[This was my submission for the McSweeney's Internet Tendency Column Writing Contest. I didn't win, but I thought I'd share it with y'all. The intended audience was those who don't know anything about genealogy or family history. Hope you like...]
I have just under 5000 dead people [well, mostly dead] in my family tree so far. They have many things in common [not the least of which, is me], but 2 things stand out the most. They have a story to tell. And they had balls. I yearn to tell their stories and bring them back to life. So, each installment will be a fresh perspective [and by "fresh" I mean sarcastic] on an ancestor's life story, and how they had moxie, guts, audacity, and balls to get through their lives.
The Dead Talk
I search for dead people and their stories.
Well, I don't search for just any dead person's story. I search for stories of those folks who I'm related to – mostly those I'm blood-related to, but not always. Sometimes I'll mix it up and search for those crazy people who decided to marry into the family. Or those who lived near the family. Or those who have no apparent connection to the family, but they have a funny name or they're ugly (or if I'm lucky, both). No matter who they were though, once I track them down, I ask them about their story.
I know what you're thinking. Dead people don't talk, so how can they possibly tell their story? A forensic scientist would beg to differ with you on that. And being a genealogist and family historian, so would I. On a good day, I can't get some dead people to shut-up.
On the other hand, some days, dead people can be very tight-lipped. Ornery, in fact.
And the thing about these dead people – all of them – is that they have at least one story to tell. Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes it's sad. Sometimes it's downright naughty (if I'm lucky). Sometimes it'll make you think, “What the hell?” But there's always a story.
And there's something else about dead people. They had balls. You know, when they were alive.
Take my grandfather for example. I never met my Big Paw Paw, and apparently he was one of those people who thought he could keep his secrets after he died, but he was wrong. Once he started telling me his story, he couldn't stop. He was the son of a Prussian immigrant, a survivor of the Storm of 1900 on Galveston Island, and a veteran of World War I.
But he didn't stop there. [No siree.]
He was a lover of women. Mostly young women, but not the icky, “she's-too-young” young, but the “wow-she's-way-younger-than-him” young. In fact, Big Paw Paw, at last count, had 3 wives (one of them my grandmother), 2 divorces, 3 mistresses (and, yes, my grandmother was one before Big Paw Paw married her), and 1 excommunication from the Catholic Church. [Apparently, the Catholic Church is serious about that whole “no divorces” rule thingy.]
Big Paw Paw may have loved those younger women, but they were certainly his downfall. You see, he was also kicked out of his family after he divorced his first wife. Probably because his first wife had been his sister-in-law [his older sister's husband's younger sister]. And I guess they liked her more than him and thought that Thanksgiving and Christmas would go a whole lot smoother without the lying, two-timing, cheating Big Paw Paw. (Personally? I think he would've been the life of the party, but, hey, what do I know?)
Big Paw Paw's response to being kicked out of the family was a big “I-don't-need-you-screw-you” kind of response. He changed the spelling of his last name, which really threw me off when I went looking for him, and he never communicated with his family again.
Well, if you don't count the times he sued them.
Anywho, Big Paw Paw wasn't all bad. He was part of the housing boom in San Antonio back in the late 1920's and 1930's. In fact, he stayed in the housing business until he died in 1968. And he wasn't in it to make money just for himself either. [Nope.] I mean, with all the wives and mistresses he had over the years, he was still able to keep them in the lifestyle they had become accustomed to.
Which was mighty generous of him.
For all his faults though, he sure was a looker. I mean, I can see why all the younger ladies were going all crazy about Big Paw Paw. If the photos of him are anything to go by, he was a well-dressed man. And if his photos of my grandmother are anything to go by, he dressed his women well.
So, yeah, he was dead by the time I decided to get to know him. But once I found him, he talked. And he had balls. Balls to survive a devastating storm when he was just seven years old. Balls for fighting in World War I. And balls to juggle that many women no matter what everyone else thought about him, including his family.
But I think the ones who had the “big brass ones” were Big Paw Paw's women. They never killed him when they found out about each other.
It takes some pretty big balls to take the high road.
Brief Descriptions of 3 Additional Installments
1. What does an ancestor do when charged with fornication? And just why the hell was he charged with fornication when he was married to her?
2. What does an ancestor do when everyone else doesn't believe the same thing as him, and they are at his door? And they have him surrounded. Oh, and they brought fire with them?
3. What does an ancestor do when his son is locked up in the nastiest prison ever, and he's not willing to just let him sit there and wait it out 'cause he's never done that before so why the hell would he do that now, dammit?
Caroline Pointer is the author of the genealogy and family history blog, Family Stories, as well as the author of the column "In2Genealogy" for the digital magazine Shades of the Departed. As a professional genealogist, a family historian, a wife, and a mother, she enjoys writing about and laughing at her ancestors. Well, laughing at them until she recognizes a little bit of herself in them.