April 2018

Monday, December 3, 2012

Family History

Growing up, I knew I belonged in my family tree, but I suspected that I was somehow different than the others.

On my mother’s side, I had Grandmom and Granddad, three aunts (two of them closer in age to me than to my mother), one uncle, and some great aunts, great uncles and cousins-some-number- of- times-removed.  Uncles and aunts married uncles and aunts, and first cousins were born.

I loved to hear stories from times and places I hadn’t known.  When I got a call that Granddad had died, I flew home from Dallas for the funeral, expecting a miserable time. There was a lot of sadness, but a lot of joy, too. After the burial, the family sat in the parlor and the older ones told stories about Granddad.

He had been a six-foot-two lanky young man whose ears stuck out from under the hat he liked to wear. I am imagine that he was somewhere between a dandy and a good ol’ boy. He worked for the Seboard Railroad.

Once, when his young family returned home from a vacation, they found that a burglar had ransacked their home. Someone called the police while Granddad kept an eye—and a rifle—on the burglar. The burglar started walking, and Granddad followed down a dark road and into the woods: the burglar in front and Granddad behind him, gun pointed.

I think the burglar must have known that Granddad was really a pussy cat at heart. The burglar kept telling Granddad to stop following him. The burglar finally turned around and threatened, “If you don’t stop following me, I’m going to kill you.”

The room of mourners erupted in laughter, and Dad summarized the punch line: “He had the gun and that burglar threatened to kill HIM!” Everybody laughed again.

Once, I went to the nursing home with Mom and Grandmom to see Mom’s uncle, who had emphysema and was really sick. He had a trach in his throat, and I remember that he smoked from his trach. I was still in elementary school, but the image had a strong impression on me. I never smoked. Not a thing. Not once.

Aunt Mary Ann, the family storyteller, told us about other ancestors, like her Uncle Bubba who looked so much like Clark Gable that people would see him on the sidewalk and pull over to get his autograph.

Mary Ann also told us about our ancestor Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who mapped much of what is now “Hayden Valley” in Yosemite and fathered a child with a Native American woman, though neither mother nor child made it into the official family records.

On my dad’s side of the family, Granddaddy died when I was three years old, but I knew Grandmother and several great aunts, especially Ben (nicknamed Ben by my grandmother after the turn-of-the-century cartoon character “Ben Puttin’ It Off, who was a procrastinator like Ben.)

I always seemed to have the most in common with Dad’s sister, Aunt Myra, who liked to read like I did, and she gave me bear hugs and called Dad “Archie” (from the sit com “All in the Family”) when he rolled his eyes.

Aunt Leona and Uncle Bill, who was born on January 2, 1900 and who was not ticklish, lived with Ben at the farm where Grandmother grew up (next to the farm where Granddaddy grew up).

Each summer, this family of Aunt Myra and her husband and my cousins and lots of great aunts and uncles and cousins-some-number-of-time- removed vacationed at a North Carolina beach. We rented three houses and moved easily among all of the houses.

Afternoons, everyone went to the sound, where the young ones (that included Mom and Dad) water-skied and those with grey hair sat in the shade and ate watermelon.

This family told stories, too, though when Grandmother and Great Aunt Ben got to reminiscing, they laughed so hard that I couldn’t understand a word they said.

I’ve always loved to hear family stories, to know something about where I came from, but I also wonder about the stories that haven’t made it into family lore.

As a lesbian, I wonder if anyone else through the years was GLBTQ. I know that there were some single women along the way, but I don’t know if any of these single women were lesbians. I know that some aunts and uncles had names unusual for their genders, like Aunt Jim and Uncle Lola, but for all I know the names came from some story, like Aunt Ben being named for the cartoon character.

(Of course, I also can’t assume that the married people were straight.)

I ache to know my family’s invisible history, to know if there were rule-breakers before me or ancestors with brain tumors and what their lives were like.

Mom’s cousin--a paternal Uncle Frank's son--Sam updated that family tree a few years back, and to his credit, he listed Ann as my partner. Ann’s not in the silent edge just off the picture.

I suspect I’m not the first lesbian in this family, and I suspect I won’t be the last. For the future generations, there will be at least one record that shows that our family embraced each person.

For that, many thanks, Sam. And to the family storyteller, Mary Ann, thanks for the stories. They connect me to my past and remind me that in this family, I belong.

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