Thursday, June 26, 2008

And We're Back!

View from the front porch
Barn doorway Our vacation to Pa was wonderful. You know it’s a good trip when you don’t want to come home at the end. Our beloved old farmhouse was the same crumbling, creaky, time encrusted place we’ve grown to love as our home away from home. The fields around us abounded with wildflowers more beautiful and fragrant than any hothouse could produce. The long grasses rustled with perky little chipmunks, rotund, waddling groundhogs, and songbirds of every kind.Wildflowers
The weather was a welcome respite from the 100 degree days we were having at home. I think it hit close to 80 a couple of days, but the evenings were downright chilly, and we all huddled appreciatively under our fuzzy blankets. In the morning, we sat up on the back porch, warming our hands with mugs of hot coffee as we looked out at the hillside swathed in ribands of mist.One morning as we rumbled and bounced along one of the myriad dirt roads, looking for old houses and little family cemeteries, we chanced upon a flock of wild turkeys grazing in a field. Our arrival caused them to part-fly, part-trot down towards the woods, and a flock of little goldfinches swirled up out of the bushes by our cars; black winged bolts of sunshine startled into mass exodus.My eldest nephew rode up with my dad this year, and as it was his first trip up we gave him the tour. In spite of my dad’s protestations that he can’t remember anything about family history, while we were up at Cherrytree (oldest church in Venango County, with a cemetery to match) I caught him showing my nephew the graves of Henry Ross and Susannah Baney, and explaining that they were the grandparents of Minnie Gahring Toy, his grandmother. I know that somewhere, maybe in the air all around us, his grandmother was happy to see a tradition of hers perpetuated.Oh, and those stories about Grandpa Jake that I said we would be hearing while we were up here? I laughed to myself all Sunday night as my dad told those very stories to his grandchildren.On Tuesday, we took a day trip down to Kittanning, to meet up with the Velveeta Wingnut, my long-lost cousin and evil twin, and show her around the ancestral stomping grounds. I was really glad I’d gotten lost a few times there before; the main road across the river was under construction and traffic was being shunted in several convoluted directions. We figured it was our karmic debt for getting around Pittsburgh with minimal construction delays.We found a bunch of different old cemeteries that held family members from several of the seven branches we’re researching, and it was really gratifying to see everyone get caught up in finding the headstones of family members. We broke for lunch and ate at the Allegheny Mariner, which is just about the nicest place in Kittanning, with an awesome view of the river from its dining room. I guess we could have been working instead of having a sit-down luncheon, but I thought it would be nice for us to take the time to get to know each other and break bread, as it were, with fellow family members.
Back up in Oil City and Franklin, there's so much to see. This is a place that peaked in the Victorian period and it shows in the architecture. We spent a couple of days just walking around and taking in the sights.

Detail of stairway in the old Transit Building
One of our favorite places, the Yellow Dog Lantern. This is one of two places that have been in business continually for over a hundred years

Interior of the Yellow Dog Lantern

The neck grip helps calm the little critter

The most amazing antique mall/auction house ever

In Franklin, there's an antique mall/auction house housed in the old armory building that's like no other antique place I've ever been to. The owner has one of the most incredible collections of Wild West Show memorabilia, Pennsylvania long rifles, Civil War artifacts, Native American artifacts, flintlock and black powder guns I've ever seen. The regular antiques he has for sale are pretty amazing as well, but we were all blown away by his "museum" upstairs, where he housed his personal collection. I've never seen this many artifacts in one place, not even in a real museum. My dad, who usually doesn't go in for antiquing, was hard pressed to leave this place!

This next week, we're off to the Outer Banks, so I'm up to my ass in packing again. Because Murphy's Law is never more apparent than when you're pressed for time, the washing machine died first thing this week. I've been hoofing it up to Bea's to wash clothes for the upcoming journey until the new washer gets here, so needless to say, I've been a bit busy, hence absent from the blogosphere. I'm totally out of the loop with all of you, but after this week, when the summer doldrums set in, I know I'll be doing a prodigous amount of back reading and catching up with everyone.

Summer night on the porch

Monday, June 16, 2008

I'm gone! I am on vacation you guys!

I left for PA on Saturday, and in the spirit of my trip, kind of like you're along for the ride, I've posted some of the stories I've collected from being up here. For my dad, a trip up here always means he's close in his thoughts to his grandfather, a man he idolized. The stories don't actually reveal a hero, per se. In fact, my great grandfather was a man of rough nature, raised in a rough place, but he was particularly charismatic. It's probably what kept my great grandmother from killing him. We call it the "smart-ass gene" nowadays, and its a gene that is alive and well in several branches (what up my cuzzin?). So with no further ado, I present to you:

Jacob Toy

Born 1882 in Venango Co. PA, he was the son of William Toy and Rachel Klotz.. He died in February of 1970. He was married October 12, 1904 in Oil City, PA to Minnie Belle Gahring (1888-1962), the daughter of Ross Gahring (b. 1861 – d. 1914) and Martha Ross (b. March 29, 1857 – d. March 1932). The Gahring family is listed as the next door neighbors to Jacob Toy Sr. in the census records of 1900. At the age of 54, Jake's father, William fell from an oil derrick he was repairing and died later that day.

Min was a school teacher in Kaneville as a young woman, and Jake, her future husband, was once one of her students. She is remembered by her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, as a sour and sometimes unhappy woman, who nonetheless, was somehow also the first to pack a picnic and take the family for an outing. She loved to drive, and did all the driving in the family, taking Jake to and from work. She is also described as a “wonderful grandmother”, who wanted her family, and extended family as close to her as possible. She could be verbally intimidating and was known to hold a grudge. She died in 1962 from an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) in her sleep. I never knew her, but my sister adored her, and I believe, hung the moon for my great grandmother as well. It's her house that is the Grandma's House of my memories, and maybe she was still there, somehow, imparting her love to us all. Maybe that was part of why it's so hard to let go of that house. Whenever I hear trains in the night, coming through town, it takes me back to that place.

Jake was listed as a driller in the Oil City directory of 1925. He also shot wells on more than one occasion, once in particular, when he took his grandson, my dad, with him to “shoot a well”. It's a process involving slowly lowering nitroglycerin down into an oil well shaft, dropping a “torpedo”, of metal down the shaft, and then, in the interest of living, “running like hell”. Whenever he brought a well in, he would drink a shot of the raw crude. It was believed then that crude was a tonic.

My father and his sister recall going to the movies with their grandfather and watching him physically move along with the action of the film, usually westerns. He once split his lip on the seat in front of him, shadow boxing.

He is remembered as a generally genial, sometimes liquored up and feisty man, whose energy and sense of humor seemed boundless. On one occasion, he bought a new outfit for hunting, but instead of going hunting, he spent the day at the bar. Returning home that evening, he was considerably impaired, but quite jovial, leaning against the large tree in the front yard, and amusing everyone present with his antics and jokes concerning his pissed condition. When Min appeared she began to rail at him for drinking. Jake became enraged and had to be held down by his son, Bruce and his son-in-law, “Pat”, although I don’t doubt that Min could have held her own. He liked to tell a story and act all bad ass, but she was a tougher cookie than him. Because of Jake’s penchant to drink away his paycheck, Min made a deal with the bartender to allow Jake to have one drink and then to keep the rest of his paycheck until she could come and get it.

Into middle age, when repairing the roof with his son-in-law, “Pat”, on one occasion, Jake was cautioned to be careful while standing up, or else he might fall, whereupon he stood up and danced a jig upon the rooftop.

Even as an old man Jake was known to be rowdy. Once, he and a much larger man got into a fight, no doubt, after tossing back a few drinks. The larger man threw Jake down repeatedly, but Jake refused to be beat, and kept getting back up. When the larger man finally tired out, Jake, who had never seemed to get tired, finished the fight, or in my father's words, "beat the shit out of him." Once, he made a crack in a bar at a lady and my father had to intercede to keep the husband from punching him. He was 70 at the time.

He died at the age of 88, in a nursing home, which haunts my father to this day. We don't go see his headstone much, when we're there. I think that's too real, too hard for my dad. He prefers to walk the streets of his childhood home and carry his grandfather with him. The giant old rig up at Drake's Well evokes such vivid memories for him, that sometimes we have to leave him there for a time, alone, but not really.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Birthday Bash

It was the Bohemian's ninth birthday yesterday. We decided, since it was also the last day of school, a legendary day of rejoicing for children everywhere, that it would be fun to meet up with his fairy godmothers,Ms. Q and Bea, for a little dinner out on the town. We went to a Japanese steak house in Raleigh that's been there for at least 30 years, and a guilty pleasure for me. My frequent dinner partner, Bea, likes to eat a little more haute cuisine, and I'm usually just jazzed to be out of the house.

But we thought it might be fun for the boys to have the grilled up in flames experience. They've gotten to a place where they can appreciate at least trying new things, even if they don't always like them. I can live with that.

Isn't he droll?

You really have to give it to them - they know how to put on a show! These guys couldn't take their eyes off the chef, who was, surprisingly, a slender woman with Fabulous! nails, and a voice as deep as Harvey Fierstein. She cracked jokes and scared the piddle out of the Bohemian with a fake ketchup bottle she squirted him with. We loved it!


There was a couple who sat with us, who were very nice, and a lot of fun. The gentlemen caught three pieces of chicken in his mouth that the chef threw him, and we all applauded each time.

Volcano of onions, with a side of tempura

The guys ordered green tea, and actually enjoyed it! The tempura was a big hit, but that was no big surprise. The hub and I split a beer - I know - serious party animals, eh?

She was a blur

Who can resist the smell of sizzling onions, shrimp, zucchini and mushrooms, combined with sesame seeds, soy sauce, and oil? While we waited, I did my not-so-famous Fan Dance; a variation on an Isadora Duncan choreography. Are you buying this? Do you know me?

I call it "Butterfly and Boobs"

This lovely pair of little Japanese ladies were very shy of my camera

I think this was supposed to be the birthday boy - and then we eat him! Yeah, the Bohemian was a little weirded out by that too. But he loved it when all the waiters and waitresses came and sang a song in Japanese. I think it was a birthday song, but I couldn't swear to it. It really was a fun way to have dinner out with a couple of kids, and the big kids didn't mind too much, did they Bea? After dinner we went and saw "Kung Fu Panda", which was wonderful. The story was engaging and funny, and the casting well matched. It had seamless animation and the texture and ambience of it's style was very reminiscent of Japan. We laughed our heads off and loved the whole big screen experience of being sucked into another world.

All in all, a great birthday!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Home is where your heart is

My grandfather, his sister and their parents

In another week or so we head north for our yearly vacation in the mountains of western Pennsylvania - Oil City, namely - my father's hometown. Its not exactly a place that tons of people flock to for family vacation time, and frankly, I consider that a perk. I'm not much for crowds - they make me surly.

When I was a child and we lived outside of Buffalo, our trips down to Oil City were frequent. My great grandfather was still alive then, living with my great aunt and her family in the house they had lived in since 1905. My grandfather was born in that house, and my father grew up there as well. It was the quintessential Grandma's House kind of place to go visit, even though none of my grandparents actually lived there. Or maybe that was why.

The house in question (pay no attention to the dapper fellow in the foreground)

We moved to Raleigh in 1969 and the following year my great grandfather died.

I think we went to Oil City once more after that, on a trip up to Buffalo to visit family. My great aunt had also passed away by then and the family had sold the old house to consolidate funds and provide my great uncle with medical care for his emphysema. That was around 1972 and we never went back again. I do recall us going to see the old house, and the new owners allowed us to come in for a last look around. I never see love beads that I don't think of my great aunt's living room during that visit. It was a punch to the emotional gut to see the changes the new owners had wrought, and from then on, my memories were all I had.

In 2000 the hub-man and I took a trip up north to visit family and on the way back we stopped off in Oil City to do a little family research. We located a cemetery that first trip where my Great-great-great grandparents were buried and decided it was worth the extra time to go check it out.

I stood in that cemetery, on a hilltop outside of a little town called Rouseville, watching a thunderstorm roll in over the surrounding hills, and for the first time since we had moved away from Buffalo, I felt like I had come home. Not to be all New Age freaky, but cemeteries all have different vibes to me. Most of the time they feel like you've just walked into someone else's house, but there on that hill, I could almost smell the old house that only lived in my dreams, and felt my family all around me. There on that hill I cried, for the joy of having found them, and for the frustration that they were still so far away.

I went back the following year, and the year after that, staying a night or two in the local hotel, always feeling a bit out of synch with the area. In 2004 I found a house to rent and my parents came with us that year. We all fell in love with that old house, partly, I believe, because it was similar to my great grandparents' house. It was also on the grounds of a park where my dad had played as a kid, so the proximity to his old stomping grounds was another factor. The other added bonus of having a big house to stay in was being able to host my aunt and some of her family, who drove down from Buffalo. It had been over 30 years for me since I had been back there, but it had been even longer since my aunt and my father had been there together. The stories that poured out of them as we went around town were invaluable to the research I was conducting, and highly illuminating, since I wasn't around when a lot of them happened.

Home away from home

Creek at Miller Farm in Oil Creek State Park

Single file at Petroleum Centre

The stories we tell on a trip like this are the best reason to go. The tales of ancestors scraping a life out of this place, of their devotion to and reliance on each other. These stories, told by my father to his grandchildren are priceless jewels in the crown of their identity. They are moments that can only occur for a limited time, but their potential to be remembered and passed down grants immortality to so many.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Because I'm The Greatest

I think I must have left my brain in my other pants - I actually volunteered to help out for a three hour end of school celebration in 100 degree weather. Me, the polar bear. Seriously, I think I hocked up more than a lung last week - a chunk of my mind is obviously missing, because this ole stick of buttah is ready to go on the popcorn now, and I was just doing the face painting.

The other moms doing face painting were funny - they had this piece of paper with simple little doodle-like stuff the kids could choose from, and then I sat down and rocked the boat. I painted skull and crossbones going up in flames; I painted swords with serpents entwined about them; I painted the Loch Ness monster on one kid, a dolphin on another; butterflies and rosebuds; AC DC's logo, complete with lightning bolt, and I sang an appropriate ditty for each as I did them (okay I had to mumble parts of the AC DC song - "Highway to Hell" or "Hell's Bells" wasn't going to cut it with the 3rd grade crowd - even I know that).

Its not like any of it was hard, but what an ego boost to hear these kids: "She can paint anything!" "I'm waiting for her, she's the best." And I admit it, I sucked up every bit of it. At lunch, one of the Bohemian's classmates declared, "Mrs. Toy, you are the greatest!" I don't know how I got those kudos, but I'm not going to argue. and you know what? Those kids are the greatest too!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Digging In The Dirt

I am no stranger to depression - it's been my companion for far too many years. I recognize the symptoms as expertly as I would the symptoms of the flu or any other illness. It comes from years of living intimately with it. I've examined my personal causes, or triggers minutely, made a science of pinpointing the underlying reasons and how to exorcise them.

As a child, when the fighting between my parents would crescendo, or they had just vented their rage at each other on one of us, I would slip away from the house and look up at the night sky, praying for my real family to come and take me away.

In the teen years, unable to pretend I belonged somewhere else, I thought about suicide almost constantly. I wore black from the age of 12 onward, and sat in my room in the dark, writing very morose, very bad poetry. I stole prescription drugs from the medicine cabinet of my friend's mother and stockpiled them for my planned overdose. My parents would occasionally take their heads out of their self-absorbed asses to notice and their loving response was always, "Do we need to take you to see someone?" Not that they ever followed through - not that I would have talked to a shrink if they had. When you grow up in the house of a shrink and see just how batsa they are after hours, it makes it pretty much impossible to trust any of them.

I was actually lucky, in that I had brothers and a sister. I think we decided fairly early on that our parents were totally fucked up in the head and couldn't be relied on. No matter how bad it was, we had each other. My father likes to think he had a hand in making us such a close family, and he's right, but he's also way off base. He was never home, except on the weekends. My mother couldn't deal with four kids alone and saved both our punishments and her resentments for Friday night, and that's how she lost her authority as a parent. Their need to publicly vilify one another led us to form our own family dynamic - one that didn't include them.

As a young woman I tended towards relationships where I put my entire life's happiness into the keeping of another, and naturally, they always seemed to end badly. Then I would plummet into a pit of darkest, most desperate despair, only surfacing to pin my self worth on another poor unsuspecting schmuck.

I was about 24 when I had the epiphany that I was living my life like it was a Greek tragedy, and decided I was really tired of it. It was time to try living life like it was worth it. That was the year I met both Bea and my husband and you know how those stories went.

That's not to say I don't ever end up in that dank, windowless cell known as depression - I certainly do. The toddler years were hell, and there were times I literally hit my head against the wall, trying to deal. But I look at it differently now. I know there's a sunny day outside of that cell. I also know I'm not the only one who ever feels that way, and strange as it may sound, I find that comforting. It took some work to get to this place, in the form of confronting my demons, both personal and familial, but the dark days are fewer and further than they used to be.

How can we appreciate the exquisite joy of being alive, if we've never seen the other darker side as well? Life is a balance of both good and bad, I believe, and in the quest to find wisdom, or grace, or deeper illumination, we have to be able to embrace both sides.

*Note - I wrote this piece after reading of Ray's demise into the dark tunnel over at Nitro Vista. This isn't a solution to anyone else's depression - it isn't even a full confession of the things that set me off. This is simply what came up out of the bubbling swamp that is my mind after reading his post. I also want to say that as an adult I recognize there are no perfect parents and whatever botching of the job my parents may have done, they did their best with what they were given. Family dynamics and dysfunctions often go back many generations, and for what its worth, my parents did break out of their respective molds in many ways.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Well Look Who Just Crawled In


Forgive me for leaving you all hanging for over a week. I did indeed encounter the Senator at Ms. Q's this past weekend, and let me tell you - the air positively crackled with sexual tension!

In light of the recently discovered brain tumor, his time has become something rare and precious, but when two storms collide like we did, nothing can stop them. He swept me off my feet and into his arms. By Sunday night we were in his car and headed for Cape Cod for a few storm-tossed, star-crossed days of unbridled animal passion.


...or at least that was the fantasy scenario in my head; maybe not so much the truth, but a girl can dream, can't she? Especially when that girl can't sleep at night, due to a certain precipitously acquired upper respiratory infection. Bronchitis may sound like a dinosaur, and I'm working hard on kicking its ass into extinction, but so far, its been kicking mine!

Yeah, we're some party animals, aren't we? Except when I say, "Party Animal", its more like a decrepit old elephant on his way to the graveyard, to mingle his nearly fleshless bones with those of his ancestors. Not exactly a scene from "Bachelor Party", but we didn't start off that way.

Saturday afternoon found us (Bea and myself) at the always effervescent Ms. Q's house, and we were all in one of those "Hakuna Matata" kind of moods; dancing around, eating bugs off of leaves and stuff, and singing; chile - we were some singing old broads. (Oh, What-Ever; you know you sing and dance around the house in your underwear too! And besides, we had to kill time while we waited for the Senator to show, and everyone knows he likes girls who uh, sing, uh, and dance, yeah, that's it!)

Check out that party nosh - and its all good for you too; well, except for the drinky-winkies.

At one point this Neil Diamond/Babs Streisand duet came on and we just HAD to sing along, paraphrasing the sappy lyrics, of course.

Ms. Q opened her presents
Later the Senator and his wife came over for cocktails - thats the official story, anyway - and we all made nice with the wife in a photo-op.

The Senator and his long-suffering wife
Later, the Senator snuck off to the computer to book us a room. Oops! Hello wifey!
Many apologies again, for taking so long to get back to post this - I'm still fighting the rising tide in my lungs with this horrid bronchitis, so sleep is a thing of the past, as is simple breathing. Unfortunately, as moms all over the world know, there is no sick leave for mothers, and with the end of school looming closer the demands on my time seem never ending. Have I mentioned I am so over school right now? Sheesh! I am so beyond ready to be done for a few months.

Addendum: I just heard that the real Senator Kennedy's brain surgery was very successful. I'm not only glad for him and his family, but it sure wouldn't be that funny to talk about MY senator, when the real one was kaput.

Also, Bea had to go and ask where all the pictures of her were from this past Hoop-de-do at Ms. Q's. Well Bea, here you go, in all your blurry glory. This is what happens when friends let friends drink and shoot photos. It isn't pretty, is it?