Saturday, October 22, 2011

Austin Cecil Tasker - My Family's History

     The young man on the right is my grandfather:  Austin Cecil Tasker.  Don't know with whom he is standing, nor to whom the car belongs, but it's a great photo of a man who was already a grandfather when I met him. (!)
     Genealogy always starts with the people you know.  And usually, once you start researching, you realize that you don't know them at all.  How much do YOU know about your grandparents?  How often did you listen to their stories of "the olde days"?
     I suppose I listened no better than most kids.  I knew he was my grandpa and that was what mattered.  He gave me Canada Mints (those thick pink candies).  He was a preacher and worked for a local savings and loan.  He gave me butterscotch ice cream and sugar cookies and ginger ale before bed.  He liked baseball (the Pittsburgh Pirates) and pro wrestling.  Grandpa would whistle and sing all day long.  He liked to hunt and fish, and I grew up eating trout and rabbit and squirrel at his table.  He had this great collection of metal wind-up toys that I have no idea where they got to.  I hope my cousin Diane has them.  And he had one of those cans of "peanuts" that had a springy snake inside.
    But his history was most cloudy.  I don't suppose I cared to know it one way or the other.  But as I grew older I began to listen to his stories and I discovered such an interesting man.
     He was born Austin Cecil, his friends as an adult called him "Tom" (more on that later).  I don't know what his father or mother called him.  "Austin" sounds so pretentious for someone born in a little town in Mineral County West Virginia in 1903.  But, it was the sort of name that was popular at the time.
     Austin was the oldest of four children but he only had his mother for the first few years of his life.  Ida Miller Tasker died giving birth to the final child, leaving James Edgar a widower with four children under the age of 10.
     Austin went to live with family friends, but still saw his father and siblings as they grew up and grew older.  Too young to sign up for or be drafted in WWI, Austin eventually went to work across the state line in Johnstown, PA.
     One day as "Tom" (as he was known to his friends) and some buddies were walking home from work Tom spied a young lady sitting on the front porch of her mother's house.  Without knowing her name or any other facts about her, Tom announced his intention to marry the young lady.  He introduced himself and struck up a conversation, and within a few months Austin Cecil Tasker was the husband of the former Miss Edith Mae Wise.
     The young couple settled into married life quite nicely, except for the secret Austin, or Tom, was keeping from his bride.  One day soon after their marriage, a group of young men came banging on the door, asking for "Tom".  Edith politely told then that there was no Tom there, but the young men insisted, becoming loud and frightening the tiny lady.  She finally closed the door and barricaded herself inside, and the young men left.  Later than night she told her husband of the day's scare only to have him laugh and then sheepishly admit to his alter ego.
     Soon the family began to grow.  First came James Robert, named in honor of Austin's father.  Then Mildred Elizabeth, then William Cecil, and finally Betty Jane (my mother).  By the end of WWII the family was living in Somerset, PA, which was to be the home of Austin and Edith until their deaths.
     Austin held a variety of jobs - most of them doing construction.  I remember hearing that Grandpa worked a steam shovel and immediately associated him with Mike Mulligan and his famous steam shovel.  Grandpa helped to build several roads throughout Pennsylvania and New York, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  
(Yes, I know this photo is from BEFORE Grandma and Grandpa got married, but I am not the holder of ALL family mementos you know!)
     The family prospered, and Grandpa felt the calling of the ministry.  He became a minister for the Church of the Brethren and ministered to his flocks for decades.  I recall attending church one Sunday when Grandpa was the preacher, but sad-to-say, paid no attention at all to the sermon.  So I can't tell you what kind of preacher he was.  But I do know that he loved to sing.  Grandpa had one of those quavery tenors that makes you think of older men in barbershop quartets (which he participated in, as well as men's choirs) and he would sing while dressing, while doing chores, while walking or driving.  So I suppose I come by my own love of singing honestly.
     Here is the Austin Tasker family prior to their arrival on Court Avenue in Somerset.  Left to right are (Uncle) Jim, Grandpa (he was always a gentleman of his era and wore a hat whenever he went outside), (my Mom) Betty, (Uncle) Bill, Grandma, and (Aunt) Mildred.  The family was a happy family, close to each other,  some little spats no doubt, but nothing that kept any of them apart.  Today only Aunt Mildred, Uncle Bill, and my Mom are living, and Aunt Mildred is not well, but they still enjoy each other's company.  Uncle Bill and his wife (Aunt Cora Mae) and Mom are planning a vacation to New England and Canada next year.  Not sure my sisters and I could do the same without someone ending up dead!
     But back to the story.  For their 25th wedding anniversary, Austin and Edith celebrated in elaborate style. They spent the day working in a rented garden plot they had just outside of town.  But their family and friends had other ideas, so when the silver couple returned home, dirty and sweaty and tired, they were surprised by an anniversary party.
     I love this picture - seeing my grandparents smiling and happy and young, but obviously in the house I knew from later years.  I remember that little wooden moon and star decoration, and the Art Deco china cabinet now sits in my own mother's dining room.  I could describe the whole house to you - to grandma's left are the stairs to the second floor with three bedrooms and a bathroom, and more stairs up to the attic.  The living room is behind grandpa and the kitchen is behind grandma.  Again, I digress.
     Gradually the children grew up and moved away.  Grandchildren came to visit.  One of my favorite things every summer was to spend a week with Grandma and Grandpa all by myself - no sisters, just me.  And those summer-time before bed snacks - makes me wonder how I ever got to sleep!  By this time Grandpa was retired, so he worked for the Savings and Loan, mostly verifying that folks who got home improvement loans had actually improved their homes.  Only now do I realize that he was doing the kind of work that could be somewhat dangerous:  western PA, home of the Whiskey Rebellion, is still not a place where you want to go waaaay out in the country to poke your nose into someone else's business, especially if you are going to tell them they are in trouble.
     But then, Grandpa knew how to handle himself, and he was always good with people.  As a young boy, remember that he lived in West Virginia, and I recall him telling stories of "Revenuers" who came to look for stills in the woods, never to return.  And this was a man who successfully squirrel hunted well into his 70s.  So I suppose he knew what he was doing!
     Austin and Edith eventually moved into a retirement apartment complex, a little place with a view of the Somerset County Courthouse and within easy walking distance of "uptown".  
     Time and old age caught up with Austin, and after a series of heart attacks and the degradations of Alzheimer's, he died in 1992.
     Grandpa loved to go fishing (I can still hear him say it: "feeshing") and he made it a point to take each grandchild out at least once.  My great catch was a 5" blue gill and a similar-sized trout.  But he also took my son, Nathaniel, out for his first fishing experience.  Grandpa was feeling the effects of dementia, and I spent a great deal of time untangling lines and reels, but he and Nathaniel had a great time.  No one caught anything but they saw and poked a big green frog, and enjoyed the sun, and Nathaniel was young enough not to know any difference.  

     As you can see, a good time was had by all.

Austin Cecil Tasker
9 September 1903 - 30 January 1992

Friday, October 21, 2011

My Little Slice of History

I love history - always have.  The more I learn about a time and place, the more I want to know.  I like getting into the heads of folks from "back then" and understanding what made them different from me, and discovering how much like me they were.

Since I was very young my mom and dad provided the history of me (and my sisters, but really ME!) when they told family stories.  Some were funny - Aunt Mildred waking up her much younger sister to get up for school when Aunt Mildred had just gotten home (at a reasonable hour) from a date.  Some were dramatic - the time dad fell out of the tree, cut his neck and was knocked out cold, making his sister believe he was dead, so she buried him.  Some were romantic - mom seeing dad at the diner counter and telling a friend that she was going to marry that man.  Others were sad - dad's own father's death when my dad was barely a teenager.

Because my parents were such good story tellers, I was always intrigued by my family.  They seemed so much more interesting and alive than I was.  No snow up to the second story, no shoveling coal into the furnace, no dad gone for weeks at a time in order to find work and feed his family.  We lived ordinary lives.

As I got older I realized that my family considered their lives to be normal and ordinary, too.  EVERYONE had to walk to school, EVERYONE worked hard, ALL the dads took whatever work they could find, regardless of how far it took them from home.

Now that I am a historian and genealogist I know that the lives of my family, both the previous generation and the generations of the 18th century, were both normal and unique.  The general outline was the same as that of their neighbors and friends, but the details were uniquely their own.

As I continue to uncover the stories of my family's past I will record them here.  Sometimes I will debunk a long-cherished myth.  Other times I will prove the truth of the family legend.  And I have already found a couple of amazing ordinary folks lurking in our family tree.

Interested in uncovering more of your own family history?  Check out my company, Heritage and Family, and see what I have to offer.