Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Midnight, And The Kitties Are Sleeping

Well, thirty-five people have wandered into this blog, seven by invitation, the rest, I guess, because they were expecting to see gladiators fighting space aliens, or they were looking for goats to send to Botswana (Howdy, Mr. Clinton!)

Joaquin Andujar, pitcher, philosopher, self-proclaimed "One Tough Dominican", famously observed, "There is one word in America that says it all, and that word is "Youneverknow."

And you never do.

We had a cat -- we actually had a ton of cats, freeloading indolents who each morning ate their fill at our house, then queued up at Mrs. Miller's next door for second breakfast, like a load of dimwitted feline Hobbits.  These were not pets in any conventional sense; they were Hessians, hired guns meant to keep our cellar rodent-free, but more interested in the cat equivalent of getting drunk in Trenton on Christmas Eve.

Living on the banks of the Erie Barge Canal meant that our across the street neighbors were big Norway rats.  Rats are a little like the people who live in San Francisco's Tenderloin District: dirty, diseased, way smarter than you expect, and constantly on the prowl for food and shiny things.  The rats were North Tonawanda's flower children, one strip of acid paper and a Ken Kesey bus shy of recreating the Summer of Love at the corner of Sweeney Street and Payne Avenue.

We kept cats, expecting them to crack heads like Chicago cops at the '68 Democratic National Convention.  What we got was the US Army in Baden, circa 1976: Fat and slow and ever so slightly stoned.  The cats lolled around, interrupting their routine of eating and sleeping only for the occasional foray into Mr. Sitzlow's shed, where dried herbs, including sweet, sweet catnip, hung from the rafters,  while the rats knocked over garbage cans.  By the time I reached high school, we didn't even bother to give any thought to naming the cats; it was "Grey Cat" and "Mother Cat" and "Dumb Cat".

There is a weird invincibility possessed by the mind-altered and the truly lazy.  The cats had it.  They were indestructible.  One of them decided to spend a cold winter evening sleeping in the warm engine compartment of my father's Ford pickup.  When Dad put key to ignition the next morning, the cat got caught in the fan belt, costing him an eye and earning him the sobriquet "Cyclops" (the vet patched the eyeless socket with a jagged line of sutures; Cyclops looked like he should have been nestled in the crook of the Commandant's arm in some C-level war movie).  Cyclops lasted a long time; if I remember right, he always walked slowly and a teeny bit sideways.

The rats eventually disappeared, thanks mostly to government cleanup efforts and the closure of Pepper's Pier, a burger joint a few doors down from our house.  The cats, our nine-lived welfare cases, remained.

Only one cat had a Work Ethic.  This animal was bizarrely, obsessively attached to my mother, John Hinckley to Mom's Jodie Foster.  Like Mr. Reagan's would-be assassin, the cat thought that violence was the only way to win his Special Lady's devotion.  He was a killing machine: squirrels, mice, birds, even Mrs. Frisbee's friends: nothing small and moving was off limits.  He killed ruthlessly, efficiently, then, eyes shimmering with meek devotion, he'd trot into the kitchen, and deposit the prey at Mom's feet.  Much like Ms. Foster, Bloody Courtship left Mom nonplussed.

This cat disappeared.  I don't know how or when, though I expect that it involved a car trunk and a corn field, something Martin Scorcese would film, if Scorcese was obsessed with cats instead of the Mafia.  Whatever happened to him,  Terminator Cat's final thoughts had to have been, "Why didn't any of that impress her?  I mean, come on!"

That cat is my comrade.

I've been working on this little project for just over a week.  In that time, I have tied family members to one of the most heroic Union regiments of the Civil War (more on that later).  I've discovered staggering evidence that our family was present in Nauvoo at the time of Joseph Smith, and that some of them walked the rooms of the original Nauvoo Temple.  I've had information fall out of nowhere, clarifying and illuminating data I'd previously compiled on Anguishes and Pearces and McMurrays.  It's been a week of crouch and pounce, crouch and pounce, crouch and pounce some more.  And there's a nice little pile of dead things to show for my efforts, which I've presented to that gang of lawyers, educators, medical service professionals and one exquisitely unemployable whack job with whom I share a connection to these particular strands of DNA.

It might as well have been a pile of mauled squirrels. Youneverknow.                              

Oh well.  As the great Jean Shepherd used to say, "Excelsior, you fatheads!"

I never expected the combination of disdain and indifference I've received in some quarters; I feel like Jay Leno in prime time.  On the other hand, I never expected the kindness and encouragement I've received from some of you.  It has been a wonderful gift.

I'm going to keep writing.  At least until Tommy Bananas and Vito show up with Louisville Sluggers,  ready to escort me to that cornfield...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


The trouble with the "eternal now of memory" is that our memories are often flimsy and unreliable.  What we think is steel is more often origami, intricately crafted, beautiful to look at, but hardly a firm foundation.

I love this photo, which, based on the suits, the hats, and the absence of snow, leafy vegetation and Child Number Three, I put at Easter Sunday, 1966.  We look like a working class Kennedy Family, Camelot with calluses.  I don't remember this day.  I have no idea who's taking the photo.  But I imagine it's my Aunt Kathy, and I can see, just outside of camera range, the crooked sweet cherry tree that was easy to climb, and the massive black walnut with its husk-covered fruit.  I can see our neighbor, Vida, working in her yard, and right in front of us, a mess of lillies of the valley growing underneath our cellar windows, green leaves and tiny white bells.  We were happy, and confident, and we lived in the best house on the most interesting street in the greatest town in the world.

None of this was true, of course, not really, not wholly.  But that's the way I remember it. Monks were self-immolating in front of the Pentagon.  My dad's friends were fighting (and dying) in Vietnam.  "Sergeant Pepper" was playing on the radio, everywhere but in our house.  We lived out of time, safe in the Mayberry of my memory.

There's a photo someplace of my dad, who lost his own father when he was a kid, walking his pet cat on a leash.  His mom hated dogs, I always imagined, so he was only allowed a cat (cats were handy for people who lived on the Erie Canal: they kept the rats out of your cellar). He had a pet cat, but he was going to do his level best to make the cat owning experience as close to canine ownership as humanly possible.  This is all myth, this defiant eleven year old, determined to bend circumstances to his vision.  I admire that boy, the one with the cat on a dog's leash.  He's been an inspiration to me, someone steady and steadfast, somebody smart enough to pick his battles, but spirited enough to be a tiny bit subversive. 

Maybe, he just liked cats.

In one of W.C. Fields's movies, he tells a very convoluted story about fighting Indians.  At every point, a skeptic interrupts him, corrects him: "Revolvers weren't invented yet." "That's not Apache Country!" "How could you swim with a goat under each arm?"  Defeated, Fields walks away, muttering, "There goes another perfectly good story, ruined by an eyewitness."

Myths are fine.  Families are filled with them. Until about three months ago, I knew with perfect certainty that my family was Scottish, and that all of my personality traits were drawn from the Polish side of my family.  We're not Scots; we're Irish.  No one except my father ever spelled our name "MacMurray".  We're from Downpatrick, County Down, just outside of Belfast.  I am, the more I read and learn, more like my father's side of the family that I ever imagined.

Myths make things easy.  They fold reality to the dream we have of ourselves.  They aren't enough to build on.  We need to know who we really are, where we really come from.  The most amazing stories, the surest foundations, are the ones that are true.

Monday, September 28, 2009


...we never leave the past behind;
we just accumulate
So sometimes, when the music stops
I still can hear the distant sound of 
waves and seagulls, football crowds
and churchbells
And I want to go back to my hometown...
--Joe Jackson, "Hometown"

This is the old central business district in North Tonawanda, New York.  As recently as my childhood, this was the heart of the city, the place where you went to shop, to get a prescription filled, to do your banking, to grab a bite to eat.  It was Main Street, even if was called Webster Street. G.C. Murphy's, the store that sold everything from bolts of fabric to tropical fish to the dreaded "Big Murph" jeans, the lowest rung on the denim ladder, is long gone.  So is Ott's, the tiny pharmacy that always smelled of mint and bubblegum.  Across the canal in Tonawanda, Jenss' Department Store was torn down decades ago, replaced by a McDonald's and a parking lot.  Now there are tattoo parlors and tanning salons where the stores used to be, and everyone shops in Amherst.

That's not to say that the old Webster Street doesn't exist.  It does, like all old places do, in the eternal now of memory.  We all have those moments, those flashes when we are no longer where we are, but tossed back to some old and former place.  Major Rathbone, the physician who tended to Abraham Lincoln in his final hours, is said to have gotten violently ill at the scent of lilacs, for there was a bush in full bloom just outside the window of the room where Lincoln was taken, and that aroma always returned the Major to those horrible events.  The smell of spaghetti sauce cooking turns me into a twelve year old paperboy, collecting subscriptions for my route, because there was a lady on Tremont Street who made spaghetti every Tuesday, and you could smell her cooking all through the neighborhood.  For reasons less clear to me, the very obscure Tony Orlando and Dawn song, "What Are You Doing Sunday?" fills me with nostalgia, puts a lump in my throat, and leaves me with a burning desire to be nine years old, buying football cards down on Webster Street.

For the first eighteen years of my life, this was the view from my front door:

This is not a black and white photo.  From late November until sometime in April, that is the color palette of North Tonawanda.  For six months we live in sepia and shadows, interrupted only by those rare and wonderful moments when the sun breaks forth, bathing us in bright blinding light and a sky colored Dutchman's blue. 

I'd convinced myself that I hated the place, hated its sourness, its sense of sullen resignation.  I hated watching the stores close up on Webster Street, watching the old people die or disappear to Florida, hated watching the young people jump ship for Charlotte or Orlando or Atlanta.  I hated its constant change, and I hated its relentless sameness.  When I left, on January 2, 1981, I didn't even bother to say goodbye, barely acknowledged my mother in her nightgown, waving on the front porch.

You can run, but Hometown never goes away.  It is always there, like Rathbone's lilacs: suddenly I'm eight,  running with my sister, the bitter cold piercing its needles into our lungs, along the banks of the Canal; old Mr. Ott is telling me to say hello to my mother; I'm walking to school, mortified, in my brand-new Buddy sneakers ("proudly made in Poland") and my Big Murph jeans.  It essential and inescapable.  It is my hometown.

 What I'm learning is that all those strands of heritage that I'm presently trying to braid into something coherent, are essential and inescapable, too.  I am those Protestant Irishmen who stayed loyal to the crown, who carried the Queen's rifles in India, Australia, Canada and the Crimea.  That loyalty, that sense of duty is part of me.  I am the hardheaded Palatine who couldn't curb his temper, who took up arms against his neighbors and rode with Butler's Rangers, and I am his more even tempered son, who named his own boy "Washington", and rescued the family from a Canadian exile.  I am the sharp-tongued Pole, who ran a speakeasy behind his Oliver Street barbershop, and the factory worker who loved the schmaltz and spotlight of show business.  I am the Mormon convert, the true believer, who struggles every day with being humble and teachable.

I am my hometown,  I am my ancestors.  And still, like all of us, I am something completely new, something utterly unique.

Friday, September 25, 2009

More Surprises

Another check of the database shows that Hiram C. Jacobs had a brother, Dana.

Here's some information about Dana.  The italicized section was found on

Added by Geraldine_Cunningham on 3 Jul 2009

1817, 15 March: Arrived with Family in Niagara County, New York

Married Florence Pettit and had five children.
3rd January was baptized by Father Henry Jacobs;  ordained a presiding elder of the Rustford Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in
Allegany County, New York, April 1836; and in November 1837, went to Kirtland, Ohio.

Married Zilpha Mills (between 1838-1845). They had three children; moved to Nauvoo, Illinois and attended the Seventies Jubliee held in the Pottawamies in Iowa....

Returned to New York where son Dana was born; married Huldah Harrington, 12th. April, 1856 in Conneaut, Ashtabula, Ohio. They had two sons. He had been widowed in 1855.

Farmed in Conneaut.

Attended Golden Wedding Celebration for brothers, Daniel and Whitman, on 25th September, 1879, in Niagara, New York.

Lived with his daughter Ruth Jacobs Bush and her husband George W. Bush, in Wheatfield, New York.

From the "Tonawanda Herald", dated 17th November, 1892, p. 3: "A couple of weeks ago we mentioned the fact that Mr. Dana Jacobs had gone to Antwerp, Ohio to live with his son Moroni. It is our painful duty to-day to record his death, which occurred November 6th, caused by a stroke of paralysis. His age was about 85 years. He was the father of the late Mrs. Geo. W. Bush of Main Street."

In the book Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, Dana and Sanford Jacobs are identified as members of the Silver Creek Branch, followers of Alpheus Cutler, a man who had been a close confidant of Joseph Smith and had been instrumental in the completion of the Nauvoo Temple (in fact, it is entirely possible that the Jacobs were also involved in temple construction, for the work crews were among the last to receive their endowments).  Cutler believed that he had a special mission to minister to the Native Americans, and he and his followers refused to follow Brigham Young west.  On 13 June 1850, in a meeting presided over by Orson Hyde, Michael Jacobs, Dana Jacobs, Sanford Jacobs and several other men were found to be "disaffected," and were disfellowshipped from the Church.  Cutler was excommunicated in 1851, though it appears that none of these men ever disavowed the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the Gospel, or the leadership of Joseph Smith.

Others, including my wife's ancestors Alvah and Louisa Alexander, went West with the Saints (in another weird coincidence, it is conceivable that the Alexanders and the Jacobs knew one another, for they lived just a few blocks apart in Nauvoo).  My ancestors went another way.

I am speechless.


About a year into my service as Bishop, the Stake President paid a visit to my office.  (The LDS Church is, for the most part, divided into wards, which are roughly the equivalent of Catholic parishes, and "stakes of Zion" -- the phrase is drawn from a line in Isaiah, and we'll leave it at that for now -- which are roughly equivalent to Catholic dioceses.  Suffice to say that this guy was my boss.)  This particular Stake President is a remarkably kind and decent man, the kind of leader who can stand up in front of a thousand people and say, "I love you," and every single person believes it, every single person knows he's speaking from his heart.

This was the Sunday before his release as stake president.  Mormonism is the only religious order I know of that has term limits built into its theology: stake presidents generally serve for ten years; bishops generally serve for five or six.  And when you are done being the big shot, your next assignment in this all-volunteer army might be something like providing piano accompaniment for the Primary children, or working as an assistant Scoutmaster.  It's not a bad thing, not at all: the burden of leadership is spread across many backs; and it keeps everyone humble.

The stake president was being released, and he came to visit me.  "Bishop," he said, "There is one thing you must know.  There is not a family in this Church, not a family in this world, who has not been affected by adultery, or drink, or drugs, or some other awful thing.  Whether it happened in the immediate family circle or in the extended family, there is not a family that is free of these things.  There is not a family that is free from some grievous heartbreak.  And the difference between the happy families and the unhappy ones is that the happy families face the problem, forgive one another, and move on, and the unhappy families never let go of anything."

He's a great man.  And that is a sage observation, counsel that I used, to varying degrees of success, in countless counseling sessions with the members of my ward.  Some hurts take years to heal, but they will heal.  Some hurts can't heal without some outside help.  But sooner or later, that help comes.  You have to work at it.

Which leads me to the Pearce family.

I have never liked the Pearces.  My grandmother, Gladys Mae Pearce, died when I was five.  I remember her as a skinny, beetlebrowed woman, hollow-cheeked and twitchy, whose eyes always reflected anger and fear, never a hint of happiness.  I was scared to death of her.  In working on the Pearce line, I've uncovered aggravation after aggravation (Why does Abriam Milliman Pearce disappear between 1860 and 1870? Who is Benjamin Stanton Pearce's father?  Was Philander Pearce really a Union soldier during the Civil War, and if so, why isn't he on any muster roll?  What is the real story of "Crooked Sally" 
Pearce?)  They've been a massive pain in the neck, a mess of mysterious information and birth certificates bearing the entry "Father's Name: UNKNOWN", the frayed end of our family DNA strand.  

Yesterday, I was poking around in, and found some amazing things.  "Poking around and finding amazing things" in family history research isn't like Indiana Jones turning over a few shovelfuls of dirt and then dropping himself into the center of Pharoah's Map Room. It's more like those guys drilling for natural gas in West Virginia: you spend months trying things that don't work, and then you almost by accident discover that drilling horizontally through the shale, then pumping in a highly pressurized jet of water, releases hydrocarbons trapped in the rock, giving you (wait for it) gas.  It's a process.

And it's often a ragged process.  This isn't some Goldberg Variation, each note impeccably placed, the counterpoints meticulously charted with painstaking care.  It's a set of drums and three guitars.  When everything works, it's the Beatles on the roof of Apple Records.  When it doesn't, it's four slow-witted teenagers, thrashing away in somebody's garage.

So last night I'm poking around on, and I discover a posting by a lady named Cheryl, who lives in St. Anthony, Idaho.  Her research had uncovered the surname of Abriam M. Pearce's wife, a woman I knew only as "Rebecca Pearce."  Rebecca's maiden name was Jacobs, and she was born in Niagara County, New York.   

With this information, I scanned online census records for Niagara County.  There, in the 1860 Census, was a listing for a 21 year old woman named "Rbecky" (you learn to work with the caprices of the census takers: spelling accuracy is not always their strong suit).  She lived with her parents, Hiram and Charlotte Jacobs, and her siblings,  William, age 17, Polly Ann, age 14, and Hiram, age 7.  On the same census page are listed households headed by Henry Jacobs, Nancy Jacobs, and Stanford Jacobs, all surely relatives of Hiram.

Rebecca's birthplace is listed as New York.  her brother Hiram was also born in New York.  William was born in Illinois.  Polly Ann was born in Iowa.  An 1843 birth in Illinois, and an 1846 birth in Iowa: could these people have been Mormon converts, living in Nauvoo?

I dug deeper.  A Hiram C. and Charlotte Jacobs are among the signers of the famous "Petition of Redress", an 1843 document sent to the United States Congress, asking for federal reparations on behalf of the Mormon victims of persecutions in Missouri.  A visit to another site, the wonderful, showed some staggering information.  

Hiram C. Jacobs, born 1812, lived in the 800 block of Wells Street, about three blocks east of Mansion House, the home of Joseph Smith.  The Nauvoo Temple was on the other end of Wells Street, less than a mile from the Jacobs home.  Hiram and his wife Charlotte received their endowments and were sealed in the Nauvoo Temple on February 7, 1846, on the last day that the Temple was used for sacred ordinances.  They would have been among the last of the 5,634 men and women who were endowed in the Nauvoo Temple.  They would have been among the last citizens of Nauvoo to leave the city, crossing the icy Mississippi for a tent city in Iowa, and the uncertain future that awaited them in the West.

Hiram and Charlotte left their homes, and gathered with the Saints in Nauvoo.  There is little doubt that they heard Joseph Smith preach, that they spoke with him, even if for a moment.  They were certainly in Nauvoo at the end of June, 1844,  when Joseph's body was carried back from Carthage Jail.  They believed what I believe, made the covenants that I have made.  And they determined to go with the Saints.

Something happened.  The Jacobs family never made the westward trek.  Several years separate the Iowa birth of Polly Ann, and the New York birth of Hiram.  Are there lost children, babies buried at Winter Quarters or Far West?  Was the journey too hard, the price too high?  Did they get tired, or offended?  Or did they simply lose interest?  A Nauvoo cemetery record records the 1843 burial of "an infant child of Sanford Jacobs."  Sanford's name also appears on the Nauvoo Temple endowment list.  In 1860, he's Hiram's neighbor in Wheatfield, New York, another Saint who never saw the Salt Lake Valley.  Did one brother influence the other?  What happened?

Why did my father decide to join this Church?  Why have I felt, since I was a boy, this fascination with Nauvoo, and the prophet who built the place?  Am I called to heal very old wounds?  Are "voices from the dust" asking me to help them "face the problems, forgive the problems, and move forward"?

I didn't sleep much last night.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Big Tease

This morning, for the first morning in months, there is the slightest hint of a chill in the air, the faintest hint of the tiniest whisper that a change in season is coming.

It's a lie, of course.

Seasons don't change in Houston.  We slide from oppressively hot to mildly uncomfortable and back to oppressively hot again, year after year.  There is April, with its agreeable temperatures and its jaw-dropping riot of wildflowers, and the occasional anomaly, like the Christmas Eve snowstorm a few years ago, an event so stunning, so remarkable that books were written about it, but for the most part, it's the menu at McDonald's: Quarter Pounder, Egg McMuffin, or Flliet-O-Fish Sandwich, it all tastes the same.

That's why this cool, breezy morning is so cruel.  It's a come-on, a con.  In three days, the temperatures will be back in the Nineties, and it will be humid, and we will have completely forgotten why we bothered to unbox our sweaters and hoodies.   

Houston is a lint trap town: we blow in here from all over the world, carried by the hope of work or of education or of a fresh start, planning to stay just long enough to get established, a year or two, and then go back to Michigan or Buffalo or Lagos to start our real lives, but somehow we stick.  We start our families.  We buy homes.  We start saying "Y'all" instead of "youse guys," and develop an opinion on which joint serves the best barbecue.  We get used to the notion that you can wear sandals in December, and not be playing the part of Shepherd #3 in the church's annual Nativity play.  We get used to all of it.  We learn to like it.  

Then the morning comes when we go out for the paper and we feel the slightest hint of the tiniest whisper of Autumn, the smallest of cool breezes curling over our noses like the brush of a peacock feather, and we are in another place.  I love Houston, weird, flat, wonderful Houston.  It's like Guy Clark's voice: weathered and creaky and comfortable, something you've known all your life, even when it's singing a brand-new song.  But on a morning like this, when the slightest hint of the tiniest whisper of Autumn is in the air, my heart aches to collect chestnuts from the trees in front of old Mrs. Carney's house, and to watch the steam rise, like apparitions, from the muddy old Erie Canal, and to see leaves, freed from the close confines of photosynthesis, finally reveal their true colors, red and yellow and brown and orange, one last grand gasp of freedom before they tumble.

My family has lived in the white house on the canal for 110 years.  I have spent more than half my life away from that place.  It is not my home.  It never really was.  But on a morning like this, with the smallest of cool breezes curling over my nose, I long for it.   

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Easy Way

Mormonism is filled with Women of Purpose, steely-eyed and determined matriarchs whose primary mission in life is to get the lumpen masses populating their wards to Do It The Right Way, whether It is food storage, or singing the Church hymns, or obeying the Word of Wisdom, or doing Family History. (There are Mormon Men of Purpose, too, but they tend to reserve their Purposefulness for the Scouting Program, and it's hard to take anybody seriously when they're dressed in short pants and epaulets.) These women are fearsome in their focus, relentless in their drive, unyielding in their efforts to drag the rest of us to Exaltation.

They are everywhere. The next time you're in a sacrament meeting where the opening hymn is something no one has sung since David O. McKay was Church President, something like "Up, Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion" or "Does The Journey Seem Long?" or "What Was Witnessed In The Heavens", or the brethren are straining their way through the Minnie Rippertonesque high notes of "The First Vision", look around. Somewhere there is a Ward Music Committee chairman taking mental notes, neck craning, lips pursed disapprovingly, her steely eyes fixed, one by one, on each slacker mumbling his way through the unfamiliar lyrics, her keen ears noting each note missed by the beleaguered organist. "They'll be no rest for this sorry bunch!" she thinks. "They'll not enjoy the sweet, warm caress of 'We Thank Thee, Oh God, For A Prophet', not on my watch! There will be no 'Put Your Shoulder To The Wheel' here, not until they have mastered every other piece in the hymnbook!"

Have you ever been stopped in a Church hallway, and had a clipboard shoved at you, holding a sign-up sheet for bulk orders of blueberries, red winter wheat, or Army surplus C-rations? A Woman of Purpose was doing the shoving. Have you ever agreed, even though you're terrified of heights, to climb a 30 foot ladder to affix a star made of artistically cut Sprite cans and battery-powered twinkly lights to the Cultural Hall ceiling, because the ward Christmas party decorations were "lacking something"? Women of Purpose are EXTREMELY persuasive.

I happen to love these women. I'm terrified of them, but I love 'em.

Sister Grapes is a Woman of Purpose, Family History Division. When I was maybe eleven years old, the Bishop gave me permission to take Sister Grapes's Geneology class, which was held during Sunday School time. Her mastery of the subject was encyclopedic, her innumerable Books of Remembrance, packed with pedigree charts and family group records and grainy Xeroxes of old documents, as thick and intimidating as a complete set of the Britannica. She was well acquainted with old cemeteries and musty town clerk's offices and forgotten archives in backcountry church houses. These were her people, and they were ALL going with her: "WE LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND! YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" Her class was the closest I've ever come to being a Marine.

It was too much for me. I felt like Father Hennepin, the first time he saw Niagara Falls: Inspired, but overwhelmed. I quit.

The thing is, once a Woman of Purpose tattoos you, you stay tattooed. And now that the time is right, the wisdom and knowledge of Sister Grapes is coming back. I feel a little like Daniel-san: WAX ON! WAX OFF! CRANE KICK!!!!

And today, it's easy.

There are a lot of family history research sites on the web, some of them very helpful, some of them poorly managed and rarely updated. The National Archives in Great Britain is a great resource. The Ellis Island Foundation offers a remarkable array of data on immigration. The most comprehensive site is, which affords you access to a dizzying variety of documents, in many cases allowing you download photographic images of the originals (the basic site is free, but the good stuff costs money. Whatever your habit -- old birth certificates, gelato, heroin -- it's always the same: the first taste is free, then it's Pay up, Charlie).

Here's an example from, a copy of the 19 December 1869 marriage certificate of James Squib Hanson and Charlotte Childs, my great-great grandparents:

It's tough to see in this image, but the document states that he was 23, she was 21, that they were married in Saint Andrews Parish, on Haverstock Hill in the borough of Camden, County Middlesex (which is part of metro London), that he was a bookbinder by trade, and that they made their newlywed home at 9 Preston Street, Camden. Both their fathers were deceased, but in life George Hanson had been employed as a watchmaker, and Joseph Childs had been a whitesmith, a metalworker who specialized in tin.

A couple of more keystrokes, and I learned that Saint Andrews had been built in 1865, was badly damaged by Nazi bombs during the Blitz, and was razed in 1955. A few more, and I learn that today you can purchase a lovely studio apartment in Bellsize Park, just down the street from Haverstock Hill, for a cool 199,000 pounds (about $326,000), which leads me to think there's been some gentrification. On Google Earth, I can see the streets of Camden, see the shops and the clubs and the people queued up at the ATM outside of the local HSBC.

It's the Easy Way. Information that would have required months of digging and possibly an overseas trip now comes by paying a fee and pressing a few buttons.

I am collecting my people. I am bringing them back. Sister Grapes would be proud. Disgusted at my lilly livered softness, perhaps, but still proud.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Why It Doesn't Start Where It Really Starts

There are five of us in our family, me, my wife and our three kids. I would love to talk at great length about these four wonderful and amazing people, but this blog is mostly about my dead relatives (and the more I think about it, "My Dead Relatives" might have been a better title. "The Three Thousand Project" sounds like some weird hybrid film, part live action, part cartoon, where space aliens fight gladiators. Either that, or one of those earnest Bill Clinton-sponsored efforts to provide every village in Botswana with its own goat. It's confusing, and possibly misleading. Mr. Clinton, if you've stumbled in here, thinking I have some goats ready for export, you're out of luck. And anybody looking for gladiators fighting space aliens, or zombies, or whatever they do in those films, you've come to the wrong place.)

"The Three Thousand Project" paints me into a corner. First of all, who really enjoys projects? "Project" usually involves cleaning several years worth of funk out of a bathroom sink p-trap, or filling 875 old Clorox bottles with water for use in the event of a Natural Disaster, or reorganizing the ward Home Teaching routes, and who wants to do any of that? Second, if I don't scare up three thousand relatives, the whole thing is a lie. It's like those Doomsday preachers: you declare an exact date for the end of the world, you get all your followers to dress in white Stetsons and join you in a field somewhere, and before you know it, it's the morning after The Last Day, and everyone's safe and sound, and you look like a real knucklehead. All you folks who think that the curtain is going down in 2012 because some stone in the Yucatan says so, well, my friends, you're gonna be disappointed. Mayan calendar, my eye.

So "My Dead Relatives" would have been a better choice: it's simple, and straightforward, and there's nary a hint of deadline pressure. And much like my other deadline-less recent projects -- mastering conversational French, completing a hundred mile bicycle ride, giving up red meat -- this one, sans pression, would have died in the electronic equivalent of a pile of Whataburger wrappers and dust covered bike parts. Spilled milk, I guess. "The Three Thousand Project" it is. Game on!

Knowing my kids, the prospect of their lives being discussed in Dad's family history blog would have elicited: a) a sober and serious-minded expression of grave concern over the potential exposure to identity theft posed by this breach of family security; b) a protracted display of outrage over a technologically incompetent middle-aged man's decision to ruin his daughter's life; c) an offer to trade the unlimited use of his image and personal information for a copy of "The Beatles: Rock Band", complete with the Paul McCartney Hofer Violin Bass and the George Harrison Gretsch Duo Jet Guitar (Kid "c" is a wheeler-dealer, but a wheeler dealer with taste).

So I'm leaving them out of it.

Names Added Today:

Me (Page 1, position 1)

Family Group Sheets started: 1 (My Family) 5 family members total

Total Names to Date: 5
Names Left to Go: 2995

There Is A Reason I'm Doing This

I'm a Mormon. There, that's out of the way.

In spite of that, I don't really care for Utah, I usually root against BYU, I prefer Gladys Knight and the Pips to Gladys Knight and the Hopeful Gospel Glee Club or whatever she calls her current group, and I've never been much for genealogy, or as we like to call it down at the Stake Center, Family History.

I've always believed that family history was meant for people who can only get along with their dead relatives, a haven for irritable, demanding old folks and guys with bad haircuts who wear black socks and sneakers. While not that old, I am irritable and demanding, I do have a bad haircut, I find black socks and sneakers a Solid Fashion Strategy, and truth be told, most of my involvement with living relatives leaves me disoriented, with a searing pain in my side, like I've been drugged and had a kidney harvested by black market organ traffickers. All of this, and still not enough to convince me that I had a place in the world of dusty census records and pedigree charts.

Recently, that's changed.

Four months ago, I was released as bishop of my ward. I'd served in the bishopric for over ten years, six of them as bishop. That's just shy of a quarter of my life. Being released from a major Church calling can be jarring: you go from having way, way way too much to do, to having plenty of time to watch "Malcolm In The Middle" reruns. Your phone stops ringing. No one really cares what you have to say anymore. Your kids says things at dinner like, "Finally, we have a bishop I like!" (None of my kids really said this, but I'll bet they were thinking it. Teenagers are a treacherous bunch.) I've felt like a cross between Charlie Brown and George W. Bush, shoulders slumped, enormous round head bowed, my squinty eyes blinking in confusion and ennui.

Idling in Church Service Neutral, something has happened. Somewhere in the spaces between "Malcolm in the Middle" and the sad, Vince Guaraldi, "The Round-Headed Kid Just Blew Another Ballgame" music that's been playing in my head, I've been flooded with thoughts of "my kindred dead." Not so much of my father, who's been gone for nearly thirty years, or of my grandfather, who died just a few months ago, but of people I've never met, people I've never known. Below is a photo my sister found in a pile of old family papers. I don't have a clue who these people are, but I know that somehow, I belong to them. I can see it in their smiles, in the high cheekbones of the old man on the upper left, who looks like my dad would have looked, had he ever become an old man. I can see it in the high forehead and full belly of the guy in the middle, who looks to be about my build, about my age. This is really all we have of our ancestors, a handful of photographs, most without any notation of names or dates or places. These are our people, these ghosts. And for some reason, they are coming to me. They are right there, all around me.

Don't misunderstand: this is no claim of transcendence, no great visionary moment. I don't see dead people; I just think about them a lot. And as I toe the rim of that remorseless void known as Middle Age, thinking of all the things I've done, the cringe-inducing and the shameful (did I really, for a brief period, go out in public wearing blood red bell-bottomed corduroys, because I thought they made me look like Allen Collins from Lynyrd Skynyrd? Was that cowboy hat really necessary?), I find myself wanting to understand all those people who came before me, to feel a kinship to them, to know their histories.

So here's the goal: Over the next 24 months, I want to have a total of 3,000 individuals on my pedigree charts and family group records. As of last Saturday, 19 September 2009, I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30. I've signed up for the deluxe membership at, I'm close personal friends with at least three of the staff members at my local LDS Family History Center, so I think averaging about 120 new names a month is doable.

We'll see.

This blog will be a place where I share what I've learned about my family, about family history research, and, maybe, about myself. Red bell-bottoms will NOT make an appearance.