Meeting my sister answered so many questions. Not all of them, though. Expecting complete answers at any stage of your life is a denial of the fact that as we change, the same answers can ring hollow or fail to give us satisfaction. We often don’t understand our motives or what led us to those choices, even regarding our own lives. Usually, the simple answer is “nothing.” You might be comforted by realizing such a thing. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that our lives might be a game of pinball, with our choices volleying us across an almost random field. Careful observation of other people’s lives tends to reinforce it, though.
Isn’t it strange that we stridently ask and demand explanations and answers from those who preceded us, even though we well know that there may not be a reason that falls blithely to our hearts?
When we’re young, we falsely believe that the adults and people in our lives somehow have a magic formula for safety and love. Growing up exposes us to the harsh alchemy of people being people, making mistakes, and quite often winging it. In my case, I should stop surprising myself with revelations. At this point, almost any combination of things may be valid. It took me until I was 52 – and in the face of constant argument – to find out that my Dad not only had fathered another child but that he had done so with a girl much younger than he and from a different background. For those of you who understand my hometown’s circumstances, this alone gives ample berth to find credibility in any rumor or suspicion.
It might explain why Dad decided to move everyone to Springdale and Northwest Arkansas for a new life. After he went to Indiana and ended up in prison, he returned to Monroe County to stay. Whether he would farm, be a mechanic, or work one of several other jobs available, he made it clear he was back to stay.
Now, thanks to DNA and an ongoing decision to keep looking, I’ve changed the narrative of how I came to live in this part of the state. Much of my adult life revolves around terrible misbehavior on the part of my Dad. Knowing that I live here due to it changes nothing. Yet, it does make me think about the spiderweb of cause and effect.
In the summer of 1972, we packed up and moved to Northwest Arkansas. It was probably August, not long before school started.
I am convinced that we moved in 1972 primarily because my missing sister was born in May of that year.
If I heard rumors of her when I was younger, they would have been snippets of angry revelation from my Mom or others, probably during a drunken tirade. I did hear hypothetical insinuations, but I don’t recall concrete accusations. Such a truth would have certainly caused a homicide between my Mom and Dad. I have to admit the possibility, though. The existence of my new sister in itself proves that we are all unreliable witnesses to our lives. I used that concept of ‘unreliable witness’ on one of my first blog posts about genealogy. We will never have all the facts of our lives coherently arranged. We can’t trust our memories, much less those around us, who actively conceal and camouflage their lives for one reason or another.
I lived most of my life suspecting that my new sister was out there in the world. She lived most of her life without the answers that could have given her the ability to understand herself better. It wasn’t her choice, but she paid the price and consequences of not knowing. I hate that for her.
I don’t know how life would have looked had Dad been honest with everyone about having another child. He died in 1993, another lifetime ago. My sister was around 21, and I was about 26. His shame or inability to acknowledge his indiscretion robbed other people of a fuller life. I can’t understand how a man who beat his wife and children, went to prison, and killed someone in a DWI accident would have difficulty saying he had another daughter. This is doubly true after his Mom died on May 21st, 1983. My sister turned eleven years old the next day.
I wish that people could be open to the complexity of their lives.
Were it my choice, all of y’all who know me well also know that I am no fan of concealment. We’ve done it, said it, and lived it, precisely in the same way that my Dad and others did before we came along. In the future, our descendants will whisper, pry, and discover. You may as well give the painful answers now if you find yourself in any way in the role of a secret keeper.
Somewhere, there is another me, looking for answers and wishing that my sister didn’t have to spend so many years without her truth being exposed.
I wish. For me, for you, for us all.
Let’s all shine the lights in whatever direction they are needed.
On Father’s Day 2019, I discovered that my ancestry and DNA quest had not been in vain: I found a sister (or we found each other), one whose existence defied any possible expectation. We didn’t meet initially – and then the pandemic struck. We both survived 2020. So, ironically, we met for the first time on New Year’s Day. While y’all were eating black-eyed peas, I was meeting a reflection of myself and wondering about the spectacle of life and how decisions made five decades ago continue to reach forward. Unlike other parts of my life, this has been a reward, one welcomed by both of us. How we got here was the result of other people’s decisions. We still have questions, though one of which is no longer what we might be like in person: Carolyn is as kind, witty, and outgoing as I could hope.
When Carolyn arrived, I discovered that I had met my match for the longest hug ever. I’m also not the baby of the family any longer. I kept telling her that I saw Aunt Barbara is so much of her mannerisms and look, which compliments everyone involved.
It’s incredible how good-looking we both are, isn’t it? 🙂 Due to Carolyn’s presence next to me in the pictures, I realize how much of my Dad’s devil-may-care attitude is reflected in me. I’m still wondering how it is possible that Carolyn is my sister.
I also met her youngest son, who tolerated our hours of catching up on 48 years of missed lifetime as we sat, talked, and pondered into the night.
When I was younger, I suspected that I might have family in the world. I’m still amazed that I kept the hope into my 50s – especially to find someone who seems to be a bit like me, even if she got there from an opposite path.
This strange, strange world holds a few surprises still.
Carolyn and I are the two truths; the lie is that love and truth can be concealed, even in a world convoluted by people’s inability to tell their stories due to fear, shame, or for some other human reason that eludes definition.
Though it isn’t a contest, I am convinced that I won the New Year’s Day contest for the most rewarding.
P.S. You might wait until we hear Carolyn’s opinion; you’d have to be crazy to accept mine without corroboration.
As the drive to pass along one’s bloodline and family name increases, so too does the unintended likelihood that many of the ancestors involved were adopted or the result of a union outside the official tree. AKA: The Macho Bloodline Conundrum.
* Having worked with many family trees, I can say without hesitation that this is more likely to be the rule rather than the exception. Behavior and decisions were much more easily overlooked or concealed in the past; DNA has eliminated many of these variables, especially in the last 4 generations of family. Through the span of history, however, every family tree tends to have many dead limbs and invisible branches.
I know most of you know that a lot of people reach out to me and share personal stories. Most of them who do so respond to my fling-it-to-the-wall method of personal sharing, I’ve yet to find a single person who doesn’t have a couple of jaw-dropping stories.
In the last year, I would say the strangest and most incredible story someone shared with me was the one shared by a woman about her sister, thought to have died during birth – but was actually stolen by a doctor here in Northwest Arkansas and given to a well-to-do family.
A while back, I wrote a post about not using a clothes iron. (I also don’t own anything that requires dry cleaning, either.) It was a little piece of fun writing. Shortly after, I received a note from someone who told me an interesting story. As with the baby-stealing doctor, I was fascinated but was held to secrecy regarding the people involved. She told me she couldn’t think about irons of any kind without thinking about her grandmother.
Here it is, with some redaction:
My grandmother was born dirt-poor. She didn’t really know what her birthday was because she was born between fields. Her great-aunt told her she was born in 1912. She remembered it was the year that Wilson won the presidency and that it was a leap year. The leap year fact stuck in her head because her uncles kept joking that they had been given an extra day to work. Everyone in her family worked the fields and farms, no matter how old they were. Until WWI, they barely survived. My grandmother Edna remembered her father going to serve along with his two brothers. Only one brother returned alive. His name was Henry, and he was an alcoholic and a violent man. Even though Edna was only 8 or 9, she knew she had to hide from Henry when he was drunk. Her mom Ethel married Henry to survive. Four children were too many to care for.
When she was 12, Edna was working as an adult woman. She spent her days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and working in the fields. Her other sister worked with her and neither went to school past the 4th grade. After a late-night of drinking, Henry came home and grabbed Edna. He later claimed he didn’t know it was Edna rather than Ethel. Edna fought and clawed until Henry collapsed on the floor. He broke several of her fingers during the fight. Her mom fixed her fingers on the back porch but offered no consolation or words of compassion for her daughter. Years later, she found out that her mom had been abused by someone for several years. The fact melted her heart and turned most of her anger to bittersweet understanding.
Weeks later, Edna hatched a plan to get rid of Henry. She stoked the stove in the living room with more firewood late in the evening instead of letting it burn down to ashes. She put one of the fire-irons into the red coals and closed the stove door as much as possible. After all the lanterns were extinguished in the two rooms used for sleeping, she lay awake, waiting. Before too long, she could hear Henry’s raucous snoring from the room next to hers and her siblings. She climbed from the sunken bed and walked across the freezing-cold floorboards of the cheaply-constructed shotgun house. She searched in the dark for the clothes she’d arranged under the dresser, tucked out of sight. All the doors creaked like the floor as she passed through.
As she entered the living room, she listened to the crack of the stove and the wind-up clock behind her.
Before losing her nerve, she used three rags to pull the red-hot fire-iron from the stove. Walking quickly, she went into the room where Henry and her mom Ethel slept. Henry’s snoring told her he was asleep. Before she could talk herself out of it, Edna pulled back the thick covers from Henry. She put the fire-iron, tip down, across his stomach and legs, as best as she could manage in the dark. She threw the covers back on top of her stepfather. In a few seconds, the snoring stopped, and then a loud scream erupted from Henry. She couldn’t see him grab the iron, but he screamed again, probably as he grabbed the brutally hot iron with a bare hand. A loud thud hit the wood floor. Her mom Ethel began to shout, asking what was wrong. Back in those days, the bedrooms didn’t have light bulbs, or if they did, they were a single hanging bulb awkwardly danging in the middle of the room in shotgun houses. You had to get up and relight the lantern. Her mom, still hollering, shuffled around and struggled to light one of the long matches next to the oil lantern on the table across from the bed. She managed to light the lantern and turn the wick up. As she turned to see what had happened, she saw her daughter Edna standing by the door with her hand over her mouth. Henry was gasping and clawing at his stomach and lower half. The iron had burned away his underclothes from just below his belly button to his upper right leg. Edna had misjudged the iron a little bit; otherwise, Henry would have been reminded of her each time he went to the bathroom. He looked as if he’d been burned by an absurd branding iron.
As Edna looked at Henry writhing in pain, she knew he’d never abuse anyone again. She also knew she couldn’t stay. She ran out of the house into the cold night. She didn’t go back. A second cousin offered to let her stay with her if she agreed to work with her at the store she and her husband owned a town over.
The sheriff visited Edna a few days after she moved. “Henry isn’t pressing charges. What did he do to you to make you do that to him?” The sheriff seemed as if he suspected. “What did he tell you?” Edna asked.
“He didn’t say much, other than he didn’t ever want to see you again.” The sheriff shook his head and left. “I expect you won’t be causing any more trouble, will you?” Edna shook her head “no.”
Edna’s new family immediately started referring to the incident as “the incident.” Before long, they jokingly referred to her by the nickname “Incident.” A few months later, Edna’s sister moved to live with her. Both sisters were adopted in the family and started attending school again. Though they didn’t go to court, as people often didn’t do in those days, they changed their names to honor their new family.
Both sisters became teachers and lived their lives without further felonious undertakings.
The woman who wrote me told me she discovered the story after doing a DNA test. Luckily for her, some of the surviving family shared all their stories with her, several of which she’s written for everyone to share.
As with the stolen baby story that happened here in Arkansas, the fascinating details aren’t mine to share. If it were my story, I would proudly tell it as a story of a woman who figured out that sometimes fire is a better solution than words or hope.
When I posted this story, I didn’t expect the invisible mob to approach me. It’s easy to skip over my stories if you don’t want to see them. Anyone not wanting to read what I have to say can easily avoid it. For most people, I’m a forgotten planet on the edge of the universe. If you’ve found me and continue to find me just to gnash your teeth, you should take more effort to stop looking for me.
It was amusing to see people assume they knew who I was talking about. That underscores my insistence that people only see what they want to see. Their own preconceptions mislead them into assumptions. Their defensive responses based on these errors tell me a lot about how they are wired and what goes on in their heads versus the persona they present to us.
This story is not about my siblings. It’s not about my paternal uncle. If it were, I would say so, especially now that I was attacked for people’s wrong assumptions about it. To be clear, I’ve been guilty of the same type of jumping to conclusions. It’s driven me to cause a couple of people needless harm. I tried to make up for it. While they might have forgiven my stupidity, they probably remember that I was a jerk needlessly to them.
I’ve waited a while to share it.
We all have people in our lives who have dark secrets. Many people would choose a miserable life over truth and honesty. They fear that the concealed darkness they protect will somehow consume them. The opposite is true: secrets, especially family secrets, only gain their power by our complicity. Children grow up to recognize the disconnect between what they’ve experienced and the story that follows them in life. Most maintain the charade of silence because it is safer. Silence seldom draws much ire or criticism. If we all consciously chose to avoid making ourselves prisoners to our secrets, we’d be happier. As with anything personal, there will always be people who ‘know,’ ones you interact with who are running their own truthline in their heads as they talk to you.
Although I can’t be sure who led him to my history online, it doesn’t change anything. He’d obviously found my thousand stories about love, life, laughter, loss, and lies. As with my family tree online, my stories are not hidden, private, or anonymous. I share them so that anyone can read them. I can’t force belief. I can’t force consumption.
I don’t claim to be a singular authority but I do lash back at anyone who challenges me with the asinine assertion that I have no right to tell my own story. I’m not forcing anyone to consume it. I get grumpy when people who’ve remained silent for decades suddenly get a voice or a conscience; or worse, when they go down the road of revisionism to challenge what happened or to create their own stories with the goal of mitigating the ones I’ve always shared. Several episodes of my life have been worsened because people have lashed out with their own revisions after mine have been out in the wild for most of my adult life. It doesn’t mean they stories are always wrong, but it does mean that their blooming interest should be cautiously examined.
I could tell the conversation had an intended point, even if we weren’t getting there directly.
He couldn’t see that attempting to challenge me would only cement my authority and right to tell my story. His anger and frustration not only told me that my words had pierced his heart, but that he recognized some truth in them. (People don’t generally argue with clowns or people with no credibility. They should stop and think about that before they start challenging or shouting at me.)
People tend to only stand rigid in anger when something has blurred their internal belief system.
It’s pointless to argue with someone wearing clown shoes – so any defensive reaction is in recognition of an arrow cast with keen accuracy.
So, I told him. “You are supposed to let the fools talk. Arguing with them only makes you foolish. If what I say is obviously false, why are you angrily wanting to silence me? It’s all out there, on the internet. Well, not all, but a great deal of it. And those parts which aren’t out there can be inferred. I think I captured the savagery of some of my youth truthfully. And some of the beauty. My story hasn’t changed in 30 years. I think that fact alone gives me a voice of authority and finality.” I wanted him to know that my story wasn’t accusatory; rather, it was history personalized and irrefutable. I wasn’t telling it to draw blood. It was my story – and mine to tell. He had his story to tell if he wants to. He won’t though, because words won’t conceal his complicity. People don’t want to take the time to examine their lives or write about it. I understand it, whether it is laziness or fear of the consequences. We cannot tell our own stories without stepping onto the fringes of other lives. It cannot be done.
“What good does it do? You’re not helping anyone. It’s over,” he said.
“It’s not entirely over. I’m not dead yet – and neither is all of your family. DNA has a lot to say, to reveal many of the lies we’ve been told. I can find things as an adult that our ancestors screamed to silence. Children will grow up and do their own research and find the things we’ve concealed. It took 25 years to find out that my family robbed me of being with a sister I would have undoubtedly appreciated more than my other sister.” I waited.
“DNA isn’t the full story, X. And people kept secrets for a reason.” It seemed like that comment wasn’t full of holes to him.
“Well, why did your parents fight you tooth and nail for no one to do a DNA test? Precisely because they knew you’d find skeletons, bastard children, and stories that would lead to huge lies. I often wonder if people knew if my own Dad had illegitimate children and that I had a black half-sister. It seems likely. They robbed me of all those years with her – and gave my Dad a chance to hide from the consequences of what he’d done. Even now, no one wants to talk about the fact that my Grandfather Terry was ridiculously old to be marrying Grandmother Terry as young as she was. My Grandpa Cook had his own skeletons, but he loved me when he was older. I didn’t know all those stories. The love he had for me was real. Knowing the truth does not change who they were. It might change who we are, though.”
He started to object and I cut him off and continued.
“It helps me. Most of the guilty are dead. I’m not claiming moral superiority. I am better than my ancestors, though. Literally, every moment of your life is over in the sense you use the word, right? Yet, when you think about yourself, you think about the sum of your words and experiences. All history. You can choose another path and never look back. That’s not what we do, though. Telling only the beautiful moments is easy. We are the sum total of what we’ve said or done. We have to earn a reset when we’ve realized we were wrong and offered to make amends.” I knew he hadn’t thought of that.
“What about your motive? It’s obvious that you are writing about it just to hurt people.” He seemed to think that was a rebuttal.
I noted he didn’t challenge the truth of my writing – just its existence.
“My motive? What was the motive when ancestors covered up that my dad killed someone or went to prison? Or beat me with a rake? Or when another family member told me it was my fault that my dad hit me so hard I was coughing blood? History doesn’t hold a motive. And I noticed you failed to mention that there were good times amid all the blood-stained teeth. I don’t just write about the terror. It’s odd that you focus only on the things that you’d rather that people not talk about, that you’re heavy-handedly trying to censor me. I had some great moments when I was young. I’ve never said otherwise and grow tired of people saying I do.”
He was clearly dumbstruck. “Listen, I can’t defend why anyone did or said things. I wasn’t there. But our dads were both more or less good people. They had problems, to be sure.”
I cut him off.
“Most people don’t beat their wife and kids. Or fail to protect kids when they are being beaten. They also don’t use the n-word or hold a buffet of prejudices. Or kill people because they chose to drink and drive. Those aren’t problems. They are psychosis. Family preached that they were superior to black people and that anyone sharing their religion wasn’t welcome in Heaven. My Dad tried to kill me and never faced the consequences of the law or even of family stepping in and demanding he act like a human being. Their silence encouraged him to continue for decades.”
I paused, as he stammered.
“Well, my dad loves God. He’ll be in Heaven.” I could tell he was certain of the fact.
“I know you love your dad. You were almost always good a good person and had a way of sharing laughter everywhere you went. It is possible to be a good person and have a parent or parents who were not good people. It’s okay to say you loved bad people because that is how love works. It’s no sin. It is a sin, though, to insist they were good people because you won’t see the truth of their badness. We have to eclipe the shadow of the people who should have known better.” I waited.
“Some of my family looked away while my dad beat me dozens of times. They told me to go back to my dad after he literally tried to kill me. They let my dad lock me in a shed in the middle of summer, and make me eat rotted meat to teach me a lesson. They let dad beat mom and told her it was her fault and god’s will. They told people they were better than dark people. They used their jobs to hurt people who weren’t white. They said gay people were the Devil’s children. And as always, I have to reiterate that I had family members who did stand up sometimes and they were shouted down, too. Some tried. People forget that I acknowledge those people, too.”
“Your dad is a better person than me, I’ll give you that much. He’ll die one day and people will piously say he was a good man. And when he’s gone, I’m still be here, writing, if writing the truth can be twisted to be an accusation instead of a recitation. I stood in silence when people called my grandpa a degenerate drunk, all those years ago. Your dad could be generous and lovely as a person. I’ve said so. I know that the negative drowns out the positive. But that is the point. You can’t escape the totality of what you’ve said and done. People might not have snapped my bones with their own hands but their beliefs pushed them to allow others to do so. Had they ever realized they were wrong and told me as much, it would have been redemptive. People like them rarely do, though.”
I continued. “Your dad insisted that if a thing were true he could say it with a clear conscience. Those words alone give me a license to share my story where it overlaps with my family. And I will. Because I can. Because it’s my story. One day, this conversation will be out there, too. My goal isn’t to find the mud. It’s to tell a story. I can’t change what happened. I can either silence it or share it.”
“You’re an asshole!” he said.
“It’s hereditary. That’s my point. I haven’t beaten anyone to death yet, raped a young girl, or allowed anyone to do it and get by with it, so I guess I’m ahead of our ancestors, aren’t I? As an adult, I have not once allowed another adult to beat a child in my presence. I don’t recall ever saying that I wish the white race were back in charge, that gay people should be put down, or that my religion was the only one.” I laughed.
Once again, I opened my email to discover a message telling me exactly what I needed to hear. A sister of one of my paternal aunts wrote me, telling me she’d noticed I added another 100+ pictures of her sister on Ancestry. These are archived in original resolution. My aunt’s sister told me she’d cried a bit, something she hadn’t expected. I wrote her back and told her I put every usable picture I owned of my aunt on there, in the hopes they might last forever, for anyone to see. I also told her I did the same for my uncle and my cousin Jimmy, both of whom now have hundreds of pictures on their respective pages. If you didn’t guess, putting so many pictures on accounts is a rarity.
It was a labor of love and honor. It’s the least I could do. These pictures are in my possession, but I don’t think I own them. They belong to us all – anyone who shared moments, laughter, or time with those in the pictures.
Yesterday, I wrote a post about high school pictures. I used a horrible picture of myself from many years ago. It was a bit satirical, but the message was one I’ve written about a few dozen times: vanity and hoarding regarding pictures is sinful. I’ve never owned a picture that I haven’t offered to everyone who might have an interest. I don’t get the urge to hoard pictures in a box, under a bed, or in a seldom-used closet.
More than one person got irritated at me for preaching the gospel of sharing. Some people righteously guard their past appearance, as if history isn’t going to kick that door open with time anyway. Others play the role of Gollum and greedily keep their pictures hidden in the crook of their unapproachable arms. The last tendency lessens everyone’s ability to remember and cherish people in our past who’ve passed on to the next life.
When my aunt’s sister reached out yesterday, she didn’t know that it was what I needed to hear. My actions months ago opened her heart again, even if for only for a while yesterday. In those moments, she could see that I had paid homage to her sister, to life, and to people we love.
All those pictures? Some of them have been downloaded dozens of times, each time by someone who discovered my treasure, one freely given. I am merely the guardian.
This is another one of my unpublished stories, one I’ve had for over 6 years. I stripped much of the specifics because of the unflinching harshness. It’s still harsh. I don’t really like this post. The stripped version misses all the personal stories.
One of my first blog posts was about the screech of revisionists: those people who will defy truth and appearances by shouting “Lies!” Or, spend an incredible amount of time attempting to rewrite history, even history that is substantiated by detail, fact, and others sharing the same lifeline or timeline. Many of them brood and obsess over tactics to gaslight or silence people who aren’t particularly concerned about privacy, family shame, or admitting their own failures.
I specifically wrote that one of my goals of blogging was to drown my urge toward secrecy and keep the revisionists at bay. I admitted I wasn’t going to get everything perfect – and that memory is a fickle thing. I promised to try to keep the tone right, though, including the undercurrent of both joy and hateful violence.
In spite of my commitment to share my life, I have dozens of personal stories I’ve not published. Some of them are dark revelations about people who are still living. For other stories, though they are mine to share as I see fit, I still have a pang of reluctance. The stories would fall on some heads like anvils. (I deleted 5 stories in this section.)
Unlike many, if I learn something new or that I was wrong, I won’t stress too much about changing both my previous idea and what I’ve previously written. I won’t be that relative who to this day still repeats the long-squashed mistaken idea that any of our last five generations were Native American.
Personal stories sustain me. Not just mine, but those of others. I’ve done my part to encourage everyone to share their lives as best they can. Our stories won’t interest everyone. The truth in them, though? It will annoy some people just enough to make it all worthwhile.
Years ago, I predicted the overall arc of revisionists in my life. Many have died. Most have learned to practice blindness and disregard for the presence of my storytelling. The sheer volume, not to mention content, of my years of writing usually drown the attempts to gaslight me. Most people don’t possess the free time, much less willpower, to divulge their lives, especially if their focus is to derail the thousands of stories I’ve shared. It just doesn’t add up. They sound bitter. One of my common refrains has always been, “Get your own soapbox.” The complainers almost never do. They critique, complain, and waste their lives trying to get everyone to conform to their misguided opinions.
I still have a couple of revisionists in my life. They’re on the far fringes because the lesson of keeping my distance from them surfaces from time to time to hit me in the face. They seethe, boil, and fantasize about some future point in which they’ll finally be able to infect me with their falsehoods and craziness. Usually, they do all the work for me. The surrounding people might take a circuitous route in realizing their deceit, but the conclusion is inevitable.
Some revisionists, upon realizing they have failed to silence someone who shares their truth, will change tactics and lie. Some lies are obviously and demonstrably false, but they’ll forge ahead, compounding their initial lie. During my life, I’ve had 4 or 5 harsh attempts to discredit me with cruel lies and untruths. The truth always came out, but it costs me a piece of my soul each time. It motivates the psychopaths to inflict pain. At this point in my life, as the few surviving revisionists lash out, I calmly point out that their version of truth is suspiciously late to the game. The tardiness of their response isn’t a guarantee that it’s untrue, but it puts a hole in their motivation and credibility. I’ve consistently shared my life throughout the years, even when it paints me as behaving cruelly or stupidly.
It’s a unsettling feeling to know that a person out in the world hates the fact that I bear no shame for my youth or for the stupidity I’m guilty of in my life. He carries the weight of personal failure and shame, one that I don’t share. While my younger life was markedly less professional and stellar than his, the time on this end, the one toward the ending of each of us, has been punctuated by personal fulfillment, happiness, and a solid connection to myself and the world. His? Addiction and a fantastical, maniacal pathology that drives him away from the people who should be his foundation in later life. He may have seemingly sprinted ahead at the outset, even as I ran by him years ago and veered away from our shared infection of addiction and anger. He reacts angrily to the fact that his presence in the lives of those around him is a detriment to them. Truthfully, when I am not exposed to his craziness, it fades to the background.
(No matter who I’m talking about in this post, I am sure that someone will be singing Carly Simon: “You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.”) They recognize the tactics because they tend to be echoed by narcissists and angry people at every turn.
I certainly don’t find my meaning through addiction. My head isn’t stuffed with anger. It could have easily been my path.
With each constricting spiral of anger, I push back and away – as I should have done all my life. People tell us who they really are, day after day, year after year. We endure them and convince ourselves their pathology isn’t really that bad.
Even when I was quite young, he (my principal revisionist) mistook my push away from the pathology of some of my family as a rejection of family in general. It isn’t true. It’s a fantasy he often repeats though. He has a vast mythology created in his mind that paints him as a savior and hero to my connection to the family. It’s completely wrong. He’ll never admit it, though. The soundtrack of this fantasy has placed deep grooves in his ability to see the world as it was and his. I never lost my connection to family. I just lost my connection to him and some others who weren’t good people. It’s no secret that my family contained its share of violence, addiction, shame, and secrecy. When I changed my name, I wrote everyone in the family a letter. For others, I called them or talked them to face to face. I gave them an unflinching explanation as to my allegiance, or lack thereof, to any of them who saw me as anything but an adult they’d never understand. I didn’t need him to kidnap me and forge a new connection to family. Even when I was very young, I instinctively knew which people were ‘my’ people. As a result, I avoided much of one half of my family. It’s a lesson that I should have carried through life, but didn’t. My revisionist insists his version is accurate.
Allegiance to biological connections is one of the most sinister cons perpetuated on those of us with pathology hidden in the family closets. One of my worst revisionists spent a great deal of effort to pummel me into submission by insisting that family honor demanded my silence. He denies that now, too. In his mind, he was the champion of truth. The reality? He fought me tooth and nail about my right to tell my story, especially those parts consumed by violence, addiction, and poor choices. My resentment ebbed and flowed throughout my life.
The perversion of family and honor infected the idea of love, too, that unconditional demand that angry people place on everyone around them to require loyalty, obedience, and silence, even those things overlap very little with the concept of mature love. Addicts are especially prone to this tactic.
Despite my early life, I didn’t flee the country, or move to another state. I stayed here and worked to eliminate the stain of my DNA. I knew that the things that I had rejected in the family would torture me anywhere I went. There’s no escaping the ‘us’ inside us.
Some of the those secrets I’ve uncovered through diligent study and research, not to mention DNA. I endured a lot of shouting as my skill at uncovering the truth and asking the right questions improved. It’s getting quieter, though. The revisionists continue to fade, to lose all credibility, and to evaporate into history. They’re still gnashing their teeth at me, though. Those people look – and sound- crazy.
I deleted a section here that became obsolete due to the discovery of an unknown sister in 2019. Her existence nullified all the anger the revisionists inflicted on me about the family tree. I’d always insisted that given the number of times dad cheated, children must have resulted. I persisted in my march toward filling in the holes and answering the questions about our ancestry, even when people maneuvered with anger to stop me. I was proven right about the family tree and about my factual conclusions about my Dad. In case I wasn’t clear, Dad wasn’t the only one who cheated. Even the pious ones had scandalous affairs, one-night stands, and secret addictions. It’s in part because of this that I automatically assume anyone saying, “Why are you asking questions,” or “Stop asking questions,” is guilty or hiding the truth for someone else.
I also found records and newspaper accounts of some of my Dad’s criminal behavior, some of it from the early 1960s. He wasn’t simply a young man with behavior issues. He was at times a bad person. That statement alone would have earned me a chance to get accidentally shot in the deer woods years ago. Family did not permit me to idly discuss what was self-evident.
It scares the revisionists to know that someone like me could be the final word, the last word in their epitaph regarding legacy and truth.
Absent pedigree collapse, which occurs when the same genetics overlap in one tree due to noodling between relatives, I have 126 5th great-grandparents. Pedigree collapse is why our family tree pyramids are amazingly flatter than we would conventionally expect. Historically, about 80% of all marriages involved 2nd cousins or closer, due to geographical limitations. Most children resulted from people living inside a 5-mile radius. Modern people cringe at the idea, but proximity inevitably leads to relationships.
Life will find a way, as Malcolm said, whether it’s dinosaurs or people.
Because of the thousands of people in my main family tree and the fact that I’ve been using DNA for many years to trace my lineage, my DNA trail is remarkably old for some of my family tree branches. (And demonstrably absent for other alleged branches.) Occasionally, I encounter tree owners who hide or keep their ancestry tree private, which might be useful or warranted for current generations to protect their privacy. Still, it is 100% pointless to do it past one’s grandparents. Even if you’re not willing to pull the curtain back, the statistical likelihood that another descendant will do so approaches 100%.
The number of people using DNA results exponentially grows past three generations. Whereas paper trails and family history can be manipulated, expunged, or hidden, DNA is the math that draws a map directly to one’s ancestors. As more participants share their DNA, the tapestry of everyone’s relationships becomes incredibly detailed. Our ability to use algorithms and computers has rendered secrecy to be moot.
In the case of the example pictured, my DNA and family tree draw me through 7-8 generations, with multiple confirmations across hundreds of people. For whatever reason, I have a gap with my 4th great-grandfather Murphy, thanks to those who think hiding the identity of the person to be valuable.
Due to DNA, however, I can easily ‘ignore’ the missing 4th great-grandfather and jump up to the next generation with my 5th great-grandfather Murphy. This happens because of many people related to the cousins and siblings of my unidentified 4th great-grandfather having shared their DNA results. Using census, marriage, and other records, it is straightforward to use the process of elimination to identify the ‘secret’ ancestor. If it is someone unexpected, such as the mailman, it is likely that multiple DNA sources from other family lines have identified their overlap.
Given a large enough sample, no one currently alive escapes multiple points of intersection with our living DNA map. In case you’re wondering, it takes only a small percentage of people to finish a complete DNA map for every person alive today.
In other words, as I’ve said many times before, DNA will always ‘out’ a person’s intention to keep their family secrets hidden. People might not talk, but DNA is the hidden voice that lies in plain sight.
Unlike many, I find this to be a comfort. It’s probably a good thing, too, if for no other reason than I am powerless to do anything about it, regardless of my opinion.
DNA, in combination with my insistence on personal transparency, led me to discover a new sister. It didn’t allow me to force my search onto her; it allowed her to make the same choice and meet in the middle. Using my example, it is possible that one of her children or family members eventually would have come forward anyway, resulting in a similar discovery of new siblings. It just would have happened later or after my death. Whether we are comfortable with the idea, our DNA roadmaps are subject to the whims of those we’re related to, as the Golden State Killer famously discovered.
Yes, of course, DNA information can be abused. Using the possible negative consequences to justify a knee-jerk reaction is more a symptom of our inability to be responsible citizens and govern ourselves maturely than it is of a warning against using DNA at all. You leave DNA everywhere you go. Even now, your body is shedding your entire genetic structure into the air, on the floor, and on almost everything you touch.
My DNA experience also confirmed that some of my aunts and uncles had reason to be fearful of my dedication. Though most of them are now departed, their harsh demands about the silence of some of our family history are soon dispelled. Some of the secrets seem tame now. Others belie something unsettling. Their demands actually created a stronger desire to find out what all the fuss was about. Thanks to them, I have a specific list of questions that strike directly into their concerns.
People with nothing to hide also tend to welcome sunlight. If someone seems overly concerned, you should always assume it’s a sign you’re looking in the right direction. It’s not always the case. It is, however, logical.
Regardless of how we interpret uncovered facts, they don’t alter the truth they reveal. It’s an ongoing fascination of mine to observe the reluctance of some people to see their stories mapped and visited by other eyes.
For me, for now, forever, I embrace the universal nature of DNA.
I have only 8 authentic images of my grandpa Cook. About half are pictures of pictures, taken at opportune moments. I’m lucky to have any. Many people escape their childhoods with no pictures. Given the number of times my family moved, in conjunction with my mother’s proclivity to burn residences to the ground, it’s a miracle any pictures fell into my hands.
My life only overlapped with my grandpa’s life for ten years, seven months, and one day.
Every picture I have of grandpa is on Ancestry to view and keep for anyone who wants them. Evidently, a lot of people have. Likewise, almost every picture I have of my dad and mom is on there, too. I’ve never once shared pictures without someone finding value in them – even people I’ve never met, and especially people who discover they are related.
For many of the family members who’ve departed, I have hundreds of pictures online, so that they can be experienced easily, and probably preserved for several lifetimes. It might be overkill, but experience has taught me that someone will find real joy when they see the photos.
I routinely get a private message along the lines of “Holy cow! I’ve never seen such a complete variety before. Do you have others?” I politely write back, saying, “Sorry, I’ve put every image I have of him or her on here. There are others, locked away in books, in basements, or in dusty boxes – but I don’t have access to them.”
This was recently true after I uploaded hundreds of pictures to an aunt, uncle, and cousin who passed away in the last decade. The response was overwhelming. It was a bit of an effort to organize and upload them all, but I know that my pictures will, at times, be the only pictures of these people that will be passed on and survive.
At times, I get messages from people who have locked down their accounts so that all pictures are private and secretly unviewable. Sometimes, these same people ‘borrow’ mine and lock their copies away from everyone else. Shame. I try to remind myself that someone at least saw the pictures and found them valuable enough to swipe. For the same reason, I leave all my family discoveries open to those who are related. There’s no real point in forcing people to do the same work over and over.
I don’t understand the inclination to put a picture in a box, closet, or hidden place. They are no more accessible than those who ‘borrow’ mine and lock them away digitally. They might as well be on the moon.
Countless times, people have reached out to me to tell me their families assumed no pictures existed of their loved ones. More than once, someone has told me that they’d never seen a picture of their family until they found my pictures. I can’t imagine that bittersweet moment. I work to ensure that I’m not part of the problem.
I don’t own a picture that I don’t have digitized, shared, and available for everyone to enjoy. Not only so that they can never be truly lost forever when calamity strikes, but so that they can be shared, even with unknown future generations, as they look back in the past.
A picture in a box, album, or closet is lost forever.
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.