On Genealogy, History, and Stories

bill and oma, 1913

On Genealogy, History and Stories —

I spent last week in a fog of genealogy, listening to researchers whose travels and stories and sleuthing made my head spin. I attended the National Genealogical Society’s annual meeting. Thousands of intrepid researchers in one convention center.

And do you know what? Their message was all about context. It was all about stories. It was all about making these people come alive, making them more than statistics and dates of birth, marriage, death. It was about telling their stories, about delving into the lives that they led. These were real people, not just those whose obituaries (true or otherwise) garnered the most print inches. People who experienced joy and sadness and wonder at their world. People just like us.

And I took heart about my endeavors over the years – to tell the stories of ordinary people, some real, some imagined, but all connected to life. One of the presenters talked of the importance of telling our stories – “If I don’t tell them, people will never know that I’m in love with the Royal Family, that I’ve loved them since I was fourteen years old. That I am really Charlotte’s and George’s grandmother.” That’s what she said, and don’t we know exactly who she is from that? Doesn’t that tell us so much more than her birthdate, her academic degrees, her race and religion? And don’t you want to know her?

And so, I continue to write my stories, about people who existed, or who may have existed. Perhaps they tell you who I am.

The picture above is my father and his grandmother. She played a significant part in his life, and they shared a powerful bond. As I did with him.


On Lemon Tree Blossoms and Hope

Lemon tree flowers

On Lemon Tree Blossoms and Hope —

My lemon tree is safely ensconced on my deck; squirrels and chipmunks scampering around, but not onto, it. I am hopeful.

Yes, I’m hopeful on several fronts – working hard to be.  Hopeful that the critters will allow those six blossoms to have a chance to become actual lemons this year. Last year they left only one – which, of course, I treasured and coddled like it was – well, my first home-grown lemon.

Hopeful that I’ll have a season of lemons, and will be able to inhale with wild abandon that subtle, sweet smell that doesn’t come from furniture polish.

Hopeful that another spring and summer will bring a sense of serenity and accomplishment as I savor days of writing, reading, and thinking.

Hopeful that our political situation will find some sense of humanity, and caring, and common sense so that we can somehow bridge these wide gulfs that have come upon us.

Hopeful that the world will recognize that we are all one.

Maybe It all hinges on a lemon tree. To allow us to step, to think, to hope beyond ourselves.


On Baltimore and Book Launches

On Baltimore and Book Launches


Yes, it happened, and I am delighted and humbled. Echoes of the Alum Chine, officially launched in the city of its setting, if not the period. Baltimore in the early 20th Century. Not a time without problems, without societal ills, to be sure, yet a time that I view through a sepia lens.

Aware of that as I drove through the neighborhoods cited in the book – Hollins Street, Union Square – well past its prime, though struggling to maintain some semblance of urban pioneer moments. I read that the local market and adjacent properties had been bought by a relative of Under Armour’s CEO, but, to my untrained eye, I could see no evidence to transformation – yet, at least.

And I ponder my reaction to any such transformation – when I big spender comes in to “revitalize” an area – to my mind, significantly different than the grass roots struggles of individuals who come to save a neighborhood from a sense of loyalty and love, rather than as an investment. I was part of such a merry band many years ago, when the area of Seton Hill began to take shape. A labor of love and money, to be sure – and I am hoping for a resurgence for this lovely area of alley houses.

And now, back to me!  It was such an enchantment to read passages of both Echoes from the Alum Chine and Another Sunday to groups who understood the historical context, who understood exactly what it meant when Celeste, the heroine of Another Sunday, ends her days at the Congress Hotel, a Baltimore landmark that at one time signified the height of sophistication and prosperity, but, by the time Celeste lived there, had devolved into what could only be called a flea-bag hotel for transients. I felt their tears and sadness for her. And they came right along with me as I recounted her 1967 cab ride through Mt. Vernon Place, North Avenue, Baltimore Cemetery and Green Mount Cemetery, with a final stop at Stewart’s Department Store at Howard and Lexington Streets. A visit remembering what had been, and the sadness of facing what was and is.

Going back to Baltimore always fills me with mixed emotions – I love seeing old friends, this time from high school and from my Roland Park days. But I am always struck by a sense of sadness, for the tone of the city has changed, so many of the landmarks that were and remain meaningful to me derelict and forgotten. I’m not so impressed with the tarted-up, pseudo-chic, multi-million-dollar condos that have replaced those earthy, drunken sailors on Pratt Street.

I know I’m in the minority – it doesn’t bother me. Someone asked me if I remembered the movie Avalon. I sure do – and salute Barry Levinson – another Baltimorean who remembers the substance of Baltimore. I think there are a lot of us out there.



On a Book Launch, Baltimore, and Echoes from the Alum Chine —


On a Book Launch, Baltimore, and the Alum Chine –

I’m heading to Baltimore this week to formally launch my second historical novel, Echoes from the Alum Chine. It’s another journey back in time for me –to my favorite era, the 1910s. It’s where I live when I’m writing, or thinking about writing. This period calls to me, resonates in a way that I must heed. I’m not sure why; perhaps I had another life then. And if I did, it was definitely in Baltimore. This was the time of a city that was real – complete with watermelon rinds floating in the Pratt Street harbor, and Norwegian sailors, arm in arm, drunkenly wending their way back to their ships after a night carousing. A time before multi-million dollar condos and pretentious restaurants and bars catering to the pseudo-glamourous.

Okay, rant over – and who can stop progress, and it is tax-base, after all, and all those factory jobs and work at Bethlehem Steel are not going to return. I get that – but still, one can remember, even if those memories are tinted sepia.

Now for the commercial – The Baltimore launch of Echoes from the Alum Chine will be held on Saturday, April 22, at 1:00 p.m. at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum, 918 Lemmon Street. The museum is in the heart of SoWeBo, just south of Hollins Street and Union Square, an area, I might add, that has kept its authenticity without succumbing to pretention. If you are nearby, I do hope that you will consider attending.

Echoes from the Alum Chine draws on Baltimore history – specifically, the aftermath of the 1913 explosion of the steamer ship Alum Chine in Baltimore harbor – to share the tale of three families who persevere to transform tragedy into triumph during the early 1900s. The novel explores the complexities of class and race that have challenged Baltimore for centuries, as well as the intricacies of family dynamics.

I’ll also be presenting “Writing the Historical Novel:  Fact, Fancy, and Research” at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum on Lemmon Street at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 22, and again at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 23 at the Baltimore County Historical Society, 9811 Van Buren Lane, Cockeysville.

Dear readers, thank you for allowing this bit of blatant self-promotion, and I do hope that you will read, and enjoy, the book.

www.cynthiastrauff.com Echoes from the Alum Chine


On Getaway Trips for the Long-Married…

Image result for image two cats in car driving

On Getaway Trips for the Long-Married

To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, oh, the places we will go….

At least that was what we told each other when the time finally arrived that we were both free from the Monday through Friday of the work world. Yes, we’d just wake up in the morning, put out extra cat food and litter, and take off wherever and whenever the muse sang to us. And in the beginning, we did – the mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the ocean, sometimes just a day trip to a town we had never explored. And then…and then, life, and routine, and a new rhythm entered our days. I wrote, and wrote, and thought about writing. He labored long and hard on a discography of Glenn Miller. Our interests, our hobbies turned not exactly inward, but more to what needed to be done at a desk, inside. And somehow, we became as busy, as committed, as we had been in that world of work we were so delighted to leave.

But this week we decided no. We were due a break. So, Wednesday morning, cat food bowls overflowing, we left for a few days east – Edenton NC to be exact, a small historic town on the Albemarle Sound that was once the capital of the Province of North Carolina. It is still small, still historic, with just enough inviting, and still unpretentious, restaurants and coffee houses. The town has many historic B&Bs, but we decided that for this trip we valued privacy over history and sociable hosts, so we opted for a comfortable, anonymous hotel.

And though we’ve been married lo these many years, it still felt like an adventure – a bit like playing hooky. We found that we still like each other – we’ve always traveled well together – and I’ve kept my most-of-the-time gift for finding restaurants that provide a bit of funk with the food. He continues to perfect his most-of-the-time gift for finding out of the way places to explore – this time with the help of Google maps we found the Scuppernong River Walk in Columbia NC.

We were only gone a few  days, though long enough to be glad to get back home. Waiting for me were copies of the new book, Echoes from the Alum Chine. Yes, it’s here – and available on Amazon. The e-version should be up in a week or so. And you will be hearing more about that.

But, for this week, I’m still remembering a getaway trip for the long-married. Not a bad way to spend one’s time.


Almost here — Echoes from the Alum Chine….


Oh, yes. It’s almost here, and I am so in love with this book. Excuse the hubris, but what mother doesn’t love her child?

Echoes from the Alum Chine is not available quite yet, but meanwhile I had to share this wonderful cover. Photograph by the iconic photographer of Baltimore, A. Aubrey Bodine. I think that it conveys the melancholy overtone of the story that follows three families in the aftermath of the 1913  explosion in the Baltimore Harbor of 300 tons of dynamite being loaded onto the steamer Alum Chine:  the Aylesforths, who live in the big house on Hollins Street; the Corporals, in the alley behind, and the Sherwoods, whose company insures the cargo.The story is told by the shy, forgotten Lillian Gish Corporal, who stands by and observes.

The Baltimore book launch is set for Saturday, April 22, at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum, 920 Lemmon Street in the heart of Hollins Street and Union Square (SoWeBo to those hipster Baltimoreans in the know).  I’ll be speaking to the group on “The Historical Novel: Fact, Fancy and Research,” at 11:30 a.m. The launch and book-signing will follow at 1 p.m.

I do hope that my Baltimore friends will be able to attend – as well as anyone (isn’t that a bit overconfident?) interested in Baltimore history.

The Greensboro launch will be later this spring.

So, it’s here – or almost here. And, after such a winter of political dread, I am ecstatic.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com Author of Another Sunday and Echoes from the Alum Chine



Despair is Not an Option, Part II

Image result for hard working woman image

I wanted this week’s post to be about my new book — almost ready to be born, almost ready to come into the world. I wanted this week’s post to be about joy, about creativity, about seeing one’s work come into being. And I am happy, almost joyful about it. Echoes from the Alum Chine, almost here, really.

But this week’s news has just been too disheartening. Tax cuts for the rich, a massacre of the EPA, destruction of arts’ advocacy groups. I won’t go on – I’m sure you know more than I what is at stake. What a statement of values from our elected-by-the-electoral-college president.

My wonderful German-American cousin sent me this poem, a blessing, in these days when we need a blessing, or whatever word we’d use for help in not despairing. John O’Donohue says it better than I ever could, for in poetry lies our soul. Would that our leaders realized that.

Beannacht (“Blessing”)

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O’Donohue ~

And next week will be better.

Another Sunday, http://www.cynthiastrauff.com