Monday, August 4, 2008

Sometimes We Lose Things

Sometimes we lose things, especially as a family.

Many of my ancestors came to America from Ireland in the middle of the 19th Century. In the years leading up to and following The Great Famine, family on various branches left their Irish homeland to seek better for themselves and especially better for their children. Another branch of my family left Scotland in the late 19th Century and found their way to America. But it is possible that many of their roots can be drawn back to Ireland, perhaps in one or more of the waves of immigration that happened between the two areas. One more branch apparently left Denmark, also at the end of the 19th Century and settled in Massachusetts and then in Rhode Island. Still another branch probably originated in France and first emigrated to Canada and later to the United States.

A surprising number of my ancestors all found their way directly to Rhode Island. They may have come from rural or urban areas back home, but most lived and worked in the cities. Many of the men and some of the women found work in the factories of Rhode Island. Their lives were difficult. Their education was minimal. It took multiple generations before a high school diploma was the norm. Another generation beyond that before college educations were possible and eventually routine.

So it’s not surprising that things got lost along the way. Religion stayed intact because the Roman Catholic Church was thriving here in the United States. But other traditions fell by the wayside. Language, while predominantly English, lost its native accent as brogues and burrs were replaced with New England regional accents. But within contemporary accents and expressions, one can still hear echoes of the influence of myriad Irish and Scottish voices who settled here.

Sadly, within my family, oral histories also became truncated. By the time I sat down with my father and my maternal grandparents in the 1970s, they could sketch out the stories of relatives they had known personally, but ancestors beyond a certain point of recognition, were already hazy. I have to assume that the daily responsibilities and challenges of keeping body and soul together, left little time for stories from back home. But it is just as likely that back home may have been fraught with pain. We also had our fair share of estrangements, including a multi-generational one of vague origin from my Scottish born relatives. What Dad, Mom, Gagee and Gramps knew was the countries their families had come from. But even there, errors would eventually be found. Gagee used to tell me I had German ancestors. That was because her stepfather, the only Dad she had ever really known, had been of German descent. The family story of my paternal grandfather Alexander was a memorable one, which unfortunately proved apocryphal. We had always been told that Grandpa had been conceived in Scotland and born in the United States. Turns out, his parents and older siblings emigrated from Scotland to America two years before he was born.

Besides language, accents and oral history, other traditions such as cooking changed. Sometimes this was due to a lack of availability of ingredients from home. But it seems likely that more often than not, poverty dictated what could go in the soup pot and in the lunch pail. I also imagine that there was the typical desire to assimilate with the larger, dominant culture. Within my family, there was a strong theme of putting our best foot forward to the world. Members of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations often referred to folks both within and outside of our family as ”Lace Curtain Irish”. It meant folks who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but hung lace curtains in their windows to give the appearance of prosperity to the neighbors. They may have used the term dismissively, but I felt there was a whole lot of the pot calling the kettle black in their usage!

By the time my parents were raising up a family, their children, my sisters and I, were minimum third generation Americans. First and foremost, we were a thoroughly mid-20th Century, just barely middle class, all American family. Tied for second, we were decidedly, absolutely, Roman Catholic. Thirdly, we were of Scottish, Irish, Danish and French descent. The family recipe box had recipes clipped from American magazines, newspapers and off the backs of packaged products from grocery store shelves. Meals ran the gamut from corned beef and cabbage to meatballs and spaghetti to hot dogs and hamburgers to all kinds of seafood. We weren’t just part of the melting pot, we were eating out of it!

So it was with great delight that I learned about “Maw Broon’s Cookbook”. The discovery was serendipitous in a way possible only in this technologically advanced, early 21st century time. A few weeks ago, I was reading Sue’s blog. She and her son Jake were traveling on an extended vacation from their home in South Africa to a number of countries. One part of their journey brought them to visit family in Glasgow, Scotland. While the entire trip was fascinating, greater Glasgow is where my paternal great-grandparents lived before coming to America. One of the photos Sue uploaded to her blog showed her and Jake standing in front of a Borders Bookstore in Glasgow. In the bookstore’s window was the “life size” image of a cartoon character called Maw Broon. I did some Googling and learned that “The Broons” (The Browns if spoken without the Scottish accent) were created by Dudley D. Watkins in 1936, during the depths of The Great Depression. The Broons were a Scottish family living in a fictional town, inspired by Glasgow and Dundee.

The typical internet search led me link by link to Maw Broon’s Cookbook (United Kingdom link). The description alone intrigued me. Holding the artfully aged and cleverly created book in my hands left me smitten. The conceit of Maw Broon’s collection of recipes is that it was a gift from her soon-to-be mother-in-law on her wedding day. The book has been digitally ”tattered” and “stained” and contains recipes and tips held in place by yellowing “tape”. The period script penmanship is sometimes difficult to decipher, especially as the recipes are also written in dialect, but that just adds to the charm.

Maw Broon’s Cookbook doesn’t heal my family’s estrangements. Nor does it tease out any more truth from my beautifully gnarled family tree. Reading Maw Broon’s recipe for Fish Pie reminds me of the recipe I created for Finnan Haddie Pie. But not even Maw Broon’s Cookbook can transform my own family’s recipe box filled with tips and recipes from Better Homes and Gardens and the Providence Journal Bulletin. But reading recipes for Porridge, Beef Tea, Stoved Tatties and Black Bun makes me feel connected to members of my family named Mary, Elizabeth and Madelyn. Holding this cookbook, reading the recipes and notes aloud in my best Scottish burr, enables me to cleave a bit tighter to part of my family and its heritage. It has helped me to find, something we lost.

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