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From airplane-roaring loud to peace and quiet

When I arrived at Heathrow Airport, in some ways it felt like I’d never left Seattle.

Once in Inverness, when I climbed on the “Stagecoach” bus from the airport into the city center, I knew I’d left for sure. Not just because of the eye-bending colors, but also because the driver’s seat was on the right (wrong) side of the bus. It had been a long, loud ride across the top of the world, just a little farther to go.

A short time later, I was loading into the Moniack Mhor shuttle for the last leg of my 24 hour journey…

and taken straight to my pleasant, silent room with a view.

If I kneel on my bed and peer out the window, I have a view of the Hobbit House studio as a foreground to the mist-soaked, patchwork countryside. It’s so very quiet here.


Creating a legacy from family documents

Tomorrow evening I’m looking forward to giving a talk at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor on “Creating a Legacy from Family Documents.” It’s a topic near and dear to my heart.

Ever since I wrote a novel based on the true story of my ancestor Michael Harm — the German immigrant blacksmith to Cleveland, Ohio — my appreciation for family history legacies, especially their role in our self-understandings, has taken on new life.

In particular, it’s impressed on me the importance of sharing what we know for subsequent generations.

“You’ve really created a legacy for our kids,” my sister-in-law said to me recently, referring to The Last of the Blacksmiths.

“Well, yes and no.” I saw what Cheri meant, how the retelling of Michael Harm’s life resurrected him in a way, giving his descendants a better understanding of what he’d lived through, as well as insights about how we came to be who we are today. Then again, I have more work ahead. “I had to fictionalize some things in the book to make it a good story,” I told her, “so I still need to tell the true story of his life. I’m working on that right now. Michael Harm’s genealogical narrative.”

That’s still in the works. The nonfiction version, so to speak.

For those of us privileged inherit family documents and oral histories, the task of organizing it all can feel daunting. I recommend taking it in baby steps, little by little; you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

An invaluable resource for me in the baby-step-by-baby-step approach has been my genealogy writing group, a spin off of my local genealogical society. I recommend joining a writing group, or, if your genealogical society doesn’t offer that, consider starting one. (If you want to know the particulars, send me an email and I’ll share how ours works.)

By submitting five pages every two weeks and then gathering for a critique session, I not only get the pages written, I benefit from immediate reader response. I find out what wasn’t clear enough in my description, what I left out, what really resonated, what needs more research. Each of us in my group is approaching family history based on the resources at hand — family photos, childhood memories, recipes, the memories of a parent living in the home, family letters, and so on.

As for me, family letters are my precious inheritance. I’m excited to be publishing them in my new book, How We Survive Here, a family history memoir that contains three dozen rare letters, translated by my German cousin Angela Weber. The book includes the adventures of my quest to trace the people who wrote the letters, researching on both sides of the Atlantic, learning to blacksmith, harvesting grapes in Germany, trying to tackle the German language, and so on. It’s due out from Coffeetown Press in 2018.

Do you suppose my ancestors, the German blacksmiths and wagon-makers, ever envisioned a day when their letters would be published and preserved for posterity? What each of us manages to accomplish, little by little, in sharing our family histories will create a legacy for the future in ways we can’t imagine.

Case in point. The other day, casting about for insights into how my Highlander ancestors lived in the 1700s, I was browsing the history shelves of Powell’s Bookstore and came upon Highland Folk Ways. “This work is a fascinating record, set down before it is too late for the traditions to be remembered,” the book jacket description begins.  The author, Isabel Grant, was in a unique position to create this legacy: “Taught from an early age the stories and traditions of the Highlands, Isabel Grant’s first serious piece of research was for a book based on the farm accounts of her own great-great-grandfather.”

Each of us has wisdom to share, inherited from parents, and grandparents, from family documents and treasures, and from our own experiences. I urge you to begin, and/or to keep going, recording what you know with the materials at hand, to create a valuable legacy for those who follow.

One happy camper

Browsing the vendor offerings at the International Germanic Genealogy Partners Conference, I wondered what I could possibly find that I’d be willing to carry home in my luggage. And then, there it was, a book I’d been trying to track down for eight years. In the introduction to the English edition, the translator Steven Rowan notes:

The Swan Song of the Cleveland Germans? The second edition of “Cleveland and Its Germans [1907]” can be scanned for symptoms of the ongoing process of assimilation which would receive a sudden shock of acceleration within a decade with the entry of the United States into World War I.

This statement is painfully true, especially given how strident the anti-German hysteria became in Ohio cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati. As a consequence, German families changed their surnames to sound less German, German books were removed from libraries, the German language was no longer taught in schools. But even without the onset of WWI, the assimilation process was bound to continue. In that light, Rowan’s conclusion also resonated:

At this distance the death of German Cleveland has an inevitable and elegaic quality, but it also warns us of the costs of compulsory conformity in a mass society.

Hmm, food for thought. Anyhow, I’m happy to have the book for its biographies and write-ups, and it completes my collection.

What with the discovery of that book today, and the many great people I met and stories I heard, I’m one happy camper. After many hours inside, though, I felt a bit desperate for some greenery, so headed over for a walk on the grounds of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park. The greenery and serenity and silence were golden.

The first ever International German Genealogy Conference by IGGP

I’m off on another adventure, attending the first ever International German Genealogy Conference in Minneapolis, MN. With almost 700 registrants, it’s one of those moments of anticipation, not knowing quite what to expect, but it ought to be fun.

And, I expect that no matter what else happens, there will be Bier.

Get your plaid on

It’s almost here — New York Tartan Week — held annually in New York City. This year the parade is on April 8, brought to you by the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, the New York Caledonian Club, The American-Scottish Foundation and Clan Campbell.

A complete week of events is in store from March 31-April 9, with theater and clan gatherings and more.

This July in the Pacific Northwest, I’m looking forward to another Scottish Highland Games and Clan Gathering in Enumclaw. Dates to be announced soon.

Meanwhile, I’m having a marvelous time indulging myself, every so often, in episodes of the BBC series “Monarch of the Glen.” What a terrific cast of actors in an absolutely gorgeous setting. I’m hooked.

Trips end

Chambers Bay Golf Course

Chambers Bay Golf Course

We’re back home in Seattle, where the U.S. Open golf tournament is about to begin.

What a trip, beginning with chill and blustery Scotland, continuing in warmer, drizzling Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and concluding in Freinsheim Germany with a heat wave.

altstadtfest in Freinsheim

Reformed Evangelical Protestant Church tower in the center of Freinsheim

And with plenty of toasts at the Freinsheimer Altstadtfest. To close, below are just a few photos and memories.



The Altstadtfest runs for three days. We only lasted one (because our flight left early on day 2, naturally).

croft on the battlefield at Culloden

Croft on the Culloden battlefield

bicycles at the central train station in Amsterdam

Bicycles in Amsterdam, at the Centraal train station

bird magpie

European magpie

couple at restaurant

Piet de Leeuw on Noorderstraat in Amsterdam, a restaurant that serves horse. (No, we didn’t try any.)


Spargelmania, and the Wohnmobile

Spargel fieldThis morning Matthias and I bicycled, at my request, to an asparagus field. Perhaps a strange tourist stop, but I couldn’t picture how asparagus is grown underground here (on purpose, to keep it white instead of green). When we arrived, we stood for awhile watching the morning harvesters. Asparagus (Spargel) is picked twice a day, in the morning and the evening. If you want to go deeper, read all about “Spargelmania” here.

As we stood gazing at the field, Matthias turned to me with a quizzical expression. “What do you call those pieces of timber that hold up the roof of your house?” he asked, gesturing over his head.

“You mean, like beams?”

“Right, we call the rows here “Spargel Balken,” asparagus beams because they look like the beams in a ceiling,” he said, gesturing out at the long square rows.

imageThe harvesters dig into the soil rows, jab out the asparagus spears, then build back up the soil so the plant will continue to sprout spears. Once the season has ended, in late June, the soil “beams” are flattened out, the asparagus allowed to go to seed.

On the way back to the house, Matthias and I passed through a parking lot full of German RVs, known as “Wohnmobiles”.  Owning a Wohnmobile appears to be a trend in Germany. The RVs come in all shapes and sizes, just like in the U.S., but their purpose is a bit different. Throughout the year, so many festivals are held in small villages throughout Germany. It’s difficult to get there and back in a day, especially if you want to enjoy the local vintages late into the evening. The solution? A Wohnmobile, of course.


Orange, ho!

imageAnother landmark on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh is St. Giles Cathedral, considered the “mother church” of Presbyterianism. The crown spire is in the shape of the royal crown. It seems this cathedral is the only building of three churches in downtown Edinburgh that still is used as a church, which struck me as significant, given the histories I’ve been reading about the intensely zealous 17th and 18th century Scots Presbyterians. Note Dave’s orange jacket, a beacon to help me find him in a crowd, and a hint to where his heart truly lies, in his Holland homeland.

imageWhere we have now arrived, in that fair city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Fair indeed, but it’s been raining ever since we arrived, as evidenced by this cloudy scene at the Maritime Museum (Scheepvaartmuseum).

In the evening at a local pub/restauraunt, Dave spoke French to the waiter, prompting him to raise one eyebrow and ask where we’re from.

“The United States,” I said, laughing. “But Dave here is of Dutch descent. Not that he can speak it.”

The waiter shrugged. “That’s the way it is today. My wife is of Polish and Italian descent, but she can’t speak a word of either language.” He turned to Dave. “So you are of Dutch descent?”

“Yes, my great-grandfather came to America, he was a religious man.”

“Ah, then he must not have been from Amsterdam, probably from a village in the countryside. It is still like that today.”

Greetings from Holland.

A word about the close and the Highland cow

I remember first wondering about “the close” when listening to an audio CD of Anthony Trollope‘s The Warden, which kept mentioning the term. I couldn’t picture a close. In context, it seemed to mean something near a house, like an entry. Or maybe a small backyard? I looked it up, but “narrow alleys” didn’t conjure a proper image. City blocks in the U.S. are taken up by buildings, with foreboding alleys full of rubbish bins between them, mainly for cars and delivery trucks.

imageAt last, wandering the Royal Mile on Edinburgh, I enjoyed my first glimpse of a close. Lots of closes, actually. They’re pedestrian alleys that squeeze through between storefronts leading to inner courtyards. Here is the entrance to Paisley Close (right by a Whisky store, naturally).

Riddell's CloseAnd here is the inner courtyard of Riddell’s Close, where David Hume once lived. Daniel Defoe wrote in 1726, “… that in no City in the World do so many People live in so little Room as in Edinburgh.” The closes, and streets too, were crowded and disgusting, since people had a habit of dumping their chamber pots out the windows, shouting “Gardy Loo!” (from the French, Gardez l’eau!–watch out for the water). In 1754, Edward Burt wrote “I was forced to hide my Head between the Sheets, for the Smell of Filth thrown out by the Neighbours came pouring into the room to such a Degree, I was almost poisoned by the Stench.”

imageWell. To freshen the air, just for fun, I’ll close with a photo of some Highland cows–they sure are cute.


Ohio bound

I’m headed to Ohio, where I’ll be giving a variety of talks about the “story behind the story” of writing my historical novel The Last of the Blacksmiths and the little-told story of German immigrants to Ohio and Cleveland in the 1800s.

My first event is April 10 at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea for their German American Kulturabend.

Next up, Historic Zoar Village Saturday afternoon, April 11. Then Saturday evening I’ll be back in Cleveland Heights for an author reading/signing at Mac’s Backs– Books on Coventry with author Susan Petrone.

All the details about the events to come are on this web page here.

During my weeks of travel between now and the Ohioana Book Festival April 25, be sure to check back often — I’ll be sharing discoveries, genealogy tidbits, adventures and more on a daily basis.