Who Am I?

When the results from my ancestry.com DNA test came in, I wasn’t too surprised.  According to them, my mother is my mother and my siblings are my siblings.  I am mainly derived from English/Welsh people, with some German and Scots Irish mixed in.

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I had secretly hoped that a recessive gene would pop up that hadn’t with my brother or sisters.  We’ve been told the story that an 18th Century grandfather married a Native American, and there are those in our family who have darker complexions and near-raven hair.  But no.  The same ingredients figure into all of us in different amounts.

We had a head start on many heritage hunters, however.  Both my parents enjoyed researching their side of the family tree.  My cousin is an expert geneaologist, judging projects and hand-drawing beautiful charts of those we don’t have photographs to associate with, who lived before the invention of the daguerreotype and the bulky equipment required to produce it.

I’ve come to realize which of my dimensions could be attributed to my city boy father and country girl mother.  I just didn’t separate where they got them from, specifically the countries of their ancestors.

British traits include apologizing automatically, finding queue jumping the ultimate crime, maintaining a stiff upper lip, and being sarcastic.  Yep, I have all of those.  Welsh — on the shy side, introverted, and a bit emotionally unstable.  I don’t think I said more than two words in public until I was a junior in high school.  Oh, and I mistakenly googled Welsh Terrier traits, which include aggression toward others, digging holes, intelligence and a friendly spirit.  Those who know me can take what they want from that.

From the German side, I acquired organization, punctuality, and efficiency.  I always arranged my classroom to a T (but can anyone blame me for losing a bit of it after daily skirmishes with the kids?).

The Scots Irish connection is most interesting to me.  Historically, when British lords took over their land in Scotland, they moved to the Ulster area of Ireland.  Then en masse (150,000 to 200,000) Presbyterian Protestants emigrated to Pennsylvania in the mid 1700s.  They spread to  Appalachia, then on to Ohio, Indiana and westward.  They (we) hold to loyalty, family pride, and tradition.  And some paranoia.  You can’t be too careful, can you?

I chose not to dwell on my inherited physical characteristics, although I like that I share the my mom’s nose and my dad’s blue eyes, fair skin and light hair reminiscent of my aunts, and so forth.  That stuff changes with age anyway.  In this life, the things that matter are what you’ve got in your heart and soul.  Some are inherited; many are chosen; I hope I have chosen wisely.

I Like Antiques

My grandmother’s stoneware mixing bowl.

My name is Margaret and I like antiques.

I’m not sitting at the monthly meeting of a help group, but if I were there would be a hatstand at the door, and a bowl and pitcher sitting on a sideboard in the center of the room, circled wagon train style by old wooden chairs of different sizes.

In recent years the “simplify” movement has hit us all.  I have downsized (really, kids) some of the things I’ve held on to for many years.  I was able to say “Goodbye” and thank them for the memories.  But there are other things that have a lot of meaning for me, connections to history, both mine and the world’s.  I need them.

For example, a few years ago at my aunt’s sale I was able to buy her grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s, commode.  My mom said that as a little girl she remembered it in her bedroom.  Crafted of oak, it has carved acorn drawer pulls; I put it in our guest room.  Over it hangs a photo collage of the family farmhouse from which it came.

My great-aunt’s dishes are something else I will keep until it’s time to hand them to one of my daughters.  They are ivory bone china with a golden wheat pattern and rims.  If you haven’t read my book, “Folks on the Home Front,” this is the lady who was a single schoolteacher during World War 1, and who wrote letters to her brother, my grandfather, in the service.  I published many of them alongside his and my grandmother’s.  She was funny, feisty, and beautiful.  She battled rheumatoid arthritis all her life, and as far as I know it never conquered her spirit.  That’s what I see when I look through the glass of the dining room hutch doors at her plates, cups and saucers.

I’ve been able to get a few momentos which remind me of Theodore Roosevelt, whose life is deeply embedded in my love of history.  From eBay I bought a copy of the “Our Young Folks” magazine, which Teedie and his brother and sisters read during their childhood in Victorian America.  To think that a child read this at the same time he was reading his subscription just melts my heart.  And they are really good stories, too.  I wish somehow I could publicize it to kids today.  Hey, that’s a good idea.  I will work on it.

Personal possessions of my dad keep me in touch with him, although he has been gone for 35 years.  I have his push mower that I used to cut our grass with when I was 12.  I’m going to get it fixed up this summer and use it again.  It will be good exercise; I will remember him every minute I’m straining to move it across the yard.  The grass will have to be pretty dry, though.

I love jewelry but don’t wear much of it myself.  My aunt’s collection was immense.  I bought some pieces at her auction which she wore to work in her 55-year career as a secretary on Capitol Hill.  I wonder, which ones were she wearing when she “bumped” into General Eisenhower in an office doorway in the 40’s?  Or when young Jacqueline Bouvier stopped by Senator Jenner’s office with her Graflex camera one time during the McCarthy Hearings?

Old photos fill a large trunk in my house (I actually bought this one at my favorite store, Paper Moon, in Roanoke).  They represent a century and a half of photography.  Every time I look through them I see some in a new way.

I was once in the background of a televised appraisal at the Antiques Road Show (if you’re interested, I can tell you the episode number and digital time).  It was in Cincinnati in 2013, and of course the most valuable thing we brought was a little rocking chair my husband picked up at the last minute, a 75 year-old handmade Appalachian work of art that had belonged to his parents.  They appraised it at $800 to $1000, and we were very pleased to find out its value.

But…you probably already know the bottom line that’s coming…the value of my antiques cannot be put into numbers.  They are connections to the past, reminders of those I love and respect, tangible pieces to touch and look at.  I like them.  A lot.

 

Uncle Leo

I grew up with the knowledge that my great uncle died in World War 1.  My dad was born in 1924,  so he’d never met him.

But Dad did, over the years, add some details about Leo Ross Porter’s life to our written family history.   Never married, Uncle Leo was a political cartoonist for the Lansing State Journal before joining up.  He had attended art school and traveled some in the west, away from his small Indiana hometown.  He trained as a soldier in Camp Graying, Michigan.

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We had a copy of a letter he wrote to his brother, my grandfather, from France.  It gave a snapshot of a 29 year-old American observing a little air fighting while drawing maps for his commanders, near a stream in the green countryside.  He inquired about the folks on the farm.  He surmised it was about time for cherries to be ripe back home.

The next page in the family history is his obituary from the Steuben Republican.  He’d been gassed on August 12, 1918 and died two days later.  Leo’s body was sent back to Angola for burial in Circle Hill Cemetery.  Also returned were his footlocker and a violin from the trench he was in, which still remain in the family.

The newspaper said that as a boy he spent hours observing nature, and  “always liked birds and animals…they seemed to know him as a friend.  Soon after he enlisted in the army, he made his last visit home.  While here he told his mother that he knew she would want him to do his duty and he did not want it to be said of him that he was a coward.”

One of Leo’s cartoons in the Lansing State Journal, 1917

According to a letter written by Colonel Chester B. McCormick on board the ship returning to America, Uncle Leo’s unit  spent five months in continuous combat.  The 199th Artillery joined another division in the Second Battle of the Marne in July, helping capture the city of Fismes (ironically, just west of Metz, the name of the Indiana village where Leo was born).

When I recently transcribed some of my mother’s family letters, I found one written by an aunt in September 1918.  “Leo Porter, John Porter’s boy, was wounded in action August 12 and died August 14.  The word came here the other day.  Mr. and Mrs. Porter are sure doing their bit.  They have another son in the army and another that will soon go.”

I was interested to know that my mother’s and father’s side of the family were acquainted before the two of them were ever born.  And it gave me another perspective on Leo’s death, which was an exception to the rule:  influenza, not combat, was responsible for most deaths of troops from our county.

Last time I posted about the hundredth anniversary of the death of Quentin Roosevelt, the president’s son.  I write now of another soldier who died close by a month later,  a farmer’s son.  They were different but the same.  They both did what they thought was right.  We honor their ultimate sacrifice a century later.

 

 

 

 

The Hats of Corinne Roosevelt

Particularly close to Theodore Roosevelt was his younger sister, Corinne.  Here, decade by decade, along with some appropriate headwear, is her narrative.

1870

Teedie!  Ellie!  Wait for me!  I’m eight years old but I just can’t keep up with my brothers!

Teedie’s asthma is so much better here in Switzerland that he walked 19 miles yesterday.  We NEVER would have imagined him doing that at home in New York City, where he spent so much time in his sick bed.

Mother and Aunt Annie told him stories to pass the time, wonderful stories about growing up on a plantation: Bre’r Rabbit, the adventures of her daring brothers, and ancestors who fought the Indians!  I think that’s why Teedie likes to make up tales for me.

He does love to talk.  Here in Europe he talks to everyone: why, on the boat over he talked for hours with a man who knew all about nature.  He loves animals, and especially birds.  But we are missing our dear Grandpapa Roosevelt, our cousins, and my best friend Edie.  They are all waiting for us to come home.

I suppose we will just have to make the best of it.  I wrote in my little diary how we have a new hotel to explore tonight.  When our sister, Bamie, and the rest of the Big People are talking, maybe we’ll chase the help again, and throw more wads of newspaper at them!

1880

This fall will be so exciting.  My big brother Theodore is getting married to Miss Alice Lee of Boston.  Weren’t we just so proud of him when he graduated from Harvard this spring, and since then we’ve been busy having teas and social engagements for the bride.  But she said to me the other day, “I do enjoy Teddy’s friends, but I don’t know why I can’t get anywhere with Edith Carow.”

Teddy is thinking he will donate his large number of stuffed birds to  museums…I remember how he and Fred Osborn used to go hunting in the Hudson Highlands.  They took such pride in their collections.   He should have become a scientist, but he didn’t like looking at specimens under a microscope; he always wanted to be outdoors,  in the field.  Now he’s talking about studying law with our uncle.

Our father, the first Theodore Roosevelt, would be so proud of him.  Dear Father.  Greatheart, as my aunt used to call him.  His sudden death stunned us two years ago.  We will never recover from the loss of his guidance and love.

1890

No Name Hats 1890s To Early 1900s

I still don’t believe it.  I have rassled a calf!  My brother and his wife took us to his Elkhorn Ranch on a holiday.  His hired hands taught me how to rope the thing and hang over its back as it was running in the mud.  I grabbed one leg and over we went, both of our legs waving in the air.  A grand time we all had, in Dakota and the Yellowstone.  Theodore growled outside our tent like a bear to scare us.

Theodore, Edith, and the bunnies, as they call their children, will soon move to Washington D.C.  My, what a challenge to be a Civil Service Commissioner.  And what a change from the cattle business here in the west.  That WAS good for him, even though he lost a lot of money on the venture.  He built up his health after grieving for Alice Lee’s and our mother’s deaths, which most tragically happened  on the same day.  Now he has Edith, whom we have known for always, to help him.

It will be hard for them to leave their lovely home, Sagamore Hill, on Long Island.

1900

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How exciting it is for Theodore to be elected Vice President of the United States!  I always knew he would do great things for our country.

I am sure he will make his mark, as he did in his other positions.  He began as a New York State Assemblyman.  Theodore, whom we called “Teddy” at the time, was such a young upstart.  When he was appointed to Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, he went after corruption in the Postal Service.  Next it was back to Manhattan to shake up the New York City Police Department as one of their Commissioners.

Let’s see — he became the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and influenced the beginning of the Spanish-American War.  He resigned to organize a volunteer regiment, the Rough Riders.  And he was just as vigorous as Governor of New York as he was charging up Kettle Hill.  No wonder he said, “I rose like a rocket.”

I wish our poor brother, Elliott, could see him now.  May he rest in peace.

1910

I AM growing uncomfortable with our national leaders.  Theodore just returned from his African trip, and to the adulation of great crowds.  He’s been troubled, I know, by President Taft’s actions and especially his  inactions on conservation.

I believe Theodore’s accomplishments in that office from 1901 to 1909 will stand firm for many years.  After the tragic assassination of President McKinley, he proved himself a true leader.   He negotiated settlement of the coal strike when the mines were shut down and people were shivering from lack of fuel.  He sued the business trusts to break up their monopoly.   He sought to make life better for the poor with the Food and Drug Act.

The little boy who toured Europe with us three decades ago understood the dynamics of monarchies, and stopped Russia and Japan from going to war.  For this he earned the Nobel Peace Prize.  He strengthened our navy and sent the Great White Fleet on a world tour to show other nations we “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Many times we joined him for supper in the White House — oh, and he was responsible for changing the name people used for the executive mansion, which he and Edith remodeled so beautifully.  Theodore thought he should use the power he had  to do what was best for the American people.  He called it a “square deal.”  He wanted to protect the natural world which we began our love affair with  so many many years ago at our summer homes in the country.

1920

Last year, after my husband died, I remember Theodore talking about the severe illnesses which plagued him ever since he was a child.  “I promised myself I would work to the hilt until I was 60, and I have done it,” he told me last year, hitting his fist on the arm of his char.  And now…he is gone.

Splitting with the Republicans in 1912 was hard for him.  The political bosses betrayed him again, taking the nomination which was rightfully his, and so he campaigned under a new party, the Progressives.  Even though he received more votes than President Taft, Wilson won the election.

Being refused permission to form a volunteer regiment in the recent world war, and losing his dear son Quentin in France in the summer of 1918 were terrible blows.  He never recovered from them.

I do think I shall write a book about my brother.  I must focus now on the task at hand, to present a speech for General Wood at the Republican National Convention.  It should have been you, Theodore.  I miss you so. We will carry on for you.

 

At Sagamore the Chief lies low–

Above the hill in circled row

The whirring airplanes dip and fly

A guard of honor from the sky;–

Eagle to guard the Eagle, –Woe

Is on the world.  The people go

With listless footstep, blind and slow;–

For one is dead — who shall not die —

At Sagamore.

 

Oh!  Land he loved, at last you know

The son who served you well below,

The prophet voice, the visioned eye,

Hold him in ardent memory,

For one is gone — who shall not go —

From Sagamore!*

 

*Poem from My Brother Theodore Roosevelt by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Scribner’s, 1920.

I am available beginning in the fall to present this narrative in costume for schools and civic groups at no charge.  Contact me in the comment section if interested!

The Folks

Folks on the Home Front: Letters from the First World War by [Griffin, Margaret Porter]

I wish I could have known the grandparents on my mother’s side of the family like I did on my father’s side.  Having older relatives to mentor and dote on you as a child is something that can never be replaced.  But I came close to getting acquainted with their lives, at least a part of them, when I transcribed and typed around 400 letters they wrote to each other when they were courting.  I thought, “This is a wonderful story.”  So I’ve edited and published their correspondence in a new book.

Its working title was “Miss Maggie and the Captain.”  The era was World War I, and he (Jesse) was in a Mississippi training camp while she (Margaret – yes, I’m named after her) taught school back in northeastern Indiana.  But I thought it should be called something to do with the times, so I settled on Folks on the Home Front: Letters from the First World War.  The term “home front” was actually first used in 1917.

As I say in the synopsis on the back cover, things took more time then: corresponding, cooking, cleaning house, and traveling.  But we do much of what they did, one hundred years later.  We work at home and school.  We look at the new cars coming out (although these were really the new cars, the first that families bought).  We like to watch baseball games as they did.  And we get together with our friends, eat, tell stories, tell jokes.

There was a frightening World War in progress, and the United States was gearing up for the effort.  Everyone was concerned, pro or con; and many like my grandfather involved directly as soldiers.

To make more sense and to connect my grandparents’ story to what was going on around them, I researched World War I events for quite a while.  In the library there are many books on the Civil War and on World War II, but not so for World War I.  I hope that this book will help fill in a bit of the gap.  And that readers will enjoy their expressions, their experiences, and their devotion to each other.

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The young family at home on the farm in the late 1920s.  My mother, who is the baby in this picture, would save all of their letters; Jesse and Margaret had ten children in all.

Folks on the Home Front (175 pages; Dogear Publishing, Indianapolis, 2017) is available by ordering on Amazon or contacting me personally.

I am available for presentations on the book in general and have compiled activities for classrooms on locating primary source material.  I’d love to tell you more about my Folks on the Home Front.

What’ll You Give?

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Nowhere may be found more condensed treasure than at an auction. When the event is a family member’s, sweetness and sadness push in all at once.

I observed several things on the Saturday estate sale of a dear aunt. The turnout of townspeople just because they knew her. Family history traipsing in and out of rows of chairs, cabinets and pretty dishes.  Stone crocks and comforters used in daily housekeeping one hundred years past.

Sun and a nice breeze came in waves as the house on the corner stood looking out of its 1890 stained glass windows at curious antiques dealers, friends and relatives. In one ring the caller echoed, “What’ll you give…” against another ring as helpers in both places fielded the bids.

There were clues left about some pieces: notes, in drawers and pinned to quilt tops. Others had to speak their age and origin for themselves.

More recent momentos: ice skates worn on the holidays at the frozen pond down the road from the farm. Toys from the Fifties and Sixties well used by brothers, sisters and cousins.

Some things went high; some did not. I should have bought another chair. I should have separated a pair of high-buttoned shoes and a piece of irreplaceable artwork by my grandmother from boxes whose contents went above my bids.

“What’ll you give” for the memories and one’s heritage?  They are without  a price.  You cannot pay for such things.

Good Dishes

I love china.  Most of all I love the pieces which have belonged to my family, some for generations.  Each one, whether I have others to match it or not, has a special place in my heart.  The plate, cup and saucer of the Lenox “Harvest” pattern below belonged to my Great-Aunt Elsie, who grew up in rural Steuben County but moved away when she was married.  I think she chose it because it reminded her of the farm.

Elsie’s mother, Maria (pronounced with a long i), had a soup tureen which passed into my mother’s hands and then mine.  It is heavy, white stoneware.  I can imagine holiday dinners when Great-Grandfather lifted the squash handle and dished out hot food to his strapping sons.

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Delicate Depression Glass, like this fruit bowl of my dad’s mother’s, to me suggests a charmed life with tea parties and society ladies.  Far from it.  She did hard physical labor inside and outside the house.  But she liked pretty things.

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 Because I inherited her name, my maternal grandmother’s place setting of her grandmother’s transferware came to live in my china cabinet.  It traveled from England to America on a sailing vessel in 1843, according to a  handwritten note taped to the bottom of the saucer.  I photographed it (as well as the fruit bowl) on a linen tablecloth which Margaret Edith Beck tatted before she was married.  The transferware pattern is Canova, named for a sculptor; in the center of the design is always a large urn.

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Before I was married, I chose a china pattern.  Had I been a little older I may have selected something different.  But it was what I liked then, and so I cherish it because of those special days of looking forward to house and family and making more memories.  Are brides today choosing good china?  Is it practical to have a special set of dishes when time is so limited and schedules permit only the fastest ways to get things done, so time may be better enjoyed?  I don’t know.

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I had planned to include research about the source of Early American china, and how manufacture and sale of dishes have changed throughout the years.  But I think I’ll leave these photos as they are, with their special owners attached, and let them speak for themselves.  It is my history.  That is enough for now.

As You Were

Along with reunions of the summer come lots of memories and thoughts about them.

Family reunions are usually of the picnic variety.  Ours is, I know.  Younger and older cooks bring casseroles, salads and desserts for which they’ve become known over the years.  Before, during and after the eating we tell stories.  We ask how others have been.  We exclaim at how tall the kids have become.

Like Christmas, it’s as if no time has passed when you see cousins, aunts and uncles.  But there are always poignant absences of those we’ve lost, among those who remain.

Class reunions require more planning for the meal and entertainment, and draw people who haven’t seen each other for five or ten years, or maybe since graduation.

People come from all over to their reunions, be they groups related by blood or by experiences of school days.  But they usually find some peace and laughter because the ones who are there want to be there.

And appreciate the time spent with those who remember and accept you, as you were.

 

 

Recipes I Relish

Many recipes sit behind the doors of my kitchen cupboard.  I still use some which didn’t originate from allcooks.com (Ah, the conveniences of today).  Some are on 3×5 cards with watercolor pictures, some are on notebook paper, and some are on luncheon napkins and store receipts.  My favorites are the few I have copies of in the handwriting of my grandmothers.

I am very blessed to have known my dad’s mother.  Grandma Porter grew up on a farm and was used to hard work, which included wringing the necks off chickens in preparation for Sunday dinner.  By the time I came around, though, the chicken coop was being used to store old chairs and things, and my grandparents got their meat from the grocery store.  I remember walking into their house to the welcome smells of roast beef, homemade noodles, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn.  She was an expert canner of bread and butter pickles and sweet pepper relish.  We used to reach up to take a square of her dark chocolate fudge from its glass dish on the heavy wooden sideboard.

She was left-handed, so when I read her recipes, I turn my head slightly.  I don’t know when she would have had time to write them out.  She was constantly at work: scrubbing clothes, dishes, and floors; cooking; and when she did sit down in her rocking chair, crocheting.  She always wore an apron except when I saw her in church.

My mother’s mother, whom I did not get to meet, had ten children and therefore many delicious dishes to feed them.  I make her brown sugar cookies as often as there is occasion for.  Drop cookies with creamy, buttery frosting, they taste even better frozen.  I have made them with lard, as she wrote on the recipe card, but usually use Crisco now.

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Cookies of the past and the present: brown sugar (left), and molasses.

Grandma Covell also passed down pickle recipes which directed how cucumbers should be steeped in a crock with vinegar, sharp spices, and other mysterious ingredients to make them go crunch in your mouth.  Her generation seemed especially proud of their pickles.

I will leave you with a gift, which is how to make a batch of my favorite cookies.  Happy Holy Day.

Brown Sugar Cookies

2 cups brown sugar

1 cup lard (I use Crisco)

3 eggs

1 cup cold water

5 cups flour

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. soda

2 heaping tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ginger

Mix ingredients in order given.  Drop by teaspoon (I use a scoop, which gives them a uniformly round shape).  Bake at 350 degrees 12-15 minutes, or until bottoms of cookies are lightly browned.

Frosting:

3 T. melted butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup milk

powdered sugar to make a thick consistency