Saturday, June 16, 2012

For My Father

Daddy and his sister, Barbara, circa 1940

My father never served in the military, wore a badge, drove an ambulance or put out a fire.  But in my eyes he was a hero.  As a minister in the 1960s and 70s he spoke from the pulpit against racial inequality and social injustice.  He put his words into actions as a social worker with the Cleveland Christian Home, the Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center, and the Cuyahoga County Welfare department.  A news reporter described him as “idealistic and compassionate.”  I totally agree.
            But lest you get the idea that daddy was stuffy and pious, he was anything but that.  He had an offbeat, often corny, and sometimes risqué, sense of humor.  Spike Jones was a favorite of his, and had he lived longer he would have loved Monty Python and Benny Hill.  He had an amazing collection of big band records on old 78 rpm records and newer “stereo”33rpm recordings of Nat King Cole.  

Left to right: Jack and Ruth Herrington, Dick Herrington, Dave and Lois Thompson

            He was born December 5t,1933 to Donald and Ruth (Herrington) Thompson who named their first born son, David Herrington Thompson.  On his father’s side he was a 6th generation Clevelander.  The Thompson family lived on Gorman St. on the Southeast side of Cleveland near the place where his 3xgreat grandfather, Elijah Gunn, had built his home in 1800.  Elijah and his wife Anna had been part of the surveying party led by Moses Cleaveland.  Anna was one of two women in the party and received land in her name from the Connecticut Land Company for her services to the party.  The land was then in the township of Newburg, but by the time Daddy was born Newburg had long been a part of Cleveland. 
            Daddy grew up attending the Miles Ave. Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), went to Bethany College in West Virginia (where I was born), attended seminary in Lexington, Kentucky and then went on to get his MA in Social Work at Western Reserve University.  But he always had to ask my mom how to spell!

Daddy's ordination, Euclid Ave. Christian Church, 1963

             Daddy loved gadgets and electronics.  I am convinced he would have an IPad, IPod, smart phone, etc. even at the age of 78 years old, if he were alive today.
From my father I learned to accept and embrace diversity, his friends came from all different backgrounds.  He told me never to judge anyone until you’ve walked in their shoes, cliché I know, but Daddy truly lived this way.  He also taught me never, never to talk to an elephant in a tree, or there would be dire consequences!  (Ok for that one I guess you had to be there)
Daddy and me, Lexington, Kentucky

            My husband was stationed at Fort Knox, so we were living in Elizabethtown, Kentucky with our 6 month old son in February of 1975.  Since we did not have a phone the police came to the door to tell us that my father had died.  As I walked down to the street the next morning to use the office telephone, the birds were singing.  This surprised me.  My world had just crashed and the birds were still singing.  It did not seem right. 

            It still does not seem right that my amazing, gifted, compassionate, funny father was only given 41 years on this earth.  I miss him every day of my life, but he left me with an inheritance.  He bequeathed to me his zest for life, his optimism, his compassion and his love of people.  I imagine him in Heaven, making Jesus laugh with his corny jokes and off the wall humor.  Thank you, Daddy, for all that you gave me.  I love you.
Daddy and me, 1956

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mom's Cookbook

Amongst the several cookbooks on my shelf is a Betty Crocker, 1950 edition, given to my mother as a wedding present in 1954.  This book would  never sell at auction for some astronomical amount of money, in fact I doubt if it would fetch even a quarter at a garage sale.  Its cover is faded, the binding is loose, and its pages are crumpled and spotted with the residue from the use of a half-century.  I seldom pull it out of the cupboard, although I still use some of the cookie recipes found between its old covers, mainly for Christmas baking.  I do so for two reasons; one is that some of these old recipes still make the best cookies, and two, using my mother’s cookbook is a tangible way of connecting with her, long after her death.

My mother, Lois Jean (Meredith) Thompson (1934-1978) suffered from severe depression.  When she was in the throes of this depression it usually took the form of anger and rage.  My father, my siblings, and I were often the target of her rage, but with the perspective of age I realize it was herself she was most angry with.  In January of 1978, at the age of 43, she chose to end her life, rather than live with the illness that took so much from her.

My mom and me in the summer of 1957
My mother, however, was not defined by her depression.  She was a compassionate, intelligent woman who loved to read, to sing, to sew.  She taught me to hate injustice and bigotry, she was quick to come to the aid of a friend or family member who was ill, maybe because she was ill so often herself.  And she was a wonderful cook and baker.   

Because of her illness, however, I never knew which side of my mother would be there when I came home from school.  If she was lying on the couch in her robe I knew things were not good.  But, if she was in the kitchen making cookies, then it was a good day.  Then the aroma of snicker doodles, molasses crinkles, peanut butter, or chocolate chip cookies filled the house.  At Christmas she added Russian teacakes and  almond crescents, drenched in powdered sugar, plus her orange spritz cookies, pushed out of the old cookie press into, what seemed to a child, almost magical shapes.  On the table in the midst of all the ingredients and cooking utensils would be her favorite cookbook, the same old book that I pulled out the other day to make sugar cookies for a party.

I’m sure an analyst would have no problem linking my love for baked goods to a longing for a mother who was healthy and happy.  And, as my waistline will attest, I do not need to indulge in cookies or any other sweets.  But if pulling out an old cookbook and gathering the ingredients for a batch of cookies allows me to reach into the past and reconnect with a mother whom I still miss after over thirty years, well there are worse things I could do. 

Mom and me before my wedding, 23 Feb 1974  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thoughts on September 11th

I am going to go beyond my usual family history posts and use this space to share some of my thoughts as we commemorate the attacks of 9/11.  I read this essay in church this morning during prayer concerns and I hope that it may resonate with others.

As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 we are a country at war, but it is a bizarre, surreal war to most of us.  We go about our daily business, not affected much by events taking place far away, unless we have a friend or loved one in the military.  We have no rationing, no victory gardens or metal drives.  Gold and Silver stars do not sit in windows up and down every street.  We are not asked to buy war bonds. We do live, however, in a different America than we did on September 10th,2001.

The bitter and poignant reminders of that beautiful day, with its sunny blue sky that suddenly turned deadly, will once again pull the country together as we commemorate those who were lost.  Most Americans will spend at least some time today at a service or ceremony.  We will play the “where were you when you heard?” game, and try to make sense of the senseless.

 I was directed by a Facebook post to “say a prayer for those who lost their lives, and then celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden.”  I can and will comply with the first directive; I cannot and will not comply with the second part.  I will not celebrate anyone’s death, for that diminishes me.  I am an American, but I am first, and foremost, a member of the human race, child of God, and a Christian who has been taught that I must love even my enemies, as difficult as that may be.  If I hold onto hatred and fear then what is there to stop me from taking the next step and becoming an instrument of death against those I fear and hate?
 No, I will commemorate by praying not only for the victims of 9/11, those who were killed, and those who were left to grieve, and the soldiers and civilians who have died in the ensuing conflicts, but for a broken world that cannot seem to learn how to turn the other cheek. But I will also give thanks for the many acts of love, compassion and selflessness that can and do abound during times of tragedy and upheaval, and for the times we transcend our human hatreds and fears and find in each other the image of God.
I hope that many others will join me in these prayers.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

We Are Family

If we are honest with ourselves most family historians often find our departed ancestors more intriguing than our living relatives.  Consequently we spend a considerable amount of time tracking down records, photos and other sources of information in order to learn more about family who died long before we were born.  I confess to falling into this habit more often than not.  But I had the chance to reconnect with several of my extended family on my mother’s side the other day, an event that reminded me how important it is to take time for our living relatives and to enjoy their company while we can.  Both my parents died at a young age and that makes any opportunity to visit with family who knew them and/or me as a child particularly precious. 
James Montgomery Quesenberry 1847-1913
Of course since this is a family history blog I have to offer a little background on the common ancestors of the group of women that got together yesterday, after all those dead relatives are the ones that makes us a family.  We all descend in some degree from James Montgomery Quesenberry through his oldest son, Andrew Jackson Quesenberry.
James was married twice.  His first wife, Rhoda Nunn was seven years older than James; she is the mother of Andrew.  James and Rhoda married in 1865, after James retuned from Civil War.  He enlisted at the age of 16 in I Company, 50th Virginia Infantry. He fought at Gettysburg, among other places and was captured by Union forces at Spotsylvania Courthouse in 1864 and was returned to Virginia in a prisoner exchange. Rhoda died sometime in the 1870’s and when James married again it was to a woman twenty-four years younger than himself, Mary Lawson.  James and Mary had twelve children, of whom ten survived to adulthood. 
James and Rhoda’s son, Andrew Jackson (Andy) married Susie Odell and they also had twelve children, my grandma Rhoda being one of the six girls in the family. I have never been to a Virginia Quesenberry reunion, but I am told there are a lot of relatives there!
Andrew Jackson Quesenberry and Susie Odell Quesenberry

That brings me back to the luncheon that my mom’s cousin, Betty, hosted yesterday.  There were a couple of generations present, although with large families the generations often come in varying ages.  One of my second cousins is in her seventies, one in her thirties and I am in my fifties, yet we share great-grandparents.  Most of the women I had known as a child, even though we don’t stay in touch on a regular basis.  A couple of cousins I had not even met before, or at least don’t remember doing so.  But that is where the wonder of family comes in.  As we talked and laughed and shared photos and memories there was a comfortable feeling, a feeling of being at home.  And isn’t that what family is for?
The Quesenberry Sisters circa 1925: Minnie, Annie, Bertha, Mattie, Rhoda, Lizzie

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nanny's Diary

Amongst the family photos and memorabilia I inherited from my mother-in-law is a small notebook containing a few brief, but tantalizing, journal entries.  This diary belonged to my husband’s paternal grandmother, Emma Blanck MacKeigan (1897-1977).  I only knew “Nanny” for a brief time; she passed away in 1977, just three years after Dave and I were married.  But I was delighted that this little book allowed me to catch a glimpse of Nanny as a young woman of eighteen.

Naturally I would have loved to find long accounts detailing Emma’s daily life, her emotional state of being and her personal views on world events.  Alas, the entries in the diary are not much longer than tweets, or maybe Facebook updates.  But any personal writing that helps to flesh out our ancestors is a gift. So I try not to whine and complain that it’s not enough (try being the operative word here.)

Not only are the entries brief, so is the diary itself. It begins on January 1 1915, and ends on August 3 of the same year.  Except for the information that Emma began working at O.E.Seidel’s shoe store on Jan 31, the entries are all about her social activities.
Emma started the year by having a New Year’s Eve party at her home. There were six couples at her party and they “had a nice time.”  Emma lived with her parents, Charles and Anna Meister Blanck.  The Blancks lived in Rockport Township (now Lakewood) Ohio.  Emma was an only child, her father was a pharmacist and they led a fairly comfortable middle-class life.
 (As a side note, Charles and Anna were first cousins. When this fact was discovered it elicited the same response from my husband and all his siblings.  They all stated, “that explains a lot.”) 

Capitol Theatre
A young man named Lawrence figures prominently in the diary.  On February 15th he and Emma went to see “Omar the Tentmaker” at the Capitol Theatre downtown on 9th and Superior.  “Omar” was performed live by a touring company and received positive reviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  On the 24th of April they saw the D.W. Griffith silent film, “In Old Kentucky” at the Prospect Theater.  Of the nineteen entries in the diary six are about outings to theaters, either for stage shows or movies, or probably both since many of the vaudeville houses were combining short films with live acts.  Unfortunately Emma did not record her opinion of any of these performances.  Nanny did not live long enough to see her grandson and I perform on stage, but having read these entries I like to think she would enjoy our theatre performances.
Emma's other outings included frequent visits to her Meister relatives, some of whom lived in Lorain,  others in Graytown, near Toledo.  She doesn’t say how she traveled back and forth, but automobile excursions rate several entries including “moonlight rides in the machine.”  The fact that these outings get special mention makes me wonder if she traveled by train or trolley when visiting her out of town family, instead of by car. 
On May 30th she and Lawrence went to Euclid Beach, on July 30th they went to Put-in-Bay with a couple named Jim and Mary.  At Euclid Beach they “had a fine time,” but the Put-in-Bay trip did not rate a review.
Emma is second from the left in this photo

I have not identified the Jim and Mary of the diary, although other people mentioned are known relatives.  As for Lawrence, he is most likely another cousin.  No, unlike her folks, Emma did not marry her cousin; he seems to have been a “pal” rather than a “beau.” In fact I feel somewhat sad reading the bright, happy-go-lucky words of the young Emma.  Because I know that within a few years she will marry a young man named Frank Houck, who survived World War I, only to die in the flu pandemic that followed the war.  He fell out of a second-floor window while in the delirium of a high fever.
  Of course if Emma’s first husband had lived she would not have married Angus Stewart MacKeigan (1896-1969) in 1922.  They had three children, the youngest being my beloved father-in-law, Kenneth, so I am grateful for their marriage, but I can still imagine the pain and grief that Emma suffered when Frank died at such a young age.

 Any attempt to recreate the lives of our ancestors will never be complete, the ephemera left behind is usually sparse and sometimes lacking in context.  As I stated earlier, Emma's diary is brief, but it was accompanied by a photo album and taken together they help to paint the picture of her life for the descendants who only knew her "Nanny" and for those who never met her in person.  So, thank you, Nanny for leaving us a little bit of yourself.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Water, water, everywhere . . .

Water, Water Everywhere . . .
No this is not a commentary on the rain that keeps drenching Northeast Ohio, but a reflection on my attraction to water, or to be more precise, the edges of water.  Unlike most of my friends and family, however, I am drawn, not to tropical beaches, but to the northern shores of the Great Lakes, the rocky beaches off the coast of Massachusetts, and the deep, cool, water of the Pacific Northwest.  It is possible that growing up within a few miles of Lake Erie has a lot to do with this attraction, but the more I learn about my ancestors the more I am convinced that there is some ancestral memory at work here as well.

My last post was a brief sketch about Laura Marsh, daughter of John Marten Marsh and Laura Althea Klapp, two of my great-great grandparents, both of whom were born and raised near the water.  Here is a brief look at this couple.

John Marten Marsh (1835-1913) was born in Dover, Kent, England on the shores of the English Channel.  His grandfather, also named John, owned and managed “Marshes Royal Baths,” where he provided patrons with “bathing machines” and changing facilities for a very complicated and cumbersome, but popular, method of pseudo-swimming.  For more photos and information on this fascinating business see or

In 1849 John’s father, another John (go figure!) and his wife Priscilla Marten, and their five children immigrated to the United States on the ship “Devonshire.”  They lived in Greenwich Village for a couple of years, and then moved to Brooklyn.  John Marten Marsh married a woman from Staten Island (more about her in a minute) he served in the Civil War, and moved to Ohio after the war, first to Akron, then finally to Cleveland where he lived for the rest of his life.  So, John started his life within walking distance of the English Channel, lived his young adult years on two islands (Manhattan and Long Island) and lived his final years within a few miles of Lake Erie, and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery.

John’s wife, Laura Althea Klapp (1840-1920) was born in Port Richmond, a small town along the north shore of Staten Island.  Laura’s lineage includes the Van Name, Van Pelt, Banta and Van Winkle families, among others.  Her Dutch ancestors came from a land that carved itself from the sea.  She grew up on Staten Island when the only way to travel to New York City or Brooklyn was by boat.  Many of her relatives earned their living from the oysters that they pulled from the bay.  They were in love with, dependent upon, and often engaged in a struggle with the water that surrounded them.

(Full disclosure here: while I love being near large bodies of water I rarely go out on the water since I suffer from extreme seasickness!!!  I can handle large ferries and cruise ships but small boats are not my friends.  Unfortunately, I did not inherit sea legs from my sailor ancestors.)

So, the question remains; do the geophysical surroundings of our ancestors leave an imprint that is passed down in our DNA?  Do we feel drawn to particular physical features or terrain because of our ancestral memory?  I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it is an intriguing possibility.  

One final note: my mother’s family hails from southwestern Virginia amidst the beautiful Appalachians.  So, besides the sea, guess what other geophysical features call to me?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Life and Times of Laura Althea Marsh (Aunt Lolly)

This story begins with an anecdote and includes a cautionary tale.
First the anecdote:  when Richard Herrington (1935-2005) got into trouble as a little boy he would run to his Great Aunt Lolly who lived with his family.  Aunt Lolly would brandish her cane at Dick’s mother or father and declare “Don’t you touch this little angel,” regardless of whatever mischief the “little angel” had gotten into.  Every child should have such a champion.
“Aunt Lolly” was Laura Althea Marsh.  Born in Akron, Ohio in 1872 she was the youngest daughter, and the second youngest child of John Marten Marsh and Laura Althea Klapp.  The family moved to Cleveland when Lolly was a young child and she lived there the rest of her life.  Lolly attended Walnut School in the Miles Park neighborhood of Cleveland, and while I have not found the records for her high school years, she would probably have attended Central High School on E. 55th street, since there was no high school in her neighborhood until 1894. 
Aunt Lolly never married; she was a “working girl” of the late 1890s and early 1900s.  I discovered her workplace because of a cache of post cards sent to her “care of” W.A Quinby's in the early 1900s.  Quinby’s occupied an impressive building on Euclid Avenue where they sold material, notions, and Butterick sewing patterns.
 Here's the cautionary tale: somewhere in the vast array of family photos that I have been planning to sort, scan, and file, are fabulous photographs of Aunt Lolly and her friends in Gibson Girl hair and fashions working at Quinby’s and taking a break in the park on Public Square.  I put them “somewhere safe” and cannot find them!!!  So, please, learn from my mistake and scan those precious, one-of-a-kind heirloom photos!!!
Now back to our story.  I never knew Aunt Lolly, she was my great-grandma’s sister, and they both passed away before I was born, but from the few letters and postcards I am able to catch a glimpse of her personality.  She loved to travel, and to take photographs.  Besides protecting her young grand nephew from the wrath of his parents, she wrote encouraging and humorous letters to her various nephews who were serving overseas in the military, including one to a nephew in France in 1918 warning him not to “flirt too much with the French girls.”  Like many other women of her time and position she was involved in club and church activities, serving as secretary or committee member for various organizations. 
Aunt Lolly lived in a time when most women aspired to be wives and mothers; she was neither, but all the evidence points to a life well lived.  She was an intelligent, witty and strong woman who had a large group of friends, siblings, nieces and nephews who loved her.  She lived her last years at the home of her nephew Fred (the father of the young Dick Herrington) and his family on Laumer Avenue in the neighborhood where she had lived her whole life, dying in 1942.  She was buried near her parents at Lakeview Cemetery, but unfortunately with no tombstone.  Since she left no direct descendants to honor her memory, I am happy to perform that task.  In fact it is not a task at all, but a privilege to pay tribute to this special woman.