Memoir: Lore, Libel & Lies by Catherine Sevenau
Family Genealogy: Lore, Libel & Lies
by Catherine Sevenau
My brother, his wife, and I just returned from our fifth road trip of gathering family history— searching through county records, newspaper archives, and historical museums hunting for birth and death records, local articles, pictures, deeds, wills and old maps—things you have to go to the actual places to find. We make Marian come as she has a sense of direction. (On one trip to Minnesota when she left us for five days to visit her sister, Gordon and I changed hotels every day so we’d have our luggage as our chance of finding our same hotel again was slim to none.)
Gordon works on family genealogy, I am writing an historical family memoir. I watch when they read the stories I pen. Marian laughs out loud or cries; she tells me she loves them. Gordon looks like he’s reading last month’s weather report.
Gordon and Marian (they are in their early seventies) and I (a generation younger), along with whomever in the family we manage to entice to accompany us, pack what we need for two or three weeks and set out to snoop wherever anyone will let us. However, we have this uncanny knack for arriving at the county museum, local library, or city hall on the day it is not open, closed for remodeling, or just as they are locking up for the night.
In the past four years we have explored the Sacramento Valley, the gold country of Northern California, the cemeteries of Southern California, five western states, and our father’s family farm in Minnesota—visiting cousins and taking pictures of homesteads and headstones. Our latest road trip covered 5,000 miles on a 4,500-mile foray. We drove through Nevada, a small corner of Arizona, the Rockies of Colorado, the expanse of Wyoming and the flatlands of Montana. The extra 500 miles we spent heading off into the wild blue yonder. (Gordon won’t look at a map so he makes Marian, but when she tells him which way to go he doesn’t believe her. I can’t read a map and get carsick if I take my eyes off the horizon so I stay out of that one.)
My brother always tries to convince me to eat at Subway. Forget it. I drag them to ethnic or organic restaurants. At dinner I order a water with no ice and a salad with no onions and a veggie burger with no mustard and could they please leave the dressing on the side and Gordon leans into me and asks, “Can’t you just order something like it comes on the menu?” pointing out that I am like dining with Sally in When Harry Met Sally and I snicker, “that’s not the scene that comes to my mind in that movie…”
In Nevada our Hoy cousins graciously put us up for a night (I want to live in their house—their linens cost more than my furniture, not to mention that Celine Dion lives in the neighborhood) and fix us a fabulous meal (another reason I could move in with them). My brother comes in the living room and looms over me as I sit on the couch admiring a very good copy of a Rembrandt. “How do you want your steak cooked?” I don’t eat meat but note the look on his face. I have the common sense to say, “medium rare.” He says, “right answer.” (And just between you and me—it was delicious!) Our mutual ancestors were in the cattle business and for my cousin’s birthday his wife had given him a miniature HOY branding iron. The two-inch letters burned into the steaks were a nice touch, as was the homemade fresh strawberry ice cream.
He says, “I didn’t know you were religious.”
I say, “Only when you’re driving.”
Of course I won’t mention the day in downtown Denver when I turn right onto a one-way street in rush hour and have to back up their shiny new SUV into a stream of screeching honking traffic. I also would rather not talk about the next day when I turn left off a one-way street into the left lane and drive a whole block on what is not a one-way street, unable to figure out what the hell the guy coming at me thinks he is doing. Marian, who is trying to read a Denver map so big that it blocks half the steering wheel and hangs two feet out the passenger window glances up and casually suggests I might want to pull over a couple of lanes. Thankfully, Gordon isn’t in the car either time. He fails to see the humor in moments like these. Having played the sousaphone in high school and college, he is in horn heaven at a four-day Tuba and Euphonium Conference (which is part of the reason we took this trip), hanging out with 500 tuba players, most of whom I notice have the same body shape as the brass instrument they play. But I must say, 500 tubas a-tubaing is a magnificent sound. The three evening concerts we attended were quite wonderful.
We drive through Bryce National Park where wind, water and magic have cut the limestone into a landscape of bizarre shapes of mazes, slot canyons, and elegant spires of hoodoos. We are equally stunned by Zion National Park where the red and pink sandstone cliffs look like sandcastles built in desert canyons, their massive walls soaring to a vast blue sky. Rocky Mountain National Park also takes our breath away, and not just because of the altitude. We spend the afternoon at Custer’s last stand. Heart wrenching—not for Custer (that’s just my opinion)—but for what this country did to the Indians.
At the Denver History Library we are ecstatic with each new discovery, whooping and high-fiving, clapping one another on the back. The librarian continually pokes her head in the room with a sharp look. Gordon and I sit side-by-side—hunched over giant microfilm machines, rolling through reel after reel of old newspapers—me going half-blind from the bad print and queasy from the movement. I get clammy and stagger to the ladies room to throw up, then wander over to the local history section to look up things in books where the pages don’t move. Marian comes back from being buried in the archives all morning, thrilled with the great find in hand and presents it to her husband. Gordon barely glances up—telling her he already has that record. She disappears for several hours and he finally notices she’s missing and asks where she is and I say she’s at the courthouse looking up records for HER family—and filing for divorce. He hadn’t seen the look on her face.
Marian and I spend much time together in ladies restrooms laughing so hard we cry and slide to the floor while Gordon waits in the hall waiting stiffly on the opposite wall with tight lips and crossed arms. She gets a medal for spending hours poring over microfilm and old newspapers searching for snippets about Hoys, Chatfields and Chamberlins. You couldn’t pay me to spend that much time looking for information about someone else’s family—even if I was married to them. Perhaps that’s why I’m not married.
After Colorado we don’t make it to Nebraska. Instead, we decide to head for Montana as my brother thinks Montana is on the way home. Marian rolls her eyes as she has been married to him for fifty years. I am somewhat suspicious as to the whereabouts of Montana, but think it a fine idea as I too want to find the ranch our grandfather gambled away. After Montana, we head for Utah.
The only disappointment of our three weeks was come to find out after having driven for sixteen days in the car, the Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City is closed on Sundays, the only day we had to spend there. Of course.
“WHAT? We’ve driven almost 4,000 miles to come to THIS library and you are closing in THREE HOURS and won’t be open TOMORROW?
WAH! How can that BE?
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” the greeter says kindly. “The library is not open on Sundays.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“For religious reasons.”
“Religious reasons? What does that have to do with anything? You’re not Catholic!” Marian and Gordon have wheeled away from me. Dejected, I try not to cry as I join them in the elevator. They pretend they don’t know me. But we still discover a fair amount in those three hours.
The next morning (since the damn library is closed) we set out for Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which I have wanted to hear forever. During the hour-long rehearsal the usher standing five feet from me has to natter brightly, “watch your step, watch your step” through the WHOLE performance. Like the lights aren’t on? Like everyone is blind? Like 200 people haven’t already walked down 50 steps to get to her landing and not one has tripped and needed to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital? I was aggravated enough that she yapped through the entire concert, but when she pulled out a piece of cellophane wrapped candy—oh my God—the woman is lucky she is still alive. I was close to caning her. But it didn’t get ugly until we left. The three of us actually make it back up all those stairs without falling. When we reached the lobby one of the white-haired ushers observed me foaming and twitching and had the temerity to ask me how the concert was. I latch onto his gray lapel and get so close our noses almost touch. “How was the concert? You want to know how was the concert? RUINED, that’s how the concert was! RUINED!” Out of the corner of my eye I see that Marian and Gordon have peeled away, acting like they have never ever seen me before in their life. As I wind down my rant regarding cellophane wrappers and lack of usher training, I notice how wide this man’s eyes are. Taking a deep breath I slowly unpeel my fingers from his lapel and pat it gently back down and thank him for inquiring, murmuring, “I feel much better now, much better. Thank you.” My brother and sister-in-law have disappeared.
We come home a day early, bleary and stiff from hours of driving, every empty space in their no longer new hybrid littered with crumbs and stuffed with stacks of information, wishing we’d had more of Marian’s cookies, happy. Was our trip a success? You betcha! Did we find everything we were looking for? No, but enough to satisfy us until the next journey. We found pictures we didn’t know existed, nearly a hundred newspaper articles that filled in a lot of blank holes, and a number of books others had written about the family. However, we also discovered the best family legends we had in the books we are putting together AREN’T EVEN TRUE!
Grandpa didn’t gamble away the ranch. They never owned a ranch. And if they had owned a ranch, it would not have been worth $150,000. Hell, in 1915, you could have bought the whole godforsaken state of Montana for $150,000. They were giving the land away to homesteaders—why would anyone pay for it?
And not only was J.S. not castrated (turns out he had mumps as a baby)—Henrietta Wilcox didn’t poison him either.
Truth—the downside of research. The most interesting legends turn out to be just that. Legends. I suppose that’s why I titled our family history Lore, Libel and Lies—so I could leave them in.