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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Waiting for 1940

Full disclosure: I turned 57 this month. There, I said it.
And there’s nothing like seeing that bald number in black on white in front of
your nose to give you the dreaded wake-up call that you’re a hell of a lot
closer to 60 than to 50 -- and that no amount of hydrating crèmes,
anti-cellulite wraps, Zumba classes, Brazilian waxing or other palliatives will
stop you from eventually dying.
On the actual day of my birthday, I Facebooked the snide
comment: “Live fast, die young, have a good-looking corpse. Oops, too late.”
And my handful of FB pals did the obligatory thing and wished me many happy
returns of the day.
But to be perfectly honest, ever since the odometer clicked
over to the latest number, I feel less of a connection to the life on Facebook and
more of an interest in the people I’ve gotten to know on And I’m
talking about the dead ones.
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of delving into your
past, you can’t understand how exciting it is to get a glimpse of elderly
relatives when they were legal dependents, and relatives long gone who you’ve
never even known come alive on the page. The meticulously kept U.S. Census
Bureau Records, recorded in Palmer method longhand by long-gone government-paid
scriveners, are a fairly detailed peep into the windows of the bungalows,
tenements, farmhouses and cold-water flats where our relatives once lived en famille. It’s all the thrills of a Private
Dick and a Peeping Tom combined.
And it’s gotten to be
a lot more interesting to cyberstalk and speculate on the sex lives of my
long-dead ancestors than to follow the drivel most people put up on Facebook.
Case in point: My husband’s family. What a snake pit of
intrigue, wanderlust, prodigious childbearing and probable bigamy that clan
encompasses! My forebears were your basic hoi
polloi mélange of wops and bohunks, newly arrived and crammed into Chicago
tenements or Pennsylvania coal mining town shacks; and we had our share of
miscreants -- a bootlegger uncle, a baby-daddy cousin, a great-uncle who
murdered his wife. But their exploits pale in comparison to the American Gothic
that is my husband’s family.
A tangled genetic web of Swiss, Germanic and
straight-off-the-Mayflower Anglo-Saxon (much to the chagrin of my Scots-ophile
husband, he is distantly related to Longshanks himself), the paternal side of
the family found its finest flower in my husband’s paternal grandfather, a
character named Albert.
Albert started life shortly after the Civil War in a small
Ohio farming community, one of three sons of Benonia and Marilda (that’s
another thing about genealogy – gotta love the names). Around the turn of the
last century, he was working as a bookkeeper in a sawmill (you can practically
hear the fiddle music) when he met and married Lena, his boss’s daughter. The
1910 census had the couple and their two children firmly settled in with his
father-in-law in Ohio -- although both the children’s birthplaces were listed
as Oklahoma. (I’m smelling some sort of arranged marriage here, since the girl
was sent to Kansas in 1900 to live with an uncle – a move that back in the day
signified an unplanned and unsanctioned pregnancy.)
By 1918, Albert is suddenly living in Des Plaines, Illinois,
working at an electrical supply manufacturing company, according to his World
War I draft registration card – and his wife is listed as Mary Cecilia, my
husband’s grandmother. My husband’s father was born in 1917, so it’s apparent
there was something very hinky going on with Grandpa Al.
And next thing you know, the 1920 census lists Albert as
living in Alamosa, Colorado, classified as “single,” and working as the manager
of a Western Union office.
Family lore has it that Grandpa Al skipped and never came
back, and the records prove it. He left two families without anything even
faintly resembling child support. Lena and her two children ended up living
with her elderly parents; Lena died in 1930. His other wife -- my husband’s
beloved grandma -- lived her life in Chicago as a scrappy flapper and single mother,
supporting herself and her only child as a secretary for the Archdiocese of
Albert’s brother Emery seems to have had the same traveling
bone, so to say. Like his brother, he married an Ohio girl and migrated to
Waukegan, Illinois, where in 1910 he was living with his in-laws. Listed as a “traveling
agent,” Emery traveled, all right. He was still married to Belle in 1918, when
he was working as a telegraph operator for the Chicago and Northwestern
Railroad. But by 1922, city directories show him living in Evanston, Illinois and
having ditched Belle for Blanche – the daughter of the partner in a cement
construction firm -- with whom he sired two children. (He sure must have done
some interesting commuting from 1918 to 1922.) By 1930, he and his new family
are listed as living in the swank northern Chicago suburb of Kenilworth. I don’t
know whatever happened to Belle.
The third brother, Walker, lit out for Kansas with his wife and
never looked back, eventually having what from all appearances was a normal
family life.
If these guys were alive today, their lives would make the
best reality TV show ever – the Kardashians and the Jersey Shore gang couldn’t hold
a candle to it.
If you’re not into genealogy, the year 1940 probably won’t
mean much to you, but to those of us who are tracking this ongoing soap opera, it’s
a big deal. In a few weeks, the U.S. Census Bureau data for that year will be
released, which will move them all a little closer in time to where we are now.

Although we already know what happens to everyone, the added details will only add to the intrigue. Will Albert squeeze in another wife? Will Emery and Blanche end up in a fancier house? Where will Albert's children move and who will they marry?

Stay tuned.

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