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.

Remembering Catherine

Literature has been on my mind lately. Although I’ve not read all of Charles Dickens’ oeuvre, he’s been in my consciousness what with the new movie and somewhat older book, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Those who analyze literature sometimes claim Dickens invented the modern novel. In my unprofessional opinion, however, the roots go back a bit further than Boz. Still, it’s an enviable position to hold, even if it’s just in the minds of admirers. Dickens came back to me yesterday in one of those apparently random emails from WikiTree. WikiTree is a genealogy website to which I’ve contributed from time to time. I have no famous ancestors, so WikiTree sometimes helps me borrow them. Turns out I’m 28-degrees separated from Charles Dickens.

Perhaps their algorithms are getting better, or perhaps one of their robots is reading my blog (goodness knows few actual people do!) but the connections are getting closer. I posted earlier that I’m 37-degrees separated from Bob Dylan and 43-degrees from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m closer to Dickens than to either of these famous individuals. This is the beguiling aspect of genealogy—it shows how unexpected connections can be part of our unknown background. The maze back to Dickens is through my grandmother on the Tauberschmidt line. This is the one of the four grandparental lines for which I have the least information. Nobody in my family even knows my great-grandmother’s name. She died young and, as with women in that era, was known in census records only by her husband’s surname. I may never learn who she was.

Although the reason for women changing surnames makes sense in its historical context, it is one of the great injustices of both gender equality and history. Signs are indicating that society is finally waking up on this point: women are half of the human story. As a dabbler in fiction writing, knowing that half the story is untold is a troubling phenomenon. Reading about Dickens I learned that he left the wife of his youth for a younger woman. Although such things are common, my reaction was to wonder who Catherine Thomson Hogarth might’ve become, had women had the opportunities they’re starting to have today. She was, after all, from Edinburgh. She has biographies, but not nearly as many as her feted husband. And if my math’s correct, I’m only 29-degrees separated from her. And this may well be the more important connection; the story untold.

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.