Saturday, May 12, 2007
My best friend from my high school days used to like to recount that she was descended of one of the most famous bloodthirsty pirates on the high seas. As my cousin wrote in her ancestry I'm not so proud of post, sometimes family history stories should not be told with a gleam of pride in your eye.
But the problem is that I love stories!!! And in story terms, sometimes the worst ones are the best ones!!!
Some of the most colorful tales from our oral history come from the hillbilly branch of the family tree, whose progress into civilization was discussed here. And as I mentioned here, this bluegrass background may have been an influence for my uncle in his LDS and Christian album. But my own imagination was more captured by the stories of "Uncle Pink" running shine during the prohibition -- driving up from southern Illinois to visit his respectable (LDS) brother (my great grandfather) in the suburbs of Chicago, and making a stop in Chicago to sell the fruit of the stills to some of the associates of Al Capone....
See? That last bit is the part that's not supposed to be recounted with pride (since Al Capone was a bad guy by any measure), but somehow it makes the story more interesting since it situates it in a historical context.
Some of my relatives who read this blog can tell me if I got the story all wrong. I hope not, but that's part of the fun of oral history -- it's like your own personal set of legends that get taller with each generation they pass through. They get interpreted by each generation too. The Utah branch of the family recounts that the cause of the untimely death of one jack-Mormon ancestor was alcohol. My brother suggested that we could add an equal-and-opposite moral history by pointing out that our bluegrass great-grandpa might not have died from cholesterol-related heart failure if Mormonism hadn't prevented him from counterbalancing his southern-fried-chicken diet with its traditional digestif: moonshine whiskey.
And so whenever I see a hidden still in the backwoods portrayed in movies or television, part of me is thinking: "Yep, my ancestors did that." ;^)
My sons recently got a DVD of The Rescuers and we've watched it as a family it a bunch of times. I've carefully pointed out to my sons their ancestral place in history when the swamp critters appear on the scene in their wooden shack, drinking their homemade moonshine. The film is set in Louisiana, but the colorful locals as they're portrayed could as easily have been from Tennessee, Kentucky, or southern Illinois. It probably says something about me that my one-and-only contribution to Wikipedia was a bullet point about The Rescuers in the entry about moonshine.
My husband was less thrilled about my connection with this part of the film. He clearly identifies more with the respectable foreign dignitary mice meeting at the UN building in New York. But he has a completely different type of questionable family history:
My husband has an ancestral gold ring (hidden away in a safety-deposit box somewhere) that demonstrates that he has inherited some sort of title of nobility. It's not clear what the precise title is (whether he's secretly a Marquis or a Vicompte or whatever) because apparently their family doesn't have the same fondness for oral history that I do. I asked my MIL about the title once (because when we were first married I had this crazy idea that I'd do his genealogy the way my mom did for my dad), but my MIL replied that it's nothing to be proud of that the king of France granted their family a noble title in gratitude for putting down some peasant rebellion.
So (according to my MIL anyway) her husband's family consisted of petty nobles who rose up from the ranks of mid-level landholders by grinding the peasants down. I can't tell how true this is since my husband's immediate family doesn't have much contact with his extended family (long story), and I can't ask the previous Marquis because of course he's dead. But if MIL's version is accurate, she's right it's nothing to be proud of. It's clearly worse than being a hillbilly shine-runner loosely connected with the mob, but maybe not quite as bad as being a bloodthirsty pirate...