DNA unions

I recently received the results of a DNA test and was amazed — and not so surprised — by the results.
My ancestors were evidently very efficient at birthing young ‘uns. I have at least 596 fourth cousins who have also taken the test.Goodness only knows how many haven’t — yet! Imagine if we all gathered for a family reunion! Would we discover traits in common with each other such as looking at life through blue eyes rimmed with green?
My ethnic roots are primarily planted in Western Europe and Ireland/Great Britain. Germany, France, Switzerland and Ireland and England and Scotland).
The tests show I have a smattering of Scandinavian (is that why I love snow?) and Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal with a possible ancient link to North Africa).
Oh and there’s a wee peppering of Finland/Northwest Russia. Think reindeer!
Ironically, those countries’ inhabitants haven’t always gotten along — fighting wars and struggling to hammer out peace accords in the past.
And here I am — thanks to my ancestors — a walking genetic European Union. No br-exiting allowed.
The quest for discovering the genetic side of me is intriguing. Definitely knowing these facts doesn’t replace the current family connections. The need for quality time with loved ones!
However, today I am more rooted in the world community.
–Mary Louise Van Dyke (C) 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Shaking off inflammatory learned behaviors

When I was a kid, I behaved like a kid. Ornery when dealing with what I thought of as in-my-face siblings. Shriveling internally when getting called names by some classmates who specialized in bullying. Ducking behind behind the covers of a book when life just got too overwhelming – which it seemed to do on a regular basis.

From those situations, emerged what I call “learned behaviors.”

You know, those inflamed automated responses that crop up. Such as sputtering “Shut up!” when discussing how much firewood I was allowed to use on a recent camp out. My next-in-line-to-me sibling was in charge of fire operations.

I stalked back to my tent. Brooded, growled and chewed over what I wanted to say. Versus how I should behave especially with younger family members watching. I located him later and scraped out an apology for the heated words. But not for how I felt about his assertion of being da boss. That – that part of him will never change so I need to accept that reality.

A few weeks ago my boss micro-managed a project. I understood they wanted a certain result – okay. However, the way they communicated their expectations, left me feeling like a first grader who’s struggling to figure out what C – A – T spells.

I’m still trying to figure out a pleasant and professional way to shape my response to that situation. One with using my “I” words versus the more inflammatory “you” words.

Yeah. Good luck to me on that one.

And of course there are other situations that trigger the learned behaviors of earlier adult years. For example, sharing a meal with a 20-something offspring – and wanting to spill out reams of parenting advice on how they could shape their lives into my image of success.

My” or “their” image? Hmm. I bit back the words that hovered on the tip of my tongue. Told myself, “hey, cupcake, this isn’t your life.” It’s tough. But all those lovely “how-to’s” and “you should do’s” need to be shared sparingly. Sometimes not at all, unless the object of my concern looks at me and says, “Mom, what do you think?”

Basically, shaping the responses that keep the doors of communication open calls for a lot of thinking.

In some ways, I think I’m making progress. Although I’d better be careful about saying that too loudly or life (karma?) will bonk me royally over the head.

My mother and I have survived nearly two years of life together under the same roof. Because her health issues, she needs quiet and simplicity. I am learning to clamp down on my tendency to overly explain myself. Inserting pauses that allow her to gather her thoughts. Knowing when to fill in the words she is struggling to say – and when to voice solutions that work for her.

So, I’m working to scrap off the old triggers and examine more thoughtfully what is happening between me and others. One event at a time.

© 2017 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved. The writer can be contacted at marylvandyke03@gmail.com.

Remembering the aunts

I am feeling the awkward tug of time as I realize I have one aunt left who is alive.
True, this is a reality for those of us who dwell in the middle years. Elderly relatives drawing breath a final time as they depart on their forever journeys.
Similar to Frodo and his uncle Bilbo’s leaving behind their home in Middle Earth In Lord of the Rings and setting sail for the Grey Havens and eternal rest.
His friends Sam, Merry and Pip are left to mourn and remember, and continue on with their lives.
Aunt Connie
I am experiencing those shadows with the passing of the last aunt from my dad’s family. While feeling quiet joy at being newly reconnected, via FaceBook, with my mother’s only sister.
Last night I spent the wee hours, mulling over my aunts’ influence on my life. Each was mother to several children, two all-male clans, and the third and four to families of all daughters.
Being aunt must have been sliced in between those realities. For the most, part our interactions were limited to “hello’s” and “may I’s” when visiting their homes and playing with cousins.
But there were a few longer visits. What stands out even now were the books they kept at their homes, wandering through the woods, and berry-picking.
The only time I ever got lost was during a long visit to my maternal aunt when I was 9. My parents were away on a trip of reconciliation (that didn’t last long) and my cousins and I lugged “home” buckets of blackberries to be made into pies. A fragile, brown-covered book drew me into the saintly world of a little girl from the past.
The large woods close to their house beckoned and I decided to go on a walk there one afternoon. No cousins or brothers allowed. I soon found myself in shadowy, unfamiliar territory, and getting lost. Was that tree with its gnarled trunk familiar? Where did that path lead?
My woods at home was spread out over a hill.Up meant home. Down meant wandering territory.
These trees of huge pines, oaks, and alder spread out over a single level and those clues didn’t mean anything. It seemed like hours before I finally spied a familiar landmark and reached my aunt’s home and safety.
The other aunt I was closest to lived in the country and I gladly plunged into the role of “country girl.” on visits. My aunt must have chuckled at my early risings to mend torn linen dish towels with a needle and thread. Haul wood in for the wood stove. Feed the turkeys named Thanksgiving and Christmas and go through the woods to gather berries and view the wild mountain fed river that marked the far edge of their property.
I renewed my relationship with her in my early adult years, sad that a long-term illness confined her to her apartment. Her resilient spirit stayed upright, and her willingness to try the too crisp cookies baked by a little girl. Dunkers, she called those cookies.
There was never enough time for long visits in the final years — a fact that still frustrates me — but she is forever so close in my heart.
I so miss her. I miss each aunt in quiet ways. And I am happy to have this opportunity to relink with my last aunt before she is called away. . . .
(C) 2017 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.

November train wreck

Oh November. What a train wreck you proved to be!

I switched my calendar to you, November, with glowing bright ambitions to complete writing a novel in one month. Struggling to hope that somewhere out there was an affordable home meant to be mine. Content to be a caregiver during long weekend shifts and to chill out in my room during my off-hours.

Well, November, you had other plans for me. Smashingly, derailing plans as I discovered.


The writing contest I was participating in dared me to write 50,000 words in one month, or approximately 1,667 words a day to meet the goal. That’s a lot of words – and a lot of energy.

But I felt up for it. Hungered for it. Time to reclaim my inner novelist.

Well I made my start, kept on track for the first week or so. But then my mother got sick suddenly and couldn’t walk or manage life details without needing my assistance.

I had to stop. Focus on her needs.

I should have been more prepared for that, I suppose. Part of middle age is reluctantly giving up the illusion that ones’ elderly parents are hearty, and will remain healthy and be around for a long time to come.

But November, you definitely slammed that illusion. Each of my parents has health challenges. My dad struggling to recover from bypass surgery. Mom and mobility challenges – and well, having her associated life issues popping up.

Holing up in my room and staying on track with my writing wasn’t possible.

So I learned Mom prefers drinking water that isn’t hot or cold. Found myself sitting with her in waiting rooms, hoping medical staff would call mom’s name soon. Wheeling her down corridors to the examination rooms.

At home time was spiked by health care workers knocking on the front door. Sitting down with them to discuss the details of mom’s illness and how to make life more accessible for her.

I told them while I play a role in her recovery and ongoing health concerns, I want to be my mother’s daughter. Not a paid caregiver for her.

I’m still unclear on where the boundaries between those two are.

Even with December here now, there’s still so much to do. Paperwork for a caregiver program for which thankfully she qualifies. Getting a walker for mom to use – even while I fear she probably won’t use it much – and it will sit in a corner of the already overcrowded living room. Perhaps she’ll use it to hold  bags of groceries yet to be eaten or drape it with scarves she might wear some day.

The novelist inside me is stirring. Visions of characters and the next chapter to write  simmering. Waiting to emerge as my energy grows to encompass the newest realities of my mother’s life – and of mine. No home of my own for now.

So November, no, you don’t get the final word. But I cannot say I will remember you fondly.

© 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint go to: m.vandyke_speer@yahoo.com

Parental concerns

Highs and lows. This past month has conjured up  both extremes on the parental front.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my elderly dad’s quintuple bypass surgery. It was a very difficult surgery for him, followed by a second operation to stop internal bleeding, and since then he’s been back to the hospital again. And is home now, hopefully with no more complications.

This week spilled out fresh challenges (no, I’m not talking about our elections). No, this time occurred Wednesday with a soft knock on my door and Mom saying she was experiencing numbness in her legs and feet.

“All right, we need to go see your doctor. Today.” I said.

Mom refused. Nope. Seeing her doctor would cost money. I phoned Medicare to verify her coverage with them and the fact that she’d satisfied her medical deductions. It took a few minutes even then to reassure her that it was safe to go.

The coin flipped when I called the doctor’s office and asked for an appointment. Upon hearing mom’s symptoms, the nurse told me to get her to the Emergency Room. Fortunately my sister was with us through a very long afternoon of waiting to be seen, tests and more tests, and finally the news that mom had neuralgia, meaning an intense nerve pain in her lower joints and feet.

An E.R. nurse advised Mom to begin wearing warmer socks to help circulation in her feet, instead of her usual nylons and delicate shoes. “I can’t do that, none of my shoes will fit,” Mom protested.

I wanted to laugh, to groan at the same time at her determined expression. We will see her doctor next week and hopefully the cause of the pain can be identified.  Possible medications include pain killers and topical creams. However, Mom won’t use a topical cream, because it’s a sticky substance and would “ruin” her nylons and shoes.

So it will be my role to advise the doctor of that particular concern. And to make sure the office has my name and phone number as the contact person. They called mom the day after her E.R. visit, and she lost the notes (taken during the call)  in her piles of “must keep papers.”

All of this is concerning and draining. Somewhere between the parental concerns, I’m scraping together enough energy to forge on, for my two “paid” caregiving jobs and for writing, and staying sane.

Wish me luck..

(C) 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.

Parental Acceptance



Have you ever sat in a motorboat plunging through choppy water? Fingers clinging to the seat’s edge. Water spraying as the bow bucks and plunges.

That’s how the last few days have been ever since getting a call from my middle brother on Saturday. Our father was in the hospital, after experiencing a heart attack, and scheduled for bypass surgery.




The news rocked me. Dad was dealing with cancer and now this, and I couldn’t travel to be with him. He’s thousands of miles away – and my bank account won’t allow for the journey.

That huge distance – and gap of many years since our last visit — made me feel horribly disconnected from my father and his life.  The waves of our relationship have remained consistent through my adult years. Turbulence sparked by life decisions I’ve made and opposed by Dad.  And conversely decisions he’s made, (especially with relationships) that I’ve opposed.

Once or twice we’ve forged a peaceful accord — and then one of us – is, well, ourselves again.

I attempted to sever the relationship at one point, reasoning, wasn’t it better to: Ignore all the questions that had no answers?  Focus on the positive relationships and aspects of my life?

My mental brick wall stayed intact for a time. However, I abandoned it after discovering Dad had cancer. The two of us cried on the phone during what we thought would be a final conversation.

It wasn’t.  Since then we seemed closer for a time before  getting tangled up again. Bottom line, I am his daughter. But striking a lasting peace accord with him and he with me – that is a harder shore to reach. I am struggling to do so by looking at the man he is now.

Battling for his life and realizing he is a fighter. Not a quitter.

I recently learned Dad is the primary caregiver for his wife. That news surprised me – and provided a welcome insight into who he is today. He loves her, in the realest of ways.

Dad is pleased with me now that I am employed. He wasn’t happy with me, a few years ago when he learned I was attending college to pursue a degree. Was he worried that I couldn’t support myself — and isn’t that valid?

In the end, for me, it comes down to my accepting who he is and staying focused on where we can find common ground. 

I love him – and he loves me in his own way.

© 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.

Questions I should have asked

Have you ever wondered about all the questions you wish you would have asked?

As a child, I was known for foraging out details about the past, especially from the grandmother who lived nearby. From her I developed a romanticized picture of life on a Canadian homestead.

So why didn’t I do the same with my other grandmother, Dolly? But she lived over 2,000 miles away, and contact was limited to long distance phone calls, letters, and large-scale family visits where everyone was trying to catch up. Perhaps my reticence was due to the fact that her house was the old-timey real deal with an antique secretary desk in the parlor. I refashioned myself as the heroine of the story during a summer visit when I was 10.auntie-auntie-lillian-grandma-and-grandpa-vd-001

My final visit with Grandma Dolly occurred a decade later. She was in a nursing home and the black-Sunday-hat-wearing grandma was faded along with her memories. She seemed happy to see me but unable to answer any questions I might have asked. Such as why had her mother named her Dolly? Who taught Dolly how to make double-headed dolls (one head at either end) –where a tug of the long skirt would cover one head and reveal the other?

Grandma Dolly passed away in 1994, those details seemingly buried with her. Deep in raising my children and working as a reporter, I couldn’t make it to her funeral.

My passion for history lured me into co-publishing several history books. During the research process I learned how to access valuable bits of history from old newspapers. Those same newspapers often featured gossipy bits of news where Mrs. So-and-So entertained visitors from out-of-town. Entertaining but trivial.

So I thought.

I changed my mind recently after hitting a dead end in family research. Birth and death dates and census details provide a skeletal understanding of an ancestor’s life. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to go back in time and ask Grandma Dolly those questions now. What was her life like as a young woman, mother?

My dad and a distant cousin recommended that I hunt for a 1926 newspaper account about the double wedding of Dolly’s sisters-in-law. While scrolling through the newspapers, I noticed there were those little gossipy bits – and oh wait. There was my grandmother’s name – and other family members.

All of a sudden those short news bits – anchored with the skeletal details – flung open the entryway to seeing Dolly Van Dyke as more than just grandma. My grandfather was her second husband. I learned her first husband died of typhoid, leaving Dolly widowed with a small daughter to raise. How desperate she must have felt then!

I smiled as I found a news clipping about Dolly and my grandfather getting married in a quiet ceremony at their minister’s home. A fresh beginning for her – and happiness ahead.

A newspaper clipping, dated three days later, showed differently. The new bride had been called away to a distant city because of the serious illness of a relative. Evidently the visit wasn’t over quickly. The 1925 New York state census shows Grandma living in two places, one with her husband, and also at her parents’ home while she apparently nursed the relative.

Seriously? There wasn’t anyone else capable of nursing or overseeing the housekeeping details?

News clippings from the 1930’s and 40’s show Dolly and my grandfather raising the firstborn daughter and having four children together. Church life was important to them and Grandma accepted the position as head of the church nursery between giving birth to her two youngest sons who included my dad.

Grandma’s heart certainly shattered when their oldest son ran away at age 13. Fortunately the police would locate and brought him home. She would send her second oldest daughter off to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and struggle to keep her family fed and clothed while using the rationing cards of World War II.

Somewhere along the way she developed her skills for stitching patchwork quilts and double-headed dolls and shared her family pride with the old fashioned photographs and antiques displayed in the parlor.

These details, combined with the few letters I have of hers, show me who Dolly was, a real person who faced tough life challenges and despaired over and hoped the best for her children’s futures, and – who passed her love of the past to me.

It is a legacy that I relish.

© 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved.

Living in a shrine

I live in a shrine.

Not a place of religious significance, mind you. However, the purpose of my bedroom (contained in my mother’s condo) is not primarily for my comfort or storing of my belongings.

Rather my chamber is the repository of Mom’s quest for family past. Artistically printed family trees, copies of censuses and birth certificates, and details scribbled onto the backs of envelopes.

generic family tree

These collections, stacked in wooden family plots, claim the place of honor. (Note – the sarcophagi are usually referred to as dresser drawers.) Hard-to-unearth documents are stored away from light and exposure. Rules of the shrine are housed in concrete. There must be no crumpling, no gouging, no accidental tearing, or bearing of too much weight for these precious glimpses of the past.

Which means my clothing is stored in a cardboard box, closet and the two small desk drawers I dared to claim.

For Mom, it wasn’t enough to simply trace the lines that belonged to her dad and mom back a few generations and call the efforts good. The whitened bones of my extensive family’s past feature William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda, many relatives who farmed and raised their children in rural England and the United States, the few daring souls who set off on a hazardous journey to the new world.

Mom diligently researched on, even when her dad asked why wasn’t it enough to focus on the family of today. The quest took her to genealogical centers and historical libraries and long sessions on her personal computer.

It awes me to think of all my mother has done to achieve this collection. I see the shadows in printed copies of email conversations with other researchers of the past. Letters from distant cousins she never met in person.

A wonderful collection of finds but one that makes me cringe at times. So many of these documents lay forgotten before my siblings and I tackled helping mom clean and organize the condo last summer.

I volunteered to categorize the papers by family, a task that boggled my mind when trying to connect the different names. Who were the Schlossers, for example, and were they connected to the Rileys?

The task was finally completed and I loaded files into the dresser drawers – carefully, carefully – under mom’s vigilant eye.

My mother’s quest appears complete for now. Labels adorn the outside of the drawers so she can easily find the families. The hours for the local LDS genealogy center are displayed on the refrigerator.

Has she completed her voyage of genealogical discoveries? I wonder?

It will be up to me to someday bring these bones of the past to life in a book.

To interpret (as much as possible) what happened with key relatives such as the (2x) great grandfather who was taken prisoner-of-war during the Civil War.

To ensure my mother’s life’s work is preserved and passed onto siblings, to cousins, to our children.

© 2016 by Mary Louise Van Dyke. All Rights Reserved