Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturday Musings, 03 May 2014

Good morning,

I've talked with several people about their genealogical research lately; my husband's cousin, sparkling eyes telling story after story of finding old graves, inspiring me to share the news that I had located my great-grandmother's wedding record.  He met my enthusiasm with his own, describing the exchange of efforts among users of various ancestry research websites.  Days later, my husband's business partner showed me some old pictures, tintypes in gold frames, of long-dead members of his family whose faces he had yet to put to names.  His eyes, too, filled with light and joy.  I listened to him talk, marveling at the simple pleasure of connecting ourselves with those who have come before us.

And then, in this morning's paper, a very brief mention of the Austrio-Hungary war raised in my mind, a memory of sitting on my great-grandfather's lap watching him whittle.

His name was Konrad Ulz, but we called him "Dad Ulz".  Family legend said that he shot off his trigger finger to avoid fighting for Austria, and emigrated to America in 1907.  His wife Bibiana stayed behind with their two little girls and came a year later, passing through Ellis Island and leaving her name on a ship's manifest where I would later find it, misspelled as starting with an "L" but there nonetheless: A brave 23-year-old, traveling with children aged 1 and 3, no doubt with the same hope that had dwelled in her husband's heart as he stood on the ship in the New York harbor.

The smell of Dad Ulz's working man's sweat wafted from his worn shirt  as I leaned against his chest.  My feet grazed his shins.  I traced my finger along a wooden rail, a porch perhaps, or a bannister.  His large hands raised a scrap of wood and a whittling knife.  I watched the shavings fall to the ground, waited for a shape to emerge under the sharp blade.

I lifted my eyes to his face.  Its round, smooth contours under the dim light seemed set in concentration.  His hat settled over his forehead, worn felt, molded to the shape of his crown.  He sang softly, so quietly that the song has faded over the last five decades,  but  I must have known its words back then because I hummed along.  And so we sat, a five-year-old St. Louis girl and her Austrian great-grandfather with his heavy accent and rough clothes, until my mother beckoned me  into the house for bedtime.

Ten years or so later, I cam upon my great-grandmother in my grandmother's living room on a summer afternoon after my grandmother's debilitating strokes.  My great-grandmother, "Mom" Ulz, had come to take care of her daughter, a disturbance of life's natural balance.  My brother Mark and I spent a few weeks with Nana and Grandpa each summer, but on this trip, I had come alone.  I stopped at the edge of the living room.  Mom Ulz's figure never changed:  the long skirt of her flowered apron grazed her shins, over the fullness of a cotton dress; her red hair gone snow-white pulled taut in a bun.  But today her face seemed to sag into a state of sorrow as she gazed through the living room window.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

Her reverie broken, she turned to me.  "No, no, little one," she assured, in the sweet, lilting tones that she had never lost in all her years of living in America.  "A ghost just walked over my grave," she said.  She went back to her vacuuming, leaving me to wonder who the ghost had been, and whether he held a piece of wood in his hands, waiting to be whittled.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.