Monday, June 29, 2015

Ghana Experience – Part 6 – The Palace and the King

By far the most culturally exciting event for me took place on Sunday afternoon. I had an “audience” with the local King at his palace in Nungua, the city where Shirley lives. Shirley, her mother, an aunt, and her cousin Esther picked me up at the hotel. We drove to Nungua (less than 2km), first stopping down the street from the palace so I could get “dressed” appropriately. The “outfit” is a large rectangle of cloth, perhaps 4-5’ by 10’. I was wrapped so that my right shoulder was exposed (although I had a shirt on under it), and the ends were draped over my right shoulder. This way it was essentially floor length. We got back in the car, found a place to park right across the street from the palace and waited for the invitation to enter.

The “palace” is a one-story compound. Inside, past some elaborate gates with metal figures on the outside, is a small courtyard and a couple of structures. The one on the left is the tribal council hall where we were meeting. Inside is a single large room about 3 times as long as wide. One of the narrow ends of the hall is dominated by a large throne behind a long table (it was covered by a cloth when I first entered to keep it from getting dusty between uses). They both sit on a raised platform. In front of the platform is another long table with 5-6 chairs for the elders. Off to the right side as you faced the throne were chairs which were occupied by the high priests (all in white garments). The rest of the room is dominated by a long U-shaped table with chairs (nice padded ones with the names of the individuals on them) around it. The various village representatives (princes) sat at them. Along the wall behind those chairs was another row of chairs which were occupied by the queen mothers and the princesses. I should also mention that in the courtyard were three musicians playing on traditional African drums playing to announce our entry and the beginning of the ceremony.

Except for the unoccupied throne, most of the chairs were already occupied when I entered. They had reserved four chairs right inside the door at the U-shaped table for myself, Shirley, her mother, and her aunt. A few minutes later, the king entered and assumed his place on the throne. Also with him was the “linguist.” The king does not speak directly to the people during the ceremony, nor do you speak directly to him. All communication is through his linguist. The drums outside then stopped and the main ceremony began.

It was all conducted in Ga, the local tribal language, except for a few occasions when one of the elders spoke in English for my benefit. So I just nodded my head at what I thought were the appropriate times. I heard my name mentioned a few times (as Mr. Alan), and also the fact that Shirley had come to live with us 12 years ago. One of the elders was the chief speaker. When he, or anyone else, rose to speak, the speaker had to pull down the robe from his right shoulder as well so that both shoulders were uncovered in the presence of the king. However, women or the priests (who had a different type of garb) did not do so, nor would their outfits be amenable to it.

After some long speaking, primarily by the elder in the middle of the row of elders, but supplemented by Shirley’s father (who is also one of the elders), or the linguist (on behalf of the king), I was informed that I needed to step outside (along with the women, the priests, and the linguist) for a “libation.” Seeing one of the priests carrying two bottles of Schnapps, I wondered what I was getting into (I don’t drink alcohol). But my fears were unfounded as the chief priest was alternately pouring from the two bottles onto the ground – the libations were an offering to the gods. As he said something and poured a little, the women would all repeat his words or say something else. Finally he emptied the remains of both bottles to an applause and we returned inside.

There was some additional speaking. I was also asked to say a few words (they told me as we were coming back inside that I would be asked so I had a minute to decide what to say). I rose, dropped the robe from my left shoulder and said that I was happy to have been a host father for Shirley and that I felt greatly honored to participate in this ceremony. One of the other men at the table then rose and translated what I had said into Ga so that everyone knew what I had said.

I should also mention that at various times during the ceremony the princesses would all break into some sort of song or chant. I was told that according to their tradition that god speaks to his people through these women, so when they start saying/singing something, everyone stops to listen to what they are saying as that is a message to them from god.

The next part of the ceremony was when the priests all gathered in front of me to place a wreath of some special plant around my neck. I rose and to some sort of special words, the priest (not the oldest one who had led in the libations, but a younger one who was the tallest in the group and could more easily place it around my neck) put the wreath over my head three times – the first two times then removing it and leaving it there on the third time. We then sat down again. The head elder explained a few things to me in English. We all rose as the king exited the room, we all sat down back again for a few minutes while they distributed bottles of soda to those who desired.

After exiting the tribal council room myself, I was invited into one of the other buildings where the King and Shirley’s father were sitting (it was another large room with big stuffed chairs around the outside and pictures of the current and former kings on the walls). I was then able to speak to the king (in English) personally. A few of the things he said to me stood out.

First, he explained that as Shirley’s father was one of the tribal elders, that he was then an “uncle” to Shirley and that made her a “princess” as well, with full rite of ascension to the throne (but of course with many people in front of her). Secondly, he informed me that if I ever came back again that there would be another ceremony and they would give me an official title. Finally, I was invited to travel with the king and his elders to another city where they were going on business for the week. However, I had to decline as they would not be returning until the day after my flight was scheduled to leave Ghana.

The king’s name is “His Royal Majesty King Odaifio Welentsi III” (according to his business card which he gave me). He has three other titles (reading from the bottom up in increasing order of importance):

·         President of the Nungua Traditional Council – this is the group that was meeting to receive me that day. The council is in charge of all tribal business within Nungua (a city of about 85,000 people).
·         Paramount Chief of Nungua Traditional Area – This is a term that is recognized all across Ghana where there is a council of chiefs that are consulted by the Ghanaian government on many issues. There are six Paramount Chiefs in the Ga tribe, each governing a different geographic area.
·         Overlord of the Ga’s – Odaifio is the “chief of the chiefs”, i.e. when the Ga people need to speak with one voice, he is the spokesperson for all the Ga chiefs. There are about 300,000 people in the Ga tribe in Ghana.

Shirley told me afterwards that she had never been in the palace before, except to meet her father in the courtyard, and that likely her mother had never been there before either. I had given Shirley my camera during all the above, but most of what she took were videos instead of pictures, so I’m not sure how much I will be able to post to my Facebook account

This was certainly the highlight of my trip – as it would have been for anyone. As one of few non-Ga people who have been so honored, it was truly a privilege.

Ghana Experience – Part 5 – People

The people of Ghana are very friendly. When you pass someone, even someone you have never met before, you need to say “good morning,” “hello,” “good afternoon,” or something else appropriate. Many of the staff at the Ramada Resort knew my name by the end of my stay there, so I was often greeted with either “Hello, Mr. Alan” or “Good morning, Mr. Russell.” Everyone from the people at the front desk to the wait staff in the restaurant to the maintenance people were equally friendly.

That was also true everywhere else I went. The only non-Ghanaian people I saw apart from other guests at the resort were a couple of tourists at the market in Accra sitting in the same restaurant. I stood out, not only as a white person, but as someone much taller than nearly everyone else I encountered, but I did not feel any pressure from that – just as someone of interest when so few people were in the places I was going. So I tried as best I could to greet everyone just as they greeted me and felt quite comfortable doing so.

Of course, since I was in the company of Shirley and other various members of her family, that helped. Besides Shirley, I met her father, her mother, and her brothers (two of them helped pick me up at the airport when I arrived and they lived in the family house (it had two separate units so Shirley and her mother lived on one side and her brothers on the other side). I also met a couple of “aunts” (not sure if they were her mother’s sisters, or some other connection), and a couple of her “cousins” (again not sure just how everyone was connected – the youngest one, Esther, age 8, Shirley called her “niece,” but I think she was actually the daughter of one of Shirley’s cousins, making her actually a “cousin, once removed,” but “niece” is as good an expression as any.

While everyone I came in contact with spoke English, it is not their primary language. Rather, they all spoke a tribal language. I suspect most were speaking Ga, as the area I was in is primarily a Ga area. But even the TV programs were a mix of English, dubbed English (soap operas from a Spanish-speaking country), or a tribal language (probably Twi, the primary language of the Asanti people who comprise nearly half of all Ghanaians).

I was not able to pick up any of the native language while I was there, so I just listened to the flow of conversation around me.

Ghana Experience – Part 4 – Food

Since Shirley had lived with us for a year and had cooked for us on a couple of occasions (in addition to cooking for just herself), I had some idea of what to expect. A good overview can be found here -

I had breakfast in the hotel every day and with a few variations, it was always the same items. It included: omelets (made with cut up green peppers and onions); cut up hot dogs (labeled as “sausage”); salad of cabbage, carrots, onions and peppers; baked beans; cold spaghetti (with a sauce of green peppers and onions (do you sense a trend here?) and something to add “spice” to it, i.e. it had a kick to it), fried potatoes (with peppers and onions); juice (orange, passion fruit, mango, etc.); fruit chunks (including fresh pineapple). Except for the addition of peppers and onions to many items and the spicy spaghetti, it was almost what you’d get in a US hotel breakfast.

Lunch was usually “out” – either at Shirley’s or at a local restaurant (but not any chain restaurants) and always something of Ghanaian cuisine. There are many variations on a common theme – usually a “ball” of some sort of smashed starchy food together with a “soup” that has some sort of added protein. The “ball” may be made of rice (Omo Tuo), cassava (fufu), or maize (banku) – but always ends up being a whitish ball wrapped in plastic wrap. The soup is made with red/green chilies, onions, etc. And the added protein may be chicken/goat/beef/fish.

Just as important as the ingredients is the eating method. Generally no utensils are given, so you pick off a small amount from the ball (always with your right hand), shape it appropriately to scoop up a bit of the soup (getting your fingers in the soup in the process), and eat it. To eat the protein source, you also use your right hand to break apart the pieces that are too large and eat it with your fingers. The left hand is not used. At the end of the meal you will be provided with a bowl of water and a bottle of liquid soap for cleaning the fingers on your right hand.

I got pretty good at eating this way (in the beginning my hand was liberally coated with the soup and by the end of the week only the tips of my fingers needed cleaning). I can tolerate the “heat” of the soup, although it’s not my normal preference.

Other types of food that I experienced during the week were fried chicken with savory rice (with chopped green peppers and onions of course) that was served instead of French fries; fried snapper; fried plantains; and mushrooms. Between the spices in the “soup” and all the fried foods, there is no possibility of undercooked items!

I mostly had supper in the restaurant at the resort. Some of the things that I tried included pasta carbonara and spaghetti bolognaise (or course with peppers, onions, and hot spices added to the sauce). I also tried a cheese burger to see how it compared to the US variety (I like the US ones better).

Finally, I snacked on fried plantain chips, and corn on the cob (not usually thought of as a snack food in the US), I also tried a drink of pineapple and coconut milk – really tasty!

Ghana Experience – Part 3 – Infrastructure

Ghana is a very “throw away” society, especially with plastics. Even the plastic water bottles say on them, “do not refill, just crush.” People toss away things like the plastic bottles, straws, plastic bags anywhere. They accumulate in the drainage ditches, in open areas, eventually wash down from the smaller to larger ditches and then out into the ocean. That’s why you are advised to not go swimming in the ocean. And the beaches, while otherwise beautiful with light surf every day, are just littered with plastic trash at the high watermark of the day.

Other things also end up in the drainage ditches. We drove past a young man just standing at the side of the road urinating into one. And there was a half-page ad in one of the papers asking people to refrain from defecating in public. When they started cleaning out some of the ditches in Accra after the recent flooding, they were pulling out old refrigerators, tires, and other assorted items.

A little about the roads here – they are atrocious! Full of potholes, people drive on the wrong side of the road to avoid them whenever possible. Apart from major roads, all others have speed humps every 100 meters or so, so you have to keep your speed down for those as well. Seeing cars with flat tires, or suspension being changed out is very common.

The aforementioned drainage ditches are concrete-lined, about 2’ across and 2-3’ deep. Nothing to stop you from accidentally driving into one – but everyone here is so used to them that I never saw a car stuck in one. If you have a business on that side of the road, you just make a “bridge” of wood or concrete to allow people to cross at the appropriate spot.

Of course the roads are shared by every manner of thing – not just cars, but buses (more on that below), motorcycles, bicycles, herds of sheep or goats, and in some places chickens or pigs that just roam free. Plus people cross the road any time or any place that they feel like. At one point I just leaned back in my seat in the car and took a wide view of what was happening in front of me. I did not see any accidents, but there were plenty that seemed to be waiting to happen!

Speaking of cars and buses, I need to comment on how people get around when many (most?) of them do not own vehicles. About half the cars on the road are either taxies or buses. You can tell it’s a taxi if the quarter panels are painted orange. Everything from ones even smaller than a Smart car up to a Toyota Accura are used as taxies. But then there are buses everywhere as well. All these buses are identifiable by having yellow stripes down the side. They are all larger than the average van in the US and seem to be made for this market. They all run fixed routes, but will stop anywhere you ask them to along that route. The driver puts his arm out the window and waggles his fingers to ask if you want him to stop and you do the same if you’re wanting to ride with him. They hold up to 35+ people (that’s 35 Ghanaians, I would never fit in their VERY tight seats). It all seems to work, but it’s certainly not like in the US. Some are fairly new vehicles, but others are very old and decrepit.

I need to finish here with a discussion of utilities. Ghana does not have enough generating power for the demand. So rolling blackouts are very common. The resort I was in had a vehicle-sized generator at the edge of the parking lot so the guests would have electricity during a blackout in the area. But that only worked up to a point. The first morning I was there the lights were off for several hours as they were working on the generator at the time of the blackout. Many other times during the week, there would be light flicker (and the a/c would cut off). That was the cutover from the outside power to the diesel generator or the reverse.

But no electricity also means no water as they need power to generate the water pressure. But in addition to the periodic power outages, I had no running water in the room for several hours (even though the lights were on at the time). I didn’t bother to question it at the front desk, it just seemed like a normal occurrence to everyone who was working there.

Ghana Experience – Part 2 – The Resort

The hotel that Shirley had recommended was the Ramada Resort, Coco Beach. It’s on the eastern side of Accra. After perusing the hotels online, I was looking for something in the $100/night range. This one was $116, fairly reasonable. The pictures online and the various review sites also made it seem like a pretty decent place, so I had booked it for 9 nights. See for a pretty decent overview (the pictures are very accurate, but there are somethings that they can’t show).

It was pretty late when I got there on Thursday night, so I just checked in and went right to bed. The next morning I followed the signs to the “breakfast restaurant” and partook of the included breakfast buffet. Then I went back to my room and further examined it.

At first glance, it seemed pretty standard – nicely made up beds, desk and chair, small table with two upright chairs, piece of furniture that contained a small refrigerator and the TV on the top (although just an older, i.e. not-flat-screen, model), and ductless a/c unit above the door out on to the small patio (I was on the first floor, upper floors in that building have a balcony instead). However, when looking closely, there were a few items that made it not quite up to US standards.

The brochure listing how to use the phone, where things were located, etc, was missing. When I went to take a shower (it was one of those with the curved glass), one of the upper connections on each door was missing/broken, so you couldn’t slide the door on the normal two rollers, so you had to physically grab both sides of the curved section and maneuver it manually. Plus there were no handles on the inside, so if you managed to close it all the way I’m not sure how you could get out of the shower again! I just left them far enough open so I could get in/out easily and kept the shower head from pointing toward the door. Also the shower pan sloped toward the middle instead of toward the drain so you accumulated a very shallow puddle in the middle. Since that puddle had soapy water in it that also meant that you couldn’t step in the middle without risking slipping and falling. I just kept my feet braced to the outside edges of the pan and gingerly avoided the puddle.

Everything else seemed pretty good in the room – except that I discovered after being there for several days that the bedbugs were coming out at night and so I came home with quite a few big red spots from the accumulating bites.

Outside, things were better. The view of the beach was fantastic, although the reviews mentioned that no one goes swimming in the ocean as it’s quite polluted (see later section on infrastructure). The pool was nice, the restaurant was under a covered thatched roof and served good food (see later section on food). The staff were also very friendly (see later section on people).

On Friday a large group of about 20 high school students from the UK and their chaperons arrived for a week-long cultural exchange. They spent the weekend, then went into the interior and spent the rest of the week interacting with students at a Ghanaian school. There were also a couple of business men there and a few others. Sunday afternoon it was very crowded as the resort allows local individuals to come use the pool (for a small fee). But on Monday the students were gone, the business men had also left for a hotel in the city closer to where they needed to be, and the place was practically deserted. The breakfast restaurant converted from buffet to ala carte as they had too few guests to make the buffet work. I estimate that there were only 4-8 guests in the entire resort – although it was just a fully staffed as when the place was much fuller on the weekend. But it was strange sitting in the restaurant for dinner that evening and there were 6-7 staff and I was the only one occupying a table!

My typical day was to sleep in until around 8, get dressed and have breakfast at the next building, go back to my room for a while and watch some football (the 2015 Copa America was going on at the time), go out by the beach for a while, then go to the lobby (which was air conditioned nicely) and chat with the on duty staff or read a newspaper, then wait until Shirley came to pick me up. After getting back from lunch and afternoon activities, I’d rest a bit, watch some more football, then have supper in the restaurant before retiring for the night.

I like sitting at the tables on the bluff overlooking the ocean – and watching the surf. But after a while you notice that you have trouble seeing very well, and then realize that your glasses are getting a coating of salt because of the spray from the surf. And all that salt is accumulating in your hair, on your body and clothes as well!

The pool was open from 8am to 6pm, but with the sun coming up at 6am by 8 the sun was too intense and I was looking to avoid a sunburn. And only a few times did I get back by 4 so I could enjoy it in the afternoon (by then the sun had dropped behind a few friendly palm trees and I could swim in the shade). The sun sets at 6pm and there is no using it after dark, so I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.

After several days of a practically empty place, more guests started arriving on Thursday evening and the breakfast buffet was again available on Friday – the day before I left. I checked out at 5:30am that day, Shirley picked me up at 6am to take me to the airport so I could check in for a 9am flight back to the US.

I’d go there again. It certainly was convenient to where Shirley lived. But I’d bring some spray that would kill bedbugs!

Ghana Experience – Part 1 – Preparation

Late last year there was an announcement in the AFS newsletter about the availability of chaperon trips for the end of the school year. Some of these were to chaperon US students abroad for the experience, some to chaperon US students at the beginning of their experience, and several to chaperon students from other countries back to their country at the end of their experience. One of the destinations listed was Ghana. I was interested because not only was it a place that I had never been, but it would give me the opportunity to visit Shirley, who I had not seen since she stayed in our home a dozen years ago. Since I had not gone on any AFS trips for several years, I thought my chances of being awarded one of these trips was fairly high. So I applied.

After being accepted as one of the trip chaperons, all those who were awarded this opportunity had to bid on the various available trips. I put Ghana as first on my list and was confirmed for the trip a few months ago. My “job” was to chaperon 20 Ghanaian high school students who had been in the US for the 2014-15 school back to their home country. In addition, since these were scholarship students here on the Kennedy-Luger YES program, there was a requirement that the chaperon stay in the country for at least a week to get the benefit of the cultural exchange. I was fully agreeable to that.

I contacted Shirley to let her know that I was coming. I asked her for a recommendation of a reasonable hotel that was close to where she lived.

One of my key decisions was to let her know that I was not coming to Ghana to be a typical tourist. I was not interested in a geographic experience, but a cultural one, so I wanted to be “where the people are” and not where the other non-Ghanaians were likely to be. In retrospect, this was a huge decision, and one that I do not regret at all.

Early on Monday, 6/15, I caught a bus from Wescosville to Philadelphia, then took Amtrak from there to DC Union Station, then a taxi ride to the Hilton Hotel at Dulles Airport, arriving there before noon.

The next two days I worked with all the exchange students (approx. 370 of them) as they arrived from all over the US where they had stayed with host families, had meals and activities together, visited the State Department, and met back up with the other students from their country and prepared to return. On Wednesday each country group left to travel back home – most groups taking shuttle buses to Dulles, but a few going to other airports.

For the Ghanaian students (and myself), that meant a long bus ride from DC to JFK airport (leaving around noon on Wednesday), checking in, a flight from JFK to Amsterdam and a 3-hour layover, then a flight from Amsterdam to Accra, arriving there on Thursday evening. After safely delivering all of them (and ALL their luggage) to the AFS-Ghana staff and to their parents, I met Shirley at the airport for a ride to my hotel.

Background on Ghana

While I was going to be staying in a small area, I think it might be useful to give a little background information on Ghana to put some things into context.

Ghana is a country about the size of Oregon. It sits in West Africa on the southern coast. It is due south of London, with the 0 meridian passing just a few miles to the east of Accra, the capital. The 0 latitude/0 longitude, i.e. the place where the prime meridian meets the equator, is only 380 miles to the south of Accra. Thus the days are pretty close to 12 hours of daylight, 12 hours of night year round. At this time of year they are only 4 hours different than Eastern Daylight Time since Ghana does not use daylight savings time.

Ghana declared independence from England in 1957, so it is the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to be independent of European colonization. The population is approximately 27 million from a variety of ethnic and religious groups. Although it has a varied geography (including savannas, forests, mountains, nature reserves, etc.) I did not get to experience much of it.

The capital, Accra, has a population of 3 million, but it is not the largest city as Kumasi, in the Ashanti Region, is about 3.8 million. The Ashanti people are also the predominant tribe and the speakers of the most-used tribal language (Twi). There are 11 state-recognized languages, but English is taught in all schools and is the language of business. Over 70% of the population are Christian with 18% being Muslim, 5% traditional, and 5% not declaring a religion.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Travelling to Ghana

Most of my blog entries have been about things in the past – Genealogy Stories or Wolcott History. As this is my 100th posting since I began this blog over four months ago, I thought I’d look forward for a change. A while back I wrote a blog about the “Like Me” Syndrome. I said the following:

“As I have had the opportunity to travel to other countries around the world, I feel comfortable – even if I am the only US American in sight.  By viewing each situation as an “intercultural learning experience,” I am learning about those around me just as they are learning about me.  So, since they are “like me” in that way that matters the most, I can feel at ease.”

Next week I will have a chance to put this to the test again. I have been given the opportunity to be the flight chaperon for a group of 20 exchange students from Ghana who are returning home after their year here in the US. On Monday I’ll travel down to DC to spend a few days with them as part of the end-of-stay experience, then in mid-week I’ll be with them as we travel by bus to JFK airport, then fly to Amsterdam and then on to Accra, Ghana. Once there I’ll stay for over a week, visiting with my exchange student daughter, Shirley, whom I have not seen since she returned to Ghana twelve years ago. (That also means that I’ll not be making any more blog entries until my return!)

So for over a week I expect to be the “only US American in sight.” I’ve let Shirley plan our agenda for the week, but I know that included will be visiting with her extended family. I also know that I will definitely not be eating my typical US mealtime fare – no cereal, no toast, no turkey sandwiches, no McDonalds, etc. The Wikipedia article on Ghanaian Cuisine gives a good overview of what to expect, but I’ll know more when I’m there.

I also know that I’ll stand out – not just because of my skin color, but because of my size. The average Ghanaian male is about 5’6” and the average female only 5’2”. So at 6’2” I will be easy to find in a crowd. I’ve also been studying the basic customs in Ghana so I can avoid being unintentionally rude.

This will be my first trip to Africa and one of the longest times I have stayed in one country on a single visit. So I expect to have lots of stories to share when I get back to the US at the end of the month. But I look at it as a great opportunity to practice what I preach and to enjoy the culture that I will be a part of for that time.

Genealogy Story – My Great Aunts – Part 3

My four great-aunts

Although my grandparents had a total of sixteen siblings between them, and only a few had passed on before I came into the world, I had no great-uncles and only four great-aunts that I would consider to be part of our family at the time. All the others were estranged for one reason or another as I’ve detailed in the earlier parts of this blog.

Aunt Edna [Blackman] – had a very large part in our family experience. Since she had no children of her own, she instead invested herself in her sister’s family. Whenever there were family gatherings (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.), Aunt Edna was there – usually helping in the kitchen with both she and my grandmother wearing chintz aprons. Until we turned 16, we could always depend on a small gift from her on our birthday (for me almost always a book). She visited with us, we visited her apartment in Hartford on a regular basis. I and all my siblings and cousins have fond memories of her.

Aunt Irene and Uncle Joe [Hartman] – were also a significant part of my growing up years. We often visited them on their farm in Roxbury. Aunt Irene was the one who started me off on my rock collection – occasionally giving me contributions from her own extensive collection. They had a daughter, Marge, who was married and had three children, so of course they were more oriented toward their own family than toward ours, but we still enjoyed all our interactions with them.

Aunt Pauline and Uncle Harold [Scott] – lived only a few miles from us in Bristol. Because my father had had no contact with this side of his family while he was estranged from his father when growing up, the connections here were not as strong as with his Aunt Irene. So, while they lived considerably closer, we didn’t see them any more often. Aunt Pauline was an effusive person and you could always depend on a big hug and tooth-less kiss from her. They also had a large family, and when we visited we would often see them as well, but those were the only occasions we saw them.

Aunt Loretta and Uncle George [McNaught] – lived in Waterbury. Our relationship with them was similar to with Aunt Pauline and Uncle Harold. However, they had a very formal home where you didn’t dare to touch or disturb anything – and that made visiting with children difficult, so we seldom did. Where Aunt Pauline was buxom and huggy, Aunt Loretta was slender and stiff. They had one daughter who was married and one grand-daughter. Even though they lived only a block away and I knew the house, I was never in it and only recall meeting my second cousin on one occasion. Of all the great-aunts, I was the least close to Aunt Loretta.


Families are funny things. There are so many circumstances that can impact relationships. Whether it be divorce, pre-mature death, or distance, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a close relationship with those who are connected to you in your family tree.

In recent years, because of my interest in genealogy, I have reached out to the still-living members in many of the above situations. I’ve made a connection to the grandsons of my Uncle Stan. I’ve connected to my cousin Jane, the granddaughter of my grandfather’s brother William. I’ve shared emails with the grandchildren of my Aunt Pauline. And I’ve talked on the phone to Aunt Loretta’s daughter. While I did not have any connections to these individuals when I was growing up, it is also true that “blood is thicker than water” and one can still establish/re-establish a connection many years later.

Genealogy Story – My Great Aunts – Part 2

My father’s family

My father’s parents did not have a good relationship. They separated when he was a preschooler. A few years later they tried to get back together (when my father was in first grade), but it didn’t work out and they then divorced. His mother raised him and his sister for a few years on her own, then she married again to a man 30 years her senior. From second grade until his junior year in high school my father had no contact with his birth-father. He lived with his mother and step-father for about 6 years, then left and lived with his grandparents. Meanwhile, his birth-father also remarried – to a woman 10 years older than he was. So, for this part of the story, I need to include my father’s step-father and step-mother and their siblings as well as the siblings of his birth-parents.

My father’s mother

My father’s mother, Vera [Levy] [Russell] Rogers, only had one sibling, a sister Irene. The two sisters maintained a good relationship through all the turmoil above and my father often spent his summers on the farm with his Aunt Irene and Uncle Joe. We’ll pick up their story in part 3.

My father’s step-father, Charles Rogers, had one brother, James, who had passed away before I was born. However, since Charles was so much older than Vera, he probably seemed more like a grandfather than a father to my dad. I recently acquired an old snapshot of Charles that was labeled “Poppy Rogers” as that is what my father called him. I had a good relationship with him in my younger years. Charles went into an “old folks home” (these days we would call it an independent living unit) in the early 1950s where he lived until he passed away in his 90s.

My father’s father

Besides the above circumstances of my father’s parents divorcing and remarrying, my grandpa, Erskine Russell, came from a family of less than ideal circumstances. He was the oldest of six children, four boys and two girls. His mother died when his youngest sister was only a few years old and his father then split up the family.

The two youngest boys went to live with relatives in New Milford. One, Allen, died a few years later. The other, William, remained with that family and never rejoined his father. I only met him once in about 1960, but essentially he was not part of our extended family. The final brother, Linus, suffered from exposure to poison gas in WWI and spent the rest of his long life in various VA hospitals. Although he was still living when I was born, I never met him. Thus, for all intents, I had no great-uncles on this side of the family.

My grandfather’s second wife was an English immigrant. While my father eventually reconciled with his birth-father and step-mother, and she was still part of our extended family when I was growing up, the fact that my parents called her “Aunt Bess” is some indication of her connection to the family. She had no other relatives in the US. We grandchildren called her “Nana”. While we occasionally visited them, the fact that my father had been estranged from his father for so long and only met his step-mother when he was older meant that there was not the same type of relationship that we had with my mother’s parents. Their small house was also very formal, with antimacassars on all the chairs, and nothing that we grandchildren were allowed to touch. Nana was also still very “English” and somewhat proper and that made it difficult to know how to relate to her.

In contrast, my grandfather’s two sisters, Pauline and Loretta, were part of our extended family and we will see them in the final part of this blog.

Genealogy Story – My Great Aunts – Part 1


My growing-up years included many interactions with my uncles and aunts. My father had one sister, my mother had two brothers and two sisters. Each of them married once, stayed with that spouse for the rest of their lives, and we had many cousins. Naturally, the amount of interaction we had with each varied with distance – we were closest to the ones just down the street, a little less close to the ones across town, and least close to the one across the country. But even the most distant physically was still “part of the family.”

But this story is about the connections to the next level up the genealogy tree – our relationships with the siblings of my grandparents and their families. As we shall see, there are many more complications. Because of these complications, I’m going to explore this topic one grandparent at a time. Then once everything is unraveled, I’ll discuss the four great-aunts remaining in a concluding section.

My mother’s father

My mother’s father, Harold Pierpont, was the youngest of eight children. One of them had died at the age of three and before my grandfather was born, so he had six brothers and one sister when he was born. However, his mother died when he was only two weeks old due to complications from childbirth. I’m not sure how much was due to his father resenting him because of this, or whether his father did not feel able to raise a small child (the next youngest being age five), but at any rate, my grandfather was sent to the next town to be raised by some older relatives. Even though it was only a few miles away, those were the days before most people had access to an automobile, so it might just as well have been on the other side of the state.

Because of this, my grandfather was essentially raised as an only child, with no contact with his siblings. Later, after he was married, he moved back to the same area and some of his older siblings lived in nearby houses, there was still little contact. From my perspective, although we visited with our grandparents frequently, I did not even know who his siblings were and if you asked me to name them today I’d have to refer to a genealogy chart. So while I have several biological great uncles and aunts from this part of the family, for all practical purposes I have none.

My mother’s mother

My mother’s mother, Sarah [Blackman] Pierpont, was one of three children. She had an older brother and a younger sister. While my mother had a relationship with both her uncle and aunt when she was younger, her uncle Stan[ley] made some life choices that severed his relationship with the rest of the family.

In early 1931, having separated from his wife and their two children (ages 16 and 7), Uncle Stan drove across the country to Las Vegas, taking his new love interest and her two small children with him. For 1931, this was a tremendously long trip. After establishing “residency”, he divorced his first wife and re-married (both on the same day), then drove back to Connecticut with his new wife. This was pretty scandalous and he had few connections with the rest of his first family from then on. So, while I knew of Uncle Stan, and I had heard the names of his children (from both marriages), I don’t recall ever meeting any of them.

My grandmother’s sister, Edna Blackman, never married and continued to be part of the family. We’ll meet her again in part three.

Friday, June 12, 2015

How Long Will I Live?

From time to time I think everyone wonders about their mortality – how much longer they have to live. I have currently lived for 2/3 of a century, and I’ve been married for 2/3 of my life. So how much longer should I expect to be around?

This question can be answered in many ways. You can look at average life expectancy in this country. You can look at the average number of years remaining for people who have reached your age (this eliminates the impact of those who die young for any reason). You can look at your genetics by noting how long your ancestors have lived. Or you can try to take into account all your life-style and health choices and issues. Here are the answers for all those variants:

1)      The average life span for a male in the US is 75.6 years.

2)      According to Social Security, the average life span for men who are my age is 84.7 years.

3)      My father died at age 85 and my mother at age 88, giving an average of 86.5 years. However, my father lived longer than his sister and my mother lived longer than any of her siblings (one is still living at age 85, so I will discount her). So the average age of my parents and their siblings is 83.3 years.

4)      My grandparents lived to an average age of 73.8. However, unlike my parents’ generation, they were all the youngest in their families when they passed on. So the average age of my grandparents and their siblings is 82.5 years.

5)      I used a fairly comprehensive calculator that took into account diet, life-style choices such as exercise, height and weight, and any family history of a variety of diseases (primarily cancers). It estimated my life expectancy as 85.6 years.

Taking all these into account, it seems that (2) through (5) are all pretty consistent. Our generation should live a bit longer than our ancestors, so it appears that both my genetics and my life-style choices put me as pretty average and I should live to something a bit more than my mid-80s. That means that I have 20 more years to live.

I also did the same calculations for my wife:

1)      The average life span for a female in the US is 80.8 years.

2)      According to Social Security, the average life span for women her age is 87.1 years.

3)      Her parents lived to an average of 82.5 years. And like my parents who were the longest surviving of their siblings, hers were ever more long-living with the average of her parents and their siblings being only 74.2 years.

4)      Her grandparents lived to an average age of only 66.8 years, but they all lived fewer years than their siblings, so the average age of that generation was 73.4 years.

5)      My wife is more active, and she has not put on any weight since we were married (she still fits into her wedding dress!). So calculations on her expected age put it at 92.2 years.

This answer is a little harder to calculate as the factors are so different. (2) indicates a few years more than I. (3) and (4) show that genetically her ancestors lived about nine fewer years than mine. But her life-style factors (5) indicate six+ years longer than I. Since she is a year older than I am, but may live a little bit longer, I guess I’ll estimate that we’ll grow old together, and that’s good enough for me.

Twenty more years together, honey! Love ya bunches!

Wolcott History – Town clerks

I recently received from my sister a copy of my father’s Navy discharge papers. I noticed that it was apparently a requirement to register your discharge with the town clerk where you were living. He was honorably discharged on May 29, 1946. Since he was not yet married (but he was engaged), he was temporarily living with his sister in Waterbury, so the back of the paper is stamped on June 1, 1946 in Waterbury. He and my mother married in early September of that year and after their honeymoon moved into the home in Wolcott where they lived for the next 60 years together. On October 14, 1946 there is a handwritten recording from the town clerk in Wolcott also attesting to his honorable discharge. It was signed, “Minnie N. Warner, Town Clerk”. When I was growing up the town clerk was Minnie Bergen, and I wondered if this was the same person. So I began some investigation into the town clerks of Wolcott.

In the first 200 years of the town’s history there have only been 10 individuals who have served as town clerk. This position was a highly valued one and if the person was doing a good job, they continued to be re-elected. The 175th anniversary brochure of the town noted that the longest serving town clerk, Henry Minor, was only opposed in an election once in the 54 years that he served and that opponent only received three votes. Since many of the names on this list were familiar to me, I decided to check on their family trees. As I suspected, I was also related to most of them. So here are 200+ years of the town clerks of Wolcott.

1796-1815 – Isaac Bronson (1736-1826), my 2nd cousin, 6 times removed

1815-1839 – Archibald Minor (1784-1847), my 3rd cousin, 5 times removed

1839-1841 – Levi Moulthrop (1811-), my 4th cousin, 4 times removed

1841-1842 – Isaac Huff, no relation

1842-1848 – Joseph Sperry (1800-), my 1st cousin, 5 times removed

1848-1902 – Henry Minor (1809-1902), son of Archibald above, died in office,
my 4th cousin, 4 times removed

1902-1905 – John Todd (1846-1942), my 4th cousin, 3 times removed

1905-1930 – Wilfred V Warner (1866-1947), my 6th cousin, twice removed

1930-1978 – Minnie [Nortier] [Warner] Bergen (1903-1978), daughter-in-law of Wilfred,
            apprenticed under him, died in office, wife of my 7th cousin, 3 times removed

1978-2005 – Elaine [Warner] King (1932-2008), daughter of Minnie, grand-daughter of Wilfred
            apprenticed under Minnie from 1954-1978, 8th cousin

            The Warner/Bergen/King family held this position for 100 years!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Genealogy Research – Why I do what I do – Part 3 – My mother’s family

For a long time I had not done a lot of research into my mother’s family, the Pierpont family. The Pierpont Family Association has been doing research for nearly 100 years and the family tree is well documented back to the origin of the family name 1000 years ago. The descendant tree is available online and contains the names of several thousand of my relatives. So I had little incentive to do further research beyond that.

However, following the death of my mother, I thought I would extract some of the information from that large descendant tree just as it related to me. In that process, I noticed the names of some of the spouses of my ancestors that looked a little familiar to me from my personal knowledge of the history of the town I grew up in – Wolcott, CT.  I decided to follow these non-Pierpont names to see if they were related to the people in Wolcott history. The first one I followed showed me that I was related to the person for whom the elementary school I attended was named – Amos Bronson Alcott – and that the common person in our family tree was John Alcox – one of the earliest settlers in the town back in 1731. This intrigued me and made me want to do further research.

This is a new type of research for me. It’s not just building out an ancestor tree – going back through successive generations and finding the parents of my ancestors one generation at a time. It’s also not building a descendant tree – finding all the living relatives who are descended from one of my ancestors. This is trying to find any “cousin” relationship between myself and someone else.

First I had to complete building out my own ancestor tree for my mother’s side of the family. Not just the family name going back (the family has been in CT since the late 1600s in New Haven), but all the spousal branches as well. In the years from the late 1600s until now there have been plenty opportunities for marriage between families.

Then I would choose a person from Wolcott history and try to build out their ancestry to see if it crossed with my own. If I would find that their great-great-grandfather was the same person as my great*6-grandfather, then they would be my 3rd cousin, 4 times removed.

This is also making the history of the town come alive for me. Learning the names of the founding members of the Mattatuck Drum Band from 1767 is one thing. But knowing that they were all your cousins (two first cousins, one second cousin) makes it much more real. It also makes sense of some of the events from town history (such as when you realize that the son of one of the important persons in town is marrying the sister of the pastor of the church).

Genealogy Research – Why I do what I do – Part 2 – My father’s family

Having gotten my feet wet in genealogy research with my wife’s family, I also began to research my father’s family. I had little written information to go on, so began with what I know of them personally, put that into and followed the various hints that it gave me.

I had some skeletal information and the basic outline of a family tree. The limit of my research going back was only into the mid-1800s as I had hit “the 1850 wall” before which the details collected in census records were quite limited. I was also limited because the newest census records then available were from 1930, so it was difficult to locate living individuals (by law the census records are not made public until 72 years after they are collected).

In 2012, the 1940 census records were made available and I began going through them as they were digitized over a several month period. Then that summer my mother abruptly passed on from a heart attack at the age of 88. Besides the personal impact, I came to the conclusion that I was then the oldest living “Russell” in our family tree as far as I had been able to determine, all the other family lines from my great-grandfather on down either ending, having only females so the last name was no longer Russell when they married, or the oldest person in the line was younger than myself. I was truly feeling burdened by that knowledge.

But only a month later I received a message via my subscription from someone else with the last name of Russell that said, “It appears that we have a common ancestor….” As it turned out, he was correct. But the common ancestor was back one more generation than I had thus far researched (to my great-great-grandfather). And it turned out that my cousin George was older than I was, so I was no longer the oldest living Russell.

This invigorated my research as I had someone to share it with. Together we embarked on a shared journey. As I delved deeper into building a descendant tree, I discovered other living relatives as well. I went back not only to all the descendants of my great-great-grandfather, but my great*3-grandfather as well.

I also redoubled my efforts at breaking through the “1850 wall” and was finally able to do so. In a series of steps (which I have earlier blogged about), I was able to trace the family name back to its origin about 1000 years ago and then beyond.

In the process, I have not only learned a lot about my heritage, but I have made many new friends in the various Russell relatives I never knew I had. Most recently I was able to construct the family line for another Russell family who had grown up in the same town as I had, but whom my father had always said were not really related. I found that in fact we were related and had a delightful phone conversation with the 80-year old matriarch of that family about our shared ancestry. That’s when genealogy becomes real!

Genealogy Research – Why I do what I do – Part 1 – My wife’s family

Having posted a lot of blog entries about genealogy, I thought I would step back and recount why it is that I do what I do. The first part of my story has to do with my wife’s family.

In 2006, following the death of my wife’s father, her brothers were trying to use some of the money from his IRA to fix up the house that my mother-in-law was still living in. As part of that process, they collected a lot of boxes and semi-organized them. One of her “collections” was a bunch of genealogy material.

My mother-in-law was the family “historian” and had taken it upon herself to be the one to preserve the family history. However, she was not a terribly organized person. Thus, her genealogy collection consisted of several boxes (I recall there being perhaps 7-8 large ones) with anything related to genealogy. She did not believe in using new or full sheets of paper, so she used the backs of envelopes and other scraps to record information. She also saved anything remotely related to this area (wedding/birth announcements, obituary notices, etc.) Finally, if anyone wrote a letter to her (she corresponded with a large number of relatives) that had anything of a genealogy nature (e.g. “my daughter Judy celebrated her 16th birthday yesterday”, or “my son named his new grandson John Michael after his two grandfathers”), she would circle the information, mark the envelope as “genealogy” and save the entire letter and envelope.

As part of my contribution to helping my mother-in-law get her life sorted out, I went through all those boxes of material, collected all the “facts” from each scrap or envelope, and put it all into a growing document in my computer. When I was done, I had a long document (electronically), and a single box of historical items of interest (obituary notices, etc.). I then set about to organize all the “facts” into a coherent list.

As I built up a family descendant tree, I would put the relevant facts into it and then erase the disconnected fact from the long list. Eventually I had complete lists of individuals, their birth/marriage/death dates, all organized by families (from great-grandparents, to grandparents, to parents, to children). I also had a remaining list of non-connected facts to resolve.

I would then correspond with my mother-in-law, asking things like “Who is Judy Lusk?” or trying to verify how so-and-so was related to so-and-so. For some of those I would get back helpful information, other times I would find that Johnny in the graduation announcement was not a relative at all, but someone for whom she was providing childcare.

As a way of tying it all together, I also purchased my initial membership in and was able to follow the family tree back more generations than she had. Finally, I began corresponding with a couple of other relatives who also had a genealogy interest in the family and we shared information and helped each other out.

My mother-in-law passed away in 2010. I have not done a lot of additional research into that side of the family since then as I have no one else who is truly interested in it.