Monday, April 27, 2015

Six generations of connection: Kissin’ cousins and families of choice

As summed up on Wikipedia, "Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of 'a friend of a friend' statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. It was originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 and popularized by a 1990 play written by John Guare." As my NYC cousin-in-law noted in a spontaneous email exchange that included me and other Dallas relations, there were only two degrees of separation among the eclectic group copied – through a 1959 movie production of all things! Information and communication technologies (ICT) sure have changed the way we live, work, play – and, hopefully, still think independently.
Terrell Family Reunion 2015
That asynchronous conversation happened just a few days before six generations met up for an equally spontaneous family reunion that took place in a 1957 barn (updated) in the little Texas town where my Mom and her first cousins 'grew up' essentially. There are many ties to Terrell still, just as most of my grandfather's side of the family has called the Dallas area 'home' for over four generations now. My who-knows-how-many-times-removed cousin (who had retired to a less humid climate) decided to attend a class reunion in Texas so we piggy-backed on that trip to uphold the time-honored tradition of our family reunions. Even with cousins jet-setting down/up/over for the day, time continues to accelerate the 'gaps' between these casual 'at-home' events in this ICT-enabled world. The last such gathering I could recall my parents' hosting was in June 1989 – almost 26 years ago! This 2015 reunion was a first for a couple of generations of cousins who met for the first time as the sun set on a perfect spring day in central east Texas.
Terrell Family Reunion 1989
As 21st century Internet pioneers, of course, we're always 'connected' via social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In fact, using a smartphone, one of the top-level matriarchs pulled together the email addresses used to send out the evite last month! 
Shootin' the breeze before BBQ
I watched their family cabin being built in Colorado using a smartphone at my cabin in Colorado a few summers ago...  and yet – just a few days ago – there was something even more magical about shootin' the breeze there in the breezeway of their barn that evening as the cattle enjoyed the fresh annual greens all around. It's taken me nearly 15 years to figure out how to leverage the advantages of teaching online to balance out the extra toll that a distance role demands. I am happy to let technology do what it can do so that I can do the things that I want to do – like unplugging with friends and family. (Granted it was great that my other cousin piped those iTunes on her smartphone through her daughter's wireless speaker after the sun had gone down!)

A perfect spring evening in Texas
I do wish I'd paid more attention to the stories told at those earlier reunions, but I was just a city kid back then: ecstatically happy to be free in 'the country' and totally overwhelmed with the reality of our instantly expanded clan. Now I find myself helping to identify folks in family photos from all sorts of events... it's a blast from the past no doubt and somehow slows the rapid passage of time as I reflect on those equally good times. Admittedly, it was a startling trauma when I learned that most of the folks I'd grown up calling 'aunt' or 'uncle' were not really related in any way – other than being within six degrees of my parents. Those were the days when kids called their mothers 'Mom' and their fathers 'Dad' – and, out of respect, all other close adults were addressed as 'Aunt so-and-so' or 'Uncle so-and-so' appropriately. They'll always be 'kissing cousins' (a 1964 movie and defined by Webster as "a person and especially a relative who you know well enough to kiss in a formal way when you meet") to us!

I don't even try to figure out cousins... I will continue the tradition of calling them all 'kissing cousins' since I can't sort it out even with my Dad's extensive and well-organized genealogical research at hand. The nice thing about that is that various 'clans' can be easily extended with new members of our own 'families of choice'. Given the ubiquity of ICT and relative ease of travel, I've developed personal 'shared interest' groups – often extensions of familial links – that are enriched with the views of my close friends who are just as eager to merge their histories and traditions with mine. These connections transcend time and space – and in some way offer 'a sense of community' via virtual reunions as project activities progress. Working online affords me the luxury of coordinating my calendar around local events so that the face-to-face bonds continue to strengthen individual relationships. As John Muir said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." I like that notion, especially regarding kindred spirits!
Terrell Family Reunion 1920s
As the taglines of the 'family' photos evolve – as a result of good living – I am eager to capture and preserve some of the more memorable views of our shared past, the visual legacy recorded by box cameras, Polaroids, manual SLRs, and yes, even smartphones! The Colorado cabin to which I aspire to retire has more windows than wall space so those miles of photos are being uploaded to the cloud! Since other 'executors' may be in the same state, I’m hoping to use shared albums on Picassa to 'crowdsource' the tagging and descriptions; these can also be stored locally(The originals are going into archival sleeves in notebooks for reference and I'll use the frames for my sampler projects.) The really happy ending of this story is that I and my 'cousins' can enjoy on-demand 'home movies' of the collections – anytime, anywhere – a very good use of today’s new technology I think.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Some things are etched in stone - and/or simply uploaded to 'the cloud'

"Nothing is etched in stone." That's the saying that was probably laser-cut into the granite river rock at the entrance to a friend's home in France. Not what I expected to notice before the standard poodle welcomed me onto their estate! But it sure hit home with me that day for whatever reason. That was in the summer of 2013. I went to see Montagne Sainte-Victoire with my own eyes (thanks to the imagination conjured through Cézanne's paintings), to celebrate a pair of birthdays, to paddle the Dordogne River in La Roque Gageac, and so much more...

In anticipation of that trip to southern France, I had surprisingly recalled a day-trip to Houston, from Dallas, with one of my Mom's club groups. We went for lunch and to see the Cézanne exhibit at the art museum. (Talk about feeling grown up!) It was one of those most memorable events that you're really too young to appreciate the purpose, but never forget the feeling of being so special... Adding to that my background in geology and appreciation of good art (plus good wine as an adult now), I didn't hesitate to accept the kind invitation to explore new territory in southern France with my own circle of friends.

DFW National Cemetery
It seems like most everything has been 'new territory' since we had my Dad's start and end dates etched into his granite marker which stands on the hillside at the Dallas-Ft Worth National Cemetery with hundreds of American flags. While he could remember names and dates all the way back and past the Triggs in Australia (yes, of Trigg Beach in Western Australia somehow), I cannot even draw the local family tree of today correctly...  I try, but I just didn't inherit that bit of his amazing brain. He sure tried to help me follow the genealogical research he painstakingly - and most lovingly - put together as a bookcase of binders with our pedigree and so many wonderful family stories we would never have known. A few 'monumental' dates however, are permanently engraved in my memory; they pull the heartstrings of my internal clock whether or not they are noted on my perpetual eCalendar.

An excerpt from my notes on May 13, 2014:
Eighty-five years ago today was the first day of my dad's life; five years ago today was the last day my mom lived on this earth (in my lifetime at least). Becoming more sweet than bitter each year now, dad died very close to Father's Day and mom just after Mother's Day... On the few occasions I find myself waiting at the print shop or pharmacy around this time of year, I automatically browse the clever, poignant, and simply silly cards that pop into my line of sight which ever way I turn. Discretely 'not' looking and never touching, that (un)familar dissociating wash brings each of my parents back to life. It's a deeply personal and always unique moment in both my heart and my head ~ never-mind that the lady before me has finally decided on a typeface or the old man who was checking his blood pressure in the corner is on his way again...

I thought I was meant to finish my Five Years Before dream this year, five years after five years ago. The way I think 'things' through, the fact that I had simply been thinking about it and hadn't really done anything - as in produced anything to show for all that angst - really started to bother me as the past year ended and a new year inevitably started again. So I parked a domain name for my birthday present to myself. (Hey, it's a start!) I feared that I was starting to forget 'things' that do matter, to me at least... I felt grounded, but the ground was slipping away from the trails I had blazed for myself... The reality is that I was destined to start the project in five years, not end it! Having had to 'let go' of so many things lately, it turns out that this is what I will hold on to forever...

My lifetime challenge and reward is to the foundations and future of these feelings  the justice of persisting 'to infinity and beyond' somehow! That at this point I have absolutely no idea of what it will become is the reward - not the challenge. That different viewpoint is what is now different about me, 'things', life. And I do not ascribe to any sure definition of 'infinity' anymore in this regard... I never dreamed my parents would ever not be there for me, really. While I recognize their influences and sometimes sense their presence in very real ways, it's still hard to believe they are gone from this same realm. It's okay and definitely a part of life, but always strange when 'things' clear my head and still unexpected when they prick my heart.

On the Dordogne River, La Roque Gageac, France
Looking ever forward, moving onward and upward!
And so here we are: online, looking backward to chart the way we'll choose to go forward... It's all so seriously cool! Having sorted through shoebox upon totebox of old photos and letters, I am set up with a snazzy scanner (which thankfully is far smarter than I with regard to capture settings) and various webspaces to explore the saga in my charge that was left here by my parents. The first phase has already been most interesting... crossing my path with a professional inquiry that fittingly lead to a personal, historical connection. 

Over the past winter break, I scanned a box of photos from my Dad's very few things. Having lead the impressive Manhattan Church building project before relocating to Dallas, there was a photographic record of the old brownstone from which so many of the antiques (eg, stained-glass windows, linen-fold paneling, and barley-twist newel posts) in my home today were salvaged. Through an extensive internet search, I discovered the Milliken Special Collections, Center for Restoration Studies, and ACU Archives at the Abilene Christian University Brown Library. On 10 December 2014, the 'Joe C Nix Papers' were opened with a stack of photos and PDF scans of my Dad's sermon/lesson notes, now safely stored and available for research. And that repository can continue to grow as our family can add items at any future time. Turns out that the Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives, Special Collections, and University Archives who facilitated this project grew up in the same Church that we attended ~ so that lead to other conversations that personalized the entire episode in a truly unique and meaningful way.

Both sides of my parents' headstone at DFW National Cemetery
I have to refer back to the images of my parents' marker (shared front/back in military style) often to get their birth years right. I keep them on my iPhone for ready reference... It's always nice to be reminded of my Dad's service and that he is 'at peace' and that my Mom 'chose to be happy'. Those remembrances were well worth etching in stone for posterity! And I look forward to whatever may come of the various artifacts that will persist in the cloud thanks to technological advances that surely would make both of my parents smile. To be continued...

Addendum: Guess it was special for my Mom too... just found the museum brochure and Dallas Morning News article about the exhibit! Cezanne: The Late Work, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Jan 26-Mar 19, 1978) - an exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art, NY and the Reunion des Musees Nationaux, Paris.
Feb 1, 1978 Dallas Morning News article and Museum Brochure