Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ancestry -- A Writer's Journey Into The Past

I took several writing classes through Continuing Education at the University of Colorado post college.
They were the best classes I ever had on writing because they were taught by published writers instead of academics. One of the early assignments I was given in the first class I took was to write a recipe for me.

It was an exercise in creativity. It posed the question of how to define myself. We had no other guidance in how to approach the subject. It was up to us.

After due consideration, I chose to use my ancestry to create my recipe. As a writer I couldn't just list all of the countries that make up my bloodlines. I had to find other, more creative ways to same thing.

On my father's side I am Scandinavian. His father was from Norway and his mother was a Swede. So I started with several cups of light from the Lands of the Midnight Sun. Then I added a bit of Viking stubbornness and ambition.

My mother's side was a bit more complicated. While her mother was all German, her father was a mix from Britain (what I call British mutt) and a dash of French.

So I continued with a bit of Teutonic determination and ingenuity. A tablespoon of English stiff upper lip. An ounce to two of Highland second sight. A wee dram of Scottish pride. A splash of Celtic humor. A large dash of Gaelic fire. A pinch of French style and grace.  A trace of Gallic rudeness.

Season with the salt of the earth. Spice with a peppery temper, a touch of sage for wisdom, thyme for longevity, and ginger for spirit. Mix in an old soul and bake at 98.6 degrees in mother's womb for 9 months. Cover with American culture before serving.

Somewhere I still have the actual recipe I created, but it would take a major search of my papers to find it at this point. The instructor liked the result so much that she read the result out loud to the class. It was a delightful moment of validation after years of silent struggle and a stack of form rejection slips (yes, it was back in the days of snail mail).

I have always been intrigued by my ancestry. As a writer that makes a lot of sense. Ancestry is not just about bloodlines and relatives. It is about stories. The stories of the people I am descended from.

What made my ancestors leave their old, familiar lives and journey into the unknown America? I had heard that my great grandmother left a nice board house in Norway to come and that when she first laid eyes on the dirt sod house she was now to live in made her sit down and cry. What was the story of my Irish great-great-grandmother and her escape from the potato famine?

Most interesting was the General. General Robert F. Smith had been a colonel during the civil war at an age when most men were winding down.  So I went on and began the backwards search. This was far harder than the website would have you believe. The further west you go the sketchier the record keeping. I would run across obvious holes in this history so I would question my mother. She did her best to help me, but she was old enough to be slipping away from many of those memories.

There were places where what she told me did explain some holes. One part of the family tended to go by their middle names. Mum telling me that allowed me to connect some dots that would never have been able to.

She also told me about her great uncle who was something of a black sheep. He had come to stay with her family when he was ill and no one else in the family would talk to him. My grandfather eventually had to ask his uncle to leave since the family was starting to turn on him as well. After many years Mum had come to realize that this bachelor uncle had been such a family pariah because he had been gay. This explained why his name disappeared from the family records permanently.

I finally made my way back to the General, his wife, and all 14 kids (whew!). When he enlisted to go into the Civil War he had already done his military service. He had chosen to go to war to defend the Constitution of the United States and the rights of all people to be free. The day I found the record of his entering into the army for a second time was 150 years to the day later. So wild!

My frustration started then. There were no further records going back. I had hit a mysterious brick wall that even Mum couldn't help me get past. I cancelled my Ancestry account (I couldn't pay $40 a month for something I wasn't going to be using until I received additional information). All of the information is supposed to still be stored on the website so that I can return later when I am ready.

Last year my mother passed away. Only one of her relatives was able to come to the memorial service -- one Robert F. Smith. No, not the General, of course, but Mum's younger cousin who had been named after the General. The day after the memorial service we sat on my patio and chatted. He had done deeper research on that part of the family. He had gone to the places and looked up records and letters for himself. He lived in Georgia right in the area where the General had led his men in the war.

It turns out that the General is an enigma in the family, not just to me. He had been largely disowned by a father who thought he would never amount to anything. Daddy dearest had actually left all of his money and property to a young woman on the condition that she marry Robert, but maintain control of these assets. They did marry, but somewhere along the drama Robert had changed his name to Smith. The family name may have been Engle or Engel, we aren't sure.

What had he done to tick his father off that much and believe that he couldn't handle money or property? That may remain a mystery forever unless Cousin Bob finds a new thread to pull on to unravel more of the family tapestry.

The Smiths had moved west from Philadelphia to Illinois where they purchased land and started a general store. They made part of their money by selling their land and buying it back again with the ebb and flow of the economy. The man who would amount to "nothing" became an army colonel and after the war he was promoted to General by Ulysses S. Grant. Later he was charged by the Governor of Illinois with the military duty of moving the Mormons out of the state.

Three of his daughters never married, were suffragettes, and opened and ran businesses in a time before women did this sort of thing. One of those daughters became an agent for an insurance firm in Chicago.

We may never know the actual story of the General, but has been an incredible journey finding all of this out. We seem to carry these stories in our cells so maybe one day it will reveal itself to me.

What do I mean by that? I went to hear author Amy Tan speak years ago. She was talking about writing "The Bonesetter's Daughter." She had reached deep inside of herself to pull out the story. When she had completed it she showed the tale to her mother. Her mother freaked out and demanded to know who in the family had blabbed the family secret. It was something Amy had never known about and that the family did not talk about. Still, she had managed to find it within herself.

A dear friend is working with a cousin of hers to write a book based on the experiences of their great-grandmother and her experience of being kidnapped by Indians during difficult times in the early days of Colorado. They find themselves constantly becoming emotional in the endeavor, as though they were experiencing it themselves.

All families have stories like these. Don't assume that nothing ever happened in your family. What are your stories?

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