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.