Monday, May 21, 2012

"Sorry Folks... He's Taken!"

How often does this statement ring out in your home? In ours, it is said all the time. It reminds us to keep things in perspective and not take life too seriously. It is also a playful affirmation that we find each other lovable, even after a gaffe.

In honor of our 20 year anniversary on Wednesday, I'd like to profess to the world some of the reasons why I love my husband, Robert Simring:

He doesn't take himself too seriously.
Not many people can say their husband performed on stage in purple and black leopard print spandex pants in a (satirical) band. Once I saw the side of him that could goof around in public, I was hooked.
He is an excellent father. 
He has probably read more books on parenting than anyone else I know. He is engaged as a dad, and has an extremely close relationship with our daughter. He was also the primary stay-at-home caregiver for her when she was an infant and I worked more than full-time. These days, he is the one responsible to get her to school, and spends time with her after school. She knows she is lucky and appreciates all of his attention and love.
He is talented.
He is a humble musician who is full of talent. His range of abilities has allowed him to woo me by playing classical piano, to playing electric and upright bass for reggae & pop bands, as well as numerous musicals, and to play Chapman stick & electric zither (and bass & guitar) for Blue Man Group for the last 16 years. He has performed for millions of people, and to him it is all in a day's work.
He is creative.
Not only is he a musician, but he also is a visual artist. He has a unique style of drawing that he honed years ago.
He is committed to constant self-improvement and learning.
I guarantee you haven't met anyone who works harder at this than he does.
He is generous.
He gives his time to help others in need, to volunteer at our daughter's school, at our temple and for local organizations.
He has strong convictions.
He supports causes he believes in, writes to politicians, and has been able to live a healthy vegetarian life for many years now. I admire this and wish I could give up the little poultry I do eat.
He's hot.
He is really handsome! He had a ponytail for 18 of our years together, but I do think the short haircut he sports these days is very becoming. After he got the chop, I started calling him "my cute new boyfriend," until we realized that weird rumors might start at our daughter's school if I kept it up.
He takes care of me.
He is an excellent care giver. I grew up as an overly independent person, but have learned to enjoy receiving his care and attention. Especially now that I am back in school, he has stepped it up even more.
He takes care of us.
He goes the extra mile with our daughter. He makes sure we spend time together, even when schedules are insane.
He takes care of others.
God help the kid on the playground who is caught mistreating someone. Rob's death glare is unparalleled and has magical powers to stop mean kids in their tracks.
He takes care of the house.
He cooks and does the dishes. He's in charge of most of the bills. He makes sure we get the recycling out, helps shovel the driveway and rakes the leaves.
He likes to laugh.
We have a great time together being silly. Our daughter inherited this gene, and as a trio, we have a rollicking good time together.
He's a New York transplant.
My family is dominated by folks from New England and New York. It fits that I fell in love with a New Yorker. Thankfully, his allegiances are reformed. He roots for the Red Sox now.
He likes diners.
Our honeymoon was a cross-country road trip. We ate at many diners along the way and enjoyed every meal. We enjoy when our schedules allow for breakfast dates out at a number of local diners.
He likes breakfast.
This may sound redundant, but is not.  He has become the master of weekend brunch making. His challah French toast is my favorite. Our family schedule does not allow for many dinners all together, but weekend brunches are special to us.
He's my hero.
He is my spider-in-the-house remover. And after it is released outside unharmed, he is allowed to sing with arms outstretched, Peter Cetera's "I am the man who will fight for your honor..." to me.
He's got manners.
He has a high standard for how people should be treated and pays it forward. He is the first to remember to write a thank you card (a skill that admittedly eludes me). He is respectful of others and models to kids that he expects it in return.
He values education.
He has something like eleven years of college under his belt, but never stuffs his knowledge in anyone's face. He supports my continued learning, helps our daughter with her homework and has even considered the idea of taking the lead on home-schooling her in the future.
He's a big kid.
He's not one to pass up a squirt gun fight or snowball fight with the neighborhood kids.
He can apologize.
He knows when to say he is sorry or if he needs to reflect more on something that didn't go as planned.
He's from a tight-knit family.
He is from a family that values sticking by one another no matter what. I have met amazing people in this clan who are inspirational to me in a variety of ways. They all take the time to keep in touch and have provided our daughter a rich array of grandparents, aunts, uncles and three generations of cousins!
He remembers.
He remembers everything. After so much time together, we have developed our own vocabulary for things that would make sense to no one else.
He is romantic.
He is great at bringing home flowers for a special occasion or for no reason at all. When we were dating, he would show up at my workplace with roses for me.

Perhaps you think this profession of love is not pertinent to genealogy, but I would disagree. Love is the building block from which families grow. This is a statement of how our family works, and documents for posterity, a snapshot of my amazing husband. Some genealogists spend so much time researching the past, they forget to document the present. Take some time to write down what it is you love about your spouse, partner or family member. After sharing it, put a copy with your family records.

How does one reach a major milestone like a 20 year anniversary? By hard work, commitment, respect, love and wicked sense of humor. Like all couples, we have seen our share of victories and challenges, joys and sorrows. What has been the glue to our relationship is how much we care, and how much we enjoy making each other laugh.  

On Wednesday, May 23, 2012, Rob and I will celebrate our 20th Anniversary. You may be thinking this is one of those "Emerson math" moments because we got married in 1998. No, I am one of the Emersonians who is good at math and, yes, our 14th wedding anniversary is 2 weeks away on June 7th.  May 23rd is the day we started dating at the end of my junior year of college, in 1992. Rob has wished me a "Happy Anniversary" every month since.

As you can see, I am one lucky lady. All that's left to say is... "Sorry folks, he's taken!"

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Unique Mother's Day Gift

There is no way I will ever be able to top my Mother's Day gift from last year.

Now, my mother isn't one to collect stuff. She prefers that people don't spend money on gifts, because she would rather spend time together sharing experiences or homemade goodies. My "mummy" is a saint who deserves all good things and more. I was delighted that last year, I was able to give her the best gift ever. Besides serendipity, it required nothing more than a little research and planning. It didn't cost any money, it didn't take up space in her house, and it certainly was filled with quality time together. And, the gift will keep on giving.

The story unfolds in my beautiful home town of Northampton, Massachusetts. I grew up only a short walk along the Mill River from historic Smith College, and much of my childhood was spent playing hide-and-seek on their gorgeous campus. Every winter I skated on Paradise Pond, and every spring I ran through their gardens. In the summer, I took swimming lessons in the Smith pool, and in the fall, I would trick-or-treat at the home of the Smith President, because she was the only one in the neighborhood to give out full-size candy bars.

Most of my babysitters were Smithies, although my favorite was the daughter of local family friends. My family hosted two Malaysian sisters who attended Smith for a total of eight years. I know the cool stories about the campus, like on which swing Elizabeth Taylor sat when she filmed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I know in which dorms Sylvia Plath and Julie Nixon lived. I even knew which dorm was rumored to have a secret escape passage from the days of "Indian attacks." To this day, when I hear someone say, "Smith? Isn't that a girls' school?" My automatic response is "No. It is a women's college."

Many of my life milestones happened on Smith's campus. All of my choral concerts and dance recitals were held in Sage Hall, and my high school graduation was in John M. Greene Hall.  My violin recitals and other special events were held in the multi-purpose, non-denominational Helen Hills Hills Campus Chapel, so named for a woman who infamously married her cousin and took his name. "Helen Hills" is the quintessential New England little white chapel on a hill.  Because I attended Smith's "Campus School" at Gill Hall for two years, this was good enough to qualify me as an alumna, which allowed me to use the chapel for my wedding ceremony!

I have no traditional ties to the college's history, but given how much time I've spent there, it has always felt like a second home. I am proud to know so much about the history of my home town and Smith College. After high school, I attended Emerson College, and have lived in the Boston area ever since. Yet, I am grateful that my mother still lives in my old neighborhood, so that I have an excuse to visit frequently.

A few years ago, my mother gave me copies of her families' extensive family trees and, like every genealogist, I wanted to know more. Because both of my parents were New Yorkers, I never thought much about my Boston roots. On a spring day last year, it occurred to me to research my maternal grandmother's Boston-based family, the Stephensons.  I thought maybe I'd have an excuse to visit some cool historic building downtown to see some old documents.  You could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out that, of all places on Earth, the Smith College Archives hosts a vast collection on the Stephenson family of Boston. How had I missed that?!

I'd heard lore that we were somehow connected by marriage to the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., and I knew his papers were kept at Smith. Apparently, the Stephenson papers are kept in a related collection! There were no digital images online, save for some paper dolls my artist uncle had designed. But I knew I'd hit the jackpot when I found the overview listing the contents: photos, wills, land grants, genealogy charts, and even cookbooks and diaries.

Clearly, I pay attention when people share history lessons with me, and I'd never ever heard about this treasure trove. My mother couldn't possibly have known about this or we'd have visited it by now. Instantly, I wanted to share the news with my mom, but I used restraint. I decided a trip to the archives would be the best gift I'd ever be able to give her for Mother's Day.

I brought her to the Smith College Archives and made her close her eyes as they brought out all of the many boxes of files. We put on the required white cotton gloves and I quickly found the diary I was seeking. I wouldn't let her open her eyes until it was in her hands. She never saw it coming.

Voila! I let my mom know she was holding the original handwritten diary of her great grandmother Lucinda "Luda" Warner Grant Stephenson. The brown leather cover has Luda's name in embossed in gold. Her writing spanned the time when she was being courted by my great-great-grandfather Benjamin Turner Stephenson, Jr. in the late 1860s. It turned out this diary was just the tip of the iceberg.

We found hand-written cookbooks from 1690 with fabulous recipes using long-forgotten ingredients and measurement units. We found photos ranging from tin-types taken during the Civil War, to fancy studio portraits, to casual snapshots of my great-grandmother Madge Stephenson (née Madge Condit Lovell) holding first-born daughter Nancy on her front lawn.  We found original hand-written business contracts that showed my great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Turner Stephenson, Sr. ending business ties with his partners Mr. Jordan & Mr. Marsh so that he could start his own retail store. Bostonians will understand why that last item is bittersweet.

We even found correspondence from my grandmother Lee Carlisle (née Ruth Stephenson) to her aunt Edith Garrison containing a photo of  Candace Carlisle, my own mother, as a New York debutante in the 1960's! This is an ironic photo to preserve because she ultimately became a down-to-earth public school music teacher and all-around nature lover who settled in Northampton. Imagine finding a photo of yourself in someone else's archives!

It was bizarre to discover that my family history was right next to me on the Smith campus all along, and no one in the family knew it until more than twenty years after I left home. If Smith hadn't cataloged the collection and posted it online, we would have never known. I am now a believer in the importance of document preservation and access to archives!

We surmise that the college became interested in my family because they are the official repository of William Lloyd Garrison, Jr. His son, William Lloyd Garrison, III married Edith Alice Stephenson, the sister of my great-grandfather Barton Kingman Stephenson. Unbeknownst to us, Edith had been the record-keeper of family treasures. When she died, her entire collection was donated to the college.

The are at least six generations of Stephenson records, plus some bonus files on my Lovell, Warner, and Grant family lines. We feel blessed that these records exist and are available to us. I am relieved to know they are in good hands and accessible to all my distant cousins. And I am truly grateful to have found them. Our most incredible day felt like a gift from the universe: these items survived for hundreds of years, they were in amazing condition, and were only a few blocks from my childhood home. My family truly has a permanent home at Smith College.

I will never be able to top that Mother's Day gift, but I don't need to try. My mother and I still enjoy going back to the archives when we can, because we haven't seen everything yet. There is so much to read, it will take us years of visits to get through it all. On my next trip, I plan to check if Luda made any mention of her 4th cousin Ulysses S. Grant in her diary, since he was the president at that time!

Yet again, I am reminded of how blessed I am in so many ways. While I have almost no access to any documents from my paternal side, save for print-outs of a few microfilmed vital records, I do have access to priceless treasures from my maternal side. I am taking the time to understand my complete family history, so I can share it with my child. As a mother, it is my gift to her.

I'd like to encourage anyone reading this to take a moment with your family this Mother's Day, and ask the questions you never asked (but always meant to). Write down the stories you learn, or better yet, grab your video camera or smart phone and film the story teller(s). If your mom is no longer alive, ask questions about her. There is always more to learn. If you have someone in your life who served as a surrogate mom, take time to honor her, too. Write down some of your favorite memories, proudest moments, and words of wisdom, and then share them with your family. If you have no children of your own, share your stories with your nieces, nephews, and cousins.

The best gift we can ever give ourselves and our families is to keep our shared history alive. May you all enjoy a meaningful Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"I used to have a wife. Now I have a genealogist."

"I used to have a wife. Now I have a genealogist." So says my husband who has witnessed and (thankfully) supported my transformation into a total genealogy geek. I've always been curious about the stories of my family history, but the compulsion intensified around three years ago.

I am grateful to both sets of my maternal great grandparents who had the foresight to research and document my family tree back in the 1920's. From this British and Western European lineage, I can connect to just about any major event in American history for the last 400 years. The volumes of preserved documents and photos from these families are astounding.  On the other hand, my paternal Scandinavian lineage is more recent to this country, arriving around the 1890's. Unfortunately, there are very few people alive who know even morsels of information, making it extremely difficult to trace that side of my family.

My husband's Eastern European Jewish ancestry has been the most rewarding to study thus far.  Most of the family came to New York City in the early 1900's and the strong connection to their religious and cultural roots is still palpable in the family today. I've also learned to be sensitive when asking about the darker or more painful moments of a family's past, but not to hide from it either. By interviewing the family elders and sharing what we learn among the large and tight-knit family, we've learned how critical it is to collect their stories before it is too late. 

Using my skills as an interpreter, I see how the most important information to learn isn't simply what a document says; it is about what it means. The discovery of raw facts and data is just the beginning. For me, the thrill comes when I put them into their historical and geographical context and weave it together with known family lore.  The picture becomes clear and the individuals come to life. Suddenly, one can feel empathy for their experience and their loves and losses, an appreciation for their efforts and a context for their choices. They are no longer just names and dates of strangers on a page, but real members of our family. It is a privilege and honor to keep their memory alive.

Each time I uncover a clue, I learn more about all of the characters and experiences that create our family's truly American story.  Some of the characters were heroic, some were shady, some were artists, some were inventors, some were power barons, some were farmers, some were oppressors, some were oppressed, but all were brave survivors and without them, we wouldn't be here.

With all my passion for family history, I started as a volunteer document transcriber for both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's World Memory Project and for I help my friends when I can, and I continue to work on my and my husband's family trees. As if that wasn't enough, now I'm taking my interest to the next level and have decided to become a professional genealogist.

Recently, I enrolled in the summer program at Boston University, joined the Association for Professional Genealogists and the New England Historic Genealogical Society and have even taken a few professional webinar workshops. I cannot wait for classes to start next week and to formally begin my journey to one day becoming a certified professional genealogist.