Posts Tagged ‘family’

According to the website Today in History, on this date in 1683, the very first German immigrants to what would be the United States arrived in Philadelphia. I don’t have any way to verify that this is true right now, nor confirm the assertion that it was 13 families and they were specifically invited by William Penn, but it gives me an opening to talk about a part of me that is important.

You see, I am the product of those families – I don’t know if I am a literal descendant of anyone who stepped off of the boat on that precise day to blink in the bright sunlight at life in a strange land, but at some point some of my ancestors in Germany made that same choice. They left behind a land they knew for the possibilities that lay across the sea in a place known as Penn’s Woods, or Pennsylvania, and established new communities. Some estimates say that half the residents of Pennsylvania were of German origin or ancestry at the time of the American Revolution, and as of the last census, it was still the mostly commonly noted ethnic origin in the commonwealth.

My paternal grandmother’s family proudly declared their Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, although I can’t say we knew much about it other than the food. No one that I’m aware of speaks the dialect, other than a few phrases that made their way into our consciousness, and even though I don’t know how to convey it here, what I’m reading about how the accent sounds is how my grandmother and her generation spoke. It’s less distinct other than some words and phrases that my parents and I use. I remember very clearly my grandmother saying she would “red up the room” rather than clean it, and I think one of my great aunts informed us at least once that she was going to “outen the lights.” While I’ve been researching this, Mike has informed me that he’s pretty sure “slippy” is not a word in the dictionary that can be used interchangeably with slippery, but in this case I can chalk it up to dialect.

In checking lists of supposedly Pennsylvania Dutch foods, I find there was even more than I was aware of. We sipped not just root beer, but birch beer, while we enjoyed chicken pot pie, chicken corn soup (I have not had a bowl of this since my grandmother died and would love so much to taste it again), pork and sauerkraut, potato cakes, and Lebanon bologna (at least I can get that at the grocery story here). They may not have been my taste, but my grandmother served scrapple, pickled beet eggs with their distinctive purple tint, German potato salad, and apple butter at her table. And for dessert – so many high-fat and often deep-fried options – funnel cakes, fasnachts, apple fritters, shoofly pie, or whoopie pies. No, fastnachts are not just doughnuts.

I just passed a lovely hour writing this blog post, confirming things from my childhood are in many cases part of a wider Pennsylvania Dutch culture and not ONLY my family’s eccentricities.  I have these things in common with a community – 19th century tombstones near my childhood home carry German surnames and are sometimes inscribed in German rather than English.

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When I visited my family at the holidays, I paid a visit to two cemeteries as well. First I visited my grandparents’ grave marker. Driving up from there to my mother’s house, I realized that we were going to be earlier than they were expecting us. We were passing nearby a cemetery that I know my grandparents’ friend Pauline was buried in.

I have to admit that we were not necessarily kind in our thoughts towards Pauline during her life. I realize now that I am older that my grandmother complained about her the way she criticized the annoying habits of her relatives and oldest friends, with a lot of affection buried underneath. Pauline and my grandmother were friends for a lifetime. My grandfather and her husband Henry were the youngest members of the hunting camp where we took vacations at least once a year. What I remember about Pauline from being a small child was her very loud voice – I can still hear it now if I close my eyes.

Pauline died in 2003. My grandmother told me that Pauline had asked for everything associated with her funeral to be pink, and so she was buried in a pink dress in a pink-lined coffin covered in pink flowers under a pink stone. I didn’t know Pauline loved pink – I can’t particularly remember her wearing it. But that detail of the pink stone was what made me think I could locate it. Pink granite is a more common stone choice, but it’s still not so ubiquitous that looking for a pink stone with her last name would be impossible. I drove up and down the rows of St. John’s Cemetery at Peace Church while Mike looked for the surname Miller on a pink stone.


I’m not posting the whole stone here right now because it also contains the names of her husband and son, who are at the time of this writing still alive and doing well. Despite having photographed the whole thing, I somehow don’t want to post that photo as if they already rest in the cemetery.


I didn’t have anything to leave, but I was glad that someone had been by to visit and leave flowers. I righted one of the pots that had been knocked over, said a few words to Pauline, and we headed for Christmas dinner. I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I am glad I did.

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One of the most common relationship descriptors in a cemetery that you will find is “mother.” Seeing these tombstones makes me remember how lucky I am to still have my mother.

Me and Mom

My mother and I have always been close. When I was very young, I stayed with my grandmother while Mom worked, but Mom made the decision to stay home once my brother was born. I had a stay-at-home Mom until I was a freshman in high school, when she went back to work as a secretary at one of the middle schools. So my childhood is filled with memories of playing with Mom.

Me and Mom

My mother taught me my love of baking, letting me mix the Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie batter. She read to me, not realizing that she was teaching me to read – she finally realized one night that I was not reciting the Nancy Drew mystery from memory, but was in fact reading along with her. She told me when I was singing sharp or flat, much to my annoyance at the time – even though I know she was right.

On cold winter days, she would call us in from the cold to hot cocoa fresh off the stove. She sat through countless school concerts and plays. Once I went to college, we talked every week, and we began to save certain activities like decorating the Christmas tree or going to certain stores for when I was home to do them with her. She hates a photo I have of her from my college graduation because her make-up is smudged and her eyes are red, but I like it because I know she was crying because she was proud of me.

Mom and me

We talked more often when I was in graduate school and living alone than we do now. We both have full time jobs and active social lives and husbands, and she is a grandmother, but there are still times when I have to call her because she is the only one who will understand what I need to talk about.

Today is my mother’s birthday. I am so very grateful for the many years we have spent together and for the times yet to come. I hope that it will be a very long time before I have to try to sum up in a few words for posterity what my mother meant to me and how much I loved her.

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I will never lie to you an say that I didn’t wish for more time, but that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for what I received.

Pap feeding me while Mimi looks on

My father’s parents lived only thirty minutes’ drive from our house when I was a child. We called them Mimi and Pap because that’s what I named them, and I was the oldest grandchild. I don’t remember it, but for the first year of my life when my mother was still working, my grandmother watched me. Her factory had closed during Mom’s pregnancy, and Mimi didn’t go back to work so that she could be with me. I have vague memories of helping my grandfather lace his boots for work, but he was also retired by the time I was five years old.

It’s hard to summarize over twenty-five years of love.  Pap taught me to color and read to me.  Mimi drove me to nursery school and took me to lunch afterward.  They went to my school plays and concerts.  They burst with pride when I graduated from high school and college with honors.

Mimi, me and Pap

They were always there. Weekends, holidays, and for me summer and winter breaks in college. My grandmother and I talked on the phone every week that I wasn’t there. Pap passed away first, in January of 2006. Mimi was really lonely in those last months, her first time living alone in her entire life. She died just two weeks before Thanksgiving from surgical complications.

Pap's and Mimi's grave

They taught me the meaning of words like family and love and Thanksgiving.

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For the next few days, I’ve been working on some posts about things I am thankful for, in honor of Thanksgiving. I want to preface these by saying that I framed the posts considering what walking through cemeteries make me grateful to have or experience.

And to kick things off, today I am especially thankful for non-profit cemetery foundations. Composed of dedicated, motivated volunteers, these organizations maintain and restore cemeteries because they value them and care about what happens to them. There are of course multiple cemetery foundations in the Cleveland area, but the one that I have had the most reason to appreciate is the East Cleveland Cemetery Township Foundation.

East Cleveland Township Cemetery

As I’ve written about previously, my great great uncle Ralph rests in East Cleveland Township Cemetery, struck down at age 27 by tuberculosis. Now Uncle Ralph may not have a stone (my research hasn’t been able to determine if he ever did), but thanks to the efforts of this foundation, his final resting place does have a nice new sign, a restored office, and a park outside that makes it more visible. The cemetery is also now maintained (raked in the fall, mowed in the summer). The foundation volunteers have removed dead and diseased trees, righted fallen monuments, and made cemetery records accessible online. In short, they have brought this cemetery back to life.


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A balding white middle-aged man wearing glasses sits on a chair, bottlefeeding an infant

Pap feeding me

One of my earliest memories of you is sitting on the toe of your boot, “helping” you lace them up to go work on the railroad. I learned to color sitting on your lap, and later I learned to read in the same place.  So did my brothers.

A blond white boy and an older, balding man are reading a children's book on a porch

Andy and Pap reading

You had three spaces after you retired: the chair by the big picture window where you took your coffee and taught me to read, the recliner in the living room where you watched old movies, and the couch where you napped. We got you a new recliner when I was about five, and I kept the secret because I so desperately wanted to surprise you, even though it was hard not to tell you everything.

In the foreground in gold-colored recliner is an older white man with glasses, in the background is a brown-haired white woman and a blond-haired little girl

Pap, Mom and me (and the old recliner)

You left school after the fifth grade, and you knew it sometimes held you back. You wanted me to study and get good grades, and you were so proud when I did.

A older balding white man with glasses holds a toddler-age girl in a polka dotted dress

Pap and me

You told me once that if you had known you would have a granddaughter who loved history as much as I did, you wouldn’t have sold that Civil War musket you found in your teens in the CCC for the cost of a pack of cigarettes.

Black and white photo of a man holding a little boy in a light-colored suit

Dad and Pap

You didn’t talk much about your childhood. I know you were born to a single mother and then raised as if she was your sister. Your grandparents divorced, your half-siblings were unkind, and you ended up on your own at an early age. I’m not sure you had much joy in your life until you met Mimi. She told me she met you drinking in the polka halls while she was working at the Navy Depot. One time, just once, I saw you two dance together when an old song came on the radio. You took wonderful trips together when I was a little girl.

A middle-aged white couple, the man balding and wearing glasses and a suit and tie, the woman in a semi-formal black dress

Pap and Mimi on a cruise

You were never much of a talker, but sometimes, in the mornings, if I would get up while you were drinking your coffee and enjoying the cigarettes you never could quit, you would tell me stories. You didn’t want me to be “as stubborn” as you were, but all I saw was a man who refused to compromise his principles to toe a company line.

A white older man with glasses and receding white hair

Pap at Krazy Kamp

You came to my 8th grade play when I was the star.  If I told you it was important, you would be there, a quiet smile of pride on your face.  As much as your hips and back pained you by then, you rode for five hours to see me graduate from college, and it meant the world to me.

A white elderly woman with brown hair and a leopard print shirt, a white young woman in a black graduation cap and gown, and a white balding man with glasses in a button down blue shirt

Mimi, me and Pap

You gave me the most precious gift of all the Thanksgiving before you died. You looked at me, sitting on the couch, and told me that you had done everything you ever wanted to do in your life. Did you know you were dying and that was the last time I would sit with you and hug and kiss you?

Metal grave marker for Robert C. and Gloria R. Smith, born 1921 and 1926 respectively, a rose on each side, and then an open Bible below his name and cross below hers

My grandparents' marker - before the death year 2006 was affixed

Happy Father’s Day, Pap. You were the best grandfather in the world.

Kids on Pap

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About a month ago, I wrote about my great-grandmother’s brother, Ralph Allis.

Today we went to East Cleveland Township Cemetery armed detailed maps, but I knew what we were going to find. When I marked his grave on the map from the scanned burial records on the cemetery website, I saw that it was right next to the road. I’d been past that spot on every visit to the cemetery.

But we checked anyway. We startled a few members of the cemetery association who were mowing the grass and clearing branches when we drove in. I found the two family plots that are supposed to lie at my uncle’s head and feet. No marker with the surname Allis on it. We walked a little away from the area and checked nearby stones to make sure that the headstone hadn’t been moved over time. No Ralph.

I know, within a matter of a few feet, where my uncle Ralph Allis lies. Next time I go to East Cleveland Township Cemetery, I will take him flowers.

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My great-great Uncle Ralph rests in East Cleveland Township Cemetery. Only one person I have ever known met him, and by the time I was old enough to have asked Great Grandma about her family, her dementia was so severe that I couldn’t have trusted the answers. I have one photo of him, in a barely salvaged photo of my great-great grandparents and their children that is so poor that it has been reinforced with line drawings.

Allis Family

Everything I know about him apart from his name, I have learned from sources outside my own family. He’s shown up on a few genealogy websites, and one day, after realizing they had him listed as dying in Cleveland, I put his name in the Cleveland Public Library’s Necrology File, and discovered that he was buried in East Cleveland Township Cemetery.The Cemetery’s burial cards are partially scanned, and from them I found more.   He was born in December of 1892 and died in 1920 at the age of 27 of tuberculosis after spending time in the Warrensville Sanitarium. He left behind a wife named Hilda, but no one seems to know where she went after his death.

I’ve been to the Cemetery where Uncle Ralph is buried twice now, but I haven’t found him. I haven’t even looked really hard. Now the first time I went to East Cleveland Township Cemetery, I didn’t know anything more than Uncle Ralph was buried there, so I’ll give myself a pass. But the second time, I had looked at a map and had details right down to the lot number. But I didn’t look.

I’m afraid.

I’m scared I’m going to go to the cemetery with the map, find the right spot, look down, and find nothing there. I don’t want him to be lying in an unmarked grave, and I don’t have the financial wherewithal to do anything about it right now if he is. I already know that my great great grandfather Lavergne Cook rests in an unmarked grave in Fort Junction, Colorado.

I’m dreading finding out the same thing about my great-grandmother’s beloved brother.

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