Family Tree

By Beck

My husband and my oldest child were sitting on the kitchen floor yesterday, making corn dollies. My husband is the one to go to for any task that involves manual dexterity, and even though he came home from work very sick with a summer cold, he still patiently sat there making little heads, little arms, The Girl cheerful and industrious with him.

I read in a book, I told her, that some little pioneer children only had corn dollies for toys. She frowned, wrapping the corn bodice around her doll carefully. Where any of our families pioneers, she asked?

No, I said, not in that sense. I told her about my mother’s family, who had been early settlers to this area – but that was in the late 1800s. I told her about her great-great-great grandfather, who ran away from the priesthood to Canada with only a title from his aristocratic family with him, meeting her great-great-great grandmother on the boat – but that was still of relatively recently vintage. And her daddy’s family had come to New York City from Ireland. No pioneers, I said. And then I remembered – oh, my grandfather.

He vanished from our lives when I was one – not dying, but willfully removing himself away from everyone, moving away to the mountains of Arkansas. We would talk to him once a year on Christmas Day, saying awkward hellos to a complete stranger on the phone. And so my brother and I felt like we were growing up with only 3/4 of a family, that 1/4 of ourselves was missing.

He came from hardscrabble Illinois roots, coming out of deep poverty caused by his father’s death – he was hit by a train – and led a life of deep and somewhat terrifying adventure. I did not know anything about his family until I got old enough to look on my own, and then I found out that they had been there for hundreds of years, that yes, they had been pioneers. Maybe some little great-great-great-great-great grandmother was happy for corn season because it meant that she could sit there on the kitchen floor, making dollies. I will never know.

Looking at that picture, I’m not even sure which one is my grandfather – he’s one of the two younger standing boys, and something terrible will soon happen to him. You will run so far away, I think, looking at the little boys, at my own child’s deft hands, thinking of these vanished people, the holes these absences leave forever.

Find Beck blogging at Frog And Toad Are Still Friends.

22 Responses to Family Tree
  1. Mom24
    August 28, 2008 | 9:05 am

    What a powerful story. We know nothing about our families…beyond my husband’s and my grandparents. It’s sad. I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of how to go about finding anything out either. Enjoy your precious roots, even as you wish they went deeper.

  2. saly
    August 28, 2008 | 9:14 am

    As always, well done. My dad has a half sister who he very seldom sees & a half brother who he hasn’t seen in probably 40 years. It doesn’t bother my dad but I can’t help but feel like something is missing.

  3. Mad
    August 28, 2008 | 9:34 am

    It’s those bits that are missing from our past that stick into our hearts and sometimes shout louder than the bits we remember.

  4. Veronica
    August 28, 2008 | 9:34 am

    My greatgrandfather was a scoundrel who left a string of wives around the country. So I could be related to ANYBODY.

  5. tracey
    August 28, 2008 | 9:51 am

    I adore old pictures.

    What a tragic story, though… Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Woman in a window
    August 28, 2008 | 9:55 am

    Lovely – simply lovely. Something I say often but mean it more and more.

  7. Monica
    August 28, 2008 | 9:57 am

    aw. I want to comment about the post that seems to have disappeared, the one about the 10 yr. old boy who lost his mother’s approval and love because of a label. This post is fine too, but the one about the boy looking to his mom for acceptance and she’s spitting words in your ear…

    Will the internet fairies please bring it back?

    And Beck: you are so much like me.

  8. Hetha
    August 28, 2008 | 10:39 am

    I feel so fortunate to have distant relatives that have connections (one is a CIA agent) and the desire to pull together our family history. One of them even put together a hardback book that details the journey from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam back in the 1600’s, including hand drawings of the house in Amsterdam. I never much cared to learn about my history until recent times, and now for some reason it feels very important.

  9. Kelly
    August 28, 2008 | 12:36 pm

    I envy your extensive familial roots.

    My Dad’s family has some stories (bride kidnapped from Ireland, forced to live in Kansas, moves back to Ireland while getting the rest of the family to tell everyone in the U.S. that she was killed in a fire).

    But my husband doesn’t even know how old he is, much less the nationality of his parents or any of their stories. So we are true American mongrels. We don’t even know if we have holes in our history.

  10. chelle
    August 28, 2008 | 1:46 pm

    I love family history, probably because I know so little of my own or even my husbands ….

  11. Painted Maypole
    August 28, 2008 | 2:16 pm


    you and mad and the ancestor stories… very interesting

  12. janet
    August 28, 2008 | 2:53 pm

    The picture is haunting. I know that nobody smiled in pictures back then, but their sombre expressions make it look like they know something terrible, something life-altering is going to happen.

    My paternal great-grandfather was a sailor who came home every so often, got my great-grandmother pregnant, and then took to the high seas again. I often whether wonder whether he had women in other ports.

  13. Kathryn
    August 28, 2008 | 3:25 pm

    I wish I’d thought to pay more attention to my grandparents’ stories when I was young. Now as my parents age I am asking a million questions of my mom like I’m cramming for an exam. I wish I knew so much more.
    Great post!

  14. Edi
    August 28, 2008 | 5:41 pm

    I enjoy family history…you know sometimes we think (or at least I tend to think) that back in the “old days” (anything before the 1940’s but mostly the 1800’s) families stayed together. And I believe that is mostly true – but then you hear stories like yours and mine…my great-grandma had 4 young boys and her husband left her…he also went off into the wilderness to live alone and to paint (some such story). At some point I think he came back (now you got me curious and I’m going to have to email my mom and find out all the details).

    My mom also talks of her desire to live the life of a recluse…she has one brother who rarely keeps in contact with the family and sometimes they are unable to contact him when he “moves on”…another of her brothers is a sort of recluse too. Odd.

    I have 4 sisters and I live 1000 miles from 3 of them and the 4th sister is across the ocean. I work to stay in touch – but it’s hard to be the one that keeps on trying, even when most of the others don’t seem to care…

  15. Omaha Mama
    August 28, 2008 | 6:05 pm

    I take for granted my family’s history. It being so well-known that I barely know it. This makes me want to go find it out again. Like I did in the 4th grade when we did geneaology for a school project. To interview my grandparents and learn it all again.
    The story you tell here is beautiful, thank you for sharing.

  16. Jess Riley
    August 28, 2008 | 11:42 pm

    Beck, thank you for sharing this! What an amazing photo. I feel very lucky to know my family’s history (quite a bit of it, anyway)…even if it’s not all ‘nice.’

    Hope your summer cold is better by now!

  17. chaotic joy
    August 28, 2008 | 11:56 pm

    I know there is probably something profound to be learned from this post about family and a need for connection but all I can think is of you and your husband sitting around making corn dollies and talking about her ancestors and how YOU ARE JUST THE BEST MAMA EVER and I hope I grow up to be like you some day.

  18. Patois
    August 29, 2008 | 2:03 am

    What a well told tale. I love your weaving his life choices into your own daughter’s query.

  19. Angeline
    August 29, 2008 | 1:15 pm

    This is a sad memory (in a way) but its definitely a beautiful post!

  20. Janice (5 Minutes for Mom)
    August 31, 2008 | 1:48 am

    It is amazing how our history is so intertwined in our present. And when pieces are missing, we feel their absence.

  21. gretchen from lifenut
    August 31, 2008 | 8:16 am

    It’s amazing to think one of my descendants might ponder my life choices 150 years from now. I know I think about certain ancestors and marvel at the actions they took, the places they went, the horrors some of them endured. Not that I’ve endured horrors like being kept as a slave by a Chicago millionaire’s wife…

    Oh…and at first I read the craft project as “corn DOILIES” and wondered how on earth your husband learned to make doilies out of corn. I was sitting here picturing intricate doilies on a table, fashioned entirely from dried husks. And how they were the toys of pioneer children, poor kids.

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