Chasing Those Who Came Before


“‘I suppose you’re right,’ she said. ‘We all have the same number of ancestors, don’t we? We don’t go on about them, but we have them, surely. I mean, there’s no monopoly on ancestors. One can’t be ancestor-rich, so to speak.'”

—Isabel in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Novel Habits of Happiness


Kinflicks came out in 1976.  I was a junior in college, and I read it with a little bit of shock, a little bit of amazement.  The novel wound itself into the heady days of women’s liberation, of thinking of women’s roles in an entirely different way, of thinking of literature in an entirely different way.  Lisa Alther’s main character was a little hapless, a little un-rooted, but appealing despite (or possibly, because of) that. I thought many of the choices she made were odd and foreign in the novel I loved to dub with the term I’d just learned: picaresque. But I enjoyed reading about her making them.

Kinflicks set the stage for me to move on to reading Erica Jong and Marilyn French and Mary Gordon. I can’t remember the main character’s name, but  her plaintive search for meaning and self stayed with me.

En route, recently, to other things, I spied another book by Alther on my local library shelves.  It was KinFOLKS (my emphasis), and it was a memoir of Lisa Alther’s search for her ancestors.

Alther grew up in the South, although her mother was a “Yankee,” and she reports having a little bit of identity trauma because of that fact.  And that was exacerbated by the fact that her grandmother clamped her lips shut and refused to discuss large branches of the family tree. That grandmother claimed that Virginia, from which she hailed, was nirvana—but she firmly refused to return to visit.  Nor did she want any of her family to connect with the relatives remaining there.

If Virginia was so great, mused a young Alther, why did her grandparents gladly move away from there?  And why was the family never allowed to go back and connect with  those relatives?

Along the way to grown-uphood and success, Alther absorbed legends of a group called Melungeons. They were a dark-skinned, mysterious people from the Tennessee hills. They were reputed to be shady  and less than reliable.  There were murmurs about their origins–descendants of Turks, some said, mixed with Indian and African blood.  Others claimed there was Portuguese blood strongly mixed in the Melungeons’ genetic makeup.

Alther began to suspect that her forebears were Melungeon, and that her grandmother was bent on covering over that fact.  Kinfolks chronicles her search for ancestors hidden in the hazy past.


When I was in college, reading books like Kinflicks, I was fascinated by my ancestors, too.

Both my parents were Depression-era half orphans; both of them lost their mothers as very young children.  Both were the second youngest of seven children.

My dad’s father put the two youngest (and, off and on, some of the older ones) in the orphanage where he served as security guard; he could tuck the boys in at night that way, or so went the family legend. For their grade school years, Dad and his baby brother Bill were raised by the good nuns at Father Baker’s Home for Children.

My mother was raised by siblings.  After her mother’s death, it seems, her father fell apart.  He lost his job and could always be found sleeping off a drunk on the family couch.  One day, another legend had it, Mom’s brother Bill had had enough.  He bodily evicted his father.  Bill and his sister Annie, ages 16 and 14, took it on themselves to raise their younger siblings.

Both grandfathers would marry again; both would have seven more children.  My dad’s young stepmother created a new home, and Dad and Bill were able to leave the orphanage and be part of the new family.  My mother remembers seeing her father again only once.  He met the younger kids at the bus station and gave them each a quarter–and that amount of money, my mother said, bought so many treats at the candy store in the late 1920’s that they were all thoroughly sick. The next she heard of her father was an obituary in the late 1960’s.  It listed the names of the children in his second family, and discounted his first brood entirely.

What mystery, I thought.

My parents did not talk much about their families.  We saw only a certain few ones; Dad’s brother Bill moved to the same small town we lived in, my parents having fled the city in which they grew up.  We visited with Bill’s family all the time.  My mother’s sister, my Aunt Annie, was like a fairy godmother, always warm and giving and happy, happy, happy to see us.

We saw some of the younger aunts and uncles from my father’s stepmom’s brood.

Beyond that, there were rumors of suicides and drunkenness, and stories of people who were just plain crazy.  How I longed to meet them.  How I wished I knew the whole story.  Where did they come from?  How did they get to where they were?

A couple of paternal cousins got the genealogy bug, and they put together dueling family trees–one’s roots were in Germany, the other’s in Ireland, and it was all a big enigma.  I wished we could have a family reunion every year and talk to each other. The only girl among five brothers, I longed to have girl cousins who spoke the same family language.

My parents muttered about being careful what you wish for.  They kept us firmly away from any kind of extended family gathering, save for a funeral here and there.

After college, life got busy, as it tends to do, and the burn to know family banked.  And I ran into one or two random relatives.  One of those girl cousins came to my door one day–we were strangers, but recognized each other by name and traced the connection.  She tried to bilk me out of over $500 in magazine subscriptions; realizing she was preying on elderly people home and lonely, mid-day, I called the cops.  They picked her up and escorted her out of my little town.

We did not correspond.

My parents attended a reunion at the orphanage that sheltered dad for many years; Dad’s older brother and nephew attended.  The nephew’s behavior was so out-there, so vulgar and drunken and offensive, that my mother, in a white hot, affronted fury, insisted on leaving early.

I began to understand my parents’ reluctance to bond.  The urge to merge began to seep away.

Years later now, on FaceBook, cousins surface and send friend requests.  Most seem nice; they wish, sentimentally, for a reunion that would  introduce the children of the original siblings.  Sometimes they propose events.

I always ignore the invitations.

Once, a cousin sent a friend request, and then, when I accepted, inundated me with ads for an on-line business she’s trying to launch.  I un-friended that cousin.  And the one whose strident potty mouth got air-time in several posts a day.

I realized, as life smoothed off my sharp edges in its relentless tumbler, that just being family does not equal being dear.


Alther’s quest, though, is a fascinating, international, scholarly voyage.  She is just as funny in non-fiction as she is in fiction; her real-life characters are as quirky and fun as the ones she makes up.  But I began, as the book wore on, to disconnect; it was hard to empathize with the need that drove her to relentless pursuit of familial discovery.

She did find out, Alther did, that Pochahantas was really and truly an ancestor,–on both sides, actually, of her father’s family tree; she had to offer up a mental apology to her paternal grandmother.  The grandmother had always claimed Pochahantas; Alther had never believed her.

The other answers, the Melungeon connection, she never confirmed.

But really, as Alther herself points out, and as Alexander McCall Smith has philosopher Isabel ruminate, we ALL have ancestors.  We all have the same amount, too–it’s not like your friend with the fascinating family has more forebears than you.  She may be luckier–she may have smart, funny, rich, compassionate relatives, living and deceased while yours–like some of mine–live in a murkier clime.

Or, maybe, you and she have extended family you are happy to call friends. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

But I know too, people who wish their unsavory relatives would just go the hell home; they wish it, and they’re too polite or kind or timid to say so.  Being spared the one, perhaps, prevents the other.

I can live with that.

What matters, I’ve decided, is not so much where I come from, but where I have arrived, and I’m headed.  It helps, some ways, to know the genealogy–to know about the heart disease or the tendency toward autism.  It helps, some ways, to know, but it doesn’t change anything–and having known years ago what I know now, I would not have done one thing different.


4 thoughts on “Chasing Those Who Came Before

  1. Wow, so fascinating. First of all, I have heard of that book and her Alther’s search, but haven’t been compelled to read it for some reason. You don’t really say if I should go dip into it or not . . . .
    Secondly, I am very into researching ancestors. This started because I didn’t know my father’s father and it was VERBOTEN to bring him up. And then I love history and research and my maternal grandparents dropped some family treasures into my lap (photos and stories), I was OFF on the search. I am finding FASCINATING stories, stuff I never dreamed. Some will be in a poetry/prose book I will put together. Some might not . . . . But it’s all changed the way I think about my family for better or worse. They were not boring. I always thought they were boring. They were far from boring. They were human, very human.

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