6.01.2020

and you can never quarantine the past.



"He was the owner of valuable land and exercised no small influence among the people of his neighborhood. In 1771 he was elected county commissioner, and served as such until 1774. By his will on file in the Register's office, after providing for his wife, and the slave to whom he had given freedom, he devises to his only son his large plantation of 500 acres."

Lily, half listening, realizes that I've stopped reading from the archived historical records of one of our ancestors.  She looks up from her phone, mulls over the last few sentences, and says "It's cool that he freed the slave, right?" but before I can respond, her face and body language reveal that the full impact has settled in and she is feeling the same awful disappointment I am.

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Back in March while noticing the numerous small farm burial plots along the rural roads that took the place of the trails that had become inaccessible during the COVID-19 quarantine, an intense curiosity to explore the genealogy of my own family emerged. 

Armed with exceptional amounts of spare time and access to the endless corridors of the internet, I soon discovered numerous names and dates that began to give shape to a previously unexplored family tree.

One clue led to another and another, the branches of the tree expanded exponentially, and a picture began to form of those who came before me.  Nearly all of my ascendants left Germany and Switzerland beginning around 1710 and continuing for the better part of the 18th century.  Sailing across the Atlantic, these non-seafarers (at least those who survived the journey) staggered off of vessels that docked in New York City and Philadelphia, some settling first in New York state, but most all of them ultimately finding their way to the southeastern part of Pennsylvania.  Other than procreating and fanning out within the region, they've pretty remained here ever since.

First setting eyes on Germany just a few years ago, I was stunned by how much of the countryside resembled the part of the United States that has always been my home. I imagined my fore bearers having the very same reaction upon arrival in Pennsylvania.

These were people of faith and while land disputes, wars, and the famine and hardship that stemmed from them were major factors in the decision to leave the only world they'd ever known, so too was the promise of a place where they could practice their religion without persecution.  One of my great grandfathers was the first Amish bishop in America and a member of the initial Amish settlement in the country.  Others helped to found congregations of their own and at least one of my grandparents donated land so a church could be constructed. 

A few hundred years later, that narrative suggests a certain virtuousness, but those humans were just as flawed and fallible as those of us carrying on the family lines today.

I didn't want or need grand or virtuous stories, I just wanted to fill in the blanks in my understanding of the history of my predecessors and I was as open to the mundane as the exceptional.

As the strictest of quarantine measures began to loosen slightly, I started venturing out, visiting various cemeteries, whispering my thanks, telling each deceased grandparent about me, my wife, and my children, and recounting the names of the individuals between us on the branch of our shared tree. Silly perhaps, but each experience was rewarding and connective. 

The data on the internet initially spoiled me, leading me directly to grave site after grave site with little issue.  My luck ran out, however, when a small family burial plot that I'd much looked forward to seeing proved elusive.  GPS coordinates guided me to the backyard of a new home with a deep wide-open backyard that clearly did not contain a cemetery. The homeowner was away but a friendly next-door neighbor escorted me to the yard to confirm that the graves weren't there. Portions of an adjoining farm had been subdivided a few years prior and in place of the graveyard now stood the sand mound of a septic field.

Making notations a few days later that the cemetery was no more, I decided to revisit the dated photos first unearthed online.  A thin line of trees in the background and the slope of the foreground convinced me to go back and check the line of trees that backed up against one side of the developed property.  A thorough scouring of the woods and the fields along the trees offered no further signs of what I sought.

It seemed that the last physical landmarks of my ancestors had been lost to history. The disappointing experience really drove home how temporal is our existence.

Two days later that nagging feeling reemerged and encouraged one final tact.  A return to the internet produced an e-mail address for an individual who had compiled some of the reference information and I sent a message asking when he'd last been to the graveyard or if he had any knowledge of what might have been done with the graves and the headstones. To my very pleasant surprise, he e-mailed back that same day and while he confessed that he hadn't personally ever been to the site, he shared the detailed directions that were provided to him by resources he'd used when compiling the memorial records.  Sitting over the directions and Google maps, it became apparent that the stated GPS coordinates didn't match up with the directions.

Third times a charm, right?  Or perhaps just a sign of extreme stubbornness.

On Memorial Day weekend, I gave it another go, ignoring the coordinates and following the directions as best I could. When I failed to pinpoint the location, a rung doorbell started a strained conversation with a man who reluctantly confirmed that there was a small burial plot on the far side of the trees that ran alongside his property line.  It was clear that other than receiving that information, I wasn't being given permission to access it from his residence.  After a couple seconds of looking at each other silently, he said that the farm behind him was actually on a completely different road and, with that, the conversation was over.

Having come that far and gotten that close, quitting wasn't a consideration. I clambered into the car, pulled up Google maps, and plotted a course.  The final resting place of my 7th great grandparents was probably 100 yards from where I sat but a 6 mile drive and reorientation would be necessary to stand over their graves.

When I reached the other side, there was no farm, at least not that I could see.  I drove far enough to be certain that I'd somehow missed it and turned around.  Coming the other direction,  the lane I'd missed the first time became visible.  A low-key single bar gate was open and just beyond it were several posted No Trespassing signs.  It didn't appear that the lane saw much travel and it seemed unlikely that it led to an active farm.  A mental playback of the earlier conversation brought mention of a farm but not a farmer. Perhaps no one even lived there.

Deciding to give it a try, I slowly inched the car down the lane.  After a couple of turns, the trees and brush that had lined the lane gave way to open space, revealing a beautiful old stone farmhouse with a picturesque little pond and a neatly paved driveway and parking lot.  I realized with some regret that the landowners likely had zero interest in visitors, but, at that point, turning around seemed not an option.

There were a couple of figures visible inside a screened-in addition to one side of the farmhouse, so I pulled the car to a stop and exited the vehicle mixing apologies for intrusion with a quick explanation of why I'd trespassed.  A father and his adult son acknowledged they were familiar with the graveyard and, after I agreed to affix the face mask loosely hanging around my neck, they even offered to walk back to it with me as it was a bit of a hike from where we stood talking.

Our initial discussion about the cemetery gave way to conversations about the state of the world, our families, how we intended to spend the rest of the Memorial Day weekend, and how we'd all ended up living where we live.  The father spoke excellent English but had a strong accent and though he had moved from New Jersey where his son who was visiting for the weekend still resided, it was obvious that he had at some point emigrated to the United States.  I thought about the quiet, unassuming entryway to the property, the seemingly unused lane, and some of the rhetoric being used in relation to COVID-19 and remembered a recent social media post by my friend Wayne.  An orthopedic surgeon now based in Worcester, Massachusetts, he had shared a photograph of he and his family hiking. In the caption,  he thanked his mother for the handmade mask he was wearing in the photo that read "I am from Taiwan not China".  It was all at once both comical and disheartening.  I didn't press my hosts for any more details.

Up until then, no one had accompanied me to any of the grave sites, but I was quite glad to have my gracious hosts there with me.  On the walk back we exchanged contact information as they said they had some other historical information on my family that they'd happily share with me at some later date when social distancing wasn't required.  The home they lived in had been the home of the grandparents I'd just visited and they'd been interested enough in the history of the property and the people who had lived there to know more than I did. The property had slipped out of our family line but had been inherited by a much deserving family whose members were preserving its story while adding narrative of their very own.

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And then last night, as the nation mourned yet another senseless racially-charged murder and demanded justice, I learned that it was the very grandfather who built and lived in that stone home who had "given freedom" to the slave that had served him there.

Never had it crossed my mind that slavery had been a part of my family's history and I was appalled.

But it also never crossed my mind that driving onto a property with clear warnings not to trespass might result in getting me shot or arrested.  Being asked to vacate the premises seemed the worst possible consequence and there were no corresponding concerns for my safety. Not for one second did my mind consider any greater repercussion than not being allowed to stay.

I've never felt the need make a public distinction about my nationality out of genuine concern for the assumptions made by my fellow citizens.

I go out and run pretty much wherever I want and pretty much whenever I want with literally zero concern about anything other than not getting hit by a car operated by someone texting.

In no situation do I fear a police officer.  I may possess a general anxiety when pulled over for a traffic violation but that is a rare occurrence and, except within that specific scenario, it never even crosses my mind to be asked by a police officer to prove who I am, account for what I'm doing, or explain why I am where I am.

Because privilege is why.  The very same privilege that in another era, but in this very same country, allowed whites to bind others in servitude.  The very same privilege that in another era, but in this very same country, allowed whites to refuse entry or service to others because of the color of their skin.  The very same privilege that today still allows for profiling, mistreatment, and sometimes murder.

And whether I look backwards, forwards, or straight into the present, there is no denying that I am privileged.  Any silver spoons my family may have possessed were long ago sold off and I am firmly and eternally rooted in the lower end of the middle class, but that is still an incredibly privileged position in this country as a white male.

I know this and have known this, but I don't know that I've truly and fully understood the broad implications of where that leaves others.  And maybe I'll never be able to, but I am going to try.  I don't want to be guilty of ever playing the "hey, nobody ever gave me any breaks" card or claiming that "I've had to work for everything I've got" and be blind to the relative stacked deck I've been able to draw from in a flawed system.  Equal rights on paper aren't the same as equal rights in practice and it's become abundantly clear, even to the situational blind like me, that there are far too many segments of our population that have found their rights equal only on paper if at all.

A few weeks ago, after a discussion about how and why some people are discriminated against because of their sexual identity, Lily said "Dad, thank you and Mom for teaching us to love everybody."  I adore my daughter, but she can be slow with a compliment, especially now in her earliest teen years, which made that statement both unexpected and stunning.  The fact is that while her parents are mostly well-intentioned, they are also quite capable and guilty of not succeeding in loving everybody. Still, it made me abundantly happy to know that this is the message that my girls are hearing and it's a start.

Unfortunately, it's only a start and perhaps not even that if that love is known to exist within our own four walls but not overtly felt by everyone that we encounter on a daily basis.  It's only a start and perhaps not even that if we don't manifest that love into actions that support the fair and equal treatment of all.

As an adult, I have strived to treat people with respect and fairness.  It's long been my approach to be positive and open-minded and take each person met at face value (or try to), while, frankly, sticking to my own lane.  A partially sub-conscious "no harm, no foul" policy perhaps, but, all too slowly, I've realized that approach falls far short of what could be contributed and is in itself both harm and foul.

I am going to go on trying to love everybody, but I'm also going to move forward with an effort to participating in real change, being less passive when bearing witness to rhetoric or actions that threaten or impinge on the basic civil rights of others, better empathizing with the frustration of any persons that have been wronged by the very society that has granted me privileges, and more understanding of demonstrations of that frustration.  This shouldn't be something that at age 45 I'm announcing like a New Year's resolution, but that's where I find myself.

My voice may not be loud enough to matter much on its own and I may not possess the experience, the perspective, or the eloquence for my voice to add to what other voices are saying, but allowing mine to remain silent seems unconscionable at this point.

It's quite likely that I will fail repeatedly and it's hard to even find a proper starting point. 

Listening, really listening, seems like an appropriate place for someone as ignorant as I am to begin.  Listening with a heart and mind open to criticism and an acceptance of blame.  Learning the many ways in which oppression exists and impacts my fellow woman and man.  Learning what I am doing and saying that feeds into that bias and ceasing to do it.  Learning what I'm not doing or not saying that could help foster change and then actually doing and saying those things. Finding ways within the life I'm already leading to promote respect, fairness, and tolerance. Being more respectful, fair, and tolerant within the life I'm already leading.

I remain proud of my heritage and eager to further climb the branches of my family tree.  There is humanity and goodness there. There are worthwhile themes of faith, love, hard work, earnestness, devotion, endurance, and survival. I stand in awe of the storms they weathered and a celebration of the journeys of others that brought me into existence and onto my current path is merited. I'm uncertain how to reconcile personal failings in my own past, and there are many, much less those that occurred during the lifetimes of my ancestors, but that doesn't mean those failings can't be examined and acknowledged and it doesn't excuse my conduct and responsibility in the present or diminish what lessons I impart to my children in the years ahead.

Let us, all of us, hope that we can be better people and that we can together carve out a better society and existence for everyone.  Let us hope that few generations will pass before someone looking back at the systemic issues of today will be as unable to fathom the inequality of our time as Lily and I were upon finding the word "slave" hiding in plain sight within our family record.

2 comments:

  1. I believe climbing along branches of family trees strengthens the whole right down to the roots.. I too am a privileged white man, but an 8 times great grandmother was a slave.. Interesting to be on the same side of privilege now, but our trees having roots across an unseen but tremendous divide. Of course, we now know that trees communicate and apparently cooperate better than we humans do. Nice to think as the branches met recently, that the roots are continuing their quest to bridge the divide and at least seeing some progress.. RF..

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and sharing, my brother. Love to you and yours.

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