The roar of city life

Sitting on the balcony of a 30th floor Chicago apartment building, the sirens lull and the city noises blend to a continuous flow like ocean waves breaking. Atop another building I can see a figure, an oversized female-like statue leaning out to survey what is below as though about to jump, a long dress billowing out behind her as it would on the prow of a ship. This is the quintessential city, more life and death crammed in than could ever be imagined.

From the 30-somethingth floor, the view of the city of Chicago
From the 30th floor, the city breathing at night
Twenty years ago I would have felt overwhelmed by this, suffocated by the sheer volume of happenings, too much to take in. I am not a city person. I am happy to leave this city and let it remain a memory of what a real city is. I had no expectations coming here, and would never have imagined this feeling of harmony in amongst such chaos but here it is. This is what people mean when they refer to a city as beautiful. There is such much density of life in this place – the sounds, the smells, the lights, the faces – all that energy surging through the streets, so full and vibrant that it creates an entity, the very soul of the city, a force, with personality and loves and heartbreak and a whole lot of humour. Somehow, this intense mixture is not overwhelming; it’s comforting. Somehow it is both daunting and reassuring at once.

Okay so I put a filter on, but it really captures the hazy heat of the city.
Okay so I put a filter on, but it really captures the hazy heat of the city.
If it weren’t for a choice Mr Chewbacca’s great, great grandfather made, he may have been a Chicagoan. Is that the right word? Anyway, there was once an immigrant of Irish extraction who brought his wife from a northern English town to Chicago. We don’t know for sure whether they were first married or whether they may have met on the boat. But they settled in an area called South Deering and had two children in the 1890s. This man, who worked in the blast furnace, brought his family home again just after the turn of the 20th century. We can guess perhaps that the employment prospects were not as good as they’d expected, or perhaps his wife was homesick. For some unknown reason, this man returned to Chicago. Perhaps he felt the pull of the place, who knows, but he went back to the US alone, leaving his wife and two children back in Carlisle. He wrote to her, he missed her. But did he go just for work? Or was there something drawing him to this big, bad, beautiful city? We will never know.

He died there, in Chicago, in some kind of accident. It’s likely it was something related to his work in the ironworks, manufacturing ‘Pig’ iron, the type used for railways, although he is often given the profession of ‘Master Hairdresser’ in later records which seems extremely odd. Who knows what this guy – one hand in hair, the other in the furnace, one foot in Britain, the other in the US – was seeking when he chose to come to Chicago. It is a common theme in the male line of Mr C’s family, this desire to explore and find a ‘better’ place. City dwellers from way back, they are.

  • It was perhaps fitting that I couldn’t find any of the information I had about this ancestor, where exactly he’d lived in Chicago, in order to go and have a look when we visited. We got back home, I went through my records to discover that the area he lived is now pretty much a no-go zone. Despite its pull, Chicago apparently has the highest murder rate of any US city. It’s hard to believe really, although I wouldn’t want to test those statistics!

Coming into Chicago I think, or maybe leaving...
Coming into Chicago I think, or maybe leaving…
We left Chicago but we will be back to visit. It terrifies me but I must go back, it’s a special place.

From the farm to the mist

Just a shortie right now as I’m typing this on my phone. We’re about halfway through our trip overseas and currently enjoying some brisk sub-zero temperatures in Manchester. Here are some photos so far.

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Our accommodation on the game farm in South Africa - no electricity but oh so lovely, such peace and quiet
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You can tell Africa and Australia were once joined - animals have evolved but the earth is so similar
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Paraffin and gas lamps, the braai in the background and bones on the table. The monkey skull was eerily familiar.
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Clear blue sky, temps in the minuses, back in the UK!
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I'm not that materialistic but man I missed shopping in the UK! So many shoes...
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Manchester city centre. I don't know it at all but it was great. We ate Dutch pancakes as it got darker and colder and the mist graduated to fog. I've not developed the ability to pinpoint that transition but according to Mr C, it's obvious.

Once I’m back home I’ll be doing a series of posts on the trip and associated topics. For now, let’s just say that I’m still just as uncertain about ever moving back as I was before. London will be the ultimate test of that, and we’ll be there in about a week…

A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.

Dynasty (aka why I have slacked off on blogging recently)

Today my grandad would have been 86. The fifth. Always the fifth in our family, so many of us born on the fifth of the month for some odd reason. Grandad died in 2003. On the fifth. In fact it was on my birthday. I turned 25. My boyfriend at the time and I we’re over at my mum’s place feeding her dogs when my dad called to tell me grandad had collapsed and this was probably it. He was crying. As soon as I got off the phone, I burst into tears. Weird, as death usually doesn’t make me cry. It was just so sudden, but that’s grandad, we all knew he’d just pop off one day when it was time. He was 77. Doesn’t sound very old but considering his own father died at about 60, it’s pretty good going.

About a week ago, my dad mentioned he’d drop by to bring me something. It was a memory stick. And on it, are four sound files, between 90 and 120 minutes each. My uncle had digitised them from tapes my grandad had recorded. Finally, I’ve got his story in my hands!

I knew grandad was writing his memoir and I remember seeing a huge ream of typed pages once, which he said was his book. He had an old typewriter, and he’d type with two fingers. There we’re always murmurs about the book, but none of us ever read it. Grandad’s book. After he died, I asked around the family to find out who had it. Denial from all parties. People in my family tell tall stories and are terrified of the truth. Harsh, I know, but it’s genetic, we can’t help it!

Finally I discovered my uncle had the book. But when I quizzed him about it, he said it was just a bunch of silly stories we’d all heard before, nothing really interesting, just a few pages of ramblings. I was disappointed. And angry! I knew that was bullshit. I knew because I’d seen the book and somehow I knew my grandad had something important to say. He never wasted time. He wouldn’t have sat around typing away on that old typewriter, and later an old PC he got from the Salvos,* if there was nothing to be achieved.

But what could I do? I’m one of at least a dozen grandchildren, I love hundreds of kilometres away from my uncle and I seem to be one of the only people in the family who believes grandad had something important to say, was worthy of a voice. I thought about the book and I never lost hope that one day I’d read it and perhaps edit it so it could be published.

And now I have it, in sound form. He recorded it at Christmas in 1996 and he mentions the number of times he’s already written it out. “This is my story.” That’s how he begins. I was going to listen through once and then transcribe but I’ve decided to just transcribe straight away. Lord knows how he typed it out with two fingers! I touch type about 65 words a minute and I’m still not finished the first recording of about 90 minutes. It’s already nearly 10,000 words! There are stories within it that I’ve heard a few times and it’s nice to hear them again after nine years. There is a lot I’ve never heard and it’s giving me such an insight into who my grandad was. And it’s a good story!

So that’s why I haven’t blogged in a while. Every spare moment I have on the computer I use to transcribe. It’s compelling, addictive, and I can’t wait to hear what happens next. I’m right at the end of WWII now, about 1944, so I figure there’s lots more to come in the next three recordings. So exciting! What a story!

*Yes, you read that right, a computer from the Salvos. It actually worked, even though it was some kind if old skool Windows 3.1 OS and grandad couldn’t get the concept of saving stuff to the hard drive, so he became fixated on floppy disks… I wonder what happened to that computer?

A gargantuan decision

So I’ve decided.  I’m amalgamating my blogs.  Why, you ask?  Well, I’ve been thinking on this for a while and I realise that it’s better for everything to be in the one place – that’s what categories are for, right?  What really made me decide to amalgamate was this post from The Pioneer Woman, who I’ve recently begun following – she makes a lot of sense!

So Cocoon Moon is now just going to be the ‘Birth and parenting‘ category in this blog, and I’ve started a new ‘Making stuff‘ category which is going to be about, well, making stuff.  You know, crafty stuff, creative stuff.  I’ve got a post in the pipeline about my projects coming up and ongoing, and I’m even going to post some photos (shock horror!)

Anyway, if by some miracle you are an actual human reading this and not some bot about to spam me up the yin yang, just know that this blog won’t just be about writing and books and stuff any more.  In fact all that has its own category now – ‘Literary leanings‘ (yeah I know it’s bollocks, gimme a break, I was always crap at those punny tabloid style headlines, what are you going to do about it?)  Oh and if you’ve discovered this blog because of an interest in Genealogy, never fear, I still do some stuff with that too… or at least it has its own category.

I’m even considering mentioning my blog on facebook!  I know, scary, right?  Because I struggle with the idea that I might have occasionally mentioned someone I know in a blog post and then they might read that blog post and get upset or something… Not that I go on about how much I hate people I know, it’s just that, yeah, I respect people’s privacy.  Then there’s also the whole thing about identifying myself online.  Because, and now I might get in trouble but what the hell, I have lots of relatives that I don’t talk to any more and that I want nothing to do with. And some of them are psychos.  Yes, I’m not joking.  Well maybe a little, but you know what I mean, they have issues, and they have no lives, and they want to stick their noses into my life and spread shit and all that.  Not that I care, but still, I don’t really want any of those people seeing my stuff.  And yet I put it online… Hmm, gotta think on this one a bit more…

Anyway, for now, this is a revised space!  I’m also considering changing the name, but that needs some more thought…

Chase family – NOT American

So, I’ve been doing my genealogical research seriously for about a decade now.  I have had periods where I’ve done virtuallyl nothing for ages, so that’s why I’m only up to about 250 people in my tree (I haven’t included living relatives like my parents’ siblings, due  to privacy, but also because that doesn’t really help me get further back… so I’m missing about another 14 people there…)

The Chase branch in my family is pretty interesting, well I think so. But the annoying barrier I’ve run up against time and time again, well perhaps not so much as a barrier but a frustration, is that Chase is always assumed to be an American surname. So when I search on various genealogical forums and whatnot, people ALWAYS ask me if I’m related to some Chase individual from Massachusetts or something!  I’ve gotten back to about 1790 or so on that branch, and so far they’re all east end Londoners, with the family moving slowly further east, so beginning in Shoreditch and Hackney (central east London, zone 1 on the Tube map now), and eventually ending up in Essex (off the tube network). 

Because there are so many Americans doing family history, and the Chase family must have literally exploded when Thomas and Aquila Chase went out there sometime in the 1600s or something, it’s near impossible to rein in the research and concentrate purely on UK Chases.  It’s quite possible that I’m related to these Chases who went out on the Mayflower or something like that, but I know that the branch of the Chase family that I come from is totally British.

It was fun, the other week, when Google Street View came out and I was able to have a look at the church where my 4x great grandparents were married in 1828 – St Leonard’s Shoreditch, in case you’re wondering.  Although really, looking at it on Google is pretty silly when I live in London and could go and have a look at it any time.  It’s quite an important church for the Chases, as there were numerous children baptised there too.

Now’s the time to spend a day (probably turn into weeks) at the London Metropolitan Archives and get a hold of these parish records, get some parent details for Daniel Chase and Charlotte Robertson (my 4x great grandparents) and find out once and for all, a) if Charlotte was Scottish (just a hunch I have), and b) if yet another generation of Chases comes from central east London.  I always see all these Chases from places down south like Portsmouth, but the ones from London are few and far between. Are we special? I think so!

My dad always mentions the information we got when we ordered the Chase heraldic crest. The print out we were given says that the first mention of Chase was, I think, in the Domesday Book, or some such early Norman record dating back to the 1300s at least. Ironically, he was the Earl of Essex I believe! The name is Norman in origin, from the French for ‘hunter’, chasseur. 

But before I do any of that I must get my partner’s family tree sorted out to a point so his 94 year old granddad can check it out before he goes off to meet all the ancestors in person!

Other stuff happend in the war too you know…

So you always hear about World War II and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps etc.  There’s been so much written/spoken/filmed about it all, and why not, it’s such a historically significant period, such important events which changed the world.

But other stuff happened too, stuff that was connected to the Nazis and probably at some level the Jewish plight, but it wasn’t all about Nazis and Jews.  What about the people who lived in the places that constantly changed borders as a result of the goings on during the war? I can’t say I know a lot, as I was born over thirty years after the war ended, but I’m learning…

What I want to talk about and research is what happened to the Danube Swabian people (known in Bavarian German as ‘Donauschwaben’) who lived in the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia), right near the border of Hungary. These are an interesting group of individuals. They originally came to the area from Bavaria, and not really of their own choosing. I haven’t done a lot of research yet into what exactly happened, but as far as I know, the Austro-Hungarian Empire got their hands on that part of the world and realised that no one lived there (this was in the 1700s). So they decided to populate the area by bringing in some of their Germans. They gave them an incentive to go, setting up some houses, giving them food and money to help them establish in their new home.

So these Donauschwaben spoke German, and were very Germanic in their customs, but they actually lived for generations in what is now Serbia. I am descended from these people. My grandmother was one in fact. She spoke Serbian as well, but apparently the Serbs in the area were considered beneath them, or like peasants, and it was frowned upon to fraternise with them.

My grandmother was wilful, and probably quite spoiled. The family, by 1914 when she was born, lived in a large, pentagonal dwelling, with a courtyard garden in the centre, and were obviously doing quite well for themselves. I’ve since found out the name of the village was Torschau (Torzsa in Hungarian, Savino Selo in Serbian), and it was located in the Batschka, an area in or around the Banat.

Being, as I said, wilful and full of confidence, as a young girl of 14 or 15 often is, my grandmother wanted to do what her friends were doing – get married. She told her father she intended to marry, just like the others, and have babies etc. Luckily my great grandfather wasn’t standing for any nonsense and he told her there was no chance she’d marry now, just to be with the ‘in’ crowd. To deter her and make it easier for her to steer clear of an early marriage, he arranged for her to start working as a nanny in nearby Belgrade. She went to live with a family there, no doubt fairly well off, and in what was then quite a cosmopolitan city. Little did my great grandfather know, but his plan to educate her in fact brought her to her future husband.

My grandfather – a native Serb and apprentice bootmaker – was short and stocky but a handsome, open-faced, charistmatic young man. He and my grandmother courted in secret, and he would walk ten paces behind her down the street in case they were ‘seen’ together. I’m sure my great grandfather wasn’t impressed that his daughter was now keen not just to marry but to marry a Yugoslav; but by this point almost ten years had passed and perhaps his daughter, now a twenty-three-year-old woman, was quickly becoming an ‘old maid’. They married in 1937 and lived in Belgrade to begin with. My great grandfather visited them and was appalled to find they didn’t have bread in the house – for him, the quintessential sign of a properly domesticated household.

My grandmother was actually able to claim German citizenship, with documentary evidence of her Danube Swabian ancestry, even though her family hadn’t actually lived in Germany for many generations. She managed to get my grandfather out of a work camp during the war because of this.  But that’s another story…

What is interesting to me is that these Donauschwaben were uprooted and deposited – granted in a very organised and calm manner – to another country first of all, developed such a sense of pride in who they were and where they came from, their Donauschwaben identity. They were actually content in their German village in the middle of Yugoslavia; but being quintessentially German, and the Germans knowing this, the children were recruited into the Hitler Youth Movement, just like any German young person of the time. It was a good thing at first. But of course we all know what happened…