Wednesday, January 03, 2007

My Aunt Was a Physicist

My aunt, Frances Alsmiller, was a physicist married to another physicist, "Tut" Alsmiller. I've gotten over the surprise of learning of this in 2000 -- and had meant to assimilate it as personal biographical information -- and simply to refer to her (both are now deceased) -- as my aunt. Earlier in life I had been told that our aunt and uncle (my mother's siblings) were doctors. We never met them due to the fact that my mother was adopted as an infant in 1930 out of that family -- her mother died shortly after giving birth to her -- by her father's cousin, a woodcrafter, and his wife, Wisconsin dairy farmers. I now refer to my mother's original family as her "other family."

Our mother spoke once against "blood arguments," and this meant, among other things, that we were not to think of ourselves magically as "doctors" because her siblings were doctors. Now I am not to think of myself magically as a "physicist" since her sister was one -- born in 1929 or so -- or as psychiatrists because her brother was one -- and yet, I find it thrilling to realize that my aunt was a physicist, more thrilling than I found it to think of her as a "doctor," for whatever reason -- perhaps it seems even more daring, and perhaps math has to do with it. I, too, loved algebra and once worked at a mathematics library in Madison.

I learned in the course of my mother's "other family" coming to light that her original mother, Clara Swanson (b. 1900, and not, I think, related to May Swenson, who was born in Utah in 1919, and whose parents were also from Sweden) was a poet and teacher and that Frances Alsmiller wrote about physics and spirituality. I would find out where my aunt's papers are kept and whether any of my natural grandmother's poems are extant.

The family were "Spiritualists" -- perhaps they even knew Harry Houdini, another spiritualist, who came from nearby Appleton, Wisconsin. All of this is very interesting, at least to me. My mother is anything but a "spiritualist" (spiritualists used seances to bring people back from the dead), so I see that she has kept to her argument against "blood" certainties. My mother and I both graduated from UW-Madison, she in 1952 and I in 1984.

By way of coincidence, then, regarding "Tut": In 1998 I won a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant in "non-fiction," for excerpts from an unpublished mixed-genre ms. called Work on What Has Been Spoiled. I used the grant to complete work on a short story collection now called Institute of Tut: Short Stories. I had renamed the collection only months before I learned that we had an uncle-in-law who went by the name of Tut. He was still alive at that time and reportedly said that he would buy a book called Institute of Tut, whether or not he knew his niece had written it. Unfortunately, due to the fact that short stories are a hard sell, especially for a first book, and even with independent presses, I was not able to get it published in time for our uncle to be able to read it. I am beginning to seek publication for it again, after a six-year hiatus. I wrote the stories between 1985 and 1999, and most of them manage to carry, which in literary, if not market, terms is a good thing.

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