The Stuff of Living

The Didion

(with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe…forevermore)

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore — 
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of a fact gently unwrapping its veracity for me to adore —
“‘Tis some bogus GEDCOM,” I muttered, “without veracity for me to adore; —
Only this, and nothing more.”

Ah, but distinctly I remember, it might’ve just been any December,
Each separate ancestor I was dying to remember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished know more, O!  – and sought to borrow
From my books exciting tales of yore – from all our Ancestors –
For the undiscovered who came before whom we call Ancestors –
Most nameless for evermore.

But the silken sad uncertain rustling of each family curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with satisfaction I never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“Come forth, ancestor, impress me with veracity I can adore –
Some great-great-grandparent I’ll find you and bring you here, your veracity for all to adore; –
Just need to find one more,”

Presently my skills grew stronger; and my family tree grew longer,
“Forefathers,” said I, “foremothers, knowledge of you I implore;
But the fact is your trail grows dim, and so when your facts unwrapping,
And so faintly you do respond, so faded are the tales past memory’s door,
That I scarce was sure I had you” – here I opened wide the door; –
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that dark past peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams only royals ever dared to dream before;
Sometimes the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Ancestor!”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Ancestor!”
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the research turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again a fact jumped forth somewhat more solid than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my browser window;
Let me see then, what evidence there is, and this mystery explore –
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; –
‘Tis unsupported, till further nothing more!”

Open my mouth I did to utter, when, from my mind there did a’flutter,
A communique, a memory I’d apparently been savin’ related to saintly days of yore.
A connection at first I didn’t see, but I knew toward Bethlehem slouched we
This memory from my own best parts it be, veracity self-evident for all to adore –
Perched upon a bust of Pallas pointed at me to know and adore –
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then unbridled enthusiasm beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
I, lost in tangled branches, did think she brought specifics on more Ancestors.
“My family crest – which one to emblazon?!’ I said, My hands excited and wavin’.
“Vastly wise and prolific Joan, what have you to do with my Ancestors?
Tell me, as I live, I want to know, for sure!”
Quoth the Didion, “Stories. Evermore.”

The full quoth, u-hem, quote from the wonderful and wonderfully lucid writer Joan Didion is, of course, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” (For those who might be unfamiliar: it’s the opening line of her 1979 book of essays entitled “The White Album”.) So in terms of family history (or, “fam-tracking”, a term I coined to use instead of “genealogy”), although it probably is so obvious, it is worth the occasional reminder that perhaps its greatest reward gained from learning your family history is the wealth of stories that we become aware of along the way.

Any of the things said to be benefits of investigating our families’ histories proceed from the stories: facts of and one’s relationship with the past by definition consist of and describe stories. History itself, as we now well know, is just a big bag of stories. And as an ardent advocate of anyone and everyone tracking their family history, all of the stories uncovered in that ongoing process will have value, since knowing what happened is the first step in making sense of how the past led to the present, how they led to you, to me, to us and to now. (This, presupposing that this is all actually in the service of our collectively hammering out a better world for our descendants, including the ones alive today. 🙂

Well so but anyway, since I know my family history pretty well, I’ve encountered what I considered a “usual” set of stories: uncles, dads and brothers serving in wars, families migrating together in wagons on barges on foot across the land north of the Ohio River, a WW-I vet who took to working at his dad’s Standard Oil gas station and racing cars and wandering the West after the Great War; Puritans; a native american young lady marrying a Swede when the native people still far-outnumbered the Europeans; Amish — one of whom was so dedicated to his creed’s pacifism that when Indians (hired by the French, it turns out) attacked his home in central Pennsylvania in 1757 and his sons offered to get their rifles to fend them off, refused, and subsequently saw his wife killed and was captured (only to escape months later); another such kidnapping in the form of the person to whom the first statue to a woman was built in these United States in honor of her (yes, her) having escaped from the captivity by killing her 10 Indian captors (proof of such delivered along with herself and the two accompanying former captives — in the form of their scalps); Scotch-Irish immigrants who, arriving around the time George Washington set the bar for the US Presidency, chose the rugged slopes of the back side of the Appalachians (mountains as ancient and similarly eroded as those in Northern Ireland from whence they’d come, and to which they’d been transplanted from Scotland by English landlords)…stories, stories, so many stories…

To these I’ve been able to add, over the last few years wholly other stories learned from my ex-wife’s family history (relevant to our kids) and my dad’s, both batches of which fleshed out the American experience: no Puritans to speak of, but the infamous “second sons” who populated Virginia in the 1600s and their slave ownership; the poverty of the south side of the Ohio River; German and Italian immigrants at the turn of the last century, some taking ethically questionable but necessary employment with thuggish government agencies; rebellious types in the early 1960s in the SF Bay Area still getting pregnant too young, and men, still attempting to “do the right thing”; actual, real live Pirates of the Carribean!

… intermarrying between mountain villages in Italy whose sons fought in the Italian civil war that led to its nationhood (first time unified since the fall of the Roman Empire, 1400 years prior), and then leaving the nation they helped forge opting instead for northern England; Irish potato blight sufferers who went to Liverpool; the sorrowful woe of extreme urban poverty there — and the ways in which physical might and good old fashioned ass-kicking can actually be of value…and how a double scoop of irony — WW-II’s draft + the end of the war — led to one boy’s physical prowess unwittingly leading him to a life of art by way of the Sphinx and its pyramids…

At a certain point, ya think: how many more stories can or should a person know? Aren’t these enough? Don’t these sufficiently tell the tale of being people? In this world? Don’t these sum up the human experience?


(after we all stop laughing at me for entertaining such a pea-brained thought)

Add to these the facts, circumstances, events and life-arcs I’ve learned just in the last few weeks as I’ve turned my fam-tracking attention to the collateral descendants of my surname-founding, American ancestors.

I like knowing context. And I think most people do. So here’s some for this.

All of us have 16 great-great-grandparents. Those are our grandparents’ grandparents. The mommies and daddies of our parent’s grandparents. Most of the time those are 16 different people (8 couples). And we all — every one of us alive — are composed of 16 equal parts from those 16 people. However, (most of the time) most of us go through life bearing the last-name (the general ID-tag, as opposed to specific ID-tag of our first names) of but only one of those 16 people. It doesn’t make anyone *more* descended from that one particular person, or *more* genetically composed of the one-out-of-16 from whom we get the last name. But few will deny the fact that what ever last name we carry, we all tend to identify with it, and by dint of that, somehow, with the grandparent’s grandparent who had it, more than we do with any of the other 15 gr-gr-grandparents.

My gr-gr-grandfather whose last name I bear was born in 1835 in Indiana as his parents slowly moved from the rugged hills surrounding the banks of the headwaters of the Ohio River across what we now call the Midwest, ending in southwestern Wisconsin, on the banks of the lower Mississippi. He had 4 brothers who all continued the westward journey: one left as soon as he turned 18 for the gold rush in California, going overland in 1851; another followed when he also turned 18, via Panama (1856); another followed them in 1869; and the eldest, after a 20-year career owning a dry-goods store/saloon where the family had landed in Wisconsin moved to the mountains of Colorado when he was 50, fathering more kids and lasting all the way up to 11 days shy of his 77th birthday in 1907.

I’d cursorily looked at these west-flung great-grand-uncles of mine in 1987 as I was segueing out of my “1st wave” of genealogy and located their kids throughout California and Colorado @ the start of the 20th century. I even successfully charted the third Californian’s entire descendant legacy in the form of a great guy who’s a doctor and pater familias to his own happy and healthy brood. And 10 years later, in a very brief “2nd wave” of this pursuit I made contact with a descendant of the California pioneer of those 19th century Campbell brothers (learning of the overland trek in 1851).

Since then I’d done virtually no work on this stuff.

But just over the the last few weeks I’ve learned the fate of 40 of the staggering 43 grandkids of these Campbell brothers’ parents (my 3rd great-grandparents) George Campbell and Rachel Bilderback. 43! Each of those people had 30-odd first cousins (depending on how many siblings each had)! That’s crazy!

And over these last few weeks in the high summer of 2012 I’ve learned that only 26 of those 40 whose legacies are known (of the 43) went on to have kids of their own. And I’ve traced most of the lines to the present day.

And boy, howdy, are there more stories — each one worthwhile, fascinating, enervating and life-affirming.

It’s the stuff of life. These are the players.

Stay tuned for Part 2, wherein I share some of these remarkable true tales of life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s