Michele My recent trip to Ireland taught me that what happened to my great-grandparents is far more relevant than I realized. It almost seems to me if there is a cumulative DNA factor that continues from generation to generation. (I’ve since learned from Alexia about “epigenetics.” It’s a good thing there’s a doctor in the Miss Demeanors’ house.)
So, what stories to you carry within you from your people? I know Cate has shared a bit about her family heritage, but I don’t remember hearing stories from the rest of you. Could you share a snippet with us?
Alison: This is a fascinating question, Michele! After seeing Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me, where she explores the idea of inherited trauma, I started thinking more about how my outlook on the world has been shaped by the fact that I’m descended from pioneers who walked from New York to the Salt Lake Valley (and, on my mom’s side of the family, that journey started in Sweden). Genealogy is a foundational part of Mormon life, so I grew with a lot of family lore: stories of miracles, adversity, and faith. All of this can be a force for good, but I have to say that there is often more than a little daylight between story and fact. While researching polygamy for Death in the Covenant, I came across a photo of a headstone from my family’s cemetery plot. There were two wives’ names engraved on that stone–Jane and Elizabeth–and they both were married to my great-great-great grandfather at the same time. Nothing unusual if you’re a descendent of Mormon pioneers, but I’d been told my entire life that there were no polygamists in my family. What I find most intriguing is not the polygamy, but the fact that several generations of my family denied that it happened. How do the truth and the story combine in my own cumulative DNA? I don’t know, but it’s a question I’d like to answer.
Michele: The story about finding the two names of the wives on the gravestone is incredible, especially since it turned your family story upside down. I love that as a writer, you could probe it within a story you created.
Susan: Michele, I’ve so enjoyed reading your posts this week. What a beautiful journey. My own family history is more along the lines of Fiddler on the Roof. My father’s people fled the pogroms in Russia around the turn of the 20th century. They came to NY, whereupon my grandfather got a job as a clapper at the opera, which is to say he was paid to show people when it was time to clap. I never met him, but my father loved to tell stories about the opera, which is where I got my love for the opera, and also for dramatic situations. When my father married my mother, who was a Christian, that caused some tumult, but the funny thing was that I met my husband in church. His ancestors had also fled the pogroms in Russia and his father had also married a Christian, and that was really what brought us together.
Michele: Susan, that’s a real love story.
Robin: My heritage has been a big part of my life. I’m one of “those” Stuarts (as one of my friends says). My dad was always extremely proud of being a descendant of the Royal House of Stuart so I grew up with the family crest displayed prominently in our living room. And lots of plaid. My mom had a Stuart/Stewart plaid skirt, my dad had ties and cummerbunds, they gave my brother and I plaid scarves, I even had a plaid teddy bear at one point. A few years ago, I went to Scotland for the first time and it turned into what I dubbed, “the Mary Stuart womb to tomb tour.” It’s was sort of, but not quite, accidental. I went to Glasgow for a conference and decided to stick around the UK for a couple of weeks. On the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, I just happened to be staring out the window at the Linlithgow station and saw a historical marker announcing the town as the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. Here’s a picture of me at Linlithgow Palace, where she was born.
Connie: Every family has its secrets, and mine is no exception. My paternal grandmother, a Scot, hid a first marriage, a new “husband” whom she finally married at the age of 70 when the first husband died, and a son (my father), who was born of the first husband but passed off as the son of the second. Confused? So was my mother, who learned all this when she was cleaning out a desk and found the change-of-name certificate. She encouraged my dad to find his real father, who was then 98, still working as the foreman of a loading dock, and living in a third-floor walk-up flat. I was only 5 when he died at the age of 101. And yes, he was 30 years older than my grandmother and in his 60s when my father was born. He was Irish and a gentle, sweet man. I have a few letters from him, written when I was born. I’m so glad my birth brought him joy.
Alexia: I’m answering your question last minute, not because I overlooked it or ignored it but because it’s hard for me to answer. I’m not used to sharing my family stories outside of my family. Our stories are private and very much tied up in the grief and trauma—and hope and determination and resilience—of living as poor Blacks in the rural Depression-WWII-Civil Rights-era, Jim Crow South. I’ve led a (deliberately) sheltered, privileged life, a beneficiary of the sacrifices my parents consciously made to spare me the pain they suffered. Yet, I recognize now that I’m older, their pain and the pain of generations before them shaped my cynically pragmatic worldview. Some scoff at the theory of epigenetic trauma. I won’t get into a debate over nature vs. nurture, DNA vs. environment, because it doesn’t matter, ultimately, whether I was born this way or made this way. It’s who I am. I carry the burden of my ancestors’ pain.
I also carry the honor of it. That pain, and the desire to thrive (not merely survive) in spite of it, created in my cousins (and their children) and me: respect for our elders (No, we do NOT speak to our parents that way.), deep soul-gratitude for the sacrifices they made, a desire to make them proud by taking advantage of opportunities they hardly dared dream of to better ourselves (My parents spent the first half of their lives sharecropping. They were the first generation to graduate from high school, let alone college, and get “white collar” jobs. My generation counts lawyers, a judge, a state legislator, a career civil servant, a physician, and an author among our numbers.), and a sense of our duty to uplift others.
My forebears’ pain, and the stories—some cautionary, some tragic, some triumphal—it spawned, created in me a love of story. I claimed to be disinterested in the “ramblings” of the grown-ups when I was a kid. (“Yes, Mom, I have heard that one before.”) But the “adult talk” that I absorbed while sitting at the dinner table and at family gatherings percolated in my brain and wrote itself on my heart and is now manifesting itself in my own stories.
That was a ridiculously long preamble to the answer to your question. I promise I’m not trying to bogart the blog. Here’s a short, sort of funny, story from Mom’s side of the family.Granddad, an old man of few words when I knew him, but once upon a time a vibrant man who went by “Bubba” (William) and wrote to New York cousins asking to be taken to “speaks” (speakeasies) when he came to visit, back when he was so young he hadn’t yet married Grandma, absolutely believed in ghosts. They terrified him. He has several paranormal experiences. One night, after he’d been married for some time, he went out to one of those places where men called “Bubba” go at night and wives know enough not to ask about. His walk home—he was the type of Bubba who went home—took him through the woods. Ghosts haunt woods. Everyone knows this. (Sorry, Susan.) Granddad was as nervous as Ichabod Crane riding home from the Van Tassels. He’d been walking for a while when he noticed something, up ahead, off in the trees. Did he imagine it? He wasn’t that drunk. No, he hadn’t imagined it. It was—something. Something gleaming white in the moonlight. Something floating above the ground. Did it move? Was it…coming…closer? Closer to him? Coming to get him. A ghost. A ghost in the woods at night, moving toward him, coming to get him, to—
Granddad ran all the way home.In the bright, sober light of the next day, Granddad decided to Bubba-up and go back to the woods to investigate. He retraced his steps. He may have had his shotgun—I don’t recall Mom ever mentioning that in her telling. He walked back into the woods, up to the spot where he’d been when he saw the thing—and found a white shirt, caught in the trees, its harmless sleeves fluttering.
Michele: Thank you for your moving and generous comments, Alexia. This sharing of stories cuts close to the bone, but I find that when we share our different stories, we learn we’re not all that different. Happy Birthday!
Connie: Alexia, thank you for sharing a bit of your family history with us, if not with the world. I love Bubba’s tale, and I love thinking of you as a little girl, “not listening” to the adult talk around the table. Now I’m thinking more deeply about the underlying premises that shaped me as well. We all have them, but not all of us take time to understand them. One thing is clear: you are a story teller.
Susan: Thank you for sharing your stories, Alexia, and happy birthday. Also, I absolutely believe there are ghosts in the woods. Sometimes I feel them walking alongside me. Nothing too menacing yet. But I don’t go out at night.