What do we leave behind when we go ahead?
November 18, 1977
Not, strictly speaking, a Springfield memory, but . . . .
I was in a poetic mood when I sat down to write this—not a mood that came upon me often when faced with a column deadline. Researching one's family history has become more popular than it was more than 40 years ago, and no wonder; few hobbies offer its rewards.
Muted it is (I was writing about relatives), the piece offers a complaint about the cavalier way that so many families treat the documentary evidence of the lives lived by newly-dead family members.
When I started, I wrote down everything I knew about my ancestors. It barely filled one 3 X 5 index card. I knew—or was fairly sure I knew—that the Krohes had originally come from Germany. I knew that because my father remembered that his grandmother spoke German and being told that his grandfather—whom he never saw alive—spoke German too. The name itself was a clue, though I didn't know then whether its Germanness was a fact or just an assumption, long held but never tested because everyone interested enough to test it held the assumption in common with their kin.
I knew my great-grandfather once had a farm on Cass County's Chandlerville Road, because my father used to spend parts of his summers there, hiking in the bluffs.
I knew that the Krohes and the First State Bank of Beardstown shared more than their joint residence in that Illinois River town, because that's where my father's father used to work.
That's all I knew.
Exactly where the first American Krohes had come from, or when, or why, I did not know. Neither did I know their names, when they were born, how they made their livings, how they worshipped their god, whom they voted for.or where they lived. What I did not know about the Krohes would fill a book. I wanted to know all these things, because everything I did not know about the Krohes was something I did not know about myself.
It was two years ago that I filled out that single 3 X 5 index card and I have learned a great deal since then—hundreds of 3 X 5 index cards' worth. The man who became my great-great-grandfather, for example, was born a bastard. He sailed to America with his mother in 1834, a boy two years old, in the stinking belly of a tobacco ship. It was winter and there were storms on the Atlantic and it took seven weeks to make New Orleans. Because of the stigma of his birth, he did not share in the estate of his adopted father but was sent off to live and work for his mother's father. He bought a mule team and hired himself out, saving enough money to buy some prime bottomland along the Sangamon from his grandfather's estate when the old man died. He added to it, raised children on it and gave to his sons what had been denied him. He retired to a snug house in town, close to his church and friends. By the time he died in 1922, he'd gotten used to the noise of automobiles clattering by in front of his house. He had a telephone and listened to the radio and had his photograph taken, this boy who'd come to America on a sailing ship. I think about him occasionally, and wonder about the youth of the country and about the sometimes unexpected space a man's life can take up.
I learned how much it cost to become an American in 1837—$1.54 1/2, including a quarter to the judge for administering the oath of citizenship and 12 1/2 cents to the clerk for preparing a writ. I stood leaning on the cold marble headstones of ancestors a century dead and listened while their grandson—a distant relative of mine—told me about his grandfather who worked as a hired man for 50 cents a day and lived in the log house that the family he worked for had lived in until they built the walnut one, and how he courted and won one of the family's daughters and ended up not only with the daughter but, in time, the farm and the house as well. I choked on dust in courthouse basements, trying to assemble from the puzzle of facts buried there pictures of a face or a life but found I could not, that it was like grabbing a shadow.
One of my index cards tells about a trip made two winters ago. I was standing in front of a broken-down, one-room schoolhouse. It had my name on it, or rather my family's name, a gesture to the relative on whose land it stood. It was used only for storage by then. The windows were busted out and it stood abandoned, useless, like the rusting farm machines that dot the countryside that are too old to use and too much trouble to get rid of.
In the doorway there was a jumble of paper. It was letters, personal papers, newspaper clippings, the paper detritus that accumulates in the bottoms of desk drawers and closets over a lifetime. They were sodden with snow. The woman who accumulated them (I learned later) had died some months before and her children had dumped these things here to get rid of them. They didn't need them, they were valueless, their memories of her were still young and strong and had no need of paper crutches. The school would probably be knocked down soon and burned, with the paper inside it, and the land again put under the plow.
How many bonfires, I wondered, had been made of the lives of my ancestors, their smoke rising into the air like ghosts? ●