Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Adrift in the pool of genealogy

I got a call today from a cousin. If you are into genealogy, you know not to take the word "cousin" too literally. Everyone who is somehow related to you is a cousin in genealogy land, whether they be a second cousin twice removed or a great great aunt or some relation even less easily describable.

This cousin, D, actually is my cousin. First cousin once removed, to be precise. Her father and my grandma were siblings. The particular branch of the family from which we both come is a rather scattered group, like leaves blown all over hell on a stormy fall evening. My Grandma T was orphaned, both parents having died of black diphtheria before she was three.

Black diphtheria. Isn't that dramatically old fashioned? Nasty disease, though. Called black because the diphtheria caused a black cloth-like substance to form in the throat, covering the airway. People usually die when their airway is covered. Lovely description of how death came--and could be fended off--here.

Grandma T and her older sibs were parceled off, as usually happened. Grandma T and her sister, Audrey, were lucky. Relatives took them in. The two older boys, George and Fred? Not so much. George was told to fend for himself. He was 11. Fred, at 8, was sent to military school in Minnesota. Fred was my cousin D's father.

All of the siblings struggled. George was an alcoholic whose death was hastened by the bottle. Audrey died in her twenties. Family whispers say she bore an illegitimate child before her death, who also died. Fred never talked much about his life to cousin D. And Grandma T? She got pregnant and had to get married to my Grandpa. It wasn't a happy marriage, and she wasn't a happy woman.

My other grandma didn't have a much happier start. Grandma S was left motherless when she was 9. Her father sent her and her four siblings off to live with grandparents while her father rustled up a new mother for them. (Family gossip says that the new mom was possibly an old flame, happy to take back up with the new widower.) I think these siblings fared better, though alcoholism turned up on this side of the family, too.

But I don't think Grandma S ever got over her mother's death. She was--and continues to be, even in her 90s--needy and self-centered, unable to give to others. She married a man who was mentally ill, and ended up having to raise three girls either alone or with the extremely unhelpful presence of an bipolar husband. My mom was on her own, financially, from the age of 14. No more cello lessons when you have to buy your own clothes. And it's awfully hard to study when you have a manic father disturbing the peace in your own home.

Such are some of the stories that I am made from.

Anytime I get a call or email from a cousin, I slip back into the misty gene pools. I can lose myself for hours trying to track down one small historic detail, nailing down one birth or death date. It's like a puzzle, only I don't need to be spatially oriented to succeed at it. I just need to persevere. Which I'm good at. :-)

But what I am even more fascinated by are the stories. And those are even harder to track down. Of course, living relatives who tell the stories are best of all. But even reading between the lines is illuminating.

I don't need to have heard my mom tell the story about Grandpa S. holding them all hostage for a few days while he waved a gun around to know that my mom's growing up taught her people are not always trustworthy and dependable.

Grandma T never told me that she didn't remember her parents and never felt like she belonged with the great aunt and uncle who raised her. But I can guess that she knew she needed to find a man and get out quick when she reached a marriageable age. And so she did--whatever it took.But what it took was so embarrassing that she lied about the year in which she was married for 50 years, even occasionally saying her daughter was a year younger than she truly was.

Hard stories. But I want to know them. Knowing their stories helps me view them all with compassion. Removes the ever-present it's all about me outlook with a broader perspective. And, at the same time, it helps me see more clearly and separately who I am--and am not.



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