My wife K— knows my family better than I do. On Saturday we were sipping beers on our friends’ patio when the neighbor waved hello and got into her car. I remember looking at the woman closely. She had glamorously frizzy hair & designer shades.
“That’s your cousin Mary,” K— pointed out after she had driven away.
I come from a big Irish-Catholic family, and Mary, my second cousin, is the eldest of eight. I can’t keep track of them all, I guess. For some reason this reminds me of how my dad, on visits back to the farmland where he grew up in Clinton County, Iowa, never fails to get lost. How appropriate, then, that 150 years ago his immigrant family settled in a town called Lost Nation.
Various efforts have been undertaken over the years to make sense of our sprawling family. In 1911, for instance, my great-great uncle published two thick, solemn-looking volumes called Wolfe’s History of Clinton County. They were self-congratulatory and, despite the fact that my uncle was a state judge, light on the verifiable.
No matter. Mine is a family of storytellers.
Sixty-four years later, my dad revived the tradition with his essay, “Origin of the Species, or Whatever Happened to Old What’s-His-Name?” In it, he introduced the reader to his grandfather Maurice, probably the first Wolfe to be born in Lost Nation and the only one who claimed to have been a Texas Ranger. “The writer knows little about him,” my dad confessed,
but it can be assumed he became a Catholic and a Democrat at approximately the same time. It is possible, however, that he inherited some of his father’s Marxist revolutionary ideas, although there is no record of political insurrection in Lost Nation or Toronto during his lifetime. It is well known in Lost Nation, though, that Grandfather Maurice attended his agrarian pursuits in spurts which he called “five year plans.” His favorite tools were the hammer and sickle.
Ironically, my dad didn’t know much more about his own father, Ray.
He joined the Navy in World War I. He caught no Germans, but he did catch the flu. In 1925 he caught Gladys McGinn of Petersville. (She was only twenty-two at the time, but that didn’t stop her from continually telling her own children that no one with a grain of sense marries under thirty. To gently remind her of her own age in 1925 only brought about a foot stomping and the response, “That was different.”)
That’s Gladys & Ray (above) with her parents and her many, many, many siblings. Gladys is the young & skinny one to the right of her mother (she’s got a severe part in her hair and a V-neck dress; click on the photo to see a larger version). Ray, though, is mostly hidden. He’s behind and to the right, his face round, his head mostly bald. I can see just enough of him to see my father. (Any more, I think, and the resemblance would be lost.) This photograph was taken five or six years before my dad was born. As it turns out, he and his father never knew each other; Ray died of cancer in 1941, when my dad was less than a year old.
Instead, my dad grew up in a county crowded with first and second cousins. He knew them all and still does.
Which reminds me of a story: When I was an undergraduate, a fellow student turned to me a bit abruptly at the beginning of class. She was older than the rest of us, more mature, and more assertive. She said to me, “You’re a Wolfe, aren’t you? I can tell just by looking at you.”
Turns out she is married to Mary’s younger brother John. Like K—, she knows our family better than we do.
[June 5, 2006]