Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Into the Here, the Heretofore and the Hereafter

I haven't fallen in a well, I've just mostly been indulging in my occasionally obsessive pursuit of dead ancestors. Sometimes they reach out from the Great Beyond and rattle my cage, reminding me that though I am entirely their production, I know little or nothing about too many of them.

If anyone recognizes the brevity of life and its significance it must be the genealogist. I have in the past 30 years accumulated an enormous amount of information, documents and stories. Some of the stories are generations old, handed on to me for safekeeping, for recording and remembering. For example, this photo was taken 105 years ago, and my father, who was three years old at the time, and indeed, everyone in it, is gone.

My family happens to be an oddity because in almost every line the generational span is far longer than the average. These are one of my sets of great-grandparents, Wm Cavel and Susan Shave Cavel. Both were born in Southern England in the 1840s. Their parents were born in 1810-1820. I look at my brother, who is 79 years old and has four living generations of descendants. If I could speak to my great-great-grandparents I'd be speaking to people born 180 years ago!

The world has changed beyond recognition in those 180 years. They travelled by horse and buggy, read six-month-old newspapers, lived in log cabins with no plumbing and no electricity, had no automobiles, radios, TVs, telephone or internet, and no ice cream. Much of what surrounds me would be totally foreign to them, as unfathomable as magic.

They were not all saints, though I understand that in some family trees all the ancestors are candidates for sainthood. But mine are a very mixed lot. One great-great grandmother of Mohawk and German parentage was killed and scalped by her own brother during the American Revolution. That guy has to be the worst of the lot. War does that. One day he's your brother, the next he's your enemy.

So now that you know not to get into any serious political arguments with me, lest I revert to type - I also have ancestors who were explorers, farmers, shipbuilders, governors of states, a great-grandfather who was a shepherd, and a couple of guys who got run out of North Carolina for acts of piracy in the time of Blackbeard.

One of my English great-great grandfathers was jailed for smuggling a keg of brandy into Hampshire back in 1826. Unlike the afore-mentioned pirates he went on to become a law-abiding citizen. The pirates moved to Maryland where they continued to get hauled into court for petty theft, hog-baiting and trespass. They may not have been very pleasant fellows to deal with but they certainly make for a colorful family tree.

Except that my Grandfather died before I was born these folks I remember well, and loved dearly. My grandparents Fred and Josie (Smith) Cavel, and my Dad's eldest two sisters Susie and Annie. Josie was the only grandparent I knew.

You can hardly say you love your distant ancestors, though you do develop a certain affinity for them, especially when you recognize your own personality in them. You cringe when you read what they went through. You see them at their best, in the words of love, advice and comfort found in their wills. You see them at their worst, standing before a judge, hat in hand, owning up to stealing pigs or diddling the neighbour's daughter, and you see them trying desperately to defend home and family from forces beyond their control.

One thing seems never to change. There is always "The War". There is never a generation without its war. If anyone recognizes that war brings out the worst in human beings, it is the genealogist. Mutilated, dying, dead, our predecessors drip blood across the field of history.

I haven't fallen in a well, I have fallen into introspection. I have moved back and forth between the now and the forever. I wonder what they would have to say to me, if we could speak. Would they ask, "Will we never learn?"


Anonymous said...

Welcome back to the future. It reminds me that I have long neglected shaking the cage of bones that are my people.

Susan said...

WOnderful post Deb. I just love these old photos. Wouldnt it me a thing to meet up with our ancestors?