I recently started watching a show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” and by started watching, I mean that I’ve seen it while skipping through channels two weeks in a row so I’ve stopped to watch it. It’s not like the Simpsons where I rush to get home by 7pm so I can catch both nightly episodes. Not like that at all.
“Who Do You Think You Are” is basically a promotional effort for Ancestry.com that dedicates an entire staff to a celebrity guest for a few weeks so that celebrity can find out more about one or more of their distant ancestors. It’s not so much interesting for me in the way of celebrities (except I guess it was kind of cool to watch a very businesslike German man reacting to the charisma explosion that is Rob Lowe, who still looks like an impossible human no matter how they prove that he is actually descended from people rather than a race of extremely good-looking alien beings), but I’m a little bit interested in the ancestry part. At least, the part that doesn’t require paying a $150 membership to access the site’s records for a year. Because that’s some bullshit.
I do know some things about my family. On my dad’s side, there used to be a bible in my grandfather’s house with almost all of the information that was available to anyone, including the parents and 13-strong sibling list of my great-grandfather, who, along with the youngest half of his siblings, had been given to an orphanage as a boy (this was pretty common among poor people, especially Irish Catholics. If you had kids you couldn’t afford, you could give them to the clergy and let them be terrified out of ever reproducing, ever). Somewhere along the line, this bible was lost. It happened during one of my grandfather’s deepest drunk periods. He suggested that I’d lost the bible, I insisted that he either sold it or threw it away. Which is a shame, because while I know where people came from, I don’t know most of their names anymore.
On my mother’s side, the bible still exists. My remaining grandmother has it and, as far as I know, has updated it pretty faithfully. It goes back to at least my great-great grandparents, maybe even farther. While I am less sure of their complete lineage – we’d always been told that everyone came from Germany but my 23andMe results suggest otherwise – I will at least have their names and can begin tracking them through census records and other sources.
I started poking around a little bit last night, and due to a distant, unknown cousin of mine who enjoys spending time on a site called findagrave.com (I mean, what), I found that apparently, my father’s paternal grandmother’s maternal grandfather (who I already kind of knew about) once abandoned his family to work in the lead mines of Oklahoma. One of his sons died in a pretty horrific railroad accident, and his eventual son-in-law (my previously mentioned great-grandmother’s father, who I’d already known died fairly young) also worked on the railroad and died suddenly.
I’d also once found some letters in the now-lost bible from someone in the family, and I’m betting it was either the lead mine relative or someone close to him. He (they?) was writing from New Orleans, and he expressed displeasure at the squalid nature of the boardinghouse where he was staying. He also said a pretty rude thing about his black neighbors, which I will not repeat here but I think it’s telling that his circumstances called for him to stay in a cheap, leaky, rat-infested boardinghouse next to the river in what was probably a traditionally mixed part of town.
On my mother’s side, I know that her mother’s father (so my great-grandfather) died of complications from working in mines, as well, and quite a few of that side fell victim to industrial and farm accidents.
Such is the life of poor people, I guess. Also, I think it speaks to the general immigrant character, which is, in my opinion, part of what informs our character as Americans. By and large, the people who came to America during the immigration surges of the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s were poor. They were persecuted. They were desperate. They were fleeing poverty, famine, and lynch mobs and were so afraid and/or sick of that shit that they threw their entire lot in with an equally disenfranchised group of people and traversed an entire ocean to begin another life on a new continent. Basically, these were some bold ass motherfuckers, and we would do well not to forget the enterprising nature of their efforts.
And that’s fucking crazy to me. Sure, I’ve moved across the country a few times and flirted with being an expatriate, but this is a different world and the only way I could come close to replicating the gravity of that experience would be to hitchhike down to the jungles of Belize and set up camp there. For the rest of my life.
Another thing that fascinates me about these people – specifically, the people to whom I am related – is that they crossed half of Europe (well, some of them did, others were already at the edge), then an ocean, and then half of America before stopping in the Midwest and going “you know what, here is fine.” And they didn’t even stop for land. Most of them settled in cities or towns relatively close to cities, so at no point were they provided with acreage to cultivate or, you know, a reason to choose the land. It’s like they got fed up sometime around St. Louis and figured it was as good of a place as any. Which is actually kind of funny to me, but, understanding their circumstances (people who were poor enough to do itinerant hard labor, possibly being gruesomely wounded or killed in the process, come on), I guess I have to tip my hat to them.
If any of them ever stopped to consider future generations of their family, I am certain they never envisioned me. At no point would it have occurred to them that I would be thinking of them, casting this spider-thin line backwards for more than a century, hoping to connect with something that might tell me more about these people who escaped Europe and came to the US, finally dropping their possessions somewhere in the middle because they couldn’t bear to go on. No one could have invented me, out here almost at the tip of the American West, past vast plains and over impossible mountains, making dick jokes on the Internet.
Maybe I will do the Ancestry.com thing. The 23andMe analysis was my 32nd birthday present to myself, so maybe the Ancestry membership will be my 33rd. It’s possible that I will actually find something instead of the handful of names I already know and the grisly deaths that surround them. It’s possible that I’ll be able to track the origins of my actual genetic code with the places we were told we came from (for whatever reasons; considering the character of some of my ancestors, I can see why some of them may have been lie tellers).
Maybe I will find out that I am descended from a handful of brigands and criminals and other unsavory characters on one side, and a handful of stoic and steadfast laborers on another. Which would fit pretty well with my personality, come to think of it.