Monday, October 21, 2013

Family Roots

 A horticulturist will tell you that the roots of a tree are the mirror image of the branches. Given a father and a mother, a child’s roots double backward, sometimes doubling twice where marriage, divorce, and remarriage occurred.

Take one man, watch him marry three times (divorcing twice), each wife linked to other men with whom she has lived or  married. Toss in the other men's children from the pairings and partings, and you have twelve adults and twelve children. This is not a tree; it's a hedge, but it's the hedge I call family.

A decade ago, I began researching a friend’s genealogy. First, as a puzzle, and then, as a gift, I began unraveling his roots. In the process, I became adept at online research. I started the slow untangling of my own history. I began to make sense of the mingling and comingling of my parents, and the other children they bore.

Moving frequently as a child affected my ability to track memories. I couldn't gauge who I was against the same aging appliances or the size of the shrubs in the yard. And though we may not always know it, the place we call home has tangible weight and space in our life.

When a building is a blueprint, architects provide renderings to suggest the shape it will become. When a building takes form, with entrances and exits, you can imagine the lives it might contain, even if there are many who come and go. You can sit in the house and hang your history on the walls.

For a forty-year-old woman whose understanding of her own history went no further back than two generations, it’s a grounding experience to realize your ancestors extend backward into perpetuity. Names and places make them real.

The internets have made the search for family history more accessible. Fellow searchers upload their family photographs and records, which you then can discover as your own. Sadly, I didn't find a Tim Tebow or Kelly Clarkson in my family tree. But I did find more than a few interesting characters.

Mumford Eldred married Jane Whittaker. She bore him thirteen children, the first in 1805, including a pair of twins. I had twins. Who knew there were twins in my family?

One of my great-great grandmothers was named Martha Myda Barker, born November 8, 1872 in Scottsville, Arkansas. This means I could try to lay claim to my own Ma Barker, even though mine wasn't the infamous woman that accompanied her sons on various criminal enterprises. My Barker ancestor married James Lewis Hale in 1984 and thus, potential standing as a Ma Barker was forever lost.

Florence Olive Treffry, born in Manitoba, Canada in 1895. She died before she was thirty-five. Her eldest son, my purported grandfather, worked as a cook in Seattle while he was on the lam from the state penitentiary. I've been unable to locate much information about what happened to him, but did find this.

Haley Tatum, my sixth great grand uncle was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1760. Online, I found Haley Tatum’s will dated March 20, 1819:

In the name of God, Amen. 

I, Haley Tatum, of the county of Rowan and state of North Carolina being now in my perfect mind and memory do make and ordain this to be my last will and testament.  First, I leave to my daughter, Milley Merrel, one negro girl named Liza and all her increase during her natural life and then to be equally divided between all the heirs of her body.  I also do leave her the tract of land that Moses Claybrook now lives upon during her natural life then to belong the the heirs of her body.  I also give her ten dollars forever and no more of my estate. 

Suddenly, slavery was not a distant construct that happened to other people way back when. It was something that my ancestors inflicted on others. I carry that history now. I have a small stake in that pain.

For a long time after reading Tatum’s will, I worried about “the negro girl named Liza” and “all her increase”. What had happened to this woman? I felt concerned for Milley Merrel: What does it do to a person’s soul to inherit another woman and all her kin? 

Did I unwittingly become like her when the judge in the black robe signed the adoption decrees declaring that the children I adopted no longer legally belonged to the parents of their birth, but instead to me? 

From the loins of these people, I sprung forth. It gives you pause.

You are neither the richest nor the poorest. You are not the least nor the most educated. You are not the prettiest or the most plain. You are one in a long line of human beings that are born, struggle, grow, work, compete, love, reproduce, and age.  Then, you die.

You will leave a legacy. It may or may not be what you dreamt at your mother’s knee. Over time, it will fade to a few discrete facts on a graph. If you are lucky, there will be a few photographs, and a few discreet stories relatives will share.

This is the thicket of life. This is family. Tangled roots, tangled branches, tangled lives.


  1. Good take on this topic.

    When we were searching my husband's ancestry, we came up with a newspaper clipping about how his great-grandfather drank himself to death, orphaning the small children in his care. The tone of the article is almost humorous, but it breaks your heart to know that the smallest of those children was my husband's grandfather and that there are ways he would never recover from that aftermath.

    I also ended up, unexpectedly, with slave-holding ancestors in Virginia after believing that they were all safely poor and in the North. I'm currently reading Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America and finding it very helpful for integrating my sense of myself as an American.

  2. We can't be responsible for what came before us. However, I think it can help us see how entwined our histories are, and bring a better sense of appreciation for connectedness rather than separation. I'll check that book out, Joy.

  3. So interesting. It really brought home the issue of slavery for me, also, as you wrote it. I've traced my ancestors back to the 1700s, when they emmigrated from Scotland to northern Ontario. Love the image of the tree with roots mirroring its branches, and the shrub of intertwined branches that is our heritage.

    1. Thanks, Jane! 1700s, wow! It's like a never ending puzzle.

  4. What a powerful post. I'm blown away by your concise, compelling storytelling. Interesting the way you weave fact and opinion. Great stuff!


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