I have many uncles. Some people who are interested in genealogy are intrigued by the little told story of the aunts and grandmothers, and I am one of them. Instead of pursuing my surname, I have been researching my mother’s family. One reason is that most of them were dead before I was born in 1950, and the ones who weren’t late were pretty old by the time I was truly aware of them. My mother had me at age 46, and she was gone before I had graduated from high school. Now some 60 years later I wrack my brain to remember the stories she told me about them. And so, wanting at this late stage to “get to know them,” I seem to be drowning in a plethora of uncles.
My maternal grandfather, John, had seven brothers who, when I started this quest, I knew little about. I wasn’t even sure how many of them there were. My maternal grandmother, Ida, had only one brother, and he, too, played a prominent role in my grandparent’s lives. Her two sisters lived at a distance and are also mysteries I would like to solve…but that story is for another day.
John’s father, my great grandfather, Carl, died young leaving his wife, Sophia, with 8 strapping sons. At Carl’s death in 1885 the oldest was 22, and the youngest was only 4-years-old. How in the world, in 1885, would a woman support a family like that? Well, truth be told, she didn’t. The older boys took over the father’s chore of breadwinning, and Sophia continued to be the homemaker, chief cook and bottle washer for the family. The boys grew up and married and some moved away, and some stayed. They became bakers and politicians and engineers and blacksmiths, crafters and factory workers. They took care of their mother until she died in 1925. They had children, but not lots of children….twenty in all. John and Ida had 4 children, and eventually, 5 grandchildren, one of whom was me.
As I researched my uncles, I recalled an article I had read some time ago in the on-line DISCOVER magazine (June 25, 2013 – see here
) titled, “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes.” The technicalities of what they have discovered are somewhat complicated, but the gist of it was that not only did our close ancestors pass down physical traits to us, but they also passed down personality and other more mental traits (depression, resiliency, attitudes, etc.) to us. This discovery has spawned a new field called behavioral epigenetics. Epi, from the Greek, meaning “outside” because these traits aren’t integral to the genes themselves, but rather are an “extra element” that attaches outside the double helix to tell the genes which ones are necessary for that cell’s proteins. It is these epi elements that say, “This cell is in the liver so only the genes necessary for liver cells should express themselves.” The research into this has discovered that when the epi elements misfire they can create a cancer cell, and that by reversing that action, we can… sometimes…delete the cancer. Hopeful.
Are you still with me? So, Carl and Sophia’s experiences before making one of those sons could imprint upon them either a happy-go-lucky child or a serious-working stiff. Which might explain why the older boys were responsible working men who supported their biological family even at such young ages. They had been born either in the old country or early in the family’s establishing years in the United States. Serious, maybe troubled times, made serious diligent boys. But later things had gotten better, even happy. They had a house and healthy children and Carl was employed, so the younger boys were a bit more shiftless, took longer to “settle down.”
John was a middle son, and it was hard for him to focus on just one career, except for politics. I think he wanted to be in a paid political office, and he made it to City Alderman, Clerk of Elections for his township…oh yes, and Thistle Commissioner. He was also a stone mason, a grocer, a baker, a factory worker at the typewriter plant, and an insurance agent. He was inventive and would tinker with “things” in the basement…they said he could fix or as we say today “MacGyver” anything. Do I look like him…not so much except through the eyes, but am I like him? Yes! Very much so. I’ve had a hard time deciding what I want to be when I grow up.
Researching in genealogy takes one to a new understanding of the life and times of the ancestors, but also can lead to introspection about oneself. Looks like it isn’t just grandma’s experiences that get passed down. I never met this man, my grandfather, but our lives are eternally connected.