Back in my college days, one of my classmates suggested that a good salve for writer’s block was contemplating one’s ancestors. He reminded me of this once by saying “Bring us your ancestors!” from a second story window as I walked on the sidewalk below. Since I could hear but not see him, I first worried that I was having a command hallucination, which would have been a serious complication of the major depression that was descending upon me at that time. To my relief, he confessed that he was the one who spoke those words as soon as I walked into the classroom.
I avoided doing much research or writing about my ancestors because I was afraid of what I might find in studying them or the feelings I’d develop while writing about them. Would they seem perfectly functional in comparison to me, making me one of the original screw-ups in my family tree? Was it possible that some of them were infamous, casting my problems in a kinder light in comparison? I also considered that I might have no feeling whatsoever for my ancestors, the possibility I feared most, yet another experience that did not penetrate my unsentimental core. I was seldom sad while depressed. Instead, I felt numb like a limb fallen asleep, full of pins and needles.
Recently I dared to dip into the subject of my ancestors, and the discovery of one of my ancestors was compelling enough to me to cut through the concerns I had in the past. In discovering him, I understood that there was no point to judging my ancestors, for if they had lived their lives differently, I would not exist. There is nothing like finding out that the existence of me and nearly half of my close relatives depended on the drastic choice of one person to drive this point home.
My great grandfather Leslie appeared on a bicycle at his future in-laws’ farm in Middlepoint, Ohio, around 1926, and offered his work as a farm hand. While working on that farm, he was a man with no proof of his past, yet he quickly wooed and married my great grandmother. They had three daughters in the next few years, one of whom is my paternal grandmother. In 1936, the family of five was farming at night to escape the July heat and were in a car accident on the way home. Leslie and two of my great aunts lost their lives in that accident. My great grandmother and grandmother were critically injured in that accident as well. Inquiries were made to a town in Michigan that Leslie claimed as his hometown. No one in that town knew him.
Until this year, the only mementos we had of him were his death portrait, his hat and his long johns. His origin was a mystery that my family attempted to solve several times in the intervening years. Little did we know that in Michigan there was another family who knew his beginning and had been searching for information on his end.
Since I doubt that I will soon stop wondering why he did what he did, I will not linger here on the details of how I found him. I’m sure I will write of this matter again, as I have before. I discovered that in 1923 that my great grandfather became a missing person in Minneapolis. He left his home, where his first wife, his mother and five surviving children were living, stopped at work to collect his paycheck, and did not go home again. He had lost two children to a measles outbreak three years previously, so he originally had seven children in his first marriage. Since he left so many close relations behind and made no contact with them, the authorities presumed he was dead, yet he lived thirteen more years under a different last name in another state.
As his origin was revealed, we discovered that he was truthful on some details. He really had been born and raised in Michigan, just not in the town he mentioned. He offered his actual birth date and mother’s name on his second marriage certificate. What he did not reveal is staggering, that he left a beautiful wife, a loving mother and precious children behind. I can only imagine what forces inside and outside of him led him on this course. He did not live long enough to reverse it. He spoke of taking his second family to meet his relatives in the months leading to his death. I can only imagine how he might have negotiated that reunion.
This revelation healed a part of me. For years, I felt like I was the one who was out of place, a changeling or foundling child in mind if not in body. I am relieved to know that I was not the outlier. Now that I know more of my great grandfather’s story, it’s like a long awaited piano tuner has finally arrived and restored a piano fallen out of tune long ago.