Thursday, November 15, 2007

Iron & sparks in DNA

This holiday season, more than ever, we find ourselves immersed in the blessings of being close to family.

Eight days after Halloween, my Aunt Kate arrived from North Carolina for a week to help me celebrate my birthday. Our youngest son and his family will be here for Thanksgiving. We’ll split Christmas between them and his ex. And our eldest son and his wife will visit from Reno for New Year’s Eve and our 30th wedding anniversary Jan. 2.

In the midst of all that, our middle son has moved back home to start a new and exciting job in Cambria.

The latter, of course, means massive renovation in our back bedroom. Where to put winter coats now? Is there room somewhere for my sewing machine? And the Christmas gifts I haven’t wrapped yet (which is nearly all of them)? Arrgh.

Frenzy doesn’t begin to describe it.

But what a perfect season for it, because it’s all about family.

Husband Richard has nine siblings and enough other relatives to fill a metropolitan phone book. I, on the other hand, have few blood relatives, especially on my mother’s side. I cherish every one of them, if for no other reason than they’re … um … individualistic.

I get to share ancestral DNA with strong-willed, offbeat women who purposefully crafted the lives they wanted and needed.

My ancestor, British Major Gen. Robert Sedgwick, arrived in 1621 to the land that would later become the United States. The family established one of the first ironworks foundries in the Massachusetts colony.

When one of my great-great grandmas left home, she was the only young, unmarried woman on the wagon train heading west. She had a wonderful, somewhat X-rated time, thank you, as documented in her diary that’s kept under lock and key by a circumspect historical society.

Indiana (yes, that was her name) was the first white female teacher west of the Rocky Mountains. She married Richard Sopris, the first elected representative to Congress from the Jefferson Territory (Colorado) and later, mayor of Denver and parks commissioner.

Their daughter (my great-grandmother) Elizabeth Sopris Brown studied surveying and astronomy during the Victorian era, when few colleges even accepted women students.
Her daughter, Katharine "Kitty" Inglis Suydam, was the most conventional twig on my family tree. Even so, she took flying lessons in 1922.

Of course, my primary role model in eccentricity was my mom, Andy, who was strong-willed enough to ditch a name she hated (Betsy) and legally rename herself Andrew to honor the grandfather she adored.

When Mom was 16, her widowed mother married a man who Andy didn’t like much and with whom she didn’t want to live. She left home, moved to Greenwich Village and became a jazz critic.

Mom toured nationwide on a bus as a publicist with the Chico Marx Band, then met and married my father, a great jazz musician but an erratic, alcoholic husband. They divorced when I was five.

Mom made another life for herself and me, working at everything from selling freezers to writing and performing commercials and radio shows. That was in a time and place where divorcing just wasn’t done, the woman of the house stayed home to tend house and kids, and you were judged by how much money and status the man of the house had. Fit in? Guess again.

When I was 13, Mom, Kate and I were on a cross-country vacation when my unusual mother met my equally unconventional stepdad, a lifelong bachelor and resort chef. They fell in love and married 10 days later. No, that’s not a typo: 10 days.

About 17 years later, he died suddenly. Mom dealt with her grief in a motorhome, touring the U.S. alone for several months, revisiting places they had been during their all-too-brief life together (I had been in 13 high schools in three years.).

Is it any wonder I’m a genuine kook? It’s all in those blessed genes, the elusive DNA links we celebrate so enthusiastically every Thanksgiving, and all year long.

Thanks, ladies, for giving me such an unusually strong heritage. May I carry on and always make you proud.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a fascinating family history. I can't wait to read your autobiography! =^)