A notification recently appeared in my in-box calling for short stories. One of the preferred topics was One’s Crazy Family Members. I was disappointed to learn that only one submission at a time would be considered, as I could probably send 300 pages to them and still not begin to scrape the surface.
A few of my family members have always feared I’d write about them. Their assumptions have been correct. If some aspect of their lives is worth reading about, they should consider how interesting they are. However, no one has complained so far, but people see themselves differently than others do. I’ve not experienced anyone walking over to me at a family gathering and yelling, “I don’t appreciate your telling the whole world what a terrible driver I am!” For one reason, the person in question has great faith in his driving skills. The other reason I’ve never been accosted is my decades-long absences from family reunions. In most cases, I tend to stick with material and people who can’t get their hands on me without holding a séance.
Writing about the dead is a lot more fun. I don’t have to censor my words, I can build up or tear down the plot without worrying what Great-Aunt Maudelle would say if she read about that time her granddaughter danced on the tables at an OSU frat party. When the guilty are still alive, I have to change OSU to SMU and make everyone a Methodist to lend them a sense of decorum.
I recently submitted my DNA for testing. A close relative had already told me that her results were as white and bland as a cotton bed sheet, having not revealed so much as a hushed-up secret marriage or a passenger on a boat load of prisoners coming from England. After my results were posted, I was contacted by a verified “fourth cousin or closer” whose ancestry contains a number of regions on the globe outside of “Great Britain, Western Europe, and the Iberian Peninsula.”
I am intrigued by the various reasons people explore genealogy. Some are looking to connect with distant relatives while some closet royalists seem to be searching for that shred of evidence that put 7th Grandmother Elspeth into the King’s bedchamber circa 1539. A lesser noble would do, preferring dukes and earls to knights, but few researchers seem to realize that such distant and unseemly ties to the sovereign will not get you into the royal enclosure at Ascot.
I do think there are some interesting stories that turn up from time to time. Some friends have turned up a variety of characters while others get a greater sense of how their families ended up in the United States. I found a document indicating that some centuries old uncle had enough of a gambling problem that the man’s father-in-law had to make specific exclusions in his will to protect his daughter’s interests.
I suspect a great deal of genealogical motivation falls under the category Greener Pastures. Having spent a lifetime with the same old faces staring back at them from across the Thanksgiving table, a segment of researches are hoping their luck might be better with a new set of cousins. The pontificating egghead and his cousin who spends her time repurposing used bleach bottles into apparel eye each other with disdain. “We have nothing in common,” they tell their friends. “Nothing. Nada. Zilch.” But family is so important.
Rather than treating close friends as though they were family, the professor and the bleach bottle milliner much prefer blood relations. They get on the computer, sign in and desperately start searching for better relatives in Nebraska. As they both joined the same genealogical research site, their best matches turn out to be each other. There are a few other matches, but they’re secondary. The researchers are desperate and reach out to the rancher in Arizona and the dental hygienist in Michigan. Those people are either too buy, too uninterested, or too satisfied with their relatives to respond to an urgent inquiry by someone claiming to the child of a great-great-grandmother’s sister.
I enjoy a peak into possibilities, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular pastime. I was cured of any such cousin curiosity after hearing that I had relatives out there who owned a sporting goods store in New York. I got it all wrong. I was thinking New York, weekends in the Hamptons, sailboats, polo mallets, and gins and tonic in the clubhouse only to find out they were upstate and catered to more of a fur-trapping-on-the-Hudson clientele. Sometimes you leave home only to find out that you never had to.
© 2017 by Patrick Brown
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