« Three more observations about my breasts | Main | State of the union »

10/12/2004

"They were no doubt agreeable people."

"Madam, you dance with the grace of a Parisian. I can hardly realize you were educated in Tennessee."

"A foreign diplomat" said this to an ancestress of mine as they danced at the White House during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. I have this on good authority, if the papers of my crazy maiden aunt, who was passionately devoted to family genealogy, are to be trusted.

I have some of these papers. Last night I pawed through them in search of inspiration, looking for some family names that might provoke less outspoken disapproval than Batman.

I found not only a raft of wack-ass names, but some surprisingly touching letters between my great-great-great grandparents, written and sent during the Civil War:

My dear Wife, I was truly glad to hear from you but am sorry that our darling little Ralph is sick. I hope ere this he has recovered. His little emaciated form has presented itself to my imagination a thousand times since I left home. [...] You do not know, my dear wife, how much I want to see you and my darling little boys — my mind constantly reverting to the many happy days we have spent together in our little home at Meredith. I do not know how it is with other men but as for me I cannot take an interest in anything around me for thinking of you & our children.
— My great-great-great-grandfather to my great-great-great grandmother, who is said to have had a "finely-turned ankle," 1863

Her reply:

Do my beloved husband come home once more, come by all means, there are many reasons why you should come at this time. I feel as if my confinement is not many days off, and oh my heart craves for your presence at that time.
...

There is much more written about the men than the women, of course. But while the accounts of the men's lives rely heavily on dry descriptions of what they left to whom and exactly how low they sank financially, the few glimpses of the women are fascinating. They were primarily occupied with hearth and home (except for one ancestress who had the unspeakable daring to flit off to New York to become a whore an actress), and their stories reflect this, but there are still some tantalizing hints of the individual:

"Alix was left a widow with three children at 19 years of age and died at 21 years of age."

"Mary, indeed, had had a sad life. Once Mary wrote and asked General Jackson to 'send her a slave.' Her long-suffering brother-in-law replied that because of earthquakes and other reasons he was unable to do so, but that there was a runaway slave of his named Tom known to be in the vicinity, and that if she would get Mr. Green of Natchez to catch Tom, she could have him."

"[Her] ring [...], made to fit a very slender finger, is quaint, with a device of skull and cross bones, and has a secret spring which when pressed reveals a tiny but exquisitely painted miniature of the martyr king. [...] [She and her husband] were no doubt agreeable people or they would not have been so popular at the English court."

"Providence survived him a number of years. Fifteen children were born of this marriage, most of whom reached adult life. [...] Anne, d. in infancy, 1793. Peter, d. in infancy, 1801. H., died in infancy, 1807. [...] Besides these many children, Providence brought up the six orphan children of her sister."

...

A word about the crazy maiden aunt. My description does her a disservice, because she was actually well respected in genealogical circles. When I did some research a few years ago I found many, many references to her work, which was considered definitive for certain family lines. This surprised me somewhat, because I'd always found it, oh, just a little bit dotty that her charts for our family went back to Adam and Eve.

Yes, Adam and Eve.

Her papers insist that one branch of the family can be traced to Charles Martel, Pepin le bref, Charlemagne, and WIlliam the Conqueror. Perhaps I was not so far off the mark with Vercingetorix.

...

Now the names. Oh, sure, we have our Roberts, our Janes, our Williams, our Catherines, our Charleseseseses (I never know when to stop) — there are plenty of solid, conservative names to choose from. There are also, however, these winners:

Male

  1. Belt (1768-1790)
  2. Consider
  3. Basil (1800-1872)
  4. Jabez
  5. Elkanah
  6. Eleazer
  7. Otho
  8. Ignatius (called Nacy)
  9. Xerxes
  10. Iago (d. 1039)
  11. Uther Pendragon (I wasn't joking about the Adam and Eve stuff, either)

Female

  1. Fear
  2. Salome
  3. Fredonia
  4. Melvina
  5. Remember
  6. Symphrosie
  7. Alzena and Azema (twins)
  8. Sophronia
  9. "a French girl"

I'm hoping it's a girl so we can name her Remember Fear. If it's a boy, Consider Belt.

...

Several of the people I read about "died without issue." How must they have felt?

Many of my friends have felt a certain amount of social pressure to reproduce, though I am lucky enough (or oblivious enough) never to have perceived that myself. And we have options, of course, that may allow us to do so. For all that, we sometimes still feel useless, hopeless, broken in an elemental way.

But what was it like in the 18th century, say, to find yourself barren? Without children to help you run the farm, or to care for you in your old age, or to inherit whatever empire you'd managed to build? Those are merely the practical considerations; I can't imagine the emotional ones were any less intense than those we feel today, especially since a woman's worth was even more dependent then on her capacity to bring forth son after son in a predictable, unbroken string.

Right around the time that Providence was having her fifteen children, then adopting six more besides, artificial insemination was being pioneered (1784, Spallanzani, dog; 1785, Hunter, human). From there, progress marched inexorably on; the artificial vagina would make its rubbery debut soon thereafter.

You've come a long way, baby.

Comments