One year old!

This blog turns one year old today! This year has certainly gone by fast! To celebrate, here’s a photo of my first birthday. I guess the frosting was better on my face, rather than in my mouth.

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C.D.C. Johnson 1954-2017

Johnson_Claurence_portrait.jpgA short time ago, the world lost a great man and my husband lost his father. My words can’t do justice to his legacy. He was a man who loved his children more than anything in the world, and did everything he could to give them a better life. He believed in hard work, perseverance, family ties and the value of education. He taught his children these values as well. He sacrificed so much to raise four children on his own.

He was born in Guyana, where he lost his father at an early age. He educated himself and became a teacher at the age of 16. Like all young men, he served in the military, and eventually served in the office of the President of Guyana. He married in his late 20’s and had four children. He moved the family to St. Lucia for better opportunities, then later moved to the Bahamas. He raised four young children on his own. He bought a run-down house, and worked hard to make it the best house on the block. He taught his children how to paint, put in flooring and tile. He taught them that if you don’t know something, the answer can be found at the library. He was a teacher and inspired countless other young people to work hard for their dreams. He found time to write poetry, leaving an impressive collection of sonnets, ballads and narratives. He even published one young adult novel. In 2008, he relocated to the United States, where his children had or were attending college. He wore many hats during his lifetime, but his most rewarding job was that of a father.

He also believed in strong family ties and connecting with family. He helped organize large family reunions in Guyana and was one of the founders of the “Gillis/McCammon Family Reunion Organization.” Because of his efforts, much of the family is in contact with each other through the annual family reunions in Hopetown. He kept the rich family stories alive. I hope to do my part to keep them going to his future grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

An essential part of family history is remembering the family stories and legacies of those who have gone before you, and who are now part of you. Family values, just like family heirlooms, are passed down carefully to each generation. My husband is a great man because he had a great role model in his father. I feel honored that he was a part of my life for the past 8.5 years. He’ll be missed dearly.

 

His obituary is posted here.

 

 

Keeping Family Recipes Alive

Many family historians know that recording your family history does not only include recording birth dates and death dates of all our relatives. It’s also important to remember what happened in their life in between the dashes… who they were, what they valued, and what they loved to do.

On my mom’s side of the family, spending time in the kitchen has always brought my family together. When I was young, cooking wasn’t a chore. It was a time to spend with my mom, my Nana, my aunt and my cousins, and occasionally my uncle and my Papa. It was a time to talk and learn and laugh. Almost everyone perfected their favorite recipe: Papa made his peanut brittle, my aunt Pat loved peach cobbler, my mom baked excellent bread and coffeecakes, my uncle George cooked bean soup, and I made speedy brownies. Especially during the holidays, the kitchen was always full of happy cooks.

One of my Nana’s many talents was baking the perfect homemade pie. I know that everyone thinks that their grandma is the best baker in town, but Nana’s pies were truly the best pies around. I’ve never really eaten a pie that can rival it.

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Thanksgiving isn’t the same without pie and family! Last year’s pie selection included the last pie that Nana made… Peach!

Surprisingly, my Nana, Millie Drake, didn’t learn how to bake from her mother. She actually learned to cook and bake from her father-in-law, Charles Drake. Charles had lost his father when he was a child, and lost his mother when he was a young adult, so he probably learned how to cook on his own. Nana grew up in town with many siblings, and her mother always took care of the cooking on her own. When Nana and Papa got married, Nana quickly had to learn how to cook and help manage her father-in-law’s farm. I’m not sure exactly where she learned how to bake a pie, but it was likely from him.

Being connected to the farm meant that there was always plenty of fruit and berries to make into pies. After many years of practice, she had perfected her pie crust. In our family, it was said that you could either be a bread maker or a pie maker. It was hard to get both perfect. If your hands were used to kneading bread, you’d tend to knead the pie crust dough too much and it would be tough. If you excelled at making pie crusts, you would probably under-knead the bread dough. (I’m trying to excel at both, but I’m not sure how well I’ll do! I need many more years of practice.)

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Nana’s “recipe” for pie crust and apple pie filling. The exact measurements were always adjusted to make more or less dough, or to adjust for weather changes.

Here’s Nana’s recipe for her pie crust and apple pie. Like many older recipes, it’s not something that you can make just from following the recipe. Her written recipes are usually sparse on directions, and just rely on background knowledge. I learned to make the pie crust by watching how Nana’s hands carefully folded the ingredients together, and listening to her reasons for adjusting the measurements for one thing or another. Things like the weather can affect how much milk to add, so you have to watch the dough and constantly adjust. You can’t just mix the flour and shortening, you need to cut the shortening into the flour until it’s crumbly. You can’t mix too much, otherwise it doesn’t stick together well. Likewise, her “recipe” for apple pie filling doesn’t include any directions, just ingredients. And even the measurements would change from one recipe card to another! Most of the spices were adjusted to taste. A good cook can always rely on instinct.

Nana was well-known in our town for her homemade pies. Nana and her friend Jan Campbell used to make dozens of pies for Genoa’s Pioneer Day in August. The pies would be sold at the pie sale. When I was young, I remember going to Mrs. Campbell’s house the day before the sale. Her large kitchen was filled with friends and family making pie crust, cutting fruit, assembling pies, or tending the oven. The pie-making extravaganza was something I looked forward to every year, but it was an exhausting day of baking. I’m sure Mrs. Campbell, my mom, and Nana were relieved when they finally retired from doing the pie sale.

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My  sister and I with Nana on her 90th birthday.

Nana’s pies could bring the family together. Most Sundays when I was growing up, my family would get together for a meal. My aunt and her family lived next door, and my Nana and Papa lived close by, so it was easy to see each other often. Nana would make some kind of dessert for Sunday dinner… usually a pie, but sometimes Mississippi mud pie or berry crisp. If it was July, she’d make a pie out of the black raspberries that grew in our backyard. If it was fall, we’d get apples from Edward’s Orchard and we’d have an apple pie. My uncle used to work in the Department of Agriculture in South Carolina, and he gave her a recipe for peach pie that he’d acquired from a local peach farmer. Sometimes she’d get Door County cherries to fill her pies. It was always fresh fruit, and it was always delicious! We’d also have a whole spread of pies for Thanksgiving… Apple Cranberry, Mincemeat, and of course Pumpkin! My Papa had his own special way of mixing up the pumpkin filling.

Whenever I make a pie, I think fondly of Nana and how she loved to share the sweetness of life with others. Nana passed away last summer. We ate the last pie that she made at Thanksgiving last year. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be making the pies. I’m thankful for all her life lessons, and for teaching me how to make something sweet for those I love. These are traditions that I hope to keep alive with my children someday.

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Rolling out the dough for one of the pies this year.

Cubbie Blue runs deep in my blood

Sometimes you live through history. I am blessed to have witnessed the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years. Being a Cubs fan is just in my blood.

When I was growing up, we’d try to go to a Cubs game once a year. As a kid, Chicago seemed very far away, and traveling to a Cubs game seemed like such a trip. Most of these trips were organized by a local bank, who sold tickets to its members and would take us to the game on a big fancy Cubs bus. We’d usually sit on the third base side, under the balcony so we were protected from the sun and the rain. My grandfather (Papa) would buy tickets for the whole family, and we’d spend the day at Wrigley. I’ll never forget sitting next to Papa during the game while he explained who everyone was on the team, and gave us some light commentary.

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Papa played baseball on a community team when he was in his 20’s, about the same time as the Cub’s last World Series appearance in 1945.

The rest of the season, Papa would often listen to the Cubs games on WGN while he worked. He’d always know the score of the day’s game, and could tell me all the stats if I asked. In his own quiet way, he loved the Cubs, and loved to see them win. He remembered the last time they were in the World Series in 1945. He played baseball on a community team about that same time. I’d imagine that he listened to those games intently on the radio with his brother and dad, or gathered at a teammate’s house to cheer them on.

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The Genoa baseball team in 1944. My grandfather is #10 with his arms crossed in the front row. His brother is #2 on the right side of the photo.

The love for the Cubs runs deep on my dad’s side of the family too. My grandmother’s side of the family lived on the North side for several generations, and her uncle Ed lived within blocks of Wrigley Field. Great-Uncle Ed and Great-Aunt Edna were like grandparents to my dad, and he loved to go and visit them. Some of my dad’s earliest memories are visiting them over summer breaks and holidays, and of Wrigley Field. Uncle Ed and his son Jim were devoted fans who hardly missed watching or listening to a game. They’d watch the home games on WGN every afternoon and absolutely loved Jack Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau, and respected humble players like Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and others who were happy just to play the game.

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My dad, in the back, when he was about 14 years old. With his parents, his brother, his grandma Dorothy, his Great-uncle Ed and my grandma’s cousin Jim. Uncle Ed, Aunt Edna and their son Jim lived close to Wrigley Field on Greenview Ave.

Going to a Cubs game was probably the best part of the summer for my dad when he was growing up. They would get General Grandstand seats, usually just off center of home plate. They’d walk to the stadium early, watch the end of batting practice, and then usually waited for the crowd to leave after the game. Probably the best day at the park came when he was about 10 years old. It was a double header day. The first game was something like 18-16 (Cubs win) and the second game was 1-0 Cubs.

Even though the Cubs were not “winners” in the usual sense, they embodied the good things about many people around the country. You loved them because they continued to play well (not great) and were popular. Even in their worst years, they packed the place day after day. Wrigley is a comfortable pleasant place to visit. Most people who cheer for the Cubs are life-long fans. There hasn’t been much to draw the people who cheer only winning teams. So the loyalty is there. For the people who aren’t baseball fans, they probably know someone who is a Cub fan.

The Cubs have certainly made history this year. Many of their fans are devoted, lifelong fans who love their team and their city. Through many years, the Cubs embodied the good things in life, like hope, loyalty and commitment. Even in their worst years, fans turned out to watch the games at “the friendly confines.” Many lifelong fans hoped and prayed for this day, but never got to see it happen. This year many new Cubs fans were born, but I am proud to say that Cubbie Blue runs deep in my blood. I’m so happy to say that I’ve seen this day, and I’ll never forget it. We can finally say again, The Cubs are World Series Champs! Go Cubs Go!

“Hey Chicago, what do ya say, Cubs are gonna win today!”

Papa’s Basketball Days

When I was growing up, I saw my maternal grandparents (Ed and Millie Drake, who we call Nana and Papa) nearly every day. Papa would take my sister and I to and from school every day. He was very interested in our school lives, and knew all of our friends. He had attended high school in the same building as me, 68 years before. Papa had lots of hobbies, but he was never a huge sports fan. He’d casually watch whatever sport was in season at that time, and always followed the Cubs, but otherwise wasn’t devoted to one sport or another. That’s why I always found it puzzling when he asked how our high school basketball team was doing. I wasn’t friends with anyone on the basketball team, and I barely followed our high school teams anyway. I didn’t find out the reason for his interest in high school basketball until I was a freshman in high school.

One day, I was waiting in the lobby of our high school, waiting for Papa to come pick me up. While I was waiting, I looked at all of the sport trophies and awards that were in the display cases in the hall. One particularly old trophy caught my eye. When I looked closer, I saw that the trophy was from 1938-1939 when our basketball team played in the districts tournament (a big deal back in the day for such a small country school!). I was startled to read Papa’s name on the list of players on that team! Apparently Papa had a hidden basketball talent!

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The JV and Varsity Genoa basketball teams in 1939. Papa is #9 in the second row. His cousin, Emerson Medine, is #8 in the front row. The small trophies in the front are the ones that I noticed in the display case at school. Photo source: Victor Stott, personal photo.

When I got into Papa’s station wagon a few minutes later, I asked him whether he was on the team. Sure enough, he played basketball, with his brother and his cousin! He was tall(ish) and lanky and played the forward position. Although he said that he wasn’t the best player, he really enjoyed the game. In the year that they won the trophy, they had been the first Genoa team to compete in a tournament, and played in the Sectionals tournament in Elgin. The beat New Trier in the first game, and lost to Dundee in the second game. They travelled around to the area towns, and the tournament game in Elgin was probably the furthest that they travelled. His cousin, Emerson Medine, was also on the team. His older brother, Charles, had graduated by the time that they competed in the tournament, but was a pretty good basketball player himself.

They played games in what I knew as the “Old Gym” at the high school, and they practiced in the large room above the gym in what I knew as the band room. Papa would tease me about my Converse Chuck Taylors, which I thought were cool, because they were just plain gym shoes to him. They wore high top sneakers for basketball. After that revelation, whenever I passed that trophy at school, I felt so proud knowing that Papa helped get that trophy. I was in the last class to ever attend high school in that building; my sophomore year, the school district opened up a new high school and the old high school became a middle school.

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The newspaper article about one of their wins against New Trier in the District tournament. Appeared in the Genoa Republican Newspaper, March 10, 1939. Photo source: Victor Stott
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A photo of the team before playing New Trier in the Genoa Republican, March 1939. Papa is second from the left in the front row. Photo source: Victor Stott

Lesson learned: Always ask about your relative’s high school days. Perhaps they participated in an interesting sport or club! They will certainly have stories to tell.