Decades ago, after hearing mention that my family had Quaker roots in North Carolina, I began the genealogical detective work that now fills my Orphan George Chronicles. Although I’d independently come to the Society of Friends and become a formal member, I was surprised to hear that my family had been Quaker and that there were Quakers in North Carolina – my, have my eyes been opened!
In the genealogical work, I chose to begin with my great-grandparents – people I’d never met in the flesh.
But when my father died, the focus shifted. I realized only one person remained who might be able to fill me in on questions of his childhood and parents, and that was his “baby sister.” That would mean getting to know her – and her parents – without all of the filters that had always been applied by my mother, who had issues of her own. (Oh, for these family dynamics!)
It became a rich and fascinating project, given all the more incentive when we met my aunt and her husband, a retired university dean, at the airport. It was a first-time encounter for them and my brood, yet he swept up my younger one in his arms and proclaimed, “It’s so good to have another Democrat in the Hodson family!” The party activist suddenly had a favorite uncle. Make it great-uncle-by-marriage if you will, he got the crown.
At that point, my aunt remarked that Grandpa’s slogan, painted on all of his trucks and on the calendars he mailed out each year, was “Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber.” She promised to send a photo of the vans all lined up on the street. “You didn’t know that? It was even on his stationery and bills.” This was something I’d never known, although he did sign one of his last notes to me as “formerly Dayton’s leading Republican plumber,” a comment that long puzzled me. Through much of the spring and summer I wound up following up on her reactions and insights to her childhood and adolescence, which to my surprise (the word of the day) paralleled my own, especially in regards to their now-Methodist church, the denomination I grew up in. At last, I could finally look directly at my grandparents through all the memories and scattered bits of data I could assemble, as well as all the material I already had, doing genealogy. It was like being given a key, at last.
My aunt suggested I correspond with a surviving first-cousin Dad’s age, who wound up also contributing memories, and the result was a remarkable project, not quite memoir but more a realization of finally knowing my grandparents, pro and con, for the first time – years after their deaths – as well as questioning many of our ingrained expectations: just what are grandparents supposed to be, do, or look like, for instance. Unexpectedly, I reconnected to more feelings/memories from their house on McOwen Street than to the house I grew up in on Oakdale Avenue. Some of the stories that turned up, like my dad’s desire to be a sports writer or a big chicken dinner Grandpa arranged to help pay medical bills for one of Mom’s best friends, are priceless. From an intellectual perspective, the project also illuminates the difficulty of knowing – it often meant triangulating something in the middle of three often contradictory sets of perceptions. More importantly, to some extent, I’ve finally been able to reconnect with more than a few fragments of my childhood.
From my end, there’s little I’d say was happy in all of that childhood. But there are things I can finally claim and appreciate, and even rework or rewire. Much of my adult life, as I’ve found in Dad’s genealogy (Mom’s is entirely different, and far more gothic than she ever would have admitted) has been a matter of reclaiming many of the values and practices Grandma and Grandpa rejected in their move to the up-and-coming industrial city. I never knew that my Hodson ancestors were Quaker or that Grandma’s were Dunker (Church of the Brethren), very close to Amish and oh-so Pennsylvania Dutch. But they rejected all that, with some values somehow surviving, however invisibly.
Some discoveries still amaze me. The fact that Grandpa accomplished all he did with nothing more than a grade-school education, for one thing.
Or that his two best friends in adulthood were both a decade older than himself, and both died within a year – one of ALS, the other in a car collision. Since he was the youngest of three sons, I wonder about the dynamics.
There’s much, much more I’ve uncovered along the way. As you can guess, it’s a long story. Today would have been his birthday.