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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 30-A: "Counting the Cost"

Since the well we dug in 1970 rests so perfectly beneath a basement staircase, you might think that the next chapters of this family saga would resume with the actual construction of the house, but that did not begin until three years after the well.

At the time, it did not occur to me as strange that we were always talking of moving out to “the property,” but the house we needed to do so was such a long time coming. Dad had sketched the plans in a hardbound journal that none of us knew existed, but they were penciled sketches not blueprints—the kind of sketches I’ve made through the years for projects that never happened.

Doodling the idle “what ifs” of life is a way walking unknown trails just far enough to know you’re better off where you are or not yet ready to take a first step. Scripture calls it “counting the cost.” (Luke 14:28-30) But prudence can sometimes induce procrastination, and it's a fine line between sketched dreams and fading visions.

I sometimes wondered if the house would ever stand over the well.

Ah, the well… that thirty foot cistern well we’d dug in 1970 on the side of a wooded hill. For three years, it was covered with an abandoned sign held down by a small pile of cinder blocks like memorial stones. It could not be seen from the road or winding drive to the barn, but it stood, so to speak, as surety that this house would someday exist because otherwise the well had no reason for being. Nearly every Saturday--except in the winter months--it gave Dad pleasure to lift the lid and drink from it. Its water was pure and cold and deep—full of hope waiting only for wherewithal.

I never doubted Dad's plans at the time, but it later occurred to me that either the house would be built or the well would be a monument to the most colossal unfulfilled dream of my father’s life.

Probably all of the parents I knew then or since would have taken out a mortgage—borrowed the money and subcontract others to get the job done. And there is nothing wrong with that approach. It makes sense at many levels, but for reasons I didn’t know at the time, Dad and Mom never entertained that solution, and we never asked why.

Kids back then did not pry into their parents business. I did not know how much Dad made at Bell (though I’d heard him tell Mom once that it was less than his brothers made at Detroit Edison). I did not know about bills and savings accounts and the cost of cars in the driveway—only that they were all "used" and Dad did whatever it took to keep them running. I knew nothing about how much it cost to feed a family of seven. I knew nothing about how quickly college tuition payments can become an unspoken first priority in the monthly stack of stuff.

The year after Kathy left for college, Paul joined her. As obvious as it is to me now, I did not make the connection between their leaving home and no house being built over the well.

About fifteen years later, when my wife and I were asking Dad for advice about buying a house. I knew he had avoided a mortgage and thought, perhaps, he would not approve of us having one--not that it was his business; not that my wife and I couldn't do whatever we wanted. But then, as always, I sought my father's advice and it pleased me to please him with the choices we made as a young couple. He was thrilled that we had found a place we could afford and assured me there was nothing wrong with a mortgage on something that is almost always sure to appreciate in value. It was then he explained why he had chosen not to borrow money when we built the house.

Because he and Virg Palmer had built and sold three homes in Port Huron before we moved to Roseville, and because that Roseville house was half the house of the preceding home on Atkins Road, he and Mom owed nothing on it when he bought the property. Buying the land in ’68, however, made him dip into a college fund that he had managed to set aside since the four of us were little kids. He was on track to having enough in the fund to pay half of each of our college expenses. The other half would be ours to pay. This was the same "pay half" approach he'd begun when we each "saved up" for our first bikes. Dad figured unless we helped pay for something we'd never know the value of it. I think this is generally true.

We paid for our half by working through college. And thanks to good summer jobs all of us eventually graduated with no debt, but little did I know that it took everything Dad and Mom could do to keep the college fund flush during those years. (He would have never told me this when I lived at home or was going to college, but at the time of this conversation he thought it would be helpful for me to know.) Dad had purchased the land by borrowing from himself--from the college fund.

When I learned of this, I was impressed that our single-income home even had such a fund, but I was also moved that he felt bad about using money set aside for one thing to do another. It was his hope to have the college fund back up by the time we needed it, and he did. But think about it...

By the time Kathy left for her Junior Year of college, Paul and Dave were also unloading their things in front of the dorms. Three kids in college at the same time. It took everything Dad could do to keep up with his half of the bargain, and this meant building the house little by little.

The fact that the site for the house remained untouched didn't occur to me in 1971. We were happy in Roseville. Still very involved in our church there. Still working with Dad at the property—maybe not every Saturday but most of them.

There was always something to do out at the property. If the creek needed cleaning out, Dad would be on his backhoe for a couple weekends, like a kid playing with giant Tonka. There were always fallen trees to cut and paths to clear and roads to nowhere to maintain. We added a road across the creek that looped the back five acres. It joined the first road he blazed along the creek and up the sledding hill. Each week, weather permitting, we drove these roads many times just to keep the “two tracks” well-used. There was no outlet to these private roads; they served only to help us get to the work and play of the land that would someday be home.

There was another little project that we’d begun the year after the well.

Down at the base of the sledding hill on the south side of the creek and road, there was an oak that must have grown from three acorns in a bunch a hundred years before. At the base where the roots reach like octopus arms deep into the earth, it looked like one tree but the trunk diverged into three equal-sized trunks, leaning out at perfect angles to each other. It was clear that this was three trees grown so close together that the base and roots had fused. To Dave and I, it seemed that high up in the triangle of those trunks was the perfect place to build a tree fort.

It was spring, Dave was four months from beginning his senior year and I would be joining him as a sophomore in the fall. I suppose many would say we were well past the age of tree forts, but we had lived in the city for ten years. The trees that had lined our streets had been lost in droves to Dutch Elm disease, and the Chinese Elm in front of our house was a great climbing tree—we could spend hours up that tree—but building an actual tree fort was not permissible in our little neighborhood.

But now—too old or not—we had all the trees we wanted and no one to tell us we couldn’t build a fort. No one except Dad, of course. We knew enough about building to begin such a project without his help, but we also knew we dared not do it his blessing. He was, after all, a sort of naturalist who hated seeing things defaced; hated the thought of nails in trees without a very good reason; hated hauling out tires and other “big splash” things that kids had thrown in the creek. Dave and I knew that Dad may very well say no to such an idea, but we brought him to the Trinity Oak, as I had dubbed the tree, and told him of our plans.

To our surprise, he was not opposed to the idea at all, but he did have some practical suggestions:

“I can see why you think that building the platform for your hut in that triangle would be perfect, but what happens when the wind blows and those three trunks are not in perfect rhythm with each other. The higher you go in a tree, the more it sways, and I suspect that ten feet up those trunks could move an inch or so in different directions. What then? No boards or nails or anything you build will hold its place against such force. I’m afraid your fort would break lose in the first high winds that came along.”

Dave and I just stood there speechless at the obvious reality of his caution. He continued.

“There’s another thing, and I don’t really know the answer to this, but as the tree’s grow each trunk gets wider in girth and even if the wind was not a problem, they may gradually squeeze your hut like a big nutcracker.”

I was starting to see Dad’s point and added, “Plus the hut will get higher and higher as the tree grows. That would be a problem.”

Dave and Dad both looked at me with screwy faces.

“No it won’t,” Dave said. “That’s not how trees grow. If you put a nail in this tree, it will still be here in fifty years even if the tree is fifty feet taller. Right, Dad?”

“Yep. He’s right, Tom. Trees grow wider each year. That’s why these three trees grew into each other over time, but when they grow taller it’s only from the top.” He pointed to a branch about fifteen feet above the ground and said, “That branch has always been at that height and in ten years it will still be at that height.”

I was puzzled. I had never thought about such things, but something Dad said prompted me to correct him.

“That branch has not always been there. I’ll bet that branch didn’t come until the tree was what? Ten years old? Twenty? How long does it take an oak to get high enough to put that branch out there like that?”

“Good point,” Dad laughed. "Oaks are very slow growing trees and it might very well have taken thirty years for that branch be in place on the tree. I really don’t know, but once it was there it didn’t get noticeably higher through the decades. No. The problem is wind. When winds blow through theses woods the tree tops blow every which way. They don’t sway together in waves like wheat fields. These trunks will move independent of each other, and when that happens anything fixed to all three is going to break free of two of them.”

None of this conversation was a lecture or argument. It was a lesson in things so obvious that none of us had ever talked or thought about them. Nor have I thought about them since. This is true of nearly everything we “know.” Most of things we “learn” in life become part of who we are and how we think without ever thinking about them again.

We walked back to the barn with Dad.

“Now that I know you guys want a tree house,” he said, “I’ll help you find a better place. I have an idea...but first we're going to need to find some wood. Let's see what we can pull out of the lumber pile in the barn."

Here is a link to a past post that tells the story of Dad’s better idea.

To be continued: Next post Unsettled Chapter 31f: “First we need some wood.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Oldest Voice in the Parlor (Conclusion)

If there is one common thread in what I like to write or read, it is just that: a thread of commonness. It is the ordinary stuff of life that most infatuates me--those self-evident things that barely break through our senses in real time but seep somewhere deep in the mind like forgotten tea.

I touched on this a few years back in a piece about a family crisis called "The Ache of Joy":

"It was the first of several unexpected pauses in the days to come when happy recollections would suddenly seem too wonderful to bear, and rather than a smile they brought the ache of joy: a fragile awareness that life is a collection of mostly uneventful moments. They do not pass but gather; they are not spent but shared; and only rarely do we begin to grasp their value—or allow ourselves to think they will someday change—and when we do, our grip goes numb, like in a dream, just when it matters most to hold on. That’s what I mean by the ache of joy. It’s not a passing feeling but the passing ability to sense what’s always there, the simplicity of life that is lost in the complexity of living. It catches us off guard because it’s stored not in our cherished memories but in moments that have passed forgotten...."

Writing about common things is my attempt, I suppose, to help people remember the skin and sky of our existence. Most written history is from "important people" playing "important roles" in the "important events" that shaped their version of the present. We study these important things in school, but the truest narratives of our lives are less likely written but told and retold whenever families gather. These stories shape us more than those in history books, but unless they're eventually put to paper, they vanish with the voices that knew them to be true.

So here's to common things and the common people who take the time to write about them.
Take this booklet, for instance. The things I've been "writing down" for a month now are only possible because others did it before me. The biographical portions of this booklet were gleaned from written accounts of lives that did not overlap my own. They are blood-relatives of my children but not me. I knew only one child (Carter) the grandchildren of Elbert and Iva who bought the parlor organ, and those grandchildren now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their own. These extrapolated pages are based on a 1918 letter, an article in the 1927 Melvern Review newspaper, some records in the Osage County Museum, and a hard-bound genealogy written in 1967 by a grandson of John Wesley Neal, Jesse Neal, who had been a professor of agriculture engineering at Auburn University from 1939 to 1967 (at which time he retired and began work on a 160-page book based on collected notes his uncle, the Rev. George Neal, had begun gathering for the same purpose back in 1947).
I also had the aid of dozens of web pages in which people have written about common things like parlor organs and thereby put information and links at my fingertips that neither Jesse nor George had available forty and sixty years ago.

The Oldest Voice in the Parlor: Part IV:
From Melvern to Michigan

This last portion begins with an eye-witness account of a family reunion in Melvern, Kansas, on June 11,1925. That reunion was at Iva Cochran's house twenty-five years after she bought the parlor organ. I need to explain why she is not called Grandma McNabb.

Fifteen years before this reunion, a few years after they bought the parlor organ, Iva's husband Elbert McNabb died at the age of 53 (due to complications related to his side job of making lime plaster from Kansas native limestone). He was father to Iva's six children (some grown) aged 23, 20, 18, 13, 8, and 2. Iva was only 40,

She would eventually have 18 grandchildren but none of them were born before Elbert’s death. By the time these grandchildren were old enough to talk, Iva would be called Grandma Cochran, the name she took in her second marriage to Frank Cochran (also of Melvern, Kansas). Frank Cochran is a “grafted branch” on the family tree so to speak. He married for the first time late in life, and he and Iva had no children of their own. All of Elbert and Iva’s children kept the McNabb name.
In the decade between Elbert's death and the "Roaring Twenties," there had been a great "war to end all wars," resulting in victory and a new hit song to play on the Victrola (though such a new invention was not likely in Grandma Cochran's home).

Around 1920, two things ended the parlor organ craze [if such a word can be used for parlor organs]: first there was now recorded music and record players (like the one that played the song above)... second, a new industry was born, mass-produced pianos that were designed for home use (along with popular sheet music written specifically for piano). Jazz and Joplin's Ragtime music [great link] does not mix with soft-spoken parlor organs. The appeal of the home piano was also due in part to its lack of association with “church music.” Demand for popular music grew through the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s then skyrocketed in the fifties (and there's no end in sight). The quaint, muffled sounds of parlor organs had little place in the changing musical taste and insatiable appetite for popular music, but for about fifty years, it was those millions of parlor organs across the fruited plane that brought music into the American home.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
In spite of the doubts that song raised about keeping 'em down on the farm, by 1925, the descendents of John Wesley Neal still had deep roots in dozens of farms around Melvern, Kansas, but it was also true that some had moved far away: west to California and even north-east to Michigan. But when word of a Neal family reunion came months earlier by mail, everyone came from far and wide back to Melvern. Iva and her twelve siblings (in the photo to the right taken thirty-some years before) and all of their children were present.
[Double-click on photos to enlarge.]
This second group photograph was taken the day of the reunion in front of Grandma Iva Cochran's house. The Melvern Review printed a full report the next week (written by Ray Neal, grandson of John Wesley Neal). Here are some excerpts from the article about that gathering:

"The father and mother, god bless them, once again were among the group that they had reared to be noble, pure and honorable men and women.

"The reunion, thought appreciated by all meant more to the aged father and mother than to any of the other members. My dear grandfather and grandmother can truly pronounce their duties on earth well done. The family has always cooperated--no feuds have entered to add sorrow to the large circle. They are God-fearing people, ardent believers in God and His teachings. Three of the boys are ministers.

"Their attachment to one another could be easily discerned. Throughout the day this attachment was expressed in tears and laughter. At noon, 67 relatives and 14 visitors gathered around a table laden with delicious food and enjoyed, probably for the last time in each other's presence, a bounteous dinner.

"At 1:00 o'clock,... [a program began with the singing of "America" after which] Mrs. Frank Cochran rendered [this] 'The Address of Welcome':

'Father, Mother, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, I am certainly glad to welcome you all here today for the purpose of celebrating our family reunion. I wonder if you all realize what a great opportunity this is in coming here for this event. There are but a few fathers and mothers who have traveled through the journey of life, who have realized this opportunity. God's merciful kindness in bestowing his blessing upon our parents, who have lived to a ripe old age and raised up a large family of boys and girls to manhood and womanhood in this vicinity, without the loss of one, some of whom have become grandfathers and grandmothers also. Brothers and sisters, I feel we have a father and mother to be proud of. They have always stood for the principles of honor, truth, and justice. When we are called away by death, may the parting be temporary and the meeting eternal.'

[Many others also spoke, a double quartet of eight brothers sang, and at the close of the program, all 81 of them sang the old hymn, "God Be with You 'Til We Meet Again."]

That was the account in the local paper. But I look at the picture that was taken that day, and I see all those kids in the front row, and I know that there had to be a lot of playing and running about the farm yard and standing in line at the outhouse behind the house in the picture. It goes without saying to farm folks, but if chicken was served at that picnic, it was caught and axed and plucked and fried all in a few-hours time by the ladies in the big farm kitchen. In Melvern, Kansas, 1927, most of the local folks arrived by older cars, but some may have come by horse and wagon since some of the family still farmed with teams of horses.

After the event, when everything was put back in place and those who lived within a few miles were waved good-bye from that long front porch, I like to think that some folks stayed the night there at Grandma Cochran's house. If it's anything like the reunions I've traveled home for, those from furthest away stay on a few days, sleeping in rooms that used to be theirs or wherever else they find a place to bed down. So I'm thinking Iva had some of her grown kids still there well into the night.

I like to think her parents, John and Nancy, may have stayed the night (or were the last to leave with whoever brought them). Maybe the sat for a while on the front porch and when the house cooled down a bit, those not yet willing to call it a day were drawn to her parlor to visit with a breeze joining them through the open windows.
Farm folks typically practiced the old adage: "Early to bed; early to rise; makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." This was in part true because after sundown, there was only the light of kerosene lamps or possibly a 6-volt systems charged by their windmill with "stored power" in complex wet-cell battery systems. [Only 10% of American farms had electricity before the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.]

But I don't think this house went to bed at dark that night. It had been special day, they'd seen some nieces and nephews and grandkids for the first time. There was much to talk about, and the oldest voices in the parlor smiled contentedly, sometimes with a tear in their eyes. They didn't say it aloud, but perhaps they knew in their heart that the next time there would be such a gathering one of them would not be sitting beside the other. You get to an age where you're comfortable with the thought of dying but sad at the thought of leaving the one beside you alone.

So as the conversation lulled, I can't help but think that maybe Iva's father said, "Play us a piece," as my own grandmother always says when she is in the room with an instrument. Maybe Iva or her daughter Lorena lifted the lid of that parlor organ and turned to that closing hymn they'd all sung earlier in the day. I can imagine her squinting toward the page in the dim lamplight, pumping the carpeted treadles with her feet, and playing a verse a little slowly at first but then when she knew she had the fingering right, she began singing those words again as others hummed or joined in from where they sat:

1. God be with you till we meet again; by his counsels guide, uphold you, with his sheep securely fold you; God be with you till we meet again. Refrain: Till we meet, till we meet, till we meet at Jesus' feet; till we meet, till we meet, God be with you till we meet again. 2. God be with you till we meet again; neath his wings securely hide you, daily manna still provide you; God be with you till we meet again. (Refrain) 3. God be with you till we meet again; when life's perils thick confound you, put his arms unfailing round you; God be with you till we meet again. (Refrain) 4. God be with you till we meet again; keep love's banner floating o'er you, smite death's threatening wave before you; God be with you till we meet again.Refrain: Till we meet, till we meet, till we meet at Jesus' feet; till we meet, till we meet, God be with you till we meet again.

Exactly one year to the day after the night of that reunion, John Wesley Neal died at the age of 78. His wife Nancy survived him nearly seven years. They are both buried in the Melvern Cemetery. The oldest voice in the parlor was now Iva herself.

The remainder of this booklet is a bit concise, addressing quickly the "passing" of many people. I mean no disrespect, but my point is briefly explaining how this organ got from Iva Cochran's parlor in Melvern, Kansas, to our own home here in Michigan some sixty-two years later.

The Great Depression had come and gone. Some of the grandchildren in the front row of that reunion picture had gone off to fight in World War II and safely returned the year before. It was 1946 when Iva Cochran, then age 76, lost her second husband Frank, and in that following year as a widow her own health began to fail. She moved into her son Carter Tennessee McNabb's house, four miles east of Melvern.

C.T. McNabb was my wife's grandfather. [I had the privilege of spending time with him during our courtship (even gave him a few haircuts). In 1981, he died at the age of 90.] But when his mother moved in with his family, he was 54-years old. Julie's dad and his little brother were 14 and 12 and still living at home. There was no spare room, but they put Grandma's bed in the front parlor, a room with a big bay window facing the front road.

In that day, for various reasons, there were no “nursing homes” or “assisted living centers” or “hospice”—leastwise not in Melvern, Kansas. Family members took care of their own as best they could from birth to death, and both occasions were likely to happen right at home. Her home was sold [the one in the reunion picture] and she was able to parcel out her things according to her wishes before she died in 1947. By then her own daughter Lorena lived in California so Grandma Cochran gave the parlor organ to Carter’s second daughter who was her namesake, Iva Kathryn McNabb, who by then was married to Charles Meneley, Iva Kathryn is my wife's Aunt Kathryn (she always went by her middle name).
Kathryn played piano [and has since taught and served as church accompanist for sixty years], so it made sense to give the organ to her. But at the time she and her husband lived in a three-room house with no place for the organ. Kathryn's oldest brother Dean offered to keep it for at his home in Houston, Texas, until she had a place for it. But Time is a quiet river and the ever-passing current sometimes sweeps us gently by our best intentions. And so it was with the parlor organ, which remained in Texas for nearly 50 years.

At the time of his passing in 1997, the organ was returned to Kansas and was enjoyed by Aunt Kathryn for many years. Whenever her fingers rested lightly on the keys, the touch brought hymns to mind. She could sit and play her favorites from memory without a hymnal. The organ stayed put for over a decade, then in the summer of 2009, Aunt Kathryn and Uncle Charlie began preparing for a move from their large house on a farm to a smaller house in Waverly (near Melvern). It was then that Kathryn gave the organ to her niece Julie who as a child had been one of her piano students for many years. She also knew Julie and I enjoyed antiques and the stories behind them. The only trick was the fact that her niece now lives 700 miles away in Michigan.

At first, Julie was not sure we had a place for it, but we went to Aunt Kathrin's house, and once she saw it and heard her favorite aunt playing it, she knew right where it would go... in the room I have been calling our "parlor" for years. It is a quiet room free from modernity, a place for visiting and listening to Julie or my daughter playing the piano.
That's the piano there at the opposite end of the room from the organ. That Acrosonic piano, by the way, is also made by Baldwin, same company that made the organ. Ironically, according to the serial number, it was made in 1946, the year Grandma Cochran first gave the organ to Aunt Kathryn. It is the same piano Julie played as a child. Once our girls were old enough to begin lessons, Julie's father brought it to our home in a pick-up truck back in 1988, They've each spent hours practicing there through the years. Natalie enjoys it more than her sisters did.
It was in this room that Julie knew the old organ would feel at home.

And so it was that in July of 2009, a small Monarch reed organ, now well over 100 years old, was carefully loaded into the back of a 2004 Dodge Durango and carried safely from Kansas to our Michigan home where it is at the time of this writing. As you can tell from this long booklet, the organ has fascinated me since it arrived. It has brought me in touch with the people who first found comfort in its wheezing gentle notes which even now seem from another time, making any song sound ghostly in a pleasant way. From its billows behind the peddles on the floor comes the faint scent from a century before when it first sat in the parlor of a big farm house in Melvern, Kansas.

Aunt Kathryn, of course, remembers the organ in Grandma Cochran’s parlor; she remembers playing it there as a young girl. But Julie never knew her great grandmother, never stepped inside that large old farm house (which no longer exists). So to Julie, the image that will forever come to mind when she sits on that small spindled stool is of her dear aunt. Before we took the organ from their house, Aunt Kathryn played a few hymns, then looked at Julie and smiled.

Kathryn has a caring voice, meek spirit, and eyes that shine with both the joy and sorrow of stained glass.

Though the piano that has graced this room is over sixty years old, it is Grandma Cochran's organ that is now the oldest voice in the parlor.
Note: Return this weekend for next installment of "Unsettled." We're painting the house and doing some camping before school starts for our staff next week.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Echo of Empty Rooms

It's been nearly two weeks since my last post. Wednesday and Thursday, we took Kim (who had just returned from her trip to Croatia) back to Chicago.

Then Friday, we made a trip to the east side of the state to "the house," as we now find ourselves calling the place we called home for all those years. [This 2007 photo is one of the last we have from Mom's living room before everything changed.]

All the siblings have been doing odd jobs there since the estate sale. Everything is gone. Rooms that were papered have been stripped. We hired a long-time family friend to patch and paint every room. All the carpet has been removed, and when the painting is done, new carpet will go down. We'll "white glove" the place... and put the sign we've all dreaded in the front by the road.

My younger brother Jim and I spoke softly in the echo of empty rooms.

"You know how long it's been since I've seen the house like this?" he said.

I did the math in my head, "Over thirty years. You would have been about twelve--the same age I was when you were born."

No carpet, chalky-white "plaster" on the nail holes and sheetrock joints, colorless walls, not a stitch of furniture, Visqueen over new kitchen appliances... The rooms looked as they did when they were just about finished the first time.

Friday evening, Julie rented a rug cleaner for the breezeway. (It was the newest room of the house and the burber carpet was fine.) It looks great. Mom loved that room. Julie and I slept at my sister's next door and then spent Saturday re-tiling the main stairway and master bathroom.
Rich (our friend the painter) was working, too. Not long after he arrived, he began whistling beautifully and the notes reached all the corners of the house.

I had been whistling on the stairs. It's an old habit I picked up from Dad. He always whistled while he did the "thinking" part of work on the house, the pauses between the pounding and the sawing, those gaps when he was most satisfied with what he just done and happily mapping out his next task. He never whistled while doing "have to" work like changing the oil in the car--chores he had to do but took no particular pride in getting done. But working inside the house, with empty resonating rooms, Dad whistled up a storm. Julie said that it sounded like Rich and I were whistling duets throughout the day. It all felt so natural, so much like old times, and we were far enough away from each other that neither of us seemed to notice.

To my surprise, I was fine emotionally as we worked in the empty house. It was on the four-hour drive home that it hit me. A Nat King Cole CD was playing, and when the song from Chapter 16 of Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe came on... the road blurred and Julie handed me a Kleenex. I should have known better than to play Nat King Cole. After that, I was fine.

Thank you for your patience. I was just someplace else this week. Already missing Kim; missing my folks. You know what I mean. There is one more part to "The Oldest Voice in the Parlor," and then I'm eager to tell you how we built the house in the first place.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Oldest Voice in the Parlor: Part III

Let's take a moment to talk about the word parlor before continuing Part III of the story...

The word comes from parler which is Old French for "to speak." [As was briefly explained in Pirates of the Caribean.] We've all heard the question: parlez-vous français? Which means Do you speak French?

There are many variations on the root word parler. Here are just a few: parlance means a way of speaking; parley (n.) means "conference," especially with an enemy; and even the word parliament comes from parler. The first use of the spelling parlor c.1225, meant "window through which confessions were made," also "apartment in a monastery for conversations with outside persons;" It wasn't until 1374 that parlor was used to mean a "sitting room for private conversation." And it was that meaning that held throughout Victorian Era house plans when the parlor was an essential part of the home.

A hundred years later, house plans use words like "living room,""family room," and "TV room" to shake off the stuffy notions of past generation who had nothing to do but talk.

We almost never hear the word parlor anymore. My mom used it often--not in reference to a room in our home [we had no such room]. She used it in terms like beauty parlor, funeral parlor, or even ice cream parlor. Diverse venues that all imply visiting of some form or another.

Take funeral parlor, for instance. In a day when it was common to be born at home, families also often "paid their last respects" in the very home where people passed away. But most homes were not well-suited for the complications involved in these brief rituals. It was the thousands of far-from-home fatalities of the Civil War that gave rise to the business of providing such services outside the home. It was, in fact, the public passage of President Lincoln's body from D.C. to Springfield that brought acceptability to the embalming process. Undertakers began acquiring large beautiful homes in which they could expand parlors and provide other services associated with modern funerals. And in time, most families with the means to do so began utilizing "funeral homes" or "funeral parlors" as my mother called them. To this day, many small-town morticians work in large Victorian homes where family and friends gather to visit in hushed tones with dampened eyes and trembling smiles that say, "Thank you for coming."

In beatuy parlors a whole different kind of visiting typically takes place; some might even call it gossip. And when I think of ice cream parlors only one place fits the bill. It's gone now, but Diana's Sweet Shop was once nestled in the heart of Port Huron, Michigan. This ice cream parlor opened in 1926 and remained virtually unchanged until 2000. So classic was the woodwork of each booth, that one of them was purchased by the Henry Ford Museum and set up just as it was for most of the 20th Century in Port Huron.

When I was in college, there was a place on campus called "The Dating Parlor." It looked like a huge furniture store that sold only small couches and love seats, and believe me, in keeping with the original meaning of the word parlor, only talking took place there. Hard to imagine dozens of college-age couples in "love seats" just talking, but believe me it was true, and I had no qualms with the rules applied to that place. They were reminiscent of a century of Victorian parlor expectations applied in homes where courtships began with threads of conversation.

No matter how else our hollow Hollywood culture cheapens the nature of true love, it is talking and listening (not sex) that is the foundational skill required for shared life. It is the thread of conversation that ties the knot. Yarns must first be spun and then in time knit together. Without the parlor-skill of conversation, all the other pleasures intended for marriage will have little meaning.

But enough talk of parlors and the meaning of the word. We are now ready to continue with Part III of "The Oldest Voice in the Parlor."

Part III:

This booklet was written on a lap-top computer and posted to a blog on the internet, complete with public-domain photos and dozens or source-links found there. Some of the photos I took myself with a high-definition video-still camera. Some of the links in the blog version of this booklet are to movie clips like "Friendly Persuasion," a movie first produced on celluloid film more than 50 years ago. Pat Boone made its theme song a radio hit, and I watched the movie on TV as a kid. Last week I called my sister on the phone and we talked about it. A few weeks ago, I “skyped” [video phone call] with my daughter in Croatia a half a world away, but she flew home on a jet with 400 other people last week.

I share these random thoughts of “technology” only to say that in a post-radio, post film, post-television, post-telephone, mid-internet-jet world, it is easy to forget that just a few generations ago none of this technology existed. It has virtually all happened in my 99-year-old grandmother's lifetime.

Take John Wesley Neal's family there in Melvern, Kansas, in the late 1800's. There was almost no recreational aspect of life. The longest "trip" most Midwesterners took was the wagon ride that brought them to their prairie home. Life was about settling the land and hopefully making a living. Farm families grew large, worked hard, ate well, and slept like logs to get up and do it all again. The endless diversions and distractions that make up the frenetic rhythms and staccato din of days we know did not exist. A bigger wheel was turning closer to home; its pace was measured; its burden shared by many. When there was a break in the grueling work, it was for church or community seasonal events such as county fairs (where the fruits of hard labor were put on display).

Now let's think about the role of music in a typical 1885 farm family's life. There was no such thing as record players or radios, so the only music they had ever heard was played live in their presence. The school house had no marching band (such things were made popular by John Phillips Sousa at the end of the century.)

There was an "opera house" in the town of Quenemo ten miles from Melvern, but that was a place not frequented by families. I stepped in what was left of that building back in 1979. By then, Quenemo's main street was like a ghost town. Alone I ventured into a broken back door of that old abandoned opera house with little concern that anyone would see or care. It had been vacant for decades. Stray birds darted back and forth overhead. Below, in front of what had been a stage, was a weathered old rectangular piano like the one in this picture only ruined. Overhead was a huge hole in the roof. The ivory veneer of the keys was strewn on the floor like fallen rose petals. I pressed a wooden key and from deep inside the box came not a note but the sound a dropped rake makes against a wire fence. Not one key found a note, and my searching seemed to agitate the birds now swooping closer overhead. Suddenly feeling like the trespasser I was, I scooped up some of the thin ivory pieces from the floor as souvenirs then slipped out as I'd come in. But my point in sharing this is not about the place but the piano: until the 1900's they were huge, heavy expensive instruments, and most Midwesterners had never seen one in a home.

Small easily-carried instruments such as banjos, guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, and harmonicas may have been heard here and there, depending on the local talent pool.

Imagine: none of the music that surrounds us now--on the radio, in film, MP3 players, lulling us to sleep in elevators and malls or waking us up when our cell phone rings--none of the ever-present soundtrack of our lives existed then. What little music there was required holding an instrument or lifting the voice. Throughout most of history, this was true of music. It was live. It was vibrant. It was human. Because of this, the most musical setting in a dry state was the church. So is it any wonder that the instrument credited with bringing music to the American home was a new invention called the parlor organ.

In the decades following the Civil War, millions of parlor organs were manufactured and sold by scores of different companies in America. The parlor organ industry (also called reed organ or pump organ) was one of the most prolific booms of the late 19th century.

One of the leading manufacturers became a household name: Baldwin.

Dwight Hamilton Baldwin (1821-1899) was a minister educated at Oberlin College in Chicago who later taught music in the public schools and published several books of songs. His expertise with music led him to become a retailer of pianos and organs he most recommended to others. By 1875, the D.H. Baldwin Company was selling 2,500 pianos and organs annually. Organs were a fraction of the cost of a piano, and better yet, they never needed to be tuned. There were no wires to go out of adjustment. (Inside their cabinets, pianos are complicated mechanical devices that match percussion hammers to tuned wires. An organ uses fixed brass reeds. It is a wind instrument... like the human voice. )

In 1889, Baldwin bought the Hamilton Organ Company of Chicago and began production of the Monarch reed organ, which continued in production for ten years. It was smaller instrument for the less ostentatious Victorian home. Baldwin's Monarch organ was more affordable (around $60), more easily transported to rural regions, and deliberately less ornate than some of the competition’s models (many of which occupied an entire wall from floor to ceiling with nooks and crannies and carved pieces that were difficult to keep clean). The Monarch's simple lines reflected the Eastlake style of furniture design, which was closer to the arts and crafts movement than the fancy Rococo and Gothic styles of the era.

In 1899, Baldwin died and left his holdings to the Presbyterian Church. Though the company name was later revived, Monarch organs as described were made between 1889 and 1899 but continued to be sold for many years.

In 1903, Iva McNabb wanted to buy a parlor organ in hopes that her daughter Lorena now thirteen would learn to play. It was a Baldwin Monarch organ that caught her eye and Elbert approved. The organ they carefully carried through the front door of their farm house was made in Chicago years before, distributed in a shipment by rail to Kansas City and then carried by horse-drawn wagon to their home. I do not know if it was purchased in a store in Topeka or from an organ peddler passing through town (as was true in "Friendly Persuasion").

Judging from the pictures above, it is clear to see the difference between the Monarch and other parlor organs. I imagine the last black-and-white picture most resembles the Melvern relatives in my wife's family tree. Plain-spoken folks who knew the meaning of hard work, the Sabbath, and family. To the extent that I know them through their lineage, it's not surprising that they chose a small yet elegant organ. It was and is a beautiful piece about four feet tall and nearly as wide with ivory keys and deep red carpet on the peddles. They loved the organ and spent countless hours around it playing hymns and other favorites from the day, but it was mostly the old hymns that drew folks into the parlor to sing along or simply sit and listen.

Grandma and Grandpa Neal were sometimes there to join them, and for two more decades, it was Grandpa Neal (the man who had been spared from a musket shot on his way home from the Civil War) who was the oldest voice in the parlor.
Part IV: "From Melvern to Michigan" posted later this week and then were back to the "Unsettled" chapters.

Note: "Friendly Persuasion" has a very entertaining sub-plot about the parlor organ Gary Cooper's character buys against his wife's wishes since mechanical aides to worship were forbidden by their Quaker church. You can see the little organ (that was moved put of sight to the attic) at the 1:00 minute mark of this trailer to the film that won the "best picture" Oscar in 1956, the year I was born. If you have not seen it recently, I highly recommend renting it.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

"The Oldest Voice in the Parlor" Part II

Last Thursday morning, we went to Chicago to pick Kim up from her summer TESL trip to Croatia. It’s great to have her home and to learn more about her experience each day. To top this off, we had a family reunion with all five of my siblings here at our house over the weekend. That was fun, too. Sorry this was not posted before all the excitement started around here.

This writing project has not gone as planned. It has taken much longer to compile than I imagined. When I write about my own family, I generally write from memory and reconstruct from stories I've heard many times through the years. But this storyline is from Julie's side of the family. Much of it is new to me, and I'm finding it both fascinating but challenging to make readable prose from my research. I'm determined, however, to keep plugging away in the wee small hours of the morning.

Part I in the previous post summarized the Civil War experiences of John Wesley Neal, my wife's great-great grandfather. Part II tells how he providentially stepped into that role. And Part III introduces the heirloom that triggered this whole project.

Part II: “From Near-Miss to Just-Hitched”

Because it happened while John Wesley Neal was walking home to Missouri after all his “scratchless” battles, the following story is all the more ironic: [This first paragraph comes from page 2 of an extensive genealogy written in 1968 by Jesse Harold Neal (b.1898), a great-grandson of John’s who was himself now a grandfather 70.]

“[At the end of the Civil War,] after his discharge from the army [in July of 1865, John Wesley Neal] returned to Linn County, Missouri. As he came walking up the road, he approached two men sitting on a fence stile. One of the men…raised his musket to take aim and remarked, “Well, there is one damn Yankee that won’t get home.” The other man hit the arm of the man with the gun and ruined his aim."

The man who deflected that reckless shot had been a Captain in the Confederate Army, but the war was over and he wanted no part of further killing. His name was Tennessee Carter McNabb (so named because he was born in Carter County, Tennessee, a descendent of Scottish settlers who first came to that region in 1776 and later migrated to Missouri.). At the time of that near-miss from the fence, Carter had a nine-year-old son named Elbert Newton McNabb. (This fact becomes important in a few paragraphs.)

Two years after that deflected musket shot, John Wesley Neal married Nancy Howell (b. Dec. 10, 1851) on November 27, 1867. Three years later their first child was born. They named her Iva. John and Nancy would eventually have 13 children, but they were not reared in Missouri. John thought there was entirely too much drinking in that “wet state.” So on Election Day, November 1884, he loaded most of their worldly possessions in a covered wagon, drove to the ballot box, voted against the Democrat Grover Cleveland [who had paid a Polish imigrant $150 to take his place in the Civil War], and moved to Kansas, a "dry state."* [This picture was taken in 1893, nine years after that trip. Iva is on the far right.]

Only part of John's family was with him at first: He, his daughter Iva and his three oldest sons (along with two milk cows) made the 200 mile trip in two week's time, traveling southwest from Linn County to Kansas City and then on to Melvern (Linn County, MO, is 6 counties east and 3 counties south on this 1895 map link. The town of Waverly near Melvern is shown southwest of Kansas City. The trip may have looked something like this Mapquest link.). Oh, how I wish there was a written journal of those two weeks in that covered wagon, but parts of the story survived by being retold through the years. Iva was 14 at the time and cooked all the meals for the men along the way and in Kansas until her mother and with the rest of the family arrived by train.

Once the Neal family settled on their farm, John and Nancy never moved again. To this day, five generations later, many members of the J.W. Neal bloodline still reside within ten miles of the original family farm in Melvern. [And, in fact, my wife and I were married in 1980 at a little church in Melvern a mile or so from that farm.]

Now here’s the most amazing part of the story. You remember that Tennessee Carter McNabb fellow who spared John from a musket ball? Remember his nine-year-old son Elbert? Well, he was now a grown man, a farmer and plaster worker, and still single. He began a courtship with Iva Neal, and one year after Iva made that trip with her father in a covered wagon, full twenty years after the musket-miss, Elbert and Iva were married on October 25, 1885. Elbert was nearly twice her age, but in that day such marriages were not uncommon.

Thus, the shot Carter deflected that day in 1866 not only spared “one damn Yankee”—it spared the man who would later give his daughter's hand in marriage to his own son. There you have it: a marriage made possible by one man’s willingness to say “it’s over” of the bitter war he and his Rebel companions had lost. In all the family documents and letters I have seen, there is not one mention of any lingering tensions caused by the fact that the fathers of the bride and groom fought on opposite sides of the war. That speaks well of these two families.

Two years after Iva and Elbert McNabb were married, their daughter Mary Lorena McNabb was born, and three years after that (November 8, 1890) Carter Tennessee McNabb was born. (His name was borrowed from his grandfather with the first and second names reversed.) Four other children were born to Elbert and Iva, but it is from the line of Carter Tennessee McNabb that came seven children, among them a daughter, Iva Kathryn, and a son Daryl McNabb who is the father of Julie Ann McNabb, my wife.

(In summary, Julie's father is Daryl McNabb, whose father was Carter Tennessee McNabb, whose father was Elbert McNabb, whose father was Tennessee Carter McNabb, who is the man who saved John Wesley Neal from that musket shot after the Civil War, and the man whose eldest son Elbert married the eldest daughter of the man whose life he had saved.)

Elbert and Iva made a good life there in Melvern. Elbert continued farming but suplemented their income as a plaster craftsman. This work involved making lime plaster (not gypsum) from scratch using the limestone common to that area of Kansas. Fabrication was a dangerous chemical process, but application was not unlike applying joint compound to drywall—except perhaps that the base-coat of lime plaster on wood-lathe walls was mixed with animal hair.

By the turn of the century, there house was not quite full with four children (and two more yet to be born). In 1903, just two years after the assassination of President McKinley that put Vice President Teddy Roosevelt in the White House, Elbert and Iva purchased the heirloom that is the subject of the remaining parts of this long post.
* In case you are like my daughters and never heard of a "dry state" or "wet state," the term reflects a time when "states rights" were very real. It was states rights and not slavery in particular that began the debates leading up to the Civil War. Back then, states valued their sovereignty and wanted the federal government kept to its constitutional role. States had far more say in local laws and self-government. Wet states allowed the sale of alcohol and had bars and saloons and such, while dry states imposed their own prohibition of alcohol (long before the failed federal prohibition of the 1920's). Kansas held its "dry" status longer than any other state, and to this day, there are "dry counties" there and in many parts of the U.S..

Because my wife Julie is a "preachers daughter," I like singing along to her whenever I hear the song "Dry County Girl" by Rascal Flatts. [Julie is from Kansas not Arkansas.]

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