Liz Smith: George Washington and … Me?

And more from our Liz: hotel hell — online and on the phone

“GUARD AGAINST the impostures of pretended patriotism,” said George Washington.

* * *

I HOPE I’ll be forgiven for leading today with what seems like a braggadocio look back that will establish my bona fides as an all-American.

Don’t laugh but this refers to being connected to that all-American first president of the United States, George Washington. My maternal grandma, Sally Ball McCall of Mississippi, always used to natter on to us children about how she’d been born a Ball. “We were descended from George Washington’s first wife!” she’d say, with conviction.

Even as a dumb kid, I thought this was a pretty tenuous connection. And then, my feisty Irish father with his “suspicious” last name of Smith, always made fun of anyone who claimed kinship with someone better known. He wisely looked down on the Daughters of the Confederacy in Texas and others of this ilk; like, for instance, people whose ancestors had “arrived on the Mayflower.” “Usta wuz!” he’d snort. They ‘usta wuz,’ used to be somebody!”

* * *

SO, taking a cue from dear old dad, I never bothered to look into my grandmother’s mistaken assertion. It was of little interest. But then I happened to pick up a historical novel titled “Washington.” It told me what I’d never bothered to seek in the history books — that George’s mother was named Mary Ball. Somehow, everybody in my family had missed making this exact connection.

The father of our country never had a “first” wife. He only had one Mrs. — Martha. So there I was — in a direct line from George’s real mother, the somewhat hateful Mary Ball. She has, it seems, driven all of George’s biographers crazy, being, as Douglas Southall Freeman wrote, “a strange mystery.”

* * *

THIS old lady, born in the winter of 1708, married Augustine Washington in 1731. Her physical plumpness and domineering personality were drawbacks. George was their first child, but he and Mary Ball, his mother, never got along. He didn’t like her much and spent his life avoiding her. She took little interest in him as well.

Now I have developed a new interest in my kinsman, George Washington. If his mother didn’t take pride in him and expressed little interest, well — I am making up for that.

Imagine — being connected by blood to this stubborn and forthright man who floated his starving troops across the icy Delaware one Christmas and marched on Trenton to seize the Hessian mercenaries’ rations and cannons, thereby winning the first battle of the faltering Revolution. It would be a bloody trail on through Valley Forge until the end of it — but this man is the one who caused America to come alive and succeed after the nation was born in 1776. He is hugely responsible for whatever blessings are on our little American heads now.

His mother — my errant kinswoman — may not be inspiring as mothers are supposed to be. But perhaps her strange unaffectionate nature produced the stalwart son who refused to give up. Growing up wanting to one day become a British naval officer, he turned out instead to be the courageous father of a brand new country. I wish I had some of his courage, conviction and character.

He was born partly a Ball and I am fractionally something from that bloodline as well. I can just hear my father’s irate ridicule now. But I will just pay his shade no never mind, the same way George Washington did his own parent.

* * *

I DON’T want to be one of those old fogeies who is always dissing the adventure of the Internet, but the other day I tried to make a hotel or bed & breakfast reservation in ten overnight places listed as being near or in Burlington, Vermont.

Our friends at Google listed ten hotels, two of them with Sheraton and Hilton in the title, where I spent over an hour trying to make a reservation. I was continuously disconnected, or put on hold and then disconnected, or sometimes, as in the case of the Mid Town Motel, there was a non-working phone number. The Hilton Burlington on Battery Street had “nobody available to take your call” though I called throughout the day.

Sometimes when they said they would call back; they then disconnected without leaving any way for me to record how they could call me back.

Burlington is a big town on Lake Champlain, boasting an international airport and the highly thought of University of Vermont, as well as a great medical center.

I finally had to contact which listed a much lower rate than Google listed for the same Sheraton Burlington Hotel & Conference Center. Before I resorted to, I had to listen to a lot of irritating pre-recorded blather from the Sheraton before I could even begin talking to make a reservation.

I say, bring back people who are out of work and let them give information and take reservations on phone numbers that work.

I am very disillusioned with Google and overnights and hotels in general.

16 Responses so far.

  1. avatar lisakitty says:

    Great column, Liz!

    If it’s any consolation, I work in IT and I find the whole internet reservations thing frustrating as well.  And phone trees (ie “Press 1 for this, Press 2 for that”) and calling for a reservation and getting some guy in Calcutta.

    I wonder how much business these hotels lose because they can’t be bothered to pay someone to answer their phones.  Business travelers usually have their own company sites that pull this kind of stuff together for them (or their assistants do it), but what about people traveling for pleasure?  I don’t find it very pleasurable about spending hours trying to make a reservation or researching days to try to get the best price…

    We need a return to good ole fashioned customer service in this country.  You’d think we’d have learned that through this last recession.      

    • avatar Lila says:

      Lisakitty, There are still travel agents out there. Maybe not the best investment for a quick overnight, but for anything extended or complicated, the cost of the agent can save huge headaches and a lot of your valuable time.

      I also wonder if a smaller hotel or B&B might not be more likely to have actual humans answering the phone. Surprised that Liz had this same issue with the B&Bs she tried. Service just isn’t what it used to be.

      Years ago I was dissatisfied with our mega-giant phone company and started looking around for a smaller phone company in the area. Dialed one up and an actual person answered immediately. It took me a moment to realize it wasn’t yet another voicemail. “Uh… oh! You’re a person! I mean… sorry, I was expecting a recording.” She laughed and said, “No, we don’t do that here.” The prices were good, but the sale was made that moment. Wish more companies would realize that.

  2. avatar Lila says:

    Liz, interesting about youand George. Back when I was studying history, I ran across some assertion that George basically created himself as the man he wanted to be, suppressing whatever traits were socially undesirable and adopting those that were desirable. A discipline many of us, in our it’s-all-about-me society, might benefit from. But today it is anathema to suggest that anyone rein themselves in. Too bad.

    Even so, there’s no denying how remarkable he was in terms of strength and endurance – and perseverance. Few people come close to his level in those areas, and it was largely on pure perseverance that he kept the war going to its successful conclusion.

  3. avatar Wiley Canuck says:

    I had a question about my phone bill from Bell the other day. Phoned the Bell number. I got someone who, for the love of me, I could not understand. I’m fed up. The same thing happens when I have a problem with my computer. Now, when I go to buy my next computer, I’m going to make damn sure that any problems I have will be answered by someone in my own country. This outsourcing has got to stop. The time has come to support our own citizens. I, too, am flaberghasted when I actually get a “real” person. Companies better start realizing what an important public relations move this would be. In the long run they would make a very healthy profit.

    • avatar ann penn says:

      Apple Computer’s phone people do speak English. I’ve always gotten someone in the US, except once when it was the middle of the night in California and I got someone in Ireland. And if you live near an Apple store, you can go to the Genius Bar and get a quick answer; no charge unless the warranty is up and you need to purchase a replacement part.

    • avatar D C says:

      What I will never understand is why, when I have a problem with my computer, I have to call a guy in India, so he can put in a work ticket, so the guy 3 floors up can come fix my computer. 

  4. avatar Barbara says:

    Wiley, I wish that making a healthy profit statement were true. Unfortunately, what companies have found is that people want top notch service but also the rock bottom price. Notice that Liz finally made her arrangements “for a much lower rate than Google.” Where was the margin there to pay for the real person sitting somewhere in the US, along with all of the infrastructure around that. If you want the far lower rates, you will get the far lower levels of service that go with them. People say they will pay more for better service but actions speak louder than words.

    • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

      Absolutely correct, Barbara! We complain about lack of customer service but don’t want to pay higher prices! I think it is fairly simple, you get what you are willing to pay for.

  5. avatar wlaccma says:

    Liz, as a relative of George Washington, you must attend the re-enactment of his crossing the Delaware River. It is held every Christmas Day at Washington Crossing, PA to Washington Crossing, NJ. (yes, those are the real names of the towns). It is free and attended by thousands. One year, many years ago, a group of high school students dressed up in British uniforms and chased the Washington re-enactment boats down the river. It was not well received by the re-enactors but the crowd thought it was hysterical.

  6. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Liz your “ancestor” was an “odd Ball.”  We all have one or two in our families. Fascinating just the same. I always love the “presidential family trees.”  All related to former presidents and of course the Queen of England. Usually through the 2nd cousin who married the 14th cousin who married the 16th cousin once removed.  I’m related to no one famous except a man named Sir John Hotham who was, well, a rabblerouser. Opposed the king. And lost his head. Quite a few would like to have mine. So in my case there is perhaps something to the matter of bloodline. But his descendants, through a nephew, all became naval heroes and fought with Lord Nelson on the high seas. And I refuse to step on a boat. So in my case perhaps there is absolutely nothing to the matter of bloodline.  In your case, well, you’ve left your mark on our country just as George Washington did  and will always be rememberd fondly.  Just as he is.

    I’m with you about returning to the old days of doing business by telephone. Or just returning to the old days. We may not have been a necessarily “kinder, gentler” nation but at least there was a personal connection” between us all.  I used to have long distance bills that rivaled annual budgets of small nations.  I gave up on calling people a long time ago. Everyone is too busy answering emails and text messages it seems. Or making reservations online. I’ve told the story before about the friend I had lunch with.  I finally got irritated over the constant ringing of her cell phone and went to the front and called her.  “Now, where were we?”  She put me on hold. I left. And have never spoken to her since. I have this odd feeling from time to time that she meant to call me back. And I may be on a list she has. Of people to call back. When she has time. 

  7. avatar johardy says:

    I recently received an e-mail that said if you get customer service in a foreign country just tell them “I’d like to speak to someone in the United States” and you will be transferred.  I haven’t checked this out, but the e-mail said that it is the law that they must transfer you.  I know that asking for someone who “speaks better English” definitely doesn’t work but, perhaps, “someone in the United States” will.

    • avatar lisakitty says:

      I’ve never had any luck with this, but will try the next time I’m on the phone.  Thanks for posting that!


    • avatar Barbara says:

      I suspect this is one of those urban legends. So you think it’s a good idea to have a law requiring call centers to have someone in the US to transfer a caller to. Are you also one of the republicans complaining about big government and too much government spending? I’d say telling a company how to run their call centers falls under government interference, not under the good idea category.

  8. avatar JCF4612 says:

    By George … what an absolutely fascinating column on your Mary Ball link to GW, Liz.

    Isn’t it amazing how we’ve all blown off lineage tidbits shared by older relatives back when we were kids, only to find a treasury of intrigue awaiting later in life? Certainly the Internet has helped make access more readily available to one and all.

    I hope you’re able to learn a lot more about the mysterious Mary and other Ball ancestors, and that you’ll share in a follow-up column — or maybe a full blown feature.   

  9. avatar D C says:

    My mom was known to say, on many occasions and with great pride, “You’re a [Smith]!” (name changed to protect the guilty).  I finally got on ancestor . com for grins and giggles, and found that I was able to trace my father’s line all the way back to the original guy who came over on a boat in the 1600’s.  And along the way, I found a connection to Thomas Jefferson’s sister.  My dad’s middle name was Jefferson, and I finally understood why. 

    I thought, “My goodness… I can join the DAR!” 

    But then I decided it just really wasn’t worth all the time and effort (and money) to prove my way in just so I could march in the July 4th Parade in DC.  But this past summer I waved as they passed by, and smiled as my husband said, “There they are — go join them!”.  HA!