Humans of Earth: “We’re in this together”

creative non fiction, Iowa life, Journaling, personal essay, thoughts for living, Trends, Uncategorized

flood we're in this together

Mixed in between turning off the alerts for tornado warnings, hosting friends for a night to escape flood waters, and delivering packages of care items to various reputable groups came an envelope from my friend. Inside was the photocopy of a journal article she sent me as an addendum to a message I had passed along about a group unrelated to anything Houston or Hurricanes.

flood animals

One of the many sites where donations were being accepted and volunteers were working.

The headline on the article blared the sentiment that seems to be the unifying theme in this adopted hometown of mine: “We’re in this together.” Those words enveloped me like the warm blankets wrapped around the human beings who were rescued across eastern Texas these past weeks.

Gratefully, my family and I avoided the ravages of the disaster. We experienced minor inconveniences of having a few paid workdays taken off the schedule for me, the canceling of school for my son, and working from the rudimentary home office for my husband.  Yet, this experience brought back a flood (excuse the pun) of memories of the 1993 Iowa flooding disaster. I aided my parents in helping them clean out their water-logged basement. I drove my new war-traumatized Bosnian friends to National Guard water stations to fill up plastic milk jugs for safe drinking water. And I worked for the United Methodist Church as a religion writer and reported Christ-informed relief efforts in Iowa.

Back then, we didn’t have Facebook to telephone tree unfolding alerts or changes. We had antenna receptive televisions with local newscasts and the daily mud-soaked paperboy and girl delivery of newspapers. Somehow, though, we got word through to each other as to what to do next.

Now that the height of the crisis is over for most Texans, what does come next? A region-wide disaster affects the psychological, spiritual and material well-being of everyone. Everyone is doing their best to reframe a grim situation with a positive spin (“at least we’re still alive” and “it’s just stuff”) and a grin on their faces to bolster their own and other’s spirits. Yet, there’s going to be the span of time when people are just in the thick of it.

flood iowa

News stories in which I had a hand in reporting.

Years after the original Iowa event I was writing stories about flood relief efforts and thinking “isn’t everyone recovered yet?” Obviously, the answer was no but certainly the time span was an eye-opening dynamic for a member of the generation who was on the cusp of inventing instant-gratification technological tools.

Disasters are like the drunken uncle: everyone plans the family reunion hoping he doesn’t find out. Yet somehow, he learns of the celebration and everyone gingerly succumbs to his presence. Cousins whisper in the kitchen on what they will do if Uncle Harvey does this and what they will do if he does that. But Uncle Harvey does what Uncle Harvey does and even with all the preparation, he leaves a wake of destruction of overturned tables and tipped over Christmas trees that no one could have anticipated. After all, who behaves like that? Naturally, someone tries to intervene to calm him down and gets sucker punched. Everyone sighs and gets to work while Uncle Harvey stumbles away in a blissful state of unawareness.

flood houstonianIn between the titillating stories that are retold on anniversaries and the arrival of the next crisis, is the interstices of time when forlorn people wonder how to make order out of what seems dispassionate chaos. Because the burden of our stories is  so great to bear in isolation, we are compelled to tell it over the campfire or on our blogs and in doing so, others are encouraged to tell theirs and we can incredulously exclaim, “you, too?” We piece together a journey across the rapid progression of days which at the onset seems to have a promise of a clear direction. Then midway, either through fallible personal choices or fateful impersonal cosmic events, we become more aware that our destiny seems instead to be a succession of turning from our own self-absorbed personal goals to taking trembling note of the universal interconnectedness of us and that for eternity “we’re in this together.”

flood we're in this together

Which immigrants are responsible for you being an American?

creative non fiction, holidays, Iowa life, Marriage, Social Trends, thoughts for living

Mary Christine Fredvorst gave up her first-born son to foster parents.  An orphan herself, Mary Christine was surviving as a Goose Girl, sleeping in the barns and sheds of the families for whom she herded.  Whether it was a traumatic or romantic encounter that resulted in her son, as a single, young mother her capacity for supporting herself and child was non-existent in mid-1800 Germany.

Mary Christine had no formal education, but she did possess an abundance of wits and wisdom about her future in Mecklinburg, Germany. And so did John Schwarck. A  decade older than Mary Christine, John was a skilled cabinetmaker. As a betrothal gift, he offered her a Bible with her initials in gold on the cover.

A set of triplets was their first experience with parenthood as newlyweds in 1856. But one of them was buried shortly after his birth. With the entrenched Germanic feudal system, the Schwarck’s outlook for prosperity was bleak. The couple knew their children’s future would be even darker in their homeland.

baltic shorelineAs beautiful as the Baltic sea shoreline was, a feast for the eyes is not going to fill the stomachs of a family of four…

This is one of the snapshots of my family history, embellished (slightly, as you will see later) by me.

If you have a family member who has been the oral historian, I hope you will take the time to document your generational stories. Down the road you will be grateful you did and even further down the road your descendants will be glad, too, although they may not yet know it.

With the recent passing of my mother, I am uncovering papers and memorabilia which offer me a broad stroke view of my maternal family history.

The Fourth of July is an appropriate time to remind us of the cost many of our immigrant ancestors paid and are paying in physical and emotional toil to gain their (our) independence from economic poverty and other tyranny. The “Know-Nothing” Donald Trump counterparts alive in the mid 1800s, (President Martin Fillmore of the Whig-American Party) also were ignorant loudmouths of the quality of people who were teeming to our shores. The saving grace is my relatives and others like them may only have known their native language when they arrived and couldn’t understand the vitriol.

And like Ben Affleck and his embarrassment of distant relatives who were slave owners, I, too, have family skeletons that force me to face my genogram dynamics and how they may affect my and future generation’s lives. But unlike Mr. Affleck, I am willing to face these rattling bones because to deny them denies me insight which can help move future generations forward. I am the offspring of my great-great grandparents, and just like them, I have a strong compulsion to improve my life. Had my ancestors resigned themselves to their Germanic feudal system fate, my existence is moot.

Understanding the full breadth of my ancestor’s choices to leave home gives me an opportunity to take my children off their bubble-wrapped pedestals and encourage them to take the risk of venturing out. The new lands of discovery may not be the soil of foreign countries, but, instead, may be the vistas of our generational psychology.

While the following family history is specific to my family, I hope it inspires you to investigate the story of your heritage.

old photo

The Schwarck-Price family, Grundy County, Iowa

My great-grandmother Hannah (Schwarck) Price provided oral history to relatives who transcribed it in 1966. Fifty years later, I offer it as it was written then with minor editorial changes to reflect correct spelling, grammar.

Schwarck Family History

John Peter Schwarck was born in Mecklenburg, Schwerin, Germany, May 13, 1818, and passed away at his home in Grundy County, Iowa, Aug. 29, 1888. Little is known of his early life or of his brothers or sisters. He became a skilled cabinet maker.

Hannah Mary Christine Fredvorst was born in New Vorpommern, Germany, April 4, 1830. She was the youngest of three children, a sister and brother being older. Their parents died when Mary was a small child and the three children were put in different homes quite a distance apart so that they became strangers to each other. The brother, when he was a mere youth, was drowned. Little Mary was shuttled from place to place. One of her jobs was being a Goose girl, which is to herd the neighborhood geese. Often she ate and slept whenever and wherever she could. However, she managed to survive. One day, when Mary was probably an early teenager, she received a package containing the wedding bonnet of her older sister who died shortly before her wedding day. In this bonnet was a long red hair so she thought her sister must have had red hair but she had not seen her for many years and she didn’t really know.

With the meager funds he had, John gave a betrothal gift to Mary, his bride-to-be, a German Bible with her initials and date in gold letters on the cover. They married in Germany and triplets were born in 1856. One infant passed away soon. The other two, William and Mary, came with their parents, to the United States. Ocean travel was not as comfortable in those days. Here was a time when people on the seas had to furnish their own food whether the journey was a few days or several weeks. At best, it was not an easy trip. The ship was small and very crowded. It probably was a sail boat. Aunt Hannah said her mother (Mary Schwarck) told her that a bad storm came up and they were afraid the ship would tip over. So they ordered all the able-bodied men to man the oars but John was honored. He was excused from rowing because he was the father of twins on the boat. The storm eventually abated and they reached New York safely. There were no stevedores so John carried most of their earthly possession from the boat in a trunk and Mary carried the twin babies. But New York was not the goal. John knew he wanted to come to Iowa. He had heard of farms to be had by homesteading and he was interested. They did not tarry long in New York. They had a little money but not much. So he spent the most of his money for train tickets, but it was not enough. It carried them to Naperville, Illinois. When the ticket ran out, the train conductor put them off.

Now the urgent need was to find some place to stay and something to eat and a means of earning enough to provide these necessities. There were still plenty of woods, and most people burned wood for heat, so John set out to find a wood cutting job and Mary took in washing whenever possible. They managed to get along. The days passed into months and years. About 1858 little baby Bertha was born. Her life was not long nor are the dates very accurate, but it is believed she left this life about 1862.

Henry was born in 1861. He remembered in later years of his mother finding a small toy that had been Bertha’s. Christian, commonly called Chris, came in 1862, and George, in 1864.

With three little boys so near the same age, it was not easy to keep clothing in readiness. Sometimes the clothes were washed at night, but with five children besides the parents in one small sleeping room, where was there room to hang clothes to dry in the winter? There was no money for extra clothes. But this place was not where John wanted to go. He kept hearing of the open prairie where farms could be had for living on them. He was restless and wanted to go on to Iowa.

By frugality they had saved up a little money, so in about 1866 they gathered up the family and bought train tickets and started. The people on the train could not help but notice this family of lively youngsters and their parents and they visited to pass the time. Upon hearing where they were going, some of the passengers told Mary that the Native Americans would surely get them out there on the prairie and she became so frightened that she refused to go further than Cedar Falls, where they lived a year or so. John still wanted to go on. He wrote to try to sign up for a homestead but there was none. However, he could buy a farm at $1.25 per acre, which he did. Here again, in Cedar Falls, they must find a place to live and work to do. They lived in an upstairs room with no electricity and no water.  Again Mary took in washing, carrying all the water up the stairs to wash and emptied it by carrying it all down again.

Hannah was born in Cedar Falls in 1867. Sometime during that summer John hired a team and buggy and came to see the farm he had bought. It was the first place south of Ivester, a good piece of land and there were no Native Americans to be seen. He was pleased with what he saw. He went back to his family to make preparation to move them here.

The next spring they started for their new home, with oxen pulling the covered wagon and a cow tied behind the wagon. The wagon contained all of their possessions and as many of the family as were not able to walk. All the older children walked, thus relieving the already heavy wagon from their body weight.

There were few good roads and still fewer bridges so many streams must be forded. Few miles were passed in one day. Though it is not far by car now, it seemed a long ways by ox team or even by horses. On one occasion the tire came loose from the wagon wheel. They had to stop and build a fire and heat the tire and replace it; finding fuel to heat the tire was the big problem, so John sent the children to gather up cattle chips from the prairie pastures.

When they reached their new home, there was no ready house to move into but first one had to be built. How so many people found a place to sleep in so small a house is a miracle even to the modern idea.

In 1869 Charley Ernest was born, followed by Freddie in 1871. He lived but a short while. Then it became John’s task to make the little box in which to lay him away. He was buried in the family lot at the Ivester Cemetery, where others came later.

At a very early age Henry’s job was to collect the neighborhood cows together with their own and herd them all day on the prairie grass, and then return them to their owners at night. One day it seemed a very short day; it commenced to get dark fast. He was miles from home. The chickens went to roost. He started home but soon it was so dark he couldn’t see where to go. There he was alone with the cows and he didn’t know which way to go. He was very scared, not of the darkness but because he thought he had failed to bring the cows home on time. He didn’t ordinarily cry, but what else could he do? The black darkness didn’t last very long, until it began to get light again. There had been an eclipse of the sun. Bigger people than this small boy were frightened because they didn’t know the eclipse was coming.

Henry, age nine, and Chris, age seven, both tied bundles of oats and/or wheat with a wisp of straw on the platform of that wonderful invention, the harvester that cut the grain and saved the hard labor of scythe-cutting, heretofore used. These little boys had nimble fingers and soon learned to make such motion count, so they could keep the harvesting going. At nine years of age, Henry was plowing corn with a walking plow drawn by a team of oxen. One day it was hot and the flies were bad. Henry was having hard work keeping the oxen going. They wanted to brush off the flies with the corn stalks so they took off down the field and Henry could not stop them. All he could do was get help as soon as he could.

In 1874 Robert Thomas was born. He loved animals and he made friends with all of them. One day they missed him and found him asleep with a hog for a pillow. Their lives were not all work. The Ivester Church had a singing school in the evenings. Anyone could come but it was especially for the young people and they all enjoyed it. Here they learned to sing by note without benefit of an accompanying instrument. Henry, Chris, George and Hannah attended, perhaps others of the family also. Henry sang tenor and Chris, bass. The teacher evidently did a good job because these men’s voices were often heard and enjoyed in church services the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile the children were growing up, and, with six boys coming up, they would soon be able to farm more land. So when John had an opportunity to buy another farm, he bought it. It is located the first place in the second mile east of the Hardin-Grundy County line on what is now the paved highway 57 (75 now). They built a small house and a barn and two of the boys moved up there. Twice a week Hannah or Mary cooked food and brought fresh supplies to them. This went on for a number of years. John and his sons had made an agreement that if the boys stayed at home and worked till they were 21 years of age, each would receive a stipulated sum with which he could start for himself.

In the winter of 1881 George W. Smith of Hubbard came to the Ivester neighborhood to visit his lady-love, Mary Schwarck, one of the twins (or triplets) of John and Mary Schwarck. She had been a dutiful daughter and remained at home to help her mother and Hannah longer after her 21st birthday. George drove a horse and buggy some 20 miles or more, so he came with the intention of staying overnight or possibly over Sunday. But he did not count on the big snow storm that blocked the roads. When the intended staying time had elapsed, he still could not go home, but he was not overly anxious. In the meantime, he and Mary decided to be married, so she could go home with him and save that long drive over there again soon. George borrowed a clean shirt from one of Mary’s brothers and on March 16, 1881, they procured a license at the Grundy County Court House and were married by A.P. Strickler, the minister of the Ivester Church. John Dinnis and Christian Schwarck acted as witness to the ceremony.

William was now also past 21 years of age and was farming for himself though he was not married. He lived at home awhile.

It was about 1882 when the family moved from south of Ivester to the new place. The younger boys took over and the older ones moved out for themselves.

Here in 1888, John, age 70, passed away and in 1893, Mary, age 63, also passed away. This left three unmarried sons, George, Charley, and Robert, and one daughter, Hannah, though only Charley and Robert and Hannah were living at home. Charley worked away part-time. After her parents’ deaths, Hannah kept house for Rob until she married. Meanwhile, George and Charley had married. Rob, together with a hired man, kept bachelor’s hall awhile, then Rob also married, and all of the big family had homes of their own. Rob remained on the same farm the rest of his life.

John Dinnis’ arrival. When John and Mary Schwarck left Germany, they left behind Mary’s son, John, who was raised by foster parents by the name of Dinnis. So he had assumed that name, also. In 18XX, he jumped ship from a German ship in New Orleans and came to St. Louis. There he wrote Mary a letter saying where he was and that he would like to come if she wanted him and if she would send him the money, which she did.

(To be continued, many generations to come…)

It’s a big job but it can be done

creative non fiction, Iowa life, thoughts for living

Tucked away for the past 30 years is a letter my high school English teacher, Mrs. Esther Grosvenor, sent to me after I graduated. On a daily basis, I rarely remember of the letter’s existence. But the letter has usually resurrected itself whenever I’ve been about to embark on a life-altering change. This week was no different when I came across it, tucked in its small cedar box in the third decade from when it was originally written.

Mrs. Grosvenor taught the Colfax High School seniors their last English class before they graduated and embarked upon the world to conquer whatever it was they thought lay before them. While the 17 and 18 year old students in her class spent more time counting the days until graduation than they did counting their verbs and nouns, Mrs. G. (as we affectionately called her), nevertheless, persevered in her job in assigning the task of diagramming sentences and drilling the rows of pimple-faced boys and girls on the difference in meaning between affect and effect, lie and lay, and simile and metaphor.

If she was inpatient with the impertinence of us she didn’t show it. After 40 plus years in the classroom, Mrs. Grosvenor had developed enough equanimity about her job that not much fazed her in her interactions with children disguised as adults.

When I finished her class and Colfax High School in 1984, I also left the town for the bright city lights of Des Moines. Six weeks after I walked across the gymnasium stage, my parents had sold the-old-Miss-Byal house where we lived and packed up the green Chevy pick-up and moved us off to the town where both of them worked for the city government.

After I moved to Des Moines, I wrote to Mrs. Grosvenor. I don’t remember the details of my letter to her; likely, I thanked her for attending my graduation reception and made mention of my move. Based on her response to me, I must have had questions about the role of women in the work force.

It’s because of our move for my husband’s promotion for work, that I had the chance to reread the letter. In this move I am following my husband for his work and I am unclear as to what my professional place is. Mrs. Grosvenor’s words are more apropos now than when she originally wrote them. Her perspective on women in the workforce was formed from her own life experiences and long before feminism became a topic of conversation and debate in our popular culture.

As I settle into a new phase in my roles as wife, mother, daughter, and employee, her words provide a gentle reminder of the importance of finding the right balance. The past few years were rigorous in tending to all of my family members and embarking in a second career as a mental health counselor.

We are in the beginning stages of our family’s transition. Many details have yet to be decided upon. But just like they were 30 years ago, Mrs. G.’s words are encouraging to me. I’ll keep hanging in there and like Mrs. G. vowed for herself as she expressed her apprehension about the change she was about to seek for herself, “maybe I’ll finish that novel I started some years back.”

Mrs G page 1

Mrs G page 2Mrs G page 3

When I was in high school and felt closed in by the smallness and meanness of others, I would drive to the cemetery, one of the highest points in my home town, and look out on the horizon and think “I can’t wait to get out of this place.”

Eventually I did leave that place and it took leaving it to understand how Iowa compares to the rest of the communities my life has taken me.

Even though I’ve lived where I am now for nearly seven years, if people ask me where I’m from I always say Iowa. Of course, I am nowhere near the league of famous Iowans such as Ashton Kutcher, Johnny Carson, Shawn Johnson, Ann Landers,  John Wayne, and a hundred plus more that could be listed. So my Iowa endorsement doesn’t bring any star power to it. I’m a run of the mill Iowan with parents who came from the tiny towns of Eldora and Knoxville and where I grew up during the summers with my grandparents and in Colfax during the school months with my parents.

As I’ve traveled past the river boundaries which contain Iowa, I hold on tight to my home anchor because it keeps me tethered to a moral compass which has provided me direction in what respecting human dignity looks like in groups of diverse people.  Where I live now, no vocal moral outrage  is heard from a town of 45,000 people,  that 18 people, several of them under the age of 18, were murdered in the past three years. This is two shy of the number of people murdered  during the same time period in Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines, a city 650 percent larger.

When I placed my son in an on-line public school option this year, I did so for a couple of reasons:

  • I wanted to feel more secure about his physical safety and quality of education, and
  • Iowa had vetted the organization and had given it the green light.

The school’s rep made a point to talk about the rigorous process they endured to be allowed into my home state. In my mind, if Iowa gave the on-line school the green light, then I knew I could have confidence this organization would deliver a quality education.

pumpkin patchIf you ask if Iowa is heaven, even with my intense admiration,  I will tell you almost. It’s had its challenges over the course of its history to make it slightly less than idyllic. Weather-related natural disasters in winter and summer frequently make it challenging.  The economy tanking, especially in the agricultural and manufacturing industries in the late 80s and through the 90s, shuttered businesses, schools, and communities. The departure of young people, like myself, as a result turned Iowa’s demographics a little more grey. So, it is rebuilding a first in the nation reputation for education.

But something about these hardships personal to Iowa is what has built in its strong character.  Iowa people respond to their own personal crises and,  consequently, they diversified the economy early enough that it pretty much weathered the 2008 economic bust. They can now boast of being the sixth best place to do business, the first best in the cost of doing business and an unemployment rate under five percent.

Iowans also pay attention to the world around them and consider it a calling to be pivotal in moving the direction of the country forward.  You can either cheer Iowa or throw a pox on the house of the Iowa presidential Caucus every four years. But Iowa is fiercly protective of its political tradition and consider it worth the fight to keep its first in line place on the January schedule for the heat-up of these political races.

When you read of Iowa’s low crime rate, it’s because Iowans watched what other parts of the country weren’t providing to the least of their citizens. They take notice of this lack and make sure the infrastructure, such as education and jobs, are put in place to provide a way for people to climb out of a no choice other than violence to meet their needs.

My being from Iowa is a quirky twist of fate. I could be one of six billion people from somewhere else in the world. But, fortunately and gratefully, I’m not. So, while I may have some more of the world to see to compare it to my Iowa, on my last day, I hope my spot high on the hill in that cemetery will still be available for me.

creative non fiction, Iowa life, thoughts for living