The Budget

Posted on Saturday, December 13, 2008

I was reading a friend's blog tonight and she was talking about budgeting, specifically the household food budget. I've been mostly out of the workforce for a couple of years now and, not bring in any money to the house, have felt it's now my duty to stretch the dollars my husband makes. The best things I've done so far are in not throwing away the food we have because it expires (we're talking mostly leftovers here) before anyone becomes desparate enough to eat it. Case in point: old, blackened, mooshy bananas. I know people who will use these to whip up a tasty batch of banana bread. The problem I have is that inspiration for baking doesn't always strike when I notice the bananas on the counter starting to ooze through their skins. Solution: peel each banana and put into individual sandwich baggies to freeze. The will keep in the freezer nearly forever, and are the perfect base for slushy fruit smoothies. Another mostly wasted item? Bread heels. No one here seems to like them, so, unless I have the energy to toss them into the woods behind our house for the squirrels, into the garbage they go. Now I instead air dry them thorougly, run them through the blender and use the resulting crumbs in a couple of ways. First, I use them for homemade coating mix (Shake n Bake) by adding onion soup mix and/or other seasonings. Second, I have a falafel recipe that calls for a big dose of bread crumbs, so I'm always ready to fry up a batch. I usually splurg for the good, grainy, seedy bread so I'm pleased to have a use for the otherwise undesirable pieces too. Also, we very rarely take the kids out to restaurants anymore. This means, with most of our dinners prepared at home, we have a lot more leftovers in our fridge than we used to, both meat and dribs and drabs of vegetables. Once a week I used to round up this stuff from the fridge and throw it out, but then I found a recipe for Shepard's Pie. I take a pound of ground beef and then grind up whatever leftover meat I have in the fridge with my mixer's grinding attachment. This usually gives me a pound and a half of meat (which is what the recipe calls for). Then I can add whatever vegetables are at hand--fresh or leftovers--to make the base. Top that with a layer of shredded cheese and top the cheese with a layer of mashed potatoes and bake the hell out of it. It's a little different everytime, but always a winner with the kids. And I don't throw away nearly as much leftover food as I used to. For fresh vegetables in danger of exceeded their shelf life, I bought a wok and stir fry them all up with nuts, a bit of meat, and a pot of rice. In short, I'm making better use of the appliances that I already have to make better use of the food and finding key recipes here and there that make better use of the things we are otherwise reluctant to eat. If you have any advice found by stretching your own food dollars, I'd be pleased to hear it.

Green River

Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Friday, I took the dog to the vet to have her stitches out. Long story, that. The short version is that she ran over a shard of broken glass the week before and had to be sewn back together. To the tune of $350. Ouch. On so many levels, ouch. So by Friday morning, we both had a healthy dose of cabin fever. With the vet's okay, we drove directly down to Brannan Park on the Green River for our first walk in about ten days.
This particular trail is ideal for a warm-up after a prolonged stay indoors. The trail follows the river through the park and beyond it for another half mile or so. And, because the trail simply dead-ends at that point, it's a bit of a trail-to-nowhere, so not heavily used. I can let the dog off the leash without having to worry too much about encountering other people/animals. It's short, it's quiet, it's scenic. What more could you want on a misty Friday morning?
Walking past the park, the first thing I noticed was a helicopter. It was hovering directly over the river, not moving at all. That was odd enough, but then I noticed another one further downriver, also standing sentry over the water. And then another beyond that. As we kept walking, we eventually noticed a full complement of sheriffs' vehicles parked along the road across the river, lights flashing red. And then the rescue boats in the water, probing the bottom of the rain-engorged river with long poles.
As we turned about at the far end of the trail, there were so many people standing about on the trail that I gave up the idea of letting the dog walk off-leash. There was even a KING 5 camera crew interviewing neighbors who'd come out of their houses for a closer look. I asked one of them what was going on. A car, she told me, had lost control and ended up in the river. The driver got out, but there were still two boys in the car. How long had they been underwater. Oh, at least a couple of hours.
We came home and I turned on the news. If you're local, you probably already know what happened, but for those of you at large, a 16-year-old girl was driving her 2-year-old cousin to day care for her aunt (who was recovering from knee surgery). Another 13-year-old cousin was along for the ride (why?). The day care wouldn't take the baby because he was sick, so the kids were heading home when the driver lost control on the wet and windy road and found herself in the river. She was able to get free of the car, but she was swept away when she tried to get back to the boys. And then the car disappeared below the surface. Distraught, she flagged down a passing car and was taken to the hospital. Law enforcement eventually found the car about 100 yards downriver from where it entered the water. The river was so high and strong that they had no visibility and couldn't even attach chains to the car to pull it out. The current was so strong the divers couldn't even keep their regulators in place.
The family has been holding a vigil at the riverbank ever since. They vow not to leave until their boys are pulled out of the river. Today divers finally managed to get chains on the car (probably at great personal risk--but with several inches of rain due tomorrow, the pressure was on). The baby was still in his car seat, but no sign of the 13-year-old's body. The family's vigil continues.
About 100 yards from the accident site (the same place they originally located the car in the river), on the same road, sits the Mary Olson Farm. The farm remained in the same family for nearly 75 years (from its establishment in 1895). In its remote and sheltered valley, it has remained largely untouched by time. The farm house still has never had plumbing nor electricity. The city acquired this unique property several years ago and has been in the process of turning it into a historical/heritage site, an interpretative center illustrating the sort of family farm that was the backbone of our area's settlement.
Since this school year began, I've been a volunteer facilitator of the school district field trips to the Mary Olson Farm. We began the year with first grade field trips, talking about our food and where it comes from. We've had the past week off and will now transition to sixth grade field trips which feature stream ecology and the life cycle of salmon (there are two salmon runs in Olson Creek each fall). The first of the sixth grade classes will be on site tomorrow. This means at some point the friends and classmates of the boy still missing in the river will ride a school bus directly through the vigil by the river--the tents and the grief and the media and all--to get to the farm. How do they possibly focus on ecology and fish after something like that?
I've been preoccupied with this situation all weekend. Mostly I think about the girl who was driving the car. I too got my driver's license when I was 16. It seems like most people who got their licenses at that age have some tale of stupidity and bad judgment to tell about their first year of driving. In my case, I totaled a car and put the life of a good friend in danger. Still, I was lucky. This girl is going to have to live her entire life with the knowledge that two children lost their lives to her inexperience.
What an incredible, tragic waste.

Oh Well

Posted on Monday, November 10, 2008

Clearly, I've screwed up NaBloPoMo. Well. So much for that. But I have a good excuse. I have a sort of job. Get this. One of my old Paralegal instructors hired me to work from home for her as an independent contractor sort of paralegal--anywhere from 7 - 20 hours a week. Last week was my first week. I worked 16 hours, most of it sitting right here in my newly mucked out sewing room in the dark hours of night with my weird old-lady music cranked. Painless. Maybe even a bit of fun. And what's especially flattering is that she sees all the paralegal students come and go and could have the "pick of the litter" (so to speak). That turned out to be me. Yeah, bitchen dude. I rock like that.

I figure I can contact the old attorney I used to work for to see if he can use me from home too on an as-needed basis. He's a bankruptcy attorney, so I figure he's probably drowning in business at this point. Now all I need to do is figure out how to deal with the self-employment taxes and I'll be in business. Literally.

Keep your fingers crossed for me. It's been WAY too long since I've brought home a paycheck.


Posted on Sunday, November 02, 2008

Here is a group shot of the kids who ate dinner here and launched from our house for trick-0r-treating. Do they look a little old? Yeah, well, growing up is hard, especially when it involves giving up a sack load of free candy. At least they all dressed up. Nothing worse than a group of surly teens on the porch who can't even be bothered to dress up.

I made them all eat vegetables before they left. Yeah. So there.


Posted on Saturday, November 01, 2008

Okay, settle down. It's not like I'm making a commitment here. Obviously I've been a bit--how you say?--flaky?--when it comes to posting here on Ye Olde Blog.

Okay, that statement there? That's so obvious that it qualifies not just as a "Duh" statement, but a bona fide Golden Duh. Yeah. Insightful!

So, anyway. NaBloPoMo. I'm keeping my options open. So here's a post. Bet you're glad you stopped by today, hoo boy. Guess you should have had a V8.

Spring Cleaning

Posted on Friday, August 22, 2008

Yes, I've been neglecting you. I'm sorry. If it makes you feel any better, it's not because I've been having any fun. I've been occupied with things like shampooing the carpet (over and over and over--thanks dog), the area rugs, spot cleaning upholstery, oiling the wood furniture, and applying touch-up paint here and there. And the front yard? Weeded, mowed, watered, fed, edged, and bark-o-mulched. Why this out-of-character cleaning binge? A couple of reasons actually. 1) I feel the need to get a job, maybe even a full time job, once the school year starts. If such a fate comes to pass, I'd like to have the house & yard cleaned up before paid employment starts sucking away most of my waking hours. 2) Even if I don't find the career of my dreams in the near future, Halloween is only a couple of months away (the official start of the holiday season, as far as we are concerned). This year, through some sort enchantment, Halloween falls on a Friday. Yeah! It's our household's biggest and busiest holiday; because of the weekend timing, this year it will probably include a sleepover for half the neighborhood kids and a slightly drunken debauch for their parents. And I'd like to start with a clean palate (in terms of the carpet) before I have to clean up the unspeakable aftermath.

In cat news, our boy is at the vet's being neutralized today. And not a minute too soon. Think a good thought for him. (***wipes away a sentimental tear***) They grow up so fast!

Starter Kit

Posted on Monday, August 11, 2008

Fore Sale: Kitten head. Slightly used. Reasonable. (Body sold separately).

So, a brief report on the weekend. I did two things this weekend that I haven't done in many years. First, I drew a picture, something I probably haven't done in at least 20 years if you really want to do the math. When was the last time you drew a picture (not a map, not stick figures, or any other low rent visual)? I've been hearing a lot lately about the power of images--especially in collage form--in making positive changes in one's life. And, I have to admit, when I want to change something about myself, the best way I've found to go about it is to take those few (or often many) minutes between going to bed and falling asleep to visualize new reactions to the given situation, or better alternative habits. And when I say visualize, I mean concentrating on every detail as if it were a photograph. If there are other people, I know their faces in detail and even the colors and designs of every article of clothing they wear. If it's an indoor scene, I can feel the carpet or tile under my feet; I can see where the paint is getting grubby and needs a new coat. I take a great deal of time to decorate the sets, as it were, before starting the action of the scene. And I don't know why, but it seems to translate into results in the real world. But, as I was saying, I've been hearing about collages lately, and I'm not real hep on the idea. I do, however, like the idea of collecting images of the things I want to come into (or stay, for that matter) in my life. However, as is my habit, I have very specific ideas of the sorts of images I might want to include--and I could end up leafing through magazines for hours and still not finding the things I'd want. So I sharpened my pencil and sat down to draw myself surrounded by some of the things I aspire to--not necessarily in an ownership sort of way, but in a how-I-want-to-invest-my-time sort of way.

I must say I'm far more pleased with the results than I thought I would be. The drawing I did of myself is something that I can look at without cringing, and I even got the sort of expression and comfortable pose that I was aiming for. I've made a bunch of random surrounding images, and all of these are recognizable as the things I intended. And, best of all, there's still room for more!

I know that several of you who read here are excellent photographers, but I really would be interested in knowing if any of you ever draw or doodle, even just for your own enjoyment. Obviously words play a large part in all of our lives (as evidenced by the persistent blogging habits we share), but does creating images from your own imagination and by your own hand play any role in your planning process? Or other processes?

Oh, and the other thing I did? I got started writing a short story. It was just suddenly there asking to be written down. I'm not done with it yet, but I may inflict it on you at some future date. Be warned!

Good Reads

Posted on Monday, August 04, 2008

Hey, are any of you signed up at I signed up at a friend's request, not thinking that I would use it very much, but it's a bit addictive. I guess it's drawing me in because it's designed to appeal to people who read (me) and people who are pathological about making lists (me). Goodreads presses all my little OCD buttons.

If you think you might sign up, let me know. I'd love to add a few more "friends" and see what everyone's reading. (OP, I know that you especially might go for this).

History's Mysteries

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Here is a link to a way cool news story that you might be interested in. Then again, maybe ancient local history isn't your thing. If so, roll ahead to the section about "a tip from a reader." That reader? Yours truly!

Because, people, I know where all the bodies are buried.

We Are SO Predictable

Posted on Sunday, July 27, 2008

Okay, let’s see a show of hands. How many of you are surprised that we have decided to keep one of the kittens? Anyone? Anyone? No? Yeah, I think we all saw that coming. Okay, so let me ask you this: how many of you are surprised that we’ve decided to keep two of the kittens? That’s right—one just isn’t enough for us; we gotta take on two. And, people, that’s a special kind of stupid.

That will bring us to a total of four cats and the biggest dog in the world. But on the plus side, the hamsters died last year with a punctuality that was truly admirable, and the parakeets have moved on to greener pastures courtesy of Craig’s List. On balance, this is about one animal more than I would prefer to have in the house, but if you’re going to get a kitten, I think you should always get a pair. Watching them beat the snot out of each other all day and then curl up in a single fuzzy mass of contentment at night is well worth the extra litter box duty. Plus, our incumbent cats have retired to the second story where the dog is not allowed to venture. We barely see them anymore. The goal now is to raise the kittens from scratch in the company of canines. And by the way, does anyone have any advice on that topic?

This is Luna. Isn’t she darling? She is the runt of the litter, half the size of her largest sibling. She sucked down so much kitten formula the first day we had her that she came to resemble a softball with a head, tail, and legs attached. If she falls over on her back she has the same challenge that a turtle has in righting herself again. Her figure’s starting to even out now, but she has have the sweetest little cat face. We’re also bringing home her brother Elvis. He’s just your basic b-flat gray tabby cat, but he’s got personality up the ying-yang. He flips over and demands tummy rubs. You’ll know he’s done when he attacks your wrist like a rabid demon. And then he stands up and arches his back to better accommodate being petted and scratched under his chin. He clearly has no idea he was ever a feral cat. And that was the whole idea, really.

Give Us A Sign

Posted on Monday, July 21, 2008

This is one of my favorite signs on the Green River. It reminds me of my 14-year-old daughter.

Me: “Mamie, dump no materials!”
Mamie (with 14-year-old attitude): “Whatever."
The other thing I love about this sign? It replaced an earlier sign that also admonished people not to dump but also included a big “No Trespassing” message complete with skull and crossbones. When the trail reopened, the “No Trespassing” part was no longer applicable, so they replaced the original sign with this sign. And what did they do with the first one?

Why there it is! Right on the ground. At the base of the new “No Dumping” sign.



Feral Children

Posted on Friday, July 18, 2008

You’ve heard of my neighbor Judith before—Norse Goddess of Snowshoeing Judith? That’s right. She owns a bookstore down in Kent. She’s my friend as well as my neighbor, and we have adventures.

For example, Sunday night we started a new joint venture. I’m going to spare you a lot of the details (and y’all can celebrate that later), but we ended up on the side of the road, down by one of the local parks, with a flashlight and a live animal trap. That night we caught us three feral kittens (about 8 weeks old). We brought them home and set them up with a potty box and food in Judith’s spare room. The next day I bought kitten milk replacement at the local feed store and we started pumping kitty milk into them. They got used to being handled pretty quickly. That night we returned to the park, hoping to get their mother and the other two kittens we’d left behind.

At the park, we encountered a couple who were initially horrified at what we were doing. It turns out they had been feeding the mom cat since she was born last summer. They didn’t have the resources to bring her home or get her spayed, but they made sure she always had food. In other words, they had a very proprietary attitude about the cat they called “Pink Nose” and her kittens, and they were shocked at the way we barged in with our plan to take them all away. To their credit, however, they soon realized that what we were offering was certainly a better option than life within 8 feet of a busy road, where the cats would be vulnerable to coyotes, dogs, raccoons, teenaged sadists, and the climate. We talked for a long time, and they actually picked up the mom cat (she would have never let Judith and me handle her) and put her into one of our carriers for us.

We all went back to the stump that served as the cat family’s home base to see about the kittens. We spotted them on the top of a stump where they could remain behind the protection of blackberry brambles just out of our reach. But there weren’t two of them. There were four.

That poor little 10-month-old cat had produced a litter of seven kittens before her first birthday. Amazing.

Since the kittens were not cooperating, we took mom-cat home and put her in with the kittens we caught Sunday. She jumped onto the windowsill and refused to come down to tend her babies. On the other hand, she didn’t attack them either (which would have been a possibility under the circumstances), so we left them alone to get reacquainted.

The next morning, Judith and I were back at the park with our trap. Unfortunately, the remaining kittens had already seen the trap in action and would not go anywhere near it. We decided the best thing to do would be to cut back the vines and try to remove the kittens from the stump by hand. Judith put on her long, leather, rose-pruning gloves and went to work. The aging stump had hollows and holes—it was quite a puzzle box—and the kittens might be in any of several nooks and crannies. Once we had the blackberries under control, plucking out the kittens was actually fairly easy. They were too weak to make a run for it or to put up much resistance as Judith pulled them out by the scruffs of their necks. We caught three of them, but we never saw any sign of the last kitten. We went back later that day—twice—and never saw any sign of her. We went back on Wednesday too. And Thursday. We had no choice but to tell ourselves that rescuing seven out of eight cats was still a very good score—it would have been nice to get them all, but probably not very realistic. We started getting the second batch of kittens caught up with the first (weight-wise), and encouraging the mom cat to relax.

Last night I had several urgent messages from the couple who had helped up capture the mom cat. They were still checking on the strays that populate the park, and they had spotted the last kitten. It was still living in the stump. Crying. Wanting her mom. The couple asked us to please, please get this kitten too.

I wasn’t sure how we were going to accomplish this. I was glad to hear that Kitten 7 was still alive, but it’s not like we hadn’t been trying. Still, at least we knew now that she was still there somewhere. Jay (my son) and I packed up our cat supplies and made yet another trip down to the stump.

Once again, we saw no sign of Kitten 7 whatsoever. I kept poking around though, knowing she had to be in there somewhere. Finally I stopped cutting brambles and stood quietly, trying to think of something new that we could try. I looked at my boy and held my finger to my lips, “Shhhh.” He nodded and waited patiently. I turned back to the stump and meowed. I meowed just like the woman who captured the mom had meowed to that cat. And darned if, from the stump, I didn’t hear a mew in reply! I kept meowing, and the kitten kept answering until I could tell exactly where she was hidden in the stump. I started clearing the brambles from that area and, as I was pulling them away, Kitten 7 decided to make a break for it. She popped up right into my hand. I grabbed her and popped her into the box that Jay had at the ready. And kids, you’ve never seen a happier reunion than when Jay and I reunited that final kitten with her mom and littermates at Judith’s house. I can’t believe we did it. All eight family members accounted for and thriving!

So far, we already have homes lined up for three kittens and the mom. Four adorable kittens to go. And they make us feel so good!


Posted on Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I spent a maudlin Sunday afternoon pushing the lawnmower as my husband was busy inside shooting down aliens on whatever game console he’s obsessed with these days. This led to a bit of a self-pity party wondering why no one I live with appears to share my values. Perhaps, I thought, wiping the sweat from my eyes, they simply don’t know what my values are (which really, gives them far too much credit, but I guess I was in more of a charitable mood than you would have guessed judging from the hot fumes of irritation visibly rising from my forehead. Or maybe that was just lawnmower exhaust). So I started composing a list. And at the risk of sounding like a nun singing in the Swiss mountaintops, I decided to share the first draft.

I value:

A lawn neatly mown, if not immaculately weeded

A rocking chair on the front porch with home-made seat cushions

Children raised with equal shares of responsibility and affection

Books that are good enough to forge their own path from friend to friend, sister to sister

Rooms that are cleaned regularly, even if my notion of “regularly” is more sporadic than my mother’s


Especially genealogy

Fully owned 10-year-old cars that are still reliable

Pets who die of old age after living full and happy lives in your care

Daily trips into the near world for a change of scenery, fresh air, and exercise

Completed quilting projects

Knowing the words to every song that will ever play on my car stereo

Feeling pretty smug about my finances after watching Suze Orman’s show

Bees celebrating in my volunteer catnip

Gardens, any garden

Old family photos that are copied, labeled, and distributed to the relatives

Halloween parties

Knowing exactly what I want to do for my children, and what I want my children to do for themselves—at least financially speaking (for the next 20 or so years)

Bosses who know how to give compliments and/or encouragement

Knowing that answering the phone or the front door are options, not obligations

Finding unexpected emails from old friends buried in my “junk” in-box

Living within our means

Knowing where I will be buried

Planning meals that will be prepared at home for minimum cost, maximum nutrition, and which garner universal acclaim in the flavor department (yeah, good luck with that one!)

Dentists who offer up the nitrous without having to be asked

Ed Troyer, still

Check marks on to-do lists

My children’s company

Just reading over this list makes me feel happier. And, having started it, I suspect this might be just the beginning.

So Goes July

Posted on Friday, July 11, 2008

Well, here we are. One of the most beautiful days of the year--sunshine, birdsong, and enough shedded pet hair to knit a whole new dog out of. In fact, Jazz got her first bath (yes, ever) just last night. It's not that we've been neglecting her this past year, it's just that she goes swimming almost every day. Until recently, the lakes and ponds have been refreshed almost daily with new rainfall, so she's been a pretty clean pup. With summer finally here, we've had a reprieve from rain, but it's left our local waterways stale and swampy. So, with the use of the backyard hose and most of a bottle of sour-apple deodorizing pet shampoo, Jazz got cleaned up last night. Thankfully, she hasn't yet rolled in anything rank to counteract the results. Having now washed the dog, I hope to not have to do it again for another year or so. It's an unpleasant business for all of us.

I've been out of commission most of the summer so far, mostly due to an infected tooth that tried to kill me over the course of a single weekend. But there was also the jury duty factor. Here is a conversation I was looking forward to having during Voir Dire for our local district court:

Judge: Although we anticipate completing the trial today, there is a possibility that it will continue into next week. If it does, are there any jurors who would have an insurmontable conflict in reporting on Monday?
Me: (Raises hand enthusiastically)
Judge: Yes, Juror 26, is it? What is your conflict?
Me: Your honor, I have been summoned to report for jury duty on Monday morning at 8:00 am. By King County Superior Court. If I fulfill my jury duty requirements here in district court, I will be in violation of my summons to Superior Court. The Superior Court will release me from my jury duty obligation based on completing service in another court during the preceding 12 months, but, if the trial continues on Monday, I will not have completed my service. And the Superior Court has been less clear about what happens in the case of overlapping service, as is the case here.

I don't know how the conversation would have gone beyond that point, but I was looking forward to finding out. Yes, I am a jury duty savant, called for service by multiple courts at the same time. None of whom have ever actually want me, by the way. The last time I made it to Voir Dire, it was for a child molestation case. The prosecutor wanted to know if we jurors would understand how difficult it would be for a 13-year-old child to give testimony in such a case and if, therefore, we would be able to find that child more credible than an adult in similar circumstances, because of the inherent stress on the witness (can't remember quite how he phrased it, but it was something like that). My response was something like, "Are you asking if I'd grant a lesser burden of proof in a case where the chief witness is 13? Of course not. I'm not even sure such a thing would be considered constitutional."

"Juror 26 is excused and we thank you for your service."

So much for that.

The only bright side of the whole infected tooth episode is that it got me excused from my final day of District Court jury duty, and, having completed that obligation, I was then excused by Superior Court, saving me a trip to downtown Seattle at the height of Monday morning rush hour—at a time, as it turns out, I was desperately trying to contact an endodontist, dentist, or surgeon to put me out of my misery.

Good times. Good, good times.

What Is Interesting About Levon Helm

Posted on Monday, April 28, 2008

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
'Til Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.
In the winter of '65, we were hungry, just barely alive.
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it's a time I remember, oh so well


Like my father before me, I will work the land,
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave,
But a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat.

From “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Robbie Robertson as recorded by The Band in 1969.

I remember being exactly my daughter’s current age, 13, and sitting, just as she does, in an 8th grade U.S. history class. The topic? The causes of the U.S. Civil War. The main feature was, of course, slavery, but my teacher ticked off at least half a dozen other less-remembered causes with the assurance that, yes, we would need to know them for the test. The only one I happen to remember at this late date is “tariffs.” How, exactly, tariffs featured in the conflict I couldn’t tell you—I probably only remember that fact at all because it was the first time in my life I’d encountered that particular word. A generation later, I’d wager there still aren’t many 13-year-old students who could use it in a sentence.

I remember looking wearily around my classroom to see if any of my fellow students were doing a better job staying interested than I was. Those of us with our eyes still open basically kept them directed forward, but a nearly palpable fog of teenaged boredom hung in the air.

Since tariffs meant nothing to me, I instead occupied myself by quietly wondering where my family might have been during the Civil War. I had only recently asked my parents where the earlier generations of our family had come from and got a vague and disappointing “back East somewhere” in response. Trust me when I tell you that when you are born and raised in Oregon, being told that your ancestors came from “back East” doesn’t do much to narrow things down. I couldn’t even begin to guess if my ancestors had been aligned with the Union or the Confederacy. And as I looked around a classroom of white, middle-class, West Coast kids, I realized that probably all of them had had family in this country at the time of the Civil War (not a conclusion my daughter would be able to reach, by the way, considering the dozens of immigrant nationalities reflected in the faces of this generation of middle school kids). I doubted if any of them had any clues about how the war might have impacted their families either. Even at age 13, this realization struck a sad chord in me. It seemed like a tragic and elective loss of heritage.

My persistent pestering eventually paid off when my dad finally got interested in finding answers to all my ancestry questions. We eventually discovered that Dad’s ancestors had lived in Pennsylvania at the time of the Civil War. My great-great-great grandfather and his family were members of a Presbyterian congregation that split over the issue of slavery. Old Joe and his family left the fold with the radical abolitionists to found a new up-start church in Mercer County. Nevertheless, when his next-to youngest son was drafted into the Union Army, Joe scraped up close to $300—a sizeable amount of money for a widowed old man who supported his family through farming and back-breaking labor required of a stone mason on the Pennsylvania canals—so that he could give this son a share of his estate in advance of his death in order to hire a substitute.

Two years later, the same son was again drafted into the Union Army. What happened to the substitute, I have no idea. I imagine he skedaddled when things got rough.

With no money left to buy his way out this time, Joe’s son had no choice but to leave his farm, his pregnant wife, and two little children, and report for duty (just in time for the Battle of Gettysburg). A few months later, Joe’s youngest son, then just a teenager, volunteered to join the Union Army too. Both sons ultimately survived, but “suffered in consequence of their service” (as quaintly put by the local published histories) for the remainder of their lives.

Anyway, a bit more compelling than tariffs, don’t you think?

These days, there is little left in the records for me to discover about my own Yankee ancestors. I sifted their unsettled dust until I discovered just about every discoverable fact that remains about their lives and times. This hasn’t in any way quenched my thirst for this sort of historical research, however. So these days, when I find a new and interesting American, I sometimes spend a little time in genealogical databases and dusty county histories to discover where their families were during the Civil War. It’s a hobby of mine. You already knew I had weird hobbies, so this is just another to add to the list. Get over it.

So now we get to Levon Helm, native son of Arkansas, the voice of Virgil Caine and a “mythical Southern Everyman” (according to some, despite his longtime residence in Woodstock, New York). When he came to my attention late last year, I checked out Levon’s autobiography at the library and picked through the first section for any information he included about his parents and grandparents. With those biographical morsels in hand, I was ready to jump into the federal census reports to connect his parents back into previous generations. From there it’s an easy task to plug into established family histories to get a feel for where Levon came from.
Levon’s first American ancestor was Georg Helm, who came to the States (well, Colonies actually) from Germany in the early 1700’s. Georg died in Frederick County, Virginia in 1769. His tombstone, helpfully chiseled in English on one side and German on the reverse, stands to this day in the Reformed Lutheran Churchyard in the town of Winchester.

From their modest start in Virginia, Georg Helm’s descendents moved on to Tennessee. Most of his grandsons remained there, but one, Jacob Helm, moved his family to Fayette County, Illinois, in about 1829. Jacob’s oldest son William (already married to a nice Tennessee girl by that time) packed up his wife and five children and, just a few years later, followed the westward trail blazed by his old man. Once settled in Illinois, William and the missus started farming and continued to add to their family. An additional five children were born after their arrival in Illinois.

Are you getting this, people? Illinois? Land of Lincoln? Was there any state prouder to call itself Yankee territory during the Civil War?

William’s oldest son Harrison, who traveled west from Tennessee with his parents as a teenager, had been born in Tennessee in 1822. He was a 38-year-old resident of Illinois at the start of the Civil War. Because of his age and marital status, he was not subject to the draft (once it was imposed in the North). However, three of Harrison’s younger brothers served in the Union Army: Benjamin, James, and Uriah Helm* all served during the war and undoubtedly laid their share of rebel boys in their graves. And proudly so. Such were the times in Union territory.

Levon is a direct descendent of Harrison Helm. Harrison’s son (another William Helm) was born in Illinois in 1850. For reasons lost to history, William moved on to Arkansas sometime before the birth of his first child in 1874. I can only imagine what sort of reception he got there so soon after the end of the War. William farmed in Arkansas and, in 1882, fathered Jasper Helm (Levon Helm’s grandfather). And there the family stayed through the birth of little Mark Levon Helm in 1940, who grew up to join The Band and provide the first and best voice for the imagined southern farmer Virgil Cain in the classic song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

And so what? So nothing. No, I don’t believe that the fact that Levon Helm’s antecedent generations were blue-blooded Union soldiers detracts in any way from his performance of that particular song. That song is a reflection of a normal, unremarkable American’s experience during a pivotal point in our shared history (and was authored by a Canadian, for that matter). We all share this heritage, regardless of where our individual ancestors hailed from. We all have an equal right to the memories remaining from that era, even the imagined memories. I hope my daughter and her diverse classmates realize this small truth, and that it’s not hidden entirely from sight in classroom discussions of tariffs and the politics of slavery.

* As it turns out, there were two Uriah Helms (cousins), both born in Roane County, Tennessee, in 1833, both of whom eventually came west, and both of whom are buried in the same pioneer cemetery in Fayette County, Illinois (the very definition of a genealogist’s nightmare). I was contacted by a descendent of the Uriah Helm I’ve mentioned here, and she helped me sort out their tangled lives. The Uriah mentioned above was known to the family as “White ’Riar” (because of his fair complexion) and the darker one was called “Black ’Riar.” And that’s so cool that I had to drink a glass of vodka and hit myself in the head with a hammer to celebrate. Seriously though, I wish I had come from a family with a White ’Riar and a Black ’Riar—such days will never come again!