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Small Talk: Shake the family tree

Industrious sorts on both sides of my family decided to trace our family trees. While genealogy fascinates some, it always sounds rather like a giant math problem to me.

Doris Ratflicker married Ted Thistlewopper in 1677. They had four children, Ruby, Pearly, Algernon and Abner. If two remained spinsters and the third married her fourth cousin, 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 start 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 great-aunt Chloe eloped? Shoot, I can’t even remember my own anniversary, but I reminded myself that something fascinating might be unearthed and I dredged up what facts I could.

After all, when someone traced our roots back through my German-Dutch ancestors’ arrival in Ohio, they found that one swarthy, portly uncle had managed to snag a lovely Native American bride. It was, for several unenlightened generations, quite the scandal. We are now tickled about our far-more-interesting 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 are far less interesting to me than the recollections of how they actually lived their lives. Our stories weren’t heroic, but 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 in our jammies, she would tell tales of berry-picking and black snakes, 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 tales of intrigue and tragedy. Word was that my great-great-grandfather O’Hart dropped the O’ as he fled Ireland, 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 returned 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 suspicion of murder and theft.

After losing his father at age 12, my grandfather lost his eye at 14, when his best pal was showing him a slingshot trick. In later years, 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, not just be perched on a branch of our family tree.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer who wishes she could have known them all. Contact her at [email protected].