Work for a Healthy Brain During Brain Awareness Week

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logo_homepageThis week, March 16-22, is Brain Awareness Week, a program launched by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. This is the twentieth anniversary of Brain Awareness Week. Because Alzheimer’s and other brain issues have impacted my family, I thought the week was worthy of mention—it is an opportunity to recognize advances in brain science and think about how to keep our brains healthy.

Participants around the world this week are holding open days at neuroscience labs, exhibitions about the brain, lectures on brain-related topics, social media campaigns, displays at libraries and community centers, classroom workshops, and other activities designed to promote awareness of brain science and health.

One fun exercise would be to download the brain puzzles available at on the Dana Alliance website.

Nevertheless, my research indicates that not all organizations are on the same page when it comes to recognizing Brain Awareness Week. Although the National Parkinson’s Foundation celebrates this week, the Alzheimer’s Association recognizes June as Brain Awareness Month. The Alzheimer’s Association has a big fundraiser focused on “the longest day” on June 21, in recognition that Alzheimer’s Disease has been called “the long good-bye”.

And in the United Kingdom, Dementia Awareness Week is May 17-23 this year.

So around the world, there are many opportunities throughout the year to reflect on how important our brains are.

We often hear the mantra of body, mind, and spirit. All three components are important to making each of us the unique individuals we are. And we know how interconnected they are—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual together make up personality. Identical twins with the same physiques can have different personalities. Friends who look very different can be quite similar in their outlooks on life.

In addition to reflecting on the importance of our brain, we can work to keep our brains healthy. The National Parkinson’s Foundation website touts “8 Steps to a Healthy Brain”,  which are

1. Exercise

2. Eat healthy

3. Work your brain

4. Stay social

5. Manage stress

6. Get enough sleep

7. Keep track of medications and supplements

8. Avoid illicit drugs and excessive alcohol consumption

These are good recommendations for anyone wanting a healthy brain, and worth thinking about any week of the year. I need to work on getting more sleep and managing stress. All the travel I’ve been doing across time zones has wreaked havoc on my body, and thus my mind.

Which of the eight steps do you need to improve? What do you cherish most about your mind?

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What Is Story (Redux)? . . . And a Sense of Urgency

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My first post on this blog went live in January 2012, but I didn’t start a regular posting schedule until March of that year, so I consider March my blog’s anniversary. This blog is now three years old.

I deliberately set the blog’s theme “Story and History” to be broad enough to let me write about almost anything I wanted. My first post was titled “What is Story?” and began:

This blog is about story and history — my story, the stories in my historical and contemporary writing, and the stories of the world as it was and is.

How am I doing on my plan to write about my story, the stories in my writing, and the stories of the world around me?

My posts deal much more with my family than I anticipated, and less about my writing and about the world as I see it (though I’ve covered a lot of Oregon Trail and Gold Rush history in my posts).

Perhaps I focus on family because of what I’ve had to deal with over the last three years—my mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s, her death last summer, and my father’s sudden death in January. Perhaps I’ve focused on family because to tell my story necessitates that I write about the people who made me the way I am—which began with family. My story requires writing my own history.

Perhaps I don’t write about my writing, because the last few years have been a struggle to feel productive as a writer. I’ve been on too many boards and committees, and I’ve had too many family issues to spend the creative time writing that I want.

Nevertheless, I have accomplished certain goals in the last three years. When I began this blog, I had not yet published a novel. I accomplished that life goal in late 2013 (under a pseudonym).

Now my goal is to publish at least two more novels—the two on the Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush that I have drafted. I am confident I will meet this goal, though my timeline has been much slower than I had hoped.

MC900149882As I wrote on January 28 of this year, I am editing my first Oregon Trail novel again, hoping to whip it into publishable shape. I am proud to report that as of last week, I had edited about 60% of it for my critique group, and I’ve got it below 130,000 words. (I’d like to end up around 120,000 words, but I think it’s going to be 125,000 or so.)

My critique group has been through a little more than a third of the book. As soon as I finish my edit for them, I’ll go back to incorporate their comments into the novel. I still hope to have all that done by Labor Day.

The good news is that as I edit I still like the book. The bad news is I still have a lot of work to do.

I have a greater sense of urgency now than I did three years ago. As I said, my father died suddenly in January. My husband had a good friend who was in his early sixties who died later that month. Last week one of my critique group partners died after open-heart surgery.

We know not the hour.

And yet, we plan as if we have time. Life is a balance between striving for more and being ready.

In March 2012, I wrote about achieving our dreams by telling our stories. I haven’t achieved my dreams yet, but I will continue to tell my stories.

I wrote in another post in March 2012:

My challenge to you today is to ask yourself:

— What is your future story?

— What do you want your life to be in five or ten years?

I leave you with these same questions again today.

My Father’s Bookcase: A New Family Heirloom

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MTH & bookcaseWhen I was a very young, my father made a bookcase. It’s made of a pretty wood (maybe oak?), and it is solid. It has a curved lip on the front facing at the top of the bookcase. I thought that made it a fancy piece of furniture when I was a child. My father must have had access to decent woodworking equipment to make that curve, but I have no idea where or how he made it.

The bookcase sat in the living room in one of the houses we lived in when I was in preschool. Here I am standing in my party clothes in front of the bookcase—I think this was my third birthday, or maybe Easter of that year.

Later, when I was six and a half and we moved to a house where I had my own bedroom for the first time, the bookcase was in my room. Over the next several years it came to hold all my treasured volumes, books by Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Irene Hunt.

And I hid my Halloween and Easter candy behind the books on the bottom shelf.

On many occasions when removing a book from the top shelf, I scraped the back of my hand on the point of that curve my father sawed. It didn’t seem quite as fancy then, but I still was proud to have my own bookcase and my own books to fill it (and hide the candy from my brother).

The bookcase moved from house to house with my parents.

20150111_072934At some point it came to reside in my sister’s home. As I’ve been traveling back and forth to the Seattle area this year, I’ve spent several nights in her house. And there, in her guest room, is my old friend—the bookcase my father made.

It is full of well-read paperbacks. It is still solid and it still sports a curved front panel, and the wood finish is still polished. (But I haven’t found any candy behind the books.)

Now it doesn’t seem fancy at all. Now it seems utilitarian and plain, the curve on the front piece a meager attempt to add decoration.

Nevertheless, I’m glad it is still in the family. It brings back memories of a little girl in party clothes in simpler times, of the bedroom where she later read and dreamed, and of a handy father now deceased.

What homemade treasures does your family own?

A Reflection on Scrivener and on Organizing Writing and Life

A screen shot of my Scrivener file for this blog

A screen shot of my Scrivener file for this blog

Last September I posted about my first few weeks using Scrivener, a software program for writers. I said at the time I was using Scrivener to organize my blogs, novels, and short works. I use it mostly to plan my blogs.

When I began with Scrivener, I used it to draft the next blog posts I needed to write and to keep a list of future post ideas. I also developed a generic monthly plan so I could monitor and vary the topics of I write about. I also wanted to keep an archive of past posts.

So, after six months, how is it going?

I’ve come to really like Scrivener. I still don’t maneuver through the various Scrivener panes and views as easily as I would like. I have to remember to put my cursor in the view I want (outline view or writing view) before I select the post I want to work on. Otherwise, I lose visibility to the outline view where I track my status.

But Scrivener fulfills its promise in keeping track of where I am on each post—first draft, final draft, done!—and in maintaining a list of future topics. I can write a paragraph or two when an idea occurs to me and know that it won’t get lost in some long directory of Word files. All my work on the blog is in the same Scrivener file.

Scrivener reminds me of an outlining program I used to use as an attorney in the mid-1980s called ThinkTank by Symantec. It, too, could take blocks of text and easily move them around. I used it to organize and reorganize my thoughts, to plan legal briefs and deposition questions. ThinkTank was followed by another outlining program called Grandview, which was about my favorite software program of all time, second only to WordPerfect 5.1.

Unfortunately, Grandview died when Microsoft added an outline feature to Word, even though the Microsoft outliner remains far inferior to what Grandview could do in the late 1980s.

I find Scrivener’s full-screen editing mode is a huge help in avoiding distractions. I’m using the full-screen mode to draft this post, and I can’t see when a new email pops into my inbox or when the next to-do item on my schedule thinks it should start. So Scrivener helps my focus, particularly on the initial draft of a post, when I would otherwise be popping over to my web browser to research a point or find a link or image to add to the post. In the full-screen mode, I think only of the writing.

I like Scrivener’s label feature. I’ve modified the labels in my blog file to indicate the topic of each post—family, writing, history, etc. However, I don’t follow my monthly plan rotating through topics the way I thought I would when I set it up.

Of course, my life doesn’t follow my monthly plan either. Certainly the first months of this year have taken me in totally unexpected directions. Instead of serving on the board of a local non-profit for writers, I am managing my father’s estate and trying to sell a house half-way across the country. No wonder more of my posts relate to family than I anticipated.

I’m not as good at archiving the final version of posts as I would like. I tend to write a close-to-final draft in Scrivener, then upload it to WordPress, then make additional changes. Those last tweaks don’t usually make it back to Scrivener. This is only important if (as I keep saying I will) I want to publish some of my posts in another format—as an ebook or print on demand book, for example. Otherwise, my log of past posts in Scrivener is more than adequate to tell me if I am repeating a topic.

I would like to see a calendar or date feature in Scrivener. I organize my posts in Scrivener by date, and I have to do that manually. Dates are critical for organizing scenes in my novel, and I’ve added a date field to the metadata on the Scrivener file for my work in progress. If I use a consistent YYMMDD format in that field, I can then organize the scenes by date manually. But Grandview included a date field that sorted automatically thirty years ago.

Thirty years! I’ve been using computers to organize my work for thirty years.

I would also like to see Scrivener apps for mobile devices, so that I could work on my projects on all my devices, rather than just on my laptop. Evernote permits this flexibility, so if I want information available anywhere, I put it in Evernote.

Evernote has greater flexibility in formatting information than Scrivener, but it is less tailored to how writers work. As with any tool, the more particular a product is, the less flexibility it has. Scrivener has met my need for an organizational tool designed for writers. The next novel I write, I vow to outline in Scrivener from the very beginning!

What tools do you use to stay organized?

On Birthdays and Owls: Remembering My Mother

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Mother with owl pin

My mother wearing one of her owl pins

Today would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. One of my most popular posts on this blog is the one I wrote to mark her 80th birthday. By that time, she was in assisted living because of her Alzheimer’s, and she could not really celebrate her birthday that year.

Last year—her 81st birthday—was even worse. She didn’t know that it was her birthday. I sent birthday cards, but my father had to read them to her. I called, but she didn’t do well speaking on the telephone. “Hello” and “Thank you” was about all she would say.

Still, this year, I miss making the effort to mark the day as hers. And I miss my father, even knowing that today would have been hard for him if he were alive, as last Christmas was hard for him without her. He had already marked March 4 as her birthday in his Day-Timer. He and I would have talked today and reminisced about my mother.

One thing I did recently to remember my mother was to take out her owl pins. My father gave them to me last summer after she died.

She had a thing about owls.

owlI don’t remember when or why she started collecting owls. It might have been because she liked the Owl character in Winnie the Pooh (who, though the wisest being in the One Hundred Acre Wood, spelled his name WOL). But my mother always considered herself more like Eeyore than like Owl. It might have been because owls are supposed to be smart, and she knew she was smart. It might have been because an old barn owl lived in the fields behind our house.

All I know is that her collection began before I went to college, because the first needlepoint project I made my freshman year in college was an owl for her.

Mother's owl pins

My mother’s owl pins

Anyway, she had two owl pins that she wore frequently through the years. One bird is gold-plated with green shiny eyes. The other is iridescent white like mother of pearl and intricately carved. The white pin was one of the last pieces of jewelry my mother wore (other than her engagement and wedding rings).

Neither pin is of a style I am likely to wear, but I like having them, because of the memories they bring to mind.

MTH owl pin

My owl pin

At some point during my professional life, I acquired my own owl pin. I’m pretty sure I bought it, but I don’t remember why or where. I think I bought the pin about the time I was thirty. That’s about when I realized how much my personality was like my mother’s—and as a daughter struggling for independence I finally accepted our similarities as well as our differences. I am an introvert, as she was an introvert. I am smart and disciplined, as she was smart and disciplined. I love to read, as she loved to read. I am a writer, as she wanted to be a writer (and ultimately she did let herself write, as I have let myself write).

I haven’t worn my owl pin much in the last fifteen years or so. But when I take out her pins, I take out mine as well. And I remember how much I am like my mother, and how most of the time now I am glad for our similarities.

How do you resemble the generations that came before you?

Family Ritual: Reading Aloud at Bedtime

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March is National Reading Awareness Month. I’ve written before about how important reading has been in our family, but my earlier post (here) focused on how my mother read to me when I was a child.

MH900446472My husband and I also read to our kids when they were small. We read to our son (our older child) regularly from the time he was an infant, and it was a nightly ritual by the time he was three. When we moved into our current house, he was two-and-a-half and had bunk beds in his room. The three of us sat on the floor with our backs against the lower bunk and read for about fifteen or twenty minutes.

We started with short books, but progressed to longer chapter books fairly quickly—as much for our adult interest levels as for our son’s. Hatchet by Gary Paulson was an early favorite, as were the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Narnia chronicles by C.S. Lewis. We read Tom Sawyer and Johnny Tremain and many other novels.

We ended our bedtime ritual with a sing-along. My husband taught us sea shanties, and I had a book of old folk songs (”Home on the Range” and “Oh Susanna”, for example). None of us have very good voices, but we did all right in harmonizing. Besides, who cared what we sounded like?

Our daughter came along shortly after our son turned three. For the first two years or so, she was not very interested in reading time. She wandered the room while one of the adults read and our son listened. What she liked most was that her bedtime was delayed while we read. In fact, she insisted that our son be tucked in first, so she could make sure he wasn’t getting any special treatment as the older child. Only after his bedroom light was turned off would she go to bed.

Some of our later books, like the Little House books, were designed to appeal more to our daughter. We started on Little Women, but I don’t think we ever made it all the way through.

Our reading times ended about the time our daughter started first grade and our son was in fourth grade. By then, there were too many other demands on our evening hours, like practicing the piano and sports teams.

Besides, both kids could read pretty well by then. In fact, our daughter preferred to read chapter books by herself, rather than parcel the book out one chapter per day—that took too long for her to find out the ending of the story.

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Read Aloud Day is March 21 this year. Find a kid—or a kid at heart—and have yourself a read-a-thon. Fifteen minutes of reading out loud to a child each day makes a tremendous difference in a child’s ability to read.

Even if your child can’t read yet. It’s still important.

What bedtime rituals did you have with your children?

Use of Rockers and Long-Toms During the California Gold Rush

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Miner using a cradle

Miner using a cradle

As I wrote last month, the early California gold miners began with placer mining, simply picking the nuggets off the ground or from streams, with hands and pans and knives. Soon, however, they wanted to sift through more dirt faster to increase the profitability of their prospecting.

One of the earliest tools they employed to speed their collection of gold flakes and nuggets was the rocker—also called a cradle because it resembled a child’s cradle. The rocker was merely a way to pan for gold more quickly. The rocker moved more water and rock than the miners could by hand.

In essence, the rocker was a box into which the prospectors shoveled both dirt and water. The box had a handle that they pushed back and forth. Like the swishing motion of panning, this rocking caused heavier material to sink to the bottom of the device. The miner then panned the leftover sediment to find gold.

Colonel Richard Mason gave an excellent description of how a rocker worked in his July 1848 report, in which he wrote that most miners were employing “a rude machine known as the cradle.” Here is his description:

This [the cradle] is on rockers, six or eight feet long, open at the foot, and its head had a coarse grate, or sieve; the bottom is rounded, with small cleets nailed across. Four men are required to work this machine; one digs the ground in the bank close by the stream; another carries it to the cradle, and empties it on the grate; a third gives a violent rocking motion to the machine, whilst a fourth dashes on water from the stream itself. The sieve keeps the coarse stones from entering the cradle, the current of water washes off the earthy matter, and the gravel is gradually carried out at the foot of the machine, leaving the gold mixed with a heavy fine black sand above the first cleets. The sand and gold mixed together are then drawn off through auger holes into a pan below, are dried in the sun, and afterwards separated by blowing off the sand. A party of four men, thus employed at the Lower Mines, average 100 dollars a-day. The Indians, and those who have nothing but pans or willow baskets, gradually wash out the earth, and separate the gravel by hand, leaving nothing but the gold mixed with sand, which is separated in the manner before described.

As a later commentary said in describing the work required to operate a rocker,

The man who rocks a cradle learns to appreciate the fact, that the “golden sands” of California are not pure sand, but are often extremely tough clay, a hopperful of which must be shaken about for ten minutes before it will dissolve under a constant pouring of water. Many large stones are found in the pay-dirt. Such as give an unpleasant shock to the cradle, as they roll from side to side of the riddle-box, are pitched out by hand, and after a glance to see that no gold sticks to their sides, are thrown away; but the smaller ones are left until the hopperful has been washed, so that nothing but clean stones remain in the riddle, and then the cradler rises from his seat, lifts up his hopper, and with a jerk throws all the stones out.

See Getting Gold: A Gold-Mining Handbook for Practical Men, J. C. F. Johnson (1904), available through Project Gutenberg.

Miner using a long tom

Miners using long toms

The next development in the California gold fields was the use of the Long Tom, which looked like a long trough. These devices were used extensively by 1851. The box of a Long Tom was typically eight to twenty feet long, and it had riffles to catch the gold and heavier debris. A constant flow of water was needed to force the gravel along the trough. Miners shoveled gravel into the upstream end of the box. As with the rocker, the heavier gold sank to the bottom of the gravel, and could be panned from the gravel.

To get the necessary water, the prospectors either placed their Long Toms in streams or they diverted water through Long Toms near the water. Sometimes, the tom was connected to a paddlewheel that moved the water through the device.

The Long Toms had more capacity than rockers and didn’t require the work to rock the machine. Still, two or more men were required to work the device. If there were only two men available—one shoveling gravel into the tom, and the other keeping it clear of rock, they could wash about 6 cubic yards of loose gravel, or 3 to 4 cubic yards of cemented gravel, in a ten-hour day.

Usually, four men operated the Long Tom—two shoveling gravel into the top end of the device, and another to clear out larger rocks along the trough. A fourth man worked the lower end to get rid of smaller rocks (the tailings). More men made the job more efficient, so more gravel could be processed.

Even without the rocking action, manning a Long Tom was hard work. As Johnson wrote,

The dirt is thrown in at the head of the tom, and a man is constantly employed in moving the dirt with a shovel, throwing back such pieces of clay as are not dissolved, to the head of the tom, and throwing out stones. From two to four men can work with a tom; but the amount of dirt that can be washed is not half that of a sluice. The tom may be used to advantage in diggings where the amount of pay-dirt is small and the gold coarse.

No wonder sluices soon became popular in the California gold mines.

What labor-saving devices have you seen develop in your lifetime? What do you think the next technical innovations will be?

From the Perspective of a Point of View Nazi

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Point of View Anchor Chart

Point of View anchor chart, from Teaching with a Mountain View

In my critique group, I’m known as the point of view Nazi. I am usually the one to notice when a writer has crept from one character’s point of view to another’s in the same scene. And I usually push my writing partners to go deeper into their protagonist’s point of view, showing not only action but also thoughts and feelings of the main character.

Point of view (POV) is defined as the eyes through which we see the action of a story. Selecting the point of view character is one of the most important decisions a writer makes. Usually, it is best to write a scene from the point of view of a character with a strong stake in the outcome of the scene. However, some writers choose to use a character who is more emotionally detached to provide a more objective perspective.

There are several points of view that writers typically use:

1. Omniscient (where the author flows from one character’s point of view to another within the same scene). Sometimes the author includes his or her own editorializing about what’s going on. This is an “anything goes” point of view, but readers may have trouble following what the author is saying.

2. First person (which forces the writer to stay in one character’s head at a time). This provides immediacy and depth, but restricts the action to scenes where that character is present.

3. Distant third person (where the author describes action from one character’s point of view, but doesn’t show much of that character’s thoughts or emotions). This POV is like writing through a camera on the character’s shoulder.

4. Close third person (which does go into the point of view character’s thoughts and feelings). This POV is more like writing through a chip implanted in the character’s brain.

Occasionally, an author will use a second person point of view, but the four options above are most typical. Moreover, the omniscient POV was more frequently used in the 19th century than in today’s writing.

Some writers stay in a single character’s point of view throughout an entire novel. Others move from one POV character in one scene to another character in the next scene.

Most writing instructors tell authors not to change points of view in the middle of a scene. When writers violate this “rule” of one POV character per scene, my POV Nazi hackles rise, even though the only real rule for writing a book is that there are no rules.

And most of the time in short stories, writers stick to a single POV character throughout the whole story, because the length of the piece doesn’t permit much character development otherwise.

Woman with typewriter.I’ve found that writers run into POV problems most frequently when they slip into the omniscient point of view from first or third person. All of a sudden, the reader is thrown out of the head of the original POV character and is seeing the scene from someone else’s point of view or from outside the scene (as if viewing from the GoodYear blimp). This gives my POV Nazi vertigo.

When I write, I find the following techniques useful to stay in one character’s point of view:

Point_of_viewFirst, I put myself in one character’s head and tell the story from that character’s perspective ONLY. It helps me to pretend that that character has a camera on his or her shoulder, like a cinematographer. In essence, I become that character while I write the scene. I only see and hear and smell and taste what that person sees and hears and smells and tastes.

Next, after I’ve written the scene, I go back to add in that character’s thoughts and emotions—whatever I imagine that character thinking or feeling. The setting and the action of the scene ought to evoke some reaction or response from the POV character, and that’s what I layer on my story, like icing on a cake. They might be feeling something in response to what they are sensing (the weather, sounds, smells, etc.), or they might be thinking about something in their past, or they might be thinking about something as irrelevant as how nice a piece of buttered toast would taste at the moment.

If I were really good, I could include these thoughts and emotions in as I write the scene the first time. But I find that I usually have to get the action down on paper first, then layer in more about my character’s thoughts and feelings.

One of the things I struggle with the most as a writer is getting into my characters’ emotions. Maybe it’s because I’m so into my characters that I think everyone should know what they’re feeling—after all, I know, so it should be obvious to my readers! Or maybe it’s because I’m an “S” not an “F” on the Myers-Briggs scale, and I have trouble expressing my own feelings. Nevertheless, my writing is better when I take the time to dig more deeply into my POV character’s head.

I’ve heard writers argue that writing from only one character’s point of view at a time limits what they can describe in the scene. Yes, it does. A writer has to be willing to do that. Some writers aren’t, and they write in omniscient point of view. But I find the omniscient point of view annoying—all that flitting from head to head—which is why I’m a point of view Nazi.

One way around the limited perspective of first or third person is to have other characters interact with the POV character during most scenes in the story. The other characters have some reaction or response to what the POV character says or does. The actions and dialogue of other characters adds their perspectives to the story, but ONLY in ways that the POV character can see or hear.

Keep in mind that not everything can be done in dialogue. I’ve seen some writers overuse dialogue where narration would work better.

Writers, what helps you stay in the point of view you have chosen for your story?

My Grandfather’s Clock

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When I was in second grade or so, my class sang the old song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” by Henry Clay Work. The lyrics to the first verse are

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Grandfather ClockUnlike the clock of this song, my maternal grandfather’s clock did sit on the shelf. It also differed from the song, because it did not mark his age. It was manufactured long before his birth and it has survived more than forty years past his death. Nevertheless, whenever I hear this song, my mind immediately goes to this clock and to my grandfather.

I don’t recall when my grandfather became the possessor of the clock. It dates back to the 1800s, maybe as far back as the 1830s. I don’t know when it came into our family. All I know is that it became ours a long time ago.

Family lore says that it sat in my great-grandmother’s kitchen, above a smoky old stove, and was covered with soot and grime. It has since been restored to its earlier glory, and (with some maintenance) it has kept good time as long as our family has owned it.

Although my great-grandmother died young, her husband, my great-grandfather lived until July 1965, and died just six months before his son, my grandfather. I know my grandfather owned the clock for several years before his death—in fact, he owned it as long as I can remember. So I don’t know when it left my great-grandfather’s house and became my grandfather’s.

My memories of the clock date back to when I was a small child. The clock sat in my maternal grandparents’ house, and my grandfather wound it religiously every Sunday. It chimed the hour and the half hour, and it ticked off the seconds—tick, tock, tick, tock—regardless of whether the day was happy or sad, busy or boring.

After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother kept it. I don’t remember her winding it, but she must have, because it continued to count away the hours throughout her many moves. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

When my grandmother finally downsized into assisted living, my parents acquired the clock. My father took over the weekly chore of winding the clock. From that time forward, the pendulum marked the hours of my visits home, and the chimes sounded through days and nights. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Some members of my family didn’t like the clock’s ticking and gongs, but I always found them comforting—a sign that I was in fact home. True, if I had a sleepless night, hearing the hours I laid awake could be disconcerting, but for the most part, the clock reminded me of the good times of my childhood.

My father died on a Monday in January. He must have wound the clock for the last time on Sunday, the day before he died. When I arrived to stay at his house the following weekend, it was still ticking. Tick, tock, tick, tock. And I thought of my father, knowing he would never wind it again.

Because no one would be staying in the house after I left, I let the clock wind down. Sometime on Monday, a week after his death, it stopped. The silence was an eerie reminder my father was gone. Unlike in the song, it hadn’t stopped short when my father died. But because of my decision not to wind it, it didn’t last many days longer than he did.

Now the clock is on its way to my home, weights removed and pendulum secured. When the clock body and all its parts arrive, I will set it up in my house.

And then I will wind it. My grandfather’s clock will again mark the time, as another generation assumes responsibility for this family heirloom. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

What family heirlooms remind you of generations past?

Genealogies Found: Some Family Myths Verified, Others Not

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Charles N Claudson historyOne of the things I found in going through my father’s papers was some genealogies on various branches of our family. Readers will be hearing some of these stories in months ahead. This first installment relates to Charles N. Claudson, our ancestor who emigrated from Denmark.

I wrote previously about Charles, who was born in 1847 in Denmark. In that post, I described some of our family stories about his journey to the United States—how he stowed away on a ship and later found his way to Iowa, and then to Nebraska. Our family has always believed that he was thrown overboard, was pulled back on board when he surfaced, and then worked in the ship’s galley. We were also told that he lost his belongings on his first night in America, allegedly because he could not find his way back to the boarding house where he left them.

But the details in the genealogy I found—which came from an oral history by someone who knew him—don’t verify all the family myths.

According to the information I found, Charles was born Charles Nickli Clauson in Copenhagen. His father was a watchmaker. Charles attended a trade school in Copenhagen, where he learned to cook. He did stow away to come to America when he was fourteen (1861). I found no verification that he left Denmark to escape military service, as I have always suspected, but that still seems plausible.

Charles apparently spent seven years working on the ship as a cook. The oral history does not describe him being thrown overboard, so that may not be true. But it makes a great story and will probably remain part of our family lore!

At some point Charles and two other sailors left the ship in New Orleans, and he was robbed that night of all his possessions. So the truth apparently is not that he lost his way; he was robbed! Both make good stories.

One sad result of the robbery is that Charles’s family had moved in Denmark, and after the theft he didn’t have their new address—he was alone in America.

The railroad was sending men from New Orleans to Iowa to work, and that’s how Charles got to Iowa. The account I have describes why he left the railroad:

“The story is that he was to push a wheelbarrow of concrete across a gully or ravine. He got it across, set it down and just kept walking.”

Apparently, Charles had an independent streak. Either that, or he didn’t like manual labor and preferred to cook.

Charles then got a job on a farm in Iowa, and married the farmer’s daughter, Sophrenia Vaught. In 1886, they emigrated with Sophrenia’s family to Nebraska. So that explains how he got to Nebraska.

487px-Union_Pacific_LogoLater Charles owned his own restaurant. At some point he was also head cook for the Union Pacific Railroad (whether before or after the wheelbarrow incident is not clear). The account I have says that he could cook dinner for 400 people in an hour. He wanted to be a pastry chef, but no one would teach him, so he hid in a back room and watched through a knothole to learn how to prepare the pastries.

So Charles was an enterprising fellow as well as independent. I smiled as I read this oral history, because some of Charles’s traits—as well as his love of cooking—filtered through the generations to my father. I don’t think my father could prepare dinner for 400 people in an hour, but he paid for his room and board in his college fraternity by being a short-order cook for the house.

What traits have you seen pass through generations in your family?

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