Library Book Sale!

img_2220.jpgWhen I volunteered at the public library book sale this morning, I thought perhaps the rain would dampen people’s ardor for books, but I was mistaken. A steady stream of shoppers poured over tables of books, increasing as the noon hour approached.

I have always loved library book sales, and consider them an excellent gauge of a community’s reading interests. In a place like Bloomington, the literature for sale is diverse and spans the globe. I love watching teens and twenty-somethings excited by the discovery of an unread book by a favorite author. The reader holds it in her hands, offering a passionate discourse on the novelist’s earlier works. A young man, his arms loaded with works of history and philosophy, gratefully accepts a basket for his rapidly accumulating treasures.  Other shoppers study LP album covers and vintage sheet music.  It’s amazing what sells at a library book sale.

th9RLZL6CUMy duties were relatively easy–make sure titles all faced in one direction for easy reading, restocking a category when gaps occurred, and tidying up sections after shoppers browsed them. Occasionally, I found a book in the wrong section and relocated it. I felt useful, that is until a towheaded boy of four or five asked me for Narnia books.  I panicked, trying to recall when I read them. It was years ago, as a children’s literature student at Bluffton College. I wondered if the little boy was old enough for such a book? He must be, or he wouldn’t ask for them. I scanned the book carts of chapter books, then stopped myself as I started explaining they were not organized like books in the library.  How foolish of me. To him, this was a library. I was glad he hadn’t hesitated to ask for what he wanted.

Next, a little girl who looked no more than three or four asked me for books about pink princesses.  I quizzed her further, but she chewed on her thumb instead of giving helpful clues. As I scanned the carts for pink books about princesses, I looked over my shoulder and found two pairs of expectant eyes gazing at me. Assuring them I would let them know if I found anything, I encouraged the little boy and girl to look for other books they might like and slipped away to the self-help section, where I felt on more solid ground.

By the end of my shift, I had accumulated a small pile of books for myself. I had told myself I wouldn’t, that I have enough books at home to occupy me for the rest of my life, but it never fails. We need different books for different times in our lives. Our interests shift as we gain life experience or as new opportunities or challenges present themselves to us. They represent hope–of things we dream of doing or want to try. I certainly didn’t need another cookbook, but after straightening a beautiful book on baking artisan bread, I couldn’t help myself. Now, I can’t wait to try out the recipes.

What books would you like to discover at a book sale?

Posted in Books, Libraries, Reading, Volunteer Activities

Hang on, spring is coming


Snowbirds are returning north, but this year spring is proving a bit elusive. On our return home, we stopped in Warm Springs, Georgia, a charming little town where Franklin D. Roosevelt sought relief from his polio-weary body. After visiting the Little White House, we stopped at the pools where patients once swam and received therapy. I noticed a photo of all female therapists and upon inquiring, learned the early physical therapists were nurses with physical education backgrounds. In its infancy, the profession benefited from their work here.

Our next stops included the Chickamauga Battlefield and a drive up Lookout Mountain, in Chattanooga. It was chilly but not winter coat weather. That came once we reached northern Tennessee. Today we awoke to a dusting of snow in Bloomington, but the daffodils are persisting!

Last year they had finished blooming by the time we returned north, so it’s nice to see them. And if we needed more reassurance of spring’s impending arrival, our neighbor and master gardener-in-training stopped by with this amazing bag of seeds which I cannot wait to plant!  Thanks, Nancy!


As Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz said, there’s no place like home. It’s great to sleep in your own bed, walk to the Y with Karen, visit the public library, have a kitty snuggle against you. It’s good to reconnect with people and places, and to surround yourself with possibilities. There are concerts to attend, which we took advantage of this weekend. But, of course, all this fun is punctuated with chores, so away I must run!  Happy spring!

Posted in music

Eighteenth-Century Burial at Sea

Joseph Walter-The West Indiaman Britannia

My sixth great grandmother was laid to rest in the Atlantic Ocean.  In 1739 Ann Marie Fitzpatrick Young and her husband John left Ireland aboard a ship destined for Baltimore. They were in their early twenties, and during the voyage Ann died in childbirth. At a time when children under age seven had a fifty percent chance of survival, her son George not only survived, but lived to celebrate his 106th birthday.

IMG_0665 George W Young 1739-1845

George W. Young, 1739-1845

I can’t stop thinking about Ann, who unlike George, does not have a tombstone. I wonder what her life was like in Ireland, and why her husband decided they would travel to the colonies. Many Irish came as indentured servants, but I know virtually nothing about the Youngs, from Kildaire.

This piece of family history leaves me with many questions. I wonder who attended Ann during the birth, and if George was her first child. I wonder what John thought when his wife went to her watery grave, and if the ship’s captain read anything when they committed her to the deep. And what about the baby? Most likely, another mother nursed George until they reached port., but imagine keeping a newborn alive under such circumstances.

What I do know is this: in the eighteenth century, an Atlantic crossing took approximately ten long weeks. By the end of the journey, after supplies of fresh food and water grew scarce, people must have subsisted on dried meat and hard tack. John and Ann probably spent their days on an overcrowded lower deck because the upper deck would have been off limits due to dangerous piles of ropes, strong winds, swinging booms, and waves washing over the sides of the ship. Their quarters would have been cramped, dimly lit, and smelling of vomit and human waste.  Only the strongest stomach could avoid seasickness, which made matters worse.

And yet they came.







Posted in family history, Immigrants, Irish ancestors | 1 Comment

My Occupational DNA: Washerwoman, Glover, and Cook

When I first grew interested in family history in the 1970s, it was easier to find information about male ancestors than the women in their lives. Fast forward to the 21st century and the advent of numerous digital projects making it possible to uncover more of my female ancestors’ stories.

Anna Townsend Quantic, late 1890s

My great grandmother, Anna Townsend Quantic, is the reason my family ate plum pudding every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Born in 1864, Anna grew up in southwestern England in the parish of Kingsbury Episcopi. In this picture, taken in the late 1890s, Anna appears feminine, confident, and stylish. Yet only a decade earlier she had been “in service,” earning her keep as the cook for a private music school in London. Prior to that, she was a general servant in a widower’s household, a position she took sometime before her seventeenth birthday.

The Washerwoman, Henry Farrer, 1877

Anna improved her lot in life when she sailed to America to marry a family friend who had immigrated years earlier. Her origins were humble. According to church records, both of her parents were born to unmarried women. As illegitimate children, my great great grandparents may have been stigmatized by others in their community. Perhaps that’s why they married one another. During childhood they lacked stable homes because their mothers struggled financially and placed them with other families. Illiterate, my third great grandmother’s options were limited. Like many women in similar situations, she earned her livelihood as a washerwoman.

Susan Newton Townsend, born 1830

After Anna Townsend’s parents married, her father struggled to support his growing family on a laborer’s wages. Like many women in working-class families, his wife, Susan, supplemented the family income by doing piecework.  A glover, she stitched the leather gloves so popular among middle- and upper-class women. As piecework, glovemaking could be done at home, and mothers often enlisted the help of their daughters. When the census taker visited the Townsend home in 1881, for example, he found Susan, 49, stitching gloves alongside her unmarried daughters, Eliza (27), Jane (23), Mary (19), and Sarah (15). Anna was noticeably absent.

By the age of seventeen, Anna no longer lived at home.  I wish I could travel back in time to learn why she, and not one of her older sisters, went into service, but some things must remain a mystery.  What I do know is this: a better life didn’t just happen to her. It required courage, determination, foresight, thrift, and hard work. Despite having achieved a good job as a cook in London, she dreamed of more. Saving her money, she purchased a second class ticket aboard the RMS Campania and set sail for the United States, traveling with three pieces of luggage, including the metal trunk pictured here.

A relatively new ship, the Campania made the journey from Liverpool to New York City in approximately six days. Once Anna passed through Ellis Island, she boarded a train for Riley, Kansas, and soon after her arrival, she married her brother’s friend, Thomas Quantic. Daughter, general servant, and cook, she was well qualified for her new role as farmer’s wife.Thomas and Anna QuantockAs I reflect on these women’s histories, I wonder what my fate would have been if I had been born in 1801 or 1830 or 1864. Could I have done the backbreaking work of a washerwoman, ruined my eyes stitching endless pairs of gloves, managed a widower’s household and cared for his children, or cooked for boarding students at a private school?  Would I have had the courage to leave my parents and siblings behind, knowing I would never see them again?

Occupationally, I cannot claim to have much in common with these women, but I draw strength from their stories and from knowing they are part of my DNA.

Posted in family history, Kansas, women's history

What about the Women?

When I taught women’s history, I used to assign a family history project in which I asked students to trace four generations of the women in their families.  I had grown up knowing about my family’s history, and was surprised to learn that many of my students could trace no further back than their grandparents.

I’m not going to do that assignment today, but I was wondering how much I could reconstruct about the lives of my great great grandmothers. I come from a family of storytellers, but it turns out that most of our stories about male progenitors and very little information survives about the women. Let’s start with my paternal side.

Passet, Karl and Marie (Koch)

Karl and Marie (Koch) Passet

My Great Great Grandmother, Marie Koch Passet, was born in Neu Isenburg, Germany, in 1822 and married when she was twenty two. A decade later Marie and her husband immigrated to the United States with four children, the youngest of which was only three months old.  According to family legend, Marie and her family docked in Boston after several weeks at sea (I suspect they traveled in steerage), and stayed there for a year before continuing on to northwest Ohio where they purchased farmland. After giving birth to three more children, Marie died at fifty three and was buried in a rural cemetery.  The family was prosperous enough to afford a portrait, which portrays her as somber,  with straight brown hair parted in the center and swept into a severe bun.  Her dark cape and dress are plain, but neat, with no lace or jewelry to offset the stark nature of the image.

Bernheisel, Susannah Snyder wife of Henry and mother of Sylvania

Susannah Snyder Bernheisel

I don’t have a picture of my Great Great Grandmother Sylvania Barnheisel Young, but I do have one of her mother, Susannah Snyder Barnheisel , who was born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in 1811. Like many nineteenth-century farmwomen, Susannah had a large family, giving birth to at least eleven children,  eight of them daughters. One of the younger members of her family, my Great Great Grandmother Sylvania (1847-1935) lived her entire life in Wyandot County, Ohio. She married quite young, at fifteen, to a farmer named George Young.  Sadly, I know nothing more about her except she gave birth to at least five children.

Moving on to another branch of my family tree,  my Great Great Grandmother Marie Catherine Kroedel Frank,  a Lutheran, was born in Germany in 1819. After her older sister died (presumably in childbirth), Marie (age 27) married her brother-in-law, Peter Frank, gave birth to a son, and immigrated to Ohio in 1850.  The family settled in Wyandot County, where Marie died eight years later at thirty nine, leaving children ages 4, 5, 7, and 10.  As the wife of a farmer determined to establish himself in a new country, I’m sure her short life was filled with hard work. After her death, Peter married for a third time and fathered six more children.

My Great Great Grandmother Anna Margaretha Roszman Ross was also a Lutheran. Born in Germany in 1821, she married Johann Adam Ross in 1847 and gave birth to a son the following year. While she remained in Germany, Adam sailed for the United States, eager to make his way in the world. His travels took him to the California gold fields, and she did not see him again for several years, but by 1854 they had reunited and were living on a farm in Wyandot County, Ohio, where she had six more children. I suspect her early death, occurring only one day after her fifty-fourth birthday, was due to hard work as well as a weak heart.

Mary Ann Belsey Harrison young

Mary Ann Belsey Harrison

And now, what do I know about the women on my maternal side?  Mary Ann Belsey (1827-1894) spent her entire life in England. She was twenty seven when she married Charles Harrison in an Anglican church in Dover. After giving birth to seven living children, she watched them scatter as far away as South Africa and the United States.  Mary Ann appears to have had a more affluent lifestyle than the great great grandmothers on my paternal line.  In 1871 she had a servant, and her husband accumulated enough money to buy land in the United States for his spinster daughters. Nonetheless, she was only sixty seven when she died.

Harriet Baxter Harrison parents and siblings

Mary Burnett Baxter

Mary Burnett was nineteen in 1854, the year she left England with her sister and brother-in-law and their seven children. She refused to come earlier because she wanted to finish sewing school before she moved to a new country. While on board the ship, she met Benjamin Baxter, who she married later in the year, and they settled on a farm near Peotone, Illinois. Mary gave birth to at least seven children, and the family relocated to Kansas, where Mary died in  her eighty-fourth year. A devout woman, she read the Bible to her grandchildren.

I know much less about my Great Great Grandmother Hannah Bonning Quantock (1815-1896). Born in Somersetshire, England, she married a roof thatcher, and gave birth to at least nine children.  Hannah’s children wanted to better themselves economically, and some of the boys apprenticed themselves to farmers in the United States. She lived into her eighty first year.

Samuel and Susan Newton Townsend

Susan Newton Townsend

My final Great Great Grandmother, Susan Newton , was born in Somersetshire, England, in 1829. A genealogist who assisted with some research years ago indicated that her parents never married.  Susan was twenty four when she married Samuel Townsend, and she gave birth to at least eleven children. Despite the finery she is wearing in this portrait, the family was not wealthy, and several of her teenage daughters went into service.  According to the England and Wales census of 1871, she supplemented the family income by working as a glover, piecework she could have done at home after the birth of her twins in 1870.

Who were my Great Great Grandmothers? I’m sad to discover how little I know about them, and how many aspects their life stories have fallen through the cracks of time. But I am not surprised, because they were ordinary nineteenth century women from ordinary families. Sure, the details I can unearth confirm what I would have predicted, they were  wives and mothers who, for the most part, lacked economic privilege and worked very hard. Many of them had large families, and four immigrated with their husbands to the United States, where they adapted to new language, culture, and traditions. But I wish I knew more about their hopes, their dreams. Most of all, I wish I could catch a glimpse of their personalities–did they laugh easily or have tempers, were they worriers or did they roll with the waves, did they have a knack for solving problems or did they create them? Were they shy or gregarious? Curious or unquestioning? Were they submissive, dutiful wives, or did some of them question authority? If only DNA could reveal the answers!


Posted in music

Breaking Silence

I finished the draft of my last academic monograph in 2014, and have come to regard Indomitable (2016) as my  scholarly swan song. (I know many academics keep on with their scholarly research after retirement, but after years of an imbalanced life, I wanted to try something different.)

Even though I no longer need to concern myself with promotion, tenure, and pay raises, the recognition Indomitable received has been surprisingly satisfying–it  was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in biography, a Golden Crown Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction (even though I think CNF is an odd category for a biography), and most recently, it was reviewed in The Women’s Review of Books. I used to dream of having a book reviewed there, and had long ago given up.

But what next?

When I retired, I thought I’d ease into a new career writing young adult historical fiction. Several workshops, classes, and critique groups latter, I’ve reached the realization that I may need another dream. Last summer when  I paused to contrast my writing output with the more concrete results of knitting, vegetable gardening, practicing piano, and taking exercise classes, I decided to focus on the latter. I donated a large stack of writing books to the public library’s book sale.  I put my laptop away, and filed drafts of earlier work in a tub. The room I use for writing suddenly looked much neater without piles of paper tumbling onto the floor. And although there’s lots I could have said, I didn’t even blog about the safari I took to Kenya in September!

I thought I was done with writing, until, that is, I encountered a woman from a noncredit creative writing course I took last fall.

“Are you signed up for Bix’s new class?”

I shook my head. “No, I’ve been attending to other things.” I wished her a good day and drove home.  That evening, out of curiosity, I perused the Lifelong Learning catalog and found the course, “Writing Every Day: Developing a Writing Habit Through Short Fiction.” With a little encouragement from someone who knows me well, I enrolled and reported for our first session, which felt like a family reunion because it was filled with Bix’s groupies.  Still, I wondered what more I could learn from her.

It’s been five weeks now, and I’m happy to report that Bix’s class has worked its magic. Once again I’ve picked up my pen and fired up my laptop. Through our discussions about writing practice and process, I’ve come to the realization that writing is an extension of myself, a part of my identity that brings me joy (and, to be honest, a bit of frustration).  Wish me luck in letting go of my goal-oriented approach so I can see where the writing wants to take me.




Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

Carole, the Collector

Carole and kitties

Carole with her kitties


In the early days of my teaching career, I wondered if I had made a mistake in taking a position at UCLA. It was fall quarter 1988, and I felt like an imposter because I lacked the urban sophistication and polysyllabic vocabulary of my faculty colleagues at UCLA. Far away from family and friends in the Midwest, I went home to my near-empty lodging and spent wordless weekends prepping for classes, walking the streets of Westwood, and escaping into novels.

Then Carole came to my rescue. A staff member at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, she heard about my lack of furnishings and announced she would take me shopping for used furniture. A few days later I stood waiting in front of my building when a battered light blue two-door sedan slowed to a stop beside me. I looked away, confident I didn’t know the driver.

“Joanne!” Peering through the open passenger window, I saw Carole, a grin spreading from ear to ear and a bird feather tucked in her salt and pepper hair. When I climbed inside, I couldn’t help but notice the sagging roof liner, stuffing spilling out of cracks in the blue vinyl upholstery, and a back seat piled high with black garbage bags and cardboard boxes overflowing with used clothing.

“My friends call it the rolling wardrobe,” Carole laughed as we glided into traffic and headed to her favorite bakery for a fruit tart. “I use it to store things for my friends at the pueblo.”

“The what?”

“The San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico.” As we drove down the street, Carole told me about the time she took a pottery course at UCLA extension and fell in love with the work of Santana Martinez. Friendship blossomed from a fan letter, and soon after Carole started collecting bird feathers, shells, art supplies, and clothing for the Martinez family. She shipped packages to the pueblo when the backseat of her car overflowed.

At the bakery, Carole greeted everyone by first name, inquiring about the cashier’s children and another customer’s pet. Continuing on to the Wertz Brothers parking lot, she maneuvered her car into a tight space and we entered the cavernous furniture store. “You should get this!” she exclaimed as I sat at a table and four chairs. “It’s a great price, and perfect for your apartment.” When the clerk asked if I needed the furniture delivered, Carole shook her head. “My car’s outside.” While I paid for the purchase, two dubious employees strapped my table, four chairs, and a settee to the top of her car. Pulling out of the parking lot, we turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard. “Would you like to go anywhere else?” Carole inquired. I shook my head, trying to avoid eye contact with drivers of the Mercedes, BMWs, and Porches passing by us.

From that day forward, Carole made it her duty to ensure I enjoyed life in L.A. Confident she knew me better than I knew myself, she filled my calendar with museum exhibit openings, excursions to used book shops and fabric stores, and sales at Trader Joes.  One day, she invited me home for dinner.

Carole had lived in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica for more than two decades. Climbing the stairs, I found five cats sunning on a plant-filled patio—Walks-a-Lot, Ralphie, Gertrude, Blackie, and Turtle. The living room overflowed with baskets, piles of books, Indian blankets, pottery, and plants. There were piles of tins for sending cookies to soldiers in Iraq, and stacks of fabric used to make quilts for AIDS babies.

In the kitchen, anti-war posters covered the windows and plastic bags of recyclables hung from the ceiling. Peanuts cartoon strips, children’s drawings, photos of friends, and birthday cards covered the refrigerator door. Thrift store finds spilled out of cupboards onto her—NPR and Kerckhoff coffee cups, silverware in many different patterns, and English bone china. Carole no longer ate at her kitchen table, piled high with cans of cat food, tins of cookie cutters, and old Kleenex boxes stuffed with coupons and recipes clipped from the Los Angeles Times.

Carol banished me to the kitchen while she put the finishing touches on our meal.  A short while later she spooned bowls of beef stew from a cast iron kettle and handed them to me through the window connecting her kitchen to the patio. Humming birds darted back and forth among her hanging baskets as we ate on faded plastic chairs. Below us, in the alley, a woman tossed a box of household goods into the trash. “You never know what you’ll find,” Carole said, tearing downstairs and returning a few minutes later with a blue lava lamp. “I can’t believe she threw this away!” Plugging it in, we sat mesmerized by the blob of blue bubbles rising from the lamp’s base until I went home, my arms loaded with must-read books—a British mystery, feminist tract, and self-help manual.

I returned to the Midwest in 1990, but remained in regular contact with Carole. Envelopes covered with colorful stamps in a variety of denominations breathed life into my mailbox, but she didn’t stop with me. Before I knew it, she had started corresponding with my elderly mother, sending her books and home-made biscotti that Mom mistook for dog biscuits. She signed her letters with “Peace” or “Love and Hugs, Carole.”

Carole found peace on June 17, 2008, after a two-year battle with cancer. In late summer I flew to L.A. for the memorial service, a diverse gathering of people whose lives she had touched. “She was a collector,” one friend said as we went around the room sharing Carole stories. Those of us who spent time in Carole’s apartment laughed. “Sure, she acquired stuff,” the woman continued, “but her most treasured collection was her friends. She took good care of us, and never threw anyone away. We are the living proof.”

In looking back over my life, I’m grateful for my two years in southern California because it allowed me to meet Carole. The L.A. Times described her as “a woman of grace and indomitable spirit” whose simple life enlightened others. I am one of those “others.” Thanks to Carole, I have read books I never would have taken off the shelf and reflected on subjects I wouldn’t have given a second thought. I visited the San Ildefonso pueblo and bought a pot from the Martinez family. I’ve met people, now friends despite the distance separating us.  I’ve taken up charity knitting, and derive great joy in purple, one of Carole’s favorite colors. I bake cookies and biscotti, and share them with others. I may never be as generous of heart or as optimistic as Carole, but in the words of the “Wicked” lyrics, “because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Posted in Correspondence, friendship, Los Angeles, women's history