Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Taking it Personally

I've tended to use this blog as a platform for talking about topics in local history or as snapshots into my professional life as a local historian, but for this post, I thought I'd write even closer to home for a change.

I've mentioned before that my introduction to local history was through my family's history and that it later grew to a general reverence of place and how important place is to ones identity. I've spent a lot of time developing my perspective on the complex, eccentric identity of Spartanburg and the communities that form it, but at least on this blog, I haven't spent much time developing my own family's identity.

Seasons revolve, time marches and spins, and life's path doubles back on itself from time to time like a switchback mountain trail. You never retread the same ground, but sometimes you brush back against it, or catch a view of the same path from a different angle. I feel like I'm on that reflective path now and it's caused me to rethink where I am, where I'm going, and what forces brought me to this point. So all this self-examination makes me want to work out some family identity issues on paper (or whatever this is).

The oldest member of my family, my great-grandmother, passed away a few weeks ago at one hundred and a half years old. Of course I knew her my whole life, and I saw her at least twice a year from the time I was a toddler until I was in my early 20s, when I saw her even more frequently. She was a witty, feisty (and tiny) old lady and a big source of my family's smartass streak. Even towards the end, she was sassy and spirited with everyone in earshot. Barely able to walk, see, or hear, she explained to my uncle recently that she was a lost little elf my grandparents had found in the bushes in their front yard.

Born on suburban Long Island, she was the daughter of Austro-Hungarian immigrants who all but refused to talk about the old ways in Europe now that they were Americans living in America. So like so many Americans, she was born rootless. She loved her hometown as a girl, but so did everyone else. She stayed on Long Island as long as her husband worked there, but once that ended, off to St. Louis and California and Florida they went. To illustrate her lack of appreciation for heritage, you need look no further than the photo album of her honeymoon, a sweeping roadtrip to tourist sites along the East Coast, which shows her at Mount Vernon with a look that screams, "what do I care?"

In that regard, she and I were very different. I'm so interested in examining my roots that I work professionally doing it, spend a fair amount of my free time doing it, and type out blog posts about it during my lunch break.

But despite that, there are certainly other elements about my identity that trace their source back to her. She was decidedly irreverent and had a healthy playfulness; traits that have come straight down the line to me and to most of her other descendants. She and my great-grandfather were both that way and their antics frequently straddled the line between pranks, mischief, and honest-to-God roguery. The list of dubious behaviors reads on and on and sometimes I don't know whether to wag my finger or drop my jaw. During World War II, they worked alternating day and night shifts for military subcontractor Grumman Aircraft. Photos show GG (that's what I always called my great-grandmother) as a mildly risque cabaret dancer in a company play about the Moulin Rouge, but there aren't any photos of the black market transactions that helped pay the bills or the stolen company property.

But except for a few property laws, homefront commerce laws, and moonshine laws, they weren't lawbreakers as much as they were pranksters who didn't shy away from looking out for them and theirs. Their daughter, my grandmother, may have been the only one who kept a clean record (at the very least, she keeps mum about her trouble-making days). Her brother certainly got into it, and my father and uncle were right there with him. One of my father's favorite troublemaker stories was his teenage act of environmental terrorism in Fernwood. He and my uncle used to ride motorcycles along Lawson's Fork Creek in its pre-Cottonwood Trail days. To hear him tell it, he and his friends actually cut a lot of the trail that is still used. Anyway, the early 1970s were not kind to Lawson's Fork and they would frequently come across pipes that dumped raw sewage into the creek. Sensing the ecological injustice, he took a cylindrical traffic barrier and threw it into a manhole cover next to the outflow pipe. It immediately lodged into the hole and caused the sewage to back up, allegedly knocking out sewer service in Fernwood for a day or so.

But outside of my family's scurrilous streak, one of the recurring themes that has resonated with me about GG was the intensity of her relationship with my great-grandfather. They started dating when she was a teenager and he was a strapping young lad from Ohio who had journeyed to Westbury, Long Island with his brother, operating a tree surgery business. She was a clothing merchant's daughter and they met in front of her father's store. He was the most handsome of the boys she snapped in photos at Bar Beach in 1926, and she would walk with him down the aisle of the village Catholic Church in June of 1929. They smile and laugh in all their photos together. They wasted no time starting a family and exactly one pregnancy term after they were married, they had their first child, my grandmother, followed by my great-uncle two years later.

They were very close. Despite the nearby city, they lived very rural and suburban lives. He worked mostly as a homebuilder while they tended a peach orchard and grew raspberries and strawberries. They took trips together and enjoyed life together. They swam in the ocean together and won jitterbug contests together. I often look upon their family as a model of how to value the things that matter and let go of the things that don't. They enjoyed themselves and their surroundings and didn't let their jobs, past drama, or the troubles of the world get in their way. They were always peeking behind the veneer of life for something that might be fun or adventurous. I have to remember sometimes to ignore my tendencies towards earnestness and, instead, (for all its triteness) "seize the day." There is a lot out there to enjoy, it's not hard to find, and it's what makes all the other mundane details worth it.

I was fortunate to know her and to know her for so long. She was a glimpse into another life and another era. She embodied the kind of lessons that can be learned from the past, and I feel blessed to have had the sight with which to read them.

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