Sunday, May 8, 2011

5 Inspirational Mothers I'll Never Meet

These are 5 women, all of whom raised famous and amazing people, whose mothering has enhanced what I've learned from the great mothers in my family.  They are, none of them, Tiger Mothers or world famous in their own right.  Their claim to immortality is the amazing children they raised.  Here are some of these amazing mothers:

1.  Jane Goodall's Mother - Jane Goodall, the famous chimpanzee observer, biologist, and anthropologist, tells a story about her intense childhood desire to figure out chickens and eggs.  She snuck away and spent the night in the chicken coop, carefully watching the hens.  Her mother was frantic with worry.  But when Jane was found, she was so excited about her discoveries that her mother couldn't bear to scold her, and instead sat and listened as Jane told her about the chickens.

2. Les Paul's Mother - When Les Paul, the guitar master and inventor, got his first bar gig, he was appalled by the loudness he was expected to play over.  He came home and asked his mother for her transistor radio,  which she gave him quite willingly, (according to him.)  He took it apart to make his first amplifier. 

3. Guglielmo Marconi's Mother - Marconi never did well in regular school, all he wanted to do was work with electricity.  He didn't care about any study that didn't enhance this central goal.  Maybe today he would be called autistic, but then, he was seen simply as eccentrically focused. So his mother took him out of school and built him a lab in the attic.  From those studies, he developed his theories of wireless communication that are essential to our world today.

4. Amelia Earhart's Mother - Amelia became obsessed with learning to fly in about 1920.  She needed $1000 dollars for flying lessons, and worked several jobs to earn it.  When she still didn't have enough, her mother, despite misgivings, gave her the rest.  And Amelia learned to fly.

5. Maya Angelou's Grandmother - Maya was raised by her grandmother, whom she called 'Momma.'  She has said that when Maya walked into the room, her grandmother's face lit up.  The knowledge that she brought joy into her grandmother's life simply by being present gave her the strength and courage to become the woman she became.

All these mothers simply loved their children, and supported their dreams wholeheartedly.  If they hadn't, in tiny moments, treasured and honored the people their children were, our world would be so much poorer, so much less.  It was the small sacrifices and gestures that their children remember, not big expenditures, expensive schools, ferocious insistence on test scores and homework or rigorous discipline.  Maybe some great mothers are shown to us by the great children they raise.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bransons, Part II: Heroes, Namesakes, and Defiance Revealed.

Sometimes the names in a genealogy tell a story so clearly.  For years, I have wondered about the name of my great-great-grandfather, George Washington Branson.  Why name him that?  What kind of patriotic leaning caused that name?  His sons were named Henry Clay and Isaac Newton, so I knew there was a sense of history in the family.  For years, I thought it was nothing more than that.

But now I know why: George's great-grandfather, Eli.  Eli Branson was born in New Jersey in 1734.  His father and grandfather were also born in New Jersey.  His family were Quakers, and this may be the reason they came to America.  But Eli ran into problems with the faith, as he was disowned by the Quakers of the Cane Creek, NC Meeting in 1767.

Eli lived in North Carolina with his wife Keziah and his 6 children.   In 1771, he fought on the 'regulator' or rebellion side against the Governor in the Battle of Almanace, a North Carolina precursor to the Revolution.  When they lost the battle, the governor executed 6 of the rebels, and forgave the others on condition that they swear an oath of allegiance to the king.

When the Revolution started, Eli stuck with the oath, joined the Tories, and became a captain under Cornwallis.  He was captured at Yorktown in 1781 and released in 1783, probably during the last prisoner exchange of the war.  He went to Nova Scotia where he received a land grant in 1784.  But instead he goes to England and married (without divorcing Keziah) Jane Rankin, the daughter of another famous Loyalist, William Rankin.  They have two children, Anne and Charles Cornwallis, named after Eli's hero and commander.  The year Charles is born, 1788, Eli went back to Canada alone and applied for reimbursement for damage to his land by the rebels in North Carolina.  He then settled in South Carolina, brought Keziah down from North Carolina and lived with her until his death in 1797.

When Eli was captured at Yorktown, his son John was 17.  What was it like for him and the rest of the children left behind in North Carolina?  It can't have been easy.  What stories were told?  What resentments were built up?  We can only guess, but the heroes and namesakes provide solid clues.  John named his first son Andrew Jackson Branson.  It seems he knew or admired future President Andrew Jackson, who was a solicitor in North Carolina in 1788.  So John named his first-born son not after his father, who might have been back in contact by then, but after a man who was a soldier in the Revolutionary army at age 13, a man who was scarred for life by the sword of a British officer whose boots he refused to clean and who hated the British from that day on.  He named his second son William, and his third Benjamin Borden, after one of the Benjamin Bordens who were Eli's uncle and great-uncle.  The uncle was one of the most successful landowners in Virginia, the great-uncle a legislator in Rhode Island.  John chose his sons' namesakes from his own hero list, and they are different men from his father's heroes.

John's second son William was 6 when Eli died.  He may never have met his Tory grandfather, but he did follow the family tradition of naming his sons for his heroes.  His first son, Isaac Newton Branson, was born in 1825.  His second, Benjamin Burden Branson, in 1830.  And in 1833, George Washington Branson was born and named after the man who defeated the great Cornwallis who his grandfather so revered.

So now I see that George was not merely named in some patriotic fervor.  He was the coup-d'etat in a multi-generational war, the final pin in the reviled effigy of his grandfather.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Little Mirror

This is my little mirror, bought in a flea market somewhere long ago.  It is a single piece of old beveled glass in a dovetail frame.  I don't know its history, but I had long hair and a penchant for updos who needed a mirror to see the back of my head. As I moved to larger digs with better mirrors, it became a merely decorative item.

Then I read No Time On My Hands by Grace Snyder.  If you haven't read it, but have an interest in pioneer living, pioneer women, or the history of the Great Plains, you need to read it.  It's long, but well worth the journey.  My first thought was that it made the Little House families look like wimps.  My second was that much of the book takes place in the 20th century - the hardships aren't ancient, by any means.  My third was that she changed my perception of my little mirror forever.

Grace Snyder was known as The Queen of Nebraska Quilters.  She quilted from when she was a child watching cattle in the field.  She married in 1903 and lived in isolation in the Nebraska Sandhills for basically her entire 100 years.  She created one of the most famous quilts of the 20th century: the 85,789 piece Flower Basket Petit Point, shown here from the Nebraska Historical Society.

Her depiction of life in a soddy was so vivid that it has affected my relationship with my little mirror.  Now whenever I look at it, I can see it hanging on the wall of  a one-room whitewashed house, with curtains over tiny windows and the room divided by corners - kitchen, bedroom, sitting,  dining table.  I can see a husband planing and sanding the frame, meaning it as a present for a wife he thinks is beautiful.  I can see her thinking carefully about where to put it - away from the smoke of the fire, but with good light and a pleasant background.  I can see her straining to see the full effect of a bonnet she's finished or a dress she's sewn.   I can see her polishing it with care at first but then, as she ages, not looking at it so frequently.

My family, on the Evans/Sheldon side, was also in Nebraska, but on the Eastern side of the state, in Douglas and Platte counties.  So I don't have any personal ties to the world Grace Snyder inhabited.  But I appreciate her stories, her quilts, and my little mirror all the more for that reason.   Grace and these pioneer women, whether we are related or not, were extraordinary in their strength, their patience, and their ability to make a tiny thing like a scrap of cloth or a bit of mirror precious and important.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Goers and The Stayers: Genetic Geography?

I grew up in Colorado, in a military town where almost no one had grown up in the place they were living as adults.  So when I spend a year living in Boston, I was in culture shock on multiple levels.   Boston is a city built for people that have always lived there.  They encourage tourists to stay on a little red line through town.  They avoid labeling major streets to save money, figuring everyone who mattered knew the names.  Every neighborhood has a funeral parlor, a Sons of Ireland, and a Sons of Italy.  Needless to say, I didn't exactly fit in.  And the effort made to alienate people irritated both my geographer and my usability expert selves. 

I concluded that there are goers and stayers.  The people in Colorado are goers - high risk, high mobility, high flexibility.  The people in Boston are stayers - high sentiment, high tradition, high permanence.  I had a feeling I was the latest in a long line of goers, and Boston wasn't going to be the place for me.

Fast forward 18 years, and I am working on my family's genealogy and my husband's. 

And sure enough, I found my goers.  Some of my relatives had children born in 5 or 6 different states as they made their journeys: Virginia, then Kentucky, then Indiana, then Iowa, then Nebraska, then Oregon.  One relative - William Jones - went across the Oregon Trail, parked his family, headed to the California goldfields, went around South America by boat, and then came back across the Oregon Trail again.  I'm pretty sure this qualifies him as a goer.

In my husband's family, on the other hand, there are some serious stayers.  They took about 100 years to move from Maryland to Kentucky to Indiana, where they've been since about 1800.  Many of them, even up to current generations, live within a few miles of their birthplaces.

The only thing that these two families have in common, in fact, is that they are both incredibly family-oriented.  Even though the Jones' traveled extensively, they did it with siblings, parents, and cousins.  Even though they weren't as stationary as the Millers, they kept a remarkable number of their family members nearby.

All of which leads me to believe that maybe there is a genetic component to this goer/stayer dichotomy.  Maybe some families thrive on change and travel and others on continuity.  But they all are still families, and I like that.