In the mirror

What precisely did I see? And of that, what have I blotted out? As a kid, I always felt somehow lacking any authentic traditions, not solely from Grandpa and Grandma’s side, either. While much of their Sunday dinner conversation felt banal, I’d assumed – only half-right, as it turns out, we’d been in Ohio since its beginning. Nothing of the Carolina Piedmont was acknowledged, although in time I would eventually hear a touch lingering in Aunt Vera’s inflection.

What I remember is imbued with a sense of loss and foreboding. Contemplating my grandparents is difficult because I, too, have spent so much of my life trying to break away from their ways, no less than they did in regard to their own grandparents – I, with my passion for fine arts and literature, my radical political convictions, and, especially, my zigzag spiritual quest that paradoxically led me to reclaim practices and teachings of our earlier ancestors. Even after I was active within the Society of Friends, Grandpa never mentioned it had been the faith of his own father. Nor did he ever let on that he knew our surname had used three spellings – Hodson, Hodgson, and Hodgin – a problem that plagued Floyd and me as we delved into the labyrinth of our family origins. Only after Grandpa’s death and much struggle in piecing together the appropriate Quaker minutes and our finally concluding the three spellings really did spring from a single source, did Aunt Myrl recall having a slip of paper on which Grandpa had written the three variants.

Theirs was also the generation that relocated from the farm to the city. For Grandpa, there were other departures from tradition, such as joining a secret society, the Masonic lodge, which would have been a disownable offense in the churches of most of his ancestors. Leroy, his brother, did likewise, in addition to serving in the U.S. Army during World War I.

Granted, these reflected society at large, and my grandparents did live through two world wars that reshaped American attitudes and life. Nor were they that far removed from the American Civil War; both of their fathers had been born before its eruption, one in North Carolina, the other in Ohio, in pacifist households.

Also hindering clear perceptions of Grandpa and Grandma were my subconscious attempts to fit them into the archetypes of idealized grandparents. Or, more fully, my mother’s efforts to fit them into the fairy tales she held regarding perfect families. Who insists, after all, that grandparents are to be doting and spoiling, free to go home at the end of the day? Or even that anyone deserves to be perfect? For that matter, Mom was the one to complain when her stepmother, our Gran, slipped my sister and me each a dollar bill for the week – effectively doubling our allowance.

In the long haul, simply showing up for occasions marking others’ milestones conveys more than I had imagined, regardless of my sense at the time. From the photographs, I see Grandpa and Grandma were present when I received my Eagle Scout badge, took confirmation, and graduated from high school (but not college).

More telling, there was no need to call them Grandpa and Grandma Hodson.

Look closely, though, or ask around, and you’re likely to find nobody whose grandparents quite fit into the warm, doting prototypes. The same goes for exemplars as parents or the idealized home life.

Continue reading In the mirror


Bethel Cemetery 

My introduction to this country cemetery was when I was nine and we drove for what like seemed forever from the first funeral in my experience and out across the bleak fields of Ohio to the burial.

I had no idea where we were, though now I’m surprised to find it was only a mile from Uncle Arlie’s farm, as the crow would fly northwest.

I was also clueless why this was the destination, rather than another one where I’d been on repeated stops. More on that in a future posting.


I eventually returned to this place decades later, once I’d undertaken the genealogy and had a name for the site, this time to find the graves of my great-great-grandparents, Jacob and Caroline Ehrstine. I was truly perplexed, why here?

I’m guessing this stone was erected in the 20th century, replacing earlier ones.
Their toddler son, Jesse
And toddler son Eli


The question was why they were buried at Bethel, rather than at the Ehrstine cemetery a township to the east, where many of my earlier ancestors are interred. I see no evidence of a family lift and can only conclude that their decision reflected a commitment to their community of faith, centered at the Salem Church of the Brethren across the road. From the German-American names on the gravestones, many with strong Brethren roots, Bethel appears to have been the church graveyard.

Not only are Arlie and Edna (Ehrstine) Binkley buried here, so are two generations of his ancestors and kin, including the Taylors, plus Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Jesse Haines, another Ehrstine descendant.

And my father was born not that far to the west.

A genealogist can learn a lot nosing around among old tombstones.

Other burials, giving a sense of the Brethren community, include Jesse Kinsey Brumbaugh, a minister.
Mary Hocker Brumbaugh upholds the Plain Brethren appearance.
Lowell Dale Gerber maintained tradition. Men wore beards but not mustaches.
As did Hubert Paul Balsbaugh.


Back to the countryside

Grandpa’s final years were spent in a brick ranch house set in a loop amid fields along the National Road. Through this period, we seldom saw each other. I came down, from another corner of the state, with my fiancee when he remarried. And later, after our return from the Pacific Northwest and resettlement in another corner of the state, we came down for his funeral, conducted by two members of their church. “They nearly converted me,” my then-wife said afterward. His widow, meanwhile, said, “Don’t those hymns really move you? Don’t they really say it all?” Referring to the heavy vibrato electronic organ, rather than any singing we might have done.

He had married another woman with impressive Brethren roots. Another Capricorn, for that matter. “A good Christian woman,” as he put it. I remember a somber woman with two gracious sons, and rumors of some conflict with one of my cousins.

There were more trips to California, too, with his preference for Knotts Berry Farm rather than Disneyland.

Perhaps this was a time of reflection for him, before he collapsed and died while shaving.

We did not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, or tell certain kinds of stories the way others did. We did not gamble, that I can tell. We did not party much, at least not in the raucous, outgoing, overbearing way that brings the police. We were not wealthy and did not live in the classier parts of town, either. In short, we were – and still are – a rather simple people. With some pretty good reasons.

About all we seemed to have was this odd, seemingly rare, six-letter name. Not as rare, it turns out, as I had thought. But still uncommon enough to cause problems: a name others often misspelled as Hudson or, as I could never understand, as Hodgson, with a g. Yet, as cousin Floyd Hodson has remarked, “A name is something we should live up to, wear with pride, constantly strive to upgrade its identity, let it always stand for honesty.” He adds: “I think the name Hodson has done all of these things. I’ve never been ashamed to introduce a Hodson to anyone. My name, because of the value and high standards given to it by my ancestors, has been one of my most valuable possessions.”

When I was an intern reporter at the Journal Herald in Dayton, I was surprised at the number of times I encountered the response, “Oh, you’re Marion’s boy,” or, “Are you any relation to James the plumber?” – to which would be added: “They’re a good family.”

But what does that mean?

Perhaps it was simply the lack of talk about anyplace else that misled me.

I do not recall hearing, as a child, many stories of my family roots – at least beyond my grandparents. My Hodson line seemed to possess little in the way of music, literature, or the visual arts, other than a generic Protestant religiosity and plastic-fork consumerism.

At any rate, searching for family roots was something I would have shied away from. In the end, each individual must assume responsibility for his own destiny, regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of genetic endowment. What is the good of finding distant linkage to royalty or fame unless estates or lost fortunes are involved? There is ego gratification, of course, but that urge entails risk: consider those who set out with high hopes that quickly shatter when they discover an ancestor hanged as a horse thief or that their good Christian name exposes relatively recent Jewish descent. At such points the quest is usually dropped. For others, genealogical investigation is a form of ancestor worship; frankly, I can think of better ways of spending eternity than being bound to legions sharing a surname.

Yet some curiosity remained. As Floyd observed in his letter: “When we think or speak of a name, we immediately think of those people’s characteristics, their habits, their personalities, and everything [else] that makes up every fiber of their being and [whether] it adds up to good or bad.”

During a visit home during Dad’s long decline to Alzheimer’s, I worshipped at a pastoral Friends meeting, rather than my more traditional “silent” variety. When an older woman asked why I chose them rather than another meeting nearby, I explained briefly that I enjoyed experiencing the other kinds of Quakers – and besides, I had the book, meaning a thorough oral history of the congregation and its town before they were relocated by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam project. She gazed at me and said, “It’s fiction. It’s all fiction.”

I keep coming back to this matter of identities and their influences. I think it’s often easier to say who or what we’re not than who or what we are, exactly. At least the negative list will always be muc­h longer than the positive one. And that’s not even touching on what we’d like to be. But we can also look to the ways and times our personalities are revealed through relationship – or even opposition to another. Or, as the local rabbi asks, why do we keep telling the same stories – what keeps drawing us back to the Biblical dramas?

Self-identities and a sense of importance do shape us.

Going through my files, I find a later, undated note to me headed, “Formerly Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber, Now Just Grandpa Hodson.” Until TJ had asked if I knew his slogan, this entry was entirely baffling. Now, in context, he observes “a bit of joy comes as I realize I am one – only one – of ‘Those Shriners.’ That reminds me of what my good friend Dr. Gregory once said, ‘After all there is nothing much more valuable than a host of Christian friends.’

“Lots of good old fashioned Preble County love.”

This, after he had sold the house in Dayton and retired across the county line in Lewisville.

At last the meaning comes clear. All these years later.

*   *   *

Who would describe himself as a leading Republican plumber today? Not after Watergate, when “Republican plumber” became a euphemism for buglar, the band of bungling former spies and thugs actively attempting to subvert open elections and American democracy. A “Republican plumber” was even a CREEP, thanks to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Watergate, the hotel and office complex, itself carried a biting irony in this matter: “water gate” was originally a kind of plumbing.

Not that the Grand Old Party hasn’t tried. In 2008, the John McCain presidential campaign floated “Joe the Plumber,” touting Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher as just another regular Ohio man. A plumber, however, who wasn’t licensed and inexplicably had an income far above what any hourly wage would provide or an average homeowner could afford.

Of course, the Republican Party was transmuting from the party of Lincoln and Hoover into its opposite.

Dayton, too, is not what it was.

My attitude toward the bubbling Christmas tree candle lights has changed, too. They become somehow appropriate for a plumber’s Christmas tree, or perhaps even our own, which will never have tinsel. (My wife’s style is folk arts, unlike theirs.) As the owner of a house built about the same time as their McOwen street home, I’ve come to treasure a good plumber. The range of required skills for maintaining an old structure far exceeds my own, and with Rick, our carpenter and electrician, we’ve uncovered too many examples of people in over their heads over the years; it’s a wonder the kitchen roof never blew off in a nor’easter or blizzard.

In all of this, as I probe my memories of Grandpa and Grandma, I also sense a legion of ghosts behind them – not apparitions, exactly, but rather the people who were already old when they were small: connections from the years before automobiles and farm tractors became commonplace. This, I will argue, is their essence – something they knew they had lost, much the way Adam and Eve sensed deep loss in their expulsion from Eden. Of course, Grandpa and Grandma would openly admit that farming was never an Eden, not with so much endless hard labor. And like Adam and Eve, something was both lost and gained in moving on. Even so, in our Sunday afternoon visits to Grandma’s sister and her family, we returned to something unspeakably fundamental and true – the farm, set so close to so many other family connections.

Greetings to all

Here we are, a day shy of the date given – without support – as Orphan George’s birthday. Not that Quakers would have celebrated.

What I would like to celebrate, though, is the conclusion of the serialized branch of the family that Michael Howard Hodgson shared through the past year. Yay! I still believe it’s a remarkable document of family movement westward in generations across the frontier.

I’m hoping it will inspire other family members who have documents or artwork to contribute to do so. The blog’s open!

Before the postings return to Ohio, for now, let me return to our North Carolina roots.

Researchers who go to the old Quaker minute books can expect to face pages like this.

A page from the New Garden Friends men’s meeting minutes that include mention of Orphan George’s son, George, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.


And the New Garden Friends meetinghouse in Guilford County, North Carolina, is one our family knew well.

The exterior in its later years.


And what to expect inside, seen from the men’s side of the room. The vertical shutters seen as open windows across the middle of the room could be closed for business sessions, with the women handling their own agenda.


Remember, too, this blog has other centers of action, including much from my Pennsylvania Dutch background as it was transplanted into southwest Ohio.

This year we’ll be paying special attention to my grandfather and grandmother, who I had pretty much leapt over in trying to learn about my roots. It gets rather personal.

So, yes, we’re returning to Ohio … unless you have something to take us elsewhere!