Category Archives: Ancestry

In Memoriam Of The Truth

 

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Deanne at her confirmation…

 

 

This post needs a preface. My last wife died suddenly over a decade ago. I was ten years older than she was. She came from a large family, one like so many others; dysfunctional and complicated. Deanne was the youngest of many siblings. Like so many of us, she made some terrible choices when she was younger. Her family mostly failed to adapt to the fact that she grew out of much of her youth. The church and religion were two separate entities in her mind. One, rooted in the practical and loving faith of her paternal grandmother in South Dakota, and the other, insistent on concealment and manipulation. Because of something that happened when she was young, Deanne’s appraisal of the church as a whole was marked by suspicion and lack of trust.

I posted this to Deanne’s ancestry records so that her truth would be preserved – and possibly outlive the revisionists who will read the words and be unable to resist lashing out against the truth I’ve shared. It’s uncomfortable hearing someone revise history or mischaracterize someone’s life. The purpose of my addition to Deanne’s posthumous biography isn’t to harm. The truth never harms unless those who hear it don’t wish to accept it.

 

Deanne Cordell was baptized in the Catholic church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Nov. 28th, 1976, when she was two days old. Much of both sides of her family were Catholic. As she often joked, “I didn’t have a say in whether I was baptized, but I have a say about going to church.” Deanne loved her paternal grandparents, especially her grandmother Jessie Gosmire Cordell. She admired her faith and the way she lived it. Deanne often talked about how much she wished that people could have an open, honest, and compassionate faith like her grandmother. As for most other people, she had an intense impatience with their hypocrisy and lack of compassion toward those in need or those making mistakes. She’d look back at their life and see all the craziness and wonder how they didn’t recognize themselves in the lives of others, even as they criticized them. It caused friction with many people in her life.

 

I have no way of knowing what she was referring to or whether it was about her own life, but she knew a girl who had experienced some kind of abuse at the hands of clergy. She said that the girl had told her mother about it and had been punished repeatedly for lying about the church. It had a substantial impact on her views about the church. I tried to circumspectly discover the identity of the girl in question over the years. “It’s not a part of my life now, so it doesn’t matter,” she’d say. I knew it mattered, though.

 

By the time Deanne was an adult, she had grown to dislike the church intensely. She was unhappy with church politics, its policies, and also the way it concerned itself more with public relations than honesty. As an adult, she only attended church when mass was part of a Catholic wedding or funeral. Otherwise, she preferred to live a secular life. A great deal of her dissatisfaction with the church was the way so many had responded to her choices in life, some of them with great anger and disapproval. She found no holiness in their attitudes.

 

Oddly enough, had she remained in South Dakota or moved back as an adult, to be nearer her grandmother, I know she would have attended church with her. Her grandmother was her connection to faith, while her own mother was the wedge that distanced her from it. Her grandmother never held religion as a weapon and certainly didn’t sharpen it at people’s expense. Deanne admired that relentlessly.

 

Before she died, she talked about how ridiculous some of her family member’s ideas regarding religion were. One in particular was regarding cremation. She was fond of pointing out that those with the strongest views about cremation seldom managed to pay for their choice before departing, leaving other family members to bicker about the issue. When my Uncle Raymond died about a month before Deanne, it allowed us to talk about her own choices. She thought her mom’s antiquated ideas about cremation and Catholicism were ridiculous. She was adamant that she wanted to be cremated and not buried or memorialized in a Catholic church or cemetery. She was equally adamant that her middle name not be used. Given that I had legally changed my name, it was one of her wishes that she eventually change hers, too, and rid herself of the name. We joked a lot about choosing an entirely different name for herself, as I had done. Given enough time, I’m certain that she would have and I think she would have chosen “D” or “DeDe” as her first name. I had made and placed hand-painted “D” letters in a couple of places in the place we lived.

 

In my commentary, I’ve held back from the overt negativity Deanne had toward the church. She struggled to come to terms with her own beliefs, as most of do. She also struggled with her mom’s attitudes about religion, as they seemed to trigger her distaste for religion like nothing else. I’d laugh and talk her down from being angry about it. It’s part of the reason I still sometimes wonder whether Deanne was the girl she knew who had the story to tell about clergy.

 

Deanne has living family who would vainly attempt to revise my recounting of her attitudes. I was closer to Deanne than any other person in her life. No one knew her as an adult as I did. I married her when she was 20 years old. She died at 31. Many thought of her as the “kid” of the large group of siblings and half-siblings. They carried their prejudices about her youth into her adulthood and often discounted her opinions about life, whereas I only began to know her when her adulthood was starting. I had no preconceptions.

 

In the last year of her life, I attended a variety of different churches, trying to find one which might be worthwhile, despite my agnosticism. Deanne wasn’t interested in joining me. She was, however, interested in what I had to say about religion and the things I learned. Much to the surprise of many of her family members, she knew a great deal more than they realized. Many were simply too busy ignorantly trying to correct her instead of listening.

 

I write this in part because a few people have remarked that she was Catholic. She most certainly was not Catholic, despite the revisionist wishful thinking of some of those who knew her. Whether it is fair or note, Deanne would have much preferred a world without the church, or organized religion at all. One thing is certain: she believed that anyone involved in a sex scandal at church should not only be exposed and punished, but anyone protecting those who did so should be doubly punished.

 

I have no agenda to hide the truth or tarnish her image. Truth is its own reward, even as it leaves a bitter taste in some mouths.

 

X Teri

 

 

 

It’s Personal, With Love

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This is not a Father’s Day post.

On the other hand, it is. I just found out this morning that my dad had another child. Were he still alive, he would have found out this morning, too – and I would have been the person telling him. Life is a series of kicks in the face.

All my life, I’ve resisted the revisionist tendencies of much of my family. I revolted against the idea of secrecy and shame. Each of us makes our own decisions and is responsible for the consequences. People misbehave and make terrible decisions.

For the first time, this morning, I wrote, “every person in my immediate family has struggled with the demons of alcohol, drugs, or violence.” Some of their stories weren’t mine to tell, even as the consequences boiled over and tainted my ability to live a good life. Over the last year, I learned that my brother, despite his stunning intelligence, has been a victim for much of his adult life. On the Terry side of my family, every person in my immediate family has led a double life. Many have died prematurely as a result. Just writing this paragraph might have earned a beating in the not-so-distant past. The revelation that some of us lead secret lives (or smaller lives) controlled by our lesser natures is one that seldom gets a warm embrace. We prefer to hide our shadows away from questioning eyes.

None of this is a secret. Everyone close to those family members knew, of course. That’s part of the corrosiveness of alcohol or addiction. Part of my adult fight was trying to reconcile the fact that so many people stood by on the sidelines and angrily pushed me away as I tried to be open and honest about my parents and their brutal hidden lives. It’s my story to tell because I have an equal right to share my steps.

Since I was little, I’ve joked that I must have brothers and sisters out in the world. My dad was unfaithful in every sense of the word. He had notorious affairs with several people. I knew that one day I would be able to say with certainty, “I told you so,” even as a couple of my aunts and uncles angrily told me to shut up. “You ought not to talk about that!” Equally true is the fact that my father ought not to have behaved that way. People close to me have heard me say that my genetics are an infection. I don’t say it with disrespect toward my brother and sister; it’s a fact that is sustained by the carnage of our lives.

Years ago, I started genealogy. I didn’t think it would be interesting to me, even though I love to research. It opened a world to me. I helped many people find lost loved ones, discover their birth certificates, and unlock countless mysteries. Many of those mysteries were buried – or so those involved foolishly thought. I participated in the DNA system early and with optimism. DNA is the blueprint of truth that people can’t control. It is the genie which relentlessly tells us the truth, despite what those who preceded us might have written as history. Alongside DNA, I began to discover the historical record that buttressed my claims about my past. Much of the record contained people’s accounts of crime, abuse, violence and sometimes proud moments. Several of my aunts and uncles died before I compiled a record that would make them wince.

History devours all of us incrementally.

As the unofficial family historian, I’ve never shied from directly admitting what happened behind closed doors. It’s caused some discomfort and anger.

And so…

After years of relentless diligence, it finally happened: through DNA, I discovered that I have a half-sister out in the world. This discovery just happened. It’s raw and fresh in my mind. I can’t imagine what my half-sister is experiencing. I have a million questions, of course. Luckily for her, she can use my ancestry treasures and written accounts to jump right into the lives that she wasn’t able to experience. I warned her that demons possessed my father. I’m not one to gloss over the terrain that makes people uncomfortable. I’ve given my dad a long eulogy, one punctuated by bitter truth.

Her mom was very young when she was with my dad. The liaison happened in the early 70s after my dad was in prison and had returned to Monroe County, Arkansas. He’d barely survived a DWI accident that killed my cousin. I know nothing about my new half-sister’s mother or other family. It’s probably best at this point as she comes to terms with unintentionally finding an entire family in the world.

I don’t have all the details. Part of the uncertainty is that the woman in question didn’t expect to ‘find’ relatives, much less someone like me with a full arsenal of DNA results and extensive family history for her. I don’t even know her name yet.

Ironically, I found confirmation on Father’s Day, a holiday that was no more real than a unicorn in my family. My dad died over 25 years ago. He would laugh. Whether that makes him human or a monster I’m not sure.

I am both confused and happy. Most of my glee is for my half-sister who found the road she was seeking. What she does with it is entirely her choice. That’s entirely the point of DNA and family history. None of us had a choice regarding who brought us to this world, and many of us would desperately love to be able to change those choices. It’s not our fault. Whether our parents were doctors or assassins, we are guiltless in our existence.

I wish I could grant amnesty to all those children who grow up feeling responsible for the people behind them.

For those of you who have good families, it probably seems a bit exotic to think about these situations. Many of us flee in self-protection from our family. All of us would prefer the warm embrace of people who value and love us. Unfortunately, much of the world operates on a stranger wavelength.

It’s no insult to say that my original sister and I are incompatible. I’m not one for anger, drama, and instability. It might make her angry to see this truth written out – but it is true in a way that no one can deny. As for my brother, he wisely moved away when he was younger. Over the years, our connection lessened. A few years ago, we went through an intense and disruptive episode that broke something in me. I didn’t know at the time how much he was suffering from addiction. I knew but didn’t ‘know,’ much in the way that each of us later wonders how all of us avoided connecting the painful dots.

Now that the day has come that I might have a connection to another sister, it is news that I can’t share meaningfully. Mom and dad are both dead. My sister is in exile for my sanity, and my brother is struggling merely to live another year.

You might say, “None of that is your place to say, X.” You’re wrong, though. I have earned the right.

I don’t know what, if anything, will come of my discovery of a new half-sister. I wish my brother Mike were in his right mind, though. We share a deep and incisive bond of dark humor and irony. Since he’s been at the brink of death, he has passed a lot of time with me recounting the old stories. Shared history acquires a more profound meaning when you realize that your time in it is diminishing rapidly. In the last few months, Mike has read all my family lore and stories and relished them. He knows how strongly the gravity of what we came from has affected us.

I hope that my new half-sister waits a long time to meet my original sister. While I am by no means able to claim normalcy, I’m foolishly confident that I am the best ambassador to the family.

To anyone reading this, I hope each resists the urge to ‘find’ my new half-sister. She gets the right to decide when or if she opens the door. I wish her peace regardless of her timeline.

To the new half-sister I don’t even know by name, I wish that Father’s Day were one of joy for you. I wish that life had been different for us all and that all of us could sit at a table and wonder about what might have been. Each paid the price of our common ancestor. We never stop paying.

We also never stop hoping, though, either, not if we share a common humanity.

History Seldom Stays Silent

01 feb 1967 and other for dad combined

 

This post is personal. Read at your own discretion.
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I’m not quite sure what precipitated some of my revelations this week. Gears clicked and connections snapped together in so many different places. I felt like Rainman as a few things which had previously been a block for me fell away. Not only was I able to help several other people, but I also used my luck to take another stab at some of my own history.
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I found a few things which I’ll process and write about later. Some of them are dark and some are simply crazy. A few of my ancestry leads broke open, too. A couple of people are going to have to rethink who they think they are who they think they come from. I’ll take this opportunity to remind everyone that while we are not our DNA, it is the tenuous and undeniable connection that belies our ancestry and heritage. I’ve made some discoveries which I’ve never shared with anyone; once told they are no longer ideas to be held, but burdens which cannot be forgotten. All of us have our internal history, the one which we know to be true – but often isn’t.
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Regarding one of my most personal finds this week, I only found them because I had helped someone find a bit of information. I wrote, “Start your inquiry in the simplest way possible.” Easy words to write but hard to live by. Starting simple is exactly like attempting to tell a story without drawing an entirely new and complex roadmap in the middle of the story as we tell it. We are so impatient for the people in our lives to get to the point and yet some of us are enraptured by the presence of a story well-told, filled with wrinkles, and the destination unclear.
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And so, in a matter of minutes, I found news articles in Indiana regarding some of my dad’s run-ins with the law. There was more than one, I discovered. I’ve been told that my dad left Arkansas because he had family in Indiana, which is true. The myth is that he had exhausted the good-ole-boy network in Monroe County, Arkansas and needed a clean break. Like in most rural Southern places, it was possible to run amok without real consequence in Monroe County, all the way to mayhem and sometimes murder. I do know that my Grandmother Terry exerted a great deal of pull in a continual attempt to keep my dad from being held accountable for the hell-raising that he always found himself in. My dad’s father James died in early 1964, and shortly before my oldest sibling was born.
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The story of all this is a massive tapestry shared by countless people. Some know more of it than others, especially the older generation, the one succumbing to death with greater urgency. Others, the younger generation, are unaware of much of the tapestry, as ideas like family honor, secrecy and shame shielded them from being aware in the first place. I’ve unevenly kept my post through the last few years, honing in on some truths. Some I’ve cemented rightfully into the record because I was able to find sources other than those affected by dubious family loyalty.
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That same misplaced loyalty to protect my dad served as an umbrella for him through much of his life. It enveloped him and encouraged many of my paternal relatives to shamefully look away as he engaged in a long series of brutally violent and alcohol-fueled crimes against his wife and children. (And society.)
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Alcoholism is one of the few diseases that infects others with an inability to see and hear clearly. Alcohol coupled with anger or violence demands a collective and permanent bout of amnesia. Once initiated, this voluntary amnesia makes everyone an accomplice.
I’m relieved that I’ve learned to place this idea in a tidy descriptive box like that because it makes it more palatable and relatable. People get really angry when they are reminded that they allowed children to be abused.
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My dad’s family silently stood by, almost always pretending to not see it, nor the symptoms of pathology that it engendered in myself, my brother and my sister. It is a miracle that we survived. It’s a greater miracle that I did not see fit to murder him while I had the chance, or that another family member didn’t light his bed on fire in the dark of night. Throughout my early life, I constantly heard, “We don’t talk about that.” Or, “Shame on you! He’s your dad.” The latter would be hurled at me through tightly-bound lips, spitting the obvious anger all over me, even as the person saying the words could see the dark purple and yellow bruises from my ankles to my neck. I can’t fathom how many children went to church with the hard wooden pews pressing against the trail of agony on their legs and back, wondering when the mercy would flow toward them.
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“Only the spoon knows what is stirring in the pot,” is an old saying to remind us that situations are complicated and look different from the outside. It’s easy for normal people to jump to their dad’s defense, (or mine) on the pretense of biology. It’s easy for some to expect me not only to forgive, which I have done – yet for some, they also insanely demand that I not use my voice to share my experiences. It is possible to share simply because the story of our lives is interesting to us. As we tell it, we learn things anew.
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“Bobby Dean was a good man,” some would say. No, he was not.
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By any objective measure and any accounting, he was not good. In his defense, he had his shining moments, as everyone does – and I remember those with fondness. To any family member asking me to focus only on those shining moments, I remind them that not all monsters have fangs. Some of them are in the PTA and engage in all manner of horrors.
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Years ago, Dad helped organize a fish fry to help someone with medical bills. It was truly a good effort with real consequence. A family member used it angrily against me as an example to support their ignorant thesis that my dad was a good man beneath it all. I acknowledged that it was indeed a good act, but that terrible people live lives of mostly normal constancy. I then shocked and angered the family member by saying, “Is that man good if he broke a rake across my back so violently that I peed blood for a week, or beat my mom so hard with a pistol that he broke her nose? Killed someone? Went to prison for multiple crimes?” As I talked, the man’s face became crimson. “And anyone who let him do it is as guilty as he is.” He stomped away.
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As my ability to comb the past has grown, I’ve assembled a larger picture of my dad. The more I learn about his life, the more sympathy I see for his trajectory. His arc was cruelly bent at an early age and he chose not to deviate from its perpetual fall. The responsibility is his and his alone, though, just as my impatience in my own personal life has led me to some dark moments. I, however, didn’t have children; my ownership of the defective biology that flowed through my dad now dies with me. I’m being literal. Whatever dad had lurked in his DNA.
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As I do with everyone, I say that almost everything we do when young can be forgiven. Most of us are simply stupid when younger. After a certain point, it becomes an issue of either willfulness or pathology. Beating your wife and kids to the point of risking murder is a great example of this, if using half your income to buy alcohol and cigarettes isn’t. Everything must be weighed against youthful ignorance and the long totality of a person’s life. Accumulated choices and consequences allow us to characterize someone in a way that singular mistakes cannot.
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I’d also been reluctantly told that my dad was only guilty of being in the getaway car at a truck stop robbery on Highway 20 in Indiana. Based on the evidence I’ve been able to uncover, he wasn’t just “there.” What I wasn’t told, however, was that he had also committed other crimes, including burglary, while he was in Indiana. He was younger than I had been told, which had hampered my ability to accurately research. I had to indirectly ask questions, usually when people had been drinking. My head was filled with a million untruths, half-truths, misdirection.
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My dad was sentenced to prison in Indiana the month before I was born. I was the last child, the baby, and the second-born son, and through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, was branded with his name upon my birth in Brinkley, Arkansas. Some of my dad’s misfortune benefitted me, as during one long portion, I lived with my Grandma and Grandpa Cook. I’ve long suspected that Dad’s incarceration in another state might have saved my life, and most probably the life of my mother.
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As you all know, I later rejected my birth name entirely and yet credit my grandparents with the part of me that I find myself prideful of. Names don’t contain the essence of a person. My Grandpa would have never wrapped his head around my choice of name in “X,” but he would have leaned in and hugged me with his arm around me on the porch swing and laughed at my foolishness. He would have known why without being told. His eyes had seen a lot of human misery and recognized the stale indifference that often overpowered my dad. When I was young, Grandpa often said, “Don’t be afraid of things on four legs. It’s the ones on two that will get you.” In the rural area we lived, critters and creatures constantly came to visit, often stealthily and seen through the darkened screen of an open window on a blistering night. Years later, I felt as if Grandpa were talking about my dad. He rarely had words with my mom and dad, but several of the instances were warnings to stop mistreating their kids, and me in particular.
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So it came to pass that this week, on a whim,  I found the first article from Indiana in less than 2 minutes, after years of haphazard and dedicated digging. Dad started small and then went big with his nascent crime career in Indiana. I indexed the articles so that future interested parties might find the articles more easily.
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It’s worth noting that regardless of my dad’s official criminal record, he killed a cousin of mine while drinking and driving, (Which I recently found a mention of in a newspaper. Another tidbit that I literally just discovered is that my dead cousin’s father was related to the county sheriff.)
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My dad was quite the adept arsonist and managed to be involved in almost all the petty and felonious no-nos on the books, whether it involved guns, marijuana, VIN displacement, DWI, domestic violence, or assault. When the Springdale City Attorney went to prison for DWI-fixing, you can be sure that my parent’s names figured prominently in that accounting.
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Because the truth reaches places I hadn’t expected, I now know that a few other rumors I had heard in screaming and bloody episodes in the deep of night as bones gave way to furniture are probably true. Words I didn’t have context for now have meaning and their incoherence has slithered away, leaving behind a freshly-washed sidewalk for me to examine.
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I say none of this with shame; his life was his own.
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I have more than paid the price for his presence in my life. For anyone who has read my mind by reading my words over the years, you know that I’ve worked hard to extract the useful parts of my dad’s life, too. I’ve not turned my back on the whole person. A story I wrote earlier this year was read by thousands of people. It was a story of my dad as a whole, imperfect person, written through his eyes. I understand much of dad’s pathology now. I owed him a demonstration that I could see him as a human being.
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I’m not bitter, but I will confess that the sharpest lemonade is akin to water to my taste in part due to my dad.
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There have been times in which people have incredulously asked me about some of my stories. “That can’t be true!” someone will say.
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It’s true I sometimes get the details wrong, but I assure you that I try to get it right. I’m the only one out here on the limb of my family tree doing the time and attempting to share my part of the story. Not all stories are of youthful summer mornings on the porch with my Grandpa Willie.
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Where I err in detail, I strike a chord in truth.
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All these decades later, I’m amused that I get the final say. I read, I ponder, and I consider. The scarring I have is my friend, one which whispers in my ear as I put words on paper.
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Recently, I’ve been able to talk openly with someone who is familiar with the tornado of my youth. He’s shared some stories, many of them I couldn’t remember. In the past, he might have been the one to silence my family’s critics, as his family loyalty was ingrained into him in a way that it never was with me. His advancing age and experiences in the world finally gave him permission to detach and tell the overlapping stories of our youth. I thought that it would have been my cousin Jimmy, but cancer silenced him a few years ago. During a conversation last week, I could only imagine the storytelling if Jimmy were alive to join in. Here we are though, with our myths, certainties and acquired perspective, wondering how many unpleasant ripples our own choices might have made in life.
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Before parting, I’d like to mention that there’s another sinister chapter in my dad’s life, one which I don’t feel is my story to tell. It is a mirrored hall of horrors. I’ve circled its fringes with curiosity for a time; I doubt that I’ll ever claim ownership to the story. That I believe the chapter of his life is true reflects on the chasm that my dad punched and beat into me. I sometimes creep up to the bloody edge of it and recoil. It is the darkest of possible secrets. I guard it closely, knowing that those who would disagree with the assessment of dad would cringe and run if I were to shout it to them in reply their foundationless defense of a man long dead. I know that others walking in this world have their stories. Their silence is astounding to me. It is theirs to guard, though.
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A Living History Focused In a Moment

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In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.

It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.

As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.

As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.

A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.

He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.

Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.

Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.

He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.

The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.

38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.

His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.

If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.

I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.

I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.

Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.

Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.

The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.
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DNA and the Golden State Killer

In regards to the Golden State Killer being identified by using genealogy indexing, this is an area where I have experience. I’ve written so much about privacy over the years that I forget that people have an unusual and mistaken perception of their own privacy. DNA is the universal math of identification. Like our fingerprints, we leave it everywhere we go and transmit it through our intimate family web. To believe that we will one day not have a database of every living person’s DNA is to ignore the pull and push of history. The same arguments against DNA indexing are the same as those once used to push back against fingerprinting.
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In those cases where I have tracked down missing fathers and absent family members, DNA would have immediately unlocked those doors.
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I don’t ‘worry’ about my genetic profile being misused because I understand that it is already something out of my control, much like my identity and credit history. Before you accuse me of it, I will agree that I’m decently ignorant about some of the ramifications.
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DNA unlocks the lies and misconceptions we have about our own family trees and the mechanics of our biology. Genealogy was already sufficiently fascinating for me prior to the DNA component; now, it is ethereal and scientific magic, opening doors and both answering and asking questions about what we think we know.
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For years, I’ve predicted the scenario such as the Golden State Killer breakthrough.
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For anyone related to me, you can relax. They already have our entire genetic code. Like with most puzzles, a relatively small sample size of the populace is enough to identify everyone. Even if you don’t ‘choose’ to share your DNA profile, statistically it is almost a meaningless decision on your part. It’s difficult to be able to piece together the math and science of this truth and even more frustrating to find a way to like it if you find yourself in disagreement.
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The services I used don’t sell or transmit my genetic profile without my consent, which is more than I can say for other companies I’ve dealt with. Most people are unaware just how often they might consent to DNA indexing or sharing, especially when dealing with clinics, hospitals, or insurance companies.
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When the Facebook hyperbole surfaced, I cringed at people’s over-reactions. Google, for instance, maintains massively larger databases about all of us, yet receives much less press for it. During the data breach at Equifax, most people simply didn’t understand what had happened. It certainly didn’t stop Congress from rewarding Equifax with an exclusive contract with the federal government.
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Your DNA, like your fingerprints and credit history, is already ‘out there,’ beyond your control.
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I have several concerns, of course, but know that my personal opinion won’t divert the trends already beyond my reach. Right now, I am grinning a satisfied grin, knowing that what I predicted for years finally happened.

Another Nostalgic Surprise

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Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.

A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.

My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.

As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.

The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…

P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.
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Family History is Literally What I Choose To Make It

This post has no point, no moral or objective. It’s just a fact.

My paternal grandmother had just turned 14 when she was married. When she married, my grandfather was much older than her. Grandmother had just turned 14 and although she needed a signatory to marry, even the marriage license states she was older than was true.

Even in Arkansas, it seems, people were always concerned about a scandal. When I was very young, I knew my dad wasn’t in Alaska, even though he told me this more as a drunken joke than an explanation. He was in prison in Indiana, for what amounted to a minor crime compared to a few things he had done, one of which resulted in someone’s premature demise. The amusing thing is that my Grandmother Terry was petrified of gossip about her and her family.

I’ve written from time to time about it and other family stories. Like so much of the family lore, I learned of the existence of hidden secrets via hushed silences, sideways glances, and anger when direct questions were asked.

As I grew older, I knew that one day research and DNA would ‘out’ much of the stories some family members didn’t to be revealed. Most of those family members have died, leaving a tantalizing list of questions that might never be answered.

But I do know this: much of what made them nervous under scrutiny were legitimately embarrassing stories and behavior. Their refusal to be honest is a much bigger problem than anything they tried to conceal.

Lately, I’ve seen so many stories which skirt the edges of my grandmother’s story. Some of the same people who seem shocked by the revelations in the public realm are the very same who worked so tirelessly to conceal the truth in my family’s foggy past. They “cluck” at others, all the while knowing their own past is littered with much worse.

Isn’t that the way it always seems to be?

The danger some of my departed family seems to not understand is that by failing to divulge some of the family secrets, they have left their legacy in the hands of someone like me.

If I don’t get answers, I’ll make it up, based on what most likely happened. Given the trajectory of what I do know, that gives me license to go in any direction, no matter how dire, without possible complaint from those who constantly shouted, “Hush!” at me.

Family history, it seems, is literally what I choose to make it.

September’s Ancestors

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I’m not sure how meaningful my words might be, coming from someone who loathes the idea of burial but loves cemeteries and their connections to history. It’s a cliché to point out they serve as reminders to us, in part because we so seldom feel the urgency they offer. When we do, it is usually because we feel the icy fingers of oblivion as subtle symptoms in our bodies or when it reaches out to visit someone in our private circle.

On rare occasions,  people we’ve never even met get a moment of remembrance, as is the case with this story.

As is frequently the case of late I found myself with a few stolen moments and chose to walk a long serpentine path along Huntsville in Springdale. As I walked along, I looked up and noticed I was approaching a cemetery that I had not visited in probably 20 years and certainly not since the road had been widened. The last time I had been there, almost everything about Huntsville was awaiting transformation into a multicultural artery on that side of town. Normally I would have walked past, my eyes gauging the sights as I moved on. Perhaps in part to the relative chill in the September air and the declining sunlight, I instead turned and opened the latch to enter the shady cemetery grounds. It then it occurred to me that I had just researched someone laid to rest there. So with a little more anticipation, I walked the outside perimeter and without even searching happened upon the graves I had seen in my genealogy searches.

I found Daniel Lemke’s headstone. He was born on the eastern edge of Poland, in a small place named Chelm, almost into Ukraine. He came to the U.S. in 1901 and chose Wisconsin as his first home here. His son Martin Julius was born there and moved to Northwest Arkansas 70 years ago. Daniel died 72 years ago, or 27,317 days ago. His son passed 14 years ago, some 5,455 days ago.

I find it difficult to put myself in the place of someone who would travel so far around the world to land in an unknown place, with new exotic words to learn. It’s fitting that Daniel’s great-grandson would find himself in a similar situation, on another part of the planet, forging an entirely new life for himself. I imagine, though, that these places here in Northwest Arkansas have a pull on his heart. He can always return here and sit by the fire, remembering his life on the other side of the world.

While it’s likely that my path crossed with Martin in the way that almost all proximate lives do, a complex intertwining mesh of ‘almost,’ I don’t have any claim to knowing his presence. But thanks to the prism of time, I can see where his path led and look back through the footprints of those who came after him. Because of him, I learned of a place called Chelm and its part in history. I wonder how much our footprint will be memorable and not simply because of our safe choices.

I think that sometimes history’s bell rings more deeply when the hour grows later and the air turns chill. The grass inside the cemetery grounds was bright green, still waiting for the arrival of frost mornings. There’s something about these times and these moments.

It was a pleasant sensation to be standing in such a contemplative place, thinking back to the lives of people unknown to me. As the busy avenue continued unabated behind me, I alone possessed the refuge of that cemetery, even as it possessed me.

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Recognizing The Past In My Mirror

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When some of us were younger, we watched a TV commercial hawking Time-Life books. In the ad, it would say, “John Wesley Hardin, so mean he once shot a man for snoring.” In my context, I want you to renew your memory of that ad and consider it a consummate and fair assessment of what could have easily been said about my mother. In any comparison involving her, the other person would be just a novice in the game of unexpected words of reprimand. If my mom’s words could have been loaded into a pistol, Monroe County would have looked like a Wild West shootout. She didn’t need a concealed carry permit because the proclivity to give verbal lashes negated the want or necessity of a firearm.
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A smart man once said that part of getting old consists of recognizing the influence of your parents that drove you bonkers coming to roost in your own mirror. My mom of course would have told that man to “Sit down and shut up with your highfalutin nonsense,” but I think it’s true that some of our legacy is to be startled by the overlap between the essential “me” in the mirror and our parents.
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Today would have been my mom’s 70th birthday. As hard as she lived, all of us are still in collective and mutual wonder that she survived as long as she did. I’m not one to revel in these milestone dates. I fight the tendency to succumb to some of her personality proclivities often – and often fail. But I should have channeled her more fully today because one thing she unabashedly did without reflection was to tell a SOB that he was an SOB – even if said SOB was standing on the pulpit for Sunday service. If she was in the mood, she might even throw her beer at him, after using a hurled cigarette to gauge wind trajectory. (Because wasting beer was one of the few Southern sins that everyone joked about – but seemed to be very serious when they repeated it.)
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My mom had flaws. Looking back, I now romanticize some of those moments where she witnessed an SOB in action and without warning served him a walloping dose of universal surprised justice. It made for great comedy and/or horrific drama at the time, and it served as a safety valve for the rest of us as we both laughed and recoiled, all the while promising to NEVER do or say the things she did. Bearing witness to her creative use of shocking reprisal allowed us to forego the weakness in our own lives. We might fantasize about it, but giving those loony ideas life would usually be unimaginable. I have an arsenal of stories about her ferocity.
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The majesty of the past so often develops more fully as we age because we can forget the intense immediate pain that once joined with memories. It is almost a beckoning call, soothing.
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The events of recent weeks have exposed my mortal flaw to want to dish out a heaping pile of burning crow with greater frequency. Usually, I might note ahead or behind her birthday that it is approaching or receding from me for another year. In this year of apparent great tribulation, each day that I laugh and remember my mom’s example, it allows me to walk away without flicking a cigarette, followed by a beer, into the tumultuous melee of unmitigated plates of crow, faces unwillingly smashed into large avian chunks of unwanted deliciousness. If I am not diligent and careful, I will be the old man on the porch with a satchel of small rocks ready to be hurled at uncooperative and misfit kids in my yard.
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Were mom alive, she would roll her eyes and say “Use shorter words, you ain’t impressing anyone.” She might cuss at me a bit, but in time, she would laugh and repeat the very things she had previously sworn weren’t true.
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PS: I am not sure there is a moral to this story. But it certainly gets supplanted by the admission of my shortcoming.

An Ancestry Reminder

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(The picture is of my 3rd great grandfather David Blackshear.)

After doing a few dozen ancestry trees, adding thousands of people to world tree projects, as well as DNA authentication, it is more apparent than ever how intertwined most of us really are. Farmers, royalty, singers, presidents and poets – all of us have them in our past. And no matter what you think you know about your family, it is probably both full of myth and stories infinitely more fascinating than you might imagine. Even at 5,000 years into the past, 200+ generations survived long enough to have a family. Without a doubt, you are related to both the violinist in the orchestra and the child playing the banjo in Deliverance.