Monday, October 15, 2012
An Anniversary Worth Noting
I keep insisting that I'm going to write a post about my birth-mother Anne's unique family history and, dependable academic that I am, I keep being aggressively uncommitted to actually sitting down and writing it. Given that presenting my readers with any kind of coherent narrative would require not only significant research but also a fair amount of interpretive analysis--we've been a contradictory group of people--my years-long streak of never producing entries on these ancestors is likely to continue.
October 14, however, presents an anniversary at least worth noting: it's our birthday.
Well, kind of.
Our family did not, strictly speaking, pop into existence on the fields of Hastings 946 years ago. It was on that fateful day in the fall of 1066, however, that one of our distant ancestors, a cousin of William the Conqueror whom the Norman prince inducted into his retinue, proved himself in engagement against Harold and was subsequently awarded extensive lands by the newly crowned William II.
Anne's people have commemorated the day ever since, sometimes with large public spectacles, sometimes with private parties, sometimes with pilgrimages to sites sacred to our House. It's a part of who we are.
My consciousness of this was, naturally, not quite so developed when I was fourteen, and I was wont to drift off when my grandmother started mentioning glorious deeds and noble history. She had the tact to let the subject drop when she sensed my disinterest, but as an adult I wish she'd insisted a little bit more.
Grand Ma Weird Family is gone, of course, taken by cancer in 2009. With her died a tremendous reserve of knowledge about a family that has spent much of the last millennium either imposing colonial tyranny or fighting with moving eloquence for the cause of human liberty. That dichotomy is a part of their legacy: the same group of people who strove to end slavery in the British Empire committed atrocities in the British colony of Jamaica; the same group of people who gave everything for the cause of American independence entered the 20th century as banal socialites and gaudy kingpins.
It's hard to pin them down.
So, perhaps feeling guilty that I should let yet another October 14 pass unrecorded, I set myself this weekend to an Internet search and was pleasantly surprised by what I found: photos of family residences from the Old World, places where my flesh and blood actually lived.
It's not as if we don't have any such ancestral seats in this country. In fact, the Weird Family presence in 21st-century America is still bizarrely prevalent, from the Independence City skyscraper that bears the symbol of our bank to the weekend-home-turned-museum that displays our silverware to the family vault that is a national historic site. Even Washington's National Cathedral holds personal meaning; it was the site of my great-grandparents' wedding.
But the buildings across the Atlantic are much older and have seen much more. A few of them are still standing. One, the castle shown at the top of this page, became a heritage center after serving as the seat for an ancestor who died defending King Charles I. You can take a tour for about five dollars.
Most of the structures, though, proud palaces and austere castles and solemn chapels, have fallen to ruin and decay.
"This place is kind of like our family," Innocent Cousin joked in 2007 when we visited the family vault in Independence City. "It's falling apart and no one cares about it anymore."
I'd laughed at the time, but in the crumbling walls and weed-choked floors of our former strongholds I saw a chilling, beautiful testament to time: even the strongest and proudest, which we surely were, will one day fall, and before their glory is an evening old their names will be forgotten by all but a few. Look at us: we spent several centuries dictating Western history pretty much at will and arguably got the American Revolution over its hump, yet today anyone with a few bucks and a fanny pack can be master over the seats from which we reigned. Well, the seats that aren't covered in manure, that is. Because a lot of them are.
Given the brevity of anyone's time in the sun and the near-total anonymity that will descend once that moment is over, one would be tempted to ask what the point is of trying.
My grandmother had an interesting answer.
"What made them matter wasn't their money," she told me before she died. "Never. Certainly, they had means--but so do plenty of people. My father had more money than ten men could have spent in a lifetime and he was still an abominable idiot. What made them matter was their attitude. It was their selflessness, their dedication, their virtue. You know what our motto says about virtue, don't you?"
I've always secretly felt unequal to that standard, and been somewhat relieved I was not raised to bear it, but one can't help but admire a good quality when one sees it.
In our best moments we've been marked by a level of brilliance and self-sacrifice that is truly exceptional. My sixth great-grandfather died in 1781, a casualty of malaria, after spending the Revolutionary War pouring his vast economic resources into the fledgling U.S. Navy and advising General George Washington as a faithful aide-de-camp. His own great-great grandfather gave his family estate and then his life in the defense of the doomed King Charles I, to whom he was fiercely loyal even unto death. Both men suffered the indignity of having enemy forces tear their houses down. And there were many more like them.
When I think upon my Weird Family heritage, that's the part I'd like to remember. And if I ever get around to profiling them in anything approaching a competent manner, it's what I'd like to depict.