My own home town

I was born in a small town near the middle of Ohio along the I-75 corridor, north of Dayton, south of Toledo, called Piqua. My parents, and their parents, and grandparents, and further on back in their genealogy lived in Piqua. Most who immigrated here from Germany, or Ireland, or England, settled in Piqua and established homes and families. Many are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery along the river in the north section of town.

In March of 2011, I wrote about my memories of growing up in Piqua.

Even back in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy to find a job in a small town. When my dad returned from the service in the mid-1950s, he started working for NCR in Dayton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive away. In the 60’s my parents packed up our bags and moved us there. Neither my mom or dad really wanted to go. My mom didn’t work outside the home. All her family and friends were in Piqua. Over the years, my dad made no secret of the fact that he always missed Piqua. My parents had conversations about moving back “home” during their  retirement years. They finally made it back in January of 2013, when they were both buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.

I understand the allure of small town life.

So, this morning, as I watched a CNN report on Beattyville, a small town in Kentucky where people are struggling to get by, it brought me to tears. I am a small-town girl at heart.

But sometimes you have to move. Times change. Opportunities shift. Throughout history we can find example after example of towns and cities that once prospered but then failed. The Dust Bowl comes to mind (probably because I just watched the documentary on Netflix). Sometimes we see cities that came through a rough patch and are beginning to thrive again. Buffalo, NY, is a good example. Buffalo was a rich city at one point during the height of waterway commerce. Then other forms of transportation developed and Buffalo was left with empty grain silos decomposing along its riverfront. The good news is that Buffalo is finding a way to reinvent itself. It is finding a way to thrive in the country and world as it is today.

St. John the Baptist Church in Bakum viewed from Elmelage farmland.

My husband, Mark, and I visited Bakum, Germany last summer. It’s a small agricultural town in northern Germany about a half-hour’s drive south from Bremen. We’ve traced Mark’s ancestors back to Bakum from 1530 until 1850, when they emigrated to Amerika. In some ways, you could argue that Bakum is Mark’s family’s “hometown.” Certainly it was his great-grandfather’s.

In the early 1800s, the population in Bakum grew at a fast rate and  the farming communities became over-crowded. People were living in barns, sheds, bake houses, in any available structure they could find. There was no food to eat. Parents struggled to provide shoes for their children. Poverty was rampant. Mark’s ancestor, Bernard Dominicus Grote, lived in the farming community of Elmelage and worked as a hired hand on land owned by the Knese family. Dominicus’ brothers all lived nearby on other farms. They all went to St. John the Baptist, the small church in town. I’m sure they did not wish to leave their family, their hometown and their homeland to come to a strange country with a language they couldn’t understand.

But they did. Like other ancestors of probably most, if not all of us.

I’m not talking about immigration right now. I’m talking about people following opportunity and doing what they need to do to survive. There is nothing new about this. It is the story of human survival from the beginning of time.

I truly hope our country can find a way to make things better for the folks in small towns who have lost their local industries and jobs. No one wants to see people suffer like that. But I also believe the way forward is exactly that, forward. Not back.





I have a cover

I just wanted to let you know to check over at my blog at I’ve posted a picture of the cover for my book. I hope to get back to blogging here soon. I have photos I’d like to share of the Lincoln Funeral Train, but I am focusing all my effort right now on getting Where Memories Meet published. So many details.

Last night I thought I lost my InDesign book file. You can imagine my distress. I still don’t know what happened. It wasn’t in the folder I had been keeping it in, and then later on it was. Computer magic.

I will tell you just a short little story about publishing details. I have photos in my book, primarily of my dad. A few have other family members in them, but one photo had one of Dad’s classmates named Jim in it. I was just going to try to let it slide by and hope no one complained, even though I know you’re supposed to have signed waivers when you use a photo with someone in it. I didn’t even know if Jim was still alive.

But today I had a guilt attack and decided I needed to at least try to contact Jim. I got out the copy of my mom’s phone and address book, which was actually a rolodex file, and looked up Jim’s name. I dialed the number and got some crazy recording that said I needed to enter a password if I wanted to leave a message. I’d never encountered anything like that. I thought maybe Jim was in a nursing home or something.

So I called another one of Dad’s classmates, Norma, whose name also was in Mom’s rolodex file. Norma answered and was able to give me Jim’s updated phone number. I had a pleasant conversation with Norma, and right before we hung up she said, “I miss your Dad.”

“I miss him too,” I managed to say. Then I needed to spend about a half an hour regaining my composure before I called Jim.

Sometimes it feels just as hard as ever.

But Jim was happy to allow me to use the photo, and all’s well. Jim and Norma both will be getting complimentary copies of Where Memories Meet.

Turn the camera around

Arthur - May 5, 2009

It started with photography and a conversation over lunch. “I back up all my photos to an external hard drive and also to the cloud,” a fellow amateur photographer said. “That way if my house goes up in a fire, or a burglar comes and snatches all my computer equipment, including external hard drives, I won’t lose my photos.”

I got home and took a good hard look at my 15 x 10 x 1/2 in metal case with a keyboard that contains most of my life’s work. If I had a catastrophic digital failure of some kind, I would lose my genealogy, videos of my grand kids, photographs, and all my writing. My life’s work contained in this slim piece of metal.

Sure I back it up to an external hard drive. But is that really enough to protect against the devastation that the loss of what is stored inside would cause?

That led to yet another diversion from writing my dad’s book, as my daughter so nicely pointed out in a phone conversation. “Maybe you are trying to avoid something,” she said.

That may be true. But I still need to formulate and execute a better back-up plan. And I need to sort through my files, consolidate, and edit them down. Another motivation that drives me forward is the thought that my husband or kids would have to deal with my computer if something were to happen to me. How can I expect them to deal with all the photos, videos, and documents I have loaded it up with? I don’t want to deal with it myself.

So I started sorting through my old recorded videos and came across one that I took at my sister’s house for a celebration of Mom’s birthday in May of 2009. We had just gotten Arthur and he was playing with my sister’s new puppy. I spent over 13 minutes that day recording Arthur. On the video, like an unobtrusive soundtrack running in the background, my parents are talking all the while.

I hear my mom say my name, but the rest of what she says fades out. I hear her laugh. “My brother had a dog,” my dad says, “and he named him Blue.”

And I wonder, why didn’t I, even once, turn the camera around?

A quick stop in Columbia, S.C.

I hadn’t really thought about it when we made the plans to go to the beach. And I was never very good at geography anyway. So when Mark found a place to go to in Ocean Isle, North Carolina, I was all in.

It wasn’t until the days before the trip when I read the information about our accommodations that I realized we were going to be quite close to Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach 1953 – Dad

When I was young, Myrtle Beach was for me “the ocean.” Recently while sorting through my parents’ old photos and contemplating parts of their life that I just never took the time to think about before, I realized Myrtle Beach was where my dad first experienced the ocean, when he was in the army.

71 Myrtle Beach-4
Myrtle Beach 1971 – Mom, Dad, and Annie

If memory serves, I think it may be the first beach we ever went to as a family and one we returned to on several trips.

I contemplated this more as I was driving through the hills of Tennessee and noticed the lack of giant billboard signs for Ruby Falls. It’s funny the things that stick in your mind as a child riding in the back of a packed station wagon, playing alphabet word-scavenger hunts with my sisters as we rode along, my dad driving every mile of the way, using the open window as an arm rest while his bent elbow got redder by the minute.

Wade Hampton Hotel post card - 1953
Wade Hampton Hotel post card – 1953

On this trip I realized we would be passing somewhere close to Ft. Jackson, where my dad went to basic training in the early 50’s, and to Columbia where my parents stayed in the Wade Hampton Hotel when my mom flew down to visit him. But Mark is a get-to-your-destination, no-funny-business-side-trips allowed, kind of traveler, so I didn’t mention it at first.

03-04-Mom at capital bldg
Mom at the Columbia capital building in 1953

But as I was taking a shift at driving, and Mark was explaining the route for me, he said, “Take route 26 to Columbia where you get on route 20.”

“I wonder if we could try to find the Wade Hampton Hotel in Columbia for a quick stop?” I asked.

Mark googled it and started laughing. The first hit he got was about the implosion of the famed hotel.

“When?” I asked, wondering if it happened years ago and my parents knew about it. “April, 2013,” Mark said. (He obviously hadn’t looked at the video when he said this.)

Columbia state house
Columbia state house – 2013

We decided to go anyway, because the hotel had been across the street from the statehouse and I wanted pictures.

Columbia was a larger city than I had imagined, and the statehouse was massive and impressive. I was looking for an empty lot across the street that might have held the ill-fated Wade Hampton and found only modern high-rise buildings. So we went in a coffee shop where neither the young man working behind the counter, or the woman maintaining the automatic teller, knew anything about the Wade Hampton Hotel.

“Are you sure it imploded this April?” I asked Mark who got back on his phone. “1985,” he said, “It happened in 1985.” No wonder the young man behind the counter hadn’t heard of it. He might not even have been born yet. I wondered if my parents had heard about the implosion. For some reason I have a shadow of memory at the back of my mind about it. Maybe they told me when it happened, and like so many other things I just didn’t give it due attention. Or maybe it is my imagination re-creating history.

Site of the old Wade Hampton Hotel - 2013
Site of the old Wade Hampton Hotel – 2013

I listened to the implosion video and found out which corner the old hotel had occupied. I took a photo of the shiny high-rise standing there now and several of the statehouse. Mark bought a drink at the coffee shop. And we were on our way.

Fifteen minutes tops.

A proposal and a wedding – August 4, 1953

Mom and Dad, fall of 2012

Had they lived for seven more months, today we would have been celebrating my parents’ 60th anniversary. Last fall Mom had already been thinking about the upcoming event and was worried about how we were going to celebrate it with Dad’s condition and all. Now, here we are today, left in their absence to note the day and celebrate or not, as we choose.

I’d like to share with you a short excerpt from my work in progress—Where Memories Meet.  My dad wanted me to write his story. From about 2008, until my dad couldn’t speak coherently anymore I interviewed him about his life. At this point in his story, he is engaged to marry my mother, but a date has not been set. He has been drafted and sent to Fr. Jackson, S.C. for basic training. He did not want to marry my mother before he left because we were still fighting, and some were dying, in the Korean War. He did not want to leave my mother a widow if he got sent to Korea and was killed in action.

The following is my dad’s story in his own words.


A proposal and a wedding

I got to Fort Jackson on March 28th  and left at the end of July. I started basic training on Monday April 6th and finished on Wednesday June 3rd.  Then, a few days later, I started Motor Maintenance School. The maintenance of jeeps, trucks, or whatever. Wheel School.

I was in the military school when I found out that I wasn’t going to go to the Far East. If you were going over there you had to get the cholera shot. Everybody I knew who was going to Korea had already had their cholera shot. And I never did get one. I surmised that I wasn’t going to go to the Far East.

I called your mother from Ft. Jackson. I stood in the g-damn line half the night to get to use the telephone, milling around the damn telephones with maybe a hundred other guys. And I waited until I could get a telephone and I called her. I asked, “Are you sure you want to get married?” And she went, “Huh?” That didn’t sound right to me. She has always denied that, but that’s actually what she did. She claims she couldn’t hear me.

Mom and Dad in Columbia, S.C. summer of 1953

She eventually came down to South Carolina. Got in an airplane and flew down to Fort Jackson. We got a motel room at the Wade Hampton.  It was right down at the capital of Columbia, S.C. I got a one-day pass to go to town. I think she was only there one day. Then we got her back out to the airport and she flew back to Vandalia. It was really shocking that your grandmother and your grandfather allowed it. She was only 19 years old.  She’d never been out of the state of Ohio prior to that.

So she went on home.

We corresponded of course, about what had to happen to get married. That all worked out and she got her blood tests and I had mine before I left Ft. Jackson. That was a trip—a lot of running around to do on the base to get that stuff taken care of. I had to clear a lot people. I got all that done.

When I got finished with the school, I got leave. I got transferred to Fort Knox, Ky to the armored school and I had a two-week delay in route, is what they called it. You’d get a piece of paper saying you had to be somewhere on this date. I had to be in Ft. Knox by  August 12th.

I finished school on July 31st and I left for home on August 1st. I got a cab and went out to the airport in Columbia S.C. and got on a propeller airplane. It was a military plane. We didn’t pay for any transportation. I flew to Vandalia.  I believe that was the first time I ever flew.


I came home and got married. The wedding was on August 4th. We had a little bit of a honeymoon in Chicago then I went back—to Ft. Knox, Ky.


I’m thankful for the dedicated years Mom and Dad spent together and I hope that there is a place after our life here on earth ends where they are happily together still.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, from a very grateful daughter.

Where memories meet

For the third year in a row I am struggling with what to write for Father’s Day, yet I feel a need to not let the day pass unnoted. The deaths of Mom and Dad in such close proximity illuminated the difference. Mom, who I thought could possibly live for another 15 to 20 years based on the longevity of her mother and aunts, passed out of my life with a tremendous earth-shaking bang. My father, who I had been relinquishing to Alzheimer’s piece after piece over the past 4 or 5 years, left quietly, almost as an afterthought, “Let me go quietly now. Let it be.”

So in this whole scheme of things, even though Dad got the lion’s share of attention over the past 3 or 4 years, he has taken a back seat in the memories that assault me and the grief I am trying to work my way through. I don’t feel like I can ignore him on Father’s Day.

Last year I took the coward’s way out and re-posted what I had written the year before. And for a flash, I considered doing the same again.

But I think it is time for me to begin the hard work of reclaiming my memories of who my father was, what was important to him, and what he meant to me.

Memories are a funny thing. My memories of Mom and Dad’s last weeks crowd out my memories of times before. Memories of the challenges and struggles we faced as Dad became less and less independent due to his Alzheimer’s take center stage over the memories of him laughing at a wedding, or holding a grandchild.

As I may have told you before, I’m working on my dad’s story that interlaces his memories of growing up, that I collected from interviews with him in 2008 and 2009, with my experiences as he declined in his later years, and my memories of earlier times. At least that’s my plan at the moment. So I decided an appropriate way to celebrate this Father’s Day is to share with you an excerpt  from my work in progress – Where Memories Meet— from Dad’s point of view.

The Draft and Waiting for the Call

I got drafted in November of 1952.

Signing up for the draft was not an option, it was the law and just something you did. I was not happy about it but you just did what you had to do. I had signed up at the draft board on my 18th birthday in January of 1951, before I graduated from high school.

The thing to do after school was to get a job. Like many of my peers, that’s what I did. I suppose going to college was a possibility but most people didn’t think that much about school, and there was not any guidance in that direction.

In November of 1952 I got a letter from the president of the United States – General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “You have been selected by your friends and neighbors to . . .” It was an invitation to come down to Cincinnati and take a physical. I wasn’t thrilled to have to do that. I don’t remember how Mom, or Dad for that matter, reacted when I got drafted. Again, it was the thing to do. You were called and you went.

I went to Cincinnati with a whole bunch of guys. The first time they took us down on a bus and brought us home the same day. And then we went home and waited for our call.

Some of my friends didn’t get called up. Some of them joined up. Ray Kelly and Tom Staley both joined the marine corp. Tom Murphy joined the navy.  Frank Curtis didn’t pass because of his health. Dale Razor tried to join and they wouldn’t take him because of his heart murmur. It eventually killed him.

Tom Laster didn’t have to go. He’d ran off and gotten married. A lot of guys hid behind their wives to keep from going.

At that time your mother and I were engaged and she wanted to get married. I said no because I had no idea what would happen to me. They were still killing people in Korea and I didn’t feel right about leaving her with that burden—what if we had started a family and all that implied. I think about that when I see the news today with all the casualties every day.

I got my “show-up” letter and had to go to the draft board in Troy in March of 1952.

I asked whether the fact that my dad was in a mental hospital constituted reason for me not having to go into the service, because my mother needed me. They said no. So I went ahead and left. I didn’t appeal it.

I didn’t particularly want to go. I had never been anywhere. When I went  it seemed like it was going to be forever. I was essentially leaving home.

As it turned out, it didn’t ruin my life, it gave me the chance to do a lot of things I would never have been able to do on my own.

Jerry A. Smith 1953
Jerry A. Smith 1953

My dad was buried with military honors and a gun salute. I think that would have made him happy. He was proud of his experience in the military and its influence on the man he became. I have the flag that was draped across his coffin and presented to our family. It hangs, neatly folded in a display case, on the wall over my left shoulder here in my study.

I hope you are blessed with many happy memories of your father, whether he is alive or not, today.

Happy Father’s Day.