… Beautiful bluefish. It turned out better than I expected. Fresh tasting, a bit salty, a bit spicy. I decided to broil it instead of baking. I never use the broiler and was totally unprepared for the quantities of  smoke pouring from the vents. I opened windows, doors, etc., etc. but the smoke detector began screaming before I ever got the fish in the oven.


Oh, well. At least it’s a comfortable 67 degrees outside so windows can stay open all night.

Have to write a thank-you to my supplier and will make an offering to the neighbors.

At Last

There are certain inalienable rites of summer that begin with local produce, not the stuff that appears all year long shipped in from Chile or California: asparagus, lettuce, shad (I didn’t get to cook it this year), strawberries; later corn, tomatoes, blueberries, peaches, zucchini, eggplant. I made ratatouille last week. Next will come apples, winter squash. Then it will be time to make the mincemeat. The one thing that has been missing this summer is bluefish.


As I mentioned in “Fish Tales,” posted in early July, my source is no more. He moved to Florida and then disappeared completely. He was one of those avid fishermen who would go out on expensive charters but never let much of anything except huge pieces of prime rib and chicken wings pass his lips. He even ignored the carrots and celery that came with the wings. The vegetable was the potato that came with the beef. That meant more blues for me! And they came fileted. I struggled along last year, but this year – nothing. Until last weekend.

At last weekend’s Open Air Market and Festival at Wadsworth Mansion, another of the featured summer events, I ran into a neighbor who said he was supposed to go for tuna, but the swells were too high. This man is so dedicated, the license plate on his truck reads “Fluke1”!

I asked him if he ever fished for blues. Oh, yes, he was about to go out because he was planning to smoke some. I sighed over the year I borrowed my neighbor’s smoker and then made the Legal Seafoods recipe for Smoked Bluefish Pâté. I had my commitment.

Didn’t realize it would pay off so fast. When I arrived home last night and went into the fridge where I saw this large plastic baggie sitting on a folded sheet of newspaper. It looked familiar, but I was tired and distracted. This a.m., rushed and distracted. As I was leaving for the writing workshop this evening Larry said, “Oh, Kenny brought you some bluefish.” Yikes! This is not a fish that improves with age. I always remember “guests, fish, three days” but won’t quote the rest of it.

So I came home and pulled out two of the most enormous filets I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what they weighed – I’m guessing two pounds apiece. God only knows what the original fish looked like – I’m thinking we should be talking “Call me Ishmael.” And those babies have teeth that can wreak havoc like a mini-shark. I told Larry there was enough fish for him, me, and the family of four next door.

Those babies just fit into my 9 x 13 glass pan. I washed and toweled, and then added the marinade. Because it was last minute, I whisked together canola oil, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, lots of ginger, and poured it over the filets. They are happily bathing over night in the fridge to be turned in the a.m. and baked tomorrow. Review to follow.

What I’m Reading Now

Another in an occasional series. This entry includes two I’ve finished and one in process. I am making a presentation to the genealogy club at Godfrey Memorial Library next month. Using Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters as the paradigm, I plan to talk about creating a narrative and maneuvering the morass that is the publishing industry in the twenty-first century.

forgotten copy

To branch out from personal example, I’ll present three books about the residents of the Cane River area of Louisiana to demonstrate how one can employ the same facts, same dates, same setting to create three very different books.

The first one to be widely distributed was The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color, credited to Gary B. Mills and revised by his widow Elizabeth Shown Mills, who I understand wrote much of the original. It is a scholarly work, full of footnotes and bibliography.

Shown Mills wrote a fictional version as well, Isle of Canes, which runs nearly six hundred pages, and opens with a map, a summary of the generations, and eight pages of family trees. isle copy

I’ve finished these two.  With a couple of exceptions, the people are indistinguishable. and their stories don’t engage. The novel, especially, tries to fight the American Revolution, parts of the French Revolution, the War of 1812, and of course the Civil War while also exploring the quotidian lives of those who resided along the Cane River.

In between these two works, Lalita Tademy published the novel Cane River, which became an Oprah Book Club selection, and focuses on generations of women in her family.

cane copyTo a greater or lesser degree, all three works concern the families created by liaisons between black or mulatto women and the white, mostly French, men who enslaved them and fathered their children. Many of these mixed-race people became slave owners themselves and suffered far greater losses during the Civil War than their white neighbors.

The three together will make great examples of what to do and what not to do when writing family history.

My Turn

OK, so today it’s my turn to brag. Among the items that were lost in the blog deletion were the publicity about African American Connecticut Explored, and the talks that I gave in New London and Old Saybrook in support of my essay, “Just Like Georgia Except for the Climate: Black Life at Mid-Century in Ann Petry’s The Narrows.” More than six months later, I’m still entranced by the exquisite cover photo of my grand-aunt Anna Louise James who ran James’ Pharmacy  for more than forty years.


Now, it is a thrill to report that my essay appears in the magazine, which also features Mother on the cover and stunning photo reproductions inside. The theme of the fall issue is “The Power of the Pen,” and Mother is in illustrious company: Ida Tarbell, Gideon Welles, a gaggle of authors of children’s books, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

It’s especially great to see the byline of Joe Nunes, my former boss, who wrote “The Political Fires that Fueled The Courant.” When we talked about writing for Connecticut Explored, I had no idea we’d be in the same issue, just a few pages away! Thanks, Joe. for contributing terrific insights about the Courant’s long and winding road to the present day.

Kudos to Larry

We’ve known for several months that Larry will become commander of American Legion Post 75 next month. Now the whole world knows. Thank you to Sheena Young for a good article in the Middletown Press and to my friend Cathy Avalone for stellar photos.


Larry Riley, incoming commander of American Legion Post 75. Credit: Cathy Avalone, Middletown Press. .
Larry Riley, incoming commander of American Legion Post 75. Credit: Cathy Avalone, Middletown Press. .

Lots of folks called and came up to me on the street, but the best was the metaphorical standing O from City Councilman Grady Faulkner. Here’s what he sent out:

A link to an article featuring always cool, calm, collected and now New Commander of American Legion Milardo-Wilcox Post 75 here in Middletown, our very own larger than life… born and raised in Middletown Mr. Larry Riley.  The brother is so cool, he spoke at the last council meeting and just rather casually mentioned he was Commander-Elect for Post 75.  He is the First African American selected to lead this Veterans unit based here in Middletown.  I attend many veterans events as a councilman (Middletown hosts a State Veterans cemetery). The official ceremony will be Sept 9th 6pm at their meeting place on Bernie O’Rourke Drive.

BIG CONGRATULATIONS to a great Middletown native, a caring man for this community, a tough stern presence.. someone you need to be talking to our young people about.  You may want to post the article for the youth to read.  I’ve talked with him in the past about highlighting the “return” of African Americans in the military since he experienced both the chill after Vietnam (political) and the historical return to “place” for African Americans (racial).  As supporters, it’s our job to make that happen by Inviting him to speak on topics relevant to us.  I am very happy and very proud of this, so send him a card, write a letter to the editor … DO something to let people know our feelings about the man and what he represents. btw – I just saw the James Brown movie, so I can SAY IT LOUD…. I’m Black and I’m PROUD.

Thank you, Grady. Congratulations, Larry!

Finding Anna I

This is a combination of two blog posts that I wrote in 2010.

My great-grandfather, Willis Samuel James, married three times. My cousins Anna Bush, Ashley James, and I are descended from Anna II, Anna Estelle Houston. We know Anna III was Anna Mathilda Phillips, born on St. Croix.

No one in the family knew much about Anna I, whose name was probably not really Anna, but it made a good story. I’ve been chasing her since the late 1990s when I started researching Can Anything Beat White? I am reposting it now as I’m putting together information for her great-great-grandson, my cousin Phil James.

Various last names had surfaced. Maybe it was Webb, maybe Jackson, maybe Anderson.

When I wrote the first post, I knew that Willis (under the name Sam) and his first wife were living in Hartford, Connecticut, when she gave birth to their son, Charles H. James, on November 21, 1866. A second child was stillborn March 17, 1870. I suspect there were more children, but Hartford stinks at preservation of vital records. Anna I died in Hartford on October 12, 1872, age 27 years, five months. Her death certificate and the 1870 census give her place of birth as New York.

Six months after I wrote the above, I retraced my steps and branched out. After some false starts, I finally located her.

The name Wesley held the key. I found a Wesley Derby in the household of Daniel Anderson, next door to Zenus and Mary Webb in 1900 census. Wesley was listed as brother-in-law to head-of-household Daniel Anderson, meaning he was brother to Daniel’s wife Abigail. (He could have been married to a sister of Anderson’s, but Wesley was listed as single.) I worked forward first but couldn’t find Wesley Derby with various spelling permutations again. Then I began working backward. No Daniel Anderson in New York in 1880 (in fact the ages of the children indicate that Abigail and Daniel might have married in 1880). But I did find a Wesley Darby working as a coachman in East Chester, next door to Charles Darby, a farmer age 66. Charles was listed as married, but there was no woman of the right age anywhere in East Chester. The only other person in the household was his daughter Abbey Darby.

I went back to 1870 and found Charles Derby, 57, a coachman. Others in his household were Harriet, age 56; Caroline, 15; and Howard, 12. Jumped to 1860. When I saw page 8, I started to cry. There was Charles H. Darby, Harriet E., Mary J. , Hannah E., Wesley A., Anna M., Silva C. (who probably became Caroline), and Howard L. They were all right where they were supposed to be in Eastchester, Mount Vernon post office.

Side note: Hannah may have been listed twice in the 1860 census, once with her family and a second time working as a maid in the household of Sabina Sniffin in New Rochelle. I would have read the last name as Griffin, but there were several families, black and white, named Sniffin in Westchester County.

Then I found Hannah’s family in Orange County, New York, in 1850 even though Ancestry had them indexed as Darley, which means that a Soundex search for Derby/Darby produces zero results. Still looking in earlier census listings but not holding out much hope since only the head of household is listed by name, and Charles may not have been living in his own home at that point. The oldest child, Mary, was born about 1842, unless Charles and Harriet had an earlier child who died. That little piece of information means that Charles and Harriet probably married in between 1840 and 1842.


So it turns out that Anna I’s real name was Hannah (probably Hannah Elizabeth) Derby or Darby. Other family connections: sister Mary married Zenus (various spellings) Webb and sister Abigail married Daniel Anderson. Daniel and Abigail’s daughter Elizabeth married Richard Jackson. So that accounts for the Webb-Jackson-Anderson last names that were handed down.

The back of the above picture says: “Mrs. Anna James with love and best wishes from E. Jackson “Elizabeth – Mt. Vernon” I obtained a copy from Gertrude James Thompson, granddaughter of Charles H. James. Hope someone out there has more information.

Fear II

Posting early today because the web host is doing “planned server maintenance” right about the time I generally go on the blog. The host claims it’ll only be down for a half hour, but of course that would be the half hour I’d be writing.

It occurred to me after I wrote about fear yesterday that I did undergo another truly frightening experience. It happened one evening in Philadelphia when I had been with some co-workers to see the play “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” It was at a theater across from where we worked so we trooped over, planning walk en masse back to our cars afterward since the neighborhood became a little dodgy after the office people went home.


We were burbling after the show – it was brilliant – and gently chiding the wife a co-worker who had recently moved from a town with a population of three hundred on a tiny island in the West Indies.

We crossed the street, turned the corner, and found ourselves staring at a deranged man – hair flying out from under a baseball cap, grubby jeans, torn shirt – who was pointing a gun at us. He yelled, “Run, run.” I froze for a second and then took off down into the subway entrance. I turned back and saw our West Indian friend, rooted in place. I ran back up, grabbed her, and hustled her down the stairs. The last thing I heard before I hit the landing was the same guy, yelling, “Police! Freeze!”

We stayed put for about ten minutes, until people coming down said the cops had caught their guy.

That was the first and last time anyone has ever pointed a gun at me. I was frightened but I’m sure not as abjectly terrified as the woman who had given up an island paradise for the mean streets. Welcome to Philadelphia!


Dr. Jan Willis, professor emerita at Wesleyan University, last week graced the veterans’ writing workshop with her presence. She talked about her memoir Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist — One Woman’s Spiritual Journal, which Wisdom House has issued in a beautiful new edition.


Ever the teacher, she engaged the members of the workshop by asking whether they were afraid when they were in combat. Her context was the stories told by her former brother-in-law, and her impression was that war caused men to experience fear in a way that women don’t. Just to check out the theory, I’ll be reading Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls to see if things have changed.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about when I was most afraid. It wasn’t during the hurricane that ripped the silver maple in our yard in half with part of it landing in our living room. I was too young to know what I was seeing as I watched branches floating past my bedroom window.

Nor was it when I was driving back to my parents’ house from Philadelphia in a driving snow storm and watched as a VW bug raced along in the fast lane of I-95, flipped up on an embankment, and landed at the feet of a state trooper who was investigating an accident and who let loose a string of curses, some of which I’d never heard before. I was too busy worrying about how a car had hit the back of mine, causing me to hit the car in front as we all glided over to the right guard rail, which kept us from all falling into a frozen creek.


No, it was most definitely the day the electronic bars slammed shut and locked behind me at Graterford Prison in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania (yes, the town where the 9/11 plane landed, but this was years before). I was hemmed into a space a little bigger than the stall in a public restroom, with dirty white and rusting bars in front of me and the same behind me. My possessions, including the bracelets I’ve worn since I was 10, remained in the custody of a guard who was watching me after he pushed the lock.

It seemed that hours passed.

The guard at the bars in front pushed a button, and it slid open. I know I was hyperventilating. The only thing that kept me from a meltdown was the knowledge that I was there to do a job. It was to conduct interviews of prisoners for a lawsuit on prison-reform project. Eventually, I got back my bracelets and my briefcase and was ushered into a room with four residents – as I recall, we didn’t call them inmates – to discuss conditions at Graterford. They were uniformly well spoken and polite. I felt comfortable in their presence. Not so with the guards, who stood around the perimeter of the room. All I remember was they all had large guts and kept their hands on their weapons.

The prisoners knew I was there to help them. The last thing they would do was hurt me. It didn’t occur to me till I was back in my office that the guards saw me as a threat because I might be investigating complaints against them. I’d like to think that my fear heightened my empathy for my clients.

Too Sore To Write

Today’s entry will be vastly curtailed because of a case of painful arm muscles.

Our usual trainer was not at the weight and cardio workout that I do on Monday evenings. The sub, who is the recreation supervisor, ran the class with the stopwatch on her phone. For some reason I overdid it – maybe added extra weight where I hadn’t had them before. Or maybe she had us holding longer.

I suspected there might be a problem, so last night was a double ibuprofen night.

Today started OK, but I noticed a bit of a twinge when I was changing into my Reiki gear for the hospital. It got worse when I picked up the CD player, thinking, wow, this is heavy. These things new and weigh three pounds, at most. When I was doing Reiki, I felt great, as always. But  at the end, I felt I was carrying those thirty-five pound cat litter buckets I used to buy for Isis.

At home I wrote a few emails and contemplated what to post here. The thought of holding my arms up sent them into spasm.

So here’s what I’m aiming to look like, credit to Simply Shredded. Yes that is a woman’s arm. Only difference: she’s MUCH younger than I am.



What I’m Reading Now

… Two editions of the Sunday NYTimes, a very old New Yorker, two books about the Cane River (more about that later), and recovering from Carsick, still unconvinced that it’s nonfiction.

For entertainment it’s Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Once again I don’t know who recommended it, but so far it’s been a wild ride.


  • It starts with “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” who hitches a ride on a ship in the far away islands off New Zealand with a gout-ridden captain, a stowaway, etc. The chapter ends abruptly in mid-sentence.
  • The next chapter introduces a deadbeat with some musical talent who insinuates himself with a reclusive composer (and his wife) in 1931 Brussels and recounts his activities to a fellow Brit.
  • Chapter three features the recipient of the deadbeat’s letters, a scientist with a huge secret who becomes entwined with a writer for a National Enquirer type scandal sheet in twentieth century San Francisco.
  • At a little more than one hundred fifty pages in, I have just embarked on a chapter entitled “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.”

Cloud Atlas is so far one of those books in which one reaches the end and has read again just to make sense of all the bodies that keep dropping like, well, like bodies.