How Did Your Ancestors Celebrate Christmas?

Christmas, one song tells us, is the most wonderful time of the year. There are sparkling lights and elves in red tights, glistening snow and hearts all aglow, candies galore and gifts from the store, and finallyLooking at dolls, good will and good cheer and twelve dancing reindeer. It’s a time of beauty, joy, reverence, camaraderie, and all those fruit cakes.

There are so many traditions! We bring evergreen trees into the house to string them with lights and wrap them with garland. We put pretty presents under the tree. We hang mistletoe, ring bells, put up stockings, give out candy canes, decorate in red and green, adorn the mantle with holly, hang wreaths on the door, toss down some eggnog, and wait until Christmas morning to see what Santa Claus brought us.

christmas-stocking-for-you-english-schoolBut did you ever stop to wonder where all these traditions come from? How our ancestors celebrated Christmas? Not just our grand- and great-grandparents, but those ancestors who came many hundreds of years ago and more. Did they go caroling? Did they make gingerbread houses? Did they hang stockings from the mantel? And why did there always seem to be an orange in my stocking?

For most of us the origins of our Christmas traditions are long lost. We don’t remember their origins, if we ever knew. We perform the same rituals as our parents because they are nostalgic; they make us feel warm and fuzzy, like we are carrying on something important that links us to our families and the happy times growing up.

One family I read about long ago always cut their Christmas ham in half before placing it in the oven. A grown daughter of the family, baking her first Christmas dinner, asked her mother why they cut the ham in half. Christmas dinnerThe mother answered that it was because her mother always did. So the young woman asked her elderly grandmother, who replied that it was because when she was a young wife her oven was too small to hold the entire ham uncut. I assume this was the end of that particular holiday tradition.

As Christmas dinner goes, turkey is a more traditional choice than ham in England and America. Though turkeys were once only found in North America, it’s said that wealthy families of Victorian England started the tradition of the Christmas turkey, an imported bird too rare at that time for the common people to afford. Middle class families then settled for goose. Of course, for Americans the wild turkey was plentiful, sealing its fate as Christmas dinner.

And what would Christmas be without the evergreen tree, brought indoors and wrapped with garland, strung with lights, hung with beautiful, glittering ornaments and draped in icicles? Icicles may be fading into history as people have less messy options today, but the decorated tree remains much as it has Christmas familybeen since being first introduced in fifteenth century Germany, where trees were hung with apples, nuts, and baked goods. Even that date is simply when Christians adopted the tradition from much earlier pagan religions.

Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in the home to symbolize everlasting life. A text from 1604 says that the inhabitants of Strasburg in Germany “set up fir trees in the parlors…and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.”  Tinsel was added to their trees around 1610, and were made of real silver.

Legend says that Martin Luther was the first to decorate trees for Christmas. He supposedly was walking through snow-covered woods on a moon-lit night and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens, their icy branches shimmering in european-pagan-santathe moonlight. He got the idea to bring a small fir tree into his home, decorating it with candles lighted in honor of Christ’s birth. It’s a beautiful legend, but there is no evidence that it is true.

As far back as ancient Egypt, Rome, China, and Palestine, the winter solstice was celebrated by bringing evergreens into the home and decorating them. It was believed that without such celebrations to each culture’s gods and spirits, the spring may not come. Romans decorated their boughs with lights and wore crowns of holly or exchanged holly wreaths, symbols of victory over death and darkness.

In Europe, the Druids brought evergreens inside so that the woodland spirits and fairies would have someplace warm to sleep during the long winters. The Druids also hung sprigs of holly and mistletoe indoors to ward off spirits that lurked during the dark winter Wreath paganmonths. Holly, with its fresh green leaves and bright berries, symbolized growth and fertility, the hope and reminder of renewal in the springtime to come.

Mistletoe was cut by Druid priests from oak trees, their sprigs then hung over doorways to protect against thunder, lightning, and other evils. The Greeks, Norse, and Babylonians also ascribed magical powers to mistletoe, associating it with love and fertility. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that it made its way to our Christmas celebration of Christmas, in Victorian England, as an invitation to kiss. No one knows exactly why.

But the use of evergreens is not the only bit of symbolism to transcend from paganism to Christianity. Bells, too, were first used by pagan priests to drive out evil spirits, as were candles, which were said to drive away the forces of cold and darkness.

Red and greenThe traditional colors of red and green, one the opposite of the other on our modern color wheel, represented male and female, fertility and incubation. Candy, it is said, was first given out as a way to keep children quiet during religious services.

And the tradition of giving fruit cakes dates to ancient Rome, where the people exchanged cakes made with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed with barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added. (I think I still have one of the first fruitcakes ever made.)

The Scandinavians made wreaths with candles to light the winter night as a sign of hope for the future light of spring. They believed the wreath would delight the god of light and move him to turn the world towards the sun once more.

Pagans in the British Isles, too, featured wreaths in their festivals, placing four candles on the wreath to represent the elements of earth, wind, water, and fire. Rituals performed with the wreaths were believed to ensure the continuance of the circle of life.

ConstantineBut how did those practices make it to Christianity? The Roman Empire didn’t at first take to the young religion. They burned some Christians, threw others to the lions, and persecuted any they could find. But then came Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome.

He was canny, and knew that his people would not easily give up their raucous winter festivals, especially Saturnalia and the birth of Mithra. So Constantine took traditions from these festivals and merged them with the Nativity story, and thus was the celebration of Christmas born roughly 300 years after Christ’s actual birth.

He didn’t annex all the pagan traditions, though. The poet Lucian of Samosata, who lived around 150 years after the time of Christ, has the god Saturn say about Saturnalia, in his poem of that name:Saturnalia

“During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, those practices did not make it into Christianity. In fact, some of our most cherished Christmas traditions were banned at various times and places through our two thousand years of Christian history. Christmas trees were banned in all Christian denominations until relatively recently, as was the singing of Christmas carols.

CarolersThe word “carol” comes from the Greek word “choros” meaning “a band of singers and dancers.” From ancient times songs were sung during winter festivals, but the medieval Christian church did not approve, and in 1290 the Council at Avignon actually banned the singing of carols.

Not to be deterred, carolers took their songs to the street and went door to door to spread their good cheer. A ban was again placed by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan lord protector of England. Anyone caught singing carols was at risk of being accused of witchcraft.

In fact, in early America Christmas was not celebrated. The Puritans considered such celebrations no better than pagan rituals. Puritan Christmas banWilliam Bradford, Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, even outlawed the celebration of Christmas, ordering Puritans taking the day off back to work.

Still, our desire to lighten the darkest days of winter with logs, candles, holly, mistletoe, and evergreens time and again prove stronger than any customs against them.

As for the orange in the Christmas stocking, hung by the chimney with care, there is a long history for that as well. It starts with Nicholas, who was born in the year 270 in a part of the Roman Empire that is now part of Turkey, and who was later made a saint, St. Nicholas. St Nicholas orangesHe was a generous man and liked to give anonymous gifts. Once, the legend goes, he heard of a man so poor that he could not afford a dowry for his three daughters, which meant the girls would have no prospects for marriage. Nicholas secretly threw three balls of gold into the family’s window one night near Christmas, landing in the girls’ stockings, hung by the fire to dry. And so as a child I received an orange in my stocking, along with nuts, candy, and small toys.

Whatever your holiday tradition, there is a reason for it, and the reason no doubt dates to long ago, even to the days before Christ walked the earth, for we have always been a reverent people, steeped in ritual and tied to the ways of the past, whether or not we understand the reason for those rituals.

I didn’t address purely Christian symbols in this essay. That is a rich topic which I will leave to another time, perhaps Easter.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to one and all!Merry Christmas

 

 

 

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The Winter Solstice and Christmas: From Sun to Son

Imagine yourself as fresh to the world as Adam or Eve. What a wondrous place you inhabit, full of beauty and mystery. Like a child, you wander free, examining every thing, curious about every leaf and insect, rock and rivulet. But the insect bites you, and it hurts. You want to know why it did that, and lacking any other explanation, you decide it must be angry. Then it rains, and you are drenched and cold. Jupiter god of weatherYou don’t know why that happened, and so decide the skies must be angry.

And then the leaves begin to fall off the trees, and they keep falling, day by day, until none are left. Your world is becoming colder, darker. The sun sinks lower into the horizon every day. Whatever or whoever is behind this, you think, must be in a very bad mood. Nothing else could explain it.

As the light fades a little faster each day, you become afraid. What if the sun goes away altogether, leaving you in darkness? Will the sun come back? How can you make the sun come back? Please come back!

For those who lived before astronomy, mathematics, and physics came to explain nature’s secrets, the world was beguiling, unpredictable, and often frightening. There were no scientific explanations for the movements of the sun or the turning of the seasons. Weather patterns that change day to day often seemed fickle, without pattern or reason. And so the people ascribed those acts to gods who had human-like moods and tempers. Nothing else could explain nature’s behavior.

What we take for granted about the natural world today was not yet known. That the earth, for instance, circles the sun, held in orbit by powerful gravity. Apollo sun godOr that the seasons are determined by the sun’s position relative to earth. The sun, we know, grows weaker in the winter and stronger in the summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere because of the tilt of the earth’s axis.

But early cultures did not know these things. They lived at the mercy of nature. And so they created religions that sought to erase the unknown and give their followers a sense of control over their world by creating gods that ruled these otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena.

Lacking scientific reasons to inform them why the sun comes up and goes down each day, or why the rains suddenly cease and the lands dry up, the people decided that gods were behind these acts of nature. When gods were happy nature cooperated with the needs of man. When the gods were angry people might starve.

Zeus, supreme god of the Greeks, threw thunder bolts when angry. He changed the seasons and shaped the weather according to his temper.Gefjun The Germanic Goddess Gefjun plowed the land and brought abundance and prosperity. Apollo, god of sun and light, drew his chariot across the sky by a team of celestial horses, driving the sun in its course.

These beliefs created order in the people’s worlds, if not always predictability. They could create more predictability, they thought, and better design nature to their needs, if they pleased the gods. And so they prayed and created elaborate rituals and festivals to honor the gods.

Across nearly every culture one of the most important deities was the god of light and sun. The sun ruled their worlds, and so the people took effort to worship and placate their sun gods. The winter solstice was perhaps the most important celebration, the time when the sun no longer sank into a lower arch every day and instead began to rise again, winter’s light no longer growing shorter every day, but lengthening into spring and then summer. Only then did they know their gods were happy and that the days would not continue to shorten until there was only darkness.

But they could not trust that the solstice would always return. They knew their gods were fickle. And so when the days of fall shortened into winter, after the harvests were in and the leaves fallen from the trees, when the cold crept into living spaces and clouds obscured the sun, people of ancient times called up their gods and spirits to ensure spring’s safe return. The sheer power of their rituals, they believed, could miraculously transform gathering dark into lengthening light. Sol invictus

The day of their rituals, the day when the sun started its rise up the horizon once more, fell and still falls, depending on positions of the planets, between December 20 and 23 every year in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day, the winter solstice, people from the North — ancient Rome, Scandinavia, Persia, Germany, China, North America — celebrated the sun’s new path higher into the sky.

On the solstice the sun halts its southward journey, pauses for a moment, and then starts moving northward. The Scandinavian and British people gave the name Yuletide to their winter solstice celebrations. “Yule” means “wheel” or “whole,” and “tide” means “time.” Yuletide, then, is the time of wholeness, or holiness. Germanic people called the solstice “weihnachten,” which means “the holy nights.” For them, and for the earth, it was a time of deep rest. A time of peace and reverence. The old year ends, its journey complete, its duties fulfilled. Now the sun can begin its journey up the sky again, bringing new birth, new life.

In some cultures it was a day of of feasting, merrymaking, and exchanging gifts. In others it was a day for quiet and reflection. In Scandinavia the people lit giant bonfires that symbolized the birth of the light of life, afterwards bringing into their great halls the yule log to burn during the twelve days of holy time. They brought “trees of life” into their homes and placed a star at the top to represent the light of life.

SaturnaliaIn Rome master and servant switched roles, the master serving the servant. The Romans lit candles and brought evergreens into their homes. Their festival, called Saturnalia, led right into Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, which was celebrated with a solemn festival of lights on December 25.

How easy it was for Christianity to assume that date to celebrate Christ’s birth, exchanging worship of the sun for worship of the Son! Many, maybe most Christian scholars believe this theory to be true. Indeed, no less than the Catholic Encyclopedia flat out says: “The true birth date of Christ is unknown.” And Catholic World states clearly,

No one supposes or has ever supposed that [December 25] was His actual birthday.”

As for the origin of December 25 as the day of celebrating Christ’s birth, Catholic Encyclopeida goes on to say,

“The same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.”

Which means that both worshipers of the sun and worshipers of Christ believed the winter solstice, and particularly the sun’s birth day, was a fitting time to worship and celebrate, in once case the Sun, in the other, the Son.rohden_franz_von_gerburt_christi_2

The Bible does not mention the date of Christ’s birth, and gives few clues. What clues there are tend to point against December 25 as the date of the blessed event. What’s more, since celebration of birthdays was considered a pagan practice by early Christians, no mention at all is made in early Christian texts of celebrations honoring the birth of Christ. One early scholar even mocks Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, calling them pagan practices.

It wasn’t until more than three hundred years after the birth of Christ that the first Christmas celebration was recorded, in a text written by an Egyptian teacher far from Judea. It was the time of Constantine, Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Constantine had been a worshiper of the sun god Apollo, but on the day before a key battle he had a vision of a bright cross inscribed with the words, “hoc signo vince,” meaning, “in this sign conquer.” Jesus appeared to him in a dream that night telling Constantine to use the cross on his war flag.

Thus began the reign of the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, which spread under his rule from western Asia to Britain, Constantine and crossencompassing cultures that had been in battle with each other for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

To maintain his grip on the Empire Constantine needed to ensure peace among these former enemies. He would do it, he decided, through Christianity, and so began his crusade to spread the Gospel far and wide.

That included issuing an edict granting everyone in the empire the freedom to practice their religion, followed by a second edict proclaiming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. He did this not out of piety, but out of political ambition, wishing to spread peace throughout his empire through the word of the Gospel, and to expand his empire through Christianity’s growth. In fact, Constantine was something less than pious, even having his wife and son murdered because he feared their treachery, and persuading his people to adopt Christianity under threat of death.

Priests, too, had their roles, one of which was to convert the masses of pagan idolaters to Christianity. One tactic they used was to superimpose Christianity over existing pagan holidays, including the festival of the winter solstice, Saturnalia, and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or birthday of the unconquerable sun. In Northern Europe the twelve days of Yuletide were reinterpreted as Christian.

The priests made the ceremonies quieter, more solemn, by holding a mass on the feast day, called “Christ’s mass.” They also reimagined the Saturnalian practice of giving gifts to symbolize the gifts given to Christ by the three wise men.Sun Christ

All across Europe and Western Asia Christianity slowly absorbed the ancient traditions, made them its own. The old gods disappeared, replaced by the one holy God and His Son.

The holy day — holiday — celebrations remained, wrapped now in the shining Light of Christ and all that is whole and holy. There is peace, joy, renewal in that Light of Lights; remembrance, reverence, and the reminder that we are all, whatever our beliefs or creed, of this earth, together. The new sun is born. The new Son is born. Ancient, pure, life-giving, forgiving, embracing, beloved.

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Into the Unknown: Our Intrepid German Ancestors

We are nearly all the descendants of immigrants, those hearty people who risked everything to start again in a new land. Their bravery and fortitude made our country what it is today, made each of us what we are today.

Immigrants leaving homeTo emigrate in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century was to leap by faith alone into the unknown, leaving behind home and family, familiar neighborhoods, routines well established, even loved ones they never wished to leave behind. All to begin again from scratch with little more than a few precious dollars and enormous stores of energy and faith.

Most of us fortunate enough to have been born in America will never know the immigrant experience. We’ll never know those forces of poverty, oppression, or persecution so strong that Leaving home on ship sepiathey drive emigrants to leave their homes and venture into the unknown. We’ll never know their particular kind of hope and fear mixed with regret and relief, the concoction of emotions that has driven immigrants to our land for nearly four hundred years, and continues to drive them today.

Hope, fear, regret, and relief. What recipe is this? It is when we leave anything once loved behind in order to better our lives. A lover, a spouse, a job, a home, a town, a country.We hope for better lives, but fear the unknown. We regret that our lives didn’t work out as planned, but feel relief at being free of untenable circumstances. We feel nothing as simple as a single emotion, but a mixture so foreign that we can’t put our fingers on it. And so the emotions churn about and we describe it physically, as feeling numb, or having a reeling head or a pounding heart.

For our Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century ancestors who left their fertile Rhine River Valley homeland in Germany to seek better life in America, Religious warthe need to leave was acute. Their country had been the finest in Europe, a land of noble heroes and spectacular scenery, of majestic castles and cathedrals and prosperous farms and orchards. But forces conspired to make life difficult for our ancestors there.

Traditional inheritance practices in Germany meant that land was divided equally between all children, which meant that farms were made increasingly smaller, and land hunger drove the people to search farther afield for suitable property. More important, Germany was torn by nearly ceaseless war, its once mighty empire in now in fragments, its people desperate and hungry.

The Holy Roman Empire of Germany during the Middle Ages was the wealthiest and most powerful in all Europe. Art and science flourished there. Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type, which made possible the Enlightenment and the spread of knowledge throughout the civilized world. Germany’s prosperous farmers and skilled craftsmen were hailed as the finest in all Europe.De_stadt_Maastricht,_door_den_prins_van_Parma_(Alexander_Farnese)_met_storm_verovert,_den_29_july_des_jaars_1579_(Jan_Luyken,_1679)

Then in the early 1500s Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and gave his people not only direct access to the word of God, but the language of literature and poetry. Luther didn’t stop there, though. He went on to publicly question the very tenants of the Catholic Church, leading others to do the same and sparking one of the greatest revolutions of all time, the Protestant Reformation, and leading the way to the Age of Enlightenment.

But the road to Enlightenment was full of terror and violence. And thus was ushered in one of the most destructive and longest wars in European history. The Holy Roman Empire was fragmenting. War after war raged through the land. The Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War, the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession.

One after another they crashed like tidal waves against the people, wreaking more destruction each time until carnage covered the land and Martin Luther church doorthe countryside and its people were in ruin.Religious hatred and political divisions pitted Catholic against Protestant, Hapsburg against Ottoman, north against south, prince against prince, and in their armies, peasant and farmer against peasant and farmer. The devastation was enormous, the taxes oppressive as local leaders sought more and more money to wage war.

The country’s population was ravaged, falling from thirty million to twelve million as the Holy Roman Empire fought for its very existence against the rise of Protestantism. As in any war, the common people suffered disproportionately. Some fled. Many died.

Unpaid armies and bands of mercenaries roamed the countryside pillaging and plundering, villages left burning and their people dead or without sustenance. And then the winter of 1708 came, the coldest in 100 years. Birds, it was said, froze in mid-air, men mid-step. Farms and their farmers perished in the cold, and the people cried, “Enough!” Those who could, left.

William Penn handbillMany fled to Switzerland or the Alsace region of France. After the end of hostilities some went home, some stayed, but many came to America, mostly to Pennsylvania. A generation before, William Penn visited Germany to spread the word that Pennsylvania would welcome them.

Some were old enough to remember the handbills passed out by his agents throughout the country proclaiming a land of milk and honey; a place where the climate was temperate, the fertile soil nearly free, kings and princes unknown, and religious and political tolerance the cornerstones of society. A place where Germans could prosper and thrive, free at last. If only they could get there.

And so our ancestors pleaded their case to England’s Queen Anne, saying,

“We, the poor, distressed Palatines, whose utter ruin was occasioned by the merciless cruelty of a bloody enemy whose prevailing power, some years past, like a torrent, rushed into our country and overwhelmed us at once; and being not content with money and food necessary for their occasions, not only dispossessed us of all support, but inhumanly burnt our houses to the ground, whereby being deprived of all shelter, we were turned into open fields, there with our families to seek what shelter we could find, were obliged to make the earth our repository for rest and the clouds the canopy for covering.”

The sympathetic queen thus invited the beleaguered Protestant Germans to sail to America on English ships, Ship Sally carrying Palatinesoffering them passage and land in exchange for bonded labor.

By the thousands, they packed their meager belongings and headed for the promised land. From May to November of 1709 nearly thirteen thousand passengers left their desolate homeland and sailed the Rhine to Rotterdam, and on to England. By June there were one thousand immigrants passing through Rotterdam every week.

Of those, there were 2,257 Catholics who were sent back. The enmity between the two was far from over. One historical account written in 1897 quotes a contemporary diarist who wrote, “Thursday, 29 September [1709]. The Popish Palatines who came hither, were ordered to go home, having passports for the same.” Catholic vs ProtestantQueen Anne knew exactly who she wanted to populate her colonies. She was designing her ideal New World.

After arriving in England, from there our ancestors traveled on to Canada, Australia, Ireland, or America. Once in America the Protestant Germans who answered Queen Anne’s offer were required to pay off their price of passage by working in camps set up for that purpose along the Hudson River.

After that tour of duty, which typically lasted five to seven years, they were finally free. Free to practice their religion. Free to find and homestead land. Free to join in building a new country that was free to all.

Many of the immigrants made their way to William Penn’s land, which had been given to that quirky Quaker by England’s Charles II in repayment of a debt to Pennsylvania NY NJ map 1751Penn’s father, one of the largest land grants awarded an individual in all history. Penn wished to name the land Sylvania for its vast forests of trees, but the king wanted to name it in honor of Penn’s father. They compromised, and the land became known as Pennsylvania.

Lutherans, Reformed, Swiss Mennonites, Baptist Dunkers, Moravians, Quakers, and Amish all flooded into Pennsylvania’s wilder regions. A second wave of immigrants began in 1727, and from then to 1775, around 65,000 Germans landed in Philadelphia and settled in Pennsylvania.

These are our ancestors, the ones who survived war and religious persecution to find their way to America and once here, to build strong frontier families that made their way without the aid of anyone excepting their nearest neighbors, who were also a hearty stock of immigrants. They cut their homes from the forest and built their farms with blood and sweat. They survived and thrived and raised their families well, which led, in the end, to you and me.

So when you think on your German ancestors, think of the historical times in which they lived, the history-making events they endured and helped to shape, and the hope, fear, regret, and relief they felt to the depths of their being in coming to America. We can be proud of such character and strength that brought them here. And remember, those genes reside in us, too.Pennsylvania settlers color

 

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Born to Run

I’m on a work project with no time to write, so I am posting this oldie but goodie. Enjoy!

I have lots of photos of my father’s mother. Portraits of her as a child. Portraits of her as a young woman. Portraits of her with her twin babies. Then snapshots of her with family, with friends over the years. A full chronology of my grandmother’s life.

But I can count the photos of my grandfather on one hand and still have a finger left over. He wasn’t camera shy. He just didn’t stop for the camera. In the first photo he is a boy of ten. It’s 1890 and he is with his family before their very large Ohio farmhouse (I count nine windows and four doors on just the two sides I can see). It looks to be late winter and this yard is no doubt beautiful in summer with its overhang of leafy trees and long views, but here it is a mess of mud and melting snow, a hazard for the ruffled skirts and high heel boots of his sisters. Grandaddy is in knee-high leather boots and holding the harnesses of two yearling calves, an odd prop for a family photo, and amusing given the formality of the other family members. He looks like he was just passing through and the photo’s subjects stepped aside to make way for him, he stopping for a moment before moving on. He was always headstrong, so more likely he insisted on including two calves he was raising himself.John H. Berryman Family 1890The next photo is a good 20 years later. My grandparents lived in a big two-story Colonial on Glen Road in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. Granddaddy commuted across the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan each day. In the photo his suit coat is off and tie is loosened. He is holding his baby boy in the air, gazing at him as if in sheer wonder. Or perhaps sheer fear, because these new twin boys were conceived bittersweetly three years after my grandparents’ darling daughters, one six and one six months, died of then-incurable disease, my grandmother deciding she would never again have children. Her own father had to intervene to persuade her that she could love other children, but that’s another story for another time. Granddaddy waited patiently, as was really his only choice, and now I have this photo of him cautiously holding this precious bundle of baby that was my father. Or uncle. I can’t tell.RF Berryman and Baby Ted BerrymanSometime during their Woodcliff Lake period he decided to invent a better kind of running shoe. He had been a track star at Oberlin College and held the “Big Six” record for the fastest two mile. Only fragments of the running shoe story remain. The soles were made from tires, or tire rubber. To prove their superiority he ran in them from Woodcliff Lake to Passaic (20 miles) or Lima, Ohio (625 miles), I forget which. That’s all I know. There is no photo commemorating his accomplishment. In fact, I have no other photo of him until about 40 years later.

Peg and Bob Berryman, Elizabeth and Waldo Berryman, r to lIn that photo he is an elder in his 80s, standing next to his brother and behind my grandmother who finally, after a life more nomadic and in all ways unsettled than she ever wanted, was sitting in the lap of luxury at her Leucadia, California home, the gleaming Pacific to one side and an endless panorama of rolling hills to the other. Granddaddy lived in that lap of luxury too, but it was luxury he did not want and did not take to with ease. The febility of old age frustrated his need to put one foot in front of the other toward some fanciful goal.

As a boy Granddaddy was a prodigy. I have it on numerous family authorities that he flew through high school in one year and graduated from Oberlin College in two years. He was  fluent in English, Spanish, French, Greek, Latin and Portuguese. As a recent graduate he accepted a one-year position to teach school in the Philippine Islands, where he became fluent in Tagalog. On coming back he went to work for a Wall Street Bank as an interpreter. A few years later he moved his family onto a commune called The School of Living in Suffern, New York, founded by the noted utopian, Ralph Borsodi. After a few years of that he scouted the Land of California, writing home that it was “a magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.” That impressed the family, and as soon as my dad was home from WWII, off they went.

They weren’t following history, though. California’s greatest population booms followed the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1930s thousands of Americans, left destitute by the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drought, went west in search of work. By that time my grandfather’s brother, Waldo Berryman was already moving his growing auto aftermarket company from Ohio to Palo Alto. He eventually moved it to Encinitas, California, though I don’t know if that was before or after my branch of the family moved there.

After WWII thousands more Americans moved to California after GIs had passed through there on their way to the Pacific Theater. They came home, grabbed their wives or sweethearts, and headed for the promised land of sunshine and opportunity. By the time my father was home from war the family’s bags were packed, furniture all shipped, and car gassed up and ready to head west and join Granddaddy in the Berryman family’s new-found home upon that “magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.”

In the last photo I have of my Grandaddy he is an old man walking, stooped and gnarled by Parkinson’s, but still, as he always was, moving forward and deep in thought.

I recently went hunting for photos of him online. Surely, with all he had done, there were photos of him in some college yearbook, newspaper, or historical archive. I know he was a track star in college, so I Googled “Robert Fulton Berryman” and “two mile,” his specialty.

Nothing.

I tried the search again with “R. F. Berryman” and bingo, I landed on the Oberlin College yearbook of 1905. (Thank you www.archive.org – you always come through!) I found the yearbook photo of the Oberlin track team. But…argh! The team members were not named in order of the photo. There was no, “Named, left to right.” In fact, there were more young men in the photo than names to the side. This wasn’t going to be easy. After studying each face, looking for my grandfather’s unmistakable upside-down pear shaped head, I settled on just one possibility. He had to be the confident looking young man sitting in the bottom row, second from right. Technically he’s seated in the second row, I suppose, but also technically his is the second head from bottom right.

R.F. Berryman Oberlin 1903 team

I still don’t know for sure if this is Robert Fulton Berryman, Oberlin Class of 1905. But I’m going to believe it is. Because he was almost certainly in the track team photo and no one else is a close match. Because the head shape, ears, and eyes match the photo I have from 1960. And because the only photos I have of this man I loved so dearly are blurred, dark, or from his back or side.

R.F. Berryman 1903 and 1960I take this from these few scattered facts or semi-facts: Robert Fulton Berryman always ran towards, never from. The whole world was that magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude. He raced through college and then ran (not literally, I must point out) to the Philippines to see the aftermath of the Spanish American War. He got an inheritance and so ran to Oklahoma to start a sheep ranch (fine occupation for an academic prodigy!). He ran from Wall Street to a commune, and from there to California. Whether he got comfortable in California and so decided not to explore further lands I don’t know. I do know that as I age, changing my life gets harder. I would like to move someplace completely different than coastal Southern California, but so many ties tether me here. After a while in one place it gets like that. But that’s another story for another time.

Grandaddy didn’t have time for cameras. But he had time for me. No camera can capture that.

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Stories My Father Never Told Me

No time to write this weekend. Here’s an oldie but goody….Aivazovsky_-_Strong_WindMine is not a family of storytellers. I don’t know what my father did in World War II. I don’t know if his heart skipped a beat the first time he saw his future wife, my mother. I don’t know if there was an instant he doubted he would live when his sailboat was torn to toothpicks in a hurricane a mile off the Florida coast. That was an event. But it’s not a story. I don’t know why he made it to shore across a mile of stormy seas, only that he did.

It might sound funny to wonder why he lived. But plenty of people wouldn’t have. Even people with the swimming skills and physical strength to make it. You also need a powerful will to live and the courage to face what look like insurmountable odds. He was sailing solo so there was no one else to help make the decision. No easier choice to just follow someone’s lead. Decisions don’t come any harder than the ones he had to make in his life. This was only foreshadowing what was to come. Stormy SeasDid he quickly calculate his odds and swim for shore as soon as he saw the boat was foundering, or did he try to hold her together till there was no hope left, braving seas that were by that time dramatically worse to try and save the boat he built singlehandedly? Did he risk going down with the ship by groping frantically through rising waters in the below-deck cabin for one treasured belonging he couldn’t bear to leave behind? If he did, what was so valuable that he risked his life over retrieving it? And when he reached shore did he walk away unscathed, or were his nights haunted with nightmares of drowning? A sea of churning water stood between him and life on that…that what? I don’t even know if it was night or day. Either way, he lived to not tell about it.

As a child I one time skipped down barefoot onto a gnarl of fish hook cactus and it lodged deep in the sole of my foot. My father came toward me to take it out and I warned him away with screams and tears. He laughed and asked if I intended to leave it there forever. I really did have to think about it for a minute. If it had been me in that sinking boat, the smallest doubt of whether I could swim over raging seas and make it to land alive would have me clutching to the last bit of floating debris of that boat like it was God Himself, and only He could save me from being swallowed by the sea. My fate would rest on how buoyant my bit of detritus was. I would use all my strength trying to make that shard of timber float, trying to rescue my rescuer so the rescuer could save me.

Cast up by the Sea - Winslow HomerNo such complications for my father. All my life he whistled while he shaved, sang while he worked, and went about his business with good cheer. Each day was a new opportunity to enjoy life, and whatever stories his past held, that’s where they stayed. When I grew up and became interested in him as a person as well as a father, one day I asked how he had the sheer guts and strength to get up and go back to work shortly after breaking his back and being paralyzed (for life) at 26. All he said was, “I had to, I had a family to feed.” Those words are plenty to tell me who he was, but I wanted all the elements of plot. I wanted the how and the why. And yet I didn’t have the guts to ask.

I wasn’t born yet when he fell off the roof of their new home and into a wheelbarrow, but I hurt to even think of all the crashing of bones and nerves and hearts and hopes and dreams that started when his body came freefalling onto the edge of that wheelbarrow spine-first. I don’t want to know about the pain, how scared he must have been, how dashed his dreams, how fearful for his future, no less his pregnant wife’s and two sons’. Even thinking about those pains is too painful for me.

In the hospital after his injury doctors tickled his feet. They poked his calves and pressed their fingers into his thighs. Nothing. No feeling. The doctors wouldn’t operate. They said it was no use. My grandmother stormed the hospital and they relented, slicing a 14-inch gash down his back. They poked around a bit, sewed him back up, and said, “Yep. He’ll never walk again.” He didn’t talk for a month. Then he dragged himself out of the hospital, stuffed his bodycasted self in the Jeep with my mother and brothers, and said goodbye to their new home in Denver. They couldn’t think clearly there. They needed to re-gather their lives within the familiarity of the house they still owned in California, among loving family and concerned friends. For the next six months he taught himself to walk with a complex series of movements that began with swinging his hips and legs forward with the strength of his glutes. When his uncle, Pappy we called him, told him it was time to saw off his body cast and see what he had, that’s what he did. After fits and starts he began walking with two canes, then one, then finally none. Still with no feeling below his hips. But it was something.

After the injury he developed other strengths. His arms could hold all us children at once. His calm could make any problem, however seemingly tragic at first, suddenly approachable. His courage could hold the weight of all our worlds on his shoulders. But part of that courage came by refusing to consider himself in any way but like everybody else. He simply refused to treat himself as paralyzed, and damned if anyone else would dare. So if I asked even the most innocuous question about his injury, would opening up and talking about it, satisfying his cherished daughter’s curiosity, open a hole that let all that long-ago pain come rushing back? I wouldn’t risk it.

That’s what I know. And I wouldn’t ask him for more. It wasn’t really lack of courage that stopped me from asking. I know that now. It was respect. Every day my father lived his life as a man with full use of his body would. He never gave in to physical limitations, never mind self-pity. He would not use handicap parking spaces. He coached and umpired Pony League baseball. He climbed on roofs and pounded them with sheets of shingles whenever that needed to be done, and I doubt he ever considered that irony.

He was a man of few words and was a firm believer that the value of a person’s life is in his deeds. That didn’t make him hard. Quite the opposite. He knew what a man is capable of. But he also knew how a man can suffer. Just seeing my father and what he did every day was enough to tell me the worth of the man. I didn’t need to know how he made it to shore to know he was strong. I didn’t need to know what he did in the war to know he was brave.

All this happened. And it affected our lives in unimaginable ways. In aggregate the consequences of that accident hurled our little family off orbit. He spent months at a time in the hospital because of internal injuries and infections and other complications. My mother tried to hold it all together, keeping house and feeding and caring for her three beloved children plus being a more intimate nurse to her husband than she could have ever dreamed of. But her struggles are a different story. The family is still trying to regain its balance now, a decade after he’s gone and well into his grandchildren’s adulthood. We’ll make it. In another generation the pain won’t even be a memory. But the family will be strong. Partly because he refused to let us be weak.

When he was late into his 70’s, on kidney dialysis for some kind of a record dozen years, his speech a little slurred from mini-strokes and body wasted by decades of the complications of paralysis, it finally occurred to me that he was not immortal. I asked him to write his life story. I wanted to know whatever stories he wished to share with me. He said he would, and so he spent his days at dialysis filling notebooks. His hands weakened and his handwriting deteriorated. We got him a dictation recorder, but he didn’t want to bother his fellow dialysees. So he went on with the notebooks, filling them with barely legible sentences and paragraphs and pages, pouring out his life with clearly apparent joy at what he had lived. He started with his grandparents, describing their lives, and four yellow-lined legal notebooks later he ended with his own early adulthood. That’s as far as he got before passing away on August 31, 1997, at 1:55 in the morning.

Harrrison - Ocean NocturneHe never got to the part about the sailboat. But that’s alright. I know everything that’s important about my father.

Art - Winslow Homer - Sunset Fires

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John Bailey and the Angel Gabriel

No sailor approaching Pemaquid Point, Maine, can look upon that black coast with anything but dread. Monolithic rock walls jut from the ocean floor like fists, waves crashing andPemaquid wind howling the names of all those lost at this ocean graveyard. Here the sea churns with tide and wind, fast ocean currents snag on rock outcrops and swirl the water into fearful chaos.

For eons nature’s forces have battered the shore, but those rocks are some of the hardest on earth, and if they can withstand thousands of years of such violence, they can withstand the hull of any boat or bone of sailor’s skull.

It was toward this point that the ship Angel Gabriel sailed on the night of August 14, 1635. She was a 240-ton barque and armed with 16 cannon, uncommon for a ship called to passenger duty, but this was no common ship.

She was originally commissioned into service and outfitted for combat by Sir Walter Raleigh for his voyages to South America. The mighty barque had seen battle at Cadiz, and at great odds fought three Spanish galleons simultaneously that repeatedly stormed the English ship and were beaten back each time, the Angel Gabriel losing three men to the Spanish ships’ five hundred.

For that deed a ballad was written, to be oft repeated by English seaman in search of courage on windy, moonless nights.The Honour of Bristol - Angel Gabriel

Now the galleon was in more peaceful service, transporting passengers from her home port at Bristol, England, to the New World, this time to land at Pemaquid, Maine.

Upon the Angel Gabriel was John Bailey, my eighth great grandfather, whose blood courses through seven generations before entering my Eggleston line. John and his eldest son had secured the required approvals from their parish priest, invoked the oath of allegiance, and once on board, obtained their licenses and the proper seal from England’s official emigration agents. Now they had only to endure the 12 weeks of rough seas it would take to sail from Bristol to Pemaquid.

On the last day of May in the year 1635, five ships left Bristol together. After dropping their river pilots at the mouth of the Severn on June 9, three ships sailed off on their own, confident they could outrun any pirate ship that pursued, for pirates prowled those waters in search of whatever treasure they could capture. The James chose to stay near the heavily armed but slow Angel Gabriel for protection.

The passing was not easy. With winds strong and waves high, the ship swayed violently. Not just for hours, but for weeks. Many if not most passengers were seasick, dizzy, light headed, vomiting, barely able to stand or walk without falling. A passenger, the Reverend Richard Mather, grandfather of the minister and scholar Cotton Mather, wrote in his diary that none could go on deck because of “the tossing and tumbling of the ship.”

Yet I’m sure some, maybe John Bailey walked the decks, drinking in the invigorating sea air, entertaining themselves watching the occasional pod of curious dolphins that sailed alongside the ship for long distances, and enjoying the fresh seafood the crew sometimes hauled on board.

More weeks went by.Raleigh's ship Jason for trip to Guinea The going was slow, so slow that the James sometimes furled only three sails just to stay beside the Angel Gabriel.

Twenty days out to sea the Angel Gabriel and the James pursued a Turkish pirate ship that had taken one of the ships that left Bristol with them, the Mary. They could not catch it and so regretfully turned back to their course.

On July 4, the James decided not to wait for the slower galleon any longer. Mather wrote that, “we lost sight of the Angel sayling slowly behind us, and we never saw her again any more.”

After twelve weeks at sea the Angel Gabriel sighted land. Under cloudy skies, she sailed into a small cove on the coast of Maine and dropped anchor. There was a small settlement at the place, called Pemaquid. John Bailey and the other ship’s passengers were ferried to shore on small boats, and there gave thanks for the voyage and now having solid earth under their feet.The ship James unloading on diff voyage

They immediately began the arduous task of unloading their belongings, but were taken by surprise by a violent storm.

They worked as long as they could, filling the dinghies with trunks, barrels, and livestock, rowing them to shore through the tumbling surf, dragging what they could across the rock and sand and away from the rising seas.

They had to watch in horror, helplessly, as the surf grew too dangerous to risk further trips to the Angel Gabriel. As night fell and the storm grew in power, most took refuge in the homes of the townspeople, though some of the crew stayed aboard the Angel Gabriel.

Thus commenced the most ungodly hurricane ever to hit New England, then or now, as evidenced in recent analysis by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

A storm surge of twenty two feet, the highest in history, sent wave after wave crashing into shore, wiping out all before it. Unknown numbers of Native Americans lost their lives. On its route from Ipswich to Marblehead the coastal barque, Watch and Wait, owned by another of my ancestors, Isaac Allerton, foundered off of Cape Ann with twenty three aboard. All but two were lost.

Homes in the town of Plymouth were blown down like matchsticks, and mile-wide swaths of forest were leveled by winds well over 130 miles per hour. Farther down-coast the James sought safe harbor from the storm at the Isles of Shoals, but the cables could not hold their anchors and all snapped, the wind and surf now pushing the ship ever closer to the rocks. But they were saved when the hurricane winds reversed to the northeast and pushed the ship away from the islands. The James sailed into Boston the next day, its sails in tatters.

In outer Pemaquid Harbor the Angel Gabriel began to slip her anchors, her cables strung taught as more than Shipwreck300 tons fought to rip away from their hold. But the cables could not hold, and gave way in snaps like mighty whips, lashing through sails already shredded by the winds.

The ship then drifted at the mercy of wind and waves, bowing and rising like a colossal monster from the sea, keel pointed skyward, only to slam back into the troughs, waves crashing over her decks, bowsprit dipping as though straight to the bottom of the sea. Thus she was reduced to splinters, her crew lost.

When they left England each of the Angel Gabriel’s passengers had to sacrifice what they could not transport on the ship, leaving behind treasured bureaus, beds, pianos, wardrobes; the poorer ones choosing only a few articles of clothing, maybe a few utensils and cooking vessels. Now once more their earthly belongings were being culled. This time the sea would take everything they had left in the world, and there was nothing they could do about it.

When John Bailey awoke the next morning and left his shelter, he beheld such destruction as he had never seen. What was this new land he had come to that could wreak such hell?

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At the Wheel: The Life of Jessie Merica, Part 2

It was time for Jessie Thomas Merica to leave his parents’ home. Because he certainly was not going to get rid of the car he just bought. It was his crowning achievement, as big a purchase as any man could make except a house and besides, it would be a few more years before he even thought about a house of his own.1910 Model T Ford

Jessie loved cars more than anything else, had since the day he saw his first one, no doubt. Now his father had told him to get rid of the car or leave, and so for Jessie the decision was easy.

There was nothing his mother, Florence Merica, could do to change either man’s mind. Her husband Tom was as stubborn as any man she’d ever met, except for her son, who was equally stubborn. Now that Jessie was a young man, it was inevitable this day would come. If it wasn’t the car that put the two men at odds it would be something else. You just can’t have two bull-headed men in one house.

Tom Merica was stubborn, but he was not an unreasonable man. What reason did he have for denying Tom a car, then? It’s been said Tom thought Jessie too young, not yet responsible enough. But Jessie was 17, or nearly so, and mature enough to manage work crews on the farm and drive the family car on his own. Maybe Tom was afraid Jessie would go wild now that he had a car. He did have a wild streak, and would later build and race his own stock car. Or maybe the money Jessie used to buy the car was supposed to be for something else. We’ll never know. But one thing is sure: Jessie was leaving home.

His mother and sisters were sad to see him go. The two younger girls, Ruthy and Annie, adored their big brother, though Florence favored Charles, Jesse’s older brother, because of his frailty. Just the same, the girls and their mother cried. But the two Merica men – for at 17 Jessie was indeed a man – stood firm on their respective stances, and the younger Merica packed his meager belongings and left.

It’s just as well, because what happened next was ordained as if by fate. Jessie drove to Waynesboro, 35 miles from Shenandoah, far enough away that he and his father would not be tripping over each other in the small towns of Shenandoah or Elkton, but not so far that he couldn’t see his mother and sisters when he wanted. Stehli Silk Mill 1925-1941He got a room at Hodge’s boarding house and a job at the Stehli Silk Mill. That’s where he met his future bride, Miss Emily Doom.

They courted in his car, of course, and Emily loved that her young man had his freedom — and his own car. He was so handsome, so charming, so sure of himself. He wooed her ardently but respectfully, taking her for long rides in the country, square dancing on Friday nights, Saturday night movies, mooning and flirting on the front porch of the Doom’s home.

William F. Landes auto company.GIFThey married two days before Christmas in 1940, and soon after Jessie found a job at Wayne Manufacturing for better pay. He started saving money. He was ambitious, there was a lot he wanted out of life, and he knew that would take money.

About that time he became acquainted with Bill Landes, owner of the William F. Landes Auto Company in Waynesboro, which sold and serviced Dodge cars and Graham trucks.

Landes gave him a job as mechanic in his garage. Jessie was in heaven, because nothing could be finer than to have two loves that consume your days and nights. He had his beautiful wife, and a job doing what he loved.

There was nothing he couldn’t do under the hood or chassis of a car. He didn’t need any training. He had a mechanical mind, and had spent a fair share of time working with mechanical tools on the farm, so for Jessie, it was just a matter of logic. He just followed a problem until he found its source. Landes was happy with his work, happy that he had such a responsible employee.Cadillac LaSalle roadster 1927

Jessie worked hard and saved even more money, till he had enough to buy a fine, shiny black two-seat Cadillac LaSalle Roadster with a rumble seat in back from Landes’ son, Bill Jr.

He was coming up in the world, and he and Emily cherished their freedom in that car, touring the twisting back roads of Augusta County, just a young couple in love and setting out on a new life together.Difficult turns for automobiles cropped

Jessie knew he wanted his life’s work to be with cars. But he also knew he did not want to work for someone else.

He talked with his friend Bill Landes about his hopes for the future, and Bill agreed to back Jesse in getting his own gas station/garage.

The Esso map.GIFEsso station was on East Main Street in Waynesboro, a busy thoroughfare that got plenty of traffic, which meant plenty of business.

Eventually the young family, for Patsy was born by then, bought a house just a few steps from the station, and Jessie liked that he could frequently come home for lunch or a quick rest.

Business at the station took off. Everyone liked Jesse Merica, looked forward to his friendly greetings and honest service.

Jesse might have spent a lot of time at odds with his father, but he learned the lessons well that his parents taught him. Always look a man in the eye. Be deferential to the ladies. Be honest and fair in all that you do, even when life doesn’t treat you fairly, and you’ll be able to hold your head high.

And Jessie Thomas Merica did do that, hold his head high. By all accounts he was a man larger than life, a handsome man who could command a room with his presence, and whose cockeyed smile and booming laughter could put a person at ease. Everyone in the small town of Waynesboro knew him, respected him, knew they could trust him.

People of all races knew they could count on both his generosity and fairness, and often turned to Jessie when they needed help. They knew that if they needed a quick loan, they could take their shotgun or watch or fishing pole to Jessie’s back door, and Jessie would give them whatever few dollars were necessary until they came to pay him back and retrieve their belongings. Many a Saturday night dinner was interrupted this way.

As his business grew, Jessie could afford to enjoy more time off. Jesse Merica under carHe built a race car, and enjoyed racing the dirt tracks at Keezletown, Natural Bridge, and Winchester. The family made pilgrimages to Daytona for the stock car races; he went nearly every year with Emily and the kids.

And nearly every Sunday they went home to visit Jessie’s mother in Shenandoah. Jessie always loved driving those 35 miles down Highway 340, turning right on Naked Creek Rd. at Verbena, then left on Fleeburg Rd, passing the familiar old Oak Creek Church, slowing for the curve at Aunt Minnie’s where he could now see the locust tree standing tall in the distance of his parent’s yard, then passing Uncle Hunter’s just before pulling up in front of his parents home.

Maybe he could have parked in the driveway. But he always parked on the road. It was a narrow road, and there was always the chance that someone might hit his car. But he never forgot that his father wouldn’t let him park his new car in the driveway, way back then when he was 17 and proudly came home with his first car, and so he wasn’t about to let his father forget it. He would park every car he ever had, most of them Cadillacs, on the road, both before and after it was paved. It’s that stubborn Merica gene, shared by both father and son, and not even love or forgiveness are as strong.

Jesse Merica and Tommy at beach croppedJessie Thomas Merica died suddenly on October 10, 1972, while doing what he loved most, driving his Cadillac. Waynesboro had seldom seen so many turn out for a funeral. The funeral hall filled and people spilled out over the lawn, coming to pay their respects to the man who for nearly 30 years greeted his customers by name, inquired after their children, quietly helped them make ends meet when they couldn’t themselves, and more than anything, made himself a strong thread in the fabric of the community.

 

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