"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 6, 2018

Families, Ancestry, Fables, And The Search For The Impossible

Ancestry sites are among the most popular on the Internet.  People are more interested than ever in connecting with their past.  DNA sampling makes genealogical searches more precise, teasing out the genetic bits of respectable or unsavory pasts. 

A close friend, very involved in progressive causes especially civil rights, had chosen to ignore family tales of Southern plantation grandees, swept them under the rug, and assumed they were tall tales; but urged on by his family, his friends, and his conservative colleagues, he decided to send a sample of his DNA for testing.

Image result for images ancestry.com

Sure enough, not only were odd bits of DNA circulating through the bloodlines of the Harper family, but whole double helices of them.  His great, great paternal grandfather was the owner of Fair Oaks, one of the largest plantations in the Mississippi Delta in the 1860s; and his maternal side, his ancestors were South Carolina slave owners and worse, Confederate firebrands in the state legislature who had argued early and often for secession.

Image result for images grand plantation antebellum homes mississippi

After the war, the Harpers and Merriweathers made their way north, not out of any sympathy for the Union cause but because of the penury, loss, and injury suffered at the hands of Sherman and Grant.  Despite the claims of Quakers and other abolitionists, there was not a little sympathy for the South in Northern Virginia, Washington, and the Mid-Atlantic.  The war might have been fought for the right to work, the dignity of free labor, and the entrepreneurial tradition, but more than a few aristocratic families of Richmond and Wilmington were sorry that the revered Cavalier tradition had been so sullied and disgraced.   In other words the Harpers and the Merriweathers were introduced to and accepted in Northern society without a second thought.

This family history, of course, was a double indemnity for Bob Harper.  Not only were his close ancestors slave owners and early Confederate advocates; but they had never repented their sins and happily and without moral consequence joined the best clubs, married into the best families, and became wealthy a second time, trading on their name, family crest, and connections with England.

Image result for images augusta national

He looked in vain for a more acceptable heritage.  Perhaps Hiram Harper of Eutaw, Alabama had misceginated with slaves on his plantation, and Bob was more of a descendant of Doula Esther than the white European English Harpers.  No such luck, as search after search turned up nothing but white.

Perhaps, then, at least some of the Harpers who had moved North after Reconstruction had joined in nascent civil rights movements organized to demand more formal recognition of freed slaves if not full American citizenship.  Again, Bob came up empty.  Both Harpers and Merriweathers had joined the ruling elite, had become captains of the industrial revolution and prominent bankers on Wall Street.

Image result for images wall street

In the final accounting, there was nothing that Bob Harper could find that gave him any historical credentials.  He would have to go it on his own.  Perhaps because of this unfortunate history, Bob redoubled his efforts to promote the cause of the black man.  Exactly because the blood of slave owners and One Percenters ran in his veins, he would have to show the world how much he rejected this retrograde American and family history.

The O'Neill's of Boston had always heard rumors of a criminal past in their branch of the family; and felt it important for their children to do due diligence and find out whether or not Sean O’Neill had actually been the brigand, womanizer, and unreconstructed thief of County Cork.  The O’Neill family was of two minds – half the clan wanted to discredit the scurrilous rumors of an disreputable Irish past.  They had had enough taunts, insults, and discrimination at the hands of the Lodges and the Cabots to last many lifetimes, and they were anxious to set the record straight.  They had come to America after the potato famine,  families in search of a better life and not fleeing the penury and pigsties of bad luck, bad judgement, and bad associates. The other half was proud of their rough-and-tumble past, bar fights, and Tammany Hall.

Like Bob Harper, Peter O’Neill was ashamed of the stories of his family clan and about the continually tarnished image of the American Irish; but like Bob, he was disappointed in what he discovered.  Not only were his Cork branch of the family thieves and escapees; but they had been powerful mafia bosses in Crosshaven,  Dun Eala and Dublin and players in the late 19th century ethnic wars (Natives vs Irish) in New York City.

See the source image

It doesn’t pay to snoop around the past.  What was, was; and nothing can change history….Or can it?
Family history, despite the advances in genetics and genealogy, is still a matter of conjecture, fable, and tall tales.

At Easter dinner Uncle Harry LaCava  told endless stories of his Mafia connections in Little Italy, his affair with the granddaughter of the Countess of Sorrento (before Garibaldi), and his connections with Italian Fascism.  There was always a scintilla of truth in his tales. He had been friends with Carmine Petrucciani who owned the biggest stone quarry and biggest cement works in Connecticut and who had made his millions at least in part to his connections with the DiLoreto family in New Haven.  He had indeed squired the granddaughter of the Italian countess who, divorced from an American Wall Street investor, at sexual liberty and available in the free-love 70s, gave him the time of day.  Similarly he had indeed become friends with Roberto Gugino, a distant second cousin of the Naples branch of the Mussolini family, who, destitute, had sought solace and refuge in a Himalayan ashram.

Image result for images granddaughter mussolini

Yet Harry’s stores were nothing more than confabulations, adult nursery rhymes, and self-serving anecdotes of which only bits and pieces had veracity.

He was matched by Lou Panti whose war stories, behind-the-lines espionage, and double-agent Third Man intrigues were far more interesting than Grillo’s sexual wannabe adventures with members of discredited Italian royal families.

Even those at Aunt Leona’s Easter dinner who had no pretentions of grandeur or high social connections, confabulated.  The stories of the DiLoretos, Garaffas, Scozzfavas, and Imperiolis came out as bent and fanciful as those of any troubadour.  No one could stick to the facts if there was ever such a thing.  In fact, Leona had to break up the fights between family members who insisted on their version of what happened.   Everyone agreed that things happened, but to whom, by whom, and for whom was another matter altogether.

It is easier than ever today, with advances in genetic testing, access to vast reserves of historical data, algorithms which can correlate, associate, and links to formerly disparate annals of information, to pinpoint ancestry.  Yet, only so much can be derived from this physical and historical information.  History has never been objective, but determined by the subjectivity of the historian.  DNA coding can only link groups of individuals and in some special cases individuals themselves to a larger socio-economic context; and even so, what is learned?

Whether Bob Harper’s progenitors were slave owners or not tells nothing about their character, their principles, or their intent.  There is little relevance to the supposed liaisons between Harry LaCava and the descendants of Italian royalty because too much has intervened.  We cannot, given the fallibility of memory and history, decide what actually happened.

Image result for images dna double helix

It is of only Oprah interest to learn more about the goings-on in the Veneziano family – who spited whom, who jilted whom, who benefitted from Nonna Maria’s preferences, who made a difference, and who made the papers.  It is of no consequence. The  past is the past.  History is no more than subjective elisions between Italy and America, the paisanos of the Mezzogiorno and Ellis Island; the Medicis, Andrew Carnegie, and the Mafia.

Yet, there is something compelling about the 1912 daguerreotype of the Venezianos – stern, mustachioed, father; bunned, black-dressed, plump missus; babies in swaddling and nightgowns; all severe, serious, and authoritative.  Who were they? What could live have been over a hundred years ago? Horses, mud,  civil anarchy, ethnic rivalries, opportunity, penury, and tenements.  How did we come so far? What inadmissible behavior got us to where we are now?

Of course we will never know.  Did Giuseppe Veneziano run numbers or even kill for La Cosa Nostra? The stuff of Hollywood legend because Giuseppe’s historical records show his properties, his mortgages, and his family members.  He was the ideal new American – entrepreneurial, ambitious, family-oriented, but unstoppable. Or was he somewhere in between.

It is the uncertainty that holds our interest.  It is not surprising that psycho-social  scientists have concluded that most of memory is fill-in.  We have some of the rocks, stones and mortar of the foundation, but the rest of the architecture has been built by others.  Their memories.  Their recollections.

In the final accounting, it matters little where we come from.  Genealogy is of academic interest only; and family history counts only for amusement.  If anything, history, paternity, patriarchy, and lineage are convenient covers.  In short, who cares? Or better,why should we even bother to care?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.