Unconventional Wisdom

The following appeared on the Genealogy Blog, owned by Leland Meitzler

(http://www.genealogyblog.com/) .   I do genealogy from time to time and got to know Leland as a friend.   I also have met the wonderful author Wendell Berry and read just about anything he writes.  Recently I saw a poem of Wendell’s that fit a genealogy page really well, so I wrote about it for the Genealogy Blog but have permission to use it here.

One of the dot com book companies sent me a small book of poems by my favorite author, Wendell Berry.* In one short poem Wendell described a Thomas Fiske method of doing genealogy that I thought was particularly useful. He wrote about his gratitude for his children and grandchildren and then said:

At our dinners together, the dead
Enter and pass among us
In living love and in memory.


And so the young are taught.


I showed the poem to my wife Evie, and tears came to her eyes as she thought of her pretty daughter Julie, who was killed by a drunk driver on the eve of her wedding some twenty years ago. We have often talked about Julie with the grandchildren around the dinner table.

In the author’s artful description, not only is ancestry passed on but also it is used to teach the young. I cannot write how many times my family meals were conducted this way, in which “the dead enter(ed) and pass(ed) among us” as someone told a story about a person from the past.

It is a good thing the dead don’t eat much, because many of these meals were conducted during the Great Depression or during WWII when food was scarce. But no matter how hungry I was, I always remembered the stories my parents or grandparents told. Now that my children are getting older they remind me that I told them stories as well.

I am forced to wonder how much damage I did by telling the “racier” stories about my two older brothers and me rather than the stories in which we helped someone or showed some kindness.

But that is water under the bridge. Having a long memory, I became the family genealogist and put my parents’ stories to good use. I hope my grandchildren will save those tales for their kids. All things considered, I managed to make the stories into learning experiences in which I passed on part of the American culture. Maybe the dead paused long enough to approve.

Of course they heard stories “in living love” because they were family and when I tell stories, family members always wear white hats – maybe hats with footprints on them or with holes through the crowns because we had our share of screwballs. But always they had white hats because they were the good guys.

I kind of forgot the other kind of stories.

*Berry, Wendell, Leavings. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011, p.41

Turning in My Quill Pen and Ink

It takes a lot of perseverance to write a book.   I should know because I have finished ten of the things.  It would have been easy, so easy to lay a half-written book aside and promise myself I would get back to it some day.  And then wait for that day to come.  It never comes, you know.  I had to be motivated.

Most of the books I wrote were non-fiction.  They contained stories that I knew had to be told.  Just had to be told before I kicked the bucket.  No one else could have told those stories.  I may have made some of those stories into fiction for various reasons (there are always reasons for not publishing a story including “it might offend someone”).

Making them into fiction is just a slight extra demand on the author.  Some of us are mere reporters and do not know how to do anything but list events and the people who caused them.  There is very little challenge in just reporting.

Anyway, at almost the end of my trail, I think I’ll quit writing books.  Even though there’s some modest glory in being America’s least-read writer, I don’t care.  I only know that on my bookshelf is a collection of nine, soon to be ten, books.  And lots of articles as well.  I wrote them.

As I said, the stories had to be told.  Not telling them created pressure.  Now the pressure is off.

The books are like paintings.   You can look at them and like them or not like them.  It doesn’t matter.  They are there, ten books that weren’t anywhere fifteen years ago.  They contain ideas and remembrances and historical details for any and all to see.  What’s more, the books are edifying and nearly every word is spelled correctly.

There was a time when I was just starting out in the literary world at age seven. In those days my goal was to read a complete book.  It was hard to read them all the way through and I knew I would be proud of myself if I could concentrate long enough just to read every page.  Eventually I reached that goal and that began my life-long love of books.

How many times did I wander into my college’s book store and smell the wonderful aroma of paper and paste and whatever it is that makes a new book smell so good?   My romance over the years never flagged.

Sometime during my college experience, though, I began to look at books differently.  There was a time when, if I didn’t understand a book, I would put it down and think I was too dumb.  After my MBA degree, the truth hit me:  if I could not understand a book, I would lay it aside and say to myself, “That author can’t write.”  But I still loved books.  They had to be well written, however.

During my first fifty years never did I dream I would be able to write a book.  I did not even want to write one because I realized I was not of the writer class, I was of the reader class.  Most of us are that way.  But then I turned over several rocks in my family history foundation and there they were—the stories that had to be told.

Now I have done my duty.  I have told the stories of murder and war and struggle during WWII followed by the Space Race and the Cold War.  It is someone else’s turn.  I will not listen to any more stories, much less tell them.  Now I am content to read very well written books, preferably new ones that have crisp clean pages.

Don’t offer me something on the Internet.  I hate computer screens.  I just want to turn pages and look at black words on white pages, words that can bring back memories or cause me to dream great dreams.  I think I have earned that privilege.

It may take a lot of perseverance not to write another book, but I believe I will win out.

I think the literary world will survive.  After all, I still have my blog to work on, and the Genealogy blog as well, and maybe an engineering magazine or two.

Digging in the Past

Writing is not all agony.  I write things like this for fun and then send them to a friend, Leland Meitzler, so he can post them on his blog.  Besides, they don’t require a lot of research.  That work has already been done years ago when I compiled a genealogy.  The thing for you readers to remember is that they are all true.  Leland’s Blog is very informative and can be found at

http://www.genealogyblog.com/

Don’t Dig Up the Past!

Maybe it is just my family that has problems, but probably not.  I just know that I have been warned not to dig up the past by very serious cousins.  On more than one occasion and on more than one family line.  Of course, reasons were not offered (that would ruin the fun of making the warning).

I have never agreed to stop turning over rocks and looking under them.  I just couldn’t agree when I did not know what was hidden there waiting for me to find.  In fact, I was spurred on by such warnings.

Of course I found ugly things, especially surrounding the reputations of those who were murdered.  That is because it was necessary to blacken the names of those who were about to die.  You see, if a murderer went to trial, it was helpful to have killed a bad guy.  Juries understand bad guys.  Lawyers love to try the victims instead of the perpetrators.  Researchers have to learn to overlook purposeful blackening of names, especially when the victim was involved in a worthy purpose such as interfering with the KKK.

Do you know how the KKK was tracked down in  rural areas in 1874?  The deputy US Marshall went to retail shops and found out who was selling white sheets.  And then he found out who was buying those sheets.  Killers who hide under white sheets in the cover of night probably are not good judges of character, and when they are the ones spreading the stories about someone else, you can take those stories with a grain of salt.

When I began researching, I didn’t know who in my family was a good guy and who was not.  I just dug until I found the facts.  If I found evil people, that is what I reported.  If I found good people (or, “just not bad” people), I would report that as well.  Mainly, I found what type of enemies an ancestor had.  By learning about his enemies, I could get a grasp on my ancestor’s character.

But I will admit that I tend to think the best of someone until I learn differently.  After all, saints and sinners abound in this world and have done so for thousands of years.  There seem to have been more sinners than saints, making the search for holy folks take a little longer than the search for us ordinary types.

Now that I mention it, I do not recall anyone in my family who could qualify as a saint.  There were a few ministers and one who was both a doctor and a minister.  He was in St. Charles, MO in 1809-1811 when the biggest quakes in the US hit the Midwest and I don’t know if he uttered one cuss word.  That might qualify him for sainthood.  I didn’t look at him as a saint, however, but as an entrepreneur.  Because he was both a doctor and a preacher, he made money when people were coming and going.  Smart man, but not necessarily a saint.

And there was my cousin Jefferson Davis Grover (b. 1861and named for a Southern Saint) who was described by female cousins as the “handsomest man in the world.”   He died in 1925 in rather odd circumstances as told by his third wife.  He would not be a candidate for sainthood, either, unless you listened to his girlfriends.

There was a cousin, once, whom family members talked about in quiet whispers.  It seems her mother was not married to her father, but everyone knew about her birth. Of course, she was properly ostracized.  I have tried to locate this cousin who in my mind had no control over what her parents did.  I always felt she was treated rather shabbily.  She seems to want nothing to with the rest of us for some reason.  I can’t say I blame her.  To the best of my knowledge she has not taken a shot at any of us.  Maybe she is more of a saint than any of us realize.

Digging up the past is fun, as long as no one is hurt by it.  To this day, I have no idea why my cousins advised that I not research the family.  Maybe they heard something I missed.  Most likely they believed something that on the truth scale, ran between zero and one-half.  Maybe it made them feel important to be the sharer of family secrets.

DNA Tests and Reality

(This is an edited post of May 31, as corrected by Kent Pryor, to whom I am very grateful.)

I just call it the Fiske curve because I don’t have any other name for it. Others may have found it and named it something else. In any case the curve sets out principles worth remembering about DNA findings in Genealogy. I got the data from conversations of several people on the Internet this week.

Several people on a Rootsweb List were discussing their strange findings from DNA tests and seemed to be laying down information we could all use.

One person wrote, “the 12 marker test is of almost no value, as many unrelated individuals can match at the 12 marker level.” I suspect that many people on many Lists are finding the same result, once they have obtained information from the 12 marker studies and then, encouraged, have gone on to the next step or two. This particular subject went on to the 67 marker test and found no one related who should be related, and then found four with the same DNA on all 67 markers who were not related at all. It is information like this that led me to think about some kind of a curve that would fit these data. Admittedly the evidence is anecdotal, but the facts real and have to be dealt with.

Another person wrote, “I have 180 names on my 12 marker (tests) on Ydna on my mother’s side all different names. I have the same thing you have on the 25 and 37 marker names that are unrelated and three different ones. . . I thought DNA had gone Crazy.”

With Ydna, you are following men’s DNA which would involve few name changes. But why is it that the more markers one uses, the less useful has become the data? Why is it that more detail seems to lead to more uncertainty? That is, adding markers tends to exclude relatives. This is counter-intuitive.

It appears that the curve is saying that if you have 0 marker tests that you could be related to everybody.  If you have the minimum number of markers tested, you could be related to not all, but many people.  And if you have many markers tested you are related to very few people,  even in your own family.

This could mean several things:

1) DNA tests are not testing what we think they are testing.

Very simply put, DNA testing may not be valid in a scientific sense. It would be interesting to combine results of thousands of tests to see how much uncertainty is introduced to established, documented lines. Perhaps DNA tests are reflecting epigenetics, a condition that is not yet proven, but which is considered possible by some experts.

2) Family names and records are not a good indicator of genuine relationships.

This is the opposite of 1 (above). Essentially, it says there is little true paternity in family lines.

3) DNA closeness can be more due to ancient cultural habits than anything else.

Before the industrial revolution, there seem to have been few travelers. That is, one seldom traveled more than seven or more miles from his home in a lifetime. The result had to be inter-marriage of cousins, and DNA tests today are simply reflecting those intermarriages. However, in America, where Swedish immigrants married Italian immigrants, the gene pool swelled and would have made an abrupt change from, say, 1800 on. This change should be apparent in some DNA studies. (I am a six foot tall, blond and blue-eyed American who is in small part American Indian).

Maybe all the above is a result of poor labeling. But I think it is telling us something that we didn’t especially want to know. And that is that our precious DNA marker tests are not doing what we wanted.

Maybe O. J. didn’t kill his wife, after all.