Monday, June 19, 2017

A Somewhat Delayed Fathers' Day Post*

PVT John Theodore EckersonGenealogy research is one of those activities, like bird watching, you don’t come to until you are older.

I don’t know why this is, because it’s rather counter-productive. By the time you’re interested, most of the people who could have provided the information you desperately need are dead or mentally incapacitated.

I never knew my paternal grandfather, who died in the trenches of World War I. I’ve been gazing at his picture from a newspaper article written about him in the early years of the war, when he voluntarily signed up to serve -- in spite of his military exemption because he had several children (my infant father) and one on the way -- because, as he is quoted as saying, “there are plenty of slackers.”

I want to slap him, knowing as I do the hardship his death caused my widowed grandmother, who was forced to dole her children out to boarding houses to raise themselves.

So I signed into an ancestry research site. A search reveals his name on the draft registration roster and in two clicks I'm looking at my grandfather’s signature on his registration form. Suddenly he is a person – my person. My grandfather. For a moment I’m stunned.

This man whose name, when spoken, resulted in an eye-roll from both my father and my aunt, was suddenly real to me. Would he have asked me to pull his finger? Would he have swiped in front of my face, bent his thumb toward his palm and claim possession of my nose? Would he like me?

And why, for God's sake, do I care?

At one point, the family tree splits, with each branch settling in two different counties in New Jersey, and two entirely different economic and social classes. I don’t think I need to mention which branch I’m descended from.

There are no Elizabeth Bennetts or Mr. Darcys lurking in my family tree; not even a Jane Eyre or Jo March. My people were servants to those characters, nameless, faceless workers who supported the romance that is presented as the Regency and Victorian eras.
Is it some sort of inherited memory that I never had the same romantic vision of the 19th century as the media presents?

Deep down I’m always aware that while a small population was fluttering about in hoop skirts and covering their noses with lace hankies, even more people were breaking their backs carrying the water to keep them in their dainty finery. That's my people.

I look back at my grandfather’s picture. Though he gazes back at me with my father’s eyes, I still feel anger at this arrogant truck driver who stumbled into the line of fire. Had he not been who he was, had he not died, growing up I might have actually had a grandfather.

But then, had he lived, my father might never have been forced to leave college to get a job as a jewelry salesman to support his mother. It was there he met my mother. Where it not for that arrogant truck driver (or as Pa used to say, “I think my father was sort of a jerk.”), my parents would have never met.

And you, dear reader, instead of reading this, would be scrolling through Facebook posts on “Look at These 70s Celebs All Grown Up!” And Dirtman would be roaming freely about the world, trying to engage anyone and everyone into conversations about the weather. (On behalf of my family tree, you’re welcome.)

Physicists say that it is humans who impose a linear quality to the concept of time; some claim that events just happen without regard to past, present or future.

My existence has depended on the trajectory of a bullet shot in 1918 by a soldier whose name I’ll never know.

This amazes and humbles me.

*Portions of this post were originally published in (an old, old) column of Spot-On.