[Continued from a previous post]
Standing in a cemetery where your 19th-century forebears are buried is a humbling experience.
We will all one day be no more than names engraved on stone examined by those who never knew us.
That’s what goes through your head, and it affects you in a global manner, in the way in which you conduct your business, your relationships, your arguments, your approaches to strangers.
Life is short and harsh, so why make it harsher?
Standing beside me was my long-lost cousin, Preston Taylor, Jr. We were standing in front of the tombstone of our common great-great-grandfather, John H. Groves and his wife Caroline.
Preston and I couldn’t have been more different. I’m a UCLA graduate from L.A. with a penchant for pink satin shirts, and he’s a country mechanic who repairs combines and doesn’t have a penchant for anything, wouldn’t think of having a penchant–What kind of word is that, anyway?!–but wears overalls and a beany, excuse the deprecation.
Computers brought our lines together again. If it weren’t for the power of the PC, we wouldn’t be here. A couple years ago, I subscribed to Ancestry.com, which is a true revolution in the search for one’s roots, believe me. Suddenly, genealogy has become digitized, which has been an exponential improvement in that type of research. Suddenly, long-lost relatives can share family trees on the Internet. Suddenly, a computer does all the sharing for you. Suddenly, a company is digitizing census records (back to 1790), Civil War pension records, gravestones, immigration records, ship passenger lists, historical phone books, even church directories, and we have access to all of them automatically.
To give you an idea how revolutionary this technology all is, consider this. Three years ago, I didn’t even know the name of my great-grandfather, much less when he was born. Now, after long nights on the computer during which it was impossible to tear myself away to go to bed because I was so excited, I know his name was Charles (born 1869), that his father was named John (born 1836), and that his father before him was named John, as well (born 1792).
John H. Groves was what tied Preston and I together, indeed, perhaps the only thing. He was born in 1836 and raised his family in Duck Creek, Kansas. But there, our bloodlines split (see diagram below). His daughter Rosa fell in love with a Taylor and stayed in rural Kansas, tilling the soil. John’s son Charles moved away, and Charles’ sons moved even further away, until today, we all live in teeming, seething, gridlocked, glitzy, flaky, overdeveloped Los Angeles. Thinking about the difference between us, it seemed that this last element–the pure density of bodies–was the most obvious one.
I learned so many curious things about my forebears on my computerized genealogy network. I learned that my ancestor Daniel Beinbrech was born in Germany, that he immigrated to America around 1750, and that his son Henry Americanized his name to Bonebrake, only to be changed to Bonebright by the next generation, because of how barbaric that name made them sound in this new language.
I learned that dozens of my relatives had lived out their lives in famed Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692, when Salem Village (also in Essex County) began trying innocent people for witchcraft. My forebear Sarah Conant had a ringside seat. She was 26 years old when Sarah Good was executed, followed by approximately 30 others over the next few months.
The computer gave me the incredible access to names, dates, and details, and it connected me to the past in an extraordinary way by sparking just one thought: We all come from somewhere.
It was a thought that has stayed with me. And I had the digital revolution to thank for it.
“Would you like to see the old homestead?” Preston asked after we had spent a half-hour at John and Caroline’s tombstone.
Preston was the somewhere from whence I came.
“Sure,” I said.
So we jumped into his dilapidated white Neon with the box of nails and other hardware detritus on the dashboard and drove over gravel roads.
“Listen, if you want, I’ll send you all my genealogical research by email,” I said.
“Don’t have a computer. Don’t want one.”
I stared at him in disbelief.
“Okay, I’ll send it by post office. Is there still a post office in the United States?”
“I pick up my mail every day.”
While driving, Preston talked a little about his business, which since the 1980s has been fixing people’s vehicles out in the country. For years, he has been driving these country roads and making house calls. Cars, trucks, tractors, combines, whatever they needed fixed. He made a lot of money doing that and packed a lot of it away into a savings account.
“But then gas prices started skyrocketing and I had to raise my prices,” Preston said. “And then people stopped fixing things. If they have a rusted-out tractor, they’d rather throw it away and buy a new one. I charged sales tax, everything on the up and up. And then three years ago, the state tax board says I can’t file my sales tax manually anymore, I have to do it by computer. So that was the end of my business.”
It seemed like I was missing something.
“You could get somebody to file it for you by computer,” I said.
“No, I don’t do computers.”
“So you haven’t worked in three years?”
“No, I’m living off of savings.”
“Couldn’t you get a job working at a repair shop in Emporia?”
“After so many years being my own boss, I can’t work under somebody.”
It was a puzzle. He could take apart a tractor engine and put it back together, but he couldn’t figure out a Windows Start button. He could figure out how to make a living in a region that the money had deserted decades ago, and yet he can’t figure out how to use a mouse. He carried within his memory all these stories about his great-grandfather, including the astounding one that after the Civil War, John H. Groves had walked the 230 miles from Sullivan County, Missouri, to Lyon County, Kansas–walked! after being wounded and listed on his Civil War pension as an “invalid”!–and yet he wasn’t even curious about the Internet.
These were mysteries that were just starting to unfold.
[To be continued]