Aiming digital recorder in direction of my 80-year-old uncle, Scottish, Irish heritage

March 22, 2012 02:38 pm
At the tender age of 14 I began plotting my escape from Eastern Oregon.

Fiercely independent since my feet hit the ground, I oft repeated my favorite phrase, “I do it my way.”

A few months after high school graduation, I left for college. I flew out of Klamath Falls’ Kingsley Field on an August morning, blubbering exactly like a fiercely independent 18 year-old, clutching my stuffed Smokey Bear, the same bear I’d taken everywhere with me since he was tucked under my arm in my crib.

When I arrived at St. Mary’s I looked around and had the notion that I was the only freshman on campus who didn’t know a single soul. My utter fear could be seen plainly in the identification photo taken a few minutes later in the student union.

At 18 I shrugged off my family and moved away as far as possible. Twenty years later the draw to be closer to my parents tugged at me. By now I have grown independent enough to know how important it is to strengthen family ties.

My uncle turned 80 in January and in February his children, nieces, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered to celebrate the event. Besides needing the assistance of hearing aids, Uncle Bob is as spry and sharp as he ever was, reinventing what being 80 years old means.

A few years ago my aunt suggested I record his stories and I decided it was about time I started the project, so I borrowed a digital recorder and brought it to the party.

The birthday celebration in Belfair, Wash., did not lend itself to an interview, so we decided to meet up in Portland on St. Patrick’s Day, the highest holy day in the family, next to Christmas and Easter of course.

The Nesbitt name is Scottish and means “nose bit” or that funny thing that protects the nose on a mediaeval fighting helmet. Some industrious souls in the family maintained a family tree starting around the year 1000. Several copies are in the family and boast Duncan as the most famous family member, the guy MacBeth killed to take over Scotland in the Middle Ages.

Except for Duncan, the family has primarily farmed and served as mid-level civil servants for centuries. My grandfather, a first-generation American, worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps and later had a career with the National Guard. My father and uncle both worked their 30-plus year careers with the U.S. Forest Service. Over Guinness last weekend the three of us swapped forest fire stories to our hearts’ content.

Like many Americans, our family has a strong sense of our Scottish and Irish heritage. Our part of the Nesbitt clan escaped Scotland around 1650 during Cromwell’s reign of terror. Though my uncle isn’t entirely sure why, being Anglican he listed a variety of reasons we ran for refuge in Ireland including the Presbyterians, the Catholics or the English.

The family resided in Ireland only 200 years before my great-grandfather came to America and found work baking bread for miners in San Francisco. He went home to Ireland and returned with his family 20 years later, settling in Duluth, Minn.

On St. Patrick’s my mother prepared the typical Irish-American dinner of corned beef and cabbage and Bailey’s Irish Cream frosted cupcakes for dessert. Then she poured snifters of Courvoisier for the story-telling.

I know many of our family stories, but Saturday night I realized the treasure trove of oral tradition that hasn’t been recorded. Besides my uncles stories there are letters saved that will reveal how members of my family lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — from whaling ships to the woods of the Adirondacks to the White House.

We barely chipped the tip of the iceberg this weekend of the last 150 years of Nesbitt family history.

I recently read Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” whose protagonist pieced together his grandmother’s letters to tell her life story. I feel like I, too, am on a journey to compile and transcribe family stories of those fiercely independent ancestors from whom I descend.


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