Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Woodpile


Everyone loves genealogy. We all want to scour the musty annals of our dead for clues to our nature. There's no subject that interests us more than ourselves. Each of us pokes through our personal attics to find out: who collaborated to produce the wonder that is me? Or--depending--who can I pin the blame on for this pisshole of an existence?

If we weren't so irretrievably interested in ourselves, we wouldn't click on so many odd internet quizzes ("I got Pol Pot. What murderous totalitarian dictator are you?") We're hoping for Attila the Hun, but we'll take anything as long as someone asks us what our favorite flower is, or our favorite rock star. Ask us anything about ourselves, market research gnomes! We'll tell you!

Remarkably, four out of five students of genealogy who dig deep enough discover they are descended from Charlemagne. This is a familiar enough phenomenon. No fortune-teller peering into anyone's previous lives has ever turned up a horse thief or a sewer worker. We are all reincarnated royalty.

Sure, we know plenty about our own parents, but they seem to fall short in important ways and can't quite account for all the intricacies of our character. We study them and come up with a collage of qualities. We get our nose from our father, say, and our impatience from our mother--although, in our case, it's not impatience so much as a desire to see things done properly.

I've never delved into my own family history, because the fanciest parts had already been logged on a scroll and handed to me as a youngster. We had the family tree going back ten generations to the Mayflower, when my fore-Brewster led a doughty band of religious folk to the new world and promptly lost most of them the first winter. It's hard for me to relate to the dude. I'm peeved at the Supreme Court for thinking it's okay to invoke the name of Our Lord And Savior Jesus Christ at a town hall meeting (the opinion of the majority being that Jesus Christ is everyone's Lord And Savior whether they know it or not), but I wouldn't pile into a wobbly bathtub of a ship over it. Still, I have to admit it: I've got clergymen tromping all over my DNA.

Supposedly the information on the scroll accounts for my makeup, with a little leavening from my sturdy and cheerful Norwegian side. There are a number of writers in the woodpile. My grandmother got poems published in Scribner's. Here's one she wrote about my father:

To My Son.

All that thou art to me? Oh love, my inmost heart,
If I could say
The half of what thou art to me each day,
It were but mockery, and my love were dead.

Holy shit! Douse me in lilac and slap me with an antimacassar! Four lines, with the subjunctive tense jammed in twice. My grandmother spent her adulthood in bed with the consumption, writing poetry and waiting for the laudanum to kick in. Am I in there anywhere? Her father was a popular author who toured with Mark Twain. He annoyed the bejesus out of Mark Twain, in fact. "I like him," MT said. "But in him and his person I have learned to hate all religions. He has taught me to abhor the Sabbath-day and hunt up new and troublesome ways to dishonor it."

I'd sure like to believe a stray sperm of Mark Twain's had found its way into my great-grandmother. But maybe my essential germ is somewhere else. There are a hell of a lot of womenfolk who dissolved, along with their maiden names, into my family tree. Maybe I should start snooping around those parts a little. Find me a decent horse thief. Somebody.

34 comments:

  1. I do believe that's your forehead that I see on the gentleman to Twain's left!

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    1. "The Cable Forehead!" It was a mythic thing when I was little. I didn't realize I had it too.

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    2. I noticed the resemblance, too. Moustaches, especially.

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  2. at ten generations you have 1024 great...grandparents: at twenty generations you have 1,038,256 great...grandparents; and it doubles every generation after that... we are all kin.
    the Ol'Buzzard

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    1. Seems like there should be way fewer of us now.

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  3. I'm not going to even check Ol'Buzzard's math. My cousin is never wrong.

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  4. I just took Ancestry.com's DNA testing and my daughter took 23andMe's. Very, very vague results compared to what you know. Someone is a good researcher in your family. My daughter did learn that she has 2.7% Neanderthal genes, but that's not even rare. Everyone who is not from Africa has between 1% and 4% Neanderthal DNA.
    I LOVE Mark Twain! Lucky ancestor you have!

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    1. If I had Neanderthal genes, at least I'd have a shot at having eyebrows.

      Hey, going off the grid for a few days....y'all play nice! I'll be back!

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  5. I've found nothing in my genes but a pack of crabs who fought over religion and promptly changed the spelling of their last names so as to not be associated with those infidels over THERE..

    Pearl

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  6. So who are all the rest of these people? I love old pictures, no matter whose relatives they are. I love looking at all the details of hair, clothing (why did they use so many buttons? maybe buttons were cheaper in those days), the backgrounds - love it all. A few years ago I was given my dad's father's genealogy; I actually preferred the one I had made up out of guessing and hearsay because it gave me a French background. The reality was English all the way. Oh well. I yam who I yam.

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    1. Top photo is great grandfather Brewster. Next, my grandfather and his siblings. Next, my grandmother.

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    2. The grandmother is where I see a resemblance. Too bad they didn't know about antibiotics back then.

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    3. I just looked it up--penicillin--1928. I thought it was way earlier than that. Yeah, they just moved the family to Arizona and hoped for the best. My grandmother had three sisters who were stupendously gorgeous, but she was nicknamed "Toad." I kind of see a resemblance too.

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  7. My family went to some lengths (on both sides) to build a bigger wood-pile so that no-one could see what (if anything) was lurking behind it.
    And have done so fairly successfully.
    I know almost nothing about my ancestors and have learned the hard way not to trust what I think I know.
    Some day...
    Or perhaps not.

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    1. Love love love your first sentence. Thanks.

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  8. My great-great aunt Jane traced the lineage back to 1700 and the best I can say is that for most of the last 300 years, my dad's side of the family have been farmers and millers. No horse thieves and apparently none of them ever went to war until my great-uncle was in WWII. On my mom's side, the most notable character is my great grandfather who was known as the nine fingered fiddler of Glasgow. He lost a finger at his day job as a steam hammer operator, but was still able to play the violin in the city orchestra.

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    1. I am officially a fan of your great grandfather the Nine-Fingered Fiddler. That's just my bias. Millers and farmers are cool too.

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  9. I heard a part of a tale, when I was a kid, about an ancestor sea captain whose crew mutinied and fed him to the fishes...I wonder what truth may be in that?

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    1. Cool story, regardless of the truth.

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  10. My mother has been researching my fathers and her family trees for years now. One time I asked her if she had found anyone interesting and she replied, "Nope, only scoundrels, thieves and rabblerousers. " She found one relative who had accused his wife of attempted murder (surprised this is not in many families!) and another who hid in a cornfield in very bad weather to avoid being taken to fight in the civil war, and then ended up dying a few days letter because he got ill. Maybe he might have survived the war.
    I do think the stories are fun!

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    1. I know my own stories get less true every time I tell them, if that's any indication.

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  11. My ancestry has no royalty, but no scoundrels or horse thieves either. Commoners everyone of them.
    My own family tree album is sadly incomplete, on my mum's side the maternal line goes back to my great-great-grandma born in 1824, in Sweden. A lot of information just couldn't be found.

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    1. Uh-oh! Swedes! Half of me officially isn't supposed to like you. The other half is fine with you.

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  12. The Icelanders were obsessed with record keeping AND literate at the same time, so It goes back a very long way. On the other hand did they really tell the truth about who the father was?

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    1. ...or the truth, as far as they knew it...you make a good point.

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  13. I'm told one of my great grandfathers (a minister) researched our lineage out of Massachusetts and promptly ended his search when he accidentally did find a cattle rustler (close to a horse thief).

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    1. Now I'm wondering which is worse. I'm sure one of those was considered worse than the other. Right?

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  14. I had never heard of Cable, but I'm going to go looking for his books. I Googled him; he makes a much better ancestor than a horse thief would. As one web site notes:

    In his writings, George W. Cable sketched life of his native Louisiana and New Orleans. In a time of Howellsian "smiling aspects" as representative of American society, Cable wrote of violence and death, of racial intermarriage, and of contradictions and complexities. Recognized today as one the South's most acute social critics, Cable attacked political corruption and advocated civil rights for the Blacks. He wrote of a vanishing Creole culture, of social classes, and of the baggage of the past and its consequences on the present.

    One of my grandfathers was a bootlegger, the other was briefly the county sheriff. I'm reluctant to go looking much farther back than that for fear I'll find more cops.

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    1. Ha! Yes, he was an abolitionist, which led him to take the wife and chilluns out of New Orleans and move to Northampton, where he had a house right around the corner from Smith College.

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    2. Crikey, Murr, sounds like your blog!

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  15. Wait...your great-grandfather was George Washington Cable? That makes you royalty in my book. I'm descended from some Hopkins or other (another Mayflower passenger). I could look it up; I have one of those intricate charts too. I'm all for religious freedom--the "freedom from religion" kind, mostly. Do you suppose I inherited it from him?

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    1. You have a small and very special book, if Geo. W. Cable and I are in it. Yes, he is my great-grandfather. We had an anthology in 8th grade that included a story of Cable's as an example of Early Local Color, and I was ever so proud, but his style has not stood the test of time, as Twain's has. And I wonder if the freedom from religion is at all related to the freedom of religion. I guess if you care about what you believe, it's similar to caring about what you don't believe. I dunno. I'd like to draw a straighter line to my forebears, but they seem so dreadfully serious.

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