[Continued from a previous post]
I must confess that I long to be descended from someone special. I search records for evidence that proves I’m special. Perhaps an ancestor was a Union hero in the Civil War. Perhaps I was related to Shakespeare or Mozart. Perhaps I was descended from royalty. Or, at the very least, perhaps I was descended from the best barefoot sprinter in his village in 12th-century Provence.
It was always the subtext of all my researches. How am I special?
I know, for example, that I have an excellent facility with language. I type 105 wpm. When someone says a foreign word, I instantly repeat it correctly. The language center in my brain must be highly developed. (Good thing, too, because my math/science center is pretty atrophied.)
Thus, while embarked on my genealogy search, I wanted to find someone else in my line who was, say, a newspaper reporter on the Kansas City Star who mentored a young Ernest Hemingway in 1922, say, or maybe just someone who spoke ten languages fluently.
The long-lost relative I met in the minuscule town of Reading, Kansas was a mechanic. He talked with a country twang. He couldn’t learn computers, so what was his logical next step? He decided to close down his business.
Presented with this sad personage, I told my girlfriend over the phone that I didn’t see much of him in me.
“After all, we share only 1/16th of our DNA,” I said.
“You’ve told me that twice already.”
“Well, it’s true, if you calculate it.”
The next day, I woke up in Hutchinson, two hours’ drive away. I decided to research a different epoch in my family’s history, from 1915 to 1955, and Hutchinson is where it happened. Once again, I was hoping to find someone special.
Hutchinson is a town of 42,000, much more than the 150 who now live in Reading. By afternoon, I was searching through the historical archives for my great-grandfather Charles S. Groves. By 1905, he must have rejoiced, because his wife Caroline had just given birth to his third son. Being a farmer, he knew that three sons could form the basis of a farming success in little Twin Grove, Kansas, where he lived. It’s still a minuscule town, with a current population of only 601.
By 1910, Charles pulled the two eldest out of school and put them to work in the fields. But after a year or two, the sons rebelled. They hated farm work. They wanted to continue in school with their friends. Good for them. They wanted to graduate. Charles resorted to corporal punishment, but even so, the kids couldn’t find any enthusiasm for the job, and as a result, productivity slowed to a standstill. Ten-hour days are more than a 7-, 9- and 16-year-old can handle.
Charles couldn’t run the farm by himself, so finally, he gave up. He moved to Hutchinson to work as a chemist in the Solvay Factory. By all signs, it was a sad fall from grace for him. It was his dream to own his own farm, as his father had back in Reading. Charles’ father had two sons, Orlando and Frank, to help him run the farm, and they loved it. They thrived on mechanical challenges. They weren’t enticed by the glamour of the big city. Why couldn’t his own sons be like that? Charles was quite angry.
In researching Charles’ Hutchinson life, I picked up other signs of conflict in the family. The boys went back to school, and by 1917, the oldest had graduated at age 20 from Hutchinson High School. At the time, they were living at the house pictured below.
After the Reno County Historical Society archives closed at 5 pm, I drove over to the house and took some pictures. Amazingly, much of old Hutchinson is still intact, and very few houses have been torn down and replaced by apartment buildings and newer homes.
The two younger sons, John and Roy, dropped out of school, I suspect, because I can find no trace of them in the HHS yearbooks. Now here’s a strange fact. By 1923, John and Roy had moved across the street. I mean, who moves out of their parents’ house and to a house across the street? Only someone who truly wants to get out from under someone’s unpleasant thumb. Below is a photograph of that house.
From here on, we encounter what I call a lost generation. None of these brothers distinguished themselves as special in any way. Each failure, however, is interesting in its own way.
My Uncle John, the middle son, became a professional gambler. In the 1960s, he walked up to me at a family reunion and gave me a deck of marked cards.
“I’m going to tell you the secret to winning at cards,” he whispered. “Cheating.”
“What are you telling my boy?” my mother said, quickly coming to my rescue.
“Don’t tell her,” John said.
“What did he say to you?” my mother said.
“I can’t tell you,” I said.
Later, John was kicked out of Las Vegas for cheating. In those days, kicked out of described a bloodier process than they describe today. His wife and daughter ended up hating him.
My Uncle Earl’s son Earl, Jr., grew quite obese and made his living playing music in smoky lounges around Los Angeles.
I remember going over to his house with my parents on July 20, 1969, the day of the moon landing. He was living with a woman he had met in one of those lounges, and truthfully, all they did all the time was drink and yell at each other in an ugly manner, even with company present. It was quite unpleasant. I wanted to watch this historic moment, the moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but these boobs were interrupting it with their own dysfunctional melodrama. Earl died soon afterwards.
And Earl Jr.’s own son was a complete loser. When he grew up, he became a Hell’s Angel and we never heard from him again.
My own grandfather, Roy, moved to California before the Dust Bowl hit. He got a job in a paper mill and married a pretty young thing. They had a child in 1929.
But soon, it became clear that his wife was mentally ill. She would pester her 8-year-old son with obsessive thoughts and conspiracy theories, following him for hours around the house until he was nearly insane himself. When the marriage broke up, amazingly, she received custody. One rainy night, she was gone, as she often was, spending the night with a man. Donald was left on his own. The thunder became more intense. Donald became frightened, not knowing if it was the end of the world. There was no mother there to calm him.
“There there,” a good mother would have said, “it’s just thunder.”
Finally, Donald couldn’t take it anymore. He ran out of the house, down the street, through the pouring rain, and to his father’s house, but his father wasn’t there. As always, he was working the graveyard shift at the paper mill. When Roy returned at dawn, he found his son huddling in a fetal position inside the screened-in porch, wet and shivering. That was the moment that Dorothy lost legal custody of her son.
But Roy himself was no bargain, either. Not only was he a racist, which is a philosophy that had no future, even back then, but he went public with it. He doubled down, marrying another racist from Arkansas. The name for that kind of person is, put politely, a jerk.
So my view of this generation was shaping up quite nicely, that is to say, quite badly. Losers all, nothing special.
One of my relatives has traced our line back to Henry VIII of England, who distinguished himself by killing two of his wives. To be frank, Charles and his sons weren’t even as distinguished as that.
It wasn’t until my father came along that the family gained some decency again. Dad married a Mexican-American woman from East L.A. because he loved her. He gave up his dream of being a photographer to provide for his kids with a boring job as an architectural coordinator. He coached on his son’s Little League team. He never drank. He never hit us. He never owned a gun. He was determined to be a good father, because so many people in the previous generation had been shits.
But then again, this is genealogy, not science. I don’t know what earned rebellion turned John into a card cheat. I don’t know what heartache of dispossession turned Roy into a racist. I don’t know what dysfunction may have turned Earl, Jr., into an excessive mess. I don’t know Preston’s extraordinary sides, given that I’ve spent only four hours with him.
The challenge, really, is to see every single person in his best light, as I have done with my father. The challenge, as with your own children, is to find and see all that is special within them. The challenge, in the end, is to love them.
Given that, it is clear that my genealogy search is not over. I must find a reason to love them.