Genealogy, family history, and life stories book

My dad was prescient. In high school, he became interested in photography and snapped photos of life on the farm in the 1930s. After portable tape recorders and cassette tapes came on the commercial scene in the 1970s, he interviewed his family members about their lives, including back in the old country – Holland. Oh, what stories! After discovering and then sitting on this treasure for too long (too busy with other things), I am finally serious about putting together a book of genealogy and the life stories of the Dutch half of my family – hopefully by my dad’s 85th birthday later in May. Genealogy is not so easy though — yikes!

I started off spending time at the library using their free to try to find and verify the American ancestors’ information, which apparently was not always collected in those days, or at least is not posted online. Where are their death records? There was the problem of different spellings of immigrant names, and that some of the first-last name combinations are common. Not to mention this is like venturing into a chipmunk burrow — look, there’s a path, look, there’s another! I did discover the amazing FindaGrave site populated by earth angels poking around in cemeteries. That’s when I discovered that census records are not so accurate concerning birth year and age (maybe my ancestors couldn’t remember?). Then I discovered the wonderful free FamilySearch—thank you to the Mormons!

Recently, by simple Google Search of married couples’ sets of names, I found some Dutch genealogy sites where my distant relatives had submitted information on my old-country relatives. On my dad’s mother’s side, those names went back to the 1600s! I saw a scan of my grandfather’s birth certificate (mostly unreadable in Dutch), but most other records cannot be verified by me except that the names and dates are the same in multiple different genealogy recordings. Apparently Holland (now Netherlands) is full of my relatives, and how wonderful some are interested in genealogy! Too bad I cannot find how to contact them.

How to incorporate this genealogy into the book of stories? I am using MS Publisher (included in the MS Office suite) to create family trees, then using MS Word to list the relatives and their information and interesting tidbits. Did you know there was an “Old Man’s Draft” registration for WWII? My grandfather registered when he was 45 year old. This was not for military service, but to determine skills useful for the home front war effort. Only a scan of the card remains, not the questionnaire. Some of my relatives came to the US to avoid the looming spectre of war (WWI) in Europe. Most came because everyone else was going. “One after another we went to America . . . We thought gold was lying in the streets,” but when they arrived they found Chicago was so dirty! There must be something to that scrubby Dutch stereotype of cleanliness, but in those days (early 1900s) the city was full of smoke and much of the area had dirt streets and plenty of mud when it rained. During rains, they drove their horses and wagonload of vegetables down the street car track – too bad for the streetcar following behind! [“Scrubby Dutch” actually refers to German immigrants who regularly scrubbed their doorsteps and sidewalks – the scrubby Deutsche – but the Dutch kept their streets clean, too.]

I am also incorporating some history of Chicagoland in those times, to give context to their stories, which leads me to another chipmunk warren full of information. Squeak!


the hay press forms bales (coming out the chute on the right side)

See how an old-fashioned hay press works


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Sad stories of heroin addiction

Another local teen bit the dust. One year out of high school. Her obituary stated cause of death as heroin overdose and was a long tribute to an obviously well-loved girl who dreamed of a future in science. A photo showed a girl with a gentle face and clear eyes. She appeared to be a good girl from a supportive family. What stories she could have lived! I could imagine the pain her parents went through trying to save her, and the neverending pain now. I thought of my own child during her troubled high school years, and how frightened I was that she would not make it through alive and unhurt by drugs (she did!). I remember a classmate she brought home one day, trying to keep him distracted from demons while he tried to kick heroin. One day wasn’t good enough.

Years ago, a PBS special on drugs made a big impression on me. Apparently doing heroin even once could open the door wide to addiction. Just once! That first-time rush of euphoria is so incredible that you want to keep chasing after it, and the end is torment and early death. Why would our kids choose that? And now we have an opioid epidemic, and heroin is cheaper than opioids once you run through your parents’ stash.

The below memoirs have received good reviews from recovering addicts (and addicts’ families) and end with hope. As with all addictions, recovery is an ongoing journey.

The Bitter Taste of Dying by Jason Smith –High school football player keeps his addiction through college and overseas, became a writer and journalist, married with kids.

The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin by Tracey Helton Mitchell – Studious good girl during high school falls for drugs during college, became a mother and an activist for recovery, 19 years free now. Tracey was featured in the 1999 documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.

April is National Poetry Month. Emotional pain inspires me to write poems, and so I wrote a poem for this girl and all the kids who have died from drugs. It’s written as song lyrics, and I am hoping somebody will put it to music and sing it out. Teens may not listen to grownups, but they do listen to music.

Can’t Let Go

You found me in the crowd, or I found you,
Seems so long ago, but that can’t be true
I can’t remember cuz my mind’s so blind
My night’s so dark, can’t find a light to shine
All I really know is that I can’t let go
I’m tired of crying, but I can’t let go
You whispered so softly in my ear,
I tried to resist but your voice so clear
I remember when my heart grew weak
The sound is fading, I can barely speak
All I know is that I can’t let go
I’m tired of crying, but I can’t let go
You called to me like you knew my need
You were everything I wanted you to be
You blew my mind and you held me right
Like no one else could in all my life
You were starburst in my atmosphere
Telling me there was nothing left to fear
(Nothing left to fear, nothing left to fear)
You told me lies but I didn’t see
Didn’t want to know where you were leading me
Remember my friends how they loved you, too
We were all like birds look how high we flew
I don’t ever want to let you go
I’m tired of crying, but I can’t let go
One day I’m going to break away
Leaving you cold while I hope and pray
Remembering when I once was strong
Now all I got is my sorry song
I gotta try hard to let you go
I’m tired of crying, but can I let you go
You called to me like you knew my need
You were everything I wanted you to be
But you blew my mind and I gave up the fight
And no one else could help me find my life
Where is the sun in my atmosphere
Telling me there was nothing left to fear
(I got everything, everything to fear)
Cuz I can’t . . ..let go
I can’t . . . let go

© Linda E. Austin 3/2017



Posted in book talk, death, overcoming, poems, raising kids | Tagged | 5 Comments

Living in Italy: the real deal memoir

I love reading about other cultures, especially from a foreigner perspective. Natives tend to be inured to their surroundings while foreigners—those with open minds—are better able to see the delights and peculiarities of the land (and people) they are adventuring in. And so I had fun reading Stef Smulder’s memoir of moving from the Netherlands to an Italian village where he and his partner bought a house they dreamed of turning from ugly duckling to a swan of a bed and breakfast. And so began a grande lavoro (big project). Oh, my! “How to survive the good life.”

Stef wrote a series of short, light-hearted chapters detailed the amusing and often trying characters and situations he and husband Nico encountered as they settled into this new country.  Italian culture is quite different from their Dutch homeland. Fortunately, Stef knew enough Italian to get along. Finding the right house, dealing with government workers and paperwork, choosing di fiducia (trustworthy) workers who will spend many noisy months in your house—laugh so you don’t cry! Yes, the book reminds me of Under the Tuscan Sun, but with Dutchmen and a dog. A glossary of Italian words and phrases used is included at the end. You may want to learn some of those fun phrases.

The preface of the book says it is a work of fiction. Stef says it is a memoir but with tweaking to make it more entertaining. That’s often a consideration for memoir writers—when does memoir become fiction? If you are making up stories, then you have a book “based on a true story.” Incorporating dialog half-remembered or likely said, adding some unimportant flourishes, or changing names or otherwise altering people a bit to protect their privacy is okay as memoir. Stef and Nico really did buy a house with a lovely view of hilly vineyards, and eventually—we may think miraculously—it transformed from a grey concrete block to a beautifully landscaped home amenable to visitors. Take a look at the Villa I Due Padroni website and you may be tempted to book a vacation in the “Tuscany” of Lombardy, just south of Milan, a fresh breath away from the touristy cities. I know you would enjoy meeting Stef and Nico. Stef writes so personably, you will feel you are friends!




If you like Italy, see also my post about A Zany Slice of Italy, where Ivanka marries an Italian man and discover his relatives.

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