I’m procrastinating. I’m working an article and have gotten to the point where I’ve done all the interviews. I know what the article should look like. I just have to write it up. And I’m finding any excuse to NOT do it. Because first drafts are hell.
One of the ways that I’ve been procrastinating these past couple of days is by looking for ancestors on Ancestry.com.
These genealogy websites were all started by the Mormons who are obsessed with knowing who their relatives are, because when the world ends, I think we’re supposed to locate the souls of our relatives and go live on a separate planet or something. Whatever. It’s a cool tool. It’s crowd sourced information, like wikipedia, and it makes this former academic very happy to live in the age of the Internet.
I’m super lazy about this genealogy stuff. I’m certainly not going to go back to old churches in Ireland to find the baptismal accounts of the peasants who were my ancestors. So, there’s lots of branches that lead to a dead-end pretty quickly.
Except for my dad’s grandmother’s side of the family. Ancestry.com traces her parents and grandparents and grandparents back for hundreds of years, because her mother’s mother were royals in England and Scotland. Once you find a branch of your family that is descended from people who owned land and had titles, the lineage lines are clearly drawn and documented.
My 10th great grandparents were lairds of castles in Scotland and England. They were hanging out with Robert de Bruce. (That picture is of Sir George FitzGerald, “The Fairy Earl”, 16th Earl of Kildare, my 10th great-grandfather.) James II executed someone in my family. If I keep going back, Steve tells me that I’ll probably find that I’m descended from the Normans and from there, it’s a straight shot back to Charlemagne.
Steve’s been playing with this program for the past year and he’s tracked one branch of his family to Charlemagne this way. It’s probably very common.
Sure, the Scotland Lairds are interesting and all. When we go to Scotland this summer, I think we’ll go visit one of the crumbling castles of my ancestors. But I’m more interested in how my great-grandmother, who came from such noble lines, ended up as a housewife in the Southside of Chicago married to an alcoholic worker in the steel mills.
For thousands of years, that side of the family maintained its wealth and privilege, and over three generations slowly became poorer and poorer. By the time they got to the mid 1800’s, they were still doing okay. My dad’s grandmother, Ellen Keefe Norton, grew up in Iowa in an upper middle family of a landowner. She went to finishing school. But she married an alcoholic worker on her father’s farm, who had a side business as a barroom fighter. Later, he worked paving the roads of Chicago and sweeping up at the steel mills. He had a fourth grade education.
My dad wrote about his grandfather for The Atlantic many years ago.
And then if you look at her family tree, there were about three generations of women marrying down or younger sons getting smaller estates in Ireland.
Looking lower on the family tree to my living extended family, we’re a mixed bag. Some are doing pretty well with 10 percent incomes and graduate degrees. Other cousins never recovered from the past with its potato famines, immigration, bad marriages, alcoholism, illness, and borderline Aspergers syndrome. One cousin is already dead. Others never finished high school.
In the past, elites preserved their status for their children with property and inbreeding. Today, we do that with carefully tended savings accounts and education and connections. And probably inbreeding, too. I wonder how stable those systems are.