Jane Weber (1927-2016)

Today, 2 April 2017, is the one-year anniversary of my grandmother, Laura Jane Boyle Weber’s death.  She died surrounded by family shortly after her favorite show, Lawrence Welk, ended.  As my Grandpa liked to say, “Why…Lawrence Welk went off at 7:00, and Jane went off at 7:01.”  (I realize that reads a bit callous, but it was really loving and endearing when he would say it.)

She was tapping her fingers to music she loved as she died.  May we all be so lucky.

Here is the eulogy I read at her funeral service.  Hard to believe she’s been gone a year already.

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My grandma with her cousin, circa 1938

Good morning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the time I got to spend with Grandma and the important ways in which she helped to shape my life.  I’d like to share some of my memories, offer a bit of reflection on them and, I hope, honor her by expressing what she means to me.

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Grandma and I, 2014-ish

At family gatherings, like Grandma and Grandpa’s anniversary party, people often compliment me for coming all the way from New York City to be with everyone on these occasions.  But I’m not a New Yorker by birth.  When I was a boy I lived right down the street at 1922 Madison Avenue right here in Mt. Healthy until the age of five, in a house which Grandma’s mother owned before my dad bought it.  While my mom and dad were at work, Grandma would watch me and Greg.  I enjoyed it when she would come over – we’d watch the Price is Right and we’d both be excited when that alpine game with the yodeler came on (we, of course, would yodel ridiculously along with the TV).  As we ate our lunch we’d watch her soaps – All My Children is the one I remember most – and I remember asking her questions about the characters and the sordid details of their lives.  To her credit, I don’t think she fully explained the ins and outs of the adult world to me, but she let me ask the questions and we’d talk about the characters – she liked to gossip.  Truth be told, so do I.  But that sounds negative, doesn’t it?  Let me rephrase that: we both love stories, and discussing the lives of others is a kind of storytelling.  Through this storytelling she developed my love for the drama of daily life which would find its way into my love of writing and theater, subjects which I currently teach.

Despite the fun we had, there came a point in the afternoon when I sensed that it was almost time for my mom to get home from work, and, like most kids, once I suspected she was close I would get agitated and want her to be there right away.

“Where is she?” I’d ask, impatiently.

Grandma would reply, “Let me look…” and then she’d go to the window, look down the street, and tell me, “She’s about fifteen blocks away.”

“How do you know that?” I’d ask.

“I have magic glasses.”  That answer was reasonable enough to me, and I accepted it.

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Looking effortlessly relaxed in the early-mid-1940s.

I remember one particular time when I was maybe three or four years old going to get a zweibach from Schultz’s Bakery on Pleasant Avenue – which I have always referred to as Grandma’s Bakery – then driving to Harbin Park – a place I loved because, at the time, it was where we held the Weber family reunion where I’d get to see, Aunt Alma and Uncle Al, Uncle Barney & Boomer (that’s what I called Aunt Bert for some odd reason), Aunt Gert, Eugene and Betty, all my dad’s cousins and all their kids.  Anyway, on the hill at Harbin Park, Grandma and I parked while I had my snack and looked out at the clouds in the distance.  They were choppy and extended for miles.  Grandma said they looked just like waves on the ocean.  I had never seen the ocean, but I had seen the grand prizes on the Price is Right that featured fabulous vacations to Hawaii and Acapulco.  I didn’t quite see the parallel, but she said the clouds were like the whitecaps on the waves, and that if I used my imagination I’d be able to see them.  And then, all of a sudden, I did see it.  It made perfect sense.  I looked at the sky and saw the ocean; it was my first poetic thought.  I don’t know that grandma was a big fan of poetry, but by making metaphors with the sky and seeing the world through her magic glasses, she helped shape my imagination and my inner world in ways that would give – and continue to give — a lot of color to my life.

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Whatever happened to baby Jane?  (You knew that was coming…)  Early 1930s.

Many years later, when I was in 7th grade, Grandma and Grandpa were living in Florida.  I flew down to see them on my very first flight all by myself, which probably planted the seeds of my love of travel and my strong sense of independence.  Anyway, they took me to Daytona Beach; I’d visited the Gulf of Mexico before, but this was my first time seeing the Atlantic.  Whereas the Gulf was usually brown and looked like a big lake to me, the Atlantic looked like the ocean of the Price is Right – cerulean blue and crested with white.  “Don’t you remember?” she said, “I told you they looked like clouds.”  All those years later, she remembered that conversation.

For those of us in her immediate family, there’s a very special place about an hour east from here called Lake Lorelei.  For a period of time in the 80s we would spend every weekend there together, boating, swimming, cooking out – just being together as a family.  Some of my favorite memories from my childhood were the Saturday nights at the clubhouse at Lake Lorelei where there would be a band playing jazz standards and big band swing tunes that we all associate with grandma and grandpa.  In fact, the moment I hear the opening notes of “All of me…. Why not take all of me?” I immediately think of the two of them.  I loved watching everyone dance; I loved sitting with my family, drinking my ginger ale and eating pretzels while singing along with the band.  These experiences made me want to study music and perform, which I’ve done for my entire life.  I’ve even made it to Carnegie Hall – a few times – but I can tell you that singing there, as special as that is, is not as dear to me as singing along with grandma and grandpa and the band at Lake Lorelei.

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Grandma and Grandpa — Jane and Norb — late 1940s-ish

Before Lake Lorelei was a part of our lives, I would stay with her and Grandpa – and a teenage Kimmy, and their dog, Buffy – at their house on Evalie.  If the weather was nice we would walk across the street to visit Bob Kay and swim in his pool. We’d do word searches together and other puzzles — she loved a game, and she saw that I did too (still do!).  I remember her telling me when I was very small that one day I would be big enough to go to bingo with her.  After years of waiting – which only made it seem that much more glamorous – that day finally came.  I remember entering the bingo hall and being amazed as I watched Grandma in her natural habitat.  She greeted all the other ladies – her friends and adversaries – with pleasant hellos (then told me who to watch out for because they win too often).  She bought 30 bingo cards for herself and one for me.  “How come I only get one?” I’d ask. “Let’s see if you can keep up with one before we add to it.”  I quickly graduated to three cards, but never made it past six. She had a bag filled with metallic chips and magnetic wands to remove them quickly; dabbers of ink for the single card rounds.  And good luck charms: trinkets and trolls that she would set up like guardians of her cards.  “Do they work?”  “They do.  They’re magic.”  Again, this seemed reasonable to me because she did win the money.  Sometimes quite a bit.

She was a winner.  And a wit.  The life of the party.  She had a wonderful laugh and smile, and I know we would all love it if she could walk through the door right now and tell us that she was fine.

Well…

Grandma left me her magic glasses, and in case anyone here is worried about her, I want you to know that I can see her.  Shortly after the moment of her death, she thought, “I went peacefully…surrounded by loved ones…I even made it through tonight’s episode of Lawrence Welk…and I’m ready.”  So her spirit, with all her might, yelled out, “BINGO!” to that great Bingo Caller in the Sky, St. Peter.  He called her name and she approached, thinking to herself as she rose through the clouds that they still look like the ocean. She’s

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Jane and Nancy

young again, and beautiful.  Her hair is long, her lipstick is very red.  “Laura Jane Boyle Weber,” he commanded, and she said to him, “Who wants to know?” She was a bit surprised because her voice was healed and wasn’t shaking.  St. Peter wasn’t in a joking mood, so he just looked at her sternly, and she decided to behave.  He looked over her bingo card and said, “Laura Jane,” (she looked a bit nervous) “it appears that your time on earth was fun.  You made people smile.  You made people laugh.  On the whole, the world was a merrier, wittier, richer place because you were in it.  You are welcome into heaven.”  When the gates opened and she walked inside, her mother, Iva Pohlar Backus, gave her an entire chocolate cake.  “Is this whole thing for me?” she asked.  “Of course,” Grandma Backus said, “and don’t worry – there’s no diabetes in heaven.”  Laura Jane replied to her mother, “Doesn’t matter, I was going to eat it anyway.”  Her Grandpa Pohlar, a bar owner here on Earth, poured her a beer knowing that she hadn’t had a drink in many years.  She smiled, and as she took her first, glorious bite and her first delicious sip, Lawrence Welk struck up the angelic band – “A one, a two, a three!” – and she sang along with them and all her relations in heaven: “You took the best, so why not take the rest?  Why not take all of me?

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Jane through time. 

 

 

The Fine Wines of……Cincinnati?

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It’s an exciting time to live in Cincinnati, an observation I share wistfully since I haven’t lived there full-time in almost twenty years.  But, I’m back to visit my very large, wonderful family and group of friends so often that I usually clock nearly a month’s worth of time there in a good year, which is often enough to still feel connected, but infrequent enough to realize that a lot can change in between visits.  Most of this change has to do with the revitalization of downtown and Over-the-Rhine, and what’s interesting about it all is that Cincinnati has found its way forward by going back to its roots.  Why it took a predominantly Germanic, historic brewery town so long to catch on to the microbrewery/craft beer craze can only be explained by the famous wpid-wp-1424998930364.jpegwords of Mark Twain that every Cincinnatian knows by heart: “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati: it takes ten years for anything to get there.”  Several sets of my great-great(-great) grandparents were among the German immigrants who put Cincinnati on the map, so I’m happy to see some of their legacy continue on; I’m particularly excited to go on one of the underground brewery tours that are now offered.  I’m hoping that there might even be mention of my Great-Great Grandfather, Daniel Pohlar, whose Pohlar Cafe was open on Vine Street from at least the 1920s until 2006 (as far as I can tell)

wpid-wp-1425001217046.jpegBut I must confess to something, and I hope my German forebears aren’t reading over my shoulder: I like beer, but I don’t love it. I’m giddy about the re-blooming beer culture because I can’t wait to see what it will mean for Cincinnati.  For me, the most exciting discovery of recent years has been on the northern end of Hamilton County, in Colerain, where you’ll find the Vinoklet Winery, the only working winery with a vineyard in the Cincinnati area.  It’s been in operation for thirty years, so it isn’t part of the recent Cincy renaissance (the Cincissance…has anyone coined that yet?  If not, I’m copyrighting it!).  Rather, it was there all through my childhood, just hiding, and not simply waiting for me to reach drinking age, but waiting for me to reach 35 before I would ever come across it.  And the real kicker is that once I found it (by randomly searching the internet to see if there were such a thing as Cincinnati wine), I shared this excellent news with my family and friends, most of whom had already heard of it but never told me (still upset, I am).

Me and my Great-great-great Grandparents, Joseph and Walburga (aka "Becky"...naturally) Hilpoltsteiner.  They're buried on the land that used to be their farm.

Me and my Great-great-great Grandparents, Joseph and Walburga (aka “Becky”…naturally) Hilpoltsteiner. They’re buried on the land that used to be their farm.

But I’m forgiving, if grudgingly so: the place is really so beautiful, I wish that I’d been making it a regular stop during visits home for years now.  It’s so far on the outskirts of Cincinnati that you still pass farms to reach it (including my great-great-great grandparents’ farm-turned-church/cemetery).  The winery itself was a dairy farm in a previous life, but now its verdant hills are strung with rows on rows of grapes of all kinds.  You’re welcome to order a glass of wine at the restaurant and wander through the vineyard on your own as I did with friends and family on a visit home last summer.  I highly suggest that you do, and right at sunset as we did.

The wines themselves are…good.  And that is high praise for an Ohio wine.  Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible gives exactly zero pages to Ohio wines, despite the decent number of wineries near Lake Erie or on its islands.  I’ve had those wines many times over the years, and I understand why they don’t merit her attention (although Pennsylvania gets a brief write-up, and I can’t imagine PA wines are much different than Ohio’s).  They often taste like they ought to be spread on bread with some peanut butter.  Mind you, the wineries there are beautiful and worth the visit even if the wines themselves are jammy, and even a wine that tastes like fruit juice can be enjoyable on a hot, humid midwestern summer day — they just don’t compete with more sophisticated wines from the rest of the world.

wpid-wp-1424999190686.jpegBut the wine from Cincinnati…it’s a different story.   Now, it’s got a ways to go before it can compete with, say, Oregon — but it can definitely win a fight against any of the New York wines I’ve had (and New York gets 19 pages of coverage in the Wine Bible — just sayin’).  Yes, they’re fruity, and yes, they tend to be sweet, but what came to mind as I had a glass of Vinoklet’s Cincinnatus was not another Ohio red from Lake Erie, but a cross between a Beaujolais Nouveau (up front) and a smoky Spanish

A random couple I caught in a tender moment.

A random couple I caught in a tender moment.

tempranillo (on the finish).  That’s right: French and Spanish.  And their Dreamer reminded me of a good quality New York riesling.  They are sweet and fruity, but they’ve got character.  They don’t taste like something you’d give to a child so that she could make believe she’s having an adult drink. In other words, they taste like legitimate wines.

Vinoklet also boasts a restaurant with an excellent menu and a light-hearted atmosphere thanks to its display of quirky antiques.  Check their website because they host a lot of fun events every month (including grill-your-own steak nights).  So if you live in the ‘Nati and you’ve never gone, go!  And if you’re passing through town, well, do all the downtowny things if its your first visit — because they really are great, too, and it’s nice to see the city bustling again — but then get in your car and drive north to check out Cincinnati’s wine country.  It’s worth the trip.

Everything's better with wine, but wine is better with lifelong friends.

Everything’s better with wine, but wine is better with lifelong friends.

Magna Carta Day — 6/15

WHEREAS today marks the 798th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, and
WHEREAS it is Father’s Day Weekend,
THEREFORE I see it fit to honor a few of my great-great-great…x20…great-great grandfather’s who had some involvement in the Magna Carta’s existence and execution.

I’ve been archiving my family history for enough years and with enough concern for accuracy that I feel comfortable referring to myself as a genealogist, albeit of the amateur, hobbyist sort.  I recently discovered that one of my earliest colonial American ancestors, John Throckmorton (1601-1683), descended from a fairly august lineage that led through a succession of feisty barons straight into the Plantagenet, Angevin, Carolingian and Merovingian dynasties.

It seems to be genealogical gold to be able to trace your family history back to Charlemagne, and I can do it, but I always offer this caveat for those who think “royal blood” is something to get over-excited about.  Charlemagne is my 40th great grandfather.  So say the word “great” forty times and that’s how far back you have to go.  Assuming a person has two parents who are not brother and sister (or any other combination of relatives), then that person has four distinct grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents, and so on.  Know how many 40th great grandparents a person has?

A: 4,398,046,511,104

That’s over 4 trillion, folks.  That’s a lot of Grandparent’s Day cards.  And it presents a mathematical problem: there were only a couple dozen million people living in Europe during Charlemagne’s day, and if you add up the rest of the population of the Earth at that time it still doesn’t equal 4 trillion.  In fact, if you add up all the people who have ever lived it doesn’t equal that amount.  So that means that those 4 trillion empty spaces on your family tree have to be filled with the same few million people about a million times over!!

And it also tells us that we’re pretty much all related.

Now, having put all that out there, why care about genealogy at all?  Because it’s one thing to know generally that every person with any European ancestors whatsoever can probably trace their lineage back to Charlemagne (and everyone else alive then), but it’s another thing to have names and biographies and marriages — to have specific ancestors to think about who lived in a set of specific dates, who faced the challenges and enjoyed the blessings presented by the circumstances of the world at that time.

Which brings me back to the Magna Carta.

The English baronage in the early 13th century was in revolt against King John.  He was engaged in several battles in France that were draining royal coffers, so he did what governments in need do: he raised taxes (never a popular move).  English possessions in Normandy were lost.  A skirmish with Pope Innocent got him excommunicated.  The barons were not pleased.  Theirs was not the first rebellion against a king, but it was the first where the rebels didn’t have a replacement king in mind, so the result was that the king was not dethroned, but his powers were diminished.  This gave rise to the kinds of parliamentary governments so familiar to the world today, which is one reason the Magna Carta is historically relevant for the entire world.  According to the British Library, most of the clauses of the Magna Carta were so specific to the time period that only three remain as law today, but one of them is supremely important: that every person accused of a crime is given due process of the law and judged by a jury of their peers.

So, some of my known grandfathers had a hand in that.  Here are their stories.

William D’Aubigny, Lord of Belvoir (after 1150 — 1 May 1236)

Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the D'Aubigny family

Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the D’Aubigny family

Grandpa Willy D’oh is my 26th great grandfather (and you only have 268,435,456 of those).  He was the Lord of Belvoir Castle, a stunning bit of real estate in Leicestershire.  He remained neutral at the beginning of the rebellion, only joining once he saw that the rebels might win.  It’s always smart to hedge your bets if it means losing your head.  Once in, he was all in, going so far as to hold the Rochester castle for the barons in the war that took place after the signing of the charter.  King John’s men did eventually capture him, though, and he was nearly hanged, but he lived on to become a Surety of the Magna Carta, meaning he was one of the twenty-five men who saw to it that it was enforced throughout the land.  He became more of a loyalist during the reign of John’s son, King Henry III, and was a commander for Henry’s army during the Second Battle of Lincoln.  He died in 1236 and was buried in Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, which is best known as the ancestral home of Lord Byron.  I like to think about Byron glancing at my ancestor’s memorial stone in the abbey and having it reappear transformed as an image in Manfred or Childe Harold.

Sir Robert de Ros, Baron of Helmsley (ca. 1170/72 — 1227)

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Effigy on Grandpa Rob’s tomb

Grandpa Rob Ros is also a 26th great grandfather of mine.  There’s a lot more research to be done on this one because it sounds like he lived a life less ordinary.  First off, he committed some sort of offense that had him arrested by no less a personage than King Richard I, but his first captor handed him over to a second captor who subsequently let Grandpa Rob go free.  The second captor was not so lucky: he was hanged.  Grandpa Rob went on to prosper, however, and was given the barony of Helmsley by King John.  He was therefore loyal to John at first (like Grandpa Willy), and even escorted his father-in-law, my 27th great grandpa William the Lion, King of Scots, to the court of John to swear fealty to the English king.  (Incidentally, William the Lion was great-great grandson to King Duncan of Macbeth fame — a connection that pleases this English/Theater teacher immensely!)  It seems he had a brief period sometime thereafter where he became a monk, but that didn’t last.  This may have been the time when he was one of the Knights Templar.  In any case, he was rewarded for his loyalty to John during the start of the rebellion, but by the end he, too, took on the role of Surety of the Magna Carta and was responsible for watching over Northumberland.  He is entombed in the Temple Church in London, made famous recently by The DaVinci Code.

King John I of England

Don't look so sad, Grandpa.  You did good in the long run.

Don’t look so sad, Grandpa. You did good in the long run.

Grandpa John, like the other two, is a 26th great grandfather of mine.  Okay, okay: I should have probably started with him.  My DNA (from the research I’ve been able to complete) left the lines of succession after John’s grandson, King Edward I.  I’m not going to try to give his bio here — the man was a king, after all: there are hundreds of volumes written about him, far more than I can offer here.  History has not ranked him as one of the better kings, and that reputation doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.  But, as Hamlet says about his deceased kingly father, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”  This day 798 years ago was a bad day for Grandpa John, but it was the dawn of a new day for the rest of us.  It marked a turn in the course of human events.  I’m pretty sure his barons didn’t mean to, but they unwittingly cracked open the doors of democratic rule that allowed the rest of us to bear a share of the power that they alone had wielded for many centuries.  I know you couldn’t have known it at the time, Grandpa John, but you did a far better thing for the world than you could have ever imagined — which is perhaps reason enough to clear some of the blemishes off your reputation.

So Happy Magna Carta Day, everyone!  Here are a few shots of me from last summer in the ruins of a crusader castle in Acre, Israel (where my last Plantagenet ancestor, Joan of Acre, was born).  See any family resemblance?

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In the navy!

Lost in the melee

Lost in the melee

Gored by a crusader, probably a Grandpa.

Gored by a crusader, probably Grandpa Rob.