Born to Fly

WikiTree is a web-based, free genealogy site.  I’m too busy these days to do much digging, but it’s hard not to stop and consider it once in a while.  Some years back I put some family information on it, and every great now and again—I don’t have a sense for the timing—I get notices that include “degrees of separation.”  It seems I’m always about twenty-some degrees removed from famous people.  In August they were featuring aviators.  I’m about as close to Orville Wright as I am to Amelia Earhart.   Then there was Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as “the Red Baron.”  What always surprises me about these charts is that they never follow the path you’d expect.  My ancestry is about half German, but Richthofen is attached through the other half, predominantly Celtic.  As my wife pointed out, we must all be about this far removed from each other.

Genealogy can be enticing.  It’s got an air of mystery and discovery about it.  I suspect many of us hope we’ll find that we’re connected to someone famous, even if we never meet them.  My cousins remember visiting Melvin Purvis’ house when they were kids.  An ancestor of that generation was married to his sister.  But what of all those who never become well known?  Are they any less important because they don’t have books written about them, or movies that feature them?  Isn’t simply connection enough?  And the matter of being connected can often heal wounds.  It’s harder to hate someone whose house or childhood you shared.  This is a profound lesson from looking at how humans have loved each other.  We tend to get fixated on the mechanics, but it seems to me that the love is the important part.

I’m not a statistician, but I find that genealogy helps me feel connected.  We are all, of course, connected at some level.  That’s one reason it’s so distressing to see the hatred being carefully nurtured by our government for political ends.  Black lives do matter.  They are connected to white lives in often unexpected ways.  Despite what 45 says, race is a human construct only.  We are all human and we each have inherent worth and dignity.  This isn’t rocket science.  Good leadership brings together.  Poor leadership divides.  So my twenty-something-th cousin was flying around shooting down airplanes in World War One.  My other twenty-something-th cousin was trying to show that women can do just what men can do.  Which is a better model to follow?  It’s the one that promotes love.

Almost Ancestors

During the Covid-19 crisis, cemeteries seem to be safe places.  Not too many people are in them, at least not people that can spread the virus, and they always provide grounds for rumination.  Besides, being outdoor spaces they can get you someplace outside the same four walls you see all the time.  My wife and I both have an interest in genealogy.  We’ve worked on our family trees and even try to keep our Reunion software up-to-date.  This past weekend we visited a family burial plot in upstate New York.  My wife’s family has a more accomplished pedigree than mine does, and one of her ancestors here actually merited an obelisk and was written up in local histories as a noteworthy member of the community.  I also have ancestry in upstate, and we’ve traveled to some of their sites in the past, although their markers are usually harder to find.

Being in a cemetery, the logic of ancestor worship suggests itself.  Without these people history as we know it would’ve been different.  Without those who are our direct ancestors we wouldn’t even be here pondering our own insignificance.  We wish these headstones could talk, saying more than the names, vital dates, and perhaps a quote from the Bible.  We listen, hoping to gain knowledge of who they were.  It seems to me that cemetery histories would be a boon to genealogists.  For those of us whose predecessors were buried in small towns, such guides could be a real boon.  As it is, Find A Grave dot com is often a helpful resource, but who wouldn’t like to be written up in an actual book?  Network reception often isn’t great out here in rural America.

Graveyards are gateways to the past.  In a world that feels like it’s changing way too fast, it seems right to have these places—these sanctuaries—to stop and reflect.  They represent lives lived.  Peaceful after the trauma of day-to-day angst and struggle.  Unfortunately the pandemic is daily adding to the number of those who’ll be buried in cemeteries across the nation and around the world.  Although somewhat preventable, we have no national will to stop the tragedy.  So it is I find myself staring at a monument erected to someone I never knew, but without whom my life would’ve been vastly different.  It’s a sunny day and I’m outside amid a crowd that can cause me no harm, but who, at times like this, inspire me. 

Frankenstein’s Family

The story of Frankenstein has many unexpected twists and turns.  I’m currently reading a book about the writing of the novel—something I’ve done a number of times before.  There was an aspect of this story that hadn’t really caught my attention too much, but then, circumstances changed.  Suddenly old information became new.  It all started with a missed opportunity from childhood. 

It was a real puzzle.  Although my grandmother lived with us her last years, I never knew the name of her mother.  There had been hints.  My grandfather’s book with birthdays in it listed the first name, so I had a Christian moniker and birthdate only.  She’d died young, I knew, somewhere in the Washington, DC area.  This had been the state of my knowledge for many years.  My grandmother died before I was a teen, and before I took any interest in the family story.  I knew her heritage was Germanic, her father having been a first-generation American.

So young Mary Shelley (technically Godwin) was on a tour of Europe with her lover Percy.  Although they both came from distinguished backgrounds, they were cash poor.  Running out of money they made their way back to England as cheaply as they could.  They passed near Castle Frankenstein along the way, although there is no record that they actually visited it.  The name seems to have stuck, as does the story that they potentially learned about a mad scientist who’d lived in that castle.  This scientist was a theologian who dabbled in alchemy and experiments with dead bodies.  I know what you’re thinking—it’s like a puzzle piece we desperately want to go in this place but its fit’s ambiguous.  We’re not sure how much of this Mary Shelley knew.  The alchemist’s name was Johann Konrad Dippel.  I’d read about him before.

I’d spent nearly an entire summer some years back working on my grandmother’s family, finding little.  Just two years ago I did a casual search on “Find a Grave,” and to my surprise, I found my great-grandfather.  I knew it was him because his second wife’s name matched information from all the family records.  The cemetery record, in Maryland rather than DC, had his first wife’s name.  It was that easy.  After decades of searching, a few keystrokes revealed the mystery.  When it also listed her parents, the significance of her mother’s maiden name—Dippel—escaped me.  Now I have no way of knowing if this is the same Dippel family of Castle Frankenstein, but it put flesh on the bones of my long-standing interest in monsters.  Seeking them out may be the same as learning family secrets.  Perhaps it always is.

Families in Trees

Genealogy is one of those things that’s fascinating as long as it’s yours.  It’s not hard to lose a few (or many) hours, trying to find ancestral connections.  When someone you don’t know begins to tell you, however, about other people you’ve never heard of, your eyes begin to glaze over.  My wife kindly gave me a gift of a local genealogy class that we attended the other day.  Along with some dozen others we gathered to learn some tricks of the trade.  The presenter began by having us introduce ourselves, “briefly.”  It’s a dangerous move in a genealogical crowd.  A few of our fellow students went into great detail about their ancestors, forgetting, for the moment, that we were there to learn how to do the research, not to find out about their families.  It’s a natural enough mistake.

None of us ask to be born, and we spend our lives wondering why we are here.  How did our parents meet?  Where were they from?  What did they do?  And the generation before that?  Some time ago I figured out that, due to the exponential nature of ancestors, that by the time you get back to just eight “greats” before for your grandparents, it took over a thousand people to make you.  It boggles the mind.  Suddenly it seems as if there would never be enough chance encounters or arranged marriages or tumbles in the hay for you to ever get here.  So many ancestors!  By the time I was in college I’d managed to trace it back to almost sixteen family names.  I was able to break through a barrier on this just over a year ago when talking to some family members about a lost ancestor at the turn of the twentieth century.  Genealogy is a search for meaning.

Both my wife and I share this interest.  Of the dozen or so others at the session, four others were married couples.  Almost all of us had done the voluntary DNA test to find our nations of origins—to confirm or deny family stories.  And that’s what it’s really about: stories.  Although we may be squeamish about some aspects, we want to know where we came from, the story of how we arrived here.  As if there’s some cosmic clue in it that gives us information on why we’re here.  It brought several of us out on a February afternoon.  We didn’t know each other.  If we traced back far enough, however, we would have found we were all related.  We are all family.

Family Names

Holidays are all about family.  In our society where families, due to jobs, often get spread across states, if not the world, we value holidays as times to get as many as possible of our close ones together.  They’re also rare days when work isn’t required, and true relaxation—a rarity—can take place.  This Thanksgiving break I’ve been reading the proofs for Holy Horror, but I put them aside after anyone else awakes.  We all, I think, come out of it feeling rested.  It has been many years, however, since I’ve had time to work on genealogy.  I don’t write much about it here because most people don’t find other people’s family history to be of interest.  Many of us are nevertheless fascinated by the ancestors without whom we would not be here.

One summer while I was teaching at Nashotah House I became fixated on one great-grandmother.  Nobody in my family knew her name.  I had a first name (a fairly common one), and, adding insult to injury, I grew up with her daughter (my grandmother) living in my home.  Kids, as nature dictates, aren’t interested in that kind of thing, and nobody thought to ask my grandmother her mother’s name before she died.  I found myself stuck at just two generations back.  I made trips to the repository of state and federal records at Madison, spending the summer in a basement room reading through microfiche—talk about ancient history!—trying to find her name.  Nothing.  I wrote to the federal agencies of vital statistics in Washington which gladly cashed my checks but never sent any information.  Later, when the internet began to fill up, I searched for her married name.  Nothing turned up.  I ordered books of gravestone inscriptions from the District of Columbia, where she’d died, but dug up nothing.  One of the cemeteries sends me newsletters now.  When my daughter asked why I was getting them in the mail I told the story.  We began to search online.

I couldn’t believe it.  At least a decade and a half after I’d found no clues, and after many web searches after that, we finally found her.  Someone had entered her on Findagrave.com.  As I pondered the dates, which seemed about right, my daughter pointed out that the site stated she’d been married to my great-grandfather.  My ancestry suddenly grew by two new surnames because her parents were also listed.  I was stunned.  I once calculated that, due to exponential growth, just ten generations back, (eight “greats”) we all have over a thousand ancestors, or 500 couples.  Genealogy could be a full-time addiction.  For the moment, however, I’m pleased to have found a long lost name, and an instantly larger family for this holiday season.

Fame and Fortune

I was that awkward introvert in high school. Actually, I’m still that awkward introvert now, as easily talked over in editorial board meetings as I always have been at the lunchroom table. As a consequence I’ll gladly take any help I can get on my street cred. No doubt it will have to come from others. I get rejection emails from agents saying I’m just not famous enough to merit attention, so I guess I’ll have to bask in the glory of strangers. I do have a famous brother-in-law. It also turns out that I’m also only 43-degrees separated from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ll take it!

One of the beauties of genealogy is that we learn we’re all connected. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from any unsightly Trumps in the family tree, we are all, at some remove, related. J. R. R., as those of us in the fam like to call him, had a common great uncle who had some descendants who by marriage became connected to the obscure Tauberschmidt family, of which I’m a member. I posted some time back on my degrees of separation from Bob Dylan, but the closest near miss to fame in my background is Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot Dillinger.” Even he’s only related by marriage. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we all took our relations seriously if it might not help to understand that when we oppress anyone we’re actually violating our own family. Makes you think.

Wiki-Tree is a great place for finding connections. Unfortunately I don’t have much time for genealogy anymore. I used to spend quite a bit of time at it and now I can’t even find my paper files. Those of us on the obscure end of the human continuum have to take whatever jobs we’re offered, even if it means moving so many times that those family tree files from pre-electronic days get buried in the back of some attic crawl space in your rental. So it goes. I’m sure J. R. R. had his own rough times. At least he doesn’t have to try to get published in today’s market. I suspect that if the Inklings were to meet today they’d all be chatting about the merits of self-publishing on Amazon. In ebook form. Publishing’s not for the feint-hearted. So as I open yet another pinhead email, I think of my 43rd cousin and smile.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

When Bob Dylan was changing American music I wasn’t really in a place to notice. I was too young, living in a small town, and the member of a church suspicious of that kind of music. We didn’t listen to the radio at home, so I only really discovered who he was when I was in college. I’d heard many of his songs by then, of course, I just didn’t know the persona. So when the news broke that Dylan had been selected for a Nobel Prize in poetry he stunned me yet again. As someone who has always wondered if he’s made any contribution at all, let alone a significant one, this seemed like one of those roads a man walks down before he’s called a man. A mensch. A person who matters. I was pleased, then, to learn that I’m only 37 degrees of separation from the great man himself.

It was probably something like this desire to be significant that led me to genealogy in the first place. My wife had done significant work on her family tree, and apart from a college project in anthropology I’d done little. While at Nashotah House I began to work on it. I managed to make some connections and take many of my lineages (pedestrian, all of them) back a ways. One of the results of this was I posted some information on WikiTree. I had intended to put much more there, but since leaving academia I also seem to have misplaced anything resembling free time. The loss of summer is the hardest to bear for a man whose very pulse is divided into semesters. In any case, I received an email from WikiTree this week with the following chart, showing how I’m attached to Bob Dylan.

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Now, I didn’t ask for this connection to fame. I received the email unsolicited, blowing in the wind, as it were. I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle all the hits that are sure to follow such a public revelation. Fame, I’m told, can be quite a burden. The one important thing this chart tells me, however, is that we’re all connected. I suspect there are some famous people much closer than 37 degrees from me. Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot John Dillinger” was married to one of my great aunt’s sisters or something like that. Some of my southern cousins even got to visit his gun-lined house. Fame, as it will, rests rather on the side of John Dillinger. And Bob Dylan. If we were to cast the net wide enough we’d see that we’re all related and therefore shouldn’t hate one another. I would say “we are family” but I think that might be a different artist’s song.

All Relative

Among the most compelling questions raised by consciousness is “where am I from?” Humans are a species of widely traveled individuals and despite the fiction that we all derive from happily married couples, we often end up distant from our relatives. Over time we may forget who they were. Our descendants, however, may be very curious. I have spent some time, over the years, climbing my family tree. It’s endlessly fascinating because you find that the research is about people’s stories, not just who was coupling with whom. Those of us of non-American ancestry who live in America often wonder how we came to be here. Families preserve stories, and sometimes those stories are embellished over time. I’ve spent more than an afternoon or two in county clerks’ offices thumbing through records to try to push things back just one more generation. Who were these people who led to me?

The Mormons, among other aspects of their theology, have contributed greatly to genealogical research. It is an American religion indeed. My family recently gave me a DNA tracing kit, run by ancestry.com, as a gift. Although it wouldn’t answer all the questions about my background, I suspected it would either confirm or deny some of the stories. The results just came in, and, amazingly, family stories were right about on the mark. I’ve always called myself an “American mutt” but it would have been more accurate to say a “northern European mutt.” Mostly Germanic, English, and Irish, I fit into the typical early settler paradigm. There are minor traces in there that I’m not sure I understand, maybe less than one or two percent—some Asian, some African. All of this will take more research. You never really find out who you are. Completely.

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

DNA testing is the stuff of science. It isn’t a precise science in that it can’t tell the stories of those ancestors. It takes family tradition to do that. I know that one Irish ancestor stowed away on a ship and she arrived in America not as a paying passenger. I know another branch came as a German engineer and his wife, and that their son opened a bakery. Some of the branches have been here since the Revolutionary War, but they were also germanic—were we Hessians? I haven’t had time to read through all that the Mormons have discovered about me, but I’ve got a pretty good idea that family tradition hasn’t failed me here. While the stories can’t themselves be confirmed by the science, they are not inconsistent with the results. And when it comes to finding out who’s your daddy, the answer really depends on how far back you look.

Vital Statistics

While going through a folder looking for some vital record recently I ran across my baptism certificate. The more I pondered this piece of paper the more reflective I became. In this electronic age when you can pay your bills online, keep all your bank records online, apply for and (perhaps) be offered a job online, we still hold stock in simple pieces of paper. Even without a pre-nup, couples are given a piece of paper to prove that they are married. When we’re born the first gift of the government is a birth certificate. Most of us don’t get to see our own death certificates, which, I suppose, is mostly a good thing. With the exception of the latter, we often have occasion to show these official papers to prove we are who we say we are. But what of the baptism certificate? Who do we show it to? Is it for God’s eyes only?

As an occasional dabbler in genealogy I have come to know the value of the family Bible. Sometimes the family tree recorded therein contains records that even the government may lack, often tucked away between the testaments as if we were all Maccabees. It might seem a curious place to keep personal records, but the practice dates back to the time when, if families could not afford to surround themselves with books, they would at least have a Bible. That Bible was a logical place for vital records since many people believed their own lives were recorded in God’s great book and having your name in a Bible was a species of insurance: after all, if God wrote it surely it was good to have your name there.

Like much of commerce, genealogy has now shifted to the Internet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has extensive online databases available (for a fee). We are all curious about where we’ve come from—how this spark of consciousness got inside this body. We can look at our birth certificate and learn some of the vital statistics, but we know that we are somehow more than the simple blending of gametes to form a zygote. At thresholds along the way we are given papers by which we might later prove ourselves. My box full of diplomas lies moldering away in some mildew-infested closet while on my bookshelf rests a Bible with the record of how it all began. At each major junction some form of religion is there, and more often than not, when it is all over we’ll end up with a piece of paper to prove who we’ve been.

A bureau of vital statistics