My sister takes a drag on her cigarette and lets out a deep sigh of smoke, “So…I have no roots”.
“You have very deep roots. They just aren’t here”, I say.
“Here” is a rural cemetery outside of Mesick Michigan. We’re cemetery hopping to get pictures, but we aren’t related to anyone here. We’ve got relatives in other cemeteries but they are all people we’ve met in our lifetime. We’re recent transplants. Our history in Michigan is only as long as our history of being Thompsons, 92 years and counting.
What you may not understand is that, this area is, hands down, the best place in the world. It is home. Our souls are there and we have to return every so often to catch up with them. It’s not a house or a particular landmark we’re drawn to. It’s everything. We feel this region in our bones. Like vampires, we have to come back to our earth.
So, there I am in the windy uplands of our home turf, telling my sister that we weren’t carved out of the stones of this place with 200 years or more under our belt. We’re there, by accident, within the lifetime of a single person.
For someone who can count the trees as lifelong friends, being untethered from your place is really an unacceptable thing.
I decide to go for broke. I talk about the bad land deal near Traverse City in 1924 that led to the move to Cadillac and our grandfather’s birth in 1925. I move backwards and tell her about the Finks family moving north and meeting up with Ray Thompson because of the railroad. I move back farther and talk about the Elmores in Peoria, then the Elmores in New York and finally to show just how deep those roots are, I throw out Edward Elmer, a Puritan founder of Hartford and, right now, the genetic all-father for our family. I blow out the vast scope of 400 years of movement that leads to this moment and our very existence in about 10 seconds of breathless shrieking.
I realize what a misstep that is, but I can’t undo it. I can’t take it back and feed her the small bites of information she needs.
She walks away, silently flicking ashes.
It’s Not You, it’s Me
When it comes to facts and data and genome analysis, I’m like Lennie petting the mouse. I mean well, but, it never ends well.
When I think about these things, especially with my family, I think about identity. There is a gulf to be crossed because we’re Thompsons, but we’re not Thompsons. So that easy tie in is lost. We’re Elmores, but we’re not tied to them either except through blood. It’s hard to get excited about that. I’m excited about facts and data and puzzle solving, but am I excited about their story? Can I identify with these people?
I think, to a certain extent, I can’t sell this “truth in our genes” because I’m not sold on the connection. I can’t make a connection because I’m missing the common ground.
I have to make this person, Ed Elmer, acceptable to me before he’ll be acceptable to anyone else.
A Visit to New York
My Elmore family is from New York, but it would probably be easier for me to get to them by way of Canada. This visit to New York doesn’t concern them. This is a visit to my wife’s existing relatives near Peekskill.
We decide to stay in the town of Pawling because it’s a good middle ground between several friends and family members we’re going to visit. For Annette, this is coming home.
What you may not understand is that this area of New York is, hands down, the best place in the world. For my wife and her family, this is home. Their souls are there and they are compelled to return to their earth.
I can feel it too. The windy hills, rocks, trees, farm fields and streams remind me of home. The town reminds me of my own home town. The kids never want to leave.
A Visit to Hartford
We drove 700 plus miles to be in New York and drove through parts of Connecticut to get to friends and family, so spending another couple of hours getting to Hartford Connecticut seems very reasonable.
It is time for me to make a physical connection to Ed. I need to touch something so I can carry that feeling back with me. I need to see it.
We hit construction and tack another hour or so onto the trip. It’s getting dark. Hartford is a modern city. The historic church and ancient burial ground seem to be lost in a banking and commerce district. Ed Elmer’s old plot may be a parking ramp.
We park and hurry over to the cemetery with buses honking and people shouting in their daily grind. I’ve become determined to lay a hand on that obelisk. I know Ed is not there, but I waant to make that connection. Dusty and road weary we walk up to the cemetery gates. I have my sons with me. This is my chance to make a connection for them as well. Part of this man lives on in them both figuratively and physically.
The gate is locked. My wife snaps a picture.
What you see there is disappointment. The cemetery is closed. I’m 18 minutes too late to complete my 400 year and 800 mile journey and I can’t come back tomorrow.
I decide to go for broke. I talk about the bad land deal near Traverse City in 1924 that led to the move to Cadillac and their great grandfather’s birth in 1925. I move backwards and tell her about the Finks family moving north and meeting up with Ray Thompson because of the railroad. I move back farther and talk about the Elmores in Peoria, then the Elmores in New York and finally to show just how deep our roots are, I present the obelisk we can’t touch,which presumably carries the name of Edward Elmer, a Puritan founder of this city, their genetic all-father. I blow out the vast scope of 400 years of movement that leads to this moment and our very existence in about 10 seconds of breathless shrieking.
I realize what a misstep that is, but I can’t undo it. I can’t take it back. I’m losing them.
My oldest says “Well…okay then” my youngest asks his mother if we can go back to Pawling now. Annette explains that this is special to daddy, so we’re going to wait. She snaps a few more pictures between the bars of the cemetery fence.
There is plenty of awkward silence on the way back to the car to think about how I’m traumatizing my sons with genealogy after a four hour side trip to nothing.
The selfishness of my pursuit rears it’s head. The kids are curious, they want to know things, but they need to have some connection to it. I have dragged them to Hartford looking for that physical link. Thinking that it could be a special event. Maybe something in the earth here would speak to us the way other places do.
The thing is, it didn’t speak even though I was straining hard to listen. I have no need to return to Hartford. There is nothing for me there. I can’t identify with the bustling city of today and I can’t identify with the stodgy Puritans of the past.
Identity and the Past
A group of Cambridge educated men from well to do families settle in the new world. These aren’t the Pilgrams. These guys had more resources. Some were English gentleman. They were higher up the social ladder. They were religious extremists looking for a place in the world that they could micro-manage. That is my idea of these Puritans.
The Puritans were radical Christians. So tight that their social order couldn’t stand up to the growth of their own towns. Ed Elmer would roll in his grave if he knew about me. I feel like I can document him and define him genetically, but I don’t know if I can identify with him.
We’re too culturally different.
The puritans are too remote, too “well to do” and too “pure” to be relatable. I feel like I have more in common with the natives than these country gents.
Above is an example. Samuel Edward Elmore is a successful business man. His point of pride in two different articles is the 550 acres of land Edward Elmer owned just before he died. Samuel Edward Elmore is a prominent person who descends from prominent people who have a lot of resources. He can identify with that place (because he still had a house there) and with Edward (because he was also very successful in gaining all that land). Success would seem to be preordained.
There’s nothing wrong with Samuel. He did well. I think his success would help him to personally identify with a prominent land owner. Or at least it helped other people identify him with a prominent land owner.
Meanwhile, my grandfathers were construction workers or farmers. One bought a small plot in the woods and literally built his house from collected sticks. The second built his house from the leftovers on a job site. The third survived polio and worked on farm land that was not his own. Success was measured differently. It was smaller and hard won after a lifetime of struggle. They fought poverty and hunger and illness. They each had to overcome obstacles to reach the modest success of climbing into the middle class. With a roof over their heads, they lived in their chosen place. They hunted and gathered blueberries. They planted tidy gardens in the short northern growing season. They had a life in the wind and the water and the trees and the loose sandy soil.
They left their souls there.
That is a story I can relate to.