(Continued from a previous post)
In my previous genealogical posts, I have attempted to boil down my ancestors’ lives into a single sentence.
Here is Roy Groves, born 1905, the racist who married a woman who quickly became schizophrenic.
Here is Charles Groves, born 1869, who had a dream of having a Kansas farm tended by his sons, but his sons were bored stiff by farming life, and they all deserted him.
At a certain point, though, every genealogical line peters out.
On my recent trip to Reading, Kansas (pop. 150), P. was showing me around the sights. The Taylors are related to the Groves in the way explained below.
P. and I were driving around in his grubby white Neon at 40 mph on Highway 99 when he pointed to the left.
“That’s the site of the original homestead.”
It took me a half-minute to hear him.
“What did you just say?” I asked.
He turned the car around.
“That’s the site of the original homestead where John H. Groves built a house in 1878.”
“I thought we had already seen the house.”
“No. The original house was there.”
With that, he pointed to the right at a small collection of trees and rocks.
“Is there anything left?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve never visited it. My uncle just pointed it out once.”
“Do you want me to stop?”
“No, that’s okay.”
I would have liked to stop, and I should have. To take a photograph would have been nice. But, of course, we had a limited amount of time together. What has remained with me is this:
This is where the physical remnants peter out.
I run into dry riverbeds, too.
This morning, I was researching John H. Groves’ wife Caroline Hayward, but I cannot get past her father, Joseph Hayward. He was born in England in 1825, came to Canada, fathered Caroline there, and then died in Missouri. But what comes before him is, at the moment, a mystery.
There are even more recent mysteries, too. My grandmother Dorothy Fish’s grandmother came from Prussia. She was named Karolina Klegen and died in 1915, but I know virtually nothing about her except that she spoke German. What comes before her is, at the moment, a mystery.
One of my relatives has fancied herself a genealogist, and has traced our common roots back to Henry VIII. When I sit in her living room and ask her for documentation, she waves her hand.
“It’s upstairs,” she says. “I’d have to dig it out.”
It’s been a couple years now and she hasn’t dug it out yet. As far as I’m concerned, that royal lineage stands on pretty shaky legs, especially given her predilection for wishful thinking. After all, she’s an ardent Ted Cruz supporter.
Excavating the past is extremely daunting. We attempt to piece together lives based on scant evidence. We know he fought as a private in the Civil War in the Missouri Volunteers. We know he settled into a house on Duck Creek where only this grove of trees now stands. We know he died in 1935. How much does that really tell us about John H. Groves? I mean, really?
If one of your ancestors 100 years from now knew only that much about you, how much would they miss? Take me, for example. They might look at the facts and conclude that David Groves was an entertainer (from my census information) who lived in suburbia. So? That wouldn’t begin to encompass the other extraordinary aspects of my life. I marched against nuclear weapons. I exercised constantly. I was at the same time an extravert and an introvert. I once dated a woman who had spent the previous ten years dating women. Turned out she was sexually damaged from childhood sexual abuse, and once remarked, “I haven’t been in my body during sex for the past nine months.” After another year, that relationship ended up in court with her requesting a restraining order against me and the judge throwing it out for having no basis in fact. My ancestors would never know about those parts of me just from studying census records.
Take it a step further. How much can we really know about those whom we think we know well?
My own father fought in the bloodiest battle of the Korean War, Chosin Reservoir, in 1950. And yet I never heard a word about it from him.
My grandmother suffered from schizophrenia, and yet I don’t know about its onset, its symptoms, the delusions she entertained.
In the 1940s and ’50s, there was a jazz pianist named Billy Tipton who attained some regional success. He was married five times and lived to age 74. Turned out he was a woman in disguise.
In my twenties, I was engaged to a woman named Suzy. It broke up before we tied the knot, and as the relationship was disintegrating, she would often say, “You don’t know me. Nobody knows the real me.”
If there’s someone sleeping next to you every night, think about it: How well do you really know him or her? And what does it mean to really know someone?