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Jean-ealogy: Tales, not trees

Industrious sorts among my cousins got sucked into tracing our family trees. While it fascinates some, it always sounds rather like a giant word problem in math class to me.

Doris Ratflicker married Ted Thistlewopper in 1677. They had four children, Ruby, Pearl, Algernon and Abner.

If two remained spinsters and the third married his fourth cousin, then each had five children, and one of the two sons never married, how many children did they have and what were their names?

The questions started coming. Did I know my mother’s brother’s birthplace? Did I know the date, degrees from the equator and placement of the constellations when my great-aunt Chloe eloped?

Shoot, I can’t even remember my own anniversary, but I reminded myself that something fascinating might be unearthed, so I dredged up what information I could.

After all, when someone traced our roots back through my German-Dutch ancestor’s arrival in Ohio, they discovered one swarthy, portly uncle had managed to snag himself a lovely Native American bride. It was, for several unenlightened generations, quite the scandal.

We are now tickled about our exotic heritage. At one time, we hoped it might provide some scholarships, but are now content to accept that this marriage may have given those Germanic potato faces their only hint of cheekbones.

The dry facts of who married and begat whom is far less interesting to me than the recollections of how they actually lived their lives.

My maternal grandmother kept restless grandchildren entranced with vivid tales of her youth on an Ohio farm. We would lie on her bed, in the tiny 32nd Street house where she and my grandfather raised six children.

As we stretched out around her in our jammies, she would tell tales of berry-picking, black snakes and chasing down the beheaded chicken, all astounding to suburban youngsters like us.

My paternal side had the big city folk. They first thrived in the heart of Brooklyn, where they had been part of the community of Irish immigrants. This gang has the tales of intrigue and tragedy.

Word was that my great-great-grandfather O’Hart dropped the O’ as he fled Ireland with the authorities on his heels, for some vague political shenanigans.

His son became a captain in the U.S. Postal Service Sea Post, in the late 1800s. He guarded the gold that was shuttled between New York and Europe.

As the ship sailed back to New York in 1902, he disappeared. The report claimed he was lost overboard, gold and all, in rough weather. Nothing could ever prove the strong suspicions of murder and theft.

After losing his father at age 12, my grandfather lost an eye at 14, when his best pal was showing him a trick with their slingshots. My grandmother, whom he was already dating, got him through the loss.

In years to come, his sense of humor prevailed, as he would leave his glass eye atop the dresser to “watch” his children so they didn’t misbehave.

Don’t give me dates, give me the dirt. Don’t dish me names, serve me adventure. I need my ancestors to have truly lived, rather than being simply perched on a branch of our tree.

Jean Gillette is a German-Dutch-Indian-Irish freelance writer who loves to dish. Contact her at [email protected].