Family Histories: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

This week Luanne Castle discusses how the exploration of family history has enriched her creative life:

By combining a passion for family history with my creative writing, I felt able to—for a brief moment—inhabit the lives of women and men from previous generations and imagine how their stories felt to them.

Family history as done by genealogy buffs only interested in filling in the dates and places of lineal ancestors miss the point. Everybody has ancestors. What becomes fascinating is that by recreating and listening to the stories of previous generations, we learn from the experiences of those who have lived on Earth before us.

Family history is a messy, complicated, and very loose collection of stories bound together with overlaps and gaps and sharing. Those are all the reasons I love it.

And all the reasons that I keep picking at the loose threads, following clues left in documents and photographs, and searching for information to fill in the empty stretches of time—or so it can appear from this angle—of the people who have come before me.

Researching family history is never ending. I’ve been at this for a long time. New information can refine, surprise, or alter what I think I already know. As a writer, this makes my path difficult. There is no moment where I can say to myself, “OK, my research is done. Now I can write.”

Therefore, research has to be done for the sake of the hunt, the rewards fate doles out to me, and an appreciation for the continuous process. In this way, Kin Types is the slim fruit of years of difficult “gardening,” but not the final fruit or the final say.

The following prose poem from Kin Types explores a moment in the life of my great-great-grandfather’s sister, Jennie DeKorn Culver, the custody battle during her divorce.

What Came Between A Woman and Her Duties

14 May 1897

On this Friday, in our fair city of Kalamazoo, Recreation Park refreshment proprietor, John Culver, has applied to the Circuit Court to gain custody of his two young daughters from his divorced wife. The girls currently reside in the Children’s Home. They were accompanied to court by Miss Bradley, the matron of the home.

Mrs. Culver, the divorcée, and the children were represented by J. W. Adams. The father was represented by F.E. Knappen.  Mrs. Culver, pale and stern-looking, wore a shirtwaist with tightly ruched collar and generous mutton sleeves. The strain of her situation shows clearly on her visage. In the past, Mrs. Culver has been aided and abetted by her female friends in the art of painting, as an article of 6 February 1895 in this very daily can attest.

A large number of friends of both parties were in the courtroom and heard emotional pleadings on both sides. Judge Buck ascertained that Mrs. Culver is engaged in the pursuit of an honest living at this time and so ordered that the children remain in the mother’s care. She was given six months to bring them home from the orphanage or they will go into the care of their father and his mother. Let us hope that Mrs. Culver can stay away from the easel.

I used articles from the Kalamazoo Gazette, as well as legal documents, to recreate Jennie’s fight for custody of her two daughters. The only documentation I can find that Jennie was an artist is a newspaper article commemorating the gift of an easel to Jennie during the term of her marriage by her female friends.

Finishing Line Press has published my chapbook, Kin Types, a collection of lyric poetry, prose poems, and flash nonfiction that interprets the lives of some forgotten women in history—my own ancestors.

 Kin Types can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Finishing Line Press.

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BIO

luanne-headshotLuanne has been a Fellow at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside. She studied English, history, and creative writing at UCR (PhD); Western Michigan University (MFA); and the Stanford University writing certificate program. She taught college English for fifteen years. Her scholarly work has been published in academic journals, and she contributed to Twice-Told Children’s Tales: The Influence of Childhood Reading on Writers for Adults, edited by Betty Greenway. Luanne is an amateur genealogist and publishes some of her family history research on the blog thefamilykalamazoo.com.

Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne Castle’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. Luanne’s poetry and prose have appeared in Phoebe, Six Hens, Story Shack, The Antigonish Review, Crack the SpineGristTABRiver TeethLunch TicketThe Review Review, and many other journals. Luanne’s 2017 chapbook Kin Types, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, was a semi-finalist in the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Contest.

She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Her heart belongs to her six cats and the homeless cats at the animal shelter where she volunteers.

Luanne’s sites: THE FAMILY KALAMAZOO

WRITERSITE

LUANNE CASTLE: WRITER AND POET

 

 

Please come by next Sunday!

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Family Histories: The Jelly Glass

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

We start off the series with a story by Sharon Bonin-Pratt about an unpleasant trip to Grandma’s house:

Judy often spent the weekends with her paternal grandparents, dropped off by a mother so indifferent to her needs that she never knew where she was going.

Not told to pack a book, a clean pair of panties, or a toothbrush, her mom pulled out of the driveway as soon as the car door slammed. Twenty minutes later, she traipsed into her Bubbie’s kitchen. Bubbie probably said something in her Yiddish-New Jersey accent but Judy never remembered what. It was never, “Mort, look who’s here. Neshomeleh, glad you came.” No, not that. She would remember being called “darling.”

Years later she realized her parents enjoyed adventurous fun with her younger brother and sister on those weekends while she dusted Bubbie’s fragile porcelain tchotchkies and ran the Bissell over the worn rugs. Zaydeh’s accent growled with warning. “Judy, don’t bang the table.” Though she never did while maneuvering the sweeper. At ten, she knew to go slow, to be careful.

Then she sat in the living room, engulfed by Zaydeh’s cigar smoke with its rotting food stink, crossing and uncrossing her legs because there was nothing to do. Her grandparents hadn’t kept kids’ toys or books. Moving from house to house every two years or so required scaling down. Toys would have been an extravagance to cart around. If the weather was warm, she was allowed to walk outside but her grandparents lived in the dying neighborhoods of aging residents, children long grown and moved out. “Don’t wander away, Judith.” As if there was some place wonderful to go. Someone to visit.

So she sat on the steps at one house, in the crab grass of another, on the Southern-style porch of the house she loved most, and watched summer days wander across the sky, as bored as she was. “Judy, don’t touch that.” Either one might have ordered her though other than dusting, she rarely touched anything. But she looked – at clouds meandering toward the horizon, at the elaborate pattern of heavy drapes at the windows, at the splendor of sunlight blazing through the stained glass panel on the stair landing. There was little to touch after all.

Judy was the quiet child who spoke when spoken to, who startled easily, but also laughed hysterically over incidents others found only mildly funny. She was the unwanted one, foolish enough to have been born female at the wrong time to a mother too young, to a father too busy to notice. She was the child who ruined everything, so her mother said.

The oldest in her generation, she watched as newborn cousins were celebrated by the family. “Judy, don’t touch the baby.” That she heard from everyone, though she would have held her cousins lovingly. Had she been allowed.

Zaydeh’s indifference proved a wall she couldn’t breach. She gave up trying. Bubbie at least might show a caring side if Judy worked at being sweet. So she dried the dishes and tried to eat food she could barely swallow. A skinny kid with no appetite, she couldn’t tolerate runny eggs, or anything with mashed potato texture, and meat fat that made her gag. Still, she was stubborn about refusing food.  “Judith, eat your dinner, for crying out loud. Other kids would be happy to eat this.”

“Leave her alone, Mort. She doesn’t want it.”

“Don’t give her anything else, Bassie . She’ll eat what she gets or nothing.”

One of the last weekends she spent with her grandparents was in 1958 when they lived near the train tracks in an apartment that rattled with every pass of the rail cars. She

peered out the kitchen window but was not allowed in the back yard near the tracks. Too dangerous. Side by side in the kitchen, she and Bubbie chatted about school and the little cousins. Bubbie no longer put eggs on her plate, as much to avoid Judy’s tears as Zaydeh’s hollering. She washed dishes, old enough to handle the plates so they didn’t break. Still she heard, “Judy, don’t chip the edges.”

She asked before taking anything, but Bubbie was still probably surprised when she wanted a glass of milk that afternoon. She didn’t like it without chocolate syrup which Bubbie didn’t have, but also didn’t like warm tap water. Her grandmother nodded but as Judy began to pour the milk into a glass, Bubbie yelled.

“Not that one. What are you, meshugeneh?”

She wasn’t crazy but couldn’t figure out what she’d done wrong.

“Now you got to bury it in the yard. Away from the house.”

She held up the jelly glass, saved after the grape jelly was gone. Not wanting to waste the milk, she started to drink it.

Oy gevalt. Don’t drink that.”

Zaydeh stomped into the kitchen to see what tsouris she’d caused, then glared when Bubbie grabbed the glass to pour the milk in the sink. Anger blazed like she’d seen on her mom’s face but never before on Bubbie’s.

“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know better?” Bubbie’s nostrils flared. Fury from the one who got annoyed but never angry. What had Judy done?

From Zaydeh the dark expression was familiar. He barked, “A broch, don’t you know any better? You don’t put milk in a fleishik glass.”

Judith was Jewish on both sides of her family but they were about as observant as their Protestant neighbor. They weren’t Orthodox, didn’t keep kosher. Though she knew every curse, swear word, and nasty expression in Yiddish, she didn’t know the difference between milchik and fleishik – milk and dairy dishes. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, but was otherwise foggy about what it meant to be Jewish. At Yom Kippur the previous September, the holiest day of the Jewish year, it was a Catholic classmate who told her she should have been in temple with nearly all the rest of the kids. At Judy’s house, they also drank out of saved jelly glasses, but forget milchik or fleishik. Her parents understood little of Jewish faith or customs.

Trembling, she trudged to the back yard of the house near the railroad tracks. They’d given her a large spoon to dig with, and she knelt amidst the Queen Anne’s lace, shoving the spoon in the dirt and thrusting out clods. Tears made it hard to see, and maybe her snuffling blocked the chug of the train as it passed.

Zaydeh poked his head out the back door. “Stop making such a big megillah out of a little work. You’re lazy, just like your mom says.”

How to explain she wasn’t crying over the task of burying the glass, but for the loss of respect by the person she’d grown to love, who she thought loved her? Three weeks the glass would have to stay buried until it could be unearthed and used for the correct meal.

Judy never got the chance to show Bubbie she was a person worth talking to, worth sharing household chores with, worth loving. That was one of the very last weekends she spent with her grandparents.

In a few months Judy’s family moved to Arizona, two years later to California. She visited her grandparents only once more when she was nearly eighteen and her family flew to New Jersey to celebrate her brother’s bar mitzvah. Judy never pulled the jelly glass out of the ground or said the blessing to make it kosher. She wondered if it remained buried under Queen Anne’s Lace.

Now a grandmother herself, she is still trying to figure out why she’s peculiar, a stranger to most people, even those who think they know her well. Still sometimes using the wrong glass.

Sharon Bonin-Pratt, July 2017

***Please stop by next Sunday for the next Family Histories guest post!

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