Friday, March 30, 2012

Face It: We Are Who We Are

Seriously, these are high school students? They were, in 1935.

I looked at the photo and saw the faces. They were all faces of people I know, or knew once upon a time. And in those faces I saw women who are a few years older than me, not that much but certainly a difference that will never change.

And it was a picture of a bunch of fourth-graders.

I’ve always been intrigued by the way time and vision play interesting tricks on your brain. The way the years can melt off the face of someone you haven’t seen in decades or can add years to make a group picture of Girl Scouts look like the 50-something women they are now.

It doesn’t always just happen with people you know. Time and fashion have a way of making people from the past look surprisingly old to younger generations. Maybe it’s the cat-eye or granny glasses, the suit jackets or the old-fashioned hairstyles – looking at an old yearbook is akin to looking at a book filled with grandparents, even if these people are only 16 years old.

This magic is what people miss when they skip their class reunions. Even if you don’t like the people, it’s an almost supernatural phenomenon to look at a room full of strangers and within a few moments see the faces of people you have known your entire life. Bit by bit your brain puts together the pieces, making you realize if that is Joe then that must be his buddy Jim but how could it be Jim because it looks nothing like him? And then, little by little, it looks just like him.

At our 25th class reunion, I had a good friend of mine tell me that everyone said she looks exactly the same.

“I’m not sure how to feel about that,” she said.

“Feel good about it,” I said. “They see you, and that’s a nice thing.”

I don’t really have that conundrum. Some people were born with the face they keep their entire life; I am not one of those people. At that same class reunion, I was chatting with a group of friends until one of them looked at me and said, “Do I know you?” Friends I've made since high school never believe it’s me if they see my high school graduation picture.

I have an old photograph of my sisters and me when we were about ages 2, 3, 4 and 5. It was on the wall at my parents’ house and I have had a copy of it on my wall for years. In the decades that the photo has been on my wall, no one – not one person – who knows me but not my sisters has ever been able to pick me out of the photo. My sisters have characteristics in the photo that they keep to this day. Me, not so much.

It hasn’t helped, either, that throughout my life my hair color has just had a mind of its own. I have a fourth-grade photo of me, as blonde as can be. In photos from fifth and sixth grade, I’m practically brunette.

It swung back enough that when I returned for my sophomore year of college, a friend of mine didn’t recognize me after I cut my hair over the summer. “My friend Jane has long blonde hair,” he said. “You have short dark hair. What happened to my friend Jane?”

By moving back to my hometown, however, my anonymity has been somewhat shed. I may have a face that changes with the seasons, but there is one constant to it – it is the face of my mother.

This was never more apparent when I stopped by a local dress shop just before closing time and happened to find the perfect outfit for an upcoming event. I had just been out for a walk and didn’t have a checkbook or credit card on me and I asked the shop owner if she could hold it for me until the next day.

“Sure,” she said, pulling out a piece of paper to write down my name. “Which one are you?”

Not “what is your name” or “where do you live.” No, she knew I was one of the pack of girls who used to sit by her family at church. “Of course I know who you are,” she said. “You look just like your mother.”

There are worse things to hear in life, that’s for sure. If it’s not me that people see, but instead see my mother, that is something I can face just fine.

Girl Scouts, circa 1970.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Green, Green Grass of Home

This way to home.

The statement was as innocuous as you could imagine, but it was still a kind gesture coming from an airport customs agent.

“Welcome home,” the agent said.

The greeting didn’t come at O’Hare or Newark or Dulles or any U.S. international airport through which I have cleared customs over the years. The welcome home came from a customs agent in Dublin, Ireland.

Indeed, I was home. My name kind of gives it away, but not entirely. Years later, I still smile to think of the warm, almost personal, welcome I got returning to the homeland.

Strangely, it’s not my only “homeland.” Like most Americans, I’m not one thing, I’m a mutt. I’m probably more German than Irish, and even a bit more Norwegian than Irish. Yet it’s not just St. Patrick’s Day that makes me and my family celebrate our Irish-ness.

Still, I’m not sure what it is.

Maybe it’s the name, which isn’t even officially our name. A great-great grandfather was born in Galway a Byrnes and was buried in Wisconsin a Burns. Over the years, people have told me when they see the Scottish/English spelling of my name that I am not Irish.

“Well, maybe my ancestors were actually English and Protestant but they claimed to be Irish Catholic to make their lives easier here in the 19th century,” I respond. That usually shuts people up, if they have the slightest notion of human history.

My family is fortunate. We remain in the place our immigrant ancestors came to more than a century ago from Ireland, Germany and Norway.

Yet we cling to the Irish.

Maybe it’s the religion. We grew up Catholic and that was the core of who we were, too. But we’re also Catholic on the German side, although my mom moved away from her family and they are about two hours away. The Norwegians? Let’s just say those are the Lutherans who are buried in that other cemetery in the town of my paternal relatives' birth.

Maybe it’s the stories. We tell them with great abandon. A few years ago, I was at a conference and gave some remarks. Afterwards, an African woman I had met there said to me, “You’re Irish, aren’t you?” I said yes, but it was nothing recent, that my family had been here about 150 years.

“No matter,” she said. “Your people. They can tell stories.”

Strangely, we don’t know our own story. I often thought it odd that in a family of storytellers, in a family that had been here for so long, we only have stories that go back to about the 1920s.

But I found my answer on a visit about 15 years ago to the cemetery outside Hollandale, Wis., where generations of my father’s family are buried. I visited the graves of relatives I knew, and checked out graves I had probably been shown as a kid belonging to relatives I never knew.

The latter graves all had something in common: 1918. The influenza epidemic took out a generation of my family, leaving my grandpa orphaned at a young age and the rest of us with not one story about the generations that came before.

On my same trip to Ireland, I spun that sad tale to an Irishman I had just met. He listened, looked at me and said, “So do you get the shots every year then?”

Maybe it’s the humor. In the blackest of times my family has been able to laugh. We’re the kind of people who have fun at funerals because yes, it’s a drag somebody died but oh, we love each other’s company.

Before I knew my family was from Galway, I got lost there. If you’ve ever been to Galway City, you’d realize that’s not a difficult thing to do. But I like to think now that it was a cosmic event, as if fate were making me spend more time in a place that we were just trying to drive through on our way to somewhere else.

My family isn’t the type to pass through a place. We left various countries and have tended to stay put in the places where we settled so many generations ago. Now I want to go to Galway again and instead of cursing the unspecifically marked intersections and roundabouts to nowhere, I want to just stop a moment and take it all in.

Because I’d be home. And maybe I’d even be welcome.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Right Stuff, and So Much of It

It's a delightful surprise to find things like this, but what to do with it?

Boxes are only piled one or two high, so it can’t be that bad. Then again, there are a lot of two-box piles sitting around my basement these days. 

It’s a thin line between history and hoarding. While I know very well where I sit on that line, it’s a challenge to make sure it goes in the right direction. 

About a year and a half ago, my mom died. She was worried about all the pictures in her basement and we had gone through some things together. But in the final weeks of her life she fretted about those pictures in a way I thought was kind of odd. 

And then, after she was gone, I opened the boxes. 

My family has a lot of pictures and I knew that. My father was a photographer, so we have more family photos than most families from that era have. In the 1960s and 1970s, cameras weren’t the common household item they are today and parents weren’t as interested in recording every moment of their children’s lives.

A kindergarten field trip to see Santa.
But my dad was there with his camera. Not just for the professional reasons such as weddings and babies and graduations. He was there with his camera when our Girl Scout troop marched in parades, when my kindergarten class visited Santa at the bank, when my little brothers helped make curds at the cheese factory of a friend of his, when we rode horses at my uncle’s farm and for every birthday party one could imagine.

That’s what I knew was in the boxes. What I found wasn’t just the family photos, but essentially a complete archive of my family’s history. It took my breath away.

There were scrapbooks my mom put together when she was in grade and high school, complete with programs from school plays or basketball games. There were two framed religious plaques honoring her First Communion. There was a copy of a children's Christmas book from her big brother, with the words, “To Betty Jane: From Eugene” written inside. 

Hollandale High School rah rah rah!
There were my father’s high school letters won in a variety of sports for a school that does not exist anymore. There were mementoes of Army days and even a few letters between my parents, something about picking out a couch just weeks before they were married.

Moving on through their lives turned up seemingly every handmade card we kids – all six of us – made for them. Little bunnies with cotton balls for tails that say, “Happy Easter To Mommy and Daddy.” Tulips created with crayons that signify a Happy Mother’s Day, with or without a proper apostrophe.

Cotton tail still in place.
The most amazing find was a bag that contained every card my parents received when my oldest sister, their firstborn, arrived in 1959. It was a wonderful snapshot of a moment in time – who was alive then in our family, who was alive then in our town and who my parents’ friends were at the time.

It was a treasure trove and I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t find that stuff celebrating my birth. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

It was an easy “first edit” to go through the stuff – if I didn’t know the person, I threw the photo away (sorry, Mom’s high school classmates.) Negatives could go because technology means we can always scan the prints. The first edit was done in my mom’s basement in the weeks after she died. It’s time to dive back in.

My left foot
This is where the hard choices will come, and I already unexpectedly face a conundrum. Just the other day I found something I missed the first time around: the stash of stuff that accompanied my entry into this world. There’s a beautiful birth certificate, complete with my footprints, and a birth announcement in my mother’s handwriting. Best of all is a little pink bootie that served as an invitation from the local bank to start a savings account. It’s still in the envelope addressed to my parents, postmarked two days after I was born.

We’re fortunate in my community that we have a strong historical society that is interested in collecting the everyday minutiae of life as well as things of obvious historical value. So while the historical society has my dad’s photo collection, I also gave them my mom’s library card. They’ll get the pink bootie, too. Eventually.

I have friends whose parents who were hoarders and had to take care of those households when their parents died. My mom had a lot of stuff but it doesn’t come close to qualifying as hoarding – even I could understand the significance of nearly every item she saved. 

I always wondered where I got my love for history; it didn’t seem to be a passion of any sort for either of my parents. Now I know.

My parents didn’t hoard, but they had a way of hoarding history. They saw the value in the story of our lives. That makes for way too many boxes in my basement and I still have no clue what we're going to do with most of this stuff, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A little bootie to help a little girl baby sock away some savings.

The little bootie was still in the envelope sent from a bank that no longer exists.
Considering the safety of this would-be baby toy, it's probably best it was left in the original envelope.