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What is there to say? I'm not very interesting. I'm not a good writer. I don't even dress well. If you insist on knowing something about me just wander through the archives. It's all there.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

On genealogy

When our first child was born, my wife went through a difficult birth process. I went through the most terrifying and eventually exhilarating twenty-two hours of my life. Thankfully, it all turned out well. I had refused to go sit in the waiting area after being hurriedly ejected from the delivery room. Pacing continuously in the hallway just outside the door was the best they could do with me.

An eternity later, after seeing and being reassured that all was finally well and that mother and child were resting comfortably, I slumped down into a sitting position on the floor of the recovery room hallway with my back against the wall. I was unable to make my legs push me into a standing position. Since the last thing I had eaten a day earlier was a cold, greasy, formerly grilled cheese sandwich from the vending machine, a kind and perceptive nurse came by with someone’s uneaten plastic container of applesauce. She also handed me a stack of papers that she said I might want to "look over". It was a saintly attempt to help me get off of my emotional roller coaster.

The papers were mostly pamphlets on caring for newborns, breast-feeding, and coupons for samples of disposable diapers and formula. At the bottom of the pile was a form and cover sheet about applying for the birth certificate. As I looked it over, most of the questions were pretty basic. There was an optional section on one of the forms that asked for more complete family information so that a decorative family tree could be printed. It wanted to know in what county my father had been born? It asked about my grandparent’s date of birth and marriage? Where were they born? These were the easiest of the questions. I didn’t know any of them.

I had never lived near any of my grandparents. Three of the four of them died when I was quite young. Even when it came to my own parents, I was woefully ignorant of the specifics of their lives. It was embarrassing to discover just how little family history I had to offer to the second most amazing human being to have ever entered my life (my wife still gets top billing). Sitting in that hallway, I swore to a new son that I would fix the problem.

By the time that first newborn was a teenager, I had spent an astounding number of hours trying to correct my ignorance. I had hounded and annoyed all of my aunts and uncles for dates, stories, old pictures and recollections. I think my parents learned to dread my evening phone calls where I would pester them for phone numbers or former addresses of distant relatives. I wrecked my eyesight visiting family history sites on the Net. Books by the dozens, photocopies and notes by the hundreds started filling filing cabinets in my basement. I spent days watching reels of microfilmed Census Records slowly scroll in front of me. I would have to stop periodically when the constant, jerky motion would make me seasick and nauseous. Gradually, I started to get the feeling that I had actually known these ancestors.

The life of one of them, in particular, a great-grandfather who had died long before I was born became a kind of false childhood memory. He was an English-born sailor of Irish parents who went to sea at age fourteen probably to escape the starvation of the Potato Famine. He was shipwrecked several times, but the only injury he ever sustained was losing the tip of his little finger. He seems to have worked for the Cunard shipping line at some point. I learned that he was skilled in rope craft. He could create intricate models of wooden sailing ships by hand. He disliked the oceangoing iron steamships. Just before the turn of the century, he jumped ship in New York City to start a new life. He carried a leather blackjack for protection. He kept his money rolled up in his clothing so that my great-grandmother couldn’t find it. He had been married and widowed several times before marrying her. His first wife had been named Bridgett. She had had red hair. He died at age ninety-two soon after striking his head on the bedpost during a nightmare.

I think it is in the Egyptian Book of the Dead where it says something like, “you are never really gone as long as your name is written.” As I looked down on that great-grandfather's recently discovered gravestone, I grieved for a loved one I had never met. The ancient Egyptians were almost right. You are never really gone as long as someone knows you were here.

2 Comments:

Blogger Adinah said...

hey, great post, I too have chased down some ghosts from the past and know the thrill of finding someone you sadly never had. I think as long as we are able to "remember" they will always live on. There is some odd part of me that thinks it is semi-important to know from where you came in order to know where you are going. And I mean that historically, not navel pondering......well, maybe a little pondering. lest I digress.....thanks for the great read.

1/6/05 10:42 PM  
Blogger HCaldwell said...

You're welcome. I'm not sure if it tells me where I'm going, but some of the stories about my more unsavory ancestors do point to where I shouldn't go!

2/6/05 10:40 PM  

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