Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1999
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JUNE 1999


Tangled Roots
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Colin Johnson

With the leisure of an early retirement, my cousin has become the family genealogist. Turning his formidable computer skills to the task, he tracks down ancestors with the passion of an evangelical preacher searching for lost souls, which is probably what they were. Initially, I was skeptical because the really interesting stuff about the family doubtlessly has been left only in criminal records, or has vanished into the mists of Alzheimer's, as in the case of a once-glamorous aunt who never met a photo opportunity or a handsome man she didn't like. Even I, however, have been sucked into the enterprise, more because of technology than ancestor-worship. In fact, most of the people I trace are historical figures, not relatives. There is, nonetheless, magic in turning on a computer and entering worlds of past joys and sorrows.

My interest in genealogy is surprising because the weight of tradition, and my own experience, is against it. When it came to forebears, my family--both sides--was best at forgetting and denying. It was nothing to lop off a limb of the family tree, to engage in collective amnesia about marriages, real and imagined, or to ignore the woman in family photographs who looked like an Indian extra in a bad Hollywood movie. The virtue of this casual approach to lineage is that we got to pick and choose when it came to aunts, uncles, and cousins. Some of the best kin were largely fictive: the "cousin" with whom I am closest finally figured out, after many decades of inquiry, that our only family tie is that our grandmothers had a common grandmother--apparently a very common one, given the profusion of branches she contributed to the family tree.

My family also lacks the three usual inspirations for genealogical research: distinguished ancestors, ethnic consciousness, and large inheritances. The only time ethnic consciousness ever appeared was when my grandmother wished to explain something unpleasant about a relative. Stubborn? It was the "Dutch blood." Emotionally distant? "English blood." Stingy? The Scots side of the family. Hard-drinking? Irish. Overweight? German. I never learned the true nature of my great-grandfather's unpardonable sins, but I do know he had "French blood." If the Census Bureau added us to its growing list of racial and ethnic classifications, there would be a little box labeled "scum of Europe." That is not a heritage of which genealogists are made.

My prejudices against genealogists began when I was a graduate student battling for table space in a small research library. My chief adversaries were two elderly women, self-identified as Daughters of the War of 1812. I may have contributed to the hostilities by wondering aloud why anyone would admit being a daughter of that particular war. Perhaps in retaliation, their massive bags, bristling with scraps of paper, herded my pile of note cards to a small corner of the table as they searched for relatives who served the Grand Cause with valor and desertion.

The last time anyone in my family looked for past heroes the result was a cautionary tale to my cousin and me that we should let sleeping ancestors lie. The genealogist in that case was one of those fictive kin, an "aunt" with obscure connections through my father's side of the family. For a time she became obsessed with lineage. The sturdy Germans and impoverished Irish who got off the boat in the 1840s were of no interest, however. Her eyes were on the only jewel in the ancestral crown, the Confederate General Braxton Bragg. Never mind that the rest of us thought he was on the wrong side; she turned her pleasant California farmhouse into a shrine to the Lost Cause. Among the relics was a statue of Robert E. Lee, mounted on his favorite horse. Apparently statues of General Bragg, mounted or unmounted, were not to be had. A year or two into her search, I found myself in San Francisco, seated in a friend's living room as he showed us his beloved family antiques just shipped from Philadelphia. Among them was a 19th-century portrait of a woman that transfixed me. She had the soft rectangular face of my California aunt, the same sweet, faint smile, and the lovely light olive skin and lush dark hair of that side of the family. Misunderstanding my stare, the friend, who could be fey at times, exclaimed, "Ah, yes, she is beautiful." With a mischievous look he added, "There are things you don't know about me. I come from a distinguished family. Perhaps you have heard of General Braxton Bragg?"

You might assume that this unexpected discovery of a kinsman-- especially one who shared my aunt's love of antiques--would inspire her to plunge deeper into her Southern heritage. Instead, she said little about the subject ever again. Robert E. Lee charged off to the flea market, and the house ceased to be a Confederate island in a Yankee sea. I would like to believe that anyone interested in roots would trace them wherever they lead, as I am sure my cousin will. I also want to believe that my aunt's abrupt change had nothing to do with the fact that our newest cousin was black. And gay.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.