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

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.