Joe David Bellamy is the legendary founding editor of the magazine Fiction International, at one time champion of all that was new and bold in American writing. He is also a former president of both the AWP and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and he served as Director of the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s. A prolific author in his own right, Bellamy won the Editors’ Book Award for his novel Suzi Sinzinnati, and his collection of short fiction, Atomic Love, was an AWP Award Series Selection. His other books includeAtomic Love, Literary Luxuries, and The New Fiction. His essays, fiction and poetry have been published in: The Atlantic, The Nation, Harper’s, Narrative, Paris Review, Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and some seventy others. It’s a pleasure and privilege to present here the opening chapters of his just published family memoir Kindred Spirits.
The Most Beautiful Woman in the World
After the death of my mother made me an orphan in middle age—my father had died twenty-four years earlier—I developed a sudden interest in genealogy that was close to an obsession. I realized, fairly quickly, that this obsession was probably a certain form of bereavement, but that did not lessen its intensity. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the feeling that my mother’s life and the immediate past of my whole extended family was in danger of being lost forever, as the far past was already lost. I was perhaps the first person in my lineage, a lineage that was undoubtedly ancient—as ancient as everyone else who is alive today—with the opportunity to discover whatever past was there, and I felt I had to take a stand about it. In spite of all the usual distractions, I was simply going to do it. I felt it as an important responsibility.
I was not interested in genealogy in order to prove that I was somebody, the legitimate heir to the English throne perhaps, or a descendant of the Pilgrims. The fact is I had come from a rather large extended family, and now—with the death of my mother—most of them were gone. I remembered them all vividly, mostly with affection, but no doubt I was feeling lonely. I had had children of my own, a daughter and a son, but they were out of the nest starting their own families now, living far away. I wanted to reclaim the sense of having a family once again.
Who were we anyway? We were, I supposed, an ordinary middle class family from the American Midwest, a family of white people, vaguely English (or Irish, I thought) with a little bit of German and Swiss from my mother’s side. We were basically standard whitebread Americans, just plain folks, people somehow without ethnicity or real history, yet people who had been lucky and privileged enough that, in the latter part of the twentieth century, we had been taught to feel a little bit guilty about being so white and so bland, so lacking in any specific cultural identity, as if we had reached whatever middling level of economic security we had attained through almost no effort at all, simply because we were white and ordinary.
In a tangible sense, I didn’t know who we were. I felt we needed to identify ourselves more clearly and fully, find out where we came from, when and under what circumstances we arrived in the places we called home, and pass this information on to future generations of descendants. This information was perishable, after all—some of it had surely perished already. It would be ignorant and careless of me not to do what I could to find out what was left and make it permanent, if possible—put it on a CD or bury it somewhere deep in the bowels of the Library of Congress—so that it might survive. Of course, I wouldn’t have minded if my ancestors all turned out to be decent and accomplished. But if there were horse thieves or worse, I wanted to know that too. I was determined to be ruthless—I wanted to know the truth, even if it might be unpleasant.
The last time I saw my mother, about two months before she died suddenly from a heart attack in 1998, we had spent an afternoon going through boxes of old photographs from her attic, many of which she had inherited from her own mother. She had pictures of herself as a child that I had never seen before—she was an adorable little girl—and as a ravishingly beautiful young woman, or so she seemed to me. At one point, marveling at the pictures, I blurted out something about her having been “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and I felt at the time that I probably should not have said it in spite of the fact that she seemed pleased and I felt it was true. It seemed a little silly and self-indulgent saying something like that to this sweet, wizened 79-year-old woman with age-spots on her forehead who was hardly a beauty of any kind at the time. What immoderately well-loved son does not believe his mother is beautiful? Still, after she died, I was more grateful that I had made that one rash statement than anything else I may have said that day.
She showed me pictures that afternoon that amazed me. For the first time in my life, I saw a photograph of my great grandmother, Hannah Siple, my mother’s mother’s mother. She was so far away in time; she had died long before I was born, and her life had been tragically sad. But I felt so close to her at that moment. Her life had made my life possible. I was certain we would have been close friends, if only because she resembled my mother so completely. I don’t quite know how to express this, but I wanted to speak to Hannah Siple. I wanted to be able to tell her that her misery had not been entirely in vain, that life she had set in motion had gone on and was going on still. That photograph of Hannah Siple was a revelation for me and led to a search for many other photographs—as many as I could find of all my missing family members.
Why did it take me so long to learn about Hannah Siple’s life and to come to a point in my own life that I could focus on her and come to include her in my idea of the family I had inherited? My family, like so many others, seemed to accept the tacit conviction that there was no way to know, finally, who our ancestors were. If our immediate relatives could not tell us about them, we assumed we would never know. When they did try to tell us what little they remembered, perhaps we were too young and preoccupied to listen.
Perhaps our ancestors had been so engaged in simply living their lives, of hacking their way through the wilderness, they forgot their history—or they never knew it—or they died before they could pass it on. It takes only one lost generation to engender oblivion. Perhaps because so many of them were living on the very edge of civilization, without the resources of civilization—including, in some cases, literacy itself—and perhaps suffering too from a kind of permanent homesickness, having left behind their own extended families—they let it slide away. Americans are, after all, the offspring of banished peoples—revolutionaries, renegades, rebels, and rabble-rousers—nonconformists, adventurers, indentured servants, slaves, religious fanatics, the offspring of murdered martyrs, and opportunists—the dispossessed from every corner of the world. Certainly my ancestors were exactly that sort of people—people, in some cases, who might have wanted to forget their pasts.
Or—as in the case of Rolla and Harriet, my mother’s parents—each inherited lovely, thick family histories, Rolla Zutavern for his mother’s family, the Spaldings, Harriet for her father’s family, the Kagys. There is evidence that they did read these genealogies. But perhaps, for them, the contents of these volumes seemed a little abstract and musty, something very far away. And the family histories they did inherit, though valuable, were hardly perfect. The Kagy genealogy listed my grandmother (the owner of the book when I discovered it) as dying when she was nine days old! Actually, she lived to be 89. The Spalding genealogy listed Mercy Mary Adams as if she were just any little Adams hausfrau who happened to marry a Spalding, and it said nothing about her incredible lineage (more about that to come)—because her lineage was not known to the collator (or to anyone else in the family).
Perhaps there are any number of plausible excuses for the muddle we had gotten into as a people apparently without a knowable past. But now all that has changed.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my sudden interest in genealogy coincided with a revolution, and that revolution is even bigger than the popular phenomenon that struck in the late seventies with Alex Haley’s Roots. Twenty years after Roots, family history hit the internet. All over the world, websites were launching, and they still are. The Mormons, with their enormous repository of genealogical data kept safe inside the Granite Mountain Vault in Utah—nuclear-bomb-proof and climate-controlled—were about to go on-line. Then they did!
Suddenly, through the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) at familysearch.org, it was possible to access information on more than a billion-and-a-half of the seven to eight billion humans who ever lived on the planet and who left names or records behind. Suddenly there was the U.S. Genweb Project, which made it possible to access a great many county birth/death/marriage/ probate/land and court records from almost any county in the U.S. in the comfort of your home via the internet. Suddenly there was Ancestry.com for census information and for archived family histories on-line. Suddenly the vast record holdings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society were available on the internet.
Suddenly it was possible to join a user group on-line where everyone involved was a cousin you never knew you had and the avowed purpose was to discover more about your common ancestors. Suddenly everyone and his uncle had a family history site on the web that listed the several trees within that family—with regular updates as new information was discovered and recorded. According to several sources, genealogy is now the second most popular subject area on the internet after pornography!—and if you try to access the LDS site on a Sunday afternoon, you will find out just how true this is. You can almost feel their huge servers straining under the torrent of hits.
With the help of the access to multiple worlds of knowledge made possible by the internet and the computer, genealogy might become the human equivalent of the genome project or constructing the first replica of the DNA molecule. Instead of looking at the two or three immediate generations of a family or a person—only those living or those whom the living remember—what if we could stand back at some greater distance from the teeming, then lost, lives within a family and examine ten generations or twenty generations or thirty generations? Not just one line of twenty or thirty generations but multiple lines or every single line—the whole picture. What giant patterns might emerge? What genetic tendencies might become clearer? If one could accomplish such a study within one’s own family, what better path to greater self-knowledge could one possibly find? What better way to understand one’s own inclinations and aptitudes?
What I am here to report is that such a thing is now possible, and I have done it—with unexpected results. It is a humbling experience to uncover and then to understand and to come to terms with the hundreds, the thousands, whose lives preceded one’s own. I started out by wondering how I could have made the choices I did that defined my modest life in my peculiar field, given that my immediate ancestors seemed so unlikely—and so unlike me. I ended up seeing exactly why I had made so many of the decisions that defined my life. I wish I had known sooner just where I came from. It might have made the choices easier.
Of course, it is one thing to find out and prove the names of one’s ancestors, and quite another to learn something worth knowing about the lives they lived. The names themselves seem valuable to me, and I still want to find more of them; but the names have little interest to anyone not in the immediate family, and sometimes not even to them. But the lives—if they can be learned—can be revelations. To discover the lives, if possible, became my goal; and what an enormous effort it took.
It’s true—one of the pleasures of genealogy is in solving mysteries—in finding where all the bodies are buried—and another is the purely clerical enjoyment in the working out of a gigantic crossword puzzle, filling in all the little boxes. But these are boxes that count for all time once you get them right, and the satisfaction of resurrecting some long forgotten soul, whose life was absolutely necessary to your own, and restoring them to their rightful place in the historical record, is gratifying.
Of course, some of what one finds out there is not all it seems—even the Mormon researchers are fallible. Their belief in the importance of the family and the sheer grandeur of their vision is admirable, and the work they have done to preserve records is an incalculable service to humankind. But their genealogy program is, after all, an arm of their missionary effort. Each church member is admonished to seek out his ancestors in order to perform various religious rites that will assure all can meet again in the Celestial Kingdom. Such motives coupled with the fact that even the uneducated among them must perform the same rituals may not be the best prescription for accuracy. Some observers are simply suspicious of any motivation that is not purely scientific.
Genealogical research is like any other research—its quality depends upon the experience, intelligence, care, and unbiased attitude of the researchers.
There are other good reasons why, up until now, genealogy has had a dubious reputation—somewhere between pseudo-science and fanaticism. In the early part of the 20th century in America many fraudulent genealogies were prepared for the nouveau riche who wished to prove they were descended from European aristocracy. If you could afford to pay a “genealogist,” you could receive impressive “proof” of such descent, and the Mormons had nothing at all to do with it. Unfortunately, some of these fictitious trees are still in circulation, and their presence, like bad science, mucks up the whole and sullies the reputation of the enterprise
Also, there is the age-old problem of paternal descent. Even if one finds good evidence from the record that so-in-so’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. So-in-So, how could anyone ever know with certainty it was true? You could be relatively certain that the child’s mother was actually the correct mother—if the record said so. But what about the father? Certainly you could never know that part with scientific exactitude. Therefore, why bother? Genealogy seemed to its detractors nothing more than an excuse for self-deception, wishful thinking, or self-aggrandizement. But now we have DNA testing! A father’s link to the next generation can be proven scientifically.
Even with the immense resources the internet makes possible—and the many breakthroughs and leads it may generate—there comes a time when there are no new sites to find, no one with good information you haven’t already talked to, and every new FamilyTreeMaker CD is just another dead end. You are in terra incognita, and that is when you are on your own and you have to start doing the original research yourself—traveling long days to distant courthouses and libraries, filling out National Archives forms and waiting for weeks for some tiny tidbit, making dopey phone calls to bewildered elderly cousins residing in nursing homes. And that is when you find out just how full of holes, lies, and not-so-inspired suppositions everything else you have found up until then may have been. It turns out there is an incredible lot of junk on the internet too—and sometimes in people’s recollections.
Nevertheless, in a few short years of working in the new world of information access and internet genealogy—plus taking my research to several remote courthouses in Virginia, to the LDS Library in Salt Lake City and the Daughters of the American Revolution Library in Washington, DC, to family reunions, to Jamestown, to Plymouth Rock, to the New York Public Library, to FamilyTreeDNA.com, to ancient houses and graveyards, including the site of the oldest brick house in America—I can now say with absolute surety: I know more than I ever thought I would know about my family and its history. In fact, I know more about my family than any member of my family has ever known before in the history of the world—and more than all but a handful of contemporaries have ever known about any family. I’ve located over 2000 direct ancestors and tens of thousands of others, and I know their names and, for some, I know about their lives.
This book is a family saga, and the saga of many, many families. It is not just about finding one’s great grandmother. It’s also about finding her great grandmother, and hers, and hers, and hers—back into time farther than you could have imagined—and grandfathers and great great great grandfathers too—with a degree of accuracy never before achieved. The acquisition and salvage of these lost generations is now attainable.
A Magical Relationship
Sometimes the barest genealogical details seem to suggest a story. I started to appreciate that when I first came across my relation to the Bulkeley family in 16th-century England.
Frances Bulkeley, born in 1568, had died in 1610 at age 42, and her sister Sarah Bulkeley, born in 1580, had died a year later at age 31. Yet both had lived long enough, according to the record, to bear children who outlived them, who carried on and bore children of their own. I immediately started to wonder what might have caused these sisters to die so young; perhaps they had died in childbirth or from the plague. I imagined that Sarah, the younger sister, who was my father’s ancestor, must have been devastated when Frances died and probably had no inkling that she would be dead herself within a year.
I imagined the sisters as very close—I imagined that Frances, who was twelve years older than Sarah, had been like a mother to her; and I imagined Sarah grieving for her, in particular, for that reason, grieving more than the others and grieving for a longer time.
I felt lucky to have scraped by myself, because if Sarah had not married Mr. Oliver St. John in 1597 and given birth to a son in London in 1604, I would not be here today to tell about it. I felt astonished to realize that I had had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. But, of course, everyone who is alive today had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. Of course they did.
The day I discovered the Bulkeley sisters was a red letter day at the LDS site. The line I was following went all the way back to 1300 with incredibly detailed documentation. The Bulkeley sisters were descendants of William De Bulkeley, born after 1300, and Maude Davenport, daughter of Sir John Davenport and Margery Brereton. Sir John Davenport and Lady Margery sounded like the kind of people I wouldn’t mind claiming as members of my family, even if they did live seven hundred years ago.
In 1938, my father, a direct descendant of Sir John Davenport and, later, of Sarah Bulkeley, turned down a humped back country road near Bloomville, Ohio. He was a lonely, divorced 30-year-old vacuum cleaner salesman from the Ohio River town of Portsmouth, a branch manager with a new car and a rakish reddish mustache. He turned in the driveway at my grandmother’s farm and knocked on the door. While he was attempting to sell my grandmother an Airway vacuum cleaner, he noticed my mother’s picture in a gilt frame on top of the piano and he said, without hesitation, that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
My grandmother informed him that the woman was not a woman at all but only her eldest daughter Beulah, who was not yet twenty years old. My father replied that her daughter had the loveliest eyes he had ever seen on a human face, including any movie star she would care to name. She might not realize it yet, he said, but her daughter was indeed a woman. Half an hour later, my grandmother bought the vacuum cleaner.
My father was an affable, persuasive man who was not above flattery, but he seldom lied about his true feelings. A few weeks later he stopped by unexpectedly at the Zutavern farm—to see how the vacuum cleaner was performing, he said. My 19-year-old mother, who had returned from college in the meantime, was on the phone when he walked into the room, accepting a blind date. After she hung up, he said spontaneously: “It’s really too bad you accepted that date because I was going to ask you out myself.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I can break it.” There was a kind of instant recognition between them that the attraction they felt for each other was serious.
After they had been out a few times, my father tried to coax my mother to return with him to his hotel room. But she wouldn’t go. My father said it was very discouraging to him that she didn’t trust him. My mother said: “Oh, I trust you, Jim, but my mother always told me that I should never do anything that might have the appearance of evil.” (I never heard her say anything even faintly like this again.) Two weeks later, they eloped!
My parents were deeply, romantically, in love their whole lives together; and they stayed in love for the better part of four decades—until my father died—and, of course she never stopped loving him after he was gone. They held hands in public like teenagers, even in their sixties.
Now here comes the scary part of the story. One day while I was working on my mother’s Spalding line, I found that Benjamin Spalding, her gggggg grandfather had married a woman named Olive Farwell, born in 1647 in Concord, Massachusetts. Olive’s father was Henry Farwell, an Englishman, and her mother was named Olive Welby, born in 1604 in England. Olive Welby was the daughter of Richard Welby and Frances Bulkeley.
When I hit upon the name Frances Bulkeley, it didn’t register at first. I had been plowing through hundreds of names, and I remembered that I had seen the name Bulkeley, a possible precursor of “Buckley,” before. But it had been a while since I had been working on my father’s line, and I was not sure where I had seen it.
The truth came to me in the middle of the night, and I got out of bed to compare the genealogical lines on my various print-outs. The connection caused the hair to stand up on my arms and on the back of my neck as if a chilly wind had blown in through an open window. My father was a direct descendant of Sarah Bulkeley, who died in 1611. My mother was a direct descendant of her sister Frances Bulkeley, who died in 1610, and who, I imagined, had been so deeply mourned by her younger sister Sarah.
In other words, roughly 400 years earlier, two daughters of Rev. Edward Bulkeley and Olive Irby, Frances (1568-1610) and Sarah (1580-1611), married, gave birth, and died in England. Their respective descendants were born, grew up, moved from place to place, married into several different families, had children, and died. Roughly 375 years after their births, my father (Sarah’s gggggggggg grandson) married my mother (Frances’ ggggggggg granddaughter). Need I add that, during their lifetimes, my parents had absolutely no idea about this connection, though, had they known, I think it would have delighted them.
If it is true that—in some respects—we are born to fulfill the unrealized dreams of our ancestors, then was there something of Sarah’s longing to be reunited with her departed sister Frances in my father’s love of my mother? and something of Frances’ almost maternal love for Sarah in her love for him? Who can say?
—Joe David Bellamy
Praise for Kindred Spirits
“It’s easy to understand the temptations of genealogy, the apparent promise of being able to locate oneself in space and time, acquiring, if one is lucky, a bona fide sliver of something like divine perspective. What’s remarkable about Kindred Spirits is Joe David Bellamy’s ability to make a private quest into a work of fascination and suspense for his readers.”
—Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Bestselling author
“Kindred Spirits is a wise, wild ride, written with wit and energy and charm, and packed with stories that read like fiction. By the last page you’ll have read a surprising history of America, and you’ll have a new notion of just how eerily connected we all are.”
—Josephine Humphreys, author of Nowhere Else on Earth
“I really enjoyed this book! Joe David Bellamy’s Kindred Spirits is so engaging, charmingly inclusive, and skillfully and tenderly spooned out, there is real comfort here in the universal message that many of us may quite possibly be at least cousins.
An exceptional and compelling new breed of memoir, history lesson, genealogy tutorial, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, personal meditation, and fireside seat-gripper, Kindred Spirits is rich with stunners and head-spinners that both entertain and leave the reader pondering the nature of chance and destiny that inform all of our origin tales. It will be hard to read this and not decide you are related to Joe David Bellamy.”
—Steve Amick, author of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake and Nothing But a Smile