Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I Owe Dan Brown A Big Apology

This morning, I mentioned to my wife that I thought I'd compiled at least 500 family names.  She looked up from ironing a pair of pants, the faintest trace of a smirk ever so slightly curling her lip.  "Really?  Five hundred? You really think so?"  

I have found a lot of ancestors.  I've managed to trace names on my mother's side of the family far beyond my expectations, back six generations on one line.  I've linked my father's side of the family to 17th century Ireland.  I've discovered that McMurray men fought for the British crown all over the world, and that McMurray women bore children in British India and on a military ship bound for Canada.  There have been lots of surprises, lots of discoveries.  

None of it has been orderly.  It's barely been coherent.  I've flitted around like a sparrow who's flown into a plate glass window, confused and concussed, or like that creepy guy who used to bicycle all over North Tonawanda, the guy who had a one-eyed baby doll's head wired to the basket of his fat-tired bike and who had an attention span measured in nanoseconds: the sound of a fire engine or a flash of something shiny, and I'm madly off, pedaling in a new direction.

My wife understands this.  In the last year, I have decided to learn conversational French, run a half-marathon, and read the complete works of Shakespeare.  These goals remain incomplete, abandoned like American military equipment in southeast Asia, slowly consumed by the jungle of my arrested attentions.  There is no reason for her to expect that this particular endeavor will fare any better.  It's a hard truth, a wounding truth, but a truth nonetheless.  A loved one's diminished expectations cut deep.

I sat here this morning, in full Black Knight, "it's only a flesh wound" mode, thinking, "I am going to count all the names I've found, and I will print the number in 100 point type on the ol' blog, and I will feel Vindicated!  and Victorious!  So I began my census.

Most of the work I've done has been among family members who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I feel very confident in the accuracy of this work (but even there, I've already found errors; more on this in another post).  And I have, indeed, numbered dozens and dozens of family members from that era.  The first three generations, including what I've compiled of siblings, sibling's children and spouses, and other extended family members, is close to 120 people.  Go two generations more, and the number swells to over 200 people.  

Once in a while, your research opens up in dramatic, Indiana-Jones-falling-into-the-Egyptian-map-room-and-finding-the-key-to-the-lost-ark ways.  Of course, there are snakes.  There are always snakes.

My research uncovered the work of some Intrepid Genealogist, who had done extensive work on the Pearce family line.  I knew of this pedigree; working on the Anguishes and McMurrays and the Polish lines has been so interesting that I've never really looked at the information it contained.

Today, I looked.  At first, it was exciting, even thrilling: name upon name scrolled across the computer screen.  One hundred names.  Two hundred names.  Three hundred names, and I wasn't even tracing down all of the ancillary lines that curled like tendrils from the main vine.  My heart raced.  "Three Thousand Project?"  I thought.  "How could I have thought so small?"

It was then that the first snake slithered across the screen.  After a long list of nice, normal, workaday names -- Daniel Pearce and Richard Pearce and John Tucker and Henry Stevens -- there was Lord John Ryves, scion of Damory Castle, Dorsetshire.  The Ryves family were supporters of King Henry VIII, and were instrumental in establishing the Church of England.  

I must confess a prejudice.  I am very suspicious of family history that reveals either a connection to royalty, or a connection to infamy.  My research has uncovered my relation to Jacob and Henry Anguish, both of whom, much to my chagrin, were allied with the infamous Butler's Rangers.  There are some who would receive this information with glee, using it as an excuse to show up at Church activities dressed in buckskin and brandishing an Iroquois tomahawk.  I know a man who is thrilled that his great-grandfather was hanged for horse theft.  I think he's nuts.  Shame is shame, no matter how old it is.

The royalty thing is worse.  Despite my family's embarrassing past associations with imperialism, I'm an American, through and through.  I don't need to be validated by knowing that some distant relation owned a castle back in the olden days.  Frankly, I think a lot of this stuff is completely made up: it's a lot more fun to say great-great-great-great-great-great-great Granddad was King of Prussia, than a blacksmith or a farmer.

"You're overreacting," I told myself.  "Royals kept records.  It would make sense that a line this ancient would have some royal traces in it."  I continued scrolling.

It got worse, snakier and less believable.  King Louis IV.  King Louis I.  Charlemagne.  Charlemagne. King of the Franks.  Founder of the Holy Roman Empire.  You know, Pepin the Short's kid.  There is a family resemblance:

Maybe not.

Worse and worse, snakier and snakier.  After scrolling through nine hundred years of pre-Charlemagne kings and their wives and consorts, I arrived at this entry:

First Name:  Jesus
Last Name: Christ

Born: 8 March 0007, Bethlehem, Judea, Israel
Burial: 14 April 0033, Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, Golgotha, Judah, Roman Empire

Wife?  Sure! Marianne migdal-eder, born about 0005 BC in Bethany, Israel; died "after AD 33, in France."  This is, you may have guessed, the woman better known as Mary Magdalene.  Children?  Of course! Mrs. Antenor IV, King of the West Franks, was Jesus and Mary's little girl.  (Can you imagine those family get-togethers?  The holiday season is challenging for all of us, but when Christmas dinner is your father-in-law's birthday party, well, that's some tough sledding.  You'd think being King of the West Franks would be good enough, but when you've married the King of King's only daughter...I feel for the guy.)

This whole thing has left me feeling depressed and queasy.  I can see the Intrepid Genealogist, feverishly making connections, filling in the gaps with imagination and pluck until he or she has drawn an unbroken line leading straight to the manger at Bethlehem, shutting an enormous Book of Remembrance and saying, "There.  That's done," and feeling very proud, indeed.

I am reminded of Paul's warning to Timothy: "Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do" (I Timothy 1:2).  

This kind of nonsense is not why I am doing family history.  I don't care about kings, and I am far more worried about whether I am behaving like Jesus than whether I am one of his distant grandchildren.

For now, there will be no more counting.  It just makes my head hurt.

On the other hand, that pen cup on my desk does look remarkably like...a grail!



  1. So you ARE Jewish.

  2. Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them.............................................