How much sense can most of us make of our ancestral relatives? 

On my father’s side, his mother (Josephine Rogers Davis by name) was the one with a definable lineage, going back to almost Pilgrim times in the U.S. (or so I was told – my daughter Erin has not been able to confirm this through her genealogical program).

Her father, a Rogers, died two days before my father was born, in 1891. He owned a huge swath of land in Texas that has passed down, gradually diminished, to the current generation, now a square mile of mostly arid cotton-growing land with a smattering of wildcat oil wells that the family owns in common. (I sold my share to my Aunt Beck in the ’70s, when the wells were producing mostly dust, and so lost out on the later discovery of fossil leftovers that brought the others a modicum of cash. I’ve never had financial sense.)

I have the family portrait of that great grandfather, recently reframed. He looked a lot like me, except he had eyebrows. Rumor said he possessed an unregistered deed to what is now Brownsville, Texas. Had it been registered, we would all be filthy rich. None of us is rich. I’m just filthy.

My grandmother, called Nana by everyone except Dad – he referred to her as Muddy, a nickname emanating from an interchange between them in his childhood – was the matriarch throughout my youth. As the youngest of my generation and congenitally out of place, I would sit like a pillow at gatherings where Nana’s clan would form a circle and drink tea at each other. A bright, quiet, friendly but fiendishly uninteresting bunch, few had done anything of note, or if they had, seemed incapable of expressing it.

Nana lived most of the year with Aunt Beck, her daughter, in Upper Darby, ensconced in her chair like an icon, a thin, revered Buddhetta who was allowed to do virtually nothing. During the summers she lived with her other daughter, Mary Rose (pronounced Mare-rose), in Chatham, NJ. Mare-rose made sure Nana actually did things around the house, giving her an actual reason for being.

Now and then, after I finished exercises with my Austrian eye doctor, Miss Brunn, in Upper Darby, I’d walk over to Aunt Beck’s house, on Kent Road. If Aunt Beck wasn’t there, Nana would somewhat cook me scrambled eggs to the consistency of snot (though less tasty).

About Dad’s father I knew and know little. An obese man addicted to key lime pie, he died of a heart attack in his 60s, before I was born. Somehow he lost all the money invested by his wife’s family, who sued him for it. But then, who hadn’t lost everything by the 1930s? 

My mother’s side of the family was more populated in my head but wholly mysterious. I met only her sister Melba and one female cousin (Hildegard? something H) who visited from England. 

As for the rest, everything about them was conveyed in letters that passed to and from Canada. (Mom corresponded regularly with her fifth cousin – only English progeny are aware they have fifth cousins. Her letters became increasing strange; she died of a brain tumor.)

With each telling of their Canadian adventures my confusion grew. I finally asked Mom to make me a list of these strange creatures, referred to by such unilluminating terms as “W.J.” and “T William.”

In a 3×5 notebook she jotted down and annotated over 50 names, in no chronological, genealogical or other logical order. I wish I still had it – I might know a smidgeon about these people. Erin finds most of them untraceable. 

I think W.J. was the one who’d been a teetotaler all his life until, in his 80s, a doctor prescribed an alky-laced medication and he became a raving alcoholic. T William lived to the age of 94 and died from complications of having a glass catheter broken in his penis. (No, I don’t want to picture that.)

Some of the others come across as wholesale wackjobs. One committed suicide by leaping off a ferry boat. Another tried to knife his mother during Thanksgiving dinner to speed her course to Heaven. Like Mom herself, her two previous female progenitors died of early-onset dementia (likely Alzheimer’s).

Mom’s father was only 42 when he died. Mom was 10. The head of the “black gang” (engine-room crew) for United Fruit’s ships, he’d received an almost lethal electric shock aboard ship and never fully recovered, being later eliminated by a minor heart attack.

United Fruit was responsible for the term “banana republic.” Through their stranglehold on production in Central America, they controlled the politics of the nominal countries providing the fruit. According to Mom, my grandfather, with the help of his black gang, put down a native revolt somewhere – Colombia, Venezuela? They then broke into and robbed the Indian graves. He came back with a small squatting stone statue, its arms crossed, that mimicked the mummified deceased with which it was found. Mom called it “Daddy Jinx,” I guess because of his death soon after.

She said he was also an inventor who developed the pocketed conveyor belt that loaded bananas onto the ships, and also a device for men to iron a crease in their trousers while they wore them. That may well be so.

After her father’s death – I recall nothing about her mother – Mom was passed like a suitcase from relative to relative, up and down the coast from Canada to St. Augustine, Florida. Why? Unclear.

What once seemed important and vibrant about these mythical figures matters less to me today. But they’re fascinating in a small and poignant way, like uncovering a mouse skull in the sand.

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