Of Silk Purses and Sows’ Ears

I posted recently about how hobbies keep a lot of expat spouses sane. Since one of my hobbies is this blog, and I’ve resolved to post once a week, a bit more about that. (Also, Warsaw in late winter? If you can’t say something nice…)

I have two categories of hobbies: creative stuff and genealogy. They each serve a different purpose.

Crafts—knitting, quilting, sewing—keep my hands busy while watching TV. They also give me a good excuse to watch The Walking Dead, or my beloved British mysteries. Crafts can be social as well: I try to find an art class or craft group everywhere I live, with mixed results.

With genealogy, however, I fly solo. Oh sure, there are Facebook groups for genealogists, and a bit of virtual socializing goes on, but it’s not like a good stitch n’ bitch or a chatty art class. Genealogy done right requires research skills, deductive ability, and concentration. Aside being a major history geek, this is why I like it. I’ve always been a fan of puzzles of any kind, from murder mysteries to the New York Times crossword.

Fortunately, family history research can easily be broken into small steps. You can take it one person, or one family, at a time. You can drop it for a few days, then come right back to where you left off. You can work on a problem for half an hour or all afternoon. All you usually need is a laptop and a scratchpad. It’s a good hobby for someone with an irregular schedule and/or who travels a lot.

I sometimes write stories about my ancestors, combining genealogy and blogging. It’s a hobby that just keeps on giving, as far as I am concerned.

I follow a PBS television program called Finding Your Roots. Each episode features two or three famous people (actors, political pundits, writers, etc.) who sit back and relax while Henry Louis Gates tells them all about their family trees, researched by professionals. (Oh if it were that easy for the rest of us! But not nearly as much fun.)

At some point during the episode, there is a “revelation” of one kind or another about the family, and the subject cries on cue. Sweeping conclusions are then made about how the person inherited their “strength” or “courage” from one or more of these ancestors.

Spoiler alert: this has never happened to me. Maybe that’s why no one wants to talk about my family tree on a TV show! But, after doing this for several years, I do have a few observations.

I don’t have one of those family histories that can easily  be illustrated by letters, news stories, or even very many photographs. My people were not highly educated—many were illiterate—and they didn’t have much money. Probably 90 percent of them were farmers, ranging from hardscrabble sharecroppers to a few small plantation owners in the antebellum South. (Yes, some of them owned slaves. This is not a revelation, no matter what Ben Affleck might think. It should be assumed by anyone with white southern ancestry. Get over it, Ben.)

I don’t even enter “farmer” as an occupation for individuals any more in my genealogy software. It’s just assumed unless I enter something else!

My great-grandmother, Palma Lee Lashley Bembry, on her north Florida farm.
My great-grandmother, Palma Lee Lashley Bembry, on her north Florida farm.

A small minority were in various other trades: blacksmiths, millers, mechanics, shopkeepers, “ministers of the gospel” and one great-great-grandmother who proudly listed herself on the census as a “Taylor” owning a “Taylor shop.” The only woman in my ancestry before the 20th century to list a profession of any kind other than “keeping house.” Which, mind you, was a real, and difficult, job back in the day. You try feeding a dozen people three meals a day from scratch, with no refrigerator or freezer. I can’t even imagine how much work that would have been!

My great-great grandmother, Jane Shaw Kelly, the tailor.
Jane Shaw Kelly, the tailor.

My family has been in the New World for 200+ years on all sides—most branches back to the 18th century and earlier—but aside from one well-documented colonial New England line, I don’t actually know where most of them came from. I can make educated guesses based on oral history, surnames and where they fetched up (mostly Virginia and the Carolinas), but that’s as far as I can go. No one was keeping detailed records on the frontier, and many records in more settled parts of the South were burned in the Civil War.

DNA says I am about a third to half Irish, about a quarter Scandinavian (Scots of Viking descent), with good-sized bits of British, German, and French, and a seasoning of southern European (Spanish and Italian) and Middle Eastern (from one line of Sephardic Jews). In other words, a typical American mutt.

So, OK, the Jewish/Middle Eastern part was mildly surprising, but no major revelations there. However, some patterns do emerge.

Family traditions and practices are very powerful. Many scientists believe that our genes can actually be shaped by environment, with changes evident in as little as one generation. If that is so, then surely several generations in America and centuries of farming must have had some small influence on my genome, right?

It recently struck me that I am the first generation of my family in recorded time not to have at least a kitchen garden, if not an entire working farm. Even my dad grew up on a farm, and has turned his city lot into a kitchen garden in retirement. I definitely feel that need to grow things. I need to be outside. Apartment life does not feel right to me. It does not fit the pattern. It is claustrophobic. That there may be a biological reason for this unease is comforting, maybe?

My great-great grandfather, Stephen Alonzo Cole, and his favorite horse.
A great-great grandfather, Stephen Alonzo Cole, and his favorite horse in front of his barn.

I also like to work with my hands. I would much rather make or build something than sit in a cubicle or manage people. Do I feel the need to knit, quilt, and sew because generations of my grandmothers did? Do I like to take apart machinery and fix up old furniture because some of my grandfathers were blacksmiths and carpenters? Could be.

As for the Baptist “ministers of the gospel,” I don’t know what to make of them. They may have simply been con men. But they were most likely good with words, even if they were barely literate!

One thing is for sure: there is absolutely nothing in my background that would suit me to being a stellar diplomatic spouse. I have never been comfortable with household staff, and don’t have a cleaning lady, even in Warsaw. I need the physical activity of cleaning my own apartment. I have vetoed upper-level jobs that my husband could bid on at this stage of his career because I can’t imagine anything more annoying than having a house full of staff and formal entertaining responsibilities. I am probably the only female in the Foreign Service who has never been to a spa, or had a mani/pedi. I just have no desire whatsoever to avail myself of these “benefits” of expat life. I would rather be swinging a hammer. Seriously.

You might call me a curmudgeon or a misfit. But I think I am just a square peg in a round hole. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, the saying goes. Well, you can’t turn me into a diplomatic asset. Not really. Trust me, I’ve tried. It’s not programmed into the operating system. It leads to hard drive failures. And at this stage of my life, I’m done rebooting.

My husband says that I have a much stronger sense of “place” than he does. He attributes this to his mobile childhood, and that is no doubt partly true. I lived in the same city for 18 years. I had exactly two home addresses before college. He had a couple of dozen. But his great-grandparents came from the old country: Ireland, Poland, and Germany via Ellis Island. His family still practices the “old” religion, Catholicism. His father grew up speaking Polish in a classic northeastern urban ethnic enclave. His Polish grandmother stuffed him with pierogies every chance she got.

So different from my own background. My family is just plain old ‘merican, with no visible ties to the old country other than the occasional wearing of the green or “grandpa always said we were Scotch-Irish.” Maybe this is one reason why I have always felt like a stranger in a strange land in Europe? Especially central Europe, to which I have no ties whatsoever, as far as I know.

Of course, many people in the Foreign Service adapt to cultures to which they have no relationship at all. I do wonder if the expectation level might be lower in those more exotic locales. Because of shared history and similar levels of economic development, do we as Americans expect that we will adapt more quickly to Europe than to other areas of the world? Or are we painting Europe with too broad a brush? Warsaw is not London, and Rome is not Berlin, after all. It’s both a small, and a very large continent, really.

Or maybe adaptation is just a random and completely unpredictable thing. I felt very at home at our Central American posts. And I’m not even a little bit Latina!

Truthfully, I am have never claimed to be the most adaptable person on the planet. It’s no great revelation (if we’re speaking of revelations) to myself or anyone who knows me well that I am poorly suited to the diplomatic whirl, or that I am running short on cross-cultural resources after nearly thirty years. It really doesn’t matter why.

But, I have some time on my hands nowadays, and I just wonder about things. That’s all.


One comment

  1. Your humor and story telling resounds with me and I relish reading your family history blogs.You also express some of the same thoughts I have about being a “diplomatic” spouse and all that it entails. Given a choice between attending a coffee and social gathering and compiling family history, I will always choose the latter. Keep writing so I can keep reading your inspirations.

    Liked by 1 person

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