Tag Archives: Family History

American Blood

Uncle Marv numbers his socks with permanent marker, “1” for left and “2” for right. That way he gets each one on the correct foot and his toes are happy. He’s retired now but used to work on computers for NASA, back when a computer was bigger than a house. Uncle Marv is not my uncle. He’s my wife’s father’s uncle, by marriage, and only a few years older than my father-in-law himself. But despite the fact that Marv isn’t my uncle, he wants to know all about my uncles and aunts and parents, grandparents, etc. Marv’s hobby in retirement is genealogical research. He lives to grow and prune and graft the family tree. So he listens greedily, opens his laptop, and his bony, almost transparent hands peck at the keys while I recite names and dates for him.

According to Isaiah Berlin, “only barbarians are not curious about where they come from.” This may be unfair to barbarians. Most of us sooner or later develop an interest in our origins. Of course, no one is defined by genealogy. People are more than ancestry, and blood is only a single factor among many that shape a person’s life and perspective. But understanding something of our ancestry can help provide us with a sense of our place in history, our role in the story of a family, a nation, a culture.

We Americans like to imagine we’re products of spontaneous generation, untethered, free to define ourselves however we will. There may be some historical and personal truth to that. Most of us were planted here by ancestors who left (or were taken from) an old world in Europe, or Asia, or Africa, for the sake of a new one. The “discovery” and colonization of the Americas, and the building up of new polities here, is one of vastest, most complex chapters of human history. What’s a single family’s – or a single individual’s – place within it?

Ironically, the less you know about your family history, the easier it may be to answer that question. Lytton Strachey calls ignorance “the first requisite of the historian – ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits.” A few names and dates will provide a convenient frame for narrative. The more you uncover, the more complicated things become and the harder it is to draw a story that satisfies. You have two parents, and four grandparents. But move backwards ten generations, not counting your own, and you’ll have slots for more than two thousand direct ancestors. At fourteen generations, the total number leaps to thirty-two thousand.

It’s been about fourteen generations since my earliest colonial ancestors came to North America. My favorite is Thomas Minor, a tenth great-grandfather who, I was shocked to discover, has his own Wikipedia page. Thomas was born in Chew Magna, Somerset, in 1608 and came to New England in 1629. He kept a diary the last three decades of his life, and though it was printed only once (in 1899), you can read it online. The seventeenth-century orthography is charming and difficult, but most of the entries are brief. Grandpa Minor does not philosophize. He describes planting crops, receiving visitors, killing wolves, and serving as interpreter between settlers and natives. He also describes marching in the Connecticut militias during King Philip’s War, despite being more than sixty years old at the time.

I have a more northern, Yankee sensibility. It’s harder to feel the kinship with my Virginia Colony ancestors, which include families of some prominence, like the Wyatts, supposedly descended from the poet. The world of antique plantation-dwellers, leisure beneath the magnolias, and slave labor is just too foreign and repellent. My southern ancestors (a long line of daughters and presumably non-inheriting sons) left the South in the generations prior to the Civil War. Through the Wyatt line, however, I’m a very distant cousin to Robert E. Lee – just as, through the Minor line, I’m a very distant cousin to Ulysses Grant. It illustrates, in a prickly way, the investment of blood that my family has made in this continent.

And yet most of these people may as well be – and really are – strangers to me. Blood is quickly diluted. It’s an accident of history and record-keeping that their names and lines of descent are preserved while those of ten thousand others have receded into anonymity. I seem to have inherited the role of family historian, but though I like a good puzzle, my enthusiasm flags. There are some, like Uncle Marv, who trade in genealogical details with the fervor of pre-adolescent boys trading in baseball cards. Knowing your tenth great-grandfather’s name is something, but not very much. In practical value, it’s as paper-thin as a baseball card, and I was never one of those boys.

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Marginalia, no.201

From Turkistan to the Caucasus, the fortunes of a patch of land are gauged by the quality of its melons. It is a subject of debate, pride and prestige. Throats are cut over melons, and respected men would willingly undertake a week’s journey to taste the famous white melons of Bokhara.

~ Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

In a misty corner of our family history there was a bachelor uncle named Charlie who had lost his sense of taste as the result of an accident. This was in the 1930s, in Iowa. I don’t know how it happened, whether it had started with a car crash, an illness, a mishap with farm equipment, or a knock to the head during a fight. But uncle Charlie was a high liver. Nights out with his pals he would strut into the diner and order up gastronomic blasphemies never printed on any respectable menu. Things like vanilla ice cream with mustard and dill pickles and horseradish, mashed together in a bowl and glazed in Dantean rivers of hot sauce. Surrounded by onlookers, he’d take bets from anyone that dared him, and proceed to eat the whole mess with a show of perverse relish. Then he’d laugh and collect his five or ten or twenty bucks before leaving. Hearing this story as a kid I took Uncle Charlie’s disability for a super power, and his hooting cash-fisted march back into the night for a vision of triumph. Now I can’t help but imagine his private moments: crouched in the dirt behind an outbuilding, weeping into a slice of summer watermelon and cursing God.

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Remembering Mary Irene

Mary Irene and I used to hunt snakes in the fields behind her house. By July the mustard flowers and tumbleweeds had dried up and blown away to uncover the little holes where I imagined that snakes plotted and hid. Playing the chivalrous protector, I would lead her by the hand through the field, poking a stick to right and left as we went. Once or twice I upset a harmless garter snake but never proved myself lethal.

Mary Irene Hart was my great-grandmother. For some reason I called her Nanny. She didn’t care for the nickname (she was no goat, she liked to say), but she put up with it. She was born in Colorado and had three sisters. Their father abandoned them early on to go north (to Canada? Alaska?) and chase after gold. Their mother raised them alone after that. They all worked and struggled but were happy enough. The girls liked to pretend that they were the March sisters from Little Women. Mary Irene was indisputably Jo. She was funny and curious, a bit of a ham and a tomboy. She got herself into trouble.

There are photos of her from the 1920s with a flapper haircut, wearing dresses and sweaters and hats by turns fashionable or frumpy. She’s laughing, pointing, squatting at a picnic, hiking in the Rockies, posing with an infant on her hip and a cigarette in her hand. She surprised everyone (or no one) by getting pregnant out of wedlock. She married my great-grandfather Small in a hurry and they moved to New Mexico where the baby was born – a boy. But she didn’t know how to care for him, and they were miserably poor. Her mother had to come from Colorado to rescue them.

The little boy grew up to rescue her too.  At some point, Mary Irene and her family moved to California, near San Francisco. Eventually her sisters and mother came. By now there were three children, my great-uncle Sonny, my great-aunt Marty, and my grandmother Barbara. Great-grandpa Small was a drunk and had favorites: he fawned over Barbara and blamed Marty for not being as pretty and compliant as her sister. He sometimes beat Mary Irene. One day he had knocked her down in an alcoholic rage when Sonny (by then a young man) charged at his father with a bat and told him to leave the house. He did, and he never came back.

After her children were grown and starting their own families, Mary Irene fell in love with a red-haired widower with the last name of Bennett. They had been good friends for years and it seemed meant to be. They married and were happy for a while, but after five or six years he ran off with another woman. She kept his last name the rest of her life.

My mother often took us to see Nanny when I was a boy. She lived alone in Antioch, below the grassy foothills of Mt Diablo, where the inland rivers are sifted through the delta on their way to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. In front of her house was a lattice made of cinder blocks with the shapes of flowers carved out of them. Nanny herself was thin and wrinkled; she’d been a smoker all her life. When she opened the door a soft odor of cigarettes and perfume poured out. The living room was cool and an amber glow came through the curtains. Pictures hung on wood-paneled walls; there was a ticking clock, a television, a couch, framed portraits and ashtrays on side tables, and a china cabinet full of glass and porcelain figurines.

Nanny would take us out for shopping and lunch. She drove a ‘60s model Oldsmobile or Buick. I was crazy about that car – its white-walled tires, its flaring terminals over the tail-lights and its wide chrome grille. Bouncing on the vinyl backseat (without a belt, of course) I could sense the car’s mass and torque and felt like an astronaut floating free in the belly of a rocketship.

One year for Christmas or my birthday Nanny gave me a hardbound Companion Library edition of Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer on one side, Huckleberry Finn on the other. Of all the books I’ve lost track of down the years, I think I miss that one most.

There was a conversation that Nanny and I rehearsed almost every visit, another ritual like the snake hunt. It took place on the couch in the living room when the TV was turned off. Mary Irene would smoke elegantly and I would watch spellbound. “Nanny,” I would say, “where does the smoke go?” Then she would answer, “It follows beauty,” and trace the curling ghostly line through the air.  She’d end by pointing at me, pressing her finger to my lips.

No long ago my mother gave me some of Nanny’s china and a photograph of her as a young woman. It’s strange to see people frozen in the blush of youth whom we knew only in their later years. On the one hand, we’re disturbed: time’s toll is made plain. But then we’re consoled too: our memory of the person is somehow expanded, the portrait brightened a little. Looking at this picture I want to believe that there’s some corner of time where Mary Irene still stands outside by the garden with her funny pose and grin. In her eyes there is only – what? Laughter perhaps. There’s no mention of the burden of living, the trials of marriage and children, the expectation or memory of loss or pain; no rumor at all of the snakes that hide in the fields and aim for our ankles.

Those snakes got her eventually, despite all the protection my boy’s heart could offer. It happened when I was eleven. There was a stroke, paralysis, a hospital stay, another stroke, and she was gone. I had never lost someone close to me before. My mother called me in from play to tell  me the news. I shut myself in the bathroom with the lights off and cried. I fought hard not to understand it. How could she be so totally lost to us and yet so palpably near at that moment? It was as if she had turned a corner only a second before and I might still touch her arm if I reached round fast enough. Where had she gone? Maybe she had followed beauty too.


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