March 4, 2009 § 2 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
I’ve been thinking about family quite a bit these days. I’ve been in my mother’s hometown of Newberry, South Carolina almost full-time since late January, helping her recuperate from heart surgery. Her family is still in the area, so I’ve seen more of aunts, uncles and cousins than I often do in the course of a year. Or several years.
And it’s been good. I’ve enjoyed this sense of connectedness, of belonging. My first cousin once removed is the Mayor. His son, Clark (my second cousin) and Clark’s wife, Kathy own a wonderful restaurant downtown, The Flying Pie.
On the day I brought my mother home from the hospital and tucked her up in bed, she ushered me out to dinner at the Flying Pie in the company of my Uncle Allen and Aunt Linda and when we arrived there we joined a dinner party consisting of Cousin Ed (the Mayor), his wife Joan, Cousin Larry (Ed’s brother) and his wife Vicky and Vicky’s brother Tim and his wife and their daughter and son in law.
Sitting there, tucking into my lobster ravioli, I was struck by the fact that I belong to these people, and in turn, they belong to me. For the only child of footloose parents, this is a heady sense indeed. Even if over pink grapefruit champagne sorbet my Uncle Allen did caution my Cousin Larry not to tell me any secrets that Larry didn’t want to see published on a billboard.
Astounded, I asked Allen when I had ever divulged any secrets of his and he replied “Lots of them, to the whole congregation at Mama’s funeral.” I think he must have meant the parts of my eulogy for Nana when I said Allen claimed Mom pushed him out the window when they were kids and that while he was growing up he refused to have more than one kind of food on his plate at a time. But really, those are family folklore, not secrets at all.
Through the vagaries of the paths my parents chose I lived at eight different addresses in three countries by the time I was fifteen. Among those I count Middletown, Connecticut (age 7 to 10) and Prince Edward Island (age 12 to 17) as something like hometowns. Certainly, if I went to either of those places, I could arrange to see people who knew me, who hold me in esteem and affection.
But it isn’t like sitting down at Aunt Carol’s and Uncle Nelson’s with my mother and Aunt Margaret for Beaufort Stew (shrimp, potatoes, sausage and thick slices of corn on the cob) and talking about other relatives not present, and solving the ills of the world and having Aunt Carol tease my son Julian when he calls on my cell phone.
“Who is this?” she asked. “Well, I found this phone on the street. Who are you looking for? Who? Your mother. Oh. Do I know your mother?” She listens for a minute. “Oh, okay,” Carol says. “You know I think I saw your mother on the street corner.” We are doubled with laughter.
Nothing can compare to what it feels like to belong.
All my life I’ve found that sense here in this old mill town in the foothills of the Piedmonts, and also in the far northwestern corner of Ohio, in the little railroad town that my father called home. But my father’s brothers and sister scattered. His aunts and uncles and his father died and then my father died.
Montpelier doesn’t welcome me anymore, even if I did drive Julian all around the town the last time we were there, pointing out the church his great-great-great grandfather built with lumber he felled on his own land; the house where his great-great grandparents settled and raised their six children; the machine shop where his great grandfather worked, the high school where his grandfather was the basketball star and the Williams County Playhouse where Grandpa honed his chops. I even showed him the trotting horse barns at the fairgrounds where I used to while away summer days as a child. And the cemetery at the edge of town where most of those stories found their end.
My great-grandfather Christian Vonalt emigrated from Germany around the turn of the century. His heritage has been thoroughly mined by the Vonalt children. A couple of delegations have even returned to Germany to meet with cousins, and the family history has been traced back to the 15th century.
On the other hand, Christian’s wife, Chloe, was the daughter of a Pennsylvania Deutsche man who had migrated from Loysville, a little town northwest of Harrisburg. When I inherited a quilt that Chloe’s mother had made, I had to do research to find out what the woman’s name was, as she had always been referred to as “Mrs. David Tressler.” (Her name was Elizabeth Shaul.) I am the first (and so far, only) member of my extended family to return to Loysville, 446 miles from the town where David put down deep roots. It didn’t take much digging to find that the Tressler-Shaul branch of the family have been Americans since around 1750, in sharp contrast to Herr vonAlt’s relatively recent arrival.
My mother’s family also claims a very long connection to this fair land, having arrived in Charleston in 1758. I never knew my maternal grandfather, he was killed in an accident when my mother was just 12, but I know that his ancestry is so well documented that every last bit of mystery has been pounded out of it. Oh, there are some great stories to be sure, but there is nothing new to be learned. Every last scrap of the Ouzts history has been recorded in a two-volume hardbound set that rivals the physical heft of the Oxford English Dictionary, and can be purchased for $125.
My mother has expressed a desire to know more about her mother’s side of the family, the Kyzers (the branch to which Cousins Ed and Larry also belong) and Granny Kyzer’s family, the Roofs. It turns out that Cousin Ed has been in contact with a man in Phoenix, who is composing a history of the Kyzers, and my Uncle Ben still gets notices of the annual Roof Family reunions. It is a complicated business, this keeping track of where we came from.
Through DNA, we can now trace our ancestry beyond that of written record, presumably all the way back to the Mesopotamian river valley from whence we all originated, with a nod to all the tribes we belonged to along the way. The DNA Ancestry Project will process a swab taken painlessly from the lining of your cheek and with that can tell you where your ancestors came from, by comparing with geographical concentrations of like DNA. It can tell you which groups of people who share your surname you’re actually related to, and whether or not you share ancestry with some famous predecessors . . . Thomas Jefferson, anyone? Marie Antoinette?
National Geographic is engaged in a similar quest to make a DNA “map” of the world with The Genographic Project . They began with a study of indigenous peoples to see what they could figure out about who we are and how we got here, and have extended the project to the public at large in a combined effort to tell the story of where we came from and where we belong. To participate in the studies cost between $100 and $200 depending on how much information you want.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of surprises people get with their results. In an antique store today I saw a photograph of a long-dead prominent local couple in formal dress. A note attached to the photo said it was taken at the Eisenhower inauguration, but I had my doubts, given the setting. It made me think of how askew our family histories get handed down from parent to child to grandchild. This couple probably attended the inauguration of Eisenhower. Maybe she even wore that same dress for the occasion. But I don’t that particular photo was taken in Washington DC, no matter how fervently family members believe otherwise.
My curiosity about ancestral family probably doesn’t extend a c-note’s worth. There’s still so much to know about the living. Mother and I went to lunch today at Delamater’s, a very nice restaurant that she described as belonging to “one of your relatives.” This was kind of strange, because of course, the owner is obviously one of her relatives too.
A genial man met us at the door, and looked at me with something that I would have sworn was recognition, but of course it could not have been. He welcomed us to the restaurant and seated us at a table, clearing away the “Reserved” card.
“They were supposed to be here at one, and they haven’t shown up yet,” he said with a smile. After he retreated, mother whispered across the table.
“That’s your relative.” Apparently his mother was an Ouzts. Or maybe she married an Ouzts. It’s all so hard to keep straight. Lunch was wonderful though: velvety she-crab soup, crunchy catfish po-boy and a key lime parfait that was a perfect blend of sweet and tart.
Of course, the best family are the ones you count among your friends, and the best friends are counted as part of your family. During my mother’s heart surgery, her circle of friends, the Fairest Flowers of Winthrop College, and high school classmates and a woman she met in Connecticut in 1969 who has remained her friend through thick and thin; all of them together formed an incredible network of support and bonhomie that kept both us afloat through some pretty dark hours. They too have made a place in the world to which my mother belongs.
After my grandmother died, my aunts and uncles formed a living trust to conserve Nana’s house. With real estate bottoming out, it made more sense to keep it, and my mother is living there now. It provides still a sense of place for this family. All were in agreement except my Aunt Faye who said forget it, she wanted her cut now. Her share amounted to just about $4,000. And that’s the price for which she sold her birthright, cut her family ties forever, and lost her real place in the world.
I expect I’ll come back to Newberry, South Carolina for as long as there is someone here to come back to. Every time the screen door on the back porch closes behind me, (a distinctive yawning sound followed by a sharp slap) I hear the voices of my relatives echoeing from forty years ago: “Don’t let the screen door slam!” My mother wants to paint the kitchen and change things and that’s fine, life changes. But there will always be that long flight of steps to the front door, a monument in not-too-distant Edgefield that spells out our family history, and the possibility that the person walking down the street is a member of the clan. Finally, family is what you make of it and Home really is where the heart is.