Tuesday, April 28, 2009


UFO Sighting over Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. The Army hospital where I was born.

Every writer--every artist for that matter--must deal with "exposure" and the tensions that can arise when one's own reality seems to step on the reality of another. My interest in excavating my ancestry flies somewhat in the face of my family's rules. These are the very rules of my ethnic ancestors, going way beyond my nuclear family: they are familiar to any one of British/Irish/Scots ancestry, I believe.

Here they are:
- we don't air dirty laundry
- we practice "reserve"
- we keep our secrets to ourselves
- we downplay our misfortunes and broadcast our successes
- failure is unthinkable
- we don't acknowledge the elephants in the room or the skeletons in the closet
- we just don't talk about it here
- if you are hurting, take care of it yourself
- don't bring your problems to me
- buck up and stop whining
- we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps
- we don't trust authority
- we obey authority.

Many of these became America's dominant paradigms too. And, I want to explore that segue between what I learned in my cultural and family conditioning and what America's lessons were for me as a child of the 1950s and 1960s.

As I befriend individuals from very different ethnic backgrounds, and learn how there are cultural tones to our personalities, I begin to pick at what I think of as the
downside of my inherited "traits." The word itself has that sense of something repeatedly drawn until it becomes a deeper rut. It can work for the good, but it can also inhibit us. Merging with those from other countries, cultures, religions, ethnicities can be liberating. It is the reason America is great, in my opinion, to the extent we are welcoming of this diversity. But as we hold on to one supposedly "true" idea of what America is, of what we are, we sacrifice something very important: spontaneity, freedom to be different and to grow in a new direction.

My ability to turn over rocks, pick at wounds, scratch at the surface is the result of three things: 1) work I have done in the recovery movement and in therapy; 2) my contact with people who have very different cultural backgrounds than the one in which I was raised; and 3) my own family's (particularly my mother's) willingness to welcome individuality, to see the individual rather than cling to stereotpying. While my father, through his illness with alcohol, become ever more rigid, my mother was always able to meet a person face-to-face with warmth, generosity, curiosity, and kindness. Her hospitality to my friends and magnanimous spirit may be residue of Scots-Irish, pioneer openness. Cast into wilderness, unfriendliness won't get you very far. . .

Sharing oneself can be friendly or confessional; each decides how much to let out, let in. It is my responsibility to speak of my
own experience, and leave it to others whether or not they wish to speak at all; the difficulty comes when we share a past.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What father never knew . . .

The pictures show my father, me (at around age 18 months), and my older brother as we take to a ship while he was working for the Army Corps of Engineers in Europe on one of his military tours; the color photograph features my distant cousin Dave Flack and myself. Dave provided me with most of what I know about the Dressers.

Deep ancestry is what I call our connection with members of those families we did not know as we grew up. They were the relations that were not spoken about, the ones lost to suicide, depression or mental illness, alcoholism, childlessness, or who disppeared for other, perhaps more mysterious reasons. They are also the ones whose names are only a signature on an indentured servitude contract or a slaveholder's bill of sale. Perhaps a deed passed between one hand and another, or a court deposition that tells of some wrongdoing.

That last revelation about my family tree occurred to me when I requested information on a "Lanham" family website asking if anyone knew anything about a Jannie Lanham, born in Washington D.C. in 1884. A number of weeks passed. I received a message from a Robert Lanham of Virginia, a family historian related to Jannie (his aunt, I believe). He was hesitant to tell me what he had discovered about her life and wanted to be sure I was ready to hear it.

Jane Elisha Lanham was one of seven misfortunate children born of Robert Lanham, a Civil War veteran, and Mary Ellen Beach. Robert died young and Mary remarried a man with whom she loved to share the drink. The children were neglected; a neighbor complained; the court intervened and the youngest kids were removed from the home of Mary Ellen. My grandmother is described in the court deposition as being poorly dressed for winter, not attending school, with vermin in her hair. She found an au pair job as an adolescent and through that probably acquired any mothering skills she had.

My father may have known about his own mother's difficult childhood but it was something never spoken of. Nor did the information that my father's ancestors were descended from English Puritans, probably of a craftsman/merchant class, ever come to light. This I learned from Dave Flack, another online cousin I met while researching the tree.

What interests me is the extent to which our lack of knowledge of our roots may be the source of "soul" diseases, the term I use to describe depression (my own cross to bear), alcoholism (which my dad died from), suicidal tendencies, mental illness, lack of joy or ambition about life, or any other spiritual confusion that leads to a kind of malaise. I've always thought that my father was drawn to the false "spirits" he found in Old Grandad's. Unfortunately, he died when I was 21, too early in my own development to have formulated the proper questions, too early in my own self-destructiveness--my use of drugs and alcohol, my promiscuity, my basement-level self-esteem--that had not yet gotten sorted out.

Friday, April 24, 2009

They came in ships . . .

From the time a first ancestor is identified out of the mists, it is the placing him into a culture and era that begins our rootedness, even if it is true that the relation stayed no longer than one generation in any particular place. This is all we have to hold on to, and to the extent that each of us is unique, it is the land and sea surrounding our home that originally make us so. If there is no longer a record or a story that ties us to a place, there is no longer a distinct genealogy. Then, we must turn to the research of geneticists and historians of human migrations. Perhaps even narrowing down our "haplotype" through the new tool of tracing mitochondrial DNA.

My ancestry begins with the record that says my Dresser name comes from Gotland, which doesn't surprise me too much, since the English that I knew as my true ancestors were overwhelmed for many centuries by Vikings, northern seafaring peoples who came from lands now called Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and other Baltic areas. They came in their ships, looking for land to farm, booty to sell and trade, and women with whom to mate. The Vikings, it is known, got to the North American continent long before the English and Spanish, and they traveled as far south from their homelands to trade with those in the Middle East for their arts and crafts have been found in archaeological digs there. "Russia" itself is named for Vikings, the "red" people, for they were fair and light-haired and they came down Russia's rivers and land byways.

At the time that English record-keeping made note of Viking invasions, when the great sagas recounted the exploits of heroes and monsters, the other strains of my ancestry (those further to the north and west of England, in Scotland and Ireland) relied on the oral tradition. Oral tradition is all well and good, rich in its music and poetry, but it is not reliable for recounting any particular family's story, unless it is of the king or chieftain. Oral tradition holds that the MacAfee name of my maternal grandmother probably referred to the "dark people of peace" who came from Colonsay in the Hebrides of Scotland, possibly from the seals themselves as half-seal/ half-human creatures known as "selkies," but with this we have stepped out of specific genealogy and into ancestral myth. Still, it was beyond odd and chilling when I watched my youngest sister bodysurfing in the Pacific Ocean for hours, playing with seals; dressed in her dark wetsuit, splashing and diving with the crew of seals around her, I wondered about where we might have come from.

The pictures are, at top, Gotland, a small island off the southeastern tip of Sweden; the island of Colonsay, and an image at bottom depicting the selkie.