I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 5, 2014

My ancestors

My aunt Edith, grandmother Dorothy, her mother and grandmother
For some reason, I've been thinking about my ancestors, where I came from, lately. Could be the beginning of another year, 2014, one that seemed impossibly far in the future when I was a young woman. Just thinking about the turn of the century, 2000, when I pondered it from the vantage point of the 1960s, I remember wondering if I would still be alive then. And now it's 2014.

The picture shows four generations. I never knew my Aunt Edith, because she had been disowned by my grandmother years before I was born. I never learned the story about what happened, because my grandmother would never speak of it. I am named after her: she was Dorothy Billings in this picture. She also never allowed us to call her Grandma; we always called her "Mommy," which is what Daddy called her as well. If I had not been told that I was named after her, I would never have learned it from her, I suspect. She was a hard woman, and I don't think she knew the meaning of forgiveness.

My mother was afraid of her. I guess everybody was, now that I think of it. Mama didn't want to name me after her, but I was the first grandchild, and Mommy went into the hospital records office and wrote her name in on my birth certificate. You can see that it's written in at a slant in a different hand. Mama was going to call me "Jan" with no other name, but it gave Mommy a chance to correct what she saw as an oversight. You could say that my mother was furious, and it is the reason I've never been called by my first name. Years ago I decided to write my name using my first initial, in  honor of the cheeky woman who named me so long ago, and after awhile I simply removed the period and smooshed it together with my middle name.

I also never knew my grandfather. Daddy used to tell the story of standing at the window of their home, when he was twelve, and watching his father walk down the path, out of his life, knowing he would never see him again. Actually, he did see him once more: he and his brother Jack decided to find their father, who was living as a hermit in the hills of California. They learned that he showed up at the local bar every now and then, and they tracked him down. I think they spent some time with him, but the memory is hazy; who knows what actually happened? In my mind I see the three of them drinking together and telling tales, probably never talking about the one woman who bound them together.

My paternal grandfather died of exposure. Apparently he was found on a mountain ledge, having fallen and broken his leg, unable to get up or down. He was found long afterwards, I suspect. All of these memories are lost in the fog of time, but some things you don't forget. He must have been older, and who knows what really happened out there in the wilderness? Maybe he just decided his time had come.

Of course, "older" is now in a different category for me, now that I'm actually there myself. Funny how old seventy once seemed, and now when I read that someone has died who is in their seventies, I tend to think of their demise as premature. But the Bible talks about the length of our life as being "threescore and ten," (King James version: Psalm 90:10: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.")

I am now older than either of my parents ever reached: they both died of heart disease in their sixties. Daddy was 62 and Mama was 69. I sometimes wonder how long they would have lived if statins were in use then as they are today. I and every one of my siblings take statins, and we have for many decades, having been born with a strong tendency towards high cholesterol. Just the other day somebody told me that longevity comes from having chosen the right parents; if that is true, I'm living on borrowed time. My sister Norma Jean and I both struggle to keep our cholesterol under control, even with statins. Our "good" cholesterol is high, though; Norma Jean's is higher than I've ever heard before: over 100! Mine runs in the mid-70s, with "normal" being 40–60. That kind of cholesterol is protective, so my doctor doesn't seem to be worried about the fact that the total numbers are a bit higher than he'd like. I'm glad he's not treating me with a higher dose of statins.

I'll be having my annual doctor visit this month, before I fly off to Florida to spend nine days with Norma Jean in early February. I carefully made sure I wouldn't be missing a favorite Thursday hike when I made my plane reservations. Because I will be going from one coast to the other, I'll lose three hours during my two flights, and I must catch a very early flight out of SeaTac. It will seem to be a very long day, even without those three hours. Of course, I'll get them back when I return home, and that WILL be a very long day. I find it's much easier for me to travel east than it is to travel west. Do you feel the same?

Well, I guess I've rambled on long enough, and it's now time for me to start my Sunday. I'm looking forward to "Downton Abbey" returning this evening, and I'm reading a really good book: "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating." It's another one of those books that came from the library after putting it on hold, recommended by one of my blogging friends. It's really lovely, so I'll finish that today as well. I hope you will find yourselves surrounded by love and peace this week, until we meet again.


Pippa said...

I would be very curious over the Edith story. Have you tried researching her? Perhaps you have some long lost cousins who can shed the light on this. Your grandmother looks very young in this picture to have a child as old as Edith. In fact, they all look quite young, even your great, great grandmother. She looks very elderly in this picture, but I would bet she wasn't much older than 60. People aged differently back then, I guess. I read your blog every week (and the other on) and enjoy them both so much, but this is my first time commenting.

Meryl Baer said...

I wondered where the DJan came from. Thanks for telling the story.
I will be with you - along with millions of others - watching Downton Abbey tonight. Love the show.
It would be so interesting to know the story of your aunt. Every family has hidden secrets of generations ago and lost relatives.

Rian said...

Yes, it would be interesting to find out the cause of your Aunt's disownment. It may have been something that today would be perfectly acceptable... or even something spoken that was taken wrong. I'd love to know the story behind my Father's family and *why* my grandparents emigrated from England to the US. The thing is... we never concern ourselves with these things until there's no one left around to give us the answers.

Anonymous said...

My good cholesterol is not as good as yours, but I have never had to take statins, thank goodness. There are other things wrong with me, though. I always look forward to your Sunday essays, DJan. Thanks for sharing your memoirs with us.

Friko said...

I am glad I can’t take statins, they hurt my stomach. Instead, I take a plant sterol. My cholesterol is not too bad at all, yet still I have heart problems now and again.

There’s just nothing anyone can do or foretell. What’s meant to happen will happen.

I don’t think of the 70s as very old. Many people in the village are in their 80s and even 90s, and reasonably fit. It’s also something to do with your social category. The poorer, more hard working farming labourers don’t usually last as long as the professional middle classes.

Wouldn’t it be fun for you to explore your family history? All those secrets.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Fascinating family history! How brazen of Mommy to mess with your birth certificate...
Downton Abby: love the show.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

You have a pretty interesting set of ancestors! If there were such dramatic stories in my family they were never revealed. As for traveling, I usually find it easier to travel toward the west. It ties in with my being a night person, I guess. I hated going to conferences on the East Coast because it was hard to get up for the opening sessions. (Okay, truth be told, I sometimes skipped the opening sessions for that very reason.) And BTW, 71 is very young these days. :)

Arkansas Patti said...

Very interesting how Djan came about. Thank you for explaining that.
I am hearing a good novel in the story of your ancestors. Maybe you should give it a shot.

Linda Reeder said...

Your grandmother was a tyrant. No wonder Grandpa ran away! I recall now that you wrote about how you got your name before, but I had forgotten.
I take statins and so does Tom. It keeps our levels low and in balance.

Red said...

That's a tough history to look back on. There were separations that were not explained or understood. when you go on to health conditions family history takes on more meaning than just who we are are who we were.
I think we have much control over our health and then some of the lucky have no worries no matter what they do.

Rubye Jack said...

I love old photos of family and the stories of where we came from. I think they help us to understand ourselves and to better know who we are.
So that's how DJan came about. aha.

SquirrelQueen said...

Learning how you got your name was interesting DJan.

Have you ever thought about doing a little genealogical research on your family? I've been doing it on and off for about ten years now. I've even run across photos of some of my ancestors on other researchers' pages. What I have found the most interesting is that both sides of my family have been in this country from before the Revolutionary War.

Gigi said...

Family history is always interesting - there's a lot more to the stories we do know - unfortunately, by the time we are old enough to hear the stories usually there is no one around to tell them.

Mommy had some nerve! Actually, I wouldn't have been surprised if MY mother had tried the same with my son. :-)

Have a fabulous week, DJan (loved learning how you came by the moniker!)

Sally Wessely said...

Mommy really did have some great nerve, and a lot of power. She'd never been able to do the changing of a vital statistic these days. You have quite a family history. I guess we all do. I think most of the unknown parts in my history are unknown for a reason.

Thankfully, I don't have to take statins. I did for a short while. My cardiologist openly admits that she thinks everyone should be on them. Most of the time, my cholesterol is very good. For that I am grateful.

amanda said...

I so enjoyed learning this interesting story behind your name, DJan!
My husband's great-grandfather has a similar story to that of your grandfather.. he left the family without seeing them again, was a train hobo & headed west. He died in California of alcoholism. His son, Mitch's grandfather & our kids' great grandfather, is still living (in Colorado we're told).. yet we've never known him.
It's strange to me, because both of my grandpas passed away when I was very young, and Mitch's maternal grandpa has been gone many years, too. All three of them were loving grandfathers who are missed terribly. It's strange to have one still living that we don't know at all. I've never even seen a photo of him. (I know all 9 of his children pretty well, though, and his ex-wife was a gem.)
Families & connections & disconnections.. all very intriguing.

The Broad said...

Fascinating post. We've done quite a bit of research into our family tree -- it's amazing how many questions get thrown up -- secrets that won't unlock! I love the story of your name -- I think you solution is a brilliant one. As for Downton Abbey -- There are aspects of this series I did not like at all! -- Nuff said! ;-)

Mel said...

Your family photo and stories are fascinating to me. The past is so often a secret, with only clues and no answers. What stories my Dad knew and told about his family are treasures to me.

I'm also fascinated to learn the story behind your name. I wonder if Mommy was old school about the Victorian rules of naming children. The first daughter was named after the maternal grandmother, 2nd daughter after paternal grandmother, the 3rd daughter after mother and
4th daughter after the mother's eldest sister. Don't know what happened with extra daughters!

My good cholesterol is has ranged from 90-107 over the past 10 years and although I'm not on statins yet, I want to be, as the numbers are beginning the post menopausal shift and my family health history is all about heart disease. I'm glad yours is under control to fight against the genetics.

Like you, I never imagined farther out than 2000 when I was young, and it seemed so very far away. I never imagined myself this age, or any after 40 and I sure imagined 40 wrong! I want to be half as vibrant and healthy as you at 70 and I've begun to believe from knowing you that in addition to luck, a positive attitude is as important as a healthy lifestyle.
Have a wonderful week.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

All the secrets families harbour , not to mention all the family legends that are repeated and repeated ... till they turn out not to be true !
Long after my grandmother died , we discovered that she hadn't been born in China after all , but in London . An attempt to seem a little more exotic ... who knows ?
As for statins ? They sound wonderfully useful , if you can take them . I can't and have to do it with diet alone and have become a cottage cheese addict , instead .

Stella Jones said...

I wasn't sure who was who from the photograph, but your explanation did tell me why you shortened your name so prettily. I think women of that era were all what we would call 'hard'. Maybe they had to be. Isn't it interesting how the bad things we hear about people stick with us, whilst the good things sometimes get forgotten.

Joyful said...

Enjoyed your photos and your family history. I think the older we get the more interested we are in our past. I agree with you too that certain ages which once seemed old now seem young, especially in the case of those who died. My dad (from whom I also inherit the need for statins) died in his 60s and that now to me is so very young.

Deb Shucka said...

What an interesting piece. I loved learning the history of your unusual name, and your choice to wear it the way you do. What incredible stories our families are, and of course we'll never know the whole of any of them. Thank you for the book recommendation. I just spent some time checking it out and now can hardly wait to add it to my pile. It's made me think it would be really cool if we all read the same book before our next Vashonista experience.

Did you love Downton? Not so dramatic as previous first-shows, but it felt like old friends returning home again.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I would track down some of Ediths relatives..cousins now I bet they know the rest of the story:)