Sunday, June 16, 2019

Cousin Martha



People have asked Cookie why I love genealogy.

The answer is simple.  You meet people that you know and you dig up people you wish you could know.

Take Cousin Martha.  Actually, fourth cousin Martha, twice removed.

Now you are asking what does "fourth cousin, twice removed" mean?

Let me try and explain this without you going all glassy eyed.  When we determine relationships, we look at two people and the closest equal relationship that they have. with children, its parents. with grandchildren, its grandparents. With great-grandchildren, they share the same great-grandparents, who are their parent's grandparents. 

When it comes to determining cousins, we define a basic cousin as two people who have different parents but share a common set of ancestors.  You and your first cousins SHARE the same set of grandparents.  You and your second cousins mean that you share the same great grand-grandparents.

So a full cousin, be it a cousin, or a second cousin or a set of third cousins can go back an equal number of generations and find a set shared common ancestors.  (For a half-cousin, you share a single common ancestor who either remarried or procreated with a different mate.)

"Times Removed" means that there is an unequal number of generations between the common ancestors and your cousins.  So what we do is first find the two people who have an equal number of generations - that gives us the cousin degree, then we count the additional generations on one side as "removed" from one and other. 

So my fourth cousin, twice removed is someone with whom I share a common ancestor, plus two generations on one side of the equation.  Martha's fourth cousin was my grandfather, my parent and me being the two generations different from Martha.

Now someone will say that "Well you really aren't related..."

Au contraire mon frere!

If we really weren't cousins, there would be no common ancestors.  But there are, so we are.  Now it has nothing to do with shared common experiences.  I have first cousins that I barely know.  I do have third cousins that I am very close with.  I have two cousins that I am related on through both their grandfather and grandmother, through three different lines without any intermarriage.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Anyhow, Martha and I were related, separated by space and time, but we share the same Revolutionary War era couple as common relatives.  All of our families knew the same people, but the families, themselves were like planets, everyone in their own orbit, crossing paths, never colliding, but passing closely one to another.

So back to Martha. 

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, I was on the hunt for a copy of the expansive family genealogy - a book my mother called the "Kennel Papers" or what I have grown to refer to as "the moldy tome".  There weren't many published, and if our branch of the family had one, my grandfather more than likely threw it out and/or burned it when he cleaned out his aunt's home in the 1940s. 

A local librarian had told me that I might want to go knock on the door of an overgrown house on the main street that had a rusting Mercury in the drive.   The house belonged to someone with my mothers family name, and we passed it frequently.  But it was someone my mother denied knowing.  "Maybe I met her once, but don't pester her.  She doesn't like people."

The librarian, however, was certain that the woman in the house might be open to parting with the book. "Martha probably has one and she most likely would sell it."

So, I went to the big ramshackle white house, with the weeds and poison ivy in the front yard and knocked on the door. And there was the black Mercury, rusty but operational.  The smell of cigarettes was terrific, and I have always hated cigarettes and the smell and the dirt.  But it was odd because I was on a stoop, not on an enclosed porch or such - and the smell as if someone had been smoking beside me.

I waited and was about to knock again when the door opened and through the screen door appeared a woman with a face like the Mighty Favog, but topped a mop of chopped hair like Roseanne Roseannadanna, grey tinged with yellow from cigarette smoke.

I introduced myself, explained my quest and she said "Susan called and said you would be by," and opened the door.

The day outside was bright and hot, and the house was warm and dark.  The air was thick with Pall Mall smoke and as my eyes adjusted there was clutter here and there, but not to the extent that she was a hoarder.  She motioned me to the left and opened up a pair of French doors. "I don't often have company."

The room was dark, the air was thick and the bark cloth drapes drawn against any sunlight, but slices of light cut through the dim light to show the film of decades of smoke and dust whirling about.  It wasn't until I was seated that I really could see around the room, and it was pure "Chinatown".  If Hollywood was going to set a scene of California in the thirties and forties, this was it.

Bentwood furniture, bark cloth, wicker lamps, art deco cigarette boxes, bakelite pulls and rattan chairs.  Pulled back against the walls was older furniture, more in line with the 1900s.  A large tall case clock stood in the corner, its pendulum still.

We chatted, figured out how we were related. 

"I may have met your mother in 1935 - when I came back from California for the reunion.  Is she in that picture?"  She pointed to a long boy picture of about two hundred people that I had never seen. "We used to be a bigger family, but we all have scattered to the winds," she said.

I complimented her on the furniture.  In the 80's, this stuff was worth a small fortune.

"I left for California in '23.  On a vacation to the Coronado.  After two weeks beyond my return, my mother called to see when I was coming home.  I told her I was home.  I adored the California lifestyle.  So when I moved back in '65 to take care of her, I bought my things.  I thought I would move back, but you know how it goes sometimes."

Yes, she had a book.  And yes, she would sell it for a $100, firm.  "But I would have to look," and that she planned to get the house in order in the coming month. 

"Would you like 'a hot Sanka' and a cookie?  I hate to have a coffee alone."

I followed through the dining room, the butler's pantry into the kitchen where a table and chairs. 

"I don't cook much."

For as dark and cluttered as the living rooms of the house were, the kitchen was clean.  The range was from the forties and the refrigerator was like the one at my grandparent's house, a one door GE.

She sat down a cup with hot water, the jar of Sanka and some archway cookies that were hard as rocks.  And prattled on, in between drags on the cigarette, after cigarette.

"When I decided to stay I went to Los Angeles and visited cousin Walter.  He gave me a job in his bank.  I didn't like working in a bank.  But Walter had made the arrangements and I didn't want to disappoint him.  When Walter died, I was a branch manager.  The War started, but there was no way to move home, so I stayed with the bank.  You know how these things work out."

"Mother cooked.  I don't.  She's been gone since 1969.  So I keep the kitchen clean, because I may need to cook one day."  I think her entire diet was "hot Sanka", stale cookies and Pall Malls.

I left, she promised to look, and a couple months later she invited me back, and we talked but I mostly listened.

"I wasn't interested in men when I was young.  I was having too much fun.  And when I was older, men weren't interested in me," she said.  "Do you play rummy?"

We met twice more before she said "I have exhausted hiding places where the book would be.  So I called (her sister) Millie, and Millie has it in Chicago.  You know how these things work out."  That was fine, I had enjoyed spending time with her. 

We talked about her side of the family: "Now Corliss married Fred Weaver.  They bought a farm by McCutchenville...Emery died from an accident - a thresher ripped his arm off and he bled to death in the field...Movie stars are alright, but they have a right to go to the grocery without people bothering them...I never cared for modern art - I have a hard time with the battle between what I see and what the artist meant to communicate...Jerry Donovan was a nice man, crushed to death by a tractor wheel in the field...Dorothy? She lost her finger in the cream seperator...did you know about cousin Leon Wigglesworth?  He was going to make it big in film, but he spent too much time with Billy Haines...Do you cook? What doi you like to cook?"  You know how that goes.

She did bring forth her grandmother's "Misery Books". 

Evidently, her grandmother loved to clip out news stories of misery, bad luck, and tragedy.  The books were made from published books that she glued the newspaper stories onto the pages.  The newsprint was brown with age and the horse glue had hardened.  But there it was "Mrs. Dorothy Williams Loses Finger, New Cream Separation Machine Blamed: WARNS OTHERS  OF POTENTIAL DANGER OF ELECTRIC MACHINES."  She gave me one book, and I still have it, but am mostly afraid to open it after 35 years.

We met once more ("Can you bring over a jar of Sanka with you?"), and then not long after I moved out of the area.

Martha died in 1986, and Millie - like my uncle - cleaned out the house by throwing everything away that had any value.  By the time I made it back, the house was gone.

My mother said that they had to tear the house down because the Firestone bought the house and needed the parking the lot would yield.  More like they tore the house down because it was old and unkempt and beyond a quick coat of paint.  I would see the Mercury around town on my visits.

So, what did I get from meeting Martha and talking about family, California in the 20s and 30s and beyond?  Well, I still hate Sanka, hot or otherwise, I still hate cigarette smoke. 

But on the plus side, I got to meet her, appreciate her love of "the California LIfestyle" and now I know everything about cousin Leon Wigglesworth.  And I know not to become distracted and to be careful when and if I ever use a cream separator.

But its the experience of meeting people and hearing them and asking them questions that makes it worthwhile.

You know that goes, right?





2 comments:

  1. It's always fascinating to hear the tales and memories of old people, relatives or not. I can quite understand why you were strangely drawn to genealogy... Jx

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  2. The Chinese have a very complicated system for keeping track of relationships, with different words for every type of relation, for example distinguishing your mother's older sister from your father's younger sister, instead of the simple word 'aunt'. (Mother's younger sister and father's older sister likewise have their own sets of words.)

    Cousin Martha sounds like quite a character, and she is just as fun to read about at second-hand. By the way, I have a lot of pieces advertising cream separators--who knew they were so lethal?
    --Jim

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