Family Histories (Holiday Edition): Dad’s Birthday

Welcome to Family Histories (Holiday Edition). I’ve invited readers and bloggers to share holiday themed pieces with the accent on “Family” and “History” in any way they like.

This story by my friend LUANNE CASTLE nearly made me cry so get ready for a beautiful love story!

When I was nine, my mother took my little brother and me to Robert Hall to buy my father a dress shirt and tie. She asked the salesman for a gift box. “It’s for my husband’s birthday.”

As the man turned away, I pulled on my mother’s purse. “It’s not Dad’s birthday! His birthday is the day after Christmas! It’s only June 26!” My mother’s lie shocked me. My brother’s little face, peering up at us, swiveled between Mom and me.

“Shhh, this really is a birthday present, but it’s for your father’s half-birthday!”  As we walked out to the car, my mother explained the new holiday she had invented.

My father and his fraternal twin, my uncle Frank, were born on 26 December 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression. They were raised by their single mother, a tailor, with the help of their sister who was only four years their senior. The only birthday gifts my grandmother could afford for her children was the clothing she sewed them. So my father grew up with very little—and what he had was shared with his brother. Even his birthday was shared.

What made it even harder for him was that he shared the season of his birthday with that of the baby Jesus. When my parents got married, my mother saw right away that my father craved the attention of a good birthday. We were careful never to use Christmas wrapping paper for my father’s gift. My mother made him a special birthday meal and cake, rather than serving him food left over from Christmas. But his birthday always felt a little stale, with everyone satiated with food and gifts from the days before—and with gifts to return to the store.

Even as a very young child, I could sense a sadness in my father on his birthday. His gestures and words were brittle, and I could sense that the year after year repetition of disappointment on December 26 weighed on him. In this way, I grew up knowing that my father’s experiences as a child had molded his adult emotions. My mother didn’t seem to carry the scars of childhood with her, but my father did. My mother taught us that we would make it easier for him when we could.

That’s why she came up with the idea of a half-birthday. When we left Robert Hall that first year, we picked up birthday wrapping paper and a cake mix at the grocery store.

When my father came home from work on June 26, he was tired and hungry for dinner. But he saw the gift and cake on the table and smelled the ham and sweet potatoes (his favorite meal). “Happy birthday!” My brother jumped with excitement. Dad smiled at him, then me, and his gaze rested on my mother. “I love you guys!”

When my uncle heard about the half-birthday celebration, he decided he too wanted to celebrate his half-birthday, but the brothers were now living in different states, so they each had their own celebrations with their own young families, and had the spotlight on themselves once a year.

 

Many of you already know Luanne, but if you don’t, now is the time to head over to her blog: LUANNE CASTLE’S WRITER SITE

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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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