Friday, November 30, 2007

Advent Calendar Submissions Are Rolling In!

Have you been working on your Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories submissions? I know I have and it hasn't been easy but lots of fun.

I've made it through the first 4 posts so far, but I find I get sidetracked and need to dig up photos and scan them etc. to help illustrate the topic. So it is slow going.

But we have some great submissions for tomorrow's topic, The Christmas Tree, and for other dates as well.

Tomorrow this site will shed its dreary brown feathers and put on its green and red plummage for the next 25 days.

If you haven't done so, think about submitting your family's memories on any or all topics. Email me directly or use the Blog Carnival Form.

See you tomorrow!

Estate Planning, Wills and Family History

I need to pat myself on the back here - I've tackled a nagging task hanging over my head all year now. Just like backing up my genealogy database, copying scanned photos to CDs, or labeling photos. I completed my estate planning details. Estate planning is not fun to think about and worse to actually do.

Some friendly advice, especially to those who are not currently married but share a life with someone close to their heart: estate planning is even more important since basic laws of inheritance don't cover these types of relationships. While we may get along with our special someone's family, I can tell you first hand that once a death occurs, families get weird. Unless it is written down, things and wishes promised to you verbally will be handled the way the family and/or probate court see fit.

While I was preparing my "departure plan" as I call it, I thought of my ancestors who left wills and other estate documents as part of their legacy. These documents not only served to convey money and property to spouses and family members left behind but years, even centuries later, they provided details of their lives.

As I get older, I become less attached to materials things, except for those that have great sentimental and family history value. Besides designating how I want my assets to be dispersed and my funeral arrangements handled, just as important to me is deciding who gets all my research materials.

I am in a quandry now since out of 200+ living relatives (I'm not kidding - we're Irish - this is what we do - we have large families) I really can't identify one person who would want to take this project over. Granted, I have plenty of time and as the current generation (born after 2000 - ugh!) gets older I hope that someone will not just be interested in my research, but will want to act as a custodian of the materials and the concept.

My hope is that my niece, Jacqueline Rose and/or my nephew, Patrick Thomas will want to take over the research. But just in case, I've added a provision that directs my executor to locate a historical or family history society willing to archive the materials. My preference is for a group based in either Lewis or Saint Lawrence counties in way upstate New York since that is where my family spent most of the 19th century.

In preparation for that transfer, I am being a good boy - labeling photos, backing up data, etc. I have even printed out information on heirlooms such as my great-great grandmother Catherine O'Keefe Austin's wedding silver and tucked it in the chest holding the set made in 1882. I've done the same for my great-grandmother Therese McGinnes Austin's Floradora doll from the late 1890s.

I know I can only control so much and that I can't take it with me. But do I really want to leave it up to my family to guess and say "what would Thomas do?"

Photo: my niece, Jacqueline Rose, in 2001

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ancestry Press - I Made Books!

Update: I just received an email from a Senior Product Manager at AncestryPress to clarify some of my feedback below - see the strikethrough and the updated text in bold below.

I am so psyched because the books that I created over at using their Ancestry Press feature arrived last night. And I am very pleased and impressed. Of course, this is the first time I've ever taken portions of my family history research and opted to have them "published," as it were. And I took a chance on this feature to create some holiday gifts this season.

Ancestry had a great offer of a reduced price and free shipping but that ended on October 31, 2007. Ancestry still has an introductory offer in effect but the free shipping expired on October 31, 2007. I didn't want to feel rushed so I decided I would submit my books for publishing when I was ready. Here is a brief description of how it worked:

- While I already had an abridged family tree on Ancestry's site, that wasn't a requirement. All the information for "Kenny's Choice" was taken from my blog posting and copied to the publishing application.

- Photos were easy to import and upload to Ancestry's site. The information in the publishing feature is secured with your login and password and not available to other users or posted elsewhere on Ancestry's site.

- I started with a blank book, and then found the Military Service template. This allowed me to drag a photo of Kenny on to the page, edit the timeline with important dates, and list his dates of service and medals awarded.

- There are close to 200 different embellishments available to also drag onto pages. These include pins, tags, buttons, lists, and quotes. I liked the format of some of the quotes but I didn't care for the content - it wasn't appropriate for this project. No problem - I was able to edit the text using one of the quotes from my article.

- I was worried that aligning items would be difficult. There were some missteps in the beginning but I soon got the hang of it. I was able to align text with photos and embellishments. I had to do this quite a bit with the book I created on my partner's family history. There were lots of items that had to be evenly spaced and it was fairly easy to do.

- Right now the limit is 24 pages which is more than what I needed. A book length is not limited to 24 pages as I had stated - a book can be up to 100 pages long. The introductory price for a 24 page book is $29.95 with each additional page priced at $0.39 per page. I also know that Ancestry is working to add new features and relies upon the feedback of its users.

- Each project is saved to Ancestry's site and can be accessed at a later date and even republished.

- The turnaround time was fantastic - the stated time was 3-4 weeks but I received mine in less than 2 weeks Ancestry has changed the book fulfillment time from 3 - 4 weeks to 2 - 3 weeks. I was worried the books would not be here in time for Christmas but they were.

The finished product? It is difficult to actually see the quality in the slideshow above. There is gold stamped lettering on the cover (up to 2 lines). The cover is a "leatherette" but it doesn't feel cheap. The pages are glossy and the photos are clear. One issue I worried about was photo resolution. But the application won't allow you to drag a photo on to a page if the resolution doesn't meet a minimum standard. While the application will allow you to drag a photo onto a page even if the resolution doesn’t meet the minimum standard, once the image has been placed on a page a warning icon is displayed. If the image is scaled to a point where the resolution is less than recommended, you can decide to remove the photo and select a better one.

If you've used this feature at Ancestry please let me know your thoughts. And if you've used other methods of publishing your research I'd be interested in how that process went.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Ethnic Flag

Here is my submission for a fun idea from Jasia over at Creative Gene. This flag, created at We Are Multicolored, shows my country of birth (United States), the country that has had the most influence on me (Ireland) and the country I'd most like to visit (Netherlands).

Now it's time for Jasia to sew this flag and all the others from participating genea-bloggers up into a quilt!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

An Improbable Home

Author's note: this story that I wrote recently ran in excerpted form in Angie's list® magazine. I've been a member of Angie's list® for over two years now and it is a great way to find reputable contractors and handypeople. They have chapters in most metropolitan areas. This was submitted as part of a contest entitled, "Homestead History," asking "what makes your home unique."

I was brought up to believe that a home can be two types: the family you build and pull together to be with you in good times and bad; and the house where that family lives. Growing up in upstate New York, I never had any doubts that Mom would succeed in building the first type of home - even though times were tough in the early 1970s for a newly-divorced mother with two young boys, no credit and no real job experience. It was the second type of home - the physical one - that Mom bought as our first home that was never really meant to exist. Not only was Mom determined to make it exist, she made certain it thrived, even to this day.

After many years of apartment living and scrimping and saving, Mom decided it was time to buy a house. She really didn’t have a choice: the 3-bedroom apartment over a warehouse that cost $80 a month was being converted into a larger warehouse so we had to move. We looked at a few houses but they either were rife with problems or the price was way beyond our means. Then in early 1976, we got word that someone was selling a house on the outskirts of the village with 2 acres of land for an unbelievable price of $18,000. Still, that seemed like a lot of money to us back then.

On our first visit it became clear why the price was so low: the house was a Lustron Home. Lustron Homes were pre-fabricated houses manufactured between 1948 and 1950 to help solve the housing crisis confronting returning GIs right after WW II. The homes were made of “porcelain enameled steel” as they advertised - the concept was to sell a house that took 350 man hours to install and had no maintenance or redecorating issues: you could simply wipe down the panels with soap and water. There were lots of “new concepts” such as radiant panel heat from the ceiling, lots of “built-ins”, even a Thor washing machine that converted into a dishwasher! No bugs, no rot, no worries, no fuss, no muss. What more could an atomic age 1950s family want?

We knew the place needed work and thought most of it was cosmetic. But what we didn’t realize is what more could a 1970s family need? Upstate New York was no place for a Lustron Home - that we soon found out. The houses were intended more for the Sun-belt states with their mild climates and easy lifestyles. To us, Florida was warm winters, palm trees, ocean waves and relatives who only spent October thru April there, arriving like snow birds in their late model Cadillacs.

So, with a mortgage and a second mortgage that the seller was willing to provide, Mom signed on the dotted line and we moved in around the time of the Bicentennial celebration. Mom now had her security and her freedom and it was all wrapped up in a new home.

Our home was smack on the side of a small mountain, with 50 mph winter winds making sure that pipes would freeze, and hot steamy humid summers that would begin to corrode the areas of steel that weren’t so “porcelain enameled.” Summer appropriate windows that might as well be wire screens in the winter. And didn’t someone once say that “heat rises”? So how does radiant heat from ceiling panels work without some forced air system to make sure the lower extremities don’t freeze? No wonder that the previous owner only used it as a summer home when he came up from - guess where? Florida. I always thought it would be funny if he lived in a classic Northeast home like a New England salt box or a New York Dutch stone house down there and not a more suitable type, like a Lustron Home.

If anything, Mom was always resourceful: within five years and help from relatives along with learning how to use a hammer and how to cut wood, she was able to convert this “improbable home” into a great 1,000 sq ft living space. Before I left for college in 1980 she had insulated the entire house - walls and roof, paneled the outside with wood, replaced the roof, changed the rusty metal doors with bi-fold ones, and made so many other improvements that you couldn’t even recognize the place!

Mom was a genius to me in that she could take a house that just didn’t fit into its surroundings and seemed unlivable, at least on a year-round basis, and convert it into a home where all the relatives gathered at every holiday, where there were crazy graduation parties and summer cookouts, and where she would raise two boys before sending them off into the world. What better lessons could a son have than to know that anything was possible and to not allow anyone to tell you that you wouldn’t be able to accomplish something?

And Mom would spend the remainder of her days there, working many jobs, socializing with friends, entertaining her grandchildren - all before 2000 when Alzheimer’s Disease would come at the age of 58 and gradually remove all those memories - memories of making something out of almost nothing.

One way that I continue to honor all Mom’s efforts is to keep the house going even though I am over 800 miles away in Chicago. Now I have tenants who do as good a job at taking care of the house as my mother did and help with improvements such as a wood stove, new gutters, patches and repairs. And I see Mom every few weeks at the nursing home when I fly in. She doesn’t ask about the house any more and probably doesn’t remember what she accomplished with that crazy house and those two boys.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Framing a Family History Interview

One of my current projects is to put together a memoir of my father-in-law Lou's service in the United States Army during the Korean Conflict. After I worked on Kenny's Choice a few weeks ago, I decided that Lou also had a story waiting to be told. Especially since none of his children really knew the details of his time in Korea.

This project is a bit more involved and here is how I've decided to approach it.

  • Written notes and narrative: I asked the subject to write down his experiences, from the time he received a draft notice in 1951 until he was discharged in early 1954.

    I received 11 handwritten pages which I then transcribed into my working document (in Word 2007). I told Lou that it didn't matter if he jumped around - very often our memories are not linear. It is guaranteed that when I write the final story, I will arrange the incidents in an order that makes the memoir very readable and enjoyable for the reader.

  • Research: Once I've received the written notes from the subject, I pick out keywords or topics such as Pusan, 366th Engineering Airborne Battalion, SCARWAF etc. and go to work. Wikipedia and Google are both great resources for this. I then create a second Word 2007 document with notes, hyperlinks and sources.

  • Clarification: After some research is performed, I will email the subject to clarify topics and incidents in the notes. Very often this will bring out new memories and lead to more research topics. In Lou's case, I was even able to find a message forum where others who served in his battalion wanted to communicate with their buddies via email. He was fascinated and delighted by this.

    The clarification process is very important. In this project, Lou stated that he was transported from Oakland, California to Yokahama, Japan on "the Anderson." Well my research had shown that the USS Anderson was decommissioned and scuttled in 1946 which didn't make sense. Further research showed that he was on the USS R.B. Anderson DD-786 Destroyer class. Wikipedia has great records on many of the United States war ships.

  • Interview questions: Next, I set off to construct meaningful questions that can be answered either in written form or recorded audio form. Other genea-bloggers know I look at family history from some odd angles and this of course can lead to challenging questions such as: Did you or your group use any racial slang to describe Koreans or other people? Were there black men in your battalion? (I had done research and knew that since WWII the Armed Forces were working on integration of blacks into the service units) What did you do for recreation? How did you feel about being drafted?

  • Interview: At first Lou balked at being interviewed since he didn't really see the value in such an endeavor. But as we began the process of piecing together his story, he came to understand that an interview framed with challenging questions can really help to flesh out the story.

    Right now, I don't have recording apparatus and I've come up with a somewhat ingenious way of doing the interview. I rely upon web conferencing software that can record audio and visual content into a .wmv file saved locally. It allows the participant to basically hold a phone conversation with you and if they want to follow along on screen they can. Later I can play back the recording to review pertinent points such as medals earned, places visited etc. This arrangement also allows me to sit at home and conduct the interview without having to travel long distances.

I'd be interested to know how other genea-bloggers handle a memoir type family history project from start to finish. Any tips? Any do's or dont's?

Photo: Ed Farren, my great-great grandmother Bridget Farren McGinnes' brother, during the Spanish American War.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories - How to Submit Posts

I've received many positive comments, especially about how much fun this whole advent calendar is going to be. And I can't emphasize this enough: FUN! That's what it is all about. So don't feel pressured to post for every day or every subject.

And I've tried to make it easier to submit posts. There are now two ways:

- email me directly at; or

- use the Blog Carnival form that I've set up here. The link will always appear in the sidebar under the Christmas Tree on the left.

The deadline for posts is 9:00 pm CST each day for the next day's posting. If you want to pre-post a few entries each week, that's great too.

I'm going to start writing mine today as I'm putting up one of my small Christmas trees!

December 1 - The Christmas Tree
Did you have a real tree or was it artificial? How big was the tree? Who decorated the tree?

December 2 - Christmas Tree Ornaments
Did your family have heirloom or cherished ornaments? Did you ever string popcorn and cranberries? Did your family make ornaments?

December 3 - Holiday Foods
Did your family have any traditional dishes for the holidays? Was there one dish that you thought was unusual?

December 4 - Christmas Cards
Did your family send them? Did your family display the ones they received? Do you still send Christmas cards?

December 5 - Outdoor Decorations
Did people in your neighborhood decorate with lights? Did some people really go “all out” when decorating?

December 6 - Santa Claus
Did you ever send a letter to Santa? Did you ever visit Santa and “make a list?” Do you still believe in Santa Claus?

December 7 - Christmas Grab Bag
Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

December 8 - Christmas Cookies
Did your family make Christmas Cookies? How did you help? Did you have a favorite cookie?

December 9 - Holiday Parties
Did your family throw a holiday party each year? Do you remember attending any holiday parties?

December 10 - Christmas Gifts
What were your favorite gifts, both to receive and to give?

December 11 - Holiday Travel
Did you travel anywhere for Christmas? How did you travel and who traveled with you? Do you remember any special trips?

December 12 - Charitable/Volunteer Work
Did your family ever volunteer with a charity such as a soup kitchen, homeless or battered women’s shelter during the holidays? Were you able to make the holidays special for someone less fortunate?

December 13 - Christmas and the Arts
Did your family attend any special events or performances during the holidays?

December 14 - Fruitcake – Friend or Foe?
Did you like fruitcake? Did your family receive fruitcakes? Have you ever re-gifted fruitcake? Have you ever devised creative uses for fruitcake?

December 15 - Christmas Grab Bag
Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

December 16 - Christmas at School
What did you do to celebrate Christmas at school? Were you ever in a Christmas Pageant?

December 17 - Christmas Church Services
Did your family attend religious services during the Christmas season? What were the customs and traditions involved?

December 18 - Christmas Stockings
Did you have one? Where did you hang it? What did you get in it?

December 19 - Christmas Shopping
How did your family handle Christmas Shopping? Did anyone finish early or did anyone start on Christmas Eve?

December 20 - Christmas and Deceased Relatives
Did your family visit the cemetery at Christmas? How did your family honor deceased family members at Christmas?

December 21 - Christmas Music
What songs did your family listen to during Christmas? Did you ever go caroling? Did you have a favorite song?

December 22 - Christmas Grab Bag
Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

December 23 - Christmas Sweetheart Memories
Do you have a special memory of a first Christmas present from a sweetheart? How did you spend your first Christmas together?

December 24 - Christmas Eve
How did you and your family spend Christmas Eve?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Giving Thanks

I may or may not post tomorrow since it is Thanksgiving and I'll be busy in the kitchen before heading up to Des Plaines, Illinois to be with family.

It might sound a bit cliche, but many of us will probably at some point during tomorrow's dinner, talk about what we are thankful for this year. I just thought I'd put mine here this year as much of it relates to my family history. For without my family, my friends and their influences I wouldn't be at this point in my life with this set of feelings, this set of perspectives, this set of wisdom.

I am thankful for all those that went before me. That they persevered and scratched out a life when they landed in America. From Jan Pootman who arrived in 1661 in Albany, New York, to Matthew McGinnes who came from Ireland and became a citizen in 1888 to my mother-in-law who arrived from Greece in the 1950s. They have taught me that nothing should be taken for granted and that the world doesn't owe you a thing. You make the world you live in.

I am thankful for the strong, independent women in my life - both the dead and the living - who decided that they weren't going to accept life at face value or the way society told them to. These women were fairly conservative, mostly poor, and didn't see themselves as suffragettes or feminists or women libbers. They just had an inate sense of what was right. And did what they had to do to give their children more than just food and shelter. They gave the gifts of opportunity, laughter, hugs, shoulders to cry on, examples of how to live, faith, wisdom and love.

I am thankful for the men in my life - despite the fact that they have often left all too soon. Grandfathers, fathers and brothers who started families but didn't stick around to see how they finished. These men have taught me how not to behave, how not to treat women and children, and how not to handle responsibility.

I am thankful that I live in a time and place where I can be who I am. And I can accept others as they are. And I can voice an opinion. And I can listen to the views of others.

I am thankful for my partner. We've endured quite a bit in eight short years - job losses, accidents, a cross-country move, harassment from a neighbor. I would follow him anywhere. He is my rock. He is my beshert. With him joys are doubled, burdens cut in half. And I am thankful for his family here in Chicago that accepts me as just one more daughter-in-law or sister-in-law. I hope to give to them as much as they've given to me this past year.

I am thankful for memories, anecdotes, and wisdom passed down through the years in my family. For "The Box" with its photos, diaries and other treasures that I sort through every week and try to catalog.

I am thankful for my new family of fellow genea-bloggers, how they inspire me, how they challenge me, how they make me think. They are more than just a group of memory gatherers: they animate facts such as birth dates and death dates; they bring to life how their ancestors lived and loved; and they often share the personal, from reflections to feelings, from past to present.

I am thankful that I am not attached to the material, to things. I intend to leave this world they way I came in - with nothing. But I intend to give back to those that have given.

Finally, I am thankful for the journey that is and has been Mom. Where we've traveled, especially in the past eight years, is not a trip you'll ever find in a guide book. Despite all that's been written about Alzheimer's Disease, especially early-onset, no guide book exists, for each journey is unique. I can never say thank you enough not just to the woman who brought me into this world but to someone from whom I learned life's lessons. Mom gave me my work ethic, my sensitivity, my love of learning. We didn't always agree but she also let me know that was okay too. She also taught me how to say, "Thank You."

Remember on Friday, November 23rd - more information about how to post for the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories! Have a great holiday, travel safe if you have to travel, and tell someone, "Thank You."

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Catskill Christmas

As if I didn't have enough to do, I'm ready to announce a new seasonal blog that I've created called A Catskill Christmas. This is a crafts concept that I've been working on since June 2007 and it is finally coming together. My genea-blogger friends like Jasia and Apple are probably wondering if I start my mornings huffing lysol under the kitchen sink. My other friends call my condo "Santa's Workshop on Acid."

What is A Catskill Christmas? The concept: a private, not-for-sale, line of Christmas decorations. I am not sure if I want to pursue this as a side enterprise or eventually make the items public and for sale. In the meantime, I am returning to an endeavor that I pursued almost 15 years ago when one year I made all my own decorations for Christmas. When I moved from California, I either sold, gave away or donated all the ornaments I had made since I knew they were too fragile to weather a cross-country move to Chicago. Since we will be putting up a 9 foot live tree this year, I knew I needed a lot of ornaments and that I better start early.

The blog: a way of documenting the creative process and reinforcing the following stylistic concepts:
  • Items are individually hand-crafted.
  • Emphasis on plant, mineral and animal based items (dried flowers, moss, twigs, gold, bronze, copper, nuts, feathers).
  • Absolutely no use of plastic.
  • No modern day or religious iconograhy (no Disney, no Nativity, etc.) but more secular icons (St. Nicholas or angels) is Permitted.
  • Emphasis on sense of smell - use of cinnamon, nutmeg, beeswax.
  • Colors used will be greens, golds, coppers, browns, oranges predominantly.
  • Avoid use of purples, yellow, bright reds.
  • Create hang tags with info on item, name of website, etc.

Please take a minute and give a look if you can. As of this weekend I've created the following ornaments and I'll be posting pictures and instructions on A Catskill Christmas from now until Christmas:

  • Cabinet Photo Ornaments
  • Cinnamon Stick Bundles
  • Copper Pine Cones
  • Fruit, Spice and Herb Swags
  • Gilded Walnut Garlands
  • Glitter Glass Pine Cones
  • Mini-Rose Bud Balls
  • Moss Balls with Cedar Roses
  • Peacock Feather Fans
  • Pheasant Feather Fans

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Race and Family History

This is what I call a "stumbled upon" topic. Last night I was wracking my brain as to what to write about today. Too early for Thanksgiving topics and I'm saving my Christmas memories for the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

We went to dinner at some friends' house here in Chicago last night, in a neighborhood I had not heard of - Budlong Woods. It is named about the Budlong high school nearby. We had a great vegetarian dinner (there were so many allergies among the attendees that I could have made a killing selling benedryl and epi pens. Perhaps killing isn't the correct word). Squash soup with ginger. Organic green salad with pears, roasted walnuts and walnut oil, Vegetarian lasagna. And a killer dessert made of a pecan shortbread crust, cream cheese filling, pumpkin pudding and whipped cream.

We had a very diverse group and the discussion got around to racial slurs and what you heard family members use as a kid. I won't go into exact details since I don't think such terms have a place these days, but we talked about what terms were used to describe certain people of certain races. And how overhearing these terms affected us.

I was impressed that several people stated that at some point their parent or parents sat down and told them, "You may have heard Uncle Dan say the word ________. This is not a nice word and here is what it means. We don't use words like that to describe ________ people. It isn't right."

Several of us grew up in families with no encounters with black people until much later in life. To this day, one person's family has never had a black person in their house. Another person didn't understand the word "colored" as a child and promptly began drawing on his skin with a crayon and told his mother he was "colored." Someone else's first encounter with a black person was at a carnival. The ticket taker handed over tickets and my friend, as a young boy, saw that the man's palms were almost white. So he theorized that the color of the skin on black people wore off over time.

The discussion also touched on diversity and how children today seem to be exposed to many more races and types of people including LGBT people. Much of it is how mass media handles race and sex nowadays.

I grew up in a family where grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins didn't have black, latino, asian or native american friends or acquaintances. The only encounters were usually in public as merchants, tradespeople or service people. I think the lack of exposure, and the way mass media worked back then allowed a greater sense of misconceptions about other races as well as racial slurs.

I'd be interested to hear from other genea-bloggers on the issue of race - how it affected your family or you growing up. Are there or were there any interracial marriages in your family tree?

Photo: Rosa Parks, Birmingham, Alabama, December 1, 1955

Friday, November 16, 2007

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories - Calling All Bloggers!

My partner in crime Jasia over at Creative Gene and I were discussing Christmas Eve traditions about a month ago, specifically Vigilia celebrated among my Polish friends here in Chicago. That discussion led to an idea: why not create an Advent calendar using different Christmas/Family History related topics for each day.

We all know that it is often much easier to write about something when you have a topic or a prompt. Below you will find the prompts for each day leading up to December 25th. Topics cover Christmas trees, holiday foods, travel, religious services and more. We want to know how your family celebrated or continues to celebrate these traditions.

There are also three days (December 7th, 15th and 22nd) designated as a Christmas Grab Bag - meaning you can post on the Christmas topic of your choice.

Posts can be submitted to me at and I will organize the links into a master post each day on this blog. In addition, there will be a neat graphical calendar along with a mechanism for punishing cheaters who try to look ahead at the posts for future dates!

One advantage of the Advent calendar is it allows you to create your posts now and save them as drafts before the busy holiday season takes place. Who wants to think about what to post in December when there are trees to decorate, cookies to bake and parties to attend?

Please contact me if you have any questions. And enjoy the holidays!


December 1 - The Christmas Tree
Did you have a real tree or was it artificial? How big was the tree? Who decorated the tree?

December 2 - Christmas Tree Ornaments
Did your family have heirloom or cherished ornaments? Did you ever string popcorn and cranberries? Did your family make ornaments?

December 3 - Holiday Foods
Did your family have any traditional dishes for the holidays? Was there one dish that you thought was unusual?

December 4 - Christmas Cards
Did your family send them? Did your family display the ones they received? Do you still send Christmas cards?

December 5 - Outdoor Decorations
Did people in your neighborhood decorate with lights? Did some people really go “all out” when decorating?

December 6 - Santa Claus
Did you ever send a letter to Santa? Did you ever visit Santa and “make a list?” Do you still believe in Santa Claus?

December 7 - Christmas Grab Bag
Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

December 8 - Christmas Cookies
Did your family make Christmas Cookies? How did you help? Did you have a favorite cookie?

December 9 - Holiday Parties
Did your family throw a holiday party each year? Do you remember attending any holiday parties?

December 10 - Christmas Gifts
What were your favorite gifts, both to receive and to give?

December 11 - Holiday Travel
Did you travel anywhere for Christmas? How did you travel and who traveled with you? Do you remember any special trips?

December 12 - Charitable/Volunteer Work
Did your family ever volunteer with a charity such as a soup kitchen, homeless or battered women’s shelter during the holidays? Were you able to make the holidays special for someone less fortunate?

December 13 - Christmas and the Arts
Did your family attend any special events or performances during the holidays?

December 14 - Fruitcake – Friend or Foe?
Did you like fruitcake? Did your family receive fruitcakes? Have you ever re-gifted fruitcake? Have you ever devised creative uses for fruitcake?

December 15 - Christmas Grab Bag
Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

December 16 - Christmas at School
What did you do to celebrate Christmas at school? Were you ever in a Christmas Pageant?

December 17 - Christmas Church Services
Did your family attend religious services during the Christmas season? What were the customs and traditions involved?

December 18 - Christmas Stockings
Did you have one? Where did you hang it? What did you get in it?

December 19 - Christmas Shopping
How did your family handle Christmas Shopping? Did anyone finish early or did anyone start on Christmas Eve?

December 20 - Christmas and Deceased Relatives
Did your family visit the cemetery at Christmas? How did your family honor deceased family members at Christmas?

December 21 - Christmas Music
What songs did your family listen to during Christmas? Did you ever go caroling? Did you have a favorite song?

December 22 - Christmas Grab Bag
Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

December 23 - Christmas Sweetheart Memories
Do you have a special memory of a first Christmas present from a sweetheart? How did you spend your first Christmas together?

December 24 - Christmas Eve
How did you and your family spend Christmas Eve?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Technology: Any "Early Adopters" In Your Family Tree?

This was written for the 36th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, a carousel edition.

Most readers know that I tend to look at my family history from some very different angles - sometimes bordering on the controversial or bizarre. One angle I've been pondering has to do with technology.

The other day I thought about my great-grandmother, Therese McGinnes Austin, and tried to count all the different technological advances that appeared during her life. It was impossible to get an accurate number. But then I refined it down to technology that directly affected her life and items that she would have been introduced to and tried to learn.

I am admittedly a technogeek - it is what I do for a living as an applications analyst for a global law firm. I've been working with computers since the first IBM PC appeared in 1981. I have been a document processor, a software trainer, a technical writer, a programmer and developer, and now a project manager. Ask me a question about Microsoft Word 2003 or 2007 and I can probably recite the menu structure without looking. Sad isn't it?

Here is a brief list that I came up with in terms of inventions and how they probably affected by great-grandmother:

  • Electricity - while it wasn't "invented" per se, Grandma would have seen an increase in the use of electric lighting, transportation, and home appliances. I know that she still had an ice box growing up - that was the means of refrigeration. And much of her lighting was still by kerosene oil lamp. In fact, the Grahamsville farm house which they bought in the late 1940s didn't have electricity until the early 1950s.
  • Telephone - early telephones were not cheap (are they really cheap now? Don't get me started). I also remember Grandma talking about the first phone at the Grahamsville house - it was an 8 party line! It was the only type of phone service available and I remember it growing up - Grandma didn't replace it until the early 1970s. She always complained about one woman who did nothing but yack on the phone all day and tied it up for the other 7 homes.

    Through the years Grandma had to learn how to use a telephone and the method of calling someone was rudimentary compared to today's multiple area codes and overlays. In small towns you picked up the phone, clicked the receiver a few times and told Cora that you wanted to speak to Mrs. Hutchinson. Later you had to remember a number like 132 or something. Then there were 4 digit numbers and 3 digit exchanges. Remember when the exchange was partially based on a location? The ones I remember most are MUrray Hill 7 (New York City) and BUtterfield 8 (from the movie).

    Most people also think of a female operator with a headset and an enormous board filled with lights and cords. Well this is one male who had that job during summers in high school and college. I worked on the last "cordboard" in all of New York State for Ma Bell. Long time ago - when the earth was still warm.
  • Plumbing - growing up Grandma did not have indoor plumbing even in New York City. And the Grahamsville house didn't have it installed until the 1950s. I remember my mother talking about the 2 seater outhouse and having to go in the middle of the night and worry about snakes.

These are just some of the basic technologies that we take for granted today. There are so many more that vastly improved daily life: penicillin and antibiotics, the automobile, television, ATMs, computers.

Looking back even at your own life and the technological changes is a great way of feeling old. I remember when there were no ATMs - you had to go to the bank which closed at 3pm - and 12pm on Wednesdays - and wait in line for a teller. I remember vinyl - not clothing - but LP and 45 records. I remember when there was no TIVO and no VCRs - you rushed home to catch a television show.

Some may argue that television hasn't really improved our lives. All I know is that the technology itself is innocent - the good or bad that comes of it is determined by how we put it to use.

Think about technology and your family tree. Are they any inventors in your family's past? Do you remember parents or grandparents hanging on to some outdated technologies - due to fear of the new or just because they thought they worked better? What changes in technology have you seen in your own life?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Child Rearing: Then and Now

This post has been burning inside my head all week and I just have to write it out. I was prompted to think back as to the different child rearing methods used over the ages, especially in my family.

What prompted me to blog on this topic was a news piece on 60 Minutes this past Sunday called The Millenials Are Coming! If you saw the segment, you know what I'm talking about. And if you are older than the Millenials (aka Generation Y), the segment and the concept probably irked you as well.

What is a Millenial? By definition, a Millenial is a child born between 1981 and 1995. This group strongly identifies with technology (they were born in the same year the IBM PC debuted and part of the post-Sony Walkman debut), knows how to use gadgets proficiently, are more interested in friends and social groups than careers (hence the growth of social networking sites such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook), and are more than likely to be raised by Helicopter Parents.

Millenials are usually raised with concepts that just seem off-kilter to me. There is no "losing" in organized sports - everyone gets a trophy or a medal just for participating. Millenials are used to being constantly "stroked" - lots of positive feedback and encouragement. Their parents raise them in a world where they are constantly protected from harm or failure to the point of not learning from their mistakes. Millenials often have a middle-class background. Their parents blossomed during the Yuppie era with important careers and more important children.

The key focus of the 60 Minutes segment was how the influx of Millenials into the workforce seems to be changing the American concept of the workplace. "Faced with new employees who want to roll into work with their iPods and flip flops around noon, but still be CEO by Friday, companies are realizing that the era of the buttoned down exec happy to have a job is as dead as the three-Martini lunch." The piece goes on to discuss how corporations and firms are bending over backwards to recruit the Millenials and adjusting how they operate: a boss is becoming more of a therapist now.

And Millenials seem to depend upon and relish the role of their parents in all of this: "And dear old mom isn’t just your landlord; she is your agent as well. 'Career services departments are complaining about the parents who are coming to update their child's resume. And in fact, you go to employers, and they're starting to express concern now with the parents who will phone HR, saying, 'But my little Susie or little Johnny didn't get the performance evaluation that I think they deserve . . ' ' "

Ok - now comes the opinion part - you were just waiting for this right? And while sometimes I may come across as having a bad case of "old f*rtitis," I think in judging this method of child rearing it is justified. Take a look:

- I was never raised with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Period. It helped that we didn't have much, but it was always made clear to me that someone just down the road had it much worse. And my family wasn't just making that up. And my friends were in the same economic group as me, and were not always allowed to "know" that. One friend looking back has said, "We were poor but we just didn't know it. My family made many sacrifices so that we had decent clothes and could participate in the same clubs and sports as the other kids."

- I was told what was expected of me and what the consequences were if I didn't meet them. They were not unreasonable: mind your manners, say please and thank you, respect older people even if you don't know them, do well in school, get a job in high school, save your own money for college if that's what you want. I knew where the bar was and where I stood in relation to that bar.

- Education was key. This was my ticket to better economic circumstances than my family. I was one of the first people in my family to go to college and graduate with a four year degree. But I had to work for it. There were no handouts in life. And I didn't need to be constantly stroked.

- I would rather have died than have my mother call up a teacher, let alone an employer, and speak on my behalf. I don't know if I would ever show my face again at those places. I had my triumphs and my failures but they were mine - all mine - as were the lessons I learned from them.

- The world didn't owe me a living. It just owed me opportunities to succeed. They just weren't always the same opportunities as others.

- I was expected to pitch in around the house as well as hold a job as a teenager. Despite this quote from the 60 Minutes piece: "Today, fewer and fewer middle class kids hold summer jobs because mowing lawns does not get you into Harvard."

- I learned that a job, and my mother, taught me a work ethic that has stayed with me through good times and bad. And I had to take some really crappy nightmare jobs in my time with pyscho bosses and co-workers. I didn't expect my boss to stop by every five minutes and ask how I was feeling or if I was ok. I knew that if I wanted a good evaluation, a good bonus - hell, even to just keep the job - I had to put in long hours and do more than just "show up."

- I appreciated the sacrifices my mother made for me. It wasn't easy raising two boys, being newly divorced, with no credit and little work experience. My mother didn't necessarily let me know all the time what she had to do. But the rest of my family did and I always have appreciated it. I never said this, as one Millenial did, on the segment: "'I remember my dad getting laid off and all these things growing up. And that's 'cause they sacrificed for the company. Well, the first knee jerk reaction from me is I sure don't want to do that. I'm going to be in it for me and I'm going to make it work . . '" You fool, they sacrificed for you.

I also think that the 60 Minutes piece was probably very cleverly edited. And it made generalizations and used stereotypes. I have very close friends that are 24 and 26 who are very driven and don't have this sense of entitlement. One just purchased her first condo, has a great executive job, and is one of the most caring people I know. The other came from the same circumstances as I did and went to college, has a great job, and doesn't expect things to be handed to him.

When I was finished watching, I thought to myself, "What crack pipe are these people smoking out of?" I'll admit that my mother nor my family were perfect. And I am happy that certain child rearing practices are long gone ("children are meant to be seen and not heard," or taking a switch or belt to a child's rear end) but I think we've gone in the totally opposite direction.

If you think this is silly, beware. If you are in your mid to late 40s like me, realize that these "kids" will be your supervisors very soon. As one expert said, "They are enormously clever and resourceful. Some of the others are absolutely incorrigible. It's their way or the highway. The rest of us are old, redundant, should be retired. How dare we come in, anyone over 30. Not only can't be trusted, can't be counted upon to be, sort of, coherent."

I also think these companies hiring consultants to assist them with dealing with Millenials and to actively court them and their behavior have "drank the purple Kool-Aid."

All I have to say is: "What crust!"

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Kenny's Choice: A Veterans Day Tribute

Kenny's Choice

As part of an on-going family history project, I’ve wanted to research the military service and sacrifices made by my ancestors and relatives for the upcoming Veteran’s Day holiday. Although my family has a long history of many veterans who served in each war and conflict since the American Revolution, unfortunately, I did not have to go very far back in my family tree. Only as far back as January 6, 2005 when a cousin, Sgt. Kenneth VonRonn, died in Baghdad, Iraq.

Kenny was one of seven soldiers maneuvering their M2A2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle just north of Baghdad when an improvised explosive device hit it. Those that did not die instantly died when the carrier tumbled into an irrigation ditch and overturned, drowning the survivors.

The thought of someone, let alone my cousin, dying so far away from their family and at the age of 20 rattled my curiosity as well as my emotions. As if I had received the news just like Kenny’s mom had, I had many questions. The answers I found were honest and painful, and would not only help me form a better family history, but would also help those who loved him.

Answering the Call

By telephone, I spoke with Kenny’s mother, Debbie VonRonn, just before Veteran’s Day in November 2007. Although more than two years had passed since Kenny’s death, and it had become easier to talk about him, you could still sense the difficulty and the sorrow in her words and responses. However, I knew that I could ask her some difficult questions – questions that she could answer now that Operation Iraqi Freedom had stretched on into its fifth year.

My comfort came from having grown up with Debbie, my first cousin, in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York. Even though I had over 40 first cousins, she and I were closest in age and location. She lived with my family for a short period in my senior year while she was working at a local supermarket. We used to laugh and joke at the same things. We spent that summer both working in thankless jobs in the Borscht Belt resort region of the Catskills – she as a deli manager and me as a telephone operator. We would swap stories of the antics, gripes and behaviors of what we called the “city people” who spent leisurely summers up from New York City. We also saw and felt the disparities in wealth during those summers. We knew where we came from and very often we were made to know what our place was.

Losing Touch, Building Lives

Debbie and I went our separate ways once I left for college. Debbie married, had four children and built a life completely dedicated to her son and daughters. I spent close to 20 years in California, which was geographically and socially light years away from my roots. Debbie’s parents, my aunt and uncle, passed on in 2000 and 2001 respectively. After my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 58, I moved closer to home so I could help manage her care and her finances.

We met up once again, after close to two decades, in July 2005 – less than six months after Kenny’s passing. At the family reunion, I could tell that Debbie’s emotions were still raw as they showed in her face and body movement. There was quite a bit of small talk among the group, venturing only into safe subjects. It was not that we all did not want to talk about Kenny. We were just more concerned about Debbie’s state of being and giving her and the girls enough time and room to talk when they wanted to talk.

“He Was a Good Kid”

Kenny was born on September 21, 1984, and was raised in Ulster and Orange counties. He was the oldest and the only male in the family after his father left the family. Kenny’s boyhood activities were typical of boys in the rural settings of the Mid-Hudson: hiking and shooting as well as model making. He was also known as a lover of practical jokes and his impish, boyish grin allowed him to get away with it most of the time.

As I spoke with Debbie she mentioned, “I have a lot of good memories of Kenny. He was a good kid. Right after I received the news of his death, I ran around my bedroom looking for something that I had received from him. I just had to hold something of his close to me. I opened up and read many of his letters. At the end of each he always wrote, ‘Love always Kenny. P.S. The Best Son in the World.’”

Kenny was also strong-willed and determined. If you were to ask me, he got that from his mother. I should know because Debbie got it from her mother. My aunt grew up, along with my mother, in a family of 12 children during and right after the Great Depression, in Jersey City, New Jersey. There were eight girls and four boys. It was a tough time and a tougher place. You had to have a strong voice just to be heard and a strong will to get what you needed as well as what you wanted.

A Decision Made

In 2003, Kenny arrived home from high school one day and told his mother, “I made an important decision today.” It was his senior year and he was now 18 years old. Kenny knew what he wanted for his future and that he had a decision to make about that future coming true. His dream was to become a registered nurse, preferably in the emergency room arena, and then eventually become a pediatrician.

As Kenny told Debbie “I enlisted in the Army today,” she experienced, in a flash second, the normal concerns that would race through a mother’s mind. Moreover, with our country at war since 2003, the concerns were much more heightened. “Would he come back alive?” “Would my boy be hurt?” “Is this what he really wants?” “Is this what I would want for him?” “Does he know what he’s getting into?”

Like most mothers, you try to support your child’s choices. What they choose may or may not match their dreams or meet their goals but the choices made become lessons, which become wisdom which is then passed down to their own children. Debbie just wanted what was best for her son. And she knew that Kenny was happy.

Limited Choices

As I knew from growing up in the same circumstances as Kenny, with few well-paying jobs and the same economic hardships, the opportunities available to fulfill your dreams were scarce. Like Kenny, I grew up in a household where Mom worked, clothed and fed her kids, and still somehow made 10 cents seem like 15. The only routes out were either a college education or enlistment in the military.

For kids like us, Kenny and I had only these two choices or the choice to get a menial, low-paying job and be, what I used to call, “stuck.” While my hometown and the surrounding towns were picturesque and brought in the tourists, the scenery hid a dearth of social problems behind its Potemkin village façade. Sullivan County more recently had a per capita income of close to $19,000 compared to the state average of $40,000 and that of Manhattan at $43,000. More children under the age of nine died in Ulster and Sullivan counties in 2005 than almost any other area in New York State. New York City’s problems often became ours due to its close proximity at 90 miles or less. For a sleepy rural area, the population had a disproportionate number of residents who abused drugs, committed welfare fraud, or were suffering from HIV.

I was able to scrape together enough college funding, loans and scholarships to attend a private university far from home. Kenny’s choice was to enlist in the military and then attend college afterwards with the help of enlistment bonuses and the GI Bill. Get in, get over there, then get out. In an interview after Kenny’s death, his best friend Dan Boen said that Kenny “. . . wanted to finish school, settle down and have a normal life that didn't involve war.”

Let Me Call You Sweetheart

Love and companionship were also part of the big plan which included:
1) graduating from Pine Bush High School in June 2003; 2) going to basic training and army medic training that Fall; 3) marrying his high-school sweetheart; 4) shipping off to wherever the Army told him to serve;
5) and then coming back home and building a life just like Mom did, hopefully with lots of kids.

Kenny VonRonn and Kira Conklin knew each other since they began attending the same school back in 6th grade. Debbie said it seemed as if they were always together. During a break in training, he came home for the Christmas holidays and they got married on December 23, 2003. However, all too soon he would be off again for more medical training at various places including Oklahoma, Texas and California.

Duty Bound

Once basic and combat medic training were completed, Kenny was assigned to the United States Army National Guard, 42nd Infantry Division, 69th Regiment, 1st Battalion, based in New York City.

Better known as the Fighting 69th with its armory at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street, the 69th Regiment dates back to 1851. Formed by Irish immigrants as the 69th New York Militia, this combat unit has fought in many wars including the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and both World Wars.

Kenny and his unit deployed to Iraq in October 2004 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and were stationed just outside Baghdad. He was part of a platoon of soldiers and support personnel known as Task Force Bengal. The unit comprised the 69th Regiment as well as a group from the Louisiana National Guard, the 256th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, and was responsible for equipping, training and assisting the 40th Iraqi National Guard.

One Last Kiss, One Last Hug

On November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, the ringer on Debbie’s cell phone went off while she was scrambling to gather items for the next day’s feast. It would be another holiday without her son. Soon a lucky choice made by another would bring Kenny home one last time.

Kenny talked to everyone on that call and wished his family a happy Thanksgiving. Then as his mom got back on the phone, he told her that he had some news and that she had to keep it a secret. “No emotions please. Don’t give it away,” he said. He was coming home for two weeks and would see them all that Saturday. He had won a chance for a short leave in a drawing when his name was pulled from a hat that day. He said there was no time to give details. The transport was literally waiting for him and if he missed it, his chance would be gone.

Of course, his last visit was too short and over before you knew it.

Christmas Day came and went without a call from him, but the family was not necessarily alarmed. They rationalized that Kenny could have been on maneuvers or that the circuits were just overloaded from all the troops reaching out to their own families. When the phone rang the next day and it was him, relief was able to sweep away those thoughts Debbie had. Thoughts you fight with every day as a mother or a father or a sibling of someone serving in a war. While your loved one fights, you fight too. Even though your fights are ones of thoughts and emotions, sometimes you too are wounded. And you almost always have scars.

The last time that his family heard from Kenny was on New Year’s Eve, 2004. He called home to wish everyone a happy New Year but was only able to speak to his grandmother, Maria VonRonn, his aunt and two sisters. Debbie had gone out to drive one of the girls to work that evening.

In speaking with Debbie, I could tell that she regretted not being able to take that call. When we look back, sometimes we only see the things that could have been or that should have been. In that search, we often forget the many times that moments of love actually did take place. As his mother said to Kenny on many phone calls while he served in Iraq, “Be safe. Watch your back. Keep your head down. And I love you.”

Receiving the News

When I asked how she first found out that her son had died, Debbie said that a little after midnight on Friday, January 6, 2005, she was awakened by a phone call from her daughter-in-law Kira. She said, “The Army’s just been here.” Still not awake, Debbie tried to understand the meaning of Kira’s words. She thought to herself, “Kenny was just injured. He’s had close calls before.” In fact, shrapnel had hit Kenny in late 2004 but an “action figure” in the pocket of his flak jacket had taken the brunt of the injury. “Batman took it for me,” he said.

This time Debbie could tell that something was different in Kira’s voice.

“Don’t tell me. Just don’t tell me. Is he dead?”

Kira said, “Yes.”

All Debbie could do was let out a scream as the truth sunk in. Her daughters Samantha, Courtney and Gina were still awake, watching television in the living room, and they rushed in to see what was going on. The girls were counting on the following day being a “snow day” and having schools closed due to a heavy snowstorm on Thursday. There would be no school on Friday for far different reasons.

“Could it be a mistake?” Debbie thought. She wasn’t the only one with that same thought, that same hope.

Saying Goodbye

While the days following the news were all “a blur,” as she put it, Debbie can now look back and remember how her family, her friends, her employer and her community selflessly reached out to help. One of the first phone calls she made in those early morning hours was to her employer. Debbie said that within 10 minutes both her bosses were at her home to comfort her and to see how they could assist. Debbie had asked them to go with her to see the flag-draped coffin at the funeral home. She knew she might need support in case the sight was too overwhelming for her. Kenny had not come home as his mother, or anyone, had expected. A steady stream of family followed over the course of the next few days until Kenny’s body arrived on Wednesday, January 12.

Kenny was the sixth member of the Armed Forces from the mid-Hudson region to be lost in Iraq. At the funeral, you would have thought it was meant for the first casualty. For most everyone, any casualty, in any war or conflict, is one too many.

Debbie told me that at one point, while she was riding from the service in Pine Bush, she looked back and realized that she and her son were leading a 2.5-mile motorcade. As it slowly and deliberately snaked up Route 17, the procession included the New York State Police, Ulster County Sheriff, Orange County Sheriff and Sullivan County Sheriff members. She said that the troopers even closed off exits so that oncoming traffic would not interrupt the procession. A driver would have to be blind, visually and emotionally, not to realize what was going on.

The burial, with full military honors, took place at the Sullivan County Veterans Cemetery in Liberty. I asked her why the burial was there and not in Arlington Cemetery. Debbie said that while they could have had Kenny buried at Arlington, Kira and everyone else agreed that they wanted to have him closer to home.

The Remembering

As we come up on Veteran’s Day, I asked Debbie how she and the girls work to remember Kenny. I used the word “work” because sometimes it is just that. There are visits to the grave, gifts of flowers, and thinking of him on his birthday and other holidays.

Over time, the remembering is easier and there are more details about the little things. Looking back, Debbie said that at about 11:00 pm on January 5th, barely an hour before she first received the news, a story appeared on the local news about a roadside bomb killing seven soldiers in Awad al-Hussein, north of Baghdad earlier that day. She had the sinking feeling as she did whenever she heard similar news in the past. The battle of the thoughts began again. This time the thoughts would win.

Debbie knows that over time, while she may not forget what her son achieved, others might. So she and others like her, Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Siblings, the American Legion, the VFW, make sure there are events, dedications and remembrances. Like the one on October 27, 2007 at the Sullivan County Veterans Cemetery when a tank that had been part of his National Guard unit was dedicated in his honor. Over 100 family and friends as well as strangers came to see the tank that now watches over his grave and those of other veterans. It has been nicknamed VonRonn’s Express.

Was The Choice Worth It?

Some of the more difficult questions that I felt I had to ask were “How do you feel when you see people in this country speak out against our operations in Iraq? Do you think that a person can speak out against the war but still be patriotic? Do you think that someone can actively oppose the war but still be supportive of our men and women over there? How would you feel if one of your daughters now said they wanted to make the same choice as Kenny?”

Debbie told me: “I’m not political by any means and I don’t blame the Army at all. The way I look at it is that my son chose to do something and he believed in what he was doing. I believed in my son. People need to realize that Kenny made a choice.”

She added that with the protracted engagement and the mounting casualties, as well as the lack of evidence as to weapons of mass destruction, now she just wants everyone to come home. “Coming home now doesn’t mean failure; it’s just time to come home.”

My cousin Kenny made a choice back in 2003 so that I, and many others, could still make choices even after he was gone. Freedom to choose the church, synagogue or mosque I want to attend – or not attend. Freedom to choose who I want to vote for – or to not vote at all. Freedom to make my own plans, reach my own goals, see my own dreams come true.

Luckily, we can choose to voice our opinions about a variety of issues and can choose to support the war or not support the war. Support does not make you a rabid jingoistic hawk. Opposition does not make you a bleeding-heart unpatriotic dove. Kenny had a choice and thankfully, we all do.

Kenny’s choice may not have been the same as my choice or your choice. It was his choice. Remember to thank a veteran today for their service and their choice.

Copyright November 7, 2007 by Thomas MacEntee

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Election Day

In several states and major cities, today is Election Day. Back home in the Catskills where I grew up, there are several local races for supervisor, judge etc. This got me to thinking about two things a) how my family and ancestors viewed voting and b) whether any of my ancestors ever ran for an elective office.


Starting at an early age, I was reminded that the ability to cast a vote in this country was not only a right but a responsibility. My great-grandmother, Therese McGinnes Austin, was not only very vocal about her political beliefs (which were decidedly right of mine - she despised FDR and was a big Goldwater fan in the 1960s) but about the responsibility of voting. I also learned this from my mother, Jacqueline Austin MacEntee, in not only what she said, but by what she did. I would go with her to vote as a child, even if the election was just for the school board and budget in March.

I am proud to say that I've never missed an election, no matter how small or how trivial I thought the issues were, since I was able to vote in 1981. I was not old enough to vote in the 1980 Presidential election but I did see the first Presidential debate of 1980 in Baltimore between Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and John Anderson (remember him?). I was going to college in Washington, DC at the time and I managed to get tickets through a political club at school.

Voting in California was so much easier and I really miss it: more than 50% of voters use absentee ballots. Absentee voting is not restricted to those who can prove that they will be away on business, out of the country etc. In California you can file for permanent absentee status. Basically you are voting by mail. In addition, California pioneered early voting where you could go down to your city hall and vote in person up to 2 weeks ahead of time - even on a Saturday or Sunday! I just don't know if there would be enough safeguards for this to work in a city like Chicago where the saying is "Vote early and vote often."

I was so committed to voting last November that I managed to vote during the day while I was moving to my new home here in Chicago. I just think more people would vote if voting were easier and if the candidates stuck to the issues that matter to and interest voters. No half-truths or double-answers. No issues driven by donors with the most money. Allow voting by mail, by phone or by internet. And make Election Day on Sundays the way it is in most European countries.

Elected Officials

I haven't had any ancestors run for or get elected to what I would call "major offices" such as governor, House of Representatives, Senate, or President. Many of my ancestors and even current relatives have run for offices such as school board, assessor, tax collector etc.

John Doig Dence from Lowville, New York was my 1st cousin 4 times removed and lived from 1873 to 1956. Here are details of his various elected offices from History of the North Country, Henry F. Landon, 1932, p. 1557-1558:

"President of Dence Lumber Corporation (1932). Educated at Lowville Academy, graduated from Ives Seminary (Antwerp) 1891. Taught school for short time, then became clerk at V. L. Waters dry goods store from 1892-1896. Then became associated with Leroy Crawford of Chases Lake and engaged in general mercantile and lumber business for 15 years. Formed partnership with Royal J. Fenton in 1907. Dence became president of Lumber Co. in 1909. Until 1929 Dence also involved in feed and milling business in Lowville, being vice president and director of C. W. Nole, Inc.

In 1907 and 1909 elected member of Lewis County Board of Supervisors as representative of town of Watson. During 1912-1914 he served as trustee of village of Lowville, 1914 elected as water commissioner of Lowville. Also sealer of weights and measures in Lewis County. He was delegate to National Republican Convention at Cleveland OH in 1924 at nomination of Calvin Coolidge.

He was affiliated with Lowville Lodge, F and AM no. 134; Lowville chapter R. A. M. no. 223; Watertown Commandery K. T.; and Media Temple, Watertown. Also member of Lowville Club where he was past president, and during 1930 was president of the Kiwanis club. In 1922 he was president of the Chamber of Commerce. He is a member of United Methodist Episcopal Church.

Until 1926 he was recognized as one of the leading land owners of the North Country. In that year he disposed of most of his holdings to H. D. Cornwall of Beaver Falls."

Peter Peterse Gansevoort from Albany, New York was my 3rd cousin 7 times removed and lived from 1788 to 1876. Here are details of his various elected offices from Hudson-Mohawk Genealogical and Family Memoirs, edited by Cuyler Reynolds (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1911), Vol. I, pp. 65-72:

"Judge Peter Gansevoort, son of General Peter and Catherine (Van Schaick) Gansevoort, was born in Albany, December 22, 1788, and died at his home in that city, January 4, 1876. His higher literary education was acquired at the College of New Jersey, Princeton, where he graduated, and afterward he attended the celebrated Litchfield Law School; still later read law in the office of Harmanus Bleecker, and was admitted to the bar about 1811. His practice for many years was very considerable, and he ranked among the prominent members of the profession. For some time he acted as private secretary to Governor DeWitt Clinton, and then on his military staff as judge advocate general from 1819 to 1821. In 1830-31 he was a member of the assembly, and then a senator for four years, 1833 to 1836 inclusive. In all matters of public interest he took an active part, and was thoroughly attached to all that concerned his native city. He was a trustee of the Albany Academy for fifty years, and for twenty years was chairman of the board. In 1840 he was one of a committee, with Stephen Van Rensselaer, John A. Dix and others, to organize the Albany Cemetery Association, and to select grounds for the cemetery. He was a trustee of the cemetery until his death, and took a warm interest in arranging and beautifying the grounds. For many years he was a director of the New York State Bank, and occupied other positions of trust. Although his military service was short, he took a warm interest throughout life in military matters.

Among the public positions held by General Gansevoort was that of first judge of the county court of Albany county from 1843 to 1847, the duties of which office he discharged with great fidelity and to the entire satisfaction of the legal profession and the public. He carried marked traits of his ancestry with him through life, and was a most thorough representative of the Dutch element of his native city. He was the very embodiment of high-souled honor and integrity, pure in private life, and devotedly attached to his country and its institutions. On more than one occasion he visited the countries of the Old World in search of health and instruction, but always returned home with his love for his own government strengthened by comparison with those abroad. He was a man of courtly manners and commanding presence, and in society was very genial and engaging. His kind heart and generous impulses made him a favorite with all classes of men, and he lived without enemies, and no one is left of all who knew him who does not mourn his death and honor his memory."

Photo: Left to right back: Bridget Farren McGinnes, Loretta McGinnes Murtha, Alice McGinnes Mehl. Seated: Evelyn Mehl. About 1923.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Johannes Pootman 1645-1690

Since today is the anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange assumed the British throne, I thought I might highlight one of my early Dutch ancestors.

Johannes Pootman (also spelled Putman) was my 9th great-grandfather and according to family history arrived in the New World in 1661. Once in Albany, New York, Johannes (better known as Jan) was apprenticed to Phillip Hendrickse Brouwer for a period of three years. After moving with the Brower family to Schenectady, New York, Jan became a free man in 1664 when Brouwer died.

For the next 25 years, Jan built up a small fortune as a farmer and land owner. In the mid 1670's he married Cornelia Bradt, the daughter of Arent Andres Bradt, the Vice Governor of Renselaerwyck as Schenectady was called at that time. Over the course of 14 years they had six children: Arent Janse, Marietje, Victor Janse, David Cornelius, Cornelius Janse and Catalyntje.

In the early morning hours of February 2, 1690, a large group of Native Americans (mostly members of the Sault and Algonquin tribes) led by the French, descended upon an unprotected Schenectady. During the course of what is now known as the Schenectady Massacre, 60 people were killed including 38 men, 10 women and 12 children. Jan Pootman and Cornelia Bradt Pootman were among the dead, Cornelia having been scalped. Over 27 people were taken as prisoners and brought to Canada.

Fortunately, the children of Jan and Cornelia all survived the massacre on that fateful night. Not much is known as to who raised them but they each went on to have extensive families in the Albany and Schenectady area.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Kitchens - Focus of Food, Conversation, and Family Life

Lately I've been thinking about all the kitchens that I remember from my past and from stories that my mother or great-grandmother would tell me. This morning I posted an article entitled My Kitchens over on my cooking and recipe blog And I Helped! There are some great photos of the kitchen I grew up in and my current kitchen here in Chicago.

I remember my great grandmother's kitchen in the old farmhouse in Grahamsville, New York. The stove was from the 1950s and electric as was the refrigerator. The cabinets were very simple pine with a light stain and heavy shellac. The floor was linoleum. It was plain, it was simple and functional. And Grandma was able to churn out large meals when all 12 grandchildren visited.

What I don't remember, because I was too young, was the kitchen when my great-grandparents first bought the house in the mid-1940s. From what I have gathered, there was a wood stove for cooking, an icebox which would hold a block of ice to keep items cold, and a water pump since there was no plumbing. I could not imagine cooking like this for very long, especially if, like Grandma, I had a relatively modern kitchen back in my apartment in New York City. But once electricity arrived on Low Road, the kitchen was refinished with what were then all modern appliances and plumbing.

I also remember stories of the kitchen garden and how each summer a myriad of vegetables and fruits were canned and put up for the winter. With 12 grandchildren spending the summer there, I guess you could go broke feeding them all if you didn't have a garden! Grandma would can all types of beans (green, yellow, and wax), carrots, tomatoes - almost anything she could grow and that could withstand the canning process. If you've ever canned vegetables you know what a hardship it is to work with all those pots of boiling water to sterilize jars and lids and to seal the assembled jars and their contents. And this was in the middle of hot, humid summers with no air conditioning.

I wonder if anyone cans anymore? I've done some research and there are plenty of websites offering the Mason jars, lids, the huge pots for boiling, and ideas for how and what to can. Maybe because we live in a time when we can get fresh vegetables even out of season, that is why no one cans anymore.

To be honest, I rarely buy fresh fruits and vegetables out of season. Tomatoes and basil are late summer. Strawberries and asparagus are late spring. Apples and squashes are fall. Seasons were made for a purpose - to show us the cycles in our lives and our surroundings. When I am eating fresh vegetables in season, I can cherish what I've missed all winter or all summer. A fried green tomato in January just doesn't do it for me - it doesn't make me teary eyed or transport me back to a certain memory the same way making it in July does.

But homemade canned fruits and vegetables were different. These were gifts, works of art, crafted by thrifty, sensible women in my family like my great-grandmother. Jars of memories, containers of love.

Photo: my kitchen in Andersonville, Chicago, IL in 2006

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A History of Food: The 1990s

I spent the entire decade of the 1990s living in San Francisco where I had landed as a 23 year old in 1986. I was also in a relationship of almost 9 years with Whatshhisname that ended in 1999. It is what I would call a "starter marriage."

For the most part I lived out near Ocean Beach and the Cliff House in the far Western part of the city. It was quiet, very foggy and cold in the summer, and in a way an entirely different city from the rest of San Francisco. Some friends considered it so far West that I told them to just set their watch back a half hour when they arrived.

San Francisco was and still is considered one of the "foodie" capitals of the world. From Jeremiah Towers' Stars, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, Mark Minna's Aqua to Bradley Ogden's One Market there were many new and innovative restaurants. Visiting these places also helped shape my culinary tastes. It gave me the courage to experiment with new techniques and new ingredients.

And I can't forget the various farmers' markets - I usually frequented the rudimentary one down by the Ferry Building held where the old Embarcadero Freeway was before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It has now been transformed into a large market inside the Ferry Building itself.

The best market was in Marin County, on the grounds of the Marin Civic Center built by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was one of Wright's last commissions and is a stunning piece of architecture.
Whatshisname and I would drive over early on a Sunday morning and walk through this market which took up at least 2 acres of space. There were items that now in 2007 we take for granted but were new and interesting in the mid-1990s: organic produce, pomegranate juice, fresh dates (still on the branch), brussel sprouts on the stalk, etc. There was the man who roasted all types of chili peppers in a large metal masket over a gas flame. The lettuce lady - she had a large kiddie pool filled with unusual types of greens - all organic. You would take a plastic bag, put it around your hand, and grab what you wanted and place it in another bag. And samples and samples of stuff from every vendor. The strawberries from Watsonville, the peaches and nectarines from the San Fernando Valley - all fresh and inviting.

I also went on a trip to Spain in May, 1997 with Whatshisname and his parents. This was an unbelievable time for me and an exposure to authentic Spanish cooking. We visited Barcelona, Zaragosa, Valencia and Madrid. I remember the farmer's markets at all these place. And the ham. If you've been to Spain you know what I mean - there is even a place call the Museum of Ham! Jamon Serrano is a dried, cured ham much like prosciutto but a very different flavor. We had paella and horchata in Valencia. Horchata is a summer drink made from the tiger nut and water - when pureed it turns into a milky soothing drink, much like soy or almond milk. We also had blood sausage and lentils in a small town called Guadalajara - a stew with these sausages made from pig's blood, lentis, onions, tomatoes. Outstanding.

I was very close to Whatshisname's parents who had immigrated from Nicaragua during the civil war of the 1980s. That relationship coupled with my location in a city with a large Hispanic population helped form many of my views towards food.

I cooked lots of arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), paella, empanadas de yucca (savory appetizers made using flour from the yucca root), tostones (plaintain chips), frijoles negros enteros (whole black beans) and used ingredients like crema del vaso (Mexican sour cream), carnitas (fried and roast pork) and queso fresco (a fresh white cheese).

I remember early Sunday mornings at La Palma over near 24th and Alabama. It was a Mexican deli basically where I could buy all these ingredients. The best item: tortillas handmade by the abuelitas (grannies) in the back of the store. They all sat around large griddles heated by a wood or gas fire - these were huge at about 2 to 3 feet across. The women would pick up a handful of tortilla dough made with masa harina (corn meal), quickly and expertly form it into a flat round circle (no tortilla presses here) and throw it on the griddle. Then, with an expert eye and a sense developed from 50 plus years of cooking, they would know exactly when to flip the tortilla.

People would wait in line to buy these tortillas by the dozen. There were bags of premade tortillas - that had been made by these women the day before or earlier in the day but the die-hard afficionados knew that the only good tortilla was one that came right off that grill immediately. I would buy 3 dozen at a time - we used them like bread in my house back then.

And the best part: going out to your car, opening the package and seeing the steam come out, rolling up a tortilla and dipping it in the cream del vaso - all done on the hood of your car. I've seen grown men cry while doing this. All because certain foods, especially the foods of your past, the foods of your people, can transport you back to your roots.

Photo: me in May 1997 at an horchateria in Valencia, Spain.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A History of Food: The Present Time

Since it is November and Thanksgiving is approaching, I thought I'd write about food, my history and my family’s history surrounding food: what we ate, how we ate, etc. I figured I’d work backwards from the present time to about 1920 when my great-grandmother was cooking for her family or perhaps even back to my great-great grandmothers. (I should finish up by November 11 which is Veteran’s Day when I’ll be featuring an article about my first cousin once-removed, Sgt. Kenneth Von Ronn who was killed in Iraq in 2005 at the age of 20.)

I am a self-admittedly good cook and my family and friends would probably say so as well. If it weren’t for my flat feet, I would have pursued a career in the hotel or food service industry since I have a passion for cooking. I cook dinner, usually from scratch roughly 5 to 6 times a week. While working full-time from home does help, it is a matter of necessity: the only thing my partner can make for dinner is reservations, but he is very good at it.

As I reach my mid-40s I am constantly aware of what I should and shouldn’t be eating. For me, it is either Cheerios or oatmeal each morning with low fat milk. Lunch is a sandwich of lean turkey breast with the occasional slice of low fat Swiss cheese snuck in. Lots of water, some diet soda, a glass of wine before dinner each night. Oh yeah, and lots of coffee. I drink a large 20 ounces mug in the morning and the rest of the pot, another 20 ounces is turned into a large ice coffee at 3:00 pm each day. And I like my coffee the way I like my men . . . [insert typical response here]. I usually say either “. . . weak and bitter” or “. . . ground up and in the freezer.” Hah!

You can also probably tell that I’m on a diet – no sugar in 8 weeks now, low fat, low fun.

Dinner is the big meal and I start cooking at around 5:30 – 6:00 pm and we eat at 6:30 pm. We always eat at the dining room table in the dining room. I was never raised eating in front of the television or in the kitchen or other rooms of the house.

When I say the “present time” in terms of food, I speak of 2000 up to today. I met my partner in 2000 and was able to entice him with my culinary skills. These are some of the basic dishes I make on a rotating basis each week (many of these recipes can be found or will be posted in the future on my cooking blog entitled And I Helped!):

Garlic Soup: in the fall and winter this is a weekly dish and can be made in 30 minutes or less. But you have to like garlic – I mean really like garlic. It is so easy – chop garlic, sauté in good olive oil, add a little paprika, saffron, chopped tomatoes, a large can of chicken broth, bring to a boil and stir in some beaten eggs and viola! Serve in a bowl with a good crusty piece of bread – maybe wine and cheese on the side. Amazing stuff especially when you are suffering a cold.

Bolognese Sauce: a 3 hour plus pasta sauce with ground beef and ground pork. The rule is: no green stuff – no basil, no parsley, no oregano. The people of Bologna don’t use it in their sauce. Usually I’ll throw in a few grilled chicken breasts or Italian sausage or even some braciole (thin pieces of flank steak rolled up with spices and Romano cheese in the middle). This is a weekend only dish, great for casual dinner parties and it freezes very well.

Chicken Stew: I’ve found an easy way to make this and my own homemade chicken stock. I buy the rotisserie chickens at Costco (or other supermarket here in Chicago like Jewel or Dominick’s) instead of raw fryers. With the fryers, you have lots of chicken fat and you have to skim the broth. We have a sandwich with some of the meat, them I break up the entire chicken, get all the stuff out on the bottom of the container, add water and boil for about an hour. For chicken stew, I add fresh or frozen vegetables, some rosemary and roasted garlic paste (see below), a can of low fat evaporated milk (it won’t curdle) and viola! Great with home-made biscuits. Oh how I miss biscuits!

Turkey Burgers: another low fat dish and made with the other man in my house – George Foreman! I love the George Foreman grill – I practically have worn it out in the past five years. I buy the ground turkey at Costco, add Italian breadcrumbs, an egg, chopped onion, salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and a tablespoon of olive oil. Grill 9 minutes and viola! Or is it voila?

Chicken Salad: not the wet, full of mayonnaise type but a big green salad with romaine lettuce or organic greens, tomatoes, Maytag blue cheese, grilled chicken breast and Brianna’s Real French Vinaigrette dressing. This dressing is the most amazing and made with canola oil and all natural ingredients. We devour this salad especially on summer nights.

Roast Vegetables: I make this more during the fall and winter – a big roasting pan filled with butternut squash, peppers, onions, whole mushrooms, garlic cloves, fennel bulbs (yes!) and potatoes. Add some olive oil and rosemary, roast for 45 minutes and viola! Goes great with roast beef.

Roasted Garlic Paste: when I buy the large container of peeled garlic at Costco, about 2 lbs worth, I know I could never finish it without having it spoil (unles there are vampires in the neighborhood that week). So I came up with the idea of roasting most of it in an aluminum foil packet with olive oil, salt and pepper for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees. When cool I place it in the food processor and puree it. Then place about 2 tablespoons on small squares of plastic wrap, twist into a ball and then in the freezer. It keeps for months and gets dropped into soups and stews.

For special occasions – well that will have to be another post soon. Let’s just say it includes Boneless Leg of Lamb on the Grill, Roast Crab Legs with Five Pepper Sauce, Paella, Basque Salad, Bread Pudding, Tiramisu, Figs with Prosciutto and Goat Cheese and Gingerbread Cookies!

Photo: My dining room here at home in Chicago, Illinois.