Grand Pockets’s Blog

Genealogy, Family, Poetry and Peeves

Chasing the City Past

As genealogists we are intimate with death. We chase dead people through records every day, and we become involved with the records of those deaths. What caused them. What happened in those last days?

Medicine was backward, doctors often trained simply by working with another doctor for a few years then taking exams often administered by the same doctor. Later, as more credentialling was required, and medical colleges opened the methods were crude, the things learned often wrong, and discoveries were made by experiments with the poor unfortunates of the slums. There was no regulation of medicine to speak of.

So, medicine was one problem pioneers faced – had I been born in 1854 rather than 1954 I would be dead for a half century now since I had rheumatic fever early, developed a heart murmur and then followed that with scarlet fever. Approximately in 1858, my mother would have wept, my father would have measured and built for me a small wooden box, and you might be hunting my records to complete some pioneer family’s history.

Another problem that led to death was the bathtub. Or the lack of them. And any other form of cleanliness. People rarely washed. Lice weren’t unusual – it was unusual not to have lice, or sleep with bedbugs.

Food spoiled easily, especially in summer, yet it was too precious to waste so you’d cook it anyway. In a stew or soup with lots of pepper or some other pungent herb to mask the flavor. You’d cook it with rain barrel water that you swept clear of flies or mosquitoes with your unwashed hands, and dice the rancid meat on a table that was pitted, scarred and creviced with grime that couldn’t be scrubbed completely out, with an unwashed knife that you also used for a dozen other things that day, cook it on a small iron stove top, and you served it in the few pieces of crockery you possessed, also unwashed, simply scraped clean.

The kids came in for dinner after running barefoot all day in filthy streets coated in horse dung and pig manure and urine. You’d serve Granma, and Aunt Nell, your spouse and your 9 kids, all of you living in a 2 room 14 x 22 foot unheated, brick tenement without running water or toilets. You tossed the slop bucket behind the curtain in the corner (called the necessary) through the back window into a trough in the street that was supposed to sluice it to the sewer. The brick wall outside that window had never been washed and was stained black all the way to the alley below.

You were lucky, though. At least your family didn’t dwell in the alley like so many others did. You faced the slightly less smelly street. You weren’t of the “unhoused poor” as the city’s newly formed committee to try and deal with those huddled unfortunates, orphans, and cripples was named.

Every single day of your life living in an early American city was a dance with death. You were only a chill, a cough, an infected cut from contracting one of the diseases that raged rampant through the streets and then you were at the mercy of a doctor who might be relatively skilled, given the time, or you might be at the behest of a butcher, a charlatan with little real knowledge at all. At the last, though, was the final indignity if you wouldn’t die fast enough. The hospital. This is pre-civil war when hospitals were more morgue than places of healing. The sick went there to die because not many ever came out. And through this horrid cityscape, this Dali like nightmare, you’d love and laugh and cry just like we do today because you never knew any better. You strived and attempted and survived, and because of what you lived with and learned, I, born in 1954, live and love and laugh and read about you with awe and wonder and can never, it seems, find out enough about you.

One thing I do know, though, TV and the movies have spoiled us into believing false portraits of what our forefathers lives were really like. They’ve cleaned them up and educated them and made them much more like us than they actually were. That’s probably a good thing, though, because not too many of us could handle the truth about them, let alone the work load or hardships they endured.



January 19, 2009 Posted by | genealogy | , , , , | 2 Comments

Bygones and Memories

1954. My birth year. Eisenhower was President, Korea was finally over, the French lost a military outpost in a hard to pronounce place called Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam presaging America’s lost effort there beginning in a big way a decade later and ending while I myself was in the Marine Corps over 20 years later. West Germany was formally recognized an independent nation by the western allies and admitted to NATO while the Soviets respond by declaring East Germany a sovereign state. The Algerian war of Independence begins against France (it was not a good year for the French). Nasser becomes President of Egypt while at home the Communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy ended with his censure for misconduct, but hysteria over communism in general remained high as the cold war between the US and Russia begins in earnest. Rock and roll was in its infancy, already stirring up opposition as indecent and immoral – which seems incredulous when one listens to the music of that year today. It seems innocent and naïve but the America’s general public in 1954 was exactly that. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccinations are first given and I am vaccinated, perhaps saving me along with thousands of other children from that crippling disease which had ravaged so many in earlier generations. In Topeka, Kansas racial segregation of schools is banned setting the stage for the civil rights revolution of the next decade and a half. These events that occurred in the year of my birth shaped much of my world growing up and into my twenties and thirties, and in that way influenced who I am today, my opinions and prejudices and beliefs. Indeed, the year we are born bears a great deal on who we become because its events presage much of the world we’re going to inhabit as we grow up.

Of course, I remember nothing of that year, or much about the next half dozen years. Tiny fragments of memory shine like rays of light through clouds about those years. I remember the birth of my sisters Carol and Susan in an emotional sense, and of the house on Hanna Avenue where we lived, of my cousin Gary who lived next door and Uncle Bob and Aunt Edith and cousin Libby, brief vignettes and impressions. I have little memory of kindergarten in Loveland, mostly going to the bus stop of a morning, probably because of the trauma of those first separations from my mother. From that first year of school forward the memories gradually accumulate from year to year. Writing seems to find more of them floating to the surface than I had thought I still possessed. It reminds me of old leaves silting the bottom of a pond, long fallen and layered in silt under the water of many years, yet still there waiting to be exhumed, washed and examined, whole yet faded, recognizable but only echoing what once was.

It is 2007 today, more than half a century has passed. A lot of leaves have fallen in the water.

Of the historical events before 1960 that I’ve reviewed, none seem to make much impression on me, or stir any latent memories of discussions or remarks from people around me. I do get an emotional sense of memory, very vague, of Eisenhower, but overall my world then was constricted within a tight circle of family doings, my awareness of the outside world not yet awake. 1960, when I was six seems to be the year that outside awareness began to really occur. I have strong memories of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign for the presidency and of my parents disapproval of Kennedy, even of his Catholicism which my parents viewed with deep suspicion. I remember Kruschev, the Russian premier, spoken of with real hate by my father, and know at that young age Russia was in my mind the “enemy,” evil in that all or nothing frame of mind the young have. I had a crush on my cousin Libby Gould, a young teenager who babysat me.

My memories of her are her smile, her kindness. I thought she was beautiful. She wore plaid skirts, bobby socks and black and white oxford shoes, the “uniform” of the day for young girls. I had lots of cousins in Loveland since my mom’s sisters and brother all resided there. They were Aunt Mel and Uncle Carl, Aunt Georgia and Uncle Ray, Uncle Bob and Aunt Edith, and my Aunt Ruth, the eldest sister. There were cousins Larry, Libby and Gary (Uncle Bob’s) and Bill, Wes and Wayne (Aunt Georgia’s) and Mary Margaret, John Paul and Mike (Aunt Ruth’s).  My Great Uncle Charles Gould and Aunt Martha had a house just outside Loveland where the Gould clan held reunions every summer. There were grapevines, berry clumps, apple trees and long tables full of food. All us cousins played, ate fruits picked off the vines and gobbled food while the grownups visited. As dark fell we’d pile in our cars to head home. The reunions lasted until the mid sixties when most of the family had moved and didn’t make it back anymore. The cousins never maintained the ties that their parents had. I’ve lost track of many of them.

My only early memory of my dad’s family is of Grandma Elledge. I kicked her in the shin and broke her ankle about 1958 or so while she was visiting us and I remember she wouldn’t let dad spank me. It happened in the kitchen of the house on Hannah Avenue. For some reason I was her favorite grandchild. She doted on me, but she was a harridan, often abusing my sisters, and parents, verbally. She was a tiny woman, about 4-10″ tall and a hard drinker. She had a nose that dominated her face and short curly gray hair. She was a Maddock by birth and had had a tough life by all accounts.

Russell, Senior, my grandfather, had died before I was born so I have no memories of him, of course, but the stories I’ve been told by dad. He was an electrician and came to Cincinnati from French Lick, Indiana where the Elledge family had resided since the first third of the 19th century. I’m told he helped wire the first traffic lights in Hamilton County and that he was a plant superintendent for the Balcrank Corporation during WWII.

I barely have any memory of my grandparents, LJ and Mary Ellen, mom’s parents. I do have a fleeting memory of sitting on Grandpa’s knee as a tot and mooching food off of him when he ate, and of his stubbly beard and the smell of Burma Shave. He called me Mooch. He seemed to be laughing all the time, too. Of Mary my only impression is an emotional one of kindness and a soft, gentle voice. Both died when I was 3, in 1957 and are buried in the cemetery at Miamiville, Ohio. In the photo you can see LJ’s brother Charles’ headstone in the background. Unk died in 1978, the last of his generation of Goulds. LJ died first, then Mary. There is a story my mom tells of Mary’s last days. She was fading so the family had gathered by her bed waiting for her final moment. It was early morning, just past midnight when Mary suddenly sat straight up in bed and held her hand out to someone she seemed to see at the foot of the bed. “Lawrence”, she said, “You’ve come for me.”

She smiled, then lay back, peacefully passing over.

Honestly, I don’t remember their passing. As young as I was, I was probably shielded from it, too young to understand what was happening. I thought perhaps some fragment of my mother’s grief might come to me but there is nothing. What I know came from my mom’s retelling.

December 20, 2008 Posted by | family | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment