The Inner Circle, an Archivist’s Tale

For those of you who follow this blog (thanks for that, by the way), apologies for disappearing. You all probably thought I was dead (except you, Mom- you knew I wasn’t). But I’m not. I just haven’t been doing a lot of history/genealogy-related stuff in my free time that would result in a blog post here.

So what have I been doing, then? Well, it’s not quilting up a storm, not this year. This year, I’ve been reading tons of books, as I try to complete this Pop Sugar Reading Challenge that I learned about from a friend. I’m actually doing pretty well; it’s not even halfway through the year and I’m about 2/3 done. I’ve read almost 40 books already this year! I don’t know how much or how quickly any of the rest of you read, but I am not a fast reader, so 40 is a ton for me.

Anyway, getting back to the point of this post, one of the items on the reading challenge is “a book with a protagonist who has your occupation.” So: archivist. I had to find a book where the main character was an archivist.

In the course of looking for this, I came across a number of interesting twists on the idea of “archivists” and “archiving” which involved fantasy or dystopia or some other genre where the “archivists” and I share the same occupation in name only and not in the actuality of our day-to-day activities. Some of these included The Archived by Victoria Schwab and Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace, both which I have marked “Want To Read” on Goodreads and saved for later but which did not fit the spirit of this challenge item.

What I actually did read was The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer. In this book, the main character Beecher and his colleague Tot are both archivists at the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration (NARA).

Now, I’m not here to write a book review (oh how I hate writing those), to give a plot summary, or to criticize. And there won’t be any spoilers, or at least nothing that I would consider a spoiler.

But I thought it would be fun to record — and share with you all — some snippets from the book that gave me a chuckle, seemed wise, or that I thought my fellow archivists would appreciate. These are things I would have “highlighted” if I had been reading it on my Kindle — which, I wish I had been, because it would have made writing this post a lot simpler. I had both the physical hardcover book and the audiobook, both borrowed from the library. I actually read it as an audiobook – I don’t know why I got the hardcover too – but then I had to go back with my post-it notes and find all the things I wanted to write about here. I mean, look at this:

So many post-it notes!

So many post-it notes!

Most of these won’t require much commentary, so it’s not as bad as it looks. OK I’ve written two of these and had to come back here and revise: I was totally lying; it’s exactly as bad as it looks. But it will be fun. Page citations refer to this first edition hardcover. And on that note, let’s dive in, shall we?

     “…I go on adventures everyday.”
“No, you read about adventures every day. You put your nose in books every day. You’re like Indiana Jones, but just the professor part.”

“Indiana Jones is still cool.”
“No, Indiana Jones was cool. But only when he was out experiencing life. You need to get outta your head and outta your comfort zone.”

“…The past may not hurt you…but it won’t challenge you either…” (pp. 8-9)

I think the scene has been set for an archivist to have a “real” adventure. On the flip-side, I liked the archivist’s allusion that he does go on adventures (through the collections he works with). There’s a lot of life to be lived through the archives, people!

As they told me when I first started as an archivist…, the Archives is our nation’s attic. A ten-billion-document scrapbook with nearly every vital file, record, and report that the government produces.
No question, that means this is a building full of secrets. Some big, some small. But every single day, I get to unearth another one. (p. 19)

As a group, don’t we archivists hate it when people call the archives an “attic”? It’s not just me, right? That reference likening us to something hot and stuffy and dusty? Maybe we’re (I’m) too sensitive. Maybe they just mean it in the sweet, nostalgic sense, like that’s where Grandma keeps all the “cool old stuff” (because an archivist never told her the attic is a terrible place to keep the family heirlooms and photographs).

And scrapbooks…those are just the bane of our existence, aren’t they? They’re a preservation nightmare, with all those different kinds of things affixed to acidic paper? I mean, photographs smashed face-to-face with acidic news clippings for who knows how many years, until we got hold of them and stuck a sheet of Permalife paper in between every set of pages, because that’s about the most we can do? And I think in most cases the National Archives is going to be much better than “a scrapbook” (though they probably have some scrapbooks too, just like the rest of us: there is no escape!).

And when I first read this (again, remember I was listening to an audiobook so some words slipped by), I remember taking issue with the use of the word “every” but now I see that it is qualified by the word “vital”. No, the archives isn’t going to have EVERY document produced, but they certainly should have all the VITAL ones. For any of my non-archivist friends (and Mom): the term “vital records” is an actual specific term in records management. It means, in short, any records that would be vital to keeping your organization running in the event of a disaster. (NARA even has a whole huge long page about vital records.)

“He even answers the questions that get emailed through the…website, which no one likes answering because when you email someone back, well, now you’ve got a pen pal…” (p. 48)

I think this one was my favorite, because it’s absolutely true that you often obtain a “pen pal” when responding to research requests – particularly ones from genealogists who are likely to have cause to contact your archives again later for something else. Often times, they will email you directly – not the web site, not the archives’ generic email – YOU. And who could really blame them? You were so helpful the first time and clearly know what you’re doing, and who knows who they might get if they submit their next question using the generic method?

…I start every morning with the obituaries… (p. 70)

It’s not just me! OK I don’t do this now – for two reasons: I don’t subscribe to the local newspapers, and I don’t know (and more importantly am not related to) very many people (well proportionate to how many people there actually are) in the area where I currently live. But I used to do this all the time as a teenager in my hometown, when I was doing a lot more genealogy than I do now, and when I lived in a place where I was related to…well, let’s face it, just about everyone, if you go back far enough. Sundays were a special treat because that newspaper had the wedding and engagement announcements too!

Forever an archivist, he knows the value of collecting information first… (p. 77)

This one actually requires no real commentary. I just liked it.

“…Don’t hide in those Archives… Live that life.” (p. 90)

But why not? But I love my wood shavings! You mean I should go outside and do things and talk to people? But I’d rather have my nose in a book! Or a letter from the 1830s… FINE.

     “…y’know what the best part of this job is? For me, it’s this sheet of paper… On any given day, this sheet is just another sheet in our collection, right? But then, one day–9/11 happens–and suddenly this sheet of paper becomes the most vital document in the U.S. government… That’s what we’re here to witness… We witness it and we protect it. We’re the caretakers of those sheets of paper that’ll someday define the writing of history…” (p. 96)

YASSSSS. THIS. We take care of ALL THE THINGS so they are there when they are needed and so that folks can use them to tell the world’s story. Every grain of sand is part of the beach. Every individual person’s story is part of the world’s story.

“…History isn’t written by the winners–it’s written by everyone–it’s a jigsaw of facts from contradictory sources…” (p. 255)

Again, every piece is a piece of the story. If you want to get crazy and convoluted about it, even the inaccurate documents are still a piece of the story. There’s a reason that document is wrong

I don’t have any more quotations to share (which is just as well, both for you and for me; hopefully I’m not past the limits of copyright fair use as it is!), but there were a few more interesting scenarios I wanted to note:

In the prologue (pp. 3-5), one character must deal with a situation in which a researcher (and a VIP one at that) is trying to remove (steal) a valuable document from the archives. Boo. That’s a situation no archivist ever wants to have to deal with, whether it’s Joe-Schmoe-you-wouldn’t-know-from-Adam or a high-ranking government official, whether it’s an ancestor’s naturalization record or the correspondence of a dead president. I think we can all agree that’s a scene right out of an archivist’s nightmares.

It is mentioned that the archivists are ranked monthly “in order of how many people we’ve helped” (p. 47). Is that the number of unique researchers or the number of questions answered? (One researcher might reply several times with multiple questions; see earlier commentary about getting a “pen pal.”) Either way, I thought this was interesting. I have no idea if that is something that NARA actually does. The segment says “it helps justify our jobs, but it also adds unnecessary competition.” True dat! I am glad we don’t do this at the archives where I work! For one thing, though, most of the reference questions (where I work) are answered by the reference manager, and we only have one of those. I suppose this could be more of a “thing” someplace huge like NARA where there are likely to be many reference archivists. But again, I have no idea if this is a scenario based in reality.

And finally, at one point, there is mention of a place called “Copper Mountain.” Ah, delightful; that gave me a chuckle. I suppose “Iron Mountain” must be trademarked. Iron Mountain is, according to their web site, is “a global business dedicated to storing, protecting and managing, information and assets.” Part of their storage network literally involves underground caves.

Now then, I really haven’t told you anything at all about the actual plot of the book (as promised, no spoilers), and I don’t plan to. I just wanted to share some of the particular snippets that were fun to read, as an archivist myself. I enjoyed the book well enough, and I would recommend it if the description (which you can read for yourself on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever else) sounds like the sort of thing you enjoy.

With any luck, it won’t be 4 months before I see you again!

Come & Hear My Genealogical Quilt Story on Jan. 29

"Tracing a Stitch through Time" with Lisa Rickey, Jan. 29, at 1:25 (click to enlarge)

“Tracing a Stitch through Time” with Lisa Rickey, Jan. 29, at 1:25 (click to enlarge)

Do you have an heirloom or antique item and wish you knew more about its creator or owner?  If the item is signed and dated, or if you at least know the name of the person rumored to be associated with it, you may be able to find out more—and an archives can help you!

I will be sharing my experience of one such research adventure this coming Friday, January 29, at the Wright State University Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies’ 3rd Annual Quilt Show Celebrating Quilt Stories.

In my presentation “Ida Grady’s Sunburst Quilt: Tracing a Stitch through Time,” I will describe how I researched the creator of an heirloom quilt. Given just a few original clues at the beginning — a name and date on the quilt itself, along with a vague sense that the quilter may have been a relative — I used local history and genealogy research to discover how the mysterious Ida Grady was connected to her family.

I will talk about some of the different types of historical records that were helpful and how the information contained in each one was applied to solving different pieces of the puzzle.

The antique quilt that started it all – “Sunburst” (1934) by Ida Grady – will be on display throughout the quilt show, as well as on hand during the presentation.

The presentation takes place on Friday, January 29, from 1:25 to 2:20 p.m. in 156C Student Union, Wright State University. The event is free, and the public is welcome. Visitor parking is available just outside the Student Union. To view the full schedule of speakers and activities for the multi-day quilt show & for more information, please visit the quilt show’s event page.

I hope to see you there!

(This post was modified slightly from the original post – also written by me – published January 22, 2016, on the Wright State University Special Collections & Archives “Out of the Box” blog.)

Visiting Kindred Spirits in St. Anne’s Hill

This past weekend, I attended a holiday homes tour in the St. Anne’s Hill historic district of Dayton. They hold their “Dickens of a Christmas Holiday Home Tour” fundraiser every other year (and in the other year they do a spring tour). You have a guided tour through the neighborhood, along with admittance to 6 or so beautifully decorated and cared for historic homes, mostly Victorian era. The tour wraps up with delicious bread pudding inside the well-known Bossler Mansion on Dutoit Street.

I had been on the Christmas tour once before (in 2011, I think it was), but the homes change from year to year, and it is worth repeating. I was particularly enticed to attend the tour this year because it was approximately 60 degrees, unlike the chilling cold and snow/freezing rain that I walked in last time. (Our poor tour guides in their Victorian winter dresses and capes were sweating it though!) I also chose a daytime tour this time, instead of an evening one, which made it easier to see what I was looking at outside!

I’m not going to tell you all about everything, and I don’t even have many pictures to share with you. After all, these are people’s homes, and although we were told that we could ask to take pictures and see if the owners would approve, I was just thrilled to be allowed inside at all..and quite frankly, I probably spend too much of my “tourist” experience looking through a camera lens, so in a way it was nice to just “be.”

You’re probably wondering what I came here to write about, if I’m not going to tell-all on tour details or show you photos of these gorgeous old houses in all their magnificence.

Well, there were a few snippets I want to share — these things that have stuck with me, following the tour. Most of these things have to do with the homes’ “stories” (you know how I love stories). In the interest of privacy, I will try not to “out” the owners or the house precisely, though if you were part of the tour (or are a member of the close-knit neighborhood), you’d likely be able to figure it out.

When you first enter each home, the owners usually have a brief introduction to share with you about the house — what they know about its history, what has been done to restore it, etc.

In one of these stories, the owner mentioned that his home had been lived in for several decades by a pair of unmarried sisters, prior to his acquisition of it. He said they didn’t do anything to the house for most of that time. So, on the one hand, they hadn’t made any improvements, but on the other hand, they also didn’t do anything BAD either. They just didn’t do anything, really…so they didn’t screw it up!

This story made me think of my Dad. I feel like I’ve heard him make a similar statement. The historic home I lived in when I was little (described in the previous blog post) had been occupied for decades only by two spinster sisters, whose father had the house built so it had only ever been in 1 family for its entire life of about 80 years. When my Dad got it, not a lot had been done to it over the years. Nothing good. But also nothing bad.

People do a lot of interesting things to houses, historic or not. The older the house, the wider the window of opportunity has been for someone to have done something interesting to it. Now, my high school best friend and I had an inside joke about the word “interesting.” One of us would say something was “interesting,” and the other would say, “Interesting like chocolate-covered grasshoppers, or interesting like So-and-So’s hair?” One was good, the other bad. (I’ll let you guess which was which.) But the point is, yes…sometimes people do good things to houses, and sometimes people do bad things.

Now of course, the homes we saw on the tour were all full of interesting good things. They’ve been loved — and lived in, some for 150+ years. Some had been “rescue” jobs, but they’re looking pretty good now (wonderful even!). Anyway, the point is — all of these homes, whatever their past, they are now being lovingly cared for by people who wanted a historic house to love and care for.

Believe it or not, that’s actually not quite where I’m going with my whole “kindred spirits” thing. I love old houses…to look at. I love to look at them. But I’m not sure I would love many of the realities of actually living in one. I want insulation and drywall and central air and brand new electric. Yeah yeah, I know you can put all these things into old houses, but it’s a lot harder.

Although, at least one couple on the tour actually did all that. When they purchased their house (for less than $10,000) several years ago, they said it was the neighborhood eyesore. It had not been well-loved for many years, and it needed a total gut-job (truly). (By the way, they bought it like 8 years ago and just moved in.) They kept a lot of it looking old — and even managed to keep a few original features, like the 1850s stair railing — but they also have drywall. (I know I probably seem to have this fixation with drywall, but let’s just say I’ve had enough of plaster walls from my 1949 Cape Cod, thankyouverymuch.)

One thing I remember thinking in that house was how much fun I think my uncles would have if I turned them loose on creating beautiful ornate woodwork that was actually new but made to look old. (Now would probably be a good time to tell you that my uncles are extremely talented finish carpenters as well as general contractors.) Or, maybe they would look at me like I was crazy. We’ll probably never know.

The house with the drywall and the 1850s staircase also featured a Christmas tree with a train running in a circle under it. The man said his father bought him that train for Christmas in 1949. “I was seven months old,” he said with a grin, “so you tell me who really wanted to play with a train.” That reminded me of Dad. And as if I needed another reason to like these people who had brought a 150-year-old house back from the brink and made it beautiful again, I noticed a copy of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers on an end table. Kindred spirits, indeed.

At another house, addressing us from a few steps up the staircase (as most of them did if there was a staircase in the front hall, which was many of them), the owner started off by saying that when they agreed to be part of the tour, they actually didn’t really know anything about the home’s history (and they hadn’t been the ones to restore it either), so she wasn’t sure what she would tell us for the introduction.

I was just making a mental note to approach her later to let her know that the library (either the one where I work at the university or the public library where I used to work) had plenty of great resources to help them learn more about their house, if they wanted to…when whipped out a piece of paper and continued, “…but then we received this letter in the mail.”

Out of the blue, the great-granddaughter of some previous owners, who had lived in the home for 50 years and raised several children there, had written to them, with memories of the house and pictures.

Of course everyone in the room, including myself, ooh’d and ahh’d. I mean, what an awesome thing to receive a letter like that! What an awesome thing to have thought to write it. I would love a letter like that. “Here, have some history of a place that’s now special to you, that has also been special to me.” (Of course you can see why I would love something like that, even just a story about such a thing; seeing as how I basically wrote a love letter to my childhood home in my previous post.)

But not everybody would care about something like that. Some people might not be interested in receiving such a thing. And far more people would even think to write such a thing, let alone actually do it. Some might even call it crazy.

But not me. And not that woman telling us the story from her staircase. And I dare say not the other 30 or so tour-goers standing around me, making the same murmurs of awe that I was making.

So, standing in that crowded living room, hearing that story and mentally telling myself don’t cry in public don’t cry in public (and I succeeded), I think that was the moment that gave me the “kindred spirits” feeling I used in the title.

Historic homes people? People who love them and live in them? People who love them enough to drop $22 for a chance to see inside just a few? Yep, these are my people, and this is our jam.

I should have probably saved that revelation for the end, but I’m writing this as it comes to me, with very few notes ahead of time. And the last two items come at or near the end of the tour, so…

At one of the last houses on the tour, the couple who lived there had actually gotten into character, portraying the Victorian doctor and his wife who had previously lived in their house. That in and of itself was great, and they both looked fantastic. They even had a little exhibit on “quack” Victorian medicine!

But something about the wife kept giving me this de ja vu feeling. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Even her name seemed familiar to me. I noticed a certificate on the wall with her name on it and checked it out to see what it was for, thinking perhaps she was a fellow library professional or something like that, who I might have heard of somewhere. Nope, totally different profession. I thought maybe she was someone I had helped when I worked at Dayton Metro Library, as I did a lot more reference desk work there than I do now; I saw a lot more people, I’m sure.

It came to me a couple of days later, while I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep (isn’t that always the way?). She had been a library patron, but at the university library where I work now, not at the public library. (Well, I expect she went there too, but it’s not where I met her…) I looked in our researcher log to confirm. Yes, that was it! She looked so familiar to me because she had come in last summer to research for this house tour—she mentioned it specifically. (I wonder now if she recognized me. She probably just wondered why I kept staring at her.)

It’s a pretty cool experience any time you get to see the amazing results of something that you, as a librarian or archivist, “helped” with — whether it’s a published book, a school project, or in this case…a performance!

That was actually the anecdote that first occurred to me as something I wanted to write about here…and then I thought of the others.

And finally, without further adieu, no post centering on the St. Anne’s Hill Dickens of a Christmas holiday homes tour would be complete without a mention of the spectacular Bossler Mansion. And that I have a couple of pictures of.

Bossler Mansion on Dutoit Street in St. Anne's Hill Historic District, Dayton, Ohio, Dec. 13, 2015 (photo by the author) (click to view larger)

Bossler Mansion on Dutoit Street in St. Anne’s Hill Historic District, Dayton, Ohio, Dec. 13, 2015 (photo by the author) (click to view larger)

As we were standing on the sidewalk in front of the home, one of the things our tour guide said about the house was that she had a special connection to it herself. In a previous life, the mansion had been converted into a multi-unit apartment building (this being an example of the “interesting” things people sometimes do to old houses). And during that era, her grandmother and her toddler-age mother had lived in one of the apartments. She said it was very emotional the first time she visited the room (yes, room, singular) that had been their apartment, and she got a little choked up just mentioning it to us. (Seriously people, stop making me almost-cry in public!)

So that’s the anecdote I have to share about the Bossler house. The true highlight of this stop on the tour, however, is the bread pudding (omigod, seriously so delicious) and the view of downtown Dayton out the little round west-facing window in the 4th story cupola. (Another reason I’m glad I chose a daytime tour this year!)

View of downtown Dayton, Ohio, as seen through the 4th story cupola of the Bossler Mansion, Dec. 13, 2015 (photo by the author)

View of downtown Dayton, Ohio, as seen through the 4th story cupola of the Bossler Mansion, Dec. 13, 2015 (photo by the author) (click to view larger)

So I’ll just leave you with that.

We keep this love in a photograph

It’s been so long, I think I’ll open with something light, before I even attempt to explain the title, the cryptic detail photographs, and this post that’s been ruminating since July.

brick road

brick road

So you’ve all probably seen those amusing picture+words images on Facebook. This morning, I saw this one that had a picture of an ordinary looking house and text that said this: I went by the house I grew up in and asked if I could go in and look around. They said no and slammed the door… Parents can be real jerks.

Ba-dum ching, right?

doorknob

doorknob

Lucky me, I don’t actually have that problem – neither the parents who are jerks nor the inability to re-visit my childhood homes, because my parents still own them both. (Actually, my mom once pointed out that my father currently owns every house he’s ever lived in, with the exception of the fraternity house at college…

stairs

stairs

When I saw that thing on Facebook this morning, I got inspired to finally sit the frick down and attempt to write this post I’ve been meaning to write since July. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it. To be honest, I’m still not; but I’m sitting here, and I’m writing it, so that’s something.

I say I’ve been meaning to write it since July because that was when I was last able to re-visit my first childhood home. The second one, my parents currently live in; I know I’m welcome there any time, with or without warning, and I have my own key. Now the first one, where I lived from birth until age almost-11, is a different story. Yes, I said my parents still own it, but they don’t just keep it on hand, sitting empty, for funsies; they rent it out. And I don’t know all the ins and outs of the landlord/renter relationship, but I get that it’s not really kosher to just randomly traipse people through the place even if you do own it. So, I had to wait until the place was unoccupied for my parents to take me there, and that time came this summer. The place was between renters, and it stayed empty for a few weeks while some work was being done on it, and stars (and schedules) aligned and I was able to get in and see it again.

transom

transom

Kicking back to the rumination — as I said, I’ve been filing things away for this post for months — I am reminded of a presentation I saw my supervisor give a couple of weeks ago. She was speaking to a group of college freshmen about local history, “reading” photographs, and “sense of place.” She led them in a story circle exercise, asking them questions like: Where were you born? Where are you from? and What do you consider ‘home’? (These questions all sound very similar, but they have different connotations and may elicit 3 totally different answers from the same person.) In opening up the story circle portion, she showed two photographs on the screen – an historical photograph (circa 1900) of her grandparents’ farm in Indiana and then a more contemporary photo of the same house, courtesy of Google Maps streetview. When she showed the older picture, she said that it looked more like what she remembered, and then going to the newer photo she added, “I think I’d probably cry if I saw the place today.” You, too, huh?

Judging from her inflection in that statement about crying over the current state of a beloved childhood place, I think I was crying for that same reason when I saw my old house in July. I’ll not go into details, because for one, my father wouldn’t want me to, and for another, that’s really not what this post is about. Point being, though, this most recent time, I don’t think it would confuse anyone as to why I might have been sad.

pocket door

pocket door

But this wasn’t the first time I had seen it since we moved out. I know I visited it once when I was about 12 or so (a year or two after we left). And I had been inside again once a few years ago. Both of those times, there actually were renters in it, but Mom knew I’d been wanting to see the place again, so she asked, and they assured her they didn’t mind.

Now, I don’t remember being sad or how I felt at all that time when I was 12. But the time a few years ago, the place looked perfectly fine. In fact, it was Christmas time, and the placed was all decked out with meticulously done holiday decorations, and there was literally a beautiful Christmas tree in each room of the first floor. And yet I still started sobbing in the middle of the dining room. What the hell, right?

They even asked me – I can’t remember if it was my mother or my husband – why I was crying, and I remember saying, “I don’t know.” I also remember that I knew I would cry before I went, but I couldn’t put words to why.

fireplace

fireplace

So, going back to today and that joke image about visiting your childhood home. I didn’t include the image itself in this post (except to link to it) partially because copyright (boo) and partially because I didn’t care for the look and feel of it. I spent about 20 seconds Googling “the house I grew up in” to see if I could find something similar but more attractive, but I blew that off because I “saw a butterfly” in the search results. It was another image, explaining the Welsh word “hiraeth”:

hiraeth

hiraeth

What is this? A word that sort of explains missing times and places that don’t really exist anymore? (OK, obviously the house still exists, but the house as my house, the house of my childhood no longer does.) A little more Googling on the Welsh hiraeth also led to Portuguese saudade, as well. I think both of these are probably tinged with a bit more cultural nostalgia than what I’m attempting to express, but I thought they were both pretty interesting words that are at least as close as I’ve seen, if not quite right. (I should really cease being surprised every time I have a “there’s a word for that?!” moment. I’m sure there is a word for everything; I just don’t happen to know them all.)

fireplace details

fireplace details

So what’s with all the cryptic architectural detail photos? In case you hadn’t guesses, these are from the photos I took at my old house that day this summer. (Did you really think I wouldn’t want to take a few — or a few hundred — photos of the place? Have you met me? OK, well, actually, most of you maybe haven’t…but anyway. Yeah I like photos.) The house is over 100 years old, so it has some pretty neat woodwork and other things going on, so in addition to the wide shots of every room (EVERY room), I wanted some close-ups as well.

Finally getting to the point of all the things: what does the title of this entry have to do with anything? You probably recognized it as a line from the recent Ed Sheerhan hit, aptly called “Photograph” (lyrics, music video).

The day I went to see my old house, I got off work early (so I could get there before it got too late in the evening- as this house is 2 hours from where I currently live), and of course as I was starting up the car, I was thinking of what I’d be doing that afternoon, and the first song that came on the radio as I was driving away was that song. Now, I don’t think the song is actually about a house, in any way, but when I hear these lines, I think of that moment, and I think of my house:

We keep this love in this photograph
We made these memories for ourselves
Where our eyes are never closing
Our hearts were never broken
Time’s forever frozen still

The time you can’t visit anymore? The place you maybe can’t visit anymore? At least, not as it was then; it can never be just as it was then, ever again, even if the physical space remains.

We keep this love in a photograph.

Dining room door to kitchen (2015), overlaid with Dad & me in 1983

Dining room door to kitchen (2015), overlaid with Dad & me in 1983

Please forgive my epically amateur Photoshopping skills.

Looking through the dining room to the front hall (2015), overlaid with Mom & me in 1983

Looking through the dining room to the front hall (2015), overlaid with Mom & me in 1983

I haven’t scanned a lot of my mom’s photos – mostly only my grandparents’ – so I didn’t have tons to work with already on my computer…

Dining room (2015), overlaid with my sister's baptism day in 1984

Dining room (2015), overlaid with my sister’s baptism day in 1984

…but you get the idea.

Back yard (2015), overlaid with me and Grandpa on the swingset in 1985

Back yard (2015), overlaid with me and Grandpa on the swingset in 1985

This one might be my favorite overlay:

family room (2015), overlaid with my 3rd birthday (1985) - aka the only picture of me in my underwear that you will ever find on the Internet. also, my dad built those bookcases.

family room (2015), overlaid with my 3rd birthday (1985) – aka the only picture of me in my underwear that you will ever find on the Internet. also, my dad built those bookcases.

Not an overlay but I’m sharing anyway:

Christmas 1986 (no overlay - I didn't have a shot of this particular corner but I loved this picture so I'm sharing anyway)

Christmas 1986 (no overlay – I didn’t have a shot of this particular corner but I loved this picture so I’m sharing anyway)

We made these memories for ourselves.

I have this thing hanging in my living room that says: “Home is where your story begins.” I was thinking about that this morning, in trying to figure out what I wanted to say in this post as well. I remember thinking, “That’s not necessarily accurate, depending on how you interpret it.” (Cue ridiculously pedantic explanation.) Going back to the whole story circles thing from earlier, what you currently consider “home” may or may not be the same place that your story begins, especially depending on how you choose to begin or define “your story.” I wasn’t thinking about it that hard when I bought it, and so I interpreted it that your story (your life) begins (began) at a place you consider(ed) home. Home is where a lot of your life happens (or happened).

exterior of my childhood home, 2015

exterior of my childhood home, 2015

So, that place was home. That house was the backdrop for a lot of the moments of our lives, for a lot of years. In fact, before my parents even lived there, before they were even married, the house is literally the backdrop for some important moments, such as the following, because my mom grew up in the house next-door (the one on the right):

Left, Mom on high school graduation day; middle, Mom & Dad on Mom's graduation day; right, Mom showing off her engagement ring.

Left, Mom on high school graduation day; middle, Mom & Dad on Mom’s graduation day; right, Mom showing off her engagement ring.

And because my grandparents lived next-door to that house for several years, in a longer story I won’t get into right now, my grandmother had these photos showing the house shortly after it was first built and the family who lived in it for the first 70 years:

circa 1910?

circa 1910?

original family, circa 1910?

original family, circa 1910?

I wonder what they would think of the house today? I wonder what they might have thought about the house when we lived in it? It has certainly changed a lot over the last 100 years.

So. I wanted to write a little something to commemorate my recent visit to my childhood home. And par for the course, I instead wrote a lot of something. (Again, have you met me?) I couldn’t put my finger on what it is about the place that makes me feel the way I feel about it. A bit of “neat old house,” a lot of memories and nostalgia, a lot of just me being hyper-emotional about all things micro-history (and oh god, if we’re talking about my own personal micro-history).

I think I’m all poured out. I’ll leave you with one last questionable Photoshop job, and I think I’ll peace out:

exterior 2015, overlaid with historical photo ca. 1910

exterior 2015, overlaid with historical photo ca. 1910

This is a great story, unfortunately…

This is a great story.
Unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.

I finally got around to watching last week’s episode of TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? The program, sponsored (at least in part) by Ancestry.com, follows the journey of a celebrity (one per episode) in learning more about their family’s history.

Last week’s episode (August 23) was about actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the MiddleBreaking Bad, etc.), and a segment of it took place here in Dayton, Ohio, where one of Cranston’s ancestors was a resident at the Soldiers’ Home (now the Dayton VA Medical Center).

I was hoping to see some familiar faces in the Dayton segment, as I know that in addition to the folks at the Dayton VA, some of my friends (and fellow Dayton history preservers) at the Dayton Metro Library and the Montgomery County Archives & Records Center provided assistance for the episode. However, only one Dayton person made it on screen — Tessa Kalman of the Dayton VA – and I confess I do not know her.

Without giving away ALL the details of the episode — which I think you can theoretically watch online here — and which is not the reason I came here to write, anyway — I will say that there was a bit of a theme to what was revealed in Cranston’s ancestry: fathers who abandoned their families.

At the beginning of the episode, Cranston expressed that he hoped he would find something exciting, something that would make a good story, though he acknowledged that something that makes a good story probably wasn’t actually so good for the people it actually happened to.

My mind immediately went to the story of a particular great-grandmother, before I even knew what the rest of the episode would entail.

Cranston finds that his grandfather had a first wife and a daughter that he’d never heard of (the daughter died of TB as a teen); the grandfather left this family, enlisted in World War I a few years later, and later went on to have another family with Cranston’s grandmother. A more distant ancestor did something similar, abandoning a wife and son in Canada and eventually enlisting in the American Civil War.

At about that point in the episode, Cranston observed: “This is a great story; unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.”

If I ever write a book about the story I’m thinking of (my sister Sara keeps telling me I should write books), I’ll have to remember to put that on the flyleaf or something (credited, of course)…

The story pertains to my great-grandmother Nunziata. She was born in Italy and later immigrated to Ohio.

Before Nunziata was married to my great-grandfather, she had a first husband named Silvio, who abandoned her. He left her pregnant with a daughter he would never even meet. He eventually went back to Italy himself and served in World War I.

Silvio may or may not have died fighting in the Alps. I’m not being cute; I’m really not sure. I have a clue that seems to indicate that is indeed how he met his end, but I’m not completely sure it was him. On the one hand, I kind of hope so, because “that’s what you get for abandoning your pregnant wife and leaving the country, jerkwad.” On the other hand, if he hadn’t done so, I probably never would have been born. So…there’s that.

Nunziata married and had 3 more children, one of them being my grandmother. She died at age 24 of tuberculosis, leaving those 4 small children (age 7 and under), including the daughter by her first husband. That daughter also later died of tuberculosis, at age 19.

my great-grandmother Nunziata

my great-grandmother Nunziata

That’s Nunziata in the image above, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I find it difficult to believe that as the face of a woman aged 24 years or younger (because Nunziata died at 24 so could not be older than that in any photograph)…she looks so much older. But I know that people of the past tended to look older, sooner, because life was harder then — especially if their lives were harder than average. And from what I know about it, she certainly had a tumultuous life.

There’s more to the story than what I’ve written here — well, isn’t there always? There’s always more to any historical story than we could ever know. But in this case, I mean, there’s actually more to this one that I do know but have elected not to share. I recently found out many more details about this woman with the short and dramatic life. But when I excitedly recounted these recently discovered gold nuggets of information to my father — it was “a great story,” after all — he did not seem to share my excitement. To be honest, I think he may have even been less than thrilled that I had uncovered them at all — 100-year-old details that even he didn’t know, yet I think he would have been content to have never known. Anyway, I doubt he would be too happy if I laid them all out here.

But getting back to Cranston’s story and that concise little sound bite: “This is a great story; unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.”

I guess I was just glad to hear someone else say that — to recognize a really enthralling story for what it is, but yet, even though it’s got the makings of a great tragic novel…it’s not fiction, and more than that, it’s something that happened to not just a real person, but to someone in your family. And that in addition to being justifiably mesmerized by “the story,” you should probably try to remember to be at least a little bit sad about it, because for somebody (actually more than one somebody) that wasn’t just a story; that was their life.

They all add up

Hope that you spend your days but they all add up.  -One Republic, “I Lived”

I heard this song on the radio on the way to work this morning. Usually when I hear it, I think of my grandfather, because it seemed to be getting very popular on the radio around the time he died, just before Thanksgiving last year.

This morning, I was already thinking about Howard Forrer — yes, my favorite Civil War soldier.

There are certain dates that stick with me — the ones that are important enough to remember “there’s something about today” but not quite important enough that you are consciously aware of them before they arrive (like a loved one’s birthday or your anniversary or Christmas). The birthdays of my high school friends are like that. Or the anniversary of the day I graduated from college (the first time).

July 22nd is like that.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while (like 3+ years), you’ll probably remember Howard Forrer. If not, you can read about him here or  read a longer story version here in some entries from 2012.

Howard died July 22, 1864, in the Battle of Decatur, Georgia. He was a 23-year-old unmarried adjutant in the 63rd Ohio. Before he enlisted, he was a young teacher in Dayton, Ohio.

Sometimes I wonder what these long-dead people would think about my (our?) remembering them, researching them, spending any time thinking about them at all. Would they be pleased that anyone remembers them or thinks them worth remembering? Would they be annoyed (or worse angry) at our putting their lives under a microscope? Would they think we’re crazy for wasting our time — our lives, which we still have time to live — recalling theirs?

Would Howard think, Oh it’s nice that you find me so fascinating. I appreciate being remembered. I didn’t have any children, so I’m humbly pleased anyone even remembers my name.

Or would he think, What are you doing? I only got 23 years! All the things I didn’t do? You could do them! What are you doing thinking about me? I’m dead. Go out and do all the things!

(If I’d had access to more of his own writings, I might have some sense of the answer, but I didn’t…so…)

I like to think that people who in life had an interest in history themselves might “get it” — but obviously not every person a historian might research would have cared about such things.

I recently read the following lines in a novel (Rapture by Lauren Kate):

The past is important for all the information and wisdom it holds. But you can get lost in it. You’ve got to learn to keep the knowledge of the past with you as you pursue the present.

You’d think someone who gave the whole “carpe diem” spiel in her high school valedictorian speech might actually internalize the sentiment and not just understand the Latin.

But you’re also talking about the same girl who named her blog “Glancing Backwards” and remembers a certain Civil War soldier every year on the day of his death (and will remember him again in November on the day he was finally laid to rest in his hometown).

It’s hard not to get lost in things, especially when you really want to.

That Odd Stone Church

I haven’t written here in months, and I’m sorry for that. Any completely truthful explanation I could give you is going to be a long story and, to be perfectly honest, one I probably shouldn’t tell here. But I’d like to be back.

However, when I’ve tried to think about writing some great “comeback” post to get back on track, it doesn’t happen. So I thought maybe I’d start with something small. Just an interesting snippet of history that I was reminded of earlier today.

My friend Collette and I attended a home and garden tour in one of Dayton’s historic neighborhoods, Grafton Hill, this afternoon. I really enjoyed it — such beautifully restored historic homes and carefully tended gardens. I even love seeing the neighborhood homes that aren’t actually “on” the tour and maybe still need some TLC.

I was delighted to see that at least two of the homes on the tour had proudly displayed binders containing their house histories, researched and written by a friend and fellow local historian, Betsy Wilson. (I was totally hogging the “history tables” at these homes. I knew Betsy must do good work, but I’d never actually seen one of her house histories. That. Was. Awesome.)

Anyway. At one of the stops, I overheard one tour-goer talking to a homeowner about the neighborhood with regards to Dayton’s Great Flood of 1913 — or, okay, we usually just call it “the 1913 flood.” But in all seriousness, it was a big deal. If you want to know more about the flood itself, I’m going to shamelessly direct you to a variety of posts we wrote about the 1913 flood on the blog at the archive where I work (several of which were indeed written by yours truly), but honestly for a quick and dirty summary, just see Wikipedia.

But so anyway, this gentleman was talking about a church just down the street, and that he had seen a picture of people getting out of rescue boats at the edge of the church. This was included as evidence supporting the statement that no, the neighborhood was not flooded because it was on high ground, as demonstrated by this photo that people were getting OUT of rescue boats at the edge of the neighborhood, at that church. I swear I wasn’t “eavesdropping,” per se, but it was pretty hard for my ears not to perk up at the mention of the 1913 flood…or, ok, anything history-related, really.

But this in particular caught my attention because I knew exactly what photo the man was describing.

A few years ago (May 2011), I made geo-tagged maps of all the 1913 flood photographs and postcards in the collections of the Dayton Metro Library, where I used to work. I am saddened to see that those maps no longer seem to exist on the site “GeoSlideshow.” But in any event, in making that map—and trying to figure out where all the photos were taken, so I could “drop” them at the appropriate spot on the map,…well, let’s just say I stared at some of those photos for a long time.

He was talking about this:

“Rescue Boats.” Caption from the back: “Depth of water at that odd stone church, Grand Avenue.” 1913 Flood Postcard #206 (image identifier flp_206a1), courtesy of Dayton Metro Library digital collections (also on Flickr).

I love it when that happens. When somebody mentions something off the cuff about Dayton’s history and it’s like being reminded of an old friend.

(Note that the caption from the back of the original postcard said: “Depth of water at that odd stone church, Grand Avenue.” Hence, the title of this post. It certainly is an unusual looking church.)

We took a little drive around the neighborhood after the official tour time was over, and we happened to drive by that church. We got stuck at a red light, so I whipped out my camera for this awful through-the-windshield photo:

Presbyterian church, northwest corner of Forest and Grand avenues, Dayton, Ohio. Photo by the author, July 11, 2015.

Presbyterian church, northwest corner of Forest and Grand avenues, Dayton, Ohio. Photo by the author, July 11, 2015. (View on Flickr)

It’s not a great angle for seeing that it is in fact the same church, but trust me, it is. The historical photo was taken near what is the left-hand side of today’s photo. You can see the tiled roof and part of that arched window.

It seems to be called either Northminster Presbyterian Church or Forest Avenue Presbyterian Church. I can’t seem to find a web site or much online about it.

And that’s not really the point of this entry anyway — to give you a history of the church or to even really know what it’s called.

I just….ran into an “old friend” today and thought I’d share.

I’ve actually got some better, recent stories about spending time with “old friends” in Dayton’s history, but those may have to wait a while, for various reasons.