Friday, September 27, 2013

The tombstone twitch

If you become interested in genealogy, this chart will make all kinds of sense to you, too!

Cookie would like to confess something.  I am a genealogy hobbyist.  Yeah, I like to hang with the blue haired lady brigade.

I am not ashamed of this.  I am ashamed that I don't find a lot of British humor funny. And don't think I haven't tried.  I've watched hours of "Are You Being Served" and only found the bit about Mrs. Slocum calling her neighbor and asking him to peer through her front door keyhole and report on whether or not he saw her cat.  That was funny.  But the rest of the show? Meh.

I am not ashamed of my genealogy hobby, but sometimes I feel a bit ashamed that I don't understand what the fuss is over sushi.  Cookie does eat fish - raw, grilled, baked or broiled - because its a texture thing. And a "smell" thing. Fish to me smells like rotten stuff.  I've even gone to a hypnotist about this, but it cannot be overcome.  Now I do eat crab and shrimp without so much as a thought, and I love them.  But fish? Dear god, no.  And the same goes for lobsters; I don't eat them. Don't judge me.

My interest in genealogy got started during the whole "Roots" revolution, because thats when Americans cared, for a moment, about the human condition.  Kunte Kinte was a beacon for Black Americans because it brought the issue to slavery and sacrifice to the forefront.  But when white Americans discovered Kunta Kinte, which was also after a couple years of Bicentennial Minutes and the actual Bicentennial itself, they developed a rapacious desire sir to find their own roots.

Local genealogical societies, which had been the kingdom of little old ladies and men were overrun with middle class white people, all with a desire to discover their ancestors, which sounds a bit presumptuous if you ask me.  One's ancestors are ones ancestors.  They are not discovered like a cure for a disease.  You document your ancestry.  Anyway, I digress.

The people who came forward to find their own family's "Kunta Kinte" - except their ancestors were white, could have been indentured, be were not slaves -  divided themselves up into two groups.  There were the people who learned the hobby, did the work and knew for certain who they were dealing with, and the other people who just made shit up as they went along.

Or, put another way, when someone says "My grandfather was in oil," that is a fairly straightforward statement.   But when the say "I've traced my tree all the way back to Jesus," they are freaking bat-shit crazy.  And you need to run.

Talk at card parties was dominated by people talking about their favorite subjects, themselves, but with a new vigor unseen before.  Mother, who was very annoyed with these people, because they were talking about "her", started referring to them as people "with the Tombstone Twitch", as if it were a nervous tick or something.

"It's such a selfish hobby if you ask me," she said.   I wanted to know why she thought that.  "Because all they do is talk about their people.  I couldn't care less if they are a descendent of Jesus H. Christ.  They need to focus on playing their hands better."

After Root's, I started asking questions to my mother about her life and family.  And I found that there were gaping bits of her past that she just glossed over, while focusing on certain events, which she tried to use to lure me away.  She play dumb on what she did from 1942 to 1959, but she could tell you how she made her own giant firecracker and almost lost her hands.  And the more she evaded the truth, the more I wanted to get to the bottom of things.  My interest in getting answers where none had existed before coincided with the whole Root's phenomena, it just helped to give me an idea on what to look for.

When we moved from Shaker Heights to north central Ohio, that put me in the heart of "my mother's people" and that was the first time the floodgates opened.  Starting with my grandparents, I found their parents, and then their parents, and then their parents.  And when I couldn't go back any further, I started at the furthest point back and went forward.  And I keep finding things about these long gone people that were interesting.  Some things were mildly interesting, while other things were down right not spoken about in good company.

When I could drive, I started visiting different libraries in different communities.  I became a pest at courthouses, digging through files 150 years old, trying to find people who simply had gone missing.  This was a hobby that finally gave my OCD personality the outlet that it begged for.  I actually did find something interesting things, which my mother had never told me about before.  When I asked about them, her response was "That happened in the past," or "I don't know anything about that, and don't want to."

I actually showed my projects at the Ohio State Fair where I won blue ribbons for my research.

One judge looked over my mother's father's family and pointed out "it looks like you have an error in your great grandfather's birth date.  I think you meant December 1865 and not December 1864," said he trying to hold his skills over mine.

"No, that's right," I told him.

"But he couldn't have been born before they were married," said he.

"Well, they couldn't get married before he was born, or my great great grandfather would have been guilty of bigamy."

The man went slackjawed.

"Legally he was still married to her when he ran off to Chicago with my great great grandmother.  I couldn't lie about this.  It wouldn't have been right."

More crickets, and then he wrote something on a slip of paper and said "Give this to your mother."

Mom read the note and then called the judge a "fartless wonder" and told me that my project was too mature for display.

When I went to college and the whole thing just stopped.  I boxed up my files, and got on with life.

It wasn't until 9/11 happened that I dived right back in again.  Genealogy became my refuge.  And it was now available online, so I could obsess and work on the lines well into the night.  But now the "internets" came into being and it was a whole new world of online research.  And I found even more stuff.  Good stuff.

I actually have a book on the family from 1911, written by my great grandfather's first cousin - who established a nationally recognized business so well known, that its as synonymous in its industry as "Kleenex" is to facial tissues.  And what did I do with said book? I started proofing - verifying - his work.  Why?  It's what genealogy people do to test the validity of the source.

And I have found direct ancestors of these people and contacted them.  In every occasion, save one, they were as nice as could be. And they had pictures of all these people long since gone that I had never dreamed that I would see a face of.

Only on one occasion did I meet a pair of cousins - two little old harridans from California - were as nasty and vile as could be. And they weren't mean, but they sure were cruel.  I kept their emails because no one believed me when I told them what was in them.  Yes, they were harsh, but they were also dishonest and they stole most of my research on one great great great aunt and claimed it to be their own.  Karma is going to have a great time with them one day.

This past summer, the hobby took me places like Juniata and Perry Counties in Pennsylvania, and deep into the heart of Western Maryland where my tombstone twitch was finally scratched.  It's beautiful country, but very remote and in the heart of central Pennsylvania. To apply Gertrude Stein's quote, they are best described as "There is no there, there."

The countryside is gorgeous and lush, but it is remote.  Each county is banked by a mountain to its northwest and its southeast.  To get to either one you rely on two lane state roads, and pass through "Gaps", one of which is named for an ancestor, where the mountains could be breached.  But if I find it remote in my Prius, heaven only know knows what my ancestors were thinking in 1820 when they sold off everything and started for north central Ohio.

And maybe it also says something about me, you and everyone else.  It just seems like we've lost track at how amazing our progress has been in those 200 years before us.  We have roads, infrastructure, a fairly safe food supply and the only thing stopping us from hopping on a plane to go from point A to B is how much money we need.  The roads in life have been cleared for us by those people who came before us.

And it would such a shame if we never took the time to learn who came before us, or what was down the road that could tell us a bit more of ourselves.


  1. Oh....for a minute there I thought this was a chart from _Disco Dancing_.

  2. if i found my ancestors, i'd have to slap them.

  3. So, what was Mom doing during the fifties?

  4. If your forefathers by any chance came from Franconia, ask me.