Category Archives: Ancestry

Secrecy

Yesterday, my long-lost secret sister Carolyn met my remaining sibling Marsha for the first time. I met my long-lost sister on New Year’s day this year. To imagine that she’d meet my other sister Marsha seemed unimaginable to me a year ago. I can’t describe how strange it is to think about how much was hidden. For years, I caught hell from some of my family for pursuing ancestry and DNA; most of them were compelled to silence me due to a misguided sense of family honor. Considering the things I already knew combined with the things I’ve forensically learned through research and stubbornness, I still don’t know what they were protecting. Like many families, the things I unearthed would fill a book. It’s amusing to me that their attempts to discourage me convinced me that there MUST be something they were hiding. It turns out, there were several “somethings.” To know that some of them kept the truth of a sister hidden astonishes me. Part of it for some of them was racism and shame; my Dad took advantage of a young black girl. After she was born, he fled Monroe County, as if he could escape the past. Luckily for all of us, the result of Dad’s misbehavior resulted in a fantastic human being, one who had a big family herself, full of love and stories.

Without bitterness, I still feel that if they would have spent 10% of that energy protecting us from the monstrous actions of some of my family, our paths would have been significantly brighter.

Almost all secrets come out, even 1/4 of a century after someone passes away.

I feel proud that my insistence and curiosity led me to find a sister I never knew I had. She’s smart, humble, and funny. My brother Mike missed the chance to meet the new sister Carolyn. His demons got the best of him. I’m hoping my new sister provides my sister Marsha a template for finding meaning and direction – and for building a new kind of relationship to sustain her.

Most of my family is gone, many of them chased and hounded by addiction into the grave. Soon enough, all of us will be stories and memories.

I’m tickled that I kept my curiosity sharpened; it led to yesterday.

No matter what comes of it, I count finding my new sister as one of my best accomplishments in life. People having access to their stories and truth is essential to make a good life.

Love, X
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An Ongoing Revelation

It’s difficult to explain to other people the sense of interest, curiosity, and intrigue that envelopes me when I’m presented with another opportunity to find someone’s father, mother, or long-lost friend. It’s a solitary sort of entertainment, one that both focuses my mind inward and outward.

Even when it doesn’t go well, the initial few hours of pursuit and detail make my mind blossom like bits of ignited gunpowder. It feels as close to how I imagine one’s mind should always feel as I can imagine. Tiredness and disinterest fade away into impossibilities when one’s mind is trapped and ignited like that.

I started the day like most others. An acquaintance told me he’d mentioned my love of family research to a friend of his. He handed me a slip of paper with scant details scribbled on it. I quickly put it into my wallet, not so I wouldn’t lose it, but rather so that I wouldn’t be tempted to take a quick look. Such ‘quick looks’ usually escalate into an immediate and profound interest that keeps me distracted.

Some of my best memories are ones encapsulated in a quest to help someone find someone or something dear to them. I’ve had a few failures, as well as a few that led me to bad news for the person wanting me to inquire. I was wildly successful a few times, even if the person I found didn’t want to be outed.

This afternoon, I started my quest to align my scattered skills sufficiently to invoke the magic and inexact science of educated guesses and deliberately go into doubtful deadends. Over the years, I’ve definitely discovered that my mistakes tend to yield impressive results. Even results that aren’t what I’m looking for sometimes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the wrong path and realized that I found another way to find information; had I not made a mistake, I wouldn’t have learned.

I won’t lie, though. The payoff is a rush. Finding the proof, the person, the thing. That’s sublime. Like genealogy, it’s a skill I never imagined that I would find valuable.

I was on the phone with a total stranger a little bit ago. Our paths would have never crossed, and part of his family’s remarkable story would have remained a mystery to me. Thanks to him, I will learn more about history, geography, and human nature.

These stories accumulate in my heart and mind.

As for the stranger today, he inadvertently revealed a lot of truth about his life and family. Singular statements and admissions invariably contain unspoken truths. That’s always the case when someone is listening with interest and fascination. Some parts of his story sounded unlikely. Because they sounded unlikely, I knew they were true. There are parts of his story which could easily be the subject of a book or movie.

I shared a few things about my life, too, especially how DNA ripped away the facade of privacy and secrecy.

I already find myself writing fictionalized versions of all those lives in my head.

The Most Beautiful Stranger In The World

Paul walked the aisles of the crowded flea market, looking at the trash and treasures piled everywhere. He agreed to do a flea market crawl out of reluctant obligation. His girlfriend Jessica loved browsing and prowling the dusty aisles of old buildings. “You never know!” she repeatedly admonished him. He never said it, but he thought in his head, “Yeah, I never know how much time I might waste.” Paul loved some of the things he found but tired quickly of the prowl.

They’d returned to his hometown for a long weekend. Though he had no plans to attend his Aunt Jill’s funeral, he did agree to return to go to visitation at Crowley’s Funeral Home. Jessica took the opportunity of their visit to ask to see downtown, all two streets of it. There were four flea markets in that small area. Paul imagined that the number of flea markets would soon reach a pinnacle, as most of the older population were dying rapidly. No one wanted their stuff filling their attics and cupboards.

Paul meandered through the maze of trinkets and what-nots until he spotted Jessica an aisle over from where he stood. He pantomimed tapping at his wristwatch, the one he never wore. She shook her head “no.” She held up five fingers. Though it meant five minutes to a normal person, Paul resigned himself to at least thirty more minutes of browsing. He nodded and walked all the way to the back of the crowded flea market.

He saw her face immediately, propped up against a plate. Her picture was printed as an 8 X 10 black and white picture, taken decades ago. Though the picture was a bit water-stained at some point, it didn’t conceal the set of her piercing eyes or the subtle smile on her face. Her lips filled toward the center, and her curly hair framed her face perfectly. Paul had rarely seen such a picture capture beauty like hers.

He picked up the photo and looked at the back. He first noticed that a small photo was glued to the back. Next to it, the name “Loretta” was scrawled with immaculate handwriting. The picture on the back showed Loretta slightly in profile. Her face was angular, defined, and revealed a slender neck. Paul found himself enraptured by the image. A slight smile framed her lips, a smile that seemed to be reflected in her eyes. Somehow, he also knew that Loretta was smart and had a wickedly sharp sense of humor.

Paul flipped the picture over again, taking a long second look at the front. He sighed. He walked back to the front, where the cashier stood inattentively. She looked up as he approached.

“This item isn’t marked,” he said, showing it to her without handing it over.

The cashier pointed to the sign by the register: “Unmarked items or items missing a price cannot be sold without the permission of the owner of the booth.”

“I’m in town for a couple of days. I really need this picture,” Paul said, surprised by his own words.

“No can do!” the clerk replied.

Paul thought a minute. “Look. I will give you twenty dollars for this picture.”

The bored cashier showed a bit of interest by arching her left eyebrow.

“I can’t. No exceptions,” the cashier said, her voice rising.

Paul didn’t miss the implication. “My apologies. I meant that I will give you forty dollars for this picture.”

“Sold,” the clerk said and laughed. She would have been irritated to know that he probably would have given her a hundred dollars.

Paul took out his wallet and handed the clerk forty dollars.

A few minutes later, Jessica appeared from the bowels of the byzantine flea market. She found Paul standing next to one of the long glass curio countertops, leaning over it and peering at an old photograph there. She leaned in and craned her neck around his elbow.

“Isn’t she gorgeous?” he asked her without looking. Jessica nodded. She found herself admiring the stranger’s face. She was a classic beauty, one that defied time. Paul flipped the picture over and showed Jessica the smaller image on the back. “Loretta,” he said, his voice taking on the tone of someone lovingly reading a poem.

“Okay, weirdo. Let me pay for this old watch, and we can skedaddle.” She smiled at Paul, who ignored her. His eyes were still locked in on the picture. “Don’t forget to bring the picture of your new girlfriend with you, Paul.” He didn’t hear her.

Jessica teased Paul a dozen times about taking another look at the pictures throughout the afternoon.
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Saturday afternoon, Paul and Jessica arrived at Crowley’s a bit early. Paul wanted to be able to arrive comfortably and watch people as they walked up. He needed cues and reminders for some of the family. As for the rest, he wanted to prepare himself for the inevitable comments about his long absence from home, questions about his family status, along with the other obligatory comments people make at funerals.

Mr. Crowley stood by the main entrance. Paul assumed he was at least ninety years old. He knew everyone in town, though, and a lot of secrets that would shock people. There were times when his failing hearing led him to answer questions that people hadn’t asked him.

Paul shook his hand enthusiastically and introduced Jessica. To his surprise, Jessica hugged Mr. Crowley, who turned red and smiled. Mr. Crowley directed them both to enter the building. Inside the vestibule, Paul picked up an announcement and handed it to Jessica. The music that always fills such places echoed strangely inside the main door. Paul hurried through.

In front of the long room, he noted Aunt Jill’s casket, adorned with a variety of flowers and a picture of her, one he had seen in someone’s living room when he was younger. Aunt Jill had been a beautiful young woman. Seeing her as a young woman in the memorial photo gave him a sense of deja vu.

Within minutes, a couple of dozen people had entered, each saying hello to Paul if they recognized him. Most attendees were well over retirement age. Paul did his best to pretend that he recognized them all. Jessica, who seemed to have magically acquired the ability to make personal connections, helped him by hugging each person who approached. Paul didn’t know she was such a hugger. In a quiet moment, he asked her about it. She smiled and shrugged. “I love people, Paul.”

At the moment Paul assumed that everyone had arrived, the door opened, and he felt his heart leap to see Aunt Jill’s partner, Betsy. Betsy had watched Paul countless times when he was young. She and Aunt Jill were together before such things were acceptable. Though she was with his Aunt Jill, Betsy always kissed him on the lips when she saw him, something that used to cause his mother a bit of grief. After pecking him, she always cackled with glee and winked at him. When he turned eighteen, she casually told him that she didn’t know she liked women until she met his Aunt Jill, who stole her heart. But that she hadn’t forgotten to appreciate a good-looking man.

Betsy slowly walked toward him, already smiling. He instantly felt glad that he’d answered her phone call a couple of days, asking when he would arrive in town. Paul bent toward her, and she put her hands on both sides of his face and kissed him thoroughly on the lips. Had he not pulled away, Betsy might have kissed him for five seconds. She laughed, looking at Jessica. Jessica also burst out laughing. “You must be Betsy!” Jessica said and moved to hug her. Betsy caught Jessica off guard, too, and gave her a kiss on the mouth. At that point, all three of them burst out laughing, which drew everyone’s attention around them. Jessica took Betsy’s right arm and wrapped it around her left arm, standing with her.

Once their laughter subsided, Betsy said, “I wish your mother were here, Paul. I can’t believe she’s been gone for all these years. She died too young, just like their momma.” She nodded toward the casket. “We had a good life together, even when people didn’t appreciate our kind. Your momma told us to keep our heads up and to love who we wanted to. And we did.”

Jessica looked at Betsy inquisitively. “Paul doesn’t have any pictures of his grandmother, Betsy. Did Aunt Jill look like her?”

“Oh lord, girl. You won’t believe it! I have some pictures in the car. Our friend Bill drove me. I’ll have Bill fetch them for you.” Betsy got distracted by another visitor as she looked around the room for Bill. He saw her craning her head and started to walk toward her.

“I’ll be back in a minute, Jessica. I forgot the pictures in the car.” Paul turned to exit the building from the service entrance on the side. Jessica followed Betsy toward the front pew and kept an eye out for anyone needing a hug. She discovered that a few did.

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A few minutes later, Paul returned, carrying a leather folder with the pictures he brought. He was chewing furiously as he walked up to Jessica, who laughed at the absurd mouthful he displayed.

Between chews, Paul managed to tell her that Mr. Crowley’s brother Earl insisted on giving him a handful of his homemade beef jerky before coming inside. Paul also told her he ate a ton of the stuff when he was a teenager and worked for Earl at the hardware store. “Better his beef jerky than his wife’s dipping snuff,” Paul said.

Paul and Jessica went to sit on the front pew with Betsy.

“Earl is here, I see,” Betsy said and winked. Paul nodded, trying to swallow the last of the jerky.

Betsy pulled a handkerchief from her black purse. He noted she had a cigarette case inside. She saw him looking and said, “That’s where I keep my gun. People see it and assume it must be cigarettes.” She handed Jessica the case. Jessica opened it. She laughed. The cigarette case contained a tiny .22 single-shot pistol. “Betsy!” Paul exclaimed, unsure what to say.

Betsy shrugged, took back the case, and stuffed it back inside her purse.

She unfolded the handkerchief and uncovered several pictures stacked together. “Let me see,” she said as she moved her fingers across them.

“Here it is. This is your Grandmother Mary, Paul. Quite the looker! You can definitely see my Jill and your mom Rosie in her face.” Betsy handed the picture to Jessica, whose mouth dropped open. The confusion on her face was unmistakable.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Betsy asked.

Without a word, Jessica handed the picture to Paul, who stared at the picture in surprise.

“What is it y’all? You’re making me nervous!” Betsy seemed to be a bit alarmed.

Instead of answering, Paul handed the picture back to Jessica. He unclasped his leather folder and picked out the 8 X 10 he bought yesterday at the flea market.

He leaned across Jessica and handed the picture to Betsy. She went pale and took a sharp breath. “Oh my!” She turned the picture over and saw the other one on the back, along with the inscription “Loretta.”

Tears formed in her eyes. “Loretta’s middle name was Mary, Paul. This picture was in her living room when she died. We wondered what happened to it. Where did you get it?”

Paul, still in a bit of shock, said, “At the bigger flea market downtown, the one off Main Street. Yesterday. I bought it because I thought it was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

Jessica didn’t take offense. Tears were forming in both of her eyes.

Betsy nodded. “Yes, she was. Jill and your mom had her looks and definitely her kind heart. She was the smartest person I ever knew, Paul. That’s saying a lot.”

The three of them sat in silence for a full moment. Betsy sighed.

“Let’s go say our goodbyes to my precious Jill, shall we? Help me walk up there if you will.” Betsy didn’t attempt to wipe away the tears on her face.

As they stood, Paul found himself hugging both Jessica and Betsy. They held the hug for at least thirty seconds.

They walked to the casket, looking at Aunt Jill’s memorial picture on the display stand near the casket. Paul held up Loretta Mary’s picture from yesterday. Somewhere in between, he could picture his mom’s face.

Betsy, her sense of timing as perfect as it always was, said, “When are you two going to be proper and get married? You can’t shack up forever, you know.”

As the three of them looked at each other, they burst out laughing, even as tears rolled from all their faces. Though the onlookers didn’t understand what they bore witness to, everyone smiled.

In the distance, thunder boomed across the sky.

Paul decided he might stay a few more days to keep Betsy company. And to prowl flea markets with his girlfriend.

“Goodbye, Loretta Mary,” Paul whispered, even as he stole a sideways glance at Betsy. She was crying, though a smile was on her face. And he looked over at Jessica, who also cried as she held Betsy against her. He couldn’t remember why he had avoided his small hometown. His whole world was with him at that moment.
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1972 Understood

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.

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.

I wish. For me, for you, for us all.

Let’s all shine the lights in whatever direction they are needed.

Two Truths & A Lie

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.

Love, X.

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The Genealogy Nullification Rule

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.

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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.

A Girl Called Incident

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.

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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.

Let There Be Light – An Epitaph For Truth-Telling

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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.

I continued.

“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.

The phone went silent.

I won’t though.

The Gift Of Memories

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My Aunt Ardith and cousin Jimmy, standing in the front yard of their house on Ann Street.

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.

Love, X

A Reminder For Revisionists

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My Uncle Buck, taking a bath and smoking a cigar. This photo makes me laugh. As many issues as he might have had, he was a better man by far than my Dad.

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.

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I don’t know who this lady is. She was hilarious and nice. She spoke to me like I was a real human being. The picture is at my Uncle Buck’s house. I remember nothing about her, though. It reminds me of the fickle nature of memory. Her warmness remains; her identity escapes me.

 

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.

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One of the very few pictures of me with both my siblings, the ones I knew about until I was 52.

 

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.

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A picture of me with my mom, taken at my Grandma Nellie’s house in Brinkley.

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.

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A picture of my parents at my Uncle Buck’s house.

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.

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This memorial was placed in the newspaper near my Dad’s hometown. No mention is made of his impact through his horrible behavior. We all become saints upon our death. Many in my family are counting on this.

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.

 

x

 

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With my brother, in front of the house on Cottonwood in Springdale, before he left for the Army.