Did you ever wonder why your ancestors never smiled in those cabinet card photograph cards from the 1800’s? It’s because the exposure time for the film was so long that they had to stand very, very still while dressed in their finest feather hats and high-button shoes. If we were to fast-forward a few years to my generation, getting pictures meant taking snapshots until the roll of film was finished, sealing the special envelope, and waiting for your photographs to arrive at the drugstore or in the mail. With self-developing Polaroid film, you could snap a picture, the camera would spit it out, and you would wave it around for a minute or two until the ink dried, then peel off the backing and voila! out came a badly focused picture of your teenage friends in silly poses. It was expensive, but fun. Later, one-hour photo shops popped up in malls and drugstores all across America. Today, in the digital era, everything is done in an instant. You can cut, crop, edit, and post your photo on Instagram or Facebook in no time at all and for everyone to see. I appreciate the ability of today’s camera phones to delete anything that I don’t approve, because truthfully, I could win an award for being the world’s least photogenic person. We have several family portraits that have been taken over the years with HIM, who looks ruggedly handsome despite the fact that he never smiles in photographs, our adorable little girl, and someone sitting beside them who looks like Whistler’s mother’s ugly stepsister. I even had a dinner guest once ask if the lady in the picture was HIS first wife. Somehow, in portraits and snapshots, my skin turns a whiter shade of pale, I look 20 pounds heavier, and I have some sort of expression on my face that makes me look like I have smelled a skunk. Our photo albums aren’t any better because HE always thought it was hilarious to snap a picture of me in my bathrobe with hair uncombed, making pancakes on a Saturday morning. There is one very strange habit that is happening everywhere: Selfies. For those of you who may not know, selfies are photographs that you take of yourself. I don’t really understand why. Some people take them with vacation hotspots in the background. Teenage boys take them with their caps on backward and teenage girls take them with their lips all pouty-looking. Celebrities take them with their lips all pouty-looking while naked, then store them in something up in cyberspace called a cloud and are surprised when they are stolen by a computer hacker and published for all the world to see. I have tried to take a few selfies (fully clothed, of course). You probably won’t see them on Instagram or Facebook, or anywhere else. Somehow, despite the crisp digital images, my skin turns a whiter shade of pale and I look 20 pounds heavier. Even with pouty lips, the expression on my face makes me look like I have smelled a skunk. It’s funny how some things are always changing, and some things never do.
Back in the days before cell phones, automatic voice dialing, and caller ID, there was a gadget called a rotary telephone. It hung on the wall or was placed on the desk and had a round dial with numbers and letters. You could dial “0” and get an operator who would look up a number for you, give weather updates, and answer important questions like “Is your refrigerator running?” or “Do you have Prince Albert in the can?” When I was growing up, we had a party line, which meant that our line was shared by others in the neighborhood. Party lines were cheaper than private lines, and my parents, who grew up during the depression years, saved money any way they could. We shared our line with the Kozisek family. Mrs. Kozisek chatted on the phone every afternoon, and I was really good at quietly picking up the receiver and listening in on her conversations. Our phone had an extra long cord, and I would cover the mouthpiece with one hand while slooowly lifting the receiver so it wouldn’t click, then stretch the cord as long as it would go to the top of the attic stairs which led to my bedroom. I sat there quietly with the receiver to my ear, barely breathing so I wouldn’t give myself away. I don’t know why I was so snoopy, and I honestly don’t remember a single one of her conversations, but apparently it was great entertainment for me at the time. We were lucky to share our line with only one other neighbor. My friend, who lived out in the country, shared hers with three other families. One phone line being used by all the teenagers in the neighborhood had to be a difficult situation, and I remember that we didn’t often share any secrets over the telephone because you never knew who might be listening. Since one line was shared by all the families, anyone could interrupt a conversation at any time, and anyone calling the party line would get a busy signal no matter which family was using the phone. I remember many interruptions by the older teens ranging from “Get off the phone, I’m expecting an important call” to “Get off the *@#% phone. NOW!”. Mrs. Kozisek never resorted to using naughty words, at least none that I heard, but there were several times when she politely asked me to hang up. I am ashamed to admit that I took my sweet time doing it, too. Finally, she just couldn’t take it any more. It was a sad day for my parents when they had to pay for a private line, but secretly, I was thrilled. I could stretch out that extra long telephone cord, sit on the top step, and talk for as long as I wanted. Down the street at her house, Mrs. Kozisek was probably doing exactly the same thing.
Years ago, every town had a bakery or two, and every bakery had a baker or two. If you went to your favorite bakery for a dozen cookies or rolls or doughnuts, you got 13 instead of 12. Since my mom was a fantastic cook, we rarely got “store-bought” goodies in our family. I do remember stopping once with her while on vacation for a white paper bag of cookies and was fascinated by the fact that a dozen cookies was really not a dozen cookies. Or maybe I was just fascinated by the bag of cookies. Mom, as most moms tend to do, turned it into a math lesson. Elementary math is much easier when learned with cookies rather than calculators. Although I would much rather think of a kindly baker dusting the flour off his apron to hand out an extra sweet treat as the origin of the baker’s dozen, it was really started as a preventative measure to keep the baker from having his fingers or ears chopped off for cheating his customers in those wonderful days of yore. Since a dozen bread rolls should have equalled a pound of bread, the baker threw in an extra one to make sure his customer got what he was paying for and the baker could go home with all of his body parts intact. It got me thinking that in many ways, we are like those cheating bakers. In our busy world, we cheat ourselves and others of what’s really important trying to make time for the things that in the grand scheme of things, don’t make a bit of difference at all. What if we all chose to give that little bit of extra, our own baker’s dozen of sorts, in our everyday lives? What would happen if we gave an extra dollar to our church, local school, or favorite charity? What if we shut down our computers, put down our remotes, and volunteered for one extra hour each week? What if we took our first negative thought of the day and turned it into a positive one? What if we give our family an extra hug or an “I love you” before we go to bed tonight? There are roughly 316 million people in our country today. That’s 316 million dollars, hours, and positive thoughts just for today. Don’t think I’m forgetting about those bedtime hugs. 316 million sweet dreams tonight is bound to make the world a better place tomorrow. Those dreams would be sweeter than a dozen cookies any day, even if it is a baker’s dozen.
When I turned 40 and my dad was nearing 75, I started asking him a lot of questions about his ancestors. I knew most of my cousins well, and a few of them not so well, but what I yearned for were the stories of the previous generations. The immigrants. The pioneers. Those that came before and after them. Since Dad didn’t know a lot himself, I started searching the internet for relatives known and unknown, dead and alive. I sent letters around the country and much to my surprise, received answers to my queries. Many people who were not even related sent me a response and a “good luck with your search” reply. I was hooked. When the search for my own relatives would slow down, I started researching HIS relatives. Mine were pretty much what you would expect: Solid Norwegian/Finnish/Danish Lutheran farmers. Pretty tame folks. The only scandal was one I already knew. Great-aunt Clara divorced, left her children, and moved to California. It was something nobody talked much about. HIS family is much more exciting with connections to Lewis and Clark, Revolutionary War heroes, and the Trail of Tears. He couldn’t care less about his heritage, however, and if you ask him his nationality, he will say “I am an American”. With those ancestors, I would have to wholeheartedly agree. Most relatives and friends with whom I share my information are interested, but have not been overly enthusiastic…until Cousin Deb. She gets it. She is a writer also, and has been working diligently to find out the details and the stories of our family with countless hours spent poring over papers and microfilm. About once a year, we get together and pull out our information to share. My data now fills a large storage tote and Deb isn’t far behind, although I must admit that she is much more organized than I am. We pour the wine and spread our papers and photos out across the entire dining room table, discussing each branch of the family tree, down to the tiniest twig. I’ve learned that even though we may not have Revolutionary War heroes in our family, America’s foundation was built on the strength of farmers and church-builders and women like Great-aunt Clara, who wasn’t so scandalous after all. It must have been very hard for a divorced woman trying to feed her children during the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, and jobs for women were scarcer. When the war started, she left them with her mother and became a defense worker in California, where she had relatives. Our very own Rosie the Riveter, who kept America going on the home front while the men went off to war. She must have missed those children terribly, but as her strong ancestors before her, she did what she had to do. Someday, Clara’s story will be told from beginning to end, but for now, we will just continue our work in her memory.
Just in case this story reaches any other genealogists:
I love Fall. I love the changing leaves, pumpkins, harvest time, and the Highway 38 garage sales. The sales are a yearly event in which half the county cleans out closets and sells piles of their stuff and the other half of the county drives around unfamiliar neighborhoods trying to find the best bargain. If it sounds chaotic, it certainly is. This year I went with the usual crew, minus my sister, who had to work. We are old friends who have known each other for years and can still giggle like the young neighborhood girls we once were. We use the driving time between sales to catch up on each other’s lives and discuss important things like where we will eat lunch. Something we noticed this and every year is that everyone has way too much stuff. Garages, yards, and attics full of stuff. Boxes and tables full of stuff. Pay-by-the-month storage units full of stuff. If you read this and think I am judging you, think again, because I have just as much stuff as you do. We had a large sale during the summer, and I sold lots of my own stuff and lots of my mother’s stuff. What was left was donated to the church for their big sale two weeks ago. I found some great stuff there, too! At several sales this weekend, I saw my own stuff being sold again. This is three times over the course of three months! After that, I came up with an idea: How about we all pack up a large box of unwanted and/or unused stuff and pass it on to the house on the left…or the right. We’ll have to pick one and stick to it or we’ll get own stuff back next week. Do this once a month, and no money passes hands. We’re all exchanging the same few dollars back and forth anyway. Admit it. You earn $100 at your garage sale and spend the summer trickling it away at the other sales in the neighborhood. You use it for a year or two, then sell it again at your own sale to another neighbor. This method of getting rid of things would not only clean out our attics and garages, it would give us an opportunity to get to know our neighbors and save us a lot of time. If you don’t like the stuff you get, you can put it in the box for next month’s exchange or wrap and re-gift it to your brother-in-law for Christmas. Just think of the money we could save on gifts! Now comes the fun part: In about 45 years, after crossing numerous county and state lines, your children will get their old toys back! It will stop all of that “I used to have that when I was a kid but my mom got rid of it, so I’ll buy this one at the antique store for $95″ type of mentality. The only unhappy people would be the antique dealers and the IRS. Please don’t tell the IRS this was my idea, or they’ll be auditing me for the next 40 years. Ready? Set? Go!
Since my life is an open book, most people know that I am frugal, logical, and almost a hoarder. Not quite, but almost. When it comes to buying things on sale, the frugal part of me says “Yay! A good price!” The logical part of me says “Don’t buy that gigantic bottle of shampoo that is buy-one-get-one-free. That is way too much shampoo for just the two of you.” The hoarder part of me says “How many can I buy at that price?” I only bought two, but technically only bought one, since it was buy-one-get-one-free, otherwise known as BOGO. We now have enough shampoo to last us well into 2015, unless someone runs it on sale for $.99 a bottle, in which case we will have enough to last us until next Christmas. Those of you raising teenage girls will only have enough to last about a month. The grocery stores try to trick us frugal logical hoarders. They may call it ‘marketing strategies’, but I call it trickery. Last week, canned green beans (HIS favorite) were $.75 a can. We have been eating green beans from the garden, but I didn’t can any because I ran out of time, energy, and green beans. This week, there were big signs and advertisements in the newspaper and grocery store saying “Special! 12 cans for $9.00!”. Now, let’s just say that my grades in creative writing were much better than my grades in math, but even I can figure that one out. People were loading their carts, though. There is something about a cold snap that makes people want to stock up on supplies as if the Zombie Apocalypse was just around the corner. Why is there never BOGO on things like Parmigiano Reggiano cheese ($15.99/lb on a good day, but don’t tell HIM) or the four-roll packages of good toilet paper? The cheap toilet paper lasts only about a day and a half, and the only way to save any money on the good stuff is to buy 20-roll packages. My linen closet has more shelves for toilet paper than sheets and towels. I have a suggestion for the Grocery Store and Product Advisory Board, if there really were really such a thing. Stop offering BOGO and make the product 50% off instead. Stop spending money on glitzy advertising and coupons. In fact, do away with coupons altogether. That alone should save trees, money, and calories. We don’t need “$1.00 off two megasupersize packages” of cereal that will be stale before it is eaten, except for those of you who are raising teenage boys or preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse. Use the millions of dollars you will save to decrease food prices all over the country. Charge us a price that is fair to you, the farmer, and the customer. Stop the gimmicks, the unnecessary extra packaging, and although this is still done at a few stores in small-town America, could we please have our groceries carried out to the car again? Exhausted parents of wiggly toddlers and tired old Farm Woman everywhere will thank you.
I got a message from an old friend the other day who asked if I would email her “idiot-proof” directions to our cabin. She thought she might find it by relying on her memory, but the last time she was there she and her two small children (now young adults) slid down the mile-long driveway in the dark, during a downpour complete with lightning and thunder. I’ve been going to that cabin since I was a baby, and never once actually looked at the county or township road numbers. Besides, if she relied on her over-50 memory, she could perhaps get lost in the middle of nowhere, looking for a cabin that is already in the middle of nowhere. Who knows where she might end up? There is one fire number for three driveways, so I’m not quite sure if it is ours or belongs to the neighbor. It is not that I don’t care about these things, but if God forbid there ever were a fire, the nearest volunteer fire department is about 15 miles away, so we know there wouldn’t be much left of a small old cabin and the outhouse next to it. My directions went something like this: “Turn right at that old place where we used to get ice cream bars when we were kids if we didn’t pinch each other and tattle about it on the way there. Go down the road a couple of miles and take a left where that falling-down old farmhouse used to be. The barn is still there but the house isn’t. Drive a few more miles, going up the big hill that Mom got stuck on. (An event that happened in 1967, but the poor woman never heard the end of it.) Go a few miles more, turning right until you get to the spot where that holocaust used to be but now there are a couple of nice lake homes there. (Yes, holocaust. I typed “resort” and Autocorrect decided for some reason it should be “holocaust”, which of course I didn’t notice until I had pushed the send button.) Turn left and follow Oluffson Road past the intersection. Here the road gets a little sketchy, but you should be OK because you only need a 4-wheel drive in the spring when it is really muddy after the snow melts. Bear right at the Y, and we are the driveway immediately on the left. There is a red gate with a hand-painted sign which reads “Crazy as loons” in red, white, and blue. That’s to keep the riffraff out.” No, these are not the real directions to our cabin. (With apologies to Oluf of Oluffson Road and any loons who might be offended at being called crazy.) Not that we don’t like company, but unexpected company just might catch us emerging from the sauna, and I wouldn’t want to scare anyone too badly. My friend said she wasn’t sure she could make it or not, and she never did show up. Either she changed her mind, is lost in the middle of nowhere, or she caught a glimpse of us coming out of the sauna. After all, it was Saturday night, and everyone knows that Saturday is sauna night in northern Minnesota.