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Robert John Gibbings: Ancient History (20th century)

"I understand who's driving."

Asking where a family comes from presupposes that a family might have originated in some specific place. Mine didn't. Yours probably didn't either. While I sport an apparently German surname, even its origin proves more complicated than any one location might explain, for the part of Germany that part of my family left had been contested territory, sometimes France and other times Germany, for generations and even before that contention, complications existed between ethnicities and religions. I might claim to 'be' German, but my family could just as easily declare a hot half dozen other origins. We've been on the front lines of most of modern history, and who knows how far back we go; other than that, we know for sure that our family, like yours, didn't originally spontaneously appear out of nowhere. I might claim to have had a noteworthy ancestor alive in 500 AD, but anybody can make the same claim even without anybody noteworthy on their tree. Our origins disappear into antiquity, DeepBackGround.

Following my family's progression across just this continent proves equally frustrating, for we have at one time or another claimed to inhabit perhaps a third or more of the present states in this union.
My mother's ancestors arrived here just after The Mayflower landed, and parts of that clan lived in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, all before they were even states. Other members lingered through Florida, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska, and Iowa Territories, homesteading. Their offspring moved across Missouri, dropping offspring all along the way, and finally on to Oregon and, eventually, by 1879, this Walla Walla Valley, the place I now refer to as The Center Of My Universe. Later arrivals stopped through North Dakota on their way West.

Along the way, history was made. I'm uncertain precisely how history gets made. I suspect it's all accidental convergences that only later seem very memorable. It's always been more or less one day, one step at a time, but some of my forebears seemed more tenacious than others. Some seemed downright unstoppable to degrees my modern mind cannot hope to unravel. What to make of the desperation that would drive a young family from upstate New York to try to homestead in Florida following Gadsden's Purchase? Or the promise that would drive them further West, into the Texas Hill Country at last, and into a cholera outbreak that would leave their daughters orphans, to relocate and live with surviving family in Illinois before The Civil War, before their benefactor, their uncle, would die of Yellow Fever at Vicksburg?

My ancestors managed to die by almost every means imaginable. They also managed to thrive. Those of us still alive can't hope to imagine the manner of lives our hapless forebears endured. The women were either pregnant or nursing for about twenty years of their lives, though many never managed to survive their first five pregnancies. Their husbands inherited grief, then married another, perhaps the mother of their daughter-in-law or someone young enough to be their daughter. Many of my forebears endured multiple marriages and continued fathering offspring until their fifties. Many of their children never saw maturity.

My family came from everywhere and nowhere, seemingly always on the move. If they settled, their settlement rarely lasted beyond the founding generation. The kids quickly dispersed back into the melting pot from whence they came. So much for proud traditions. The arguments over the superiority of one race or another, or one ethnicity over others, hold no water here, for few could ever get clear enough to decisively conclude about all the contributing genetic factors resulting in themselves. We're too various and, therefore, too complex to crisply summarize. My mother used to insist we're mongrels, and her assessment just about sums it up. I stand here the sum of centuries of fortunate accidents, the dramas of many of which were not so lucky for those experiencing them. I can't find any evidence of any ritual beheadings in our history, but we've witnessed a few scalpings, probably well-deserved.

As my presence here might clearly attest, they were tenacious SOBs, survivors. Those days when I awaken feeling like a quitter, I confront my heritage sitting at the foot of my bed. It laughs at my intransigence. It humiliates me up and into the world again. If I am driven, I understand who's driving.

©2024 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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