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Coping with the Emptying Nest: Easy Does It

A new crop of college freshmen heads out soon, and parents everywhere are preparing for “the big day.” We thought it appropriate to revisit writer Chris Little’s excellent series on “The Emptying Nest” including this piece reminding parents that “Easy Does it.” Wishing everyone the best!

Off the Merry-Go-Round

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By Chris Little

If you’ve got fledglings on their way out of the nest, I know you’ve also got images of them as toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners dancing around in your head. “How fast the time passes!” we all say. “It seems like just yesterday I dropped him off at kindergarten!” Yup, yup—it does feel like yesterday, doesn’t it? We tear up a little. Those were the good old days, right?

But I want to ask you to think back just a little farther, to those first days of parenthood, when you were fresh home from the hospital with your infant. I’m sure you can remember how happy you were. But can you remember how scared you were? How worried? Overwhelmed? My husband drove home from the hospital with our first baby at 25 mph—in a 50 mph zone! I remember alternating between passionate love for the little squirt, and…

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Bad apples and sad stories: When your family research uncovers dark secrets, tragic tales, or shady characters

Bad apples

By Chris Little

When I began researching my great-grandmother’s life, I kept running into a wall when it came to her father. She scarcely mentioned him in her journals, and the newspaper column announcing her wedding in 1908 noted that he was too ill to attend the ceremony. And then in 1909, when his wife and unmarried daughters moved from the Boston suburbs to live near his son in Seattle, he did not join them. For a long time I thought he had died that year, but I recently uncovered records indicating that he had been committed to a state mental hospital in 1909, and that he had lived there until his death in 1919. There is much I still don’t know about that situation, but I’ve applied to receive his medical records and they should be arriving shortly—I look forward to learning more about those last ten years of his life …. sort of. It’s bound to be a sad story, one I’ll have to read between the lines of an attending physician’s report.

Mine is a rather tame example, but it raises the question: We may love to think of our ancestors as paragons of fortitude, resilience, and unimpeachable character, but what do we do when our family research uncovers a tragic story, or a deep family secret, even an criminal character?

Most of the time it’s not a big deal. I mean, it’s too bad that my great-great-grandfather died in a mental institution, it really is, but to be honest his tale feels pretty remote to me—I don’t expect the story I piece together from his medical records to knock me off balance too much. I think it’ll be kind of interesting, actually.

But sometimes these old stories can unexpectedly uncover darker stories—tales of shady characters who may lurk in our family tree. These stories can be a bit unsettling. “Experts say reactions can range from detached bemusement to identity confusion and soul-searching as the researcher tries to understand—and rethink—his or her lineage,” writes Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. Our ability to accept the bad apples in our family tree depends in part on how bad they were—and how far from us they hang among the branches. It’s important to maintain some perspective—they are not us, after all, and their deeds are not ours.

Still, in some cases our history can shed light on our present, and knowing even the darkest sides of our family histories can be healing. “Becoming aware of patterns of alcoholism, divorce, abuse or other misbehavior can make it easier for people living today to understand and change them,” writes Shellenbarger.

While sometimes we may stumble across these uncomfortable family stories without intentionally seeking them out, some researchers go looking for the black sheep in their family, their curiosity piqued, say, by a raised eyebrow or a loaded silence at last summer’s family reunion. Maybe you’ve picked up on some reticence on the part of your older relatives when someone mentions your wild distant uncle, for example, or maybe it’s always hush-hush when the topic of your great-grandfather comes up. In my own case, the marked lack of information about my great-great-grandfather, especially in a family so dedicated to preserving its history, is what initially made me suspect that something had happened to him that the others didn’t want to discuss. Suffice it to say that most families harbor some kind of secret, and sometimes those secrets beckon intriguingly to the intrepid researcher.

But be prepared: “Before you go digging for the truth, know what you’re getting into,” writes Lisa A. Alzo in Family Tree Magazine. “We’re tempted to look at our family histories through rose-colored glasses, but that’s not realistic.” Alzo provides helpful strategies for fleshing out your research, but she includes a proviso from Ohio genealogist Chris Staats: “As genealogists, we are most interested in the truth. Sometimes the truth is not what we would like it to be and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable.”

What’s more, learning the truth behind an uncomfortable family secret brings with it a moral—and in some cases, legal—responsibility toward those involved and their descendants, especially if you intend to share your story publicly. You’ll want to think through the consequences of sharing your knowledge, whether with your family or the public at large, and resolve that if you choose to go public with the skeletons in your family closet, you do so with sensitivity and respect.

So, once you’re ready, here are a couple interesting resources for tracking down those ne’er-do-wells in your family tree:

Kimberly Powell describes tactics for searching prison inmate databases in this About.com article. She writes here about tracking down infamous ancestors.

And in addition to her article quoted above, genealogist Lisa Alzo provides suggestions for tracking down your ancestors through the tragedies in their lives in this article for Archives.com.

Image: Some rights reserved by Public Domain Photos.

Updates from the Emptying Nest: Getting Ready for Fall Break and Thanksgiving Vacation

4042911267_a4124b6191By Chris Little

This morning it’s just 23 days until my beloved first-born, now a bona-fide college freshman, comes home for his first Fall Break. And after that, just a month or so until Thanksgiving. It seems like I’m only beginning to get used to setting one less place at the dinner table, and already I’m thinking about how soon he’ll be back. (Hooray!) Here are some things I’m doing to get ready:

1. Talking with him about travel arrangements. I’m not looking at bus tickets though—he’s a big boy and he’s got a credit card, so he can do the actual planning and ticket buying. But I know he’s got his mind on other things (his studies, right?), so I’m doing a little friendly reminding (read: gentle nagging) so he’ll take a look at transportation options sooner rather than later. After all, bus seats fill up fast for weekend and holiday travel—not to mention plane seats, for those whose kids are further afield—and I’d like to avoid having to drive out to pick him up if I can.

2. And appointments. Okay this doesn’t matter so much to my son, who’s happy to slip into pretty much any friendly neighborhood barbershop when he needs a trim, but if you’ve got a suave son or daughter who’s committed to a particular hairstylist, you might remind him or her to call soon for that Thanksgiving-weekend appointment. The same goes for the orthodontist, physician, or dentist … we all know freshmen who get their wisdom teeth pulled the day after Thanksgiving—if yours needs to be one of them, getting an appointment early will save a hassle later.

photo (3)3. Planning a few favorite menu items. I know my son loves my chicken potpie and baked spaghetti casserole, and those lemon bars I make in the summertime, so I’m beginning to think about when I’ll be making them over his break. And I think I’ll pick up an extra set of food storage tubs so I can send him back to school with some leftovers to heat in his microwave…

4. Talking about activities. I certainly don’t want to fill up all his time, but is there anything special he’d like to do as a family, or as an extended family, while he’s home?

5. Managing my expectations. I’m pretty sure my dear freshman will be happy to see us when he gets home—but he’ll also be eager to check in with his high school buddies, and to sleep late in his own bed. Chances are we won’t spend hours and hours sitting cozily on the couch together with mugs of tea talking about his feelings and hopes and dreams. I can daydream about those conversations, but I’m trying to stay realistic: He might spend the weekend asleep or out of the house! I have to be okay with that, and so far I am.

It’s going to be great to have him home — to set four places around the table again! — but I’m sure it won’t be exactly how I imagine it. And it’ll go by so fast, and then he’ll be gone again. So these days I’m  enjoying looking forward to his visit, and doing what I can to make sure things go smoothly.

Of course I’d love to hear how more experienced empty-nesters approach vacations. What do you do to plan? How do you prepare? What are the best parts? The most challenging parts?

First image: Some rights reserved by lynn dombrowski. Second image: My dinner plates!

Hate to Cook? Me too!

By Ruth Topper

Does the thought of putting a meal on the table create stress for you?  Well – me too.  Cooking has never been one of my favorite activities.  In fact, I would rate my personal satisfaction of cooking pretty low on a scale of 1 to 10.  I would trade off doing lots of dishes – including pots & pans – every night in lieu of cooking.   In fact, while dating my husband, Gary,  I told him straight up that if he was looking for someone who would put a meal on the table every night for him – then he wasn’t looking at the right girl.  (Fortunately he must have seen other qualities and stuck with me)!

I felt added pressure when I stepped off the full time Merry-Go-Round after the birth of my daughter more than 15 years ago.  Gary was always home from work before me, so for more than 7 years of marriage, he had dinner already started by the time I got home.  Now that I was a “stay at home” mom I felt the pressure to start making dinner every night.  I certainly couldn’t be home all day with the kids and then have him come home & make dinner.   So – I made Gary write down (for the first time) the recipes for some of our favorite meals.  Slowly I started to put together a repertoire of a few dishes I could make on my own.  Although to get to that place – I can’t tell you the number of times I called him at work that first year to clarify instructions to make a particular dish.

So why is cooking such a chore to me (and maybe you)?  Here are some of my theories:

1.  Deciding what to make each day for dinner.  There are so many options to consider and what is an option that everyone, including all the kids, will eat?  Is it relatively healthy?  If your family is anything like mine there are many times that you can’t sit down together for a meal due to sports & activities.  What do you make that won’t seem like a “leftover” three hours later?

2.    Figuring out the timing of all the components (meat, potato, vegetable, etc.) of the meal  so that everything is hot & ready at the same time.    This is truly a science that I have yet to figure out!  All I can say is don’t ever put me in charge of Thanksgiving Dinner!  At my house – I go run the “Turkey Trot” early on Thanksgiving morning while Gary makes the filling & stuffs the turkey!  I’m very good at making the rolls the day before and jumping in at the last minute to help put the various items in serving dishes and/or to stir the gravy – but do not put me in charge of making sure everything is done at the same time!

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“Spices to taste?” What does that mean?! Help!

3.   Measurements for ingredients included in a main dish recipe are often not precise.   Let’s take soup as an example.  Gary is a “Soup Nazi.”   I see him pulling spices out of the cupboard & just sprinkling a little of this & a little of that into the pot or adding vegetables, meat, cheese, etc. without even thinking about measuring them out!  How in the green earth does this “mish mash” end up tasting so good?   We recently purchased a quart jar containing “Seven Bean Soup”  from  our church.  The jar contains a variety of dry beans and the recipe to make the soup.  The last “ingredient” on the recipe is “spices to taste.”  How is someone, like me, ever to figure out what these “spices to taste” are!

In spite of my great dislike for cooking I do manage a few times a week to put something edible on the table for my family.  I learned early on that you need to develop a few “go to” recipes that just don’t fail for you.  One of these recipes in our family is meatloaf.  It is a comfort food, something that everyone likes, warms up nicely or is great the next day cold in a sandwich too.

Meatloaf:
1 ½ lbs. ground beef
1 egg
¾ cup of milk
½ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup onion, chopped
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 ½ Tablespoons parsley
1 teaspoon salt

Topping:
½ cup catsup
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon mustard

Mix all ingredients together – except  the topping.  Place in a shallow baking pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.  Drain any grease off meatloaf.  Add topping and bake an additional 10 minutes.   Enjoy!

Mmmmm... Meatloaf

Mmmmm… Meatloaf

So – are you challenged in the kitchen (like me) or is cooking something you love to do?  We would love to hear from any of you who have “survival” tips?  Do you have any favorite, easy meals that are your stand-bys?  Please share!