intentions in using this name for my blog.

I believe we are all travelers through life, from birth to death. Each phase of our lives is "sojourn," or a temporary stay through each particular period of our lives. First there's school - grade school, middle school, high school. Each is a temporary stay for a set number of years, and we learn and mature and get ready to make the next sojourn. After high school we have myriad possibilities - college, work, travel, family, or combinations of all of these things. Each sojourn teaches us valuable life lessons and helps us decide where to move to the next destination of our lives. Some transitions are easy to discern - graduation, marriage, birth of a child, buying a house, getting a job. Other transitions tend to sneak up on us - my kid's going to college, I'm a grandparent, caring for our parents, and - when did I get this old? Our stay in any one "place" is truly a sojourn - temporary - because time and life march on, whether we saw it coming or not!

Hence, I am a sojourner. I've traveled many roads in life that have taken many surprising twists and turns, many of which were accompanied by a lot of introspection. For instance, it took me 30 years to find my true calling - teaching. I pursued that calling, got certified, and taught in a classroom. Then, I lost my job and here I am, doing what I can to bring in money because I can't seem to get another teaching job. That's why you see ads on this page - I can bring in a little income with this blog, also. I've also found myself becoming increasingly responsible for caring for my elderly mother while I am dealing with my own issues about aging myself. Issues like - when did THAT happen? Why CAN'T I do all-nighters and bounce back after one good sleep? I didn't know THAT part of my body COULD hurt, and who shrunk my pants?

I like to believe I speak the truth. I called the blog THIS Sojourner's Truth because what is true for one person may not be true for others. Most people revere their mothers and hold them in high esteem. I am happy for them, but I am not one of them. I've had a difficult relationship with my mother for most of my life, and it really is not getting any easier. It's a truth I generally keep to myself because I don't think others will understand - not unless they really know my mother. So, as I travel through life, I can only tell you the truth that is my life and world. I can share some insights, discuss some issues, and generally try to engage you through my written word.

I don't intend for this blog to become an on-line diary of sorts; I rather hope to use it to discuss things I've learned about issues that affect all of us. So please, pull up a chair and sit a while. Think and respond if you like. Let me know what YOUR truth is. Ask questions. Come along with me on this sojourn!