Night Flight

Flight from Boston to DC

On Friday night I flew from Boston to Washington, DC. It was a short flight and we were either flying low or the sky was unusually clear, perhaps both. We could see New York quite clearly and then Philadelphia and Baltimore. Coming toward DC, the view was was amazing. There’s a sweet spot for this, when you’re low enough to see the lights below as beautiful, almost abstact patterns — lines and clusters. Fly a little lower, and it’s still beautiful as you start to be able to recognize the patterns as cities and coastline and highways and rivers. A little lower, and it’s less beautiful as you recognize shopping centers and parking lots and traffic.

And then you land and go on your way, becoming part of the pattern of lights on the ground.

Foreign Coins

When I was a little girl, I used to love to rummage around in the drawers of my father’s desk or in various little boxes around the house where there would be random small objects like buttons, which didn’t interest me, and foreign coins, which did. I don’t know where most of these coins came from, other than the ha’pennies my grandmother brought back from a trip home to Scotland. But I loved touching the coins, studying the words and images, feeling the foreignness, dreaming of travel.

Now I have accumulated a lot of foreign coins from my own travels, and they’re completely disorganized, all mixed up and sitting in various small containers. I still like spilling them out, and looking through them, remembering past trips and dreaming of new ones.

Don’t Let Their Memory Fade

Selling Poppies for Remembrance DayIn November, 2000, my daughter Meg and I were in England. I took this picture of an elderly woman selling poppies in front of Bath Cathedral for Remembrance Day, what we call Veterans Day. We saw people selling these poppies everywhere, and we bought and wore them, too.

On Remembrance Day, November 11, we had just boarded a train in London and were still in the station when we heard the announcement that it was 11 AM, and that the country was now observing two minutes of silence. Everyone on the train, staff and passengers alike, immediately stopped what they were doing and remained still for two minutes. It was really quite a beautiful thing.

[Reposted from 2008]

Three Towns I’ve Always Wanted to Visit

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Truth Or Consequences Vintage Post CardIn 1950, the town of Hot Springs renamed itself in honor of the Truth or Consequences radio program when host Ralph Edwards announced he’d broadcast the program from the first town that did so. My mother mentioned this as an amusing bit of trivia once when the show was on television, and this seemed so unlikely I had to go check the almanac to see if this was true. I still wonder who heard this on the radio and managed to talk everyone else into doing this.

Tombstone, Arizona

The Original Wells Fargo Express Office Vintage PostcardGrowing up in the era of TV Westerns, I was familiar with a place called Tombstone, but thought of it as someplace fictional or legendary, like Camelot or Shangri-La. I was around 12 when I realized it was a real place. The name just seemed too awful to be real.

Calexico, California

Business Street Scene PostcardI had heard people sing Mexicali Rose on television and I knew it was supposed to be Mexican because the people singing it were always wearing sombreros. But it was just a song, and the name didn’t catch my attention. But then I heard a contestant on a quiz show say that she was from Calexico, California, right across from Mexicali, Mexico, which delighted me. A pair of border towns with matching, mixed up names! How did such cool thing ever happened — who coordinated that?

The Isle of Bute

Isle of Bute

Ferry to the Isle of ButeLast month I was spent a few days in Scotland and made a quick and unplanned visit to the Isle of Bute. I knew nothing about it except that the train and ferry schedule worked out so that I could make the trip in an afternoon and get back to Glasgow in the evening.

I also remembered a fragment of the song Rothesay Bay from one of the Scottish records my mother used to play when I was growing up. The tune was playing over and over in my head on the ferry ride from Wemyss Bay. Fortunately, it wasn’t a very long ride, because this was all I could remember of the lyrics :

It’s a bonnie bay at morning,
And bonnier at the noon,
But bonniest when the sun draps,
And red comes up the moon

Rothesay Castle MoatBute turned out to be a wonderful place. Within five minutes of landing I was at the Rothesay Castle, which dates back to the 13th Century and is surrounded by a moat. Then I saw the open-top tour bus which circles the island, which turned out to be a great way to see more of the island.

Bute, like the nearby Isle of Arran, is located on the Highland Boundary Fault, which divides Scotland’s rocky Highlands and the fertile, rolling Lowlands, so these islands really are miniature versions of Scotland. I enjoyed sitting on the open upper level of the tour bus, even when it rained a bit. There were only a few passengers and the commentary was friendly and informal. We mostly just enjoyed the beautiful views of fields of cows, sheep and even a few llamas, with misty views of the Firth of Clyde and near and distant islands. I wondered if my Scottish grandparents ever made this trip by train and ferry from Glasgow back around 1917 or so, before they emigrated to America. I like to think they did. I can imagine them taking the train to Wemyss Bay and getting on the ferry and cycling around the island, glad to get away for a day from the crowded tenements of Glasgow.

Isle of ButeI wish I had been able to get off the bus and explore the beautiful island, and to take better pictures than I was able to do from the moving bus. I would love to go back and spend a week (or maybe the rest of my life) on the Isle of Bute. An afternoon there was not enough time, but I’m just glad that I made this unplanned trip and got to see it at all.

Wemyss Bay Railway Station

Wemyss Bay Railway Station
Last month I spent two weeks in Northern Ireland visiting family, and took the ferry over to Scotland to spend a few days of casual exploration, riding around on trains with a “Freedom of Scotland” BritRail pass. I had studied the map and guidebooks and had some ideas of where I wanted to go, but my first day’s trip was completely unplanned. I spent the morning in Glasgow with my daughter and grandson, and saw them off at Glasgow Central Station around noon. The next train out was to Wemyss Bay, and ten minutes of research online showed that it connected to the ferry to Rothesay, which I knew from a song on one of my grandmother’s Scottish records. That was good enough for me, so I headed off to Wemyss Bay.

Wemyss Bay Railway StationThe trip to Wemyss Bay took just under an hour, and was worth the trip just to see the magnificent 1903 station, designed by Scottish architect James Miller (1860–1947.) This marvel of steel beams and glass panels arranged in graceful circles and curves is a Category A Listed Building, considered to be one of the finest railway stations in Scotland. It is supported by the active Friends of Wemyss Bay Station group.

Passage to the FerryI passed through the station in a hurry, heading for the ferry in one direction and then anxious not to miss my train on my return, and I’m sorry that I didn’t even take the time to go outside and photograph the exterior of the building. But someday I hope to visit again, and will definitely plan to spend a longer time exploring and appreciating this beautiful piece of Edwardian railway architecture and history.

Google Books for Family History

I just returned from a trip to the United Kingdom. Most of my time was spent in Northern Ireland visiting my new grandson and his parents, but I also took the ferry over to Scotland and spent a few days riding around on trains. My mother’s parents came from Scotland and I grew up listening to tales of Robert the Bruce, poems by Robert Burns and music by Harry Lauder. My grandmother rarely referred to it as Scotland, it was always the Old Country (actually the Auld Country) and that’s how I have always thought of it.

In recent years, I feel like I have spent a lot of time in Auld Scotland, in a way. I have been researching my grandparents’ lives and our family history, tracking down documents on and Scotland’s People, finding images on Scran and specialty sites like Scottish Mining Website.

But whether I am looking clues to help straighten out a genealogical point or just trying to learn more about the specific places where my family members lived, the work they did and their homes, historical events that affected them and their everyday lives, I have found the digitized old public domain books work from Google Books. There are so many available and they’re so searchable. I can search the whole Google Books collection and find a personal or place mentioned in one or two books; I can search just the books I have saved to my own collection or I can search within a particular book. There are also tools for linking, clipping, and embedding the books, like the one at the bottom of this post. These books can also be downloaded in various formats which makes it easy to carry them around when I travel, very useful when I am trying to superimpose the past on the present.

Here are a few of my favorites from my Google Books Scotland collection :

My grandfather’s family came from Ayrshire, and I found this school geography book particularly useful. The travel books cover the cities and scenic places in the countryside, but skip over the small mining communities where my relatives lived. This book lists all the towns and villages in Ayrshire with population, and has lists of industries and mining operations associated with each place, railroad lines, etc., which is very helpful in understanding the economic environment of the places where my family lived.

Glimpses of Glasgow

2 Matilda Road, Glasgow, Scotland

I’m going to the UK on Friday, mostly to Belfast, but I’ll be spending a little time in Glasgow and flying home from there. I’ve never been to Glasgow but it’s an important place in my family history. The Ross sisters — my grandmother Agnes and my great aunts Jean, Kate and Lizzie — grew up there, so I grew up hearing about it. My grandfather’s mother was a live-in servant there, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother in Ayrshire, but when he grew up he came here and met and married my grandmother. I’ve always thought of it as our family’s Scottish hometown. The Rosses originally came from Aberdeen and the Rennies came from Ayrshire, but they all ended up in Glasgow and that’s where they all lived before coming to America.

I have been cruising around the streets of Glasgow on Google Streetview, visiting all the addresses I know from census records and marriage certificates. Same streets where my grandparents walked, just 100 or so years later. I find these images haunting in their very ordinariness. I look at them, and half expect them to fade into historic photos, and to catch a glimpse of my ancestors rushing along, late for dinner.

How amazing it is to have Google Streetview and be able to see specific streets and places that might not otherwise be photographed! And how amazing it is to have Flickr, Panoramio and so many other sites with photographs of everyplace you can imagine. For this trip, I have particularly enjoyed browsing around Geograph Britain and Ireland, a project that aims to collect geographically representative photographs for every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland.

Off to explore some more…


Acquaviva delle Fonti

Acquaviva delle Fonti

Last week I celebrated my birthday in Italy with my daughters. We spent a few days in the Puglia region, where both of my father’s parents came from, and on Tuesday we took the train from Bari and spent an afternoon in this town, the birthplace of my grandfather, Luigi Giuseppe Balestracci (1892-1972).

We didn’t do any of the things you might expect me to do — track down relatives, go to the cemetery and find the graves of my great grandparents, or even just to make a decent tour and photographic survey of the town. I didn’t want to do any of that, not this trip, anyway. My only goal was to be there, to know what it was like to get off the train and know that I was actually there in Acquaviva delle Fonti, Fountain of the Living Water, a magical place name that’s lived in my imagination for as long as I can remember.

It was a gray and overcast day, threatening rain when we got off the train. I had the irrational notion that we’d step off the train and find ourselves in 1911, the year my grandfather left for America, and that gaily dressed Italian peasants would be dancing around the fountain singing folksongs. Or that my unknown relatives, the descendants of my grandfather’s brother Domenico, would just happen to be strolling by the train station and would see me and instantly recognize me as one of them. But none of that happened…we just got off the train and aimlessly wandered around town for a while. It felt good to be there, and to see the ordinariness of the town. I wondered what my grandfather would think of me bringing his adult great granddaughers, born after he died, to his hometown. It was nice, but I still wanted a little more.

Jean, Lucrezia, Luigi, Oseo and Betty BalestracciHeading back to the train station, we passed a restaurant and decided to stop for a late lunch. We walked in and the first thing I saw was a dark wooden cabinet with glass doors, holding wine glasses. It looked a lot like the one in my grandparents’ dining room, seen in the background of the photo on the right. And on the wall was a landscape framed in a distinctive thick oval wooden frame, just like the frame that held photographs of my great-grandparents in my grandparents’ house. I know these aren’t really amazing coincidences, but these familiar objects made me feel more connected.

Acquaviva delle FontiThe waitress was friendly and patient with our limited Italian, and the food and wine were great. We had a good time sitting there, enjoying the food and conversation, and I decided that although I miss my parents and grandparents and honor their memories, it’s better to live in the present and appreciate spending time with the living members of my family!

Chatham County Courthouse: Pittsboro, North Carolina

Confederate Memorial, Chatham County Courthouse, Pittsboro, North Carolina

Tonight a Flickr member posted this comment on my photo of the Chatham County Courthouse: “I will miss this building terribly.” Miss it? Was he moving away, perhaps? Surely they weren’t planning to demolish it? I looked at my statistics and saw that I had gotten a spike in views on this picture this evening, and wondered what was going on. A quick search have me the answer: this building was seriously damaged in a fire today. A sad thing. I hate the fact that nearly every article about the fire at this 1881 building mention its role in the John Edwards sex tape dispute. It shouldn’t be remembered that way.

When I talk about why I take so many photographs of buildings and want everyone else to do the same, I always say, “It could burn down tonight! It could be gone tomorrow and then all we’d have is photographs.” Which is true, but then when buildings I’ve photographed happen to burn down, I have a small, irrational feeling that maybe I caused it.

I remember taking this picture. I was visiting my daughter and her boyfriend (now husband) in North Carolina and we drove out to Pittsboro for lunch and spent some time poking around in the shops. It was a cool, damp, overcast day, but I was happy to be in the South and away from the New England weather. We were getting back in the car and I stopped for a minute to take this picture. Not an especially good picture, but good enough to remember the building and remind me of a very nice day. And now it’s gone.

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