The Long-Term Effects of Birth Order

Today is my sister’s birthday. Regular readers of this blog can figure out which one, but this post isn’t really about age. It’s about birth order and growing up and distance and—well, maybe it’s a little bit about age.

My sister is eight and a half years younger than I am. In some ways, we grew up in two different families. There was me—the oldest—and a brother just seventeen months younger than me. Then there was a gap of seven years before my sister came, and three more years before our youngest brother.

We first two children had different early experiences than the younger two. I was born just nine months and ten days after my parents were married, and their second child came along before they’d been married three years. Our father went back to graduate school, first to get a Master’s degree, and then his Ph.D., all of which happened by the time I was in the first grade. While he was in graduate school, Dad held several part-time jobs because he refused to have his wife work. Money was tight, and I knew it as a young kid. We weren’t poor, but the extras we had came from doting grandparents. During my early years, we lived in five different houses, plus had a stint with grandparents. I didn’t live in a long-term home until shortly after I entered second grade.

By the time my sister was born, our father had earned his Ph.D. and had been promoted into managerial positions. My parents bought a nice house in a new part of town. It was a long way from our school and there weren’t any other kids in the neighborhood, so my brother and I played by ourselves. We got a second car so my mother could drive us around during the day.

Then there was this new baby in the family. She was a happy infant but became an opinionated toddler. One of her opinions was that babysitters were evil. The only babysitter she tolerated was me. It became my job to watch her whenever our mother was busy. At ten years old, I didn’t enjoy that responsibility. When my parents went out for the evening, they hired a babysitter, but I did everything my sister needed except change the diapers. (I wasn’t getting paid, after all.)

When I turned eleven, my parents quit hiring a babysitter, and I was in charge. When our brother was born later that year, my parents hired a sitter again for a few months for the newborn, but by the time I was twelve, I was in charge again. (By then I was getting paid 50 cents an hour, and I even changed diapers.)

The eight-and-a-half-year gap between my sister and me was never enough to endow me with authority in her mind. I could sometimes bribe her into doing what I wanted, but I often resorted to bullying. (I was not the Good Big Sister of family myth.) So we didn’t get along well. And we were never close.

The only formal portrait of my birth family; I was 19 here.

Fast forward a number of years. I went to law school and married a law school classmate. Then, the younger two kids in the family had some upheavals during their high-school years, when my parents moved across the state. That was only the second home they’d known, but it may be harder to move during high school than preschool. By that time, I was married, so that move didn’t impact me.

Several years later, my sister also went to law school and married a classmate. Then our lives became more parallel. We both had stressful jobs as attorneys. We both had two kids. We developed a lot in common, but through all this time—and she has now been married 29 years—we only saw each other about once a year, for a day or two during my approximately annual visits to our parents. We rarely spent extended times together.

Still, as long as our parents were alive, we knew what was going on in each other’s lives, because we each heard from our parents what the other was doing. When Mother got ill and Dad became her caregiver, we emailed each other to report how we thought our parents were doing.

After our parents died, I stayed at my sister’s house on several trips to the Seattle area to manage their estates. I probably got to know her as well as I ever did.

Now the estate issues are behind us. There are fewer reasons to stay in touch. My sister still works and has little time for herself, let alone for a distant older sister. My life in Kansas City is busy, and I have obligations here that keep me from frequent trips to see her and my youngest brother.

The three siblings who are left, after our father’s funeral

And yet there are also important reasons to stay in touch. Because there is no one else. That brother right behind me has no contact with the rest of us. My sister and youngest brother are the closest family I have left. Even though they have no memories of my childhood years, they go back in time with me longer than anyone else I know. We are each other’s history.

Perhaps we’ll become closer in the years ahead. We have the example of my father and his sister, who rebuilt their relationship in their seventies. That is my hope. If we’re lucky, it won’t take us until our seventies. (Or, as our youngest brother would gladly point out, when I’m seventy, our sister will be in her sixties, and he’ll still be in his fifties.)

Which family relationships would you like to foster?

My Great-Grandmother Della Phillips Jones

The great-grandmother I know the least about is my father’s maternal grandmother, Della Phillips Jones. All I ever knew about her growing up was that she had been married before she married my great-grandfather, and her daughter (my grandmother) had a half-sister from Della’s first marriage who was quite a bit older than she was. I had the sense there was some scandal associated with Della, but whether it was simply that she’d been divorced or whether there was more to the story, I never heard.

Della died before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to meet her, or her husband (my great-grandfather) Tucker Jones, who also died before I was born.

I knew that Tucker Jones owned a store in Arnold, Nebraska, during the Depression. My father talked about how Grandpa Tucker gave credit to people who were down on their luck in those years, which caused him his own financial troubles.

My father must have known his grandmother Della, but he didn’t tell me any stories about her. I had the impression he liked Tucker, but might not have liked Della.

My grandmother never told stories about her parents either. I wondered whether she got her musical talent from Della or from Tucker.

I later met my grandmother’s sister, my half-great-aunt Ethel, who lived with her husband in Idaho, not too far from my parents’ vacation home in Coeur d’Alene, when I was in high school. We had a couple of lunches with them. Ethel was quite old when I met her, and she did not tell any stories about her parents. I think Ethel died just a few years after I met her.

And that’s all I knew about this branch of the family. I should have asked my father more about his mother’s parents.

So recently I went searching for what else I could find out about Della. “Jones” is not an easy name to research. But between family genealogy records and what I found online, I’ve pieced together the following:

Della was born on January 25, 1877, to James Martin Phillips and Martha Josephine Stevenson. I could trace Della’s father’s family back through several generations. They had come from Indiana, and from Virginia in generations before that. Her father’s ancestors came to America well before the Revolutionary War—one of her great-great-great-grandfathers, a Joseph Phillips (one of several Josephs) was born in Orange, Virginia, on July 16, 1706. I’d known I had pre-Revolutionary War relatives on my mother’s side (the Hooker family), but I hadn’t known my dad had such long roots in the New World until I researched Della.

Della’s mother, Martha Josephine Stevenson, was also from Indiana. She had six children and died in May 6, 1922, in Chicago.

Della’s first marriage license says she was born in Indiana, but her obituary says she was born in Nebraska. Her first marriage was to Glenn Johnson on April 12, 1898. Glenn was born in Iowa. He was twenty-six, and she was only seventeen. Their daughter Ethel was born in about 1900.

After my father died, I found a copy of Della’s divorce papers from her first marriage. Why my father had them, I have no idea. I don’t know whether his mother gave them to him, or whether they came with some genealogy records that his sister gave him. The papers made it sound like Della had been abused during her first marriage, but I don’t know if that was the truth—from my law school days, I know it was common to make such allegations to provide the cause necessary to get a divorce decree, in the days before no-fault divorces. I didn’t keep the divorce papers, so I don’t remember the date of their divorce.

Della’s second marriage in 1908 to Tucker Lon Jones, produced my grandmother, Kathryn Delores Jones Claudson, born February 12, 1911. Della and Tucker had no other children, though Ethel lived with them until she grew up, according to census records.

I know Tucker was born on June 6, 1881, in Grand Pass, Missouri, in Saline County—the same county my husband’s family is from, though I don’t think my in-laws knew of Tucker or his family at all. Tucker was four years younger than Della—possibly another reason for scandal in those days—he married an older divorcee.

Inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile store in 1914, Arnold, Nebraska

I don’t know how Tucker and Della got to Arnold, Nebraska. They may have moved there when they bought into a mercantile store in 1912. An article I found said that Tucker and Della operated the store in Arnold for twenty-eight years, starting in 1912, when they opened it with two other men. They bought out their partners in 1925 and renamed it the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. According to the article, the store stopped selling clothing in 1928 and thereafter only sold groceries. At some point, Tucker and Della sold the store, and it was operated by others until 1944.

Della Phillips Jones in 1914

I have only found one picture of Della. It was taken in 1914 inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. store that she and Tucker owned and operated.

Della was one of the witnesses to my grandparents’ marriage on August 30, 1928, in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Tucker Lon Jones in 1914

Tucker Jones died in 1944 in Arnold Nebraska. Della died on December 17, 1955, in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. Plattsmouth is south of Omaha, right where the Platte River joins the Missouri, across the Missouri River from Iowa—a good distance from Arnold. Della was buried in Arnold with Tucker, so I wondered what she was doing in Plattsmouth. Her death certificate answered that question—she was living in the Masonic Home in Plattsmouth at the time of her death. The doctor who signed her death certificate stated he had attended her since 1947, so it appears she moved to Plattsmouth, possibly to the Masonic home, a few years after Tucker’s death.

And those are the only facts I’ve learned about her life and death. I still wish I knew more.

What do you wish you knew about your ancestors?

Random Photo: St. Louis, 1989, Our First Family Vacation

In the summer of 1989, when our daughter was four and our son seven, we took our first “real” family vacation. By that I mean, it was just my husband, me and the two kids, and we went somewhere other than to visit grandparents.

We’d taken our son on a couple of trips before daughter came along, or left her with grandparents when she was a baby. And our son had been places with his cousins and not us. But this was our daughter’s first “big girl” vacation. She was still in preschool and was required at school to “nap” in the afternoons, though she didn’t usually sleep during the rest period anymore.

For our first trip, we chose St. Louis, about a four-hour drive across Missouri from Kansas City. I think we stopped in Marshall, Missouri, first to visit my in-laws. It wasn’t a big vacation, just a long weekend, long enough to test whether our kids were ready for full-fledged adventures.

Husband and kids in front of the Gateway Arch, 1989

We did a lot over those few days in St. Louis. We went up in the Gateway Arch and visited the Museum of Western Expansion located at the Arch. We ate at the McDonald’s by the Arch, which was built on a replica of a steamboat (I understand that McDonald’s is no more, which is too bad because our kids loved it.). We went to the St. Louis Zoo, where our son made friends with a baby tamarind monkey. We went to Union Station and the Science Center. We probably did more, but those are the things I remember.

We were on the move from breakfast until dinner. We did all this over two or three days, spending our nights at some high-rise hotel, which I think was near Union Station.

After our first full day of activities, we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner. We had toured the entire zoo in the heat that afternoon. At the zoo, knowing that it was large and we would have to walk a lot, we rented a stroller for our daughter. But our son spent more time in the stroller than she did. She was a trouper, determined to prove she was not a baby anymore. She walked and walked and walked some more.

For dinner that night, she wanted spaghetti, so we ordered her a child-sized portion. The dinner came, and she started eating.

But soon her eyes drooped. Her eyelids fell shut, then opened, then fell again. Her head nodded.

My husband caught her just before she did a face-plant into her spaghetti. We moved her plate and laid her head on the table. She slept as the rest of us finished our meal. She slept as my husband carried her to the car and buckled her into her car seat. She slept as we drove to the hotel, as he carried her up to our room, and as I undressed her.

She slept for thirteen hours, from dinner straight through until breakfast time the next morning.

And then she was ready for another day.

She proved herself old enough for “big girl” vacations. And she’s never looked back.

What amusing anecdotes do you have from family vacations?

Musings on Time in the Twenty-First Century . . . and Before

As of the end of May, we’ve spent 209 months in the 21st Century (I started my count in January 2000). So at the end of this month, we will be 17.4% into our new century. If time were the plot to a novel, we’d be almost finished with the first act and moving into the middle of the story.

Are we ready to declare we are in Act 2 of the 21st Century? I don’t think I am. When I quit working at the end of 2006, I felt like we were still on the cusp of the new century. I’ve continued to feel that way, despite my calculation that we are a sixth of the way through the 21st Century.

Maybe it’s because I write historical fiction that takes place in the 1840s. Maybe because my family stories seem so rooted in another time. Maybe because I’m a conservative at heart and don’t like change. Whatever the reason, I still feel like a 20th-century inhabitant, though I’m living firmly in the 21st Century. I find myself reflecting on 20th-century events. And sometimes I’m even pulled back into the 19th.

I remember figuring out as a child that I would be almost forty-four when the year 2000 arrived. Forty-four seemed so old. At the time, my parents were still in their thirties. And then it dawned on me that I might spend half of my lifetime in the century yet to come—that shocked me.

I recently calculated that my life expectancy isn’t quite that long. While it is possible I will live to be eight-eight—and I certainly hope to—the odds are that I will die before 2044. Still, it’s possible. And I will most likely spend many more years at least in the 21st Century. When will my perspective shift to seeing myself as a post-2000 being more than one of the 1900s?

Maybe I never will. Maybe I will continue to reflect on the past.

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Because of the recent anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the nation and my family were one-hundred years ago.

  • The one great-grandparent I knew, Thomas Hooker, was born in 1879, so he was an adult when the 20th Century began. By 1917, he worked in the Polk County Courthouse, where he served as Sheriff for decades.
  • My other great-grandparent alive during my childhood (I never met her), Lillie Smith Claudson, was born in 1885 and married in 1900. By 1917, she had four children. Act 1 of her 20th Century was certainly productive.
  • James Parks, my husband’s grandfather whom I knew, was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army infantry at the tail end of World War I in 1917. His entire childhood passed in the first 17 years of the last century.

So that’s one perspective on what happens in one-sixth of a century. If I look at the last seventeen years of the 1900s, I see the passage of a sixth of a century from another angle.

  • My son, who began walking in May 1983, graduated from high school in May 2000, a time I remember well, but a time that feels long ago.
  • I hadn’t even used a personal computer as of 1983, though I was starting to teach myself how to operate a Wang word processor. When PCs first came to my company a year or so later, I knew as much about them as the IT department did. But by 2000, my knowledge had failed to keep up with the experts.
  • In 1983, Bill Clinton started his second stint as Governor of Arkansas. He was not yet a national figure. By 2000, he’d been President for two terms.

And then there are all the events that have happened since the start of this century, showing that time flows on whether we embrace it or not. Act 1 of this century has changed the world.

  • The job I took in 2000 has been held in a variety of iterations by several individuals in the last seventeen years. It is a changed role in a company that also has experienced great change.
  • As the last century ended, we worried about whether computers would survive the switch in dates to Y2K. People filled their bathtubs with water in case public utilities shut down, but those fears did not come to pass.
  • The tragedy of September 11 hadn’t yet occurred seventeen years ago. Remember the ease of traveling before long security lines? Some fears we had not expected did come to pass.

Time rolls on, whether we are keeping up with it or not. History happens.

Now I ponder what Act 2 in the 21st Century will bring. And I wonder what I will make of it. Whether coming events will strike me as odd as airplanes must have seemed to Great-Granddad Hooker in 1917. Whether I will ever seem as old to my descendants as he seemed to me.

What do you think the greatest surprises of the 21st Century will be?

Falling In—Two Tales from Chesapeake Bay (or thereabouts)

I’ve written before about spring vacations our family took when our kids were small—how I struggled to find a church in which to celebrate Easter and how I had to hide the Easter candy from my children. One memorable trip over Easter was a week in Virginia when the children were in grade school. We started in Norfolk, flying there on Good Friday to spend the Easter weekend, before traveling on to Williamsburg and Roanoke.

My husband’s friend from his U.S. Naval Academy days was assuming command of a submarine based at Norfolk, and on the Saturday after we arrived, we attended the change of command ceremony. When I’d packed for the trip, I’d been thinking southern and spring. I’d been thinking warmth. But such was not the case. That Saturday was cold and blustery. It had rained or was raining—I can’t remember which—but the ground was wet. My daughter and I wore our Easter finery—spring dresses and fancy shoes. We had only light spring sweaters to break the wind.

USS Montpelier prepares to moor at-Naval Station Norfolk (U.S. Navy photo)

Among the events available on base to celebrate the occasion was a tour of the submarine shortly after the ceremonial reading of orders. So after eating our punch and cookies, we stood in line on the dock alongside the submarine, shivering as we waited our turn to board. Finally, it was time to step onto the top of the submarine. My daughter’s shiny new patent leather shoes slipped, despite the non-skid surface. She almost tumbled into the harbor waters of Chesapeake Bay.

My husband caught her arm and hauled her to safety.

But that was the end of her interest in a submarine tour. She wanted no further part in the ceremony, at least not in any part that took place outside. So she and I went to sit in the cold rental car (at least it was out of the wind), while my husband and son walked through the submarine.

My son came back raving ecstatically about everything he’d seen—bulkheads and warheads and mess halls and bunks. My daughter didn’t care. She just wanted to go back to the hotel and put on her jeans. I have to say, I agreed with her.

Rowing on the Potomac, though not in a pair

By a strange twist of fate, about a decade later my daughter rowed crew for Georgetown University. At some point during her freshman year, she was assigned to row a pair with a teammate. A pair is a boat with only two rowers, each using only one oar. So there is only one oar on each side of the boat—an inherently unstable proposition when practiced by beginners.

The two Georgetown rowers promptly fell into the Potomac River—the northern arm of that same body of water that my daughter had narrowly escaped in Norfolk. They were soaked in cold, not-too-clean water.

But now grown to college-age, she laughed as she told us the story. And I don’t think that was her only dowsing in the Potomac in the four years she rowed for Georgetown.

I guess she developed better coping skills in the ten year period after her Norfolk experience.

What near catastrophes do you remember from childhood vacations?

Treasures & Trash: Or Why I Hate to Clean and Why I Hate to Throw Things Out

I could have titled this post “Tidying Up, Part 2.” But I decided on “Treasures and Trash” because that is what I found.

It started as a simple project. I have a chest in which I have stored items for many years. It’s a small chest, the height of a short dresser, and it has cupboard doors. Over the years, when I had photographs printed, I would throw the envelopes of snapshots (together with negatives or CDs) into the chest. Old family portraits I didn’t want to display anymore went into the chest, along with the frames they were in, unless I had another portrait to put in the frame. I stored many other keepsakes in the chest as well. After each item went in, I shut the doors and rarely thought of it again.

Occasionally, I rummaged through the chest looking for pictures for this blog, or searched through my kids’ baby books to find a date or a certificate. But for the most part, out of sight, out of mind.

It was getting hard to keep the doors on the chest shut. So I finally decided I had to clean it out. Really, I thought, if I just put the loose envelopes of photos into boxes, I could keep the chest neat enough to close the doors. So one Saturday afternoon, I found some boxes and started in.

Well.

Before: The Messy Stage

There is always a stage in a cleaning project when it is messier than when one begins. This immediately became true of this project. No way could I simply cram photo envelopes into boxes and stash everything back in the chest. There was too much stuff in there.

I’d been afraid something like this would happen, which is why I chose an afternoon when my husband was away. Messes—at least my messes—make him nervous.

But I’d started. I had to do something, to get it back to a stage when my husband wouldn’t see a mess.

So once everything was out of the chest, I started sorting. I found many things that were trash, and many that were treasures. In the trash category were about two years of old financial statements from the mid-1990s. And many terrible snapshots of family members (though I didn’t bother to sort these out). And also a costume I’d worn for Halloween at work in about the year 2000—Catbert, Evil HR Director.

But there were even more treasures. Things I’d been looking for. Things I’d forgotten I had. Things I don’t think I ever knew I had. The photograph of my brother and me with Santa Claus from 1960 or 1961—I’ve been searching for that since my father died two years ago (though I think this copy was my grandmother’s, not my parents’). A 1950 picture of the adults in my husband’s family at a civic event (one of the things I didn’t know I had). A postcard from my husband to his great-aunt announcing that he’d taken a girl (me) home to his mother (another thing I didn’t know I had). Many pictures of momentous occasions in my children’s lives I’d forgotten about—my daughter’s preschool graduation, my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony (now if I could just find a copy of the speech I gave), and many visits and vacations. And so much more.

These treasures are why I hate to throw things out. I didn’t have time to look through all the photos. I’m sure there are more treasures in some of the rolls of film from years ago. If I simply toss them, I might lose something precious, a memory that would make me smile.

In months to come, you’ll hear more about the treasures I found. And maybe about some additional treasures, if I can steel myself to get back into those boxes. If I can bear to attack the chest again.

After: Much neater, and less stuff

I spent a miserable afternoon at the chore, but the treasures were all back in the chest before my husband got home. The trash? It’s been thrown out, the financial records shredded.

When have you found family treasures you didn’t know you had?

My Grandmother’s Jell-O

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, my Nanny Winnie. My mother, brother, and I even lived with my grandparents for a few months when I was small. So I know Nanny Winnie cooked for me a lot. But I don’t remember any signature dishes she made. I remember she sometimes prepared something different for my grandfather than for us children, because he was definitely a meat-and-potatoes man, and we were more mac-and-cheese. And I know she didn’t make me eat cooked carrots before I got dessert—she was too nice.

I don’t think Nanny Winnie particularly liked to cook, though like all wives and mothers of her day, she did it. I remember going to the grocery store with her. The store was around the corner from her house in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She didn’t drive, so we walked to the store. When she had selected what she wanted, the grocery later delivered it. I guess that was common practice in the late 1950s—the store certainly never made a big deal about it.

Many years later, in early 1973, after my grandmother’s second husband died, she moved to Richland, Washington, to be close to her daughter (my mother) and her grandchildren. She usually came over to our house for Sunday dinner, and sometimes on other occasions as well. Her apartment became where we celebrated a lot of second-tier holidays. My parents handled Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but Nanny Winnie often did Easter, and she hosted many birthday and graduation dinners as well.

Nanny Winnie was very outgoing and social. She developed her own circle of friends in Richland, mostly other widows, but she also went to many women’s functions with my mother and my mother’s friends. My mother’s circle were women raising families and active in their churches.

Sometimes my mother’s friends were shocked at Nanny Winnie’s more relaxed approach to life—after all, by this time, she was in her late sixties. She lived alone and didn’t have to cook for a crowd except for our occasional family celebrations.

When she went to a potluck, Nanny Winnie took Jell-O (or else baked goods she bought at a store). She often served Jell-O at our family gatherings also. I didn’t mind—I liked Jell-O. In particular, I liked her peach Jell-O with canned sliced peaches in it.

My high-school graduation dinner at Nanny Winnie’s apartment. If you look closely, you can see the dishes of peach Jell-O. Or maybe it was orange.

One time Nanny was invited to go somewhere with a few of my mother’s friends. “I can’t,” she told them. “I have to go home and make my Jell-O.”

My mother’s friends were not impressed with her excuse. “How long does it take to make Jell-O?” they asked. Nanny Winnie’s need for an entire afternoon to make Jell-O became a standing joke in this group, as well as in our family.

Granted, making Jell-O is not difficult. It takes advance planning, because it must be allowed to gel. But otherwise, it is simple. Even with canned fruit thrown in.

Still, now that I am almost of the age when Nanny Winnie shifted into her Jell-O days, I can understand. Any cooking that takes advance planning is an incursion on my life and unlikely to have any long-term impact on anyone. I am much more sympathetic to her excuse than I was forty-five years ago.

Nanny Winnie was born 109 years ago today. I think she’d approve of my limited focus on cooking these days. (Actually, I’ve always had a limited focus on cooking.)

How do you feel about Jell-O? And cooking?