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.