Thursday, August 19, 2010

My family is either full of perseverance or lacks gumption: Which?

These images are positive proof that my family has gained a well-deserved reputation for being either very stick-to-it-tivey or a great bunch of dullards, I'm not sure which.

I took these pictures last weekend at two different family plots. The picture of that single tombstone? I can't remember the name on it because I didn't write it down and it's too hard to see in the picture (I think her name was Margaret), but the person buried there is one of my grandmothers, several greats down a long and dusty pioneer road, a forebear of my own great-grandmother, Hazel Williams Houser. The shot of the pretty little graveyard on the hillside nestles the sleeping ancestors of my great-grandfather, Hazel's husband, Robert Lee Houser. The two of them, my mother's grandparents, were married on December 25, 1912 and they were a truly beautiful couple. If they'd been born farther into the twentieth century, I'm sure they would have been movie stars, but as it was, they were too busy farming to go off to get head shots made and present themselves at auditions and the like.

My family toiled their way off the boats from England, Scotland and Ireland, made brief stops in Pennsylvania and then came to Indiana, which used to be considered the Wild West. They plunked down all their belongings amidst the virgin timber -- one family history records the overwhelming fact that the originator of graveyard number one, the husband buried next to that single tombstone? He bought a tract of land that was so covered with trees that it took him TWO YEARS to clear it by hand so that the ground could be cultivated for farming. I read that and had to immediately take to the bed; it took me TWO YEARS to return four vastly overdue books back to the public library's outdoor drop-off, the one where you don't even have to get out of your car -- and said, "Here we are. This is home."

And home it has remained. Other people, like Laura Ingalls Wilder's father, Charles, enthusiastically scooped everyone out of their comfortable cabins (could there be a cozier book than Little House in the Big Woods?) and forced them to climb into prairie schooner wagons and trundle as far west as they could go without either being eaten by bears or falling into the Pacific. I could have had a great-great-grandmother who wrote books about her childhood travels across the country, catching malaria in the river flats and slapping at wolves with her sunbonnet, but instead, I just got born into the group that whittled rocking chairs out of the wood they cut from their land and then sat in them. Forever. It turns out that there's never been much of a call for books titled things like The Chairs We Loved and How We Sat in Them.

I could have been rich, living on the royalties from those books, and all my family with me, including my mom and my cousins Jane, Jay and Lana, who are all my Facebook friends. We could have set up the old home place as a pioneer museum and taken turns with other family members leading tour groups around while dressed in period clothing, spinning yarns about how great-great-great-great-grandpa Isaac could shoot the eye out of a squirrel at a hundred and fifty yards.
After my shift, I could have climbed into my Cadillac Escalade and driven to my very huge house with the acres of granite countertops covering the cherry cabinets in my kitchen, my kitchen with a fridge the size of my ancestor's original log cabin and a dishwasher and a trash masher and a plate warmer and a wine cooler and an ice machine and a six-burner gas range. And a fireplace, a big, wood-burning fireplace as a nod to the past, where someone else would cut the wood and bring it to my house on a truck and stack it neatly on a wood rack outside my back door.

I try not to be bitter about this, partly because I think that maybe this staying-in-one-place-forever thing doesn't really indicate a terrible lassitude on the part of my ancestors. Maybe what it really means is that my family is loyal: We found a place that treated us right, so we stayed there. We stayed to the point where my mother and father are actually distant cousins, and while that is mildly disturbing, it's not as disconcerting as the inadvertant cannibalism that was visited on my family by my step-gran, Mary Liz, a few months after she and Grandad were married in 1982.

We'd all been invited out to their house near Springport for dinner and Mary Liz had made an absolutely gorgeous red raspberry pie for dessert. Bless her, Mary Liz (who is now 89 and living in an assisted care facility with Grandad) has never been noted as one of the world's great cooks, but please believe me when I say that this pie was quite an achievement.

She served it proudly and we were all sitting there shoveling it in with the enthusiasm my family has always shown for good victuals. "Murry Lith," my mother said indistincly through the large bite of home-baked pie in her mouth. "Thith is delithious! Where'd you getthese beauthiful rathberries?" A slight spraying of lard-based crust crumbs delicately decorated her bosom as she spoke.

Mary Liz surveyed her own dessert plate with pride. "I walked down to that old graveyard yesterday and picked a whole bucket full," she announced brightly. "You just wouldn't believe how big those bushes are and how much fruit they have on them. I've never seen such growth!"

As one person, the entire family swallowed -- an uncomfortable action when what you have in your mouth has suddenly assumed the taste and texture of a circa 1836 burial shroud -- and pushed our plates away. Great gulps of coffee were consumed, possibly even swished and gargled. We sat for the remainder of the visit with lumps of ancestor-flavored raspberry pie lying in our outraged stomachs like chunks of marble tombstone.

So! When your family stays in one place for a long time, you can have private burying grounds with your kith and kin decently interred, a certain boon to those who enjoy filling in all the blanks on the family tree. You can tell yourself that your forebears were the very pioneers whose arrival and determined length of residence made it possible for such things as the Muncie Mall and Mt. Lawn Speedway to be built for the enjoyment of future generations.

But it is very, very hard to convince yourself that they taste good.

1 comment:

Kayte said...

I think our ancestors must have known each other along the way at some point as they were traveling the same routes...mine just kept traveling on to Iowa before stopping. Fun to read.