That is the first line of a little poem by 19th Century Scots minister, poet, and children’s writer, George MacDonald. He was the writer whose works of fantasy fiction for children would lay the foundation for the later works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They were words I heard often as a child as my grandmother would gather up someone’s new baby and croon, “Where did you come from, baby dear; out of the nowhere into the here.” I use to think of them as a charming little idiosyncratic part of her makeup. As years went on, I began to wonder if they weren’t a very legitimate thing to ask a baby to ruminate on as he/she grew up. How do I get to here as the individual I am? That’s a lot to think about, so it is good to start early considering it. For me, it meant looking at the things and people who are the reason I am. So, I took up genealogy.
When we first moved to St. Louis, people would ask me what I thought of the all defining St. Louis question, “Where did you go to high school?” At first I thought this was some local one-upmanship sort of thing. Then I realized that it was a code, a social code, if you will. With a word or two answer to that question, a local could convey or deduce a wide range of knowledge. It told what neighborhood, therefore often revealing ethnic heritage, he grew up in. It conveyed social status, racial and economic conditions, and even religion, in some cases. The odd thing was that I had been answering a similar coded question all of my southern youth. “Who are your people?” And I knew a great deal of the answer from an early age. I could rattle off genealogical lines for several branches almost as far back as St. Matthew did in the first chapter of his book to establish who Jesus was and where he came from. Family tales were a regular part of our long evening meals that were as important for their informational exchanges as for nourishment. It was the ones I didn’t hear mentioned that were a puzzle to me.
Take my grandmother’s father. Any of you reading this blog know or may have guessed that my grandmother was a sweet gentle-woman of unimpeachable character. Her father? Not so much as I learned years later. She never talked about him other than to say his people were from Michigan and that they could trace their family back to Plymouth Rock. This turned out to be true as the Spooner he descended from was a widow with two boys who came over to Plymouth at the urging of her uncle, William Brewster. I have come to refer to them as third boat Pilgrims. My grandmother maintained contact with several of her cousins in Michigan, some of whom visited us from time to time. No one ever mentioned her father during these visits. A few years ago, one of the distant Michigan cousins(third, I think) contacted me through his wife. She was researching the family and wanted to know if I knew anything about great grandfather known to the Michigan clan as “The Outlaw Johnson.” News to me, so we went looking; and WOW,we found a great story. Not a pretty story but a great one, nonetheless . It was even written up in Real West Yearbook, fall of 1983 a Charlton Publication in an article called “ Lengthy Johnson” by Doug Engebretson.
We all knew that Ephraim A Johnson, his real name, had run away from home at 16-17 years old and was not heard from for several years. A neighbor traveling west found him in Colorado working as a butcher. He disappeared again not to be heard of until after he was married, except by rumor as being on the wrong side of the law. Great-grand-pappy was a tall, thin man (over 6’4”). We now know that he moved north from Colorado and slipped back and forth between Cheyenne and Deadwood/Spearfish plying his butcher’s trade on cattle of suspicious origins. He was arrested several times but was able to slyly talk his way out of the jams he got into. According to the news accounts out of Cheyenne and Spearfish papers, he was charming and slick. This worked well for him until the Army at Fort Bradley on the Little Missouri River caught him admiring some of their best mounts. When he learned that he would probably be convicted as a horse thief and hanged, he made a deal with the Army…a lighter sentence in exchange for his two cohorts still on the loose. He even contacted these “friends” and arranged a meeting. The vigilantes showed up and promptly hanged his buddies. He probably thought that he was not going to get off as easy as he hoped so he took a chance, ripped a hole in the tent he was being kept in and escaped, taking three of those horses he had had his eye on.
We don’t know where he was for the next eight years, but he showed up in Hope, North Dakota, in 1886 where a naïve, British immigrant girl fell for his handsome face and fast talk. He married her, and my grandmother was born the next year in a construction tent in Salina, Kansas. That’s the way things went until my grandmother was 12 years old. The constant moving, the lack of proper housing, and his serious drinking finally caused the marriage to fail. By then the family had migrated to Little Rock(who knows why). He died a few years later in a nearby town, penniless. He died asking only to see my grandmother’s sister although their mother took both of the girls to him.
Like I said, Grandmother never talked about him. I found a picture of the young Ephraim, his wife Sarah and infant daughter among her things after she died. He must have embarrassed her. She had to be hurt by his last rejection of her. I’m sure she was angry that his bad choices forced her to quit school at 12 to go to work for the family. She loved, no, she revered education; and it was one of the sorrows of her life that she did not finish school. But as I looked at this picture, I was struck by the forgiveness that must have been in her heart as well. You see, my grandmother loved my father with total devotion, and the face in the picture of her father is my father’s face. This is part of who I am. I come from the family tree that almost had a man hanging from it. He colored my grandmother’s life and kept her silent all those years, yet he passed on to his grandson his good looks and his charming ways. Thank God, Daddy was influenced by my grandmother’s certainty that there were better ways of doing things. “Lengthy” was a scamp, and a scoundrel; a man with little to offer but he’s back there and part of where I came from.
Years ago, Norman Rockwell painted a Saturday Evening Post cover of a family tree that had a pirate, a bar maid, a puritan, a half-breed Indian, a Southern Belle and a preacher that were all progenitors of a cute little red-haired, freckle faced, all American type kid. It can happen.