"Writing and talk do not prove me"

The other day--for the first time ever, apparently--we celebrated two very American traditions on the same date: Groundhog Day and the Super Bowl. And by "we," I do not mean me. So while most eyes were on one of those events or other, I was thinking about other things, hovering around the concepts of family and identity.

Of course, those national obsessions are not unlike some aspects of genealogy. If Family-History Phil sees his document, it means one thing; if he doesn't, it means another six weeks of research. Super-Fan Fran roots for "her" team, a grouping of people she's never met to whom she feels a strong connection, who in reality may not be very different than that other group; occasionally a person might even leave one to join the other.


Perhaps the only other simultaneous occurrence of  Groundhogs and football;
Rudy Vallee and Robert Morse cheering on "Grand Old Ivy" from the film
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1967. 

Part of the reason I was thinking about all this was because recently I received an email from someone hoping I could help them provide some proof to accompany a lineage society membership request. So although descendants of John Wallace Cherry (27 May 1788 - 10 Feb 1857), a maternal fourth great-grandfather, are already eligible to join the Sons of the American Revolution (John Wallace being a son of Capt Samuel Cherry), it seems those D A R gals don't mess around. They want proof, and very specific proof at that.

It seems too facile, somehow, that a single piece of paper could carry such weight. Marriage certificates, adoption papers... do they make a family? Is someone "less related" by the absence of a document? What if proof--in the form of a document or some other tangible evidence--cannot be provided for something that is otherwise demonstrably true? (And somehow, this post is shifting into territory I absolutely wish to avoid concerning this month's other news-ready--I was going to say "newsworthy" but thought better of it--event, the Bible v Science debate held just across the river.)

Anyway. It is interesting in genealogy (and elsewhere) how one's perspective can shift with a single piece of information; things you think you know suddenly become different.

I am reminded of Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos, in which he writes:

You are an Aries. You open your newspaper to the astrology column and read an analysis of the Aries personality. It says, among other things:

You have the knack of creating an atmosphere of thought and movement, unhampered by petty jealousies. But you have the tendency to scatter your talents to the four winds.

Hm, you say, quite true. I'm like that.

Suddenly you realize you've made a mistake. You've read the Gemini column. So you go back to Aries:

Nothing hurts you more than to be unjustly mistreated or suspected. But you have a way about you, a gift for seeing things through despite all obstacles and distractions. You also have a desperate need to be liked. So you have been wounded more often than you admit.

Hm, you say, quite true. I'm like that.

One of my ancestors, a son of the aforementioned John Wallace Cherry, had a son of his own whose birthplace and age did not make sense in the context of the family. Researching the Cherrys, I found by chance the explanation, a single mention in one obituary: "during his middle life Mr Cherry adopted a son." None of the other obituaries or documents mentioned that. Here was a shift, brought about by one piece of paper, one fact. The son was this, now he is that.

I have found myself caught up in the minutiae of my family's histories, or the thrill of discovering a famous or noted ancestor, or the excitement of seeing a photograph or locale connected with someone in my family...! And then I realize there was an error, a flaw in logic, a mistake. The thrill is substituted (after a suitable period of adjustment) by apathy. This occurred to me again the other day as I went trampling over and across other people's gravesites looking for the important ones: my family. This plot brings tears, this one is just in the way. "I, me, mine" indeed.

Percy's astutely astrological observation further reminds me of another bit: Laurie Anderson's recurring theme of being in the wrong house, used in several of her performance pieces. Here it is from "Talk Normal":

I came home today and both our cars were gone. And there were all these new pink flamingos arranged in star patterns all over the lawn. Then I went into the kitchen and it looked like a tornado had hit. And then I realized I was in the wrong house.


The piece ends with the repeated plea "Look at me! Look at me!"

We all want to be seen, to be known for who we are. A larger context, like a family, can often help. Who is Clarissa Adams (31 Jan 1791 - 7 Feb 1872)? She is a maternal fourth great grandmother. She is the wife of John Wallace Cherry. She is the mother and adoptive grandmother of the fellas mentioned above. She is also one of my most vexing brick walls. By chance, I discovered a single document the other day, a query on a genealogy website, that opened up more of her identity. I now know she was a sister as well, to Betsey Adams (10 Oct 1788 - 25 Oct 1869), Sarah "Sally" Adams (31 Dec 1795 - ?), and James A Adams (abt 1800 - 9 Sep 1865). Might I be able to find out more, including who her parents were? With glee, I noted the name of the person who submitted the query, Naomi C Dryden, to contact her. Another document, another fact, another emotion: an online obituary from 2012. R I P Mrs Dryden, and thank you for the lead.

(Poking about, looking for that one piece of paper, that one proof of who Clarissa's parents might be, I discovered that her brother James' son, James Walton Adams [28 Dec 1838 - 18 Jul 1915], married a Eunice Waugh [31 Oct 1841 - 9 Dec 1924]. Waugh! Could this be another favorite author to whom I'm distantly related by marriage? A superficial study suggests so. Why spoil the delightful possibility with proof?]

Cousin Evelyn, as I like to remember him.

Family can help identify us, surely, but only within a group or social structure, not as individuals. Family also helps us form our identity, of course, through some admixture of nature and nurture. But how do we know who we are? Gertrude Stein (to whom it is doubtful I could be related, but...), wrote often about identity, particularly after she achieved widespread fame in 1934 with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. She meditated and composed on the theme of the disparity between how one sees oneself versus how one is seen by others. Some of these ruminations appeared in her 1936 The Geographical History of America, or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, in which she wrote the much-quoted phrase "I am I because my little dog knows me."

Beyond that bit of--dare I say--existential doggerel, though, are deeper concerns. She goes on to wonder who she would be if her dog did not know her, or who she is when her dog is not there to know her, and if either make any difference as to who she is. She concludes: "That does not prove anything about you it only proves something about the dog."


Gertrude Stein and her not-so little dog, Basket,
in a photograph by Man Ray from 1926.


You would think that after an entire book (and many other writings, including the extraordinary Ida: a Novel, which I can highly recommend to anyone interested in beginning with the more accessible--comparatively--Stein) about identity, she would have exhausted the topic, as she perhaps sometimes exhausted her readers. But Gertrude, having taken ahold of an idea, in doglike fashion liked to worry it like a bone, and added this in 1937:

Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself.

All this speculation, this circling round family and identity, facts and proof. Have I come to any conclusions? Perhaps. But all that could change with a single piece of paper.

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