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Saturday, April 16, 2011

You Can Take it With You

          Today I'm going to talk about things irrevocably lost, and what a tragedy that is for those who have lost them.  I'm talking here of family secrets, those little things that don't seem to amount to much on the face of it, but when the sole custodian of said lore passes from this life to whatever comes next, those left behind suddenly find that they mean a lot more than anybody thought.
          I have written on this site, and The Tyler Gang, of the fact that I was raised by older women.  The oldest of them was my great-grandmother, Louise Willis Holt.  She was born near Asheville, NC in 1888.  Those who raised her had been children in slave-owning families.  When fried chicken was on the menu, she went out to the yard, selected a chicken, wrung its neck, plucked it, cleaned it; it was an all day job, and that was for one course of one meal.  When she said she made something from scratch, what she meant was that she planted the seed, tended the crop, harvested the product, and milled it on a flat stone.  She considered a store-bought bag of flour to be a pre-packaged meal; I can only imagine with what level of suspicion she viewed the arrival of the TV Dinner.  Being a woman at the turn of the 20th century wasn't work for sissies!
          And what did I gain from this?  An illustration will suffice:  In the mid-1980s, my wife was the admin coordinator for the portion of a shipyard that did dockside repairs on aircraft carriers.  They had an overhaul in hand, which, as they always did, carried an undercurrent of urgency as part of its usual baggage.  Bonnie received permission to bring a pertinent computer home to attempt to complete the specification package over the weekend.  She enlisted the aid of her sister, who had done closely related work, and I remember the two of them, heads together, at the kitchen table engaged in the work of defending America while I kept our four (between us) preteens safe, entertained, and out of their hair.  Around noon on Sunday, Bonnie suddenly said, "Oh my God, it's Easter!  I have to get dinner ready!"  I told her not to sweat it, that I'd whip up something, and I proceeded to bring a nine course supper to the table with every dish done to perfection and ready simultaneously.  Thanks, grandma!
          These are the skills my upbringing provided me.  Things I had to teach myself were everything a boy learns from the men in his life.  Another man might have stood like a deer in the headlights and said, "Well, Dear, do what you can.  I'll just stay out of your way."  Of course, that same man, if his wife's car threw a piston, would just as likely say, "No sweat.  I'll have it running by bedtime."  We learn what we learn.  But grandma taught generalities, and she taught without teaching.  My knowledge is of how and why things work, from pressure cookers to convection ovens, but specific recipes are mere guidelines, and not to be memorized.
          Anyone who follows any sort of technical trade or hobby knows that you can work wonders with that sort of background, a spur of the moment Easter dinner, for example, but it is also the means by which two of the most magnificent confections that ever passed my lips were lost.  Grandma made a yellow cake with chocolate frosting that was to die for.  She would buy a box of yellow cake mix and make two layers (the photo is from; if any photos of my great-grandma's cake exist, I'm not aware of them).  While those were baking, she would shave unsweetened chocolate from a bar, mix it with confectioner's sugar, sticks of real butter, vanilla, and a few other ingredients, boil it on the stove, and when the layers came out of the oven, she would slather this stuff on, and there was an agonizing wait while it set up (She used to say, "Me and Betty Crocker made a cake.").  When it was ready to serve, the knife would crack this frosting, and when I got my piece, I would flake the icing off, eat the cake first, then savor what amounted to two firm, grainy, wedge-shaped chocolate bars that Hershey would have killed to be able to duplicate.  A similar tragic loss was her lemon-meringue pie.  Understand that I was no fan of lemons, pies, or beaten egg whites, but this was second only to that cake in my hierarchy of treats.  She never wrote them down, she never taught them, and when she died, they died with her.  Thanks again, grandma... 
          Another thing that can be lost is family history.  I have learned to be very skeptical when people say things like, "It's long been known in my family that so-and-so was the personal armorer to King Richard during the crusades."  Maybe.  Have you ever played that children's game where all the kids sit in a circle, the first one whispers some "fact" to the one on his right, it goes around the circle, and by the time it gets back to the first kid, it bears no resemblance to what he said in the first place?  Yeah, family history.  My great-grandmother's son was an Air Force officer.  He fought in three wars, worked in the Pentagon, and retired as a Major General.  Very illustrious career the man had.  Our family history was always that he was the pilot of a B-17 out of either Manston or Maidston, England, and performed missions over Germany and occupied Western Europe.  I only saw him once a year when he visited on leave, and he never talked about what was to him ancient history.  He'd talk about what he was doing right then, but World War II was a distant memory for him.  Sometimes his mother, who had received his mail during the war, would say things about him, but never in the form of a complete story, hence the piecing together of what we could get.  The only thing that stood out in my mind was the name of the plane, the Axis Ass Ache. 
          Fast-forward to a few years ago.  The internet is well established with links to everything that anyone cares to post, including their old pictures.  What you see here is the only known photograph of the Axis Ass Ache, posing for her picture following mission 47.  That is my uncle, 2nd Lt. Bill Holt, crouched in the center, looking like he's been highlighted.  The trim, good-looking young man at his right shoulder is 1st Lt. Tom Kaufman, the pilot and ship commander.  Uncle Bill was the co-pilot, and the plane was in the 99th Bombardment Group, which flew its missions out of Algeria, Tunis, and finally Italy.  Their missions were flown over Italy, the Balkans, and the offshore island bases.  He flew in an era when a crew had to finish fifty missions before they could come home and sell war bonds.  On one of their first missions, they were assigned to bomb an Italian fighter base that I believe was on Sardinia (See, I'm doing it myself.  I don't want to keep cutting back and forth to do research, so I'm relying on memory, with the risk of the waters getting muddied even more.).  They arrived to find the Italian fighters aloft and waiting for them, which should have been a death sentence for the big, unmaneuverable planes locked into their defensive boxes and precision bomb runs.  They responded by decimating the Italian fighters in the air and going on to bomb their base, earning in the process their first Presidential Unit Citation.  On mission 49, shot to pieces by flak and fighters, and facing a long flight back across the Mediterranean, they opted to attempt a landing at an Allied fighter base on Pantellaria.  A forward fighter base's runway is a half-mile too short for a B-17 on its best day.  They came in probably hot, fighting for control, the gear collapsed, they slid off the end of the runway, and when the dust settled, the plane was past any useful function beyond providing a few spare parts.  Her last log entry reads, "Attempted emergency landing.  Gear collapsed.  Crew survived; plane didn't."
          That's all I have, and it isn't much, but I feel like I've really accomplished something, given how little I knew before, and how wrong even that was.  Did they make  him complete that 50th mission with another plane?  Was he excused from it?  Was he excused because of injuries sustained in the crash?  If he had a Purple Heart, I never knew about it.  But with all that said, and all that's still missing, look at how different it is from what we thought we knew before.  And this is with the principal actor alive and available to us in person.  I'm not saying your family legends are wrong.  I have no knowledge of them, and would never presume to question, but you should, for your own peace of mind, and the sheer joy of rediscovering the truth.  You may not be who you thought you were, and wouldn't that be worth knowing?

          One last thing, and a great gift to leave your family should you depart unexpectedly.  Not pleasant to think about, but it happens.  Should you die or become comatose, your family is going to be in a highly stressed condition, and dealing with a world of urgent issues that they never foresaw, no matter how prepared they think they are.  How much harder will all that become if your financial records, your insurance policies, your deeds and trusts, even contact with your friends and acquaintances, are locked up behind passwords and PINs?  I know that in my own case, I have worked for the military all my life, and by habit, all my passwords are military grade, so nobody is going to put in my mother's maiden name, or my daughter's birthday, and voila, everything is laid out before them.  You don't want to carry these things around, or make them easily accessible, but here's my suggestion.  Write them in indelible ink on heavy cardstock (like an index card).  Hide them somewhere, between two specific pages of an old book, or the bottom of your toolbox, you know a good spot.  Then write down where they are, and carry that instruction in your wallet, and put another copy with your important papers, and anywhere else you think people will look if the worst happens.  Believe me, you'll make the lives of your loved ones a lot easier!
          Okay, I have you mad at your ancestors, questioning your peers, and worried about dropping dead without warning; my work here is done!  Now, get out there and live life like you mean it!


  1. Really interesting blog sugarbear, even though I already know about some of it. Maybe I will see if I can come up with my folks receipes for 7-minute icing and peanut butter fudge! I remember they were both delicious. Thanks for the ideas!

  2. That cake looks delightful. I know it's not your grandma's cake, but it makes me want to lick the, I didn't actually do it. Sheesh. ;0)

    I absolutely love LOVE the information about your uncle. Being as half your relations are complete question marks, even for you, any information about your relations is very precious to me. It seems crazy in this day and age to not know more about ones ancestors, but I really feel like I don't know squat. It was just the 5 of us for so long, so it's very interesting to hear/read more about "us."

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think Sidra put it nicely. I know hardly any of our history and it is nice to hear some of it, scewed or not. Most people have a way of modifying a story in some way or another even if they are the orcistrator. I love it anyway.

  4. We pass the passwords to the offspring regularly, and send them copies of documents such as wills, and the combination to the safe. That, and we TALK their little ears off.

    It still won't be enough, but we are trying! My kids lost their last grandparent this January (my husband's dad, Fred, 97), but their other grandparents lived to 91, 91, and 94. It's easy to get cocky, but we aren't going to leave them messes if we can help it.

    We're in the middle of emptying this house and moving to a CCRC (probably in California), and I'm still capable of dealing with all the accumulation (37 years in one house) one box or drawer at a time.

    Where did all the stuff come from???

    My mom was the family historian on my side - we lost an awful lot of stories when she became nonverbal years before she died.

    You're stirring up a lot of memories.