Everyone loves genealogy. We all want to scour the musty annals of our dead for clues to our nature. There’s no subject that interests us more than ourselves. Each of us pokes through our personal attics to find out: who collaborated to produce the wonder that is me? Or–depending–who can I pin the blame on for this pisshole of an existence?
If we weren’t so irretrievably interested in ourselves, we wouldn’t click on so many odd internet quizzes (“I got Pol Pot. What murderous totalitarian dictator are you?”) We’re hoping for Attila the Hun, but we’ll take anything as long as someone asks us what our favorite flower is, or our favorite rock star. Ask us anything about ourselves, market research gnomes! We’ll tell you!
Remarkably, four out of five students of genealogy who dig deep enough discover they are descended from Charlemagne. This is a familiar enough phenomenon. No fortune-teller peering into anyone’s previous lives has ever turned up a horse thief or a sewer worker. We are all reincarnated royalty.
Sure, we know plenty about our own parents, but they seem to fall short in important ways and can’t quite account for all the intricacies of our character. We study them and come up with a collage of qualities. We get our nose from our father, say, and our impatience from our mother–although, in our case, it’s not impatience so much as a desire to see things done properly.
I’ve never delved into my own family history, because the fanciest parts had already been logged on a scroll and handed to me as a youngster. We had the family tree going back ten generations to the Mayflower, when my fore-Brewster led a doughty band of religious folk to the new world and promptly lost most of them the first winter. It’s hard for me to relate to the dude. I’m peeved at the Supreme Court for thinking it’s okay to invoke the name of Our Lord And Savior Jesus Christ at a town hall meeting (the opinion of the majority being that Jesus Christ is everyone’s Lord And Savior whether they know it or not), but I wouldn’t pile into a wobbly bathtub of a ship over it. Still, I have to admit it: I’ve got clergymen tromping all over my DNA.
Supposedly the information on the scroll accounts for my makeup, with a little leavening from my sturdy and cheerful Norwegian side. There are a number of writers in the woodpile. My grandmother got poems published in Scribner’s. Here’s one she wrote about my father:
To My Son.
All that thou art to me? Oh love, my inmost heart,
If I could say
The half of what thou art to me each day,
It were but mockery, and my love were dead.
Holy shit! Douse me in lilac and slap me with an antimacassar! Four lines, with the subjunctive tense jammed in twice. My grandmother spent her adulthood in bed with the consumption, writing poetry and waiting for the laudanum to kick in. Am I in there anywhere? Her father was a popular author who toured with Mark Twain. He annoyed the bejesus out of Mark Twain, in fact. “I like him,” MT said. “But in him and his person I have learned to hate all religions. He has taught me to abhor the Sabbath-day and hunt up new and troublesome ways to dishonor it.”
I’d sure like to believe a stray sperm of Mark Twain’s had found its way into my great-grandmother. But maybe my essential germ is somewhere else. There are a hell of a lot of womenfolk who dissolved, along with their maiden names, into my family tree. Maybe I should start snooping around those parts a little. Find me a decent horse thief. Somebody.