Sharing Christmas and a New Research Project

Fermentation Festival recap: There is a sourdough starter struggling for life in the kitchen, a kitchen kept cold because my parents are extremely economical and concerned about energy waste. I knew full well going into this that winter is not the time to try to cultivate a sourdough starter, but attempting to cultivate it we are. My brother’s into it, as he is into all things sciencey and involving fermentation, but I don’t have much hope that this starter is going to produce decent bread before I leave.

As for Mark’s reciprocal offering of his knowledge of brewing, we ran into holiday season troubles of companies being out of stock followed by late deliveries. His chosen brew was root beer, which he insists (to my agreement) on making with real sassafras root etc, but his normal supplier was out of certain ingredients, so he went to the secondary, and as of this writing the shipment from the secondary has still not arrived. Over burgers last night he speculated that the shipment might arrive Tuesday, leaving us Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to tinker with root beer before I leave Thursday — but this means I won’t get to see the project through to its end, nor taste it before I leave.

On an unrelated note to any of this, Mark and I hatched an idea for a research project yesterday evening. This is all going to sound kind of weird, but bear with me because you are about to meet my family. Mark and I went out the day before yesterday on an afternoon date to go scatter our late grandmother’s ashes. She died two years ago, and because she donated her body to science the ashes only arrived fairly recently, after the first-year medical students at Brown University had done their lessons. She had specified before she died that she wanted her ashes, in addition to going in part to my mother’s siblings, to be scattered in my mother’s compost pile and also at two particular beaches on the island. One of the beaches is Surfer’s End at Second Beach, where my grandmother liked to go sit in the car with my mom over hot tea in thermoses and watch the surfers bobbing up and down in the churning gray waters of Category 1 hurricanes. That’s where my brother and I went for our scattering. We crept up to the shoreline by some rocks (because this is vaguely illegal) and dumped the ashes. Then we watched the waves roll in, pick up the ashes, and roll back out to sea, and we retreated to some boulders, where we did what people in these situations do: talk about socialism.

This came up because after Grandma died and my parents were cleaning out the apartment, they found a gigantic leather-bound album filled with newspaper clippings. My mother said later that upon finding it she had no idea what it was but that it would probably interest me, so it was moved to the basement of my parents’ house. Mom was, as she maddeningly always is, correct. The album is filled with an odd mix of clippings from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s including ones about the Catholic Church (the majority of the content), the Spanish Civil War, the Socialist Party in the US, immigration, education, China… Kind of a wide swath of subjects that, knowing my grandmother, made sense together.

When I first saw the album a few weeks after she died, it was right away clear to me that this was her research. Into what, I don’t know. It’s occupied no small part of my mind for the past two years and I’ve been wanting to make a project of it but it all has seemed overwhelming until now, after this afternoon at the beach with Mark. When I told him about it his face lit up (and he’s kind of robotic, he’d say so himself, so this indicated real excitement) and we talked about it for the rest of our walk on the beach, through much of dinner, and on the way home, where I showed the book to him. He had never seen or heard of it before.

We told Mom about our project and hauled the thing up from the basement. Talking to her was key in the whole thing because she cleared up some important things. Namely, she confirmed that the handwritten dates on the articles were not done by our grandmother’s hand. With that and the mysterious postcards in the back of the album, Mark and I were wondering who did the compilation of the material since it was obviously not the work of Grandma. The only trace of her handwriting was an index she’d made on the backs of Parent-Teacher Association agendas from 1959. When my mom saw the date on those agendas, her face turned white like they say faces turn white. The year 1959 coincided with the time that our grandmother’s father’s homestead was getting cleared out, after he died. My mother remembers being there, and figures my grandmother took the album from the house. My great-grandfather was the kind of person that my grandmother was, and that I am, a hoarder of clippings and research, a non credentialed historian, slightly obsessive maybe. It would have been no shocker that my grandmother would take such an artifact from the house.

Since she’s gone, we don’t know if she managed to get any further work done on whatever my great-grandfather was researching. My mother said that the organization of the album screamed Grandpa McHugh to her, but the subject matter was surprising, since the only issue she remembers him obsessing about was the Native American genocide. I’m fairly confident now that the album belongs to him, just a hunch, but I have in my worldly possessions back in France the family genealogy books, with photocopied handwritten letters, so I’m going to compare penmanship. Grandpa McHugh, I’ve been told, had extremely precise and flowerly penmanship, and proud of it, and the album shows that, so I’m just waiting to get back to do a confirmation.

This has all caused some amount of excitement. Emails are being sent. My brother and I are exchanging glances of conspiracy. All is good in the household.


(My brother, at the beach, talking about grandma and research.)

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