A Sophie’s Choice of Her Own

My mother has always loved the movie Sophie’s Choice.  She was riveted by the decision Sophie had to make, to choose between the death of her daughter and the death of her son.

“It’s impossible to choose,” she said.  “How could I choose between my children?  If I did, it would haunt me for the rest of my life.”

I always thought my mother’s fixation on this movie was based simply on the quality of the movie.  After all, Meryl Streep was the lead actress.  The other day, however, I realized that there was a bit more involved.  Her grandmother had faced a Sophie’s Choice of her own.

The grandmother in question, Conchita Rodriguez, had three children, one of them her father Jesus.  (For those of you who know my cousin Rudy, this is our common forebear.)  In 1913, when Jesus was 12, the Mexican Revolution was raging.  It wasn’t a simple war, but it sure was a bloody one.  Bands of revolutionaries roamed the countryside waging war on whoever stood in their way.  Whole towns and even states were decimated.  And their method of drafting soldiers was brutal: Soldiers would come up to a house, put a gun to the head of any males in the household, and ask a question that had only one answer.

Conchita Rodriguez, circa 1903

Conchita Rodriguez, circa 1903

“Do you want to join Pancho Villa’s army?

In fact, this is exactly what happened to Conchita’s two sons.

Some mothers cried their hearts out.  Some went crazy.  But Conchita was different, as many of the women in my family are.  She was as tough as nails.  She marched up to Pancho Villa’s headquarters and demanded to see the boss.  She ranted and raved.  It probably helped that she was a pretty woman, too.  She soon found herself in the company of Senor Villa himself.

“And what do you want?” he asked.

“I want my sons back!” she screamed.

“We need them for the revolution,” he said calmly.

“They’re my sons!  They’re not your sons!”

“Not anymore.”

“You can’t have them!”

“I’m afraid you don’t have a say in the matter.”

The Rodriguez family, circa 1903

The Rodriguez family, circa 1903

Somehow, though, Conchita made headway with Villa.  Perhaps it was her tone.  Perhaps it was her will.  Perhaps it was her looks.

So at a certain point, Villa gave her a Sophie’s Choice.

“You can have one back,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”

But Conchita would not make that choice.  She insisted that both her sons be returned and that was that.  Perhaps there was money involved, or perhaps feminine wiles.  We don’t know.  The only witness, my grandfather Jesus, died in 1970.  The best information comes from my mother, who heard the story growing up, and all she says is that Conchita was so strong willed that she convinced Pancho Villa to release both of her sons.

Conchita died at age 54 following complications of a viral infection.  She developed acute encephalomyelitis (a disease of the brain and spinal cord), chronic bronchitis, and an enlarged heart.  They lived in the barrio in poverty.  Antibiotics were just starting to be used.  But she waited to go to the hospital, and when she finally did, her strong will was not up to the task.  She succumbed on August 13, 1937.  A lioness died that day.

Conchita in her later years

Conchita in her later years

Strong will runs in my family.  My mother used her Herculean will in getting her education.  I used my strong will to become a featured performer at the world-famous Magic Castle within seven years of picking up my first magic trick.  And nobody is going to force us to make a Sophie’s Choice if we don’t want to.  We won’t stand for it.

How We Kick Ourselves

[This is chapter 2 of an ongoing work of fiction. Chapter 1 is here.]

At Los Angeles Union Station, Evan boarded the train, and by 10:30, the train was rattling through Ventura and he started his set. Ambitious card. Sybil. Three Fly. Pegasus Page. Trix all have names, just like songs have names, just like hurricanes, just like sins. It’s how we kick ourselves. We give names to things. But Evan had done the trix so many times, thousands of times, even, that he’d gone far beyond the names, it was automatic, it was like his hands were doing the trix and his mouth was saying the patter, but he was hovering above it all, just watching. It was the people’s reactions that interested him.

No way!

Get out!

Don’t tell me!

That is so sick!

Am I being punked here?

I’m going to cry.

At lunch, after two hours of strolling magic, Evan was sitting in the dining car eating a sandwich across from Jazmine, one of the coach attendants, dressed in her smart royal-blue uniform. Lunch was over and the passengers had all vacated the dining car. While Jazzy ate clam chowder and talked casually about a graffiti incident that had just happened at her mosque, Evan was somewhere else entirely, wondering whether this was a thing he wanted to stay in, a relationship with a girl with silky black hair who sings in a country-rock band. Whose twin must be harboring a ginormous rage over the dawg she let into her litter box, although he wasn’t really a dawg, he told himself, he was just in the line of fire, he was just kind of there, he just let it happen. Twins are a whole other dopplefück, he knew that now. It must have roots reaching down to the center of the Earth, holding on with some death grip onto volcanic rock like Beast from Haunted Cave or Beast from Choose Your Dysfunction or something.

Okay, he thought sadly, I’m guilty, too.

That night, Evan collapsed in his cabin. He nestled in, reading a history book about gambling cheats in the 1930s, but it’s like a phenomenon he heard about once. Apparently, when nitrogen is chilled down to 271 degrees below zero, it becomes a liquid with strange properties. It has an incredibly low viscosity, which is the resistance it provides against a surface it’s flowing against, so low, in fact, that it can flow against itself, two streams of liquid nitrogen, one on top and another directly below that, each flowing against the other. His reading was like that, reading about gambling cheats, but beneath that, pondering dopplethängs.


The next morning, the train was passing through the Cascades. Every time he passed through here, passing by thousands and thousands of pine trees on hillsides of a valley that goes on for an hour or two, his heart suddenly swelled and he believed in God. Then he went back to Vegas and its heartless asphalt streets and he went back to believing in nothing. In the Cascades, the train climbed higher and higher up the hillside while Evan performed tricks for the gawking tourists, when suddenly, a face stood out to him. Evan did a couple tricks for him and then stopped.

“I know you from someplace,” Evan said.

“Don’t think so,” he said.

“Strange. What’s your name?”


It stopped him cold.

“That’s my mother’s maiden name.”

Evan looked at him hard. He looked a few years older than his mother, and come to think of it, he seemed to have a family resemblance. He looked at Evan hard. Without thinking, Evan said, “Are you John?”

A grin appeared on his face, and that’s when Evan realized that this guy was his uncle, the one the family lost track of 20 years ago. They heard he got kicked out of Vegas for cheating at cards, and shortly after that, he showed up at their doorstep. His parents put him up for a couple days, and then one day, he disappeared, plus $1800 Mom had stowed in a hidden compartment in the garage. The family never heard from him after that.

“You’re good with cards,” John said.

“Thank you.”

“You gamble?”


“Shame. Why?”

“I don’t like to lose.”

“You don’t have to.”


That evening over screwdrivers, Evan and John chatted amiably about card games, Chinese face reading, strategic thinking as another name for cheating, stepping on baby stingrays in Tampa Bay, and people you haven’t seen in 30 years and how your memories of them age like soft tomatoes.

“Gimme that deck,” John said, and Evan handed it over.

John started playing with it, and it was an eye opener, like watching chilly water flow over a series of rocks, a deck like the Holy Trinity, many and one at the same time, and it was like he wanted to touch it, jump into it, splash in it, let it wash over his hair, but he knew the water would freeze him to death, so he just watched. John started dealing seconds, which is a way of making people think you’re dealing the top card when you’re not, you’re saving the ace for yourself, it’s a scam that takes years of practice, you’re practicing to be devious.

“This deck is light,” John suddenly said.

It hit Evan, because he recalled the six of clubs that a 15-year-old brat pulled out of the deck and then, in a kind of antisocial act, crumpled up, popped into his mouth, and chewed up, and Evan just smiled weakly while his parents said nothing.

“Fifty-one, am I right?”

And Evan nodded his head in awe.

John ordered Evan another screwdriver that he didn’t need, because that was three now.

While John talked, Evan saw flashes of his mother in him, as if John were a variation on a theme.

If Mom had turned left rather than right.

If Mom had a twinkle in her eye.

If Mom had never loved anyone.

Evan flashed on Kendra saying, All you need to know about someone is the decisions they’ve made.

He also remembered Kara saying, I have a personality disorder. It’s named Kendra.

An hour later, Evan was thinking he had to start wrapping it up for the night when John turned his head in a strange way.

“You know why your mother married your father, don’t you?”

Evan shook his head no.

“Because when she was a kid, she was messed with. Your father had a savior complex. Didn’t help much, of course. You can’t really fix it when you’re messed with.”

Evan asked him what he meant.

“I don’t want to say it any plainer than that.”

Evan’s mind was reeling and it wasn’t just the liquor. It felt like he’d known it all his life, but only now had it swum to the surface.

“I’m 10 years older than your mother. When I was 15, she always wanted to hold my hand. She worshiped me. But I always wanted to be somewhere else.  On the road.  I’m just that kinda guy.”

Liquid nitrogen was flowing through Evan’s head again, on the surface trying to look like he was listening, but below that, pondering the repression that his mother had always conveyed to him somehow, he didn’t know how, that strange, shaken look she had when he first kissed a girl in front of her, his first open display of sexuality, and later, the unexplained hostility she displayed towards him occasionally when she saw him as a man rather than as her son.

“What did you do on the road?” Evan finally managed.

“Learned how to bend a note.”

“Uh, come again?”

“You know that feeling you get when you come up with a winning hand? I mean, an unbeatable hand? Three kings or something? Well, I knew I’d never get that feeling in that dirty little town. That hypocritical little state. Plus, I was tired of cheating Butch Maggart out of his lunch money just to get my blood going. So I hit the road and started doing everything my folks told me to never do.”

Evan glanced at his watch.

“I gotta call this girl before I go to bed,” he said.

“Oh, so that’s it.”


“I could see it in your eyes. There was this thing eating at you. I couldn’t tell whether you were bored with our conversation or thinking about a girl.”

“It was a girl.”

“There’s always a reason to leave ‘em, you know. Remember that. Every girl does something that you can blame her for. And if they’re a saint, you just say, ‘You always act like you’re too good for me,’ and that’s it, it’s her fault, that’s your freedom.”

Evan glanced at his watch again. He stood up. He looked into the eyes of this old man who was, strangely, the man in the mirror.

“Where do you live?” Evan asked.

“I’m not really living anywhere right now.”

“Well, I mean, where’s your stuff?”

“You don’t really need stuff, buddy. All you need is money and a way to get it.”

“Yeah, well, I hope I see you again.”

“That’s doubtful,” John said with a grin.

“Well, good luck, then.”

Evan turned to leave.

“Listen,” John said.

Evan turned back. John reached for Evan’s breast pocket and stuffed inside a thick wad of bills, then raised an index finger in front of his nose.

“And if you thank me, I’ll hurt you.”

Evan started to say something, but then stopped.

“I had my reasons for what I did, trust me, John said. I mean, I was going to get hurt, okay?”

Evan looked at John’s face, which was dead serious now.

“There’s interest tacked on, too,” John said.  “Now piss off.”


John got off the next morning in Klamath Falls. Evan was still in bed in his cabin, leaning his toasty forehead against the chilly window. Evan caught a glimpse of John carrying one duffel bag off the train and into the snowy morning, his breath condensing in the wintry air. He stopped and lit a cigarette. The way he did it, with immense relish and patience despite the cold and snow, Evan realized that he’d been waiting to do that all night. Evan tried to remember this moment, this scarred diamond that he’d never see again.

“Wow,” Evan said out loud.

Evan got up and did his six hours, and that night, he checked into the motel next to the Space Needle and finally called Kara.

“How’s the trip been?”


“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.”

“Do you?”

Evan heard flashes of Kendra, as if Kara were a variation on a musical theme.

If Kendra had turned right rather than left.

If little Kendra had always wanted to hold her big brother’s hand.

If Kendra hadn’t had fangs.

Evan had to play it differently. They weren’t photocopies, after all.

“I’m sorry,” Evan said, “I just met somebody on the train.”

There was a conspicuous silence, and then he realized what it sounded like.

“An uncle I never thought I’d see again. We had a long talk last night over too many screwdrivers, and he gave me thirty $100 bills.”

There was a silence, and then Kara said, “Three thousand dollars?”

“Yeah, it’s payback for the sins of yesteryear.”

“What does that mean?”

And then Evan explained the whole thing.

“So you gonna take me out and spend it?”

“Honey, I can’t.”

“No, look, he stole $1800 from them, right? So we just give them the $1800 and don’t tell them about the rest.”

“I can’t do that.”


“Because I can’t.”

“That’s what your uncle intended.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Then why did he pay you so much? He threw in a little for you.”

“No, that was interest. To take care of inflation.”

Kara sighed.

“You can’t even….”


“Not even just a thousand?”

Evan felt his soul was standing on thin ice. Sometimes, he could hear the ice cracking. Evan saw himself as being honest and good. He returned lost wallets. He was teaching magic for free to a kid whose mother just gone on a drug binge and lost the kid to foster care. For three months, he gave lodging to some stranger who had inherited $900,000 from his mother and then spent it all in two months on poker games in the Bellagio.

Now, he had done one bad thing. This whole doppleshït had messed with his sense of who he was.

After they had hung up, Kara breathed wearily. She had never had a sense of being good and pure. She saw herself more in terms of flow and hitting the high note. Trying to be good was just a fucking distraction.

When Evan returned, they flew to New York City for the weekend to see a Broadway play.  It cost a little over a thousand.

[To continue reading, Chapter 3 is here.]

If you like this fiction, you’ll like David’s newly published enovel, What Happens to Us. Download it onto your Kindle for only $3.99. Click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Read excerpts from the novel here:

Kicked out of Vegas

It started with a dim memory from childhood.  I was seven and the Groves family was holding a reunion at a park.  This older man in a stylish suit arrived with a flourish.  He was tall, white-complected, and looked like a variation on my Grandpa Roy.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

Me around age 7

“This is your Uncle John,” my mother said.

It was actually my great-uncle.  I shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, son.”


“Don’t say yeah,” my mother prompted, “say ‘Pleased to meet you, too.'”

“Pleased to meet you, too.”

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

Uncle John around 1934

All around at the reunion, there were introductions, handshakes, jokes, laughter, and catching up.

A bit later, in a moment when everyone’s attention was averted, John took me aside.

“I have a gift for you,” he said in low tones, squatting down to my level.

Uncle John took out a maroon velvet cardboard box.  I opened it up.  It contained two new decks of playing cards.

“These are yours,” Uncle John said.  “They’re marked.”

He used the term marked as if it were illicit–that is, prohibited and quite sexy.


“Yes, you can tell what card it is by looking at the back.”

And so Uncle John proceeded to show me how to read the backs.  Once I understood, I smiled at the deception.  It was like I was one of the few people in the world who had the secret of winning.  It was one of my earliest joys in the art of magic, and to tell you the truth, even now that I’m a professional, learning those secrets is still quite a thrill.

That’s when Uncle John glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure nobody was listening.

“I’ll tell you the secret to winning at cards,” John said.  “The only way to win is to cheat.”

That’s when my mother came over.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” she asked.

“Don’t tell her,” Uncle John said.  “It’s our secret.”

“David, what’s going on?”

“It’s a secret,” I said with a grin.


Later, I learned that Uncle John was a professional gambler.  He wasn’t a weekend gambler, but was actually the real thing, my parents said.  He had been kicked out of Vegas for cheating.  He was the proverbial black sheep of the family.  And when I say kicked out, let me emphasize that getting kicked out of Vegas in the 1950s was quite a bit different from getting kicked out today, which is more akin to getting escorted out of Disneyland for smoking marijuana on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  You could sustain bruises.  You could fall down a flight of stairs.  They could make you cry.

Years passed, and as an adult, I eventually became a professional magician.  I learned card sleights, learned to treat 52 as 1, learned how to use gravity to my advantage, worked for 20 years on my double until it got really good, and even once performed an exceedingly difficult card trick 25,000 times over a period of three years to make it really sing.  To this day, it’s my calling card, the trick I do if I really want to impress someone.

There’s a subcategory of card magic that focuses on gambling sleights.  The holy grail in this arena is a trio of sleights that makes people believe you’re dealing off the top of the deck when in fact you’re not.  There’s the second deal, in which you deal the second card down from the top while seeming to deal from the top.  There’s the bottom deal, in which you deal the bottom card while seeming to deal from the top.  And there’s the center deal, which is the holy grail of holy grails, and I can count on one hand the number of people worldwide who can competently pull it off.

Formal promo shot

One of my early promotional shots. Notice I’m holding five aces.

Once, I asked a gambling magician how long it took him to learn the second deal.

“About 20 years,” he said with a sad grin.

I’ve experimented with it, and can clumsily execute something approximating “a second,” as they call it, but I wouldn’t try it under fire.  It’s just not ready for prime time.  And besides, once you’ve mastered it, you can’t really show it off.  It looks like nothing.   It’s designed to look like nothing.  If it looks like something at a poker table, you can come down with a case of lead poisoning.  On top of that, the types of magic tricks you can do with it aren’t that amazing, and you can pull off the same effect with much easier sleights.  The only arena in which they can accomplish miracles is at a real-life poker table, where false deals can earn you loads and loads of money.

A couple years ago, I read a book about the center deal.  The Magician and the Cardsharp is about Dai Vernon, the 20th century’s best closeup magician, who moved to Wichita in 1930 after the Stock Market crashed.  While there, he met a Mexican card cheat named Amador Villasenor, who had been charged with murder and was being held in a local jail.  Vernon met with him because of his prowess with card sleights, and during the conversation, was told that there was a man in the Kansas City area who could deal from the center of the deck.


Vernon lit up.  Up to that time, the center deal was merely a theoretical dream for magicians.  The world of gambling cheats was necessarily a secret world.  If people knew they were cheating, nobody would ever again let them sit down at a poker table.  Unfortunately, Villasenor didn’t remember exactly where this man lived.  He knew his name was Allen Kennedy, that he worked crooked card games in the greater KC area, and that he could execute a perfectly undetectable center deal, but that was it.

So Vernon set off on a months-long search.  The book chronicles Vernon’s quest, which ended in the little town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, in a session with this Allen Kennedy, who had worked five years to build up the muscles in his hand well enough to master the sleight.  He died in the early 1950s in obscurity, the Pleasant Hill town drunk who was once the greatest gambling cheat in the world–and only a handful of people ever knew it.

Magicians idolize such characters, for they can borrow from their real-world sleights and tales.  They are exciting.  There are anecdotes involving deception and retribution.  Sometimes, people die.  In fact, there are several magicians today who have staked their reputation on being students of gambling cheats and other con men.

When I became a magician, then, I began to wonder if I could find my Uncle John.

About five years ago, I became interested in genealogy, and one of the first things I did was look up Uncle John.  Unfortunately, I discovered that he had died in 1990.  However, he had a daughter, Carol Ann, and I wondered about her.  I asked my mother about her.

“Oh, she married a rich lawyer in the late ’60s,” Mom said.  “I think they live in Huntington Beach.”

I did some Internet research, and after a few weeks, discovered a disappointing document: her death certificate.  She had died in Broward County, Florida, in 1995.  The trail for my Uncle John went cold.  My mother said that they never had children.  I wondered where the photographs had gone.  I wondered about the stories that I could have been told.


Over the next couple years, I continued researching my roots.  It became a true obsession.  Then a couple days ago, I received an astonishing email from a long-lost Groves relative.

“We’ve been exchanging Christmas cards with Carol Ann for the past few decades,” he said.  “Carol Ann is alive.  Here’s her phone number….”

This morning, I called Carol Ann.  She was delighted to hear from me, and at 76, sounded 20 years younger than that.  Her mind was quick, her voice, strong.

“I heard you thought I was dead,” she said wryly.

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, I’m not!”

We talked, and as we did, tears filled my eyes and I worked hard to hide my cracking voice.  We talked about many things.  Their retirement in Hansville, Washington.  My father’s death.  The fact that so many people in our line had died of respiratory ailments.  My life, first as a journalist, and then as a magician.

Carol Ann had never met me.  She’s many years older than me and our family was not particularly close.  That side of the family never had holiday parties, for example.  However, she mentioned that she had always regretted that.  My parents had met her a couple times.  My mother said that she was a statuesque redheaded beauty.  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty smart, too.

As the conversation stretched to 20 minutes and longer, I began to worry whether I should mention her father or not.  After all, children of con men are often filled with anger and shame.  Perhaps her father had been narcissistic and selfish.  Perhaps I shouldn’t mention John until the third or fourth conversation, if there even was one.  I didn’t want her to clam up and close off communication.

Still, as the conversation came to a close, I felt like I had to take the risk.

“Since I’m a professional magician, I do a lot of card magic,” I said, “and I heard growing up that your father was a professional gambler.  He must have been good with cards.”

“I have to tell you up front that he was a card cheat,” Carol said.

And then Carol proceeded to tell me the story of her life.  Her parents divorced when she was 7, and after that, she rarely saw her father.

“He made his living driving a cab in Los Angeles,” she said.  “He would pick up fares and then steer them to a poker game.  He would sit in on the poker game and secretly work with a partner.  Together, they would take the fare’s money by cheating.”

It was a life that sometimes had deleterious consequences, though.  Once, he had a pool cue broken over his head.

“I have a bunch of his marked decks,” she said.  “I’ll give them to you, if you like.”

Carol’s 12-year-old grandson is crazy about magic, and I promised I’d send her a copy of my instructional magic DVD.  It’ll make a great Christmas gift.  By the end of the conversation, Carol invited me to visit her up in Washington, and I look forward to the visit.  At the moment, though, I’m flying high, not just to be reunited with a family member that I thought I had lost, but also, to be exposed to the world of my most colorful relation, the scoundrel who was kicked out of Vegas.

What Would It Benefit Me?

Two weeks ago, I discovered the name of a long-lost relative through my genealogical researches.  On a whim, I put the name into Google, and lo and behold, a phone number came up.  Apparently, she lives in Plano, in greater Dallas.  So I called.

Kathleen is 83 and seemed rather bored by my genealogical questions.  Perhaps she was wary, too.  After all, I might be some kind of con man pretending to be a relative and trying to wheedle his way into her bank account.  Finally, she gave me a couple phone numbers to the genealogists in the family.

“Would you like to write down my phone number?” I asked.

“Well,” she said with a heartless Texas drawl, “what would it benefit me?”

After hanging up, I laughed.  Then I went upstairs and found my girlfriend.

“You’ll never believe what this woman said to me,” I said, and proceeded to tell her about the most precious line of the conversation.

What would it benefit me?

David and Claire after 10 years together

“That perfectly sums up a certain way of thinking that some people have, doesn’t it?” I said.

“Yes, it certainly does,” Claire said.

In time, I got over it and continued my genealogical search.  I called both of the numbers Kathleen gave me, and one of those people, Lloyd, was incredibly helpful.  He’s quite an accomplished genealogist, and didn’t really need to refer to the computer in order to rattle off names and dates.  I later learned that he had owned a bank at one point, in spite of the fact that childhood polio had rendered him wheelchair bound.  Now, in his late seventies, Lloyd was lucid, insightful, and comprehensive.

Two weeks later, totally out of the blue, Kathleen called back.  I guess she’d thought about it for a couple weeks and found herself curious. Turns out Kathleen didn’t know the name of her own grandmother, Lillie, or know that she had died at age 27 in 1901 while giving birth to her own father.  She didn’t know that her grandfather had died at 31 of a stroke, a sad turn that scattered their four children to the four winds.

“It’s really kind of a tragedy,” I said.

“Yes, it is.  But that kind of thing happened a lot in those days, women dying in childbirth.”

We talked a bit more, and then, when we were hanging up, she said something curious.

“You’ll call me every now and then, won’t you?”

I grinned.

“What will it benefit me?” I said.

It would have been perfect for me to say that, but in all truth, I didn’t.  I’m not the type of smartass who takes revenge just to be clever.

Yes, Kathleen, I will call you, just to say hello.

I Open My Arms to the World

I’ve always been interested in genealogy.  When I was 15, I asked my father all the schools he had ever attended.  He humored me, thinking that in some way he’d always be around to tell me that information.  Twenty years later, the ambulance came for the last time.  I still have that list.

Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

My father, Donald Groves

When I was 23, I asked my father’s father about our forebears.  He was the most silent man I’ve ever run into, and by that time, he was bedridden. I had driven all the way out from West L.A. to Yucaipa, a 2-hour drive, and he wouldn’t talk.  Finally, after about an hour, he said something.

“There’s more than one way to kill a cat,” he said with a sly grin on his face.

I waited for enlightenment, and then he gave it to me.

“The best way, though, is to slit it lengthwise along the belly and press up from the backbone.”

He did finally let me in on one important tidbit: his grandfather’s name.

Left to right, Sally Groves, Roy Groves, Emily Groves

My father’s father, Roy Groves

“C.C. Brundage,” he said.

I wrote that down.

“You know what the C.C. stands for?”

“No, what?”

“Christopher Columbus.”

Grandpa Roy let out a weak grizzled laugh.  It’s hard to describe what it sounded like, although maybe this captures it: It sounded like lung damage.  He had smoked most of his life, and on top of that, had had a career working for decades at a paper mill, where paper fibers floated in the air at all times.  Even at age 18, he was working at a factory that manufactured strawboard, which was a kind of paper made from straw.  I’m sure those fibers were permanently embedded in his lungs, too.  He died at age 70.

But the toughest genealogical resource in my family has always been my mother.  It’s not that she doesn’t give me information, although she sometimes does it in a grudging way, as if elucidating the past is putting another nail in her coffin.  Her toughness expresses itself in different ways, but in this example, it’s that she has never filed a census form.

My mother at age 16

My mother at age 16

In my genealogical researches, census forms have been my most valuable resource.  Through that, I have established the names and birth dates of many relatives.  In the common U.S. Census form, they first list the head of household and his or her age, and then list the other occupants and their ages.  Often, it’s clear what their relationship is.  In that way, I established that my great-grandfather’s name was Charles (born 1869), my great-great-grandfather’s name was John (born 1836), and my great-great-great-grandfather’s name was John, as well (born 1792).  I’ve also established the names of sons and daughters that have branched off my direct line.

Census forms also provide other fascinating information, too.  Depending on the year, U.S. Census forms have asked questions such as:

  • Level of education attained
  • Employment
  • Disabilities
  • Occupation
  • Address
  • Race
  • Birth country of parents
  • Relation to head of household
  • How many slaves you own

I make no excuses for my mother.  She’s guilty as charged.  But who is ever going to prosecute her for it?

It was in the year 2000 that I first witnessed her dodging the census taker, but it was in 2010 that I became acutely aware of it.  Because she had had a couple of strokes, I began going to her house on a more regular basis.

“Did you lock the front gate?” she would ask when I entered the house.


“Well go lock it.”

“Why?  I’m here to protect you.”

“The census lady is looking for me.”

“Why don’t you want to fill out the census?”

“It’s none of their business.”

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My mother now.

So I would lock the gate upon arriving at her house, and again upon leaving, shaking my head all the way.

This evasion went on for months and months.  Sometimes, I would ask her why she was so dead-set against filling out the census.

“I’m a very private person,” she would say.

“They don’t release the census to the general public,” I would say.

“It’s still none of their business.  Oh, you’re such an open person.  You’re always writing things on the Internet, giving away all of our personal business.  Why do you have to do that?”

“What is there to be afraid of?”

“Because it’s nobody else’s business!”

Strangely, very strangely, I have very different conversations with her about government surveillance.

“My new novel is about a woman who has a secret admirer in the NSA,” I said.  “He loves her and he hates her.  He’s spying on her all the time without government clearance.  It points up the dangers of having such an extensive surveillance apparatus here in the U.S.”

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“But we’re at war.”

“Mom, we’ve been at war for 12 years against the terrorists.  There’s no end in sight.  When is it going to stop?”

“Why do you have to get involved in politics?”

“So you’re afraid of the census lady but you’re not afraid of people who can listen to all your phone calls and read all your mail and don’t need a court order to do it.”

“Let’s not talk about this.”

I rarely show my blogs to Mom.  To most of them, she wouldn’t react well.  Mentally ill forebears, a great-uncle who shot himself in the chest at age 40, a brain-damaged great-aunt who babbled nonsense.

Why do they have to know our business?!

Because if you don’t tell the truth in your writing, dammit, you might as well be manufacturing sleeping pills.  Because it’s intimacy.  It’s charged.  Hell, I open my arms to the world.  I let them see my scars.  I let them judge me.  I let them sneer at me, because sneering is what they do, and this is what I do.  So sue me.

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Adventure on Road X (part 10)

(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.

Roy and Dorothy Groves 1

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.

John H Groves royal society of the union 2a closeupHere is John H. Groves, who was wounded for the Union side in the Civil War, and then when hostilities ended, limped the 300 miles from Unionville, Missouri to Reading, Kansas to set up a new home.

John H Groves royal society of the union 2a closeup

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.

Family tree of Taylors and Groves b

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.

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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.

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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?

Adventure on Road X (part 9)

[Continued from a previous post]

When I meet someone new, sooner or later, I’m going to perform a magic trick for them.  It’s a way of breaking through the barricades.  It’s a calling card.  And I suppose it’s a way of getting them to like me, as pathetic as that may sound, a way of getting them to think of me as special.

But here’s the dirty little secret: It tends to work.


I was in the little town of Reading, Kansas, on a genealogical search for my great-great-grandfather.  P. shared that great-great-grandfather, and was filling me in on what he knew about our common lineage.  It was an exciting visit, filled with stories, facts, explanations, and visits to two graveyards.

And after I had spent some time with P., I considered doing some heavyweight magic for him.  The only hesitation I had was religion.  After all, the Groves were all Baptists, and their type tended to be pretty literal about the devil and all his works.  I once approached Baptists at a restaurant table where I was working.

“I’m the magician at this restaurant,” I said.  “Would you like to see some magic?”

The party consisted of two men and one little boy.  One of the men looked up at me and, with a broad smile, said:

“We believe that God hates magic.”

It was quite a shock, but that’s the attitude you can sometimes run into in this business, and that was my fear with regard to P.  But at a certain point, my fear began to melt away.

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“I’m not religious at all,” P. said.

Plus, he said he had been living in sin with a woman for 21 years.  There was something in him that seemed to be brave about superstition.

So while we were standing there in the cemetery, I took out three coins.  They’re always the least intrusive way of doing magic.  They’re common objects, first of all, rather than bringing out a deck of cards, which might be considered sinful in themselves, or a hank of rope, which makes people think you might have come straight from the docks.  And secondly, coins are so portable.  I can carry them in my pocket at all times, and they take up hardly any space.

And if you think of it, a cemetery is a perfect place to perform magic.  You’re there with the spirits, and your performance seems to confirm the supernatural.

The magic looked like this, although the following performance is actually for someone else:

During the performance, P. just watched.  When I was finished, his voice contained astonishment.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said simply.

Forgive me, but in that moment, I thought of something that someone had said to me nine years earlier.

“These people have not seen such a thing before.”

The speaker was Belden, my driver on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, which I had visited in 2004.  On Tanna, there are no paved roads, no electricity, and the tribes live in the old ways.  I had performed the same feat of coin magic for the Yuiniar tribe.  (Below, I am executing what we call “a vanish.)  The Yuiniar had greeted me with true awe and wonder, and there was at one point a tense discussion about whether I was performing “white magic” or something darker.  I also participated in a tribal dance, which involved 150 villagers dancing in concentric circles and stomping their feet in unison on the bare ground, and then after hours, Chief Tom sat with us in an open-air veranda in the dark of night and told us about magic men who can fly, transform into animals, and turn invisible just by putting a cat bone into their mouth.  (For my recent in-depth blog post on that experience, click here.)

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That’s not to say that country car mechanics are as primitive as South Pacific tribespeople, or even that Yuiniar tribespeople are primitive, God forbid.  I don’t want to insult anybody.  I’m talking purely in terms of astonishment and wonder.  Let me put it this way: If you’re searching around for an audience to stun with your coin magic, trust me, you’re not going to do much better than performing for a rural Kansan or a barechested Yuiniar.

[To be continued]

Adventure on Road X (part 7)

[Continued from a previous post]

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Land is what it’s all about out here in Kansas.  Standing in front of my old family homestead from 1890, that’s all that you see when you turn round and round in 360, is land and an endless horizon.

There’s a road that runs in front of the house, and it’s still just gravel, even today, but was just dirt around 1900, when John H. Groves and his family first moved there.  When wagons rattled along those roads, horse hooves clacking, huge clouds of dirt must have raised behind them, as they do today behind my rental car.  Back then, roads out here didn’t have proper names, and still don’t, it’s still just Road 270.  Look across the road and you see another man’s 40 acres behind a fence.  Look to the right and left and you see the old 80 acres that John and his sons used to till and work, using ploughs and horses and other machinery maintained by his sons Orlando and Frank Elmer Groves.

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At the moment, I was standing there with a ghost.  His name was Preston Taylor, Jr., a third cousin of mine that I had met for the first time just that afternoon.  He had been surrounded by this kind of vastness all his life.  Working as a farm mechanic, he had driven these country roads to the various neighbors for years, making house calls to fix their vehicles.

“We Taylors were one of the few people who came out of the Great Depression better than we went into it,” Preston told me.  “We had all our money in a bank, but then the bank failed.  At first, it seemed like it was going to be a tragedy.  But the bank had some land to pay us back with, so we took that.  That land has paid us back for decades.  We worked it till 1952, when we had a bad crop.  That loss hit my father so hard that from then on, we’ve just rented it out.”

Farms have been central to the greatness that is America.  My girlfriend Claire was born and raised on a farm.  Her grandfather had owned the farm, then handed it down to her own father, Fred.  Claire’s father worked the land diligently, ceaselessly, tirelessly.  He grew wheat, soy, and millet, and raised cattle.  Claire used to walk the pastures and enjoy watching the quail, hares, deer, and other critters.  If you’ve ever seen Claire watch an animal, you know the meaning of the term enjoyment.  She loved that farm, that land, and the critters who called it home, and when Fred became too old to work it a couple years ago and they had to sell it, we took one last visit.

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We walked the pasture.  We stood under the trees.  We mooed at the cattle.  A quail took flight and we heard that lovely flapping of its wings.  We walked the perimeter of that farm, which also consisted of nameless roads like Road X.  We visited the pond where Claire and her sisters had played as children dressed in their little bathing suits.  Visiting it for the last time, Claire’s heart ached.  She said goodbye to the land, because after all, it wasn’t just about the land, it was about the arc of her life.

But they made the best of it, as many American farmers do.  One story illustrates this better than most.  When Claire was 10, she remembers, a sudden hailstorm hit Plainville.  It was raining stones the size of midget golf balls.  She remembers being in the garage with her father, who just watched as the hailstorm destroyed his wheat crop.  There was nothing he could do but watch the destruction of his entire planting season.  After it was all over, Fred hung his head for a while, then just shrugged his shoulders.

“Girls, let’s gather up these hailstones,” he said.  “We might as well make some old-fashioned ice cream while we still have the chance.”

Standing in front of the old Groves homestead, with all those stories running through my veins, I felt a kind of reverence.

“I don’t know if anybody lives there anymore,” he said, looking at the house.  “Last time somebody was living here was the Wamsers, and they drank a lot and squandered away their money.”IMG_3068 bw smaller

So many things had happened in that house.  It was the house where John H. Groves, born 1836, had lived since about 1900.  It was the house that six children had called home.  It was the house that Daisy, a mentally impaired little girl, would live in all her life.  It was the house where Frank had shot himself in the chest one morning in 1920, despondent about his health.  It was the house where Daisy and her caretaker Cy had died so tragically in 1967.

But not all people show sufficient respect.  After Daisy and Cy’s death, the house was looted, Preston told me.

“Some rascals took John H. Groves’ Civil War military uniform,” Preston said.  “They also took a Victrola.  Shame.”

“Can we walk onto the property?” I asked.

I was eager to explore, or, as they call it in Kansas while holding a shotgun, trespass.

“I don’t like to do that kind of thing.”


So we gawked from a distance.  This was where John H. Groves’ two sons, Orlando and Frank, had worked their mechanical brilliance, according to Preston.

“I’ve saved some of the brothers’ tools and inventions,” Preston said, “and I’m willing to give you a couple.”

Give me?”

“Yes.  You can take them, if you want.”

The gesture made my heart skip a beat.  This blood thing was thicker than I had realized.

There was an antique watchmaker’s staking set, which was lovely and came in a handsome wooden box.  I later checked its worth online and discovered it lists on eBay for over $1500.

Antique watchmaker's staking set

Antique watchmaker’s staking set

There was an old ferrotype camera, which was fascinating because of my father’s and my own interest in photography.  I’ve gone into detail about Dad’s photography in a previous post that has become popular.

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And there was a puzzle that the brothers invented themselves.

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“The trick is, you have to get this ring over that ring,” he said.  “I’ve done it a couple times, but it takes quite a bit of effort to do it, believe me.”

I was searching for connections between the past and the present, and puzzles and magic was a connection.  Musical dexterity and mechanical dexterity was another.  I was looking for connections, because obviously, if we share some DNA, there must be some.  But it all came crashing down when I thought about Preston chucking his whole livelihood because he couldn’t spare the time to take a computer class.  Now that seemed ridiculous.

But it seemed disrespectful to think of him as ridiculous.  The occasion called for respect.  It called for an understanding of the decisions he had made.  After all, he hadn’t questioned my decision to spend 23 years of my life performing little trickie tricks, or spend 18 months with a witchy woman just because she had killer highlights in her hair.

So I looked him straight in the eye and listened.  He was my long-lost cousin.  It was the least he deserved.

Adventure on Road X (part 6)

[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?

Neurology face 1a

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.

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My long-lost relative Preston

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.”


Charles S. Groves

Charles S. Groves

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.

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I took this photo on my recent trip to Hutchinson, then Photoshopped it to look like an old photo.

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.

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I took this photo on my recent trip to Hutchinson, then Photoshopped it to look like an old photo.

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.

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

“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.

Earl Groves, Jr.

Earl Groves, Jr.

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.

Roy and Dorothy Groves 1

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.”

Donald Groves as a child

Donald Groves as a child

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.

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

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.

Adventure on Road X (part 5)

[Continued from a previous post]

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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.

Family tree of Taylors and Groves bI 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.

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“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]