Monday, May 25, 2009

Children of Divorce

Farmhouse on the Yorkshire dales.
For generations, my ancestors were content to stay put in the East Riding area of Yorkshire in northeastern England. The records show ten generations who lived there post-Viking invasions/migrations that might have brought Norse blood by way of Gotland to mix with the native English tribes.

The people who became the Dressers were probably farmers, fishermen, tradesmen. My family name indicates a trade, for instance, a "dresser" being one who finishes material before it is finally manufactured into shoes, boots, or cloth. A finisher of hides, one who adds the last touches to fabric, one who "dresses" the fabric. Like "cooper," "baker," "chandler," "miller," many early English surnames followed the practice of identifying an individual with his family's trade.

Being a Yorkshire peasant in the middle ages might not have been so bad; the land was moist, green and met by the sea. It's an area that became steeped in the dissenting Protestant traditions that arose after the break-up of the monasteries in the 1500s, evidence that much more than the monasteries were broken as a result of Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his Spanish Catholic wife, in order to marry his new sweetheart, Anne Boleyn.

Henry hadn't intended to start a whole new religion, but his amorous ways had wide-ranging consequences. The winds of Protest-ant theology were blowing across the European continent and making their way to Britain--along with illegal shipments of printed English Bibles. It's hard to imagine now that it was a capital offense to be caught with an English-language Bible during this time.

Henry, a practicing Catholic most of his life (even after turning the church inside-out) had himself designated as the head of the Church of England and confiscated lands held by the Pope. Former landholders, many of them church-bondsmen, were routed and more and more prime English lands were turned over to private hands. Such are the roots of many a great English countryhome or estate.

Would Britain remain Catholic or become Protestant? The changes affected everyone, aggravating tensions with Ireland, Scotland, Wales and English peasants. Eventually my own ancestors would be uprooted from their native land in order to seek religious "freedom," a freedom that was designed to allow them to practice their own version of Protestantism while excluding others. I do not know when they changed from being Catholics to Protestants, just as I do not know when they evolved from their pagan roots into Catholics, but I am certain that both transitions happened and that it caused some stress in the families making the changes.

Henry's divorce from Catherine triggered a couple hundred years' worth of religious and political strife. I can relate to the fallout from this, although when my parents finally divorced (I was about 14), it was a good thing. In my family's case, chaos preceded the divorce and took the form of my father's drunkenness, horrible fights nearing to violence, jailing and expulsion of my father from the house, and my father's infidelity.

Rowley Parish, East Riding, Yorkshire England

Oddly there were fights about what church we would attend, with my father insisting on dragging us across town to the Episcopalian church (church of England in the homeland), and our mother wanting us to attend the local Lutheran or Presbyterian churches (the northern, Scots influence can be felt in her callings). I went to church with whatever friend came from a churchy family, and especially loved the Catholic Mass, remembering attending Latin services when I was very young (vestige of the old religion in me?). What the churches called themselves didn't seem to matter as much as there was peacefulness in most of them.

The disruption in our family, caused by economic distress and my father's alcoholism, affected my siblings and myself in so many complex ways that it was a relief when my mother finalized the paperwork and finally sent my father packing. Divorce isn't the worst thing that happened to us, yet growing up with its stigma was aggravated by the zeitgeist that mythologized the American family in a "Donna Reed/Father Knows Best" post-war era. And, even now, with divorce so prevalent, it is often added to the listing of an individual's flaws when he goes off the rails: "He's from a broken home," as if to explain why something went wrong with him.

Stability and upheaval are two themes in American history; Americans long for home, permanence, property, yet political moodswings and economic roller-coasters have often been at our backs, nipping at us to pick up stakes, move on. A part of me so identifies with England and Scotland, the homelands of my ancestors, where for so many generations they made their lives. It's a relatively recent phenomenon that I am/we are Americans, and I am trying to sort out what is it that evolved into our Americanisms, and what are the vestiges of the old world I may still carry.

The truth is that all Americans are children of divorce, one really big one that split our parent country in two, and the many smaller divisions that occurred in all our countries and lands of origin: we must deal with exile, abandonment, regrouping after becoming refugees, just as we are required to determine what is uniquely American about us and name what is at the heart of our American experience.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Fly Over

Do we ever get used to the experience of flying above the clouds, across this vast continent, thousands of feet above earth, looking down on both its wide-open spaces and the drawn-and-quartered pieces of it? It's hard to fathom the experience our ancestors had crossing it slowly, on the ground.

At age 7 or 8, Elsie Mae Brown, my maternal grandmother, crossed over half the continent with her family. The family had started in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Elsie Mae was born. Council Bluffs was one of the main jumping-off points for crossing into the American west. It was also the eastern terminus of the Continental Railroad.

Elsie had spent time living in Pretty Prairie, Kansas, where some siblings were born, not far from where the railroad traversed through cattle and wheat-growing country. In the late 1880's the market for wheat crashed. The family moved again.
My mother says she does not remember her mother, Elsie, talking about how she arrived in California; to my knowledge, there is no diary, or record, of how the family emigrated.

The crossing from Kansas to southern California took place around 1888; they may have come by covered wagon, or they may have come by train, but it seems clear Elsie, her mother, Clara McAfee Brown, and siblings were following a trail set out by Thomas Lindsey Brown. [Addendum: At the picnic, an eldest cousin confirmed that Elsie and family crossed to California in a covered wagon.]

Thomas and Clara are buried in a cemetery in Fowler, California, not far from the tombstone of William D. Brown, a Presbyterian minister who helped to establish many Presbyterian chuches across the west, including the one in Fowler. Thomas and Clara were the next generation with other ambitions; Thomas worked in the railroad post office in Council Bluffs where all mail coming from the west and going east and vice versa, had to pass. Thomas tried ranching and wheat-farming, and eventually followed the zeitgeist to California and brought his family forth.

Grape rows in the San Joaquin Valley

Tomorrow, I go to an annual Brown Family gathering held each year in Fowler. When I was a child, the picnic was held in Kearney Park, in Easton, just outside of Fresno. The picnic was larger then, and I remember being confused by all of the criss-crossing relationships, with my mother trying to explain that "this woman is your mother's mother's sister's daughter," and so on. It is still something of a shock to me that I learned my maternal great-grandparents are buried in Fowler, because for most of my life, they and their stories seemed lost in the mists.

Like the followers of Moses out into Sinai's wilderness, like the enslaved Africans and partitioned Native Americans, the impulse toward survival quite often overshadowed everything else. My ancestors' migratory patterns were rooted in the pursuit of improving the material aspects of their liveslife. Yet, my great-great-grandfather's ministry, says that something other than purely economic interests were at stake. How these motivations interweave with the rest of America's story is a fascinating and complex one.

Just when do our ancestors catch their individual breaths and come to grips with so much organic change? My fear is that they never did, they just kept pushing on, pushing on. For economical or political reasons, they had to keep moving: first, from lush Scotland to the Ohio Valley, then to the prairie, and finally to California.