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The most difficult project I have ever undertaken in my life is attempting to discover my roots. I began my project in my college years, and like most people fantasize, I had hoped for some connection to royalty in Scotland, England, Ireland or Wales, but I would have settled for a link to a knight or warrior, even if they weren’t the kindest of people.
I began the research by asking older relatives and had the notion I would research my dad’s line and my mom’s line, which would be several lines, actually, since each line doubled with each generation. I met with my maternal grandmother who told me of her parents, farmers, and their parents, farmers, and I was already bored. I asked what they did for excitement, and she told me that the only time life got exciting was when her grandfather came home drunk. (They could hear him coming down the dirt path in the buggy, screaming and shouting.) She said all the grandchildren would take off to the woods and hide until they got a signal from the house that he had passed out. She said he’d point a shotgun at my great grandmother (her mother) and make her play the piano for hours while he slurred songs that in his inebriated mind somehow made sense until he finally slipped into a mumbling mode and then dropped unconscious to the floor. My great grandmother would keep playing for a while until she was sure he was asleep, and then one of her fifteen siblings would call the younger ones back to the house. My grandmother told me how her grandfather would shoot up the house and furniture when he was drunk, but would then go to town and buy all new furniture the next day because of guilt. She told me how he would jump in the well to try and kill himself and they would pull him out. I wondered why they just didn’t let him drown. She told me how he got into an argument with his nephew when they were both drunk, and they shot each other, which is how he finally died. What amazed me most, however, was when she said, “He was a good man.”
“Don’t you think he was an alcoholic?”
“No, I don’t think so. He just liked to drink. My maternal grandfather’s family had come from Ireland, so we were told. They were an industrious, hard-working family with dark reddish skin and dark eyes, and the men mainly worked in the pine woods in turpentine. They would collect the pine resin from trees and distill that into turpentine. Turpentine was used for medicinal cures such as chest rubs, hair treatment for lice, and ingestion for parasites. Their knowledge of turpentine enabled them to distill homemade alcohol for their own consumption and for sale, and word of mouth was their marketing advantage. To disguise their second job, they would sell or trade the homemade brew out of the back of their buggy at the Riverside Primitive Baptist Church, an isolated church nestled within the pine forest. But they only sold the brew after services were over. The church-yard was a peaceful but eerie place, and the graves are not dug as deep as the usual six feet for fear of flooding and caskets floating away.
The image of a deceased loved one moving from his final resting place is a strange one, yet it is more realistic that one might imagine. Once when Julia and I went on a beach trip with friends Shawn and Iris, we discovered this frightening reality. The four of us walked alongside the ocean at Dauphin Island, Alabama. The distant oil rigs off shore took away from the serenity of the retreat, and as Shawn and I scoured the shallows for shells, we stopped to fish out what we thought was a unique shell. The shell was an arm bone, and as I held it, I called out for Iris to identify, since she had a degree in biology. When she confirmed my suspicions, we scanned beneath the murky water and found leg bones and a backbone. Mud caked clothes rested at the water’s edge, and we speculated about a murder or drunken tourist drowning. I dropped the bone back into the water, wondering about the remains of this person, his history. When we reached the pavilion, I saw an officer to whom I tried to explain the situation without seeming like I was guilty of a crime. His matter-of-fact reply astounded me even more than the discovery of human remains: “Happens all the time here. Workers fall off oil rigs or Indian remains wash up after the sea unearths their shell mound burial grounds.”
My concern was that if I am buried, I am buried with assurances I won’t simply wash away, and I know I won’t be buried at Riverside Primitive Baptist Church even though many of my ancestors are. My grandparents had their grave site selected before my grandfather’s death. Once when my grandmother went to visit her love’s grave to place a new plastic arrangement to replace the once red, then pink and white, poinsettia, she stepped in a hole and fell right onto her future grave, her name on the granite headstone minus her death date. At eighty- something, she could not muster the strength to get up, and she sent her youngest grandchild, who was ten at the time and whom she had been baby-sitting, in her car to get help. She watched as the car swerved back and forth, in and out of the sand ruts as he struggled to see over the dash- board. Since the church is isolated, it took a while for him to find help, and all the time she lay atop her grave baking in the Georgia heat.
Switching families, I then investigated my paternal grandmother’s family. Again, I found stern Baptists and farmers. Three of my grandmother’s siblings had gone blind, and I worried about genetic eye diseases. What relatives told me in whispered voices through cupped hands was that their grandfather, another ancestor who liked to drink but didn’t have a drinking problem, got around, caught syphilis as a result of his getting around, and spread it to his wife. His offspring suffered, through no fault of their own. Finally depressed from my illustrious genealogical quest, I decided I couldn’t quit until I investigated my paternal grandfather’s family, which I thought would have a more promising history. Stories of buried money, a burned plantation house no one knew the origins of anymore, and five thousand acres of land sounded promising. Topping that, four generations are buried at a primitive Baptist church that legends claim is haunted, and it does look eerie with its majestic live oak trees draped in Spanish moss surrounded by only woods. I had been there, toured the land looking for clues, and even toured the remains of a house, where I found tobacco cans from the 1800s behind the chimney. I wanted to use a metal detector and scan the ground for buried money. It was rumored the family buried money and silver when a Civil War skirmish had taken place only a mile away. One generation back was the Scotland connection (via North Carolina, Virginia, or somewhere). My great-great-great grandfather and his three brothers, Revolutionary war heroes with thick Scottish brogues, had arrived after the war, received land grants for their service, and started lives a future descendent would want to go back and live.
Twenty-something years later, several people were still searching for the origins of these mysterious four brothers. One distant cousin had a novel idea. He believed that it was possible that they were not who we had always believed they were. Well, no one wanted to let go of the myth passed down generation after generation. Yet, the more we dug into alternative possibilities, the more circumstantial evidence helped build a case that the four brothers were not, in fact, from Scotland or anywhere in the British Isles, but were descendants of Palatine, or German, immigrants escaping religious persecution and indenturing themselves as servants for the British for passage to Savannah, Georgia. Names like Johann, Appollonia, Maria Barbara, Hans were beginning to replace the English names we had inherited, and had searched for, in every archival record possible. Most importantly, the surname began to crop up in different varieties. It occurred to me that not only did we not know our origins, but we didn’t even know what our real name was. Due to language barriers, not illiteracy, the name had been recorded wrong since 1737 when the ship chock full of Germans and Swiss landed at Tybee Island off the coast of Savannah. As I read through colonial records, I read how when the ship docked at Cowes in England, the German-Swiss complained of conditions, particularly the chains, and refused to re-board for the cross- Atlantic voyage. It was only after an interpreter mediated the situation that the good people settled. Upon arrival, the British lumped them together as Palatines even though some were from Switzerland, France, Austria, and several other areas of Europe. Their names were misrecorded, and they were sent to live in small cabins and given a few supplies to last them. Many died, and actually Darwin’s theories proved true—the fittest survived. What finally solidified the case were DNA tests. One fellow, who we knew descended from the German family, had his DNA test conducted, and several of us did as well. A perfect match revealed the truth. Further, another family with a different spelling matched, and no one had known these two families were related for over two hundred years. The whole experience was a shock and required a regrouping of beliefs and a reorganization of years of research.
Several months turned into two years of work before the circumstantial case proving roots really began to take hold. We learned more about their industriousness: how they worked off their indenture, worked to brick the streets of Savannah, got land grants, began farming operations of several hundred acres, founded mills. Yet we still did not know their origins, and we didn’t know their religion. We assume they were Protestant because their future generations were. We didn’t know where their graves were because two family cemeteries have only nub Cypress tombstones left from years of weather.
What is most important for those seeking to find roots in the South is to know that the Civil War had a major impact on records. So many courthouses and records have been burned or lost that it’s a miracle anyone can find anything at all. What is also important to know is that no matter how big and important people thought they were, they are still dead and go unremembered by many for what they had done while on this planet.
It’s quite an eye-opening experience, and yet for all I had learned, and as my wife and I were planning to have our first child, I wanted to know more. I wanted to share with our daughter the truth of our roots. Julia’s water broke early in the morning, about four o’clock. The hospital was forty miles away, and though I knew her Volvo would fly, I was still worried about having to help birth a child, for unlike my ancestors, I knew nothing and wanted to keep it that way. I’m a very high-strung person, and when we arrived at the hospital, I expected immediate attention. The admissions clerk, however, was busy eating a bag of Fritos and drinking a Diet Coke. I had often noticed how many people were oblivious to the fact that if they really wanted to lose weight, then they needed to do more than just add Diet Coke to a pathetic diet.
“She is having a baby,” I said, pushing my eyebrows together.
“Honey, you need to calm down,” she responded, a tiny piece of chewed Frito landing on someone’s paperwork. She did waddle to a back room and return, saying “Follow me.” I wondered if she would wipe the paperwork, or if someone would get it on his hand later, pick his nose or ear, transfer the chewed particle, and get some disease.
When we entered the birthing suite, it wasn’t the hospital rooms I recall from visiting sick relatives as a child. Wooden floors, leather furniture, stylish drapes made the place seem more like a hotel room than a hospital room. The hospital bed, along with the oxygen insert in the wall, and an IV pump on wheels made it seem the right place.
Within a few minutes, nurses were hooking up monitors and sticking IVs in my wife’s arm. I was stepping outside, making calls on the cell phone. A couple of hours passed before contractions and pain increased to the point that Julia needed something, and an anesthetist came to give her the epidural. I had heard Julia’s friends ask if she was going to get the epidural, and she said she would if she needed to. I thought it was a good idea to inject some medication that would numb the pain of birth. The effects, however, made me wonder if it was worth it or not. As I observed the lumps forming in the back where the needle was inserted, and I watch Julia shake uncontrollably, I wondered what was worse. I kept asking for the doctor, a petite brunette with a model’s smile, who seemed very positive and genuine. The nurses said she would be arriving shortly. Words like shortly don’t compute when you are watching someone suffer. Julia’s mother arrived and so did her best friend. They were of some comfort, and when the doctor finally showed, it was time. I didn’t realize I could stay in the room. Honestly, I didn’t want to. I wanted a pill to alleviate the stress and calm my heart rate. I sat in the corner, expressing my concern quietly from time to time while Julia pushed and her mom and friend held her hands and coached. Her mother, who is a nurse, had birthed four children herself, so I figured she knew what to do. The doctor had hundreds of pictures with babies, so I figured she knew what to do, too. I knew nothing and wasn’t afraid to admit it. When the doctor reached her hand and part of her arm inside Julia, I had to leave the room, and I wondered why men find watching lesbians exhilarating. Soon, however, as I stood in the hallway, there was an entire medical team on hand. Julia’s friend came to get me.
“The baby is stuck in the canal,” she said. “What does that mean?”
“She can’t push her out, and she’s stressed. We’re all stressed,” I said.
“No, she is in distress; her vital signs are dropping. They need to do an emergency C-section.”
My wife had been adamant about not having a C-section. She wanted to give birth naturally, so she wouldn’t have a scar. When I darted into the room, the doctor was holding her hand, saying, “We really need to go, Julia. The baby is in danger.”
Julia cried and screamed, “No, I don’t want a scar.”
Everyone looked at me. I said, “Julia, come on. Just have the C- section.”
“I’m not," she cried.
Then, the doctor looked at me again. This time, I was louder and more mean-sounding than I had been to the Frito lady. “Just shut up!” I pointed at the medical team who honestly didn’t know what to say, clapped my hands together and said, “Take her now. Go.”
Before I knew it, they had the tubes, IVs, and the bed all moving down the hall, and Julia was crying. The doctor came out of the surgery room and asked if I wanted to come in. “No, I’ve seen enough.” I told Julia’s mother to go, and she did. At least if something happened, she could have helped. While I sat against the wall with Julia’s best friend and some other friends who had shown up, a nurse came out to tell me that our daughter, who was now in the world, had meconium in her lungs and they were pumping her lungs; she told us both Julia and the baby were fine, and they were taking the baby to the nursery. In a moment, a screaming infant came rolling through the doors in a glass case on wheels, and I followed behind.
At first, they left her in the case, stuff all over her and her crying, while the nurses stood around talking. Finally, I said, “When are ya’ll going to clean her up?” They began to move silently. They wouldn’t let me in while they washed her, tagged her, weighed her and so forth, but I watched them through the window. When they finally let me in, I looked at her: pink with small eyes, very little brown hair, and a wide mouth like Julia. She was indeed beautiful, but I noticed our last name was spelled wrong on her bracelet. I told the nurse, “You spelled the name wrong.”
“It’s no big deal,” she snapped.
Now, it’s one thing to tell that to anyone off the street, but not to a genealogist. “People have been spelling our name wrong for over two hundred and fifty years,” I snapped. “I’ll be damned if she’s going to come into this world with her name spelled wrong just because someone can’t spell. If you don’t want to change it, give me a pen, and I’ll do it myself.” The nurse walked away, and another nurse got a new bracelet and redid it, and they finally moved her into the room with other babies under a warm light. I stood with a green medical outfit on by her bed and made clucking and chirping sounds to her. She turned her head and looked at me. For the longest time in her infancy, she enjoyed me making sounds like that. Now when I make those sounds, she says, “You’re silly, Dada.” I think when she’s a teen and brings some boys over, I’ll do it to them and see what she says.
The next day and those that followed were sweet and relaxing. There was breast-feeding to learn, including pumping. That was a sight to behold, but I knew it had to be done, and I would have to live with it. I was just glad that I didn’t have to breast-feed even though I had gained some weight during the pregnancy and had begun to look as if I could. There was learning how to hold her, learning how to change the diaper. The last morning we were there, a nurse came in.
“I understand you do genealogy,” she said.
I guess I looked puzzled and wondered if she was a nurse and a psychic. “How do you know that?” I asked.
“Some of the other nurses were talking about your wanting the bracelet changed because they spelled your name wrong.”
“Yes, that’s true,” I said and knew they had been discussing what an ass I was behind my back.
“Some of my family has the same name, and I’ve been trying to understand the history a bit better.”
I explained to her what I knew, what I didn’t, and that when I got home I would email her information I had. I spent a lot of time on the computer emailing people and have wondered from time to time what we did before computers, before email. I sent her some information but never heard from her.
Now before my daughter goes to bed at night, we sing songs together—"Down in the Valley”, the goodnight song from the Lawrence Welk show (that I resented as a child because there was no cable and it was the only show on Saturday on all three channels), “My Darlin’ Clementine,” “Old Folks at Home” about the Suwannee River, “Old Suzanna,” and others I remember from my own childhood. We say a prayer, and instead of “If I die before I wake, I pray to the Lord my soul to take,” we say, “May angels watch me through the night until I wake in morning light” because of the lack of sleep I would get as a child thinking I would die. I wonder thinking if angels are watching would affect sleep, but I’ll bet not as much as dying would. I tell her stories about our wonderful ancestors who came here, so they could live free. I hate that they are not completely true, since I still don’t know much about them, but maybe it will inspire her and now her little brother, who was born two years later, to desire to learn more about their roots, or at least, appreciate history. His birth, incidentally, wasn’t nearly as complicated, though Julia did have to have a C-section, and since I hadn’t seen my daughter come into the world, I felt I should at least experience it. Though it seemed rather traumatic to me, with the doctors and nurses tugging and pulling skin until they had him out, I was rather pleased that the first thing he did when they held him up was urinate on them. There was some justice there, I thought, and I imagine our ancestors would have been proud.