I’m bundled on the couch, down from this flu again, and I thought I would drag out some more of my genealogical research. Today, since I couldn’t go visit Gram, who is in a nursing home and not well lately, I thought I would work on the documents I’ve accumulated in her family tree.
I was just name-playing at first – running up the various limbs of the tree and enjoying the game. It’s strange and fascinating to come across names like “Hephzibah,” which reminds me of the wild Pipsewah in the Uncle Wiggly game, and “Mehitable,” which I keep thinking should be an adjective, like irritable or irascible, indefatigable or inimitable. We’ve never talked about or used these names in the family because well, first, that would just be mean to name your kid “Hephzibah” in 2012 (although admittedly “Hephzibah in 2012” does sound like a political campaign) and second, because they are along maternal lines, and those rotting branches are usually overlooked until the records are eventually lost.
Like a lot of families, we have always just associated Gram’s family history with the Irish because of her surname: Murphy. Murphy was her father’s name. It’s funny how we associate ourselves, isn’t it? Often we grab onto a father’s surname to define us and let our mothers’ ancestry slip away. If we do start to trace her, the common threads again usually take most people to the father’s line. Granted it’s not as easy to trace the maternal, but even when it’s known, having the name of a lineage or person or group often overshadows the rest of a diverse and beautiful ancestry.
Gram was born a Murphy, but her mother was a Mason. If you look at the surnames of the women who married into the tree, they all have different bits of culture to add. And of course the bottom line of a surname is that it is always a “sir” name. I was once told in college by a professor that I shouldn’t take my husband’s name. “Why would you give up the power of your own name?” he berated, “Why would you take the name of the man you’re going to marry?” I couldn’t really understand the question and I still don’t. We women are born with the surname of our father, and even if we took our mother’s surname, it was the surname of her father. The only way to have a last name completely our own would be to make one up. I think I will make one for myself now. You may here on out call me Ms. Marla Jane #GoGirlPower (and you must enunciate “hashtag” at the beginning, thank you).
Of course I considered name changes from time to time. When you grow up with the maiden name “Sink” you fantasize about all sorts of last names you could create. And even if you’re going to hyphenate, when does that end? I didn’t hyphenate when I married, although I use my maiden name as my middle name now. It’s not out of need to keep my individuality, more out of a hat tip to a time when the middle name was usually the mother’s maiden name, an efficient way to track lineage without proper recordkeeping. No, I didn’t hyphenate, because I figured I would have to hyphenate the names of my kids, and if they met and married a hyphen, their name would be MarlaJane Junior #GoGirlPower-Druzgal-LalaLand-Redford (Oh, didn’t I mention my hashtag-hyphenated daughter was going to marry the son of someone famous? Well, there you go then.)
But back to Grandma’s lineage. Usually people take their own surname and just follow that one name as far back as they can. It’s fun and interesting to connect to someone who has your name. Somehow it seems as though you’re more related because you actually have the same name. I’ve been surprised at how many people I’ve met who think they are more related to their surname than to other lines of their family tree. I figure they either don’t understand math, or think, somehow they were produced by sperm alone.
So, for those of you who, like me, think more easily with visuals rather than words, I will give you my family as an example:
Here’s me – born Marla Jane Sink
Dad: Donald LeRoy (“Roy” Sink Mom: Mary Jo Work
Nobody has a hard time understanding that who they are is 50% their father and 50% their mother, right? Yet already the patrilineal setting has begun. I, like my brother and sister, think of myself as a “Sink” and although I research a lot on the Work family tree, not having the name “Work” as a last name already puts me at a disadvantage when contacting other Work family members as I create the newest edition of the Work Family History book.
Let’s go back another generation:
Marla Jane Sink
“Roy” Sink Mary Jo Work
Clarence M Sink + Elizabeth M. Murphy Jos. Kyle Work + Hazel Shorts
Do I think of myself as a Murphy or a Shorts? I certainly think of myself as “related” to the Murphy and Shorts families, but the fact is I am ¼ Sink, ¼ Work, ¼ Murphy and ¼ Shorts.
Usually people can still understand that they are equally related to all four of their grandparents, but they still cling (especially men, who have the “fortune” of carrying forward that all-important surname) to their identity as the name, NAME, NAME they were born with.
And our great-grandparents?
Marla Jane Sink
“Roy” Sink Mary Jo Work
Clarence M Sink + Elizabeth M. Murphy Jos. Kyle Work + Hazel Shorts
Sink/B Blystone & J Murphy/A Mason WC Work/S Robinson & C Shorts/M Masters
I am equal parts each of these great-grandparents, so 1/8 Sink, 1/8 Blystone, 1/8 Murphy, 1/8 Mason, 1/8 Work, 1/8 Robinson, 1/8 Shorts and 1/8 Masters.
I am also equally related to my gr-gr-gr-grandparents, but if you start showing people charts of their 3rd great–grandparents, it’s surprising how quickly they back away from the idea that they are equally related to those lesser known surnames than to the one they were born with.
Let’s take my Grandma again, since it’s her line I’m looking through today. Most of her grandchildren who are old enough know that “Grandma Sink” was a Murphy. Some of them also know her mother’s name was Mason. They think of themselves as related to Murphy’s, though not so much as to the Masons, but may have gone once or twice to the old Murphy-Mason family reunion, in honor of their great-grandparents.
If you provide them with other surnames, you may get one or two chin scratches or Ahh yes in recalling other surnames, like Harding, Hillman, Mayhew, Samson, Cathcart, Knox, Dewey and King. No, not that King, although that name might be why I’ve been playing around in these tree branches today.) My dad’s name was Donald LeRoy Sink. When I do genealogy, I also do mnemonics. So, although I have from the mouth of my grandmother that my dad was named for uncles on each side of the family: Donnie and Roy, I prefer to remember the surnames on that side of the family by connecting them in ways like “LeRoy means the King. King was a surname in that side of my family.” Of course, I also go on tangents like “Dad’s name meant the King. Dad was a lot like Elvis – a good-looking ladies’ man when he was younger, but a little lost as he got older and died too young.” Yeah, weird tangent but I never forget that the surname King is in that side of the family tree.
But my point isn’t actually about that surname in particular, but just how we identify ourselves. When you throw in all those other surnames, predominantly English puritans, you might think about yourself as other than bawdy, raunchy grandchild of the fighting Irish. It only takes one drop of blood to be more than who you think you are, or less than you want others to perceive you. And why does any of it have to matter? And why doesn’t it matter enough?
I am a descendant of a Native American. I will never, with a straight face, call myself Native American, even if “talking shop” in genealogy, it will be rattled off with my other 8 nationalities. It’s all trivial, right? So I laugh when I say it. Knowing our native heritage, identifying my ancestor and counting up the tree by halves, then 4ths, 8ths, 16ths, 32nds, and at last 64ths we arrive at gr-gr-gr-gr-grandma, our full-blooded Seneca ancestor, and it seems pathetic, doesn’t it? Grasping at the keys to a kingdom we will never inherit. Look at me. I’m a guilt-ridden, middle-class white chick with no more claim to my native roots than…what? who? What’s the end of that sentence? Do you know?
I don’t think there is an easy answer, because sometimes the trap is putting too much emphasis on our lineage – either in wrapping ourselves up in our lily-and-gilded past, or praying to find a drop of brown to anchor ourselves to something we imagine rooted more deeply or more wholesomely than our own past. Sometimes the trap is not putting enough emphasis on our lineage – forgetting our traditions, forgetting that more blending occurred than we may realize, forgetting the role of our ancestors in things we’d rather forget.
I sometimes enjoy thinking of myself as a DAR girl or Mayflower girl or as a Daughter of 1812 or as a Civil War descendant. I think a lot of us do, because we want something meaningful to cling to. As we go about our essentially anonymous lives, we want to know that we do have, or did have, significance. We have worked thankless, minimum wage, crappy jobs and watch as the gap between wealthy and poor grows larger every day. Sometimes those long-dead connections tell us we belong to a foundation or movement. Sometimes they tell us, by a discovery of distant familial ties to a famous poet, statesman, leader or founding father, that we are part of something larger or more sacred than our meager life allows.
And maybe that’s a bad thing. We keep looking to the past for our identity instead of trying to invent one starting now. If we are always living vicariously, how can we change anything for ourselves or others?
On the other hand, sometimes I think we dig and dig and dig because we’ve lost TOO much connection to our past. I watch my 3rd generation husband interact with his family and envy the still-strong traditions of a family cultured in only two nationalities, Ellis Island fresh enough to leave the taste of another language on their tongues. Meanwhile, my own watered-down nationalities squeeze through my double-fisted count and slip away until there are no traditions to cling to. There is no celebrating a drop of Erin go Bragh and no proud re-telling of arrowhead hunting with my 1/16th native grandfather, who was born just ten years after our native ancestor died, who grew up surrounded by family who still looked like her, and who still carried forward the stories of her life. I keep them to myself, because in the end I believe that all I really am is a homogenized American cup of milk, complete with the guilt of wholefat pasteurization.
Bah, what’s all this now? Just some rumination from an old cow, grazing through the lesser used pastures of the family farm.