Monday, October 19, 2009

Ode to My Family

This week I'm assigning the Heritage Project to my juniors. They basically have to put together a portfolio detailing as much of their family's history as they can find. The project also entails a good deal of reflection; we want the kids to understand that they are the product of the generations that came before them. Our relatives pass on more than just physical traits to us.

Every year, this gets me thinking about what I would've done had I been tasked with this undertaking. Knowledge of my own family history is sorely lacking. I'm aware that I'm Irish and German (hungry, angry, and tipsy), but as far as I know, we can't name when or who the ancestors were who came across the pond.

Although my grasp of long-ago Nolan/Houser history is cloudy, I was fortunate to know my four grandparents quite well. They've all passed on now, but they each imprinted me with distinct parts of my personality. This isn't going to be terribly interesting unless you're related to me; as Delores O'Riordan croons in the ballad that inspired this entry's title, "Does anyone care?" If you stick around till the end, you can watch the video; it's one of my all-time favorite songs.

My Grandma Ruth Nolan was one of the most giving people I have ever known. She lived to make others happy. The only thing she really liked doing for herself was playing bridge with her friends for a quarter a hand. Then during the summer, on our annual r.v. camping trip to the beach in San Diego, she would give my sister and I all of her winnings from that year. When I was a kid, nothing made me happier than having a surplus of quarters to spend at the arcade. Any philanthropic instincts I have are influenced by her.

My "Poppa" Ivan Nolan was a salty Irishman with a Russian name. A recovered alcoholic, he kept packets of gum all over the house, presumable to fight the cravings. There were Wrigley's containers in every conceivable drawer and cabinet. No man ever loved dogs more (he had one Irish setter after another), which certainly applies to me.

However, what I most took from Pop are two of his defining traits. First was that the man couldn't stand to go to bed. There was always one more light to be turned off, one more door to make sure was closed. He would shuffle up and down the hallway well past midnight. I think of this sometimes when I'm up late reading Facebook status updates rather than turning in for the night.

The second thing I inherited from him is much more evident to those who know me. Poppa had an incredibly dry and sarcastic sense of humor. Not everyone "got it," but from an early age I thought the dude was hilarious. It could border on mean, but there was always a twinkle in his eye, and I understood he wasn't malicious. There was also no one else in the history of the world who could growl the word "S*#tfire!" as magnificently as he.

My "Gammie," Maxine Houser, did not put up with a lot of nonsense nor suffer fools well. She did not tolerate excuses for laziness and rude behavior, and she never let me get away with giving less than a good effort. I'm making her sound like a taskmaster, which she wasn't. She could be fun, too. But when I find myself glowering at a student who's trying to snow me or give me some lame excuse as to why he or she is late for the third time this week, I know I'm channeling my Gammie.

I once called my "Gramps," Norman Houser, "The only perfect person I know." He seemed to know everything, from who wrote what book, to what to do for a head cold, to how to fix a broken...well, anything. He was meticulous and intellectual. He was a high school principal who also wrote a moderately successful book about the dangers of drug use. He played the organ every morning and could charm the neighborhood peacock into entering the house.

He and Stephen King are probably the two biggest reasons I ended up an English teacher. Gramps read to me relentlessly, and always pushed me to read above my level. At his behest, I read both Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird (two books I now teach) years before being assigned them in high school.

Oh, and if he'd ever been on Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune, they could've sent everyone else home.

And now, as promised, The Cranberries!


Anonymous said...

I see very little mention of your sister in this "Ode To My Family" blog. That's just so sad. I hear she's awesome.

Nolan said...

If you knew my sister, you probably wouldn't think so. Also, I'm too emotionally closed off to write about people who are still alive. Maybe if she died?