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This has nothing directly to do with any of the usual topics. It started out to be a short vignette in a group of short vignettes. Then it grew. It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but it’s something I needed to write. To my mind, it has as much to do with freedom as anything else I write, but not necessarily in an obvious way.


The summer I was five, my family drove to the train station — a very exotic thing in itself! — to pick up an old lady none of us had ever met.

I remember her: a squat matron in sturdy shoes and support hose. I remember her name: Lucinda. But above all I remember the magical book she carried. It was a black binder full of typewritten pages, tracing my mother’s family back to 1720 (and the first ancestor who came to the U.S. from Germany). The book contained other anecdotal bits and pieces tracing us 200 years further back (to, I’m eternally proud to note, a jailbird).

Lucinda was traversing the country, collecting names and dates and family histories. That was a strange and amazing thing to me.

Later that same day, we put her back on the train and never saw her again. Somehow, we ended up with a copy of that book (how, I’m not sure, because making copies wasn’t a trivial thing in those dark ages; I do remember that ours had the fuzziness of a third generation carbon). As a young adult, I ended up with it. But by then I was too blase to care. I lost the book and with it all but my memory of a few names, dates, and anecdotes.

I’ve always identified more with the pure Irish side of the family, my father’s ancestors, who disappear at the potato famine. But through Lucinda, I knew I had real history. Connections with people who had done things, sometimes bold, principled things.

I’m not a genealogy buff. Just occasionally curious — and offput by genealogy sites that say, “Click to see record,” but when you click show you nothing but a pitch for paid membership. (It’s not the fee I mind; it’s the sneakiness.)

Yet somehow, not being close to my immediate family (most of whom are dead, anyhow) makes me long to feel a strong connection to … something. Other people and their histories. Revolutionaries and rebels (the German jailbird was actually a religious dissenter, as were the ones who immigrated to America). Artists and writers. Stubborn cusses. Ordinary people who just lived and died.

The longer I live the more I realize that no matter how much I think of myself as an individual, and a modern one at that, there are threads of these people in me — threads of DNA and even of character and interests — traits, strengths and no doubt weaknesses — that I share with mysterious strangers from 500 years ago.

Which just seems weird, but endlessly fascinating.

While idling around over the weekend, I found a (legal) backdoor into the real data on one site where I had an otherwise useless free membership and feasted on history. Still nothing on my dad’s family. Or on my maternal grandmother’s (a line I’d really love to see because that — among the Scots-Irish-Welsh-English mongrels in Grandma’s family — is where the artists and writers are). But there was my maternal grandfather’s line, the one Lucinda traced so diligently all those years ago.

There was Lucinda herself; she died only a couple of years after visiting us. And there were all those Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutch) ancestors, going back beyond the Revolution, in which several of them fought.

I followed links and counted generations. I even found some early photos, grave inscriptions, and brief histories of militia memberships and farm ownership. The most fascinating — and appalling — thing was looking at Grandma and Grandpa’s progeny. I always knew I had a hellacious number of aunts and uncles. But that site really brought home the life they lived just a couple of generations ago.

Starting 11 months after they married, my Grandma gave birth to a child on average every 15 months for the next 20 years. Sixteen children. I had always been told 15, but nobody told me about one who died two days after birth. Grandma was pregnant for 144 months of her life, 12 full years of pregnancies.

Not only that, but her oldest daughter died in childbirth when Grandma’s youngest kids were still in grammar school — and she and Grandpa raised the daughter’s children, too.

Man. I’m so glad that times have changed.

Of course, I knew most of the children who lived — my mother, my aunts, and my uncles. They were a remarkably shallow and silly bunch for the most part. But not stupid. Hillbillies, but with a stand-tall kick-ass pride in being anybody’s equal. They could be shy and humble. But boy, if somebody tried to lord it over them, they’d put a stop to that, and damned quick. (I always heard that my uncles who served in WWII made life hell for their commanding officers. I learned much, much later that one of those troublemakers also won the Bronze Star; he was prouder of being a pain in the butt. Or at least more willing to boast about it.)

I couldn’t always say I liked these people (nor they me, I’m sure). But I could say I like being of these People through the generations. And even though those old, stiff-necked German patriarchs and I are universes apart in some ways, I feel their stubborn strength in me in my best moments to the point where those little shared threads of DNA feel like filaments of steel connecting the generations.


  1. RickB
    RickB October 31, 2012 4:03 am

    Love it!
    Individualism can be taken too far–ignoring the debt we owe to and the traits we inherited from those who came before us. And those around us.
    Family, neighbors, and friends: that is society.

  2. Water Lily
    Water Lily October 31, 2012 4:11 am

    Great post. I love history, and family histories are fascinating. My cousin is doing the research and she has uncovered some surprising and interesting information. I think it’s great to reflect on our ancestors.

  3. Hanza
    Hanza October 31, 2012 4:31 am

    On my maternal side my first ancesters to this country came here in 1636 from England by way of a few years in Holland. They lived in Salem, MA so they lived the witch trials. In fact one of my male ancesters is listed in the trial documents.

    Don’t have nearly as much documentation on my paternal side but my paternal great grandfather was a prisoner of war at the notorious Andersonville. He survived.

    I just recently sent in DNA samples to National Geographic to have my genetic ancestry traced. I will know in a couple of months what the results are.

    The testing is kind of expensive ($199) but the results are supposed to be the most detailed genetic tracing of ancestry to date that an individual can obtain.

    They say that based on previous testing that most non Africans are about 2.5% Neanderthal. Inter mingling making whoopie back then. 🙂

  4. Pat
    Pat October 31, 2012 4:37 am

    “To my mind, it has as much to do with freedom as anything else I write, but not necessarily in an obvious way.”

    As much as the desire to be a part of a specific “community” (one’s family), I think genealogical delvings allow one to be free to be one’s self. Having taken the measure of the community, one can then sit back and say “This is me; this is where I deviate from the rest of you.”

    My sister-in-law collected her family’s genealogy, and then started working on my brother’s/my family. She finished my mother’s side, and was working on my father’s side when she died. Interesting – and surprising in some aspects – and clarified how we arrived, i.e. where some familial attitudes and anecdotes began; but no way did it alter or explain what we have become as individuals. Our own character and personality set that syandard.

  5. Woody
    Woody October 31, 2012 5:35 am

    I have a very uncommon family name. I’m told that there are only a couple thousand people in this country with that name. There is supposed to be a club/organization of us somewhere in the Midwest where they have traced the origins and meet at reunions. My father’s father died when he was a baby and my mother was born out of wedlock so those links are hazy. I have no particular interest in genealogy and therefore have no interesting stories to tell in that regard.

    One time I bought a huge box of books for a dollar at an auction. In it there was a novel written in the 1920s about the trials and travails of a family homesteading the prairie frontier who bore my family name. It was the first time I had encountered the name outside of my immediate family. Since I am the last male on my branch of the family tree, the branch ends when I die.

  6. MJR
    MJR October 31, 2012 6:42 am

    Hey Claire,
    My wife and I have been doing the family history (hers and mine) for the last 15 or so years. We found that once started the family search can be very addictive. The information that we have gathered through the internet, dealing with various agencies and even by stomping through graveyards is amazing. One little example of what we have found… On my wife’s side of the family the first woman executed by being hung in New France was a cousin. On my side of the family my Great, Great Grandfather was a terrorist fighting to free Ireland.
    Keep on looking I am sure that you will be amazed with what you turn up.

  7. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal October 31, 2012 8:00 am

    My mother’s family has always been interested in their roots, so we have a lot of info on that side- and get more all the time. Even related to the crazy wife of a monstrous American tyrant and a beheaded wife of a monstrous British tyrant- and a royal bastard back a bit further.

    My dad’s relatives seem happy to not know anything about their roots. Which is just as well, since my dad was adopted. My last name would be a different, much more common, last name had my dad not been adopted. However, my mom has been looking for information on his birth relatives (and the surrounding circumstances) and has finally found a fair amount of information, including half sisters who recently died. Funny thing is that some of my mom’s cousins were life-long friends with my dad’s half sisters and never suspected a connection.

    I’m still, waiting for the fun people to be found. The outlaws and such haven’t cropped up yet. Or maybe I’m the first.

  8. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty October 31, 2012 8:22 am

    Sadly, some people choose not to share their history with their children, for one reason or another..

    My father was born in 1886 in the Dakota Territory. His parents had been political refugees from Scotland somewhat earlier. They changed their name and did not share much of their history with their two sons, both now long deceased. They were all Americans, and had cast off their early history.

    So, no research will ever reveal the names, places or actions of long gone relatives, yet the skirl of the bagpipes stirs my blood fiercely, and the one place on earth I’d love to walk beside my own land is the Scottish Highland, my ancestral home.

    It has to be simply genetic memory, somehow… How else can one account for loving the bagpipes or an instant appreciation for single malt scotch? 🙂

  9. Jim Bovard
    Jim Bovard October 31, 2012 8:33 am

    Great post, Claire! I hope you can post more such flashbacks. Neat to see you ruminating on your life and heritage….

  10. Claire
    Claire October 31, 2012 8:56 am

    Always surprising to see what people are interested in. Hanza and MJR, you win the prize for most interesting ancestors — so far.

    I’m hoping for some Irish terrorist ancestors in my background, too. Though I’ll happily stick with peasants rather than royalty in the other parts of the tree.

    Mama, ancestral memory is a wildly intriguing concept. “Impossible,” yet …

    Hanza, I’ve thought about signing up for one of those DNA projects, too. I hesitate partly for privacy reasons (though some, like Nat. Geo, have extremely good protections in place), partly because, if I understand correctly, women can get only half the information available to men (mitochondrial only vs mitochondrial and Y-chromosome).

    Still, mitochondrial would give me a glimpse of my mother’s mother’s family — the most intriguing, yet most unknown, line. I realize the testing tells nothing very specific. But merely to know where those mongrels came from over time would be something.

    Anybody else ever signed up for one of these historic DNA projects? Any known Neanderthals hereabouts? It does seem a terrible shame not to know one’s connections.

  11. Woody
    Woody October 31, 2012 9:02 am

    I’ve never been tested but lots of people have suggested I might be pure Neanderthal, or worse. 😉

  12. Scott
    Scott October 31, 2012 9:17 am

    I can only trace my family back about 150 years on either side-complete lack of any documentation on my Mom’s side (a mix of native American-Cherokee-, German Irish,and a good smattering of Unknown). They were all born at home in very rural areas, births/deaths recorded by writing them down in the family Bible(up until the early 1950s). Some of them were known most of their lives by nicknames, and even finding their real names isn’t easy.
    Very spotty-and questionably accurate-information on my Dad’s side. My great-great grandfather flat out refused to divulge any personal or family guess is that my family last name may have originated with him around 1890-ish. Why wouldn’t someone tell their children family history? Because they had something to hide(what, I don’t know). At that time, you could simply create a name, move, and live under that name. My guess is that’s what he did. I’ve ticked off some relatives over that theory, but to me, it explains a lot. My last name is very common, making things even more difficult.
    It would be interesting to go back a few centuries, just to see what we share in common.. I think the only way to find my family history is to borrow Doc Brown’s Delorean….

  13. lelnet
    lelnet October 31, 2012 11:32 am

    Never really got interested in it until I was 30-ish. I guess I got lucky…my dad’s family was among the first Europeans to settle in Louisiana (they apparently had claim to a pretty big percentage of the territory, back in John Law’s day, and are still regarded in some circles as a sort of penniless aristocracy, so learning about them was easy), and while my mom’s father was adopted, her mother’s family I can trace back at least to 1647 for the ones from Normandy and to 1508 for the ones from Cork. 🙂

    There are commonalities. And there are differences. And frankly, both the ways I’m like them and the ways I’m unlike them seem a bit more important than my common or uncommon ground with the general mass of humanity.

  14. Ellendra
    Ellendra October 31, 2012 11:34 am

    I tried to trace my ancestry a few times, but kept getting tripped up by ancesters with common names.

    One of my mom’s cousins managed to trace part of the family tree, and found a news article detailing how one ancestor had smacked Kaiser Wilhelm upside the head. Mom jokes that that story tells you all you need to know about the women in our family.

    I’d love to find more about my mom’s family. There’s a definite history of kind-yet-stubborn women. When my grandmother was being stalked by her ex-husband, she hid out at her mother’s house with 2 young kids in tow (my mom and uncle), and my great-great grandmother sat up all night on the front porch with a shotgun across her lap, every night until the guy got the hint and left them alone.

    At one point, my great-grandmother in her 80’s was living with one of her adult grandkids. This grandkid had a baby and a gang-member boyfriend. The boyfriend got mad at the baby for crying and started hitting him, and this 83 year old woman, with a broken hip and a missing foot, beat the living snot out of that guy!

  15. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty October 31, 2012 11:58 am

    Impossible? Well, I have my doubts… I could easily account for my taste in scotch otherwise, but bagpipes? LOL

    Anyway, just had an absolutely terrific idea for a story about all that…

    See ya in a few months, I guess. I’ll be writing!

  16. clark
    clark October 31, 2012 2:49 pm

    RickB wrote, “Individualism can be taken too far–ignoring the debt we owe to and the traits we inherited from those who came before us.”

    Maybe I’m missing something, but from here, that statement looks exactly like a Huge false load. Many People take advantage of others based on that view. It also sounds a lot like the ‘social contract’ bs so many adhere to.
    Here’s a comment that fits with RickB’s statement in favor of…. slavery?:

    “Was there a moment in your life you were presented with the choice, and said (perhaps with your right hand raised) “I. [state name] freely choose to subjugate part of my will to the collective this day.” …
    – From, On Us vs. Them.

    Imho, family loyalty isn’t a debt.

    Anyway, Claire’s blog entry reminded me of this bit, and here’s an interesting math:

    Who I Remember on Memorial Day

    “…almost all of our ancestors are the same people! “…

  17. Mary Lou
    Mary Lou October 31, 2012 5:51 pm

    I grew up (and still live in ) in an area of the country OBSESSED with ancestors … and I therefore ‘blocked it’ out of my mind … but I’ve always kinda wondered, Claire, … my maternal grandmother was a Wolfe …

  18. Claire
    Claire October 31, 2012 6:41 pm

    Sorry, Mary Lou. Proud though I’d be to be related to you, there are no actual Wolfes that I know of in my family tree. I am the lone Wolfe.

  19. jim bob
    jim bob October 31, 2012 9:55 pm

    I read a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in one of his (many) books, that talked about how the descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants still retain the pugnacious attitude of the highlanders. Ready to fight at any insult, stand up for themselves, take no crap from anybody.

    These attitudes were NECESSARY to a herdsman, because his wealth (sheep) was self-portable, and easily stolen. Anybody who appeared reluctant to fight was quickly tested, and possibly dispossessed of his flock.

    There must be a genetic predisposition to these attitudes in that bloodline, because fourth generation Americans who have never seen a highland, nor herded a sheep, still retain that pugnacious attitude.

    I mention this, because from reading this article, as well as some of your other stuff, it sounds like this “Don’t Tread On Me” attitude lived in your uncles, and in you.

  20. winston with a glass of Cutty
    winston with a glass of Cutty October 31, 2012 11:30 pm

    I’ve got all the minor English royalty and all that lame stuff on my mom’s side. My dad’s dad’s side (Irish), where I get my name from, is the side I really identify with. I didn’t even know all that much until recently because my mother didn’t want me hearing it as a kid-that should tell you all you need to know lol. Some of it I’m proud of, some of it I’m not (or am but wouldn’t admit publicly, haha) but I do carry some outrageous history in my name.

    I’d probably find more out about my male ancestors through old police records than anything else.

  21. RickB
    RickB November 1, 2012 4:09 am

    You like stories, we got stories!
    My Mom was very much into genealogy. She traced her Mom’s family back to Ireland (easy since they didn’t come to America till 1840). Then she did both of my grandfather’s sides.
    My Dad’s father’s side was Mennonite (until my grandfather got kicked out); they moved to Virginia in 1760. Since they were draft dodgers from Germany they changed their surname. No way to trace them back to Europe. The only war they took part in was the War of Northern Aggression. All of the boys in the family volunteered to be battlefield medics. We still have one of the citations for bravery.
    Once my Mom’s father’s side arrived in 1640 they volunteered for every single American war, starting with King Phillip’s war in 1674. On a lighter note, the entire family was condemned to death (about 1655) by the Congregational church. They had to flee to the province of Maine. Their crime: They sheltered and fed a destitute Quaker family.
    Two generations later my 8-great grandfather was the chief guide to Benedict Arnold for the invasion of Canada (some of you may have read a fictional version of his exploits–the author called him Steven Nason).
    Still haven’t found any pirates or horse thieves, but my Mon’s grandfather was a disabled war vet (“Civil War”) who had two simultaneous families. One was in Philadelphia and the other in Ohio. They met at his funeral (ouch).
    Most of the other stories are too respectable to tell. I’d have to hang my head in shame.

  22. Philalethes
    Philalethes November 1, 2012 1:21 pm

    My paternal grandfather and one of his brothers put together a family history in the late 40s/early 50s, so I know my surname came to Connecticut from England in the 1660s, and my 4x great grandfather, a New Jersey farmer, served under General Washington in the Continental Army, wintered in Valley Forge, lost an eye at Germantown, etc. His son fought in the War of 1812, his son (my great-great grandfather, after whom I was named) in the war on Mexico (and visited Santa Fe, where I now live, in 1846), his son in the War to Prevent Southern Independence, his son in World War I (actually he was a doctor, didn’t fight), his son (my father) in WWII, and when my turn came… I went to Canada.

    And wrote back to my draft board (in NYC) that given my family history, I didn’t think they were in any position to tell me what being an American was about. They decided I was crazy (I’d previously tried to get CO status on the basis of being a vegetarian) and finally gave up on me, and I was able to return home the next year, where I’d thought my exile would be permanent. Living in comfortable, conformist Canada as a countercultural nonconformist taught me that I was an American. Of course, now that America has been drawn fully back into the embrace of the Eternal Empire…

  23. Laird
    Laird November 2, 2012 9:06 am

    “I am the lone Wolfe.”

    Why do I get the feeling that you’ve been waiting, possibly for years, for the opportunity to use that line?

  24. Latigo Morgan
    Latigo Morgan November 6, 2012 3:52 pm

    One thing I’ve learned about my family history, is that if there was a rebellion to participate in, someone was going to be in it from my family.

    A couple of the more unusual characters, on my Father’s side, were a couple of Scottish brothers who immigrated to America to escape persecution of their Quaker faith. They were then excommunicated from the Quakers for marrying non-Quakers.

    Apparently, they didn’t give up their beliefs, as during the Revolutionary War, they refused to fight, but were blockade runners smuggling arms and supplies to the Continental Army.

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