Sunday, July 25, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.36: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 36

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Broken Tribes

"Well, he should never have written it down," my mother said. "It was no one else's business."

Not long after their golden anniversary celebration in 2009, I stopped by to visit my parents before taking a trip. At their dining table, we sat down for drinks of coffee, diet coke, and whatever else was available. In a week, I was scheduled to visit my mother's sister, Lois, so my parents asked questions about how I would travel, how much time I would spend, and other details.

My mother liked her immediate family and she also had grown up with the benefit of a well-documented family tree, which meant she was acquainted with her extended family. The Stocketts and Chaneys and Tolsons in Annapolis knew most of the other, core families in their town. They knew each individual's background and family connections. Their genetic omniscience included my grandmother, who loaned me a copy of a family tree written by her cousin. It listed a dozen generations back to Lewis Stockett on the privy council of Queen Elizabeth, later to the younger Stockett brothers who came to Maryland for their land grant from the king Charles the Second, down through the years to the farmers, soldiers and tradesmen of the present day. The book noted my mother's breakup of her arranged marriage and her marriage to Robert Roberts, as well as her miscarriage and stillborn son a couple years ahead of my birth.

I'd gotten the documents for a school project. Although I hadn't been much interested in the project, I had found the records mildly exciting. That was due to the idea of having two phantom older siblings. My father had always explained the gap in time between their marriage and my birth by saying, "We were in no hurry." So this part had been hidden from me. It was news. I asked my grandmother about those entries when she demanded the return of the tube scroll full of the documents and family tree sketches.

"It wasn't a surprise," my grandmother said about the stillbirth. Her voice lowered. "Of course, it was sad. But Ann knew in advance. We all did. The hospital just did what it had to do."

"How did your cousin get to know about the miscarriage?"

"Well, I'm not sure." She stepped back and touched her chin. "I may have told him. But anyway, I think there were two of those."

"Really?" I replied, fascinated. I couldn't understand why my mother had never mentioned any of this.

Years later, after my mother's fiftieth wedding anniversary, I brought up what I knew in response to a different question about our family tree. It hadn't occurred to me that she hadn't told me because she didn't want me to know. I'd known for so long that I took it for granted. It was eye-opening to discover how irritated my mother was and how private she regarded her previous pregnancies. She was mad at her mother and especially at her mother's cousin for writing it down. That had not been, after all, the point of the family tree. Those additions seemed compulsive on the part of the family biographer.

"I'm going to have to say something to my mother." She leaned back, arms folded.

"It won't do any good, Ann." My father shook his head.

My mother gave him a sour face. "You're probably right, Bob." She turned back to me, her expression patient but stern. "Anyway, it's all over."

"Your family was always intrusive," my father observed.

In fact, he had often made fun of the Stockett family for being so close. They had stayed in the same area for generations, married second or third cousins, endured tragedies, died in humorous pratfalls, and lived through tyrants in the family, but never moved away. I realize now in hindsight that the Stocketts simply lived the lives that everyone did in small, American towns for hundreds of years. My mother's family wasn't strange except in the ways that all families are strange. It was my father's family that had grown disjointed and distant. My father thought his experience was normal.

His grandfather, George Earl Gallagher, had come to America near the end of the famine in Ireland. My father searched but found no records about his Irish life. He had heard no family stories, either. George Gallagher married late, had at least one child, my father's father, and died at the age of forty-three. His son remarried late, fathered two more children, my Aunt Jenny and my father, and died at the age of forty-two.

June Light, my paternal grandmother, grew up in an orphanage before her marriage. Her second husband had been Catholic but divorced. That meant Robert Gallagher, my father, and his sister Jenny weren't recognized by the Irish side of the family. They were disinherited from it by birth. In addition, my father's younger brother Jack, always their mother's favorite, inherited everything from her - the English money, such as it was. Other relatives mentioned it to me on a few occasions, always bitterly, so I knew. In their ways, both of my parents had descended from several generations of not inheriting anything, often because there was nothing to be had. They were the people who did not get the house. In most cases, they did not even get the tea set.

"I started out with nothing, and I still have most of it," my father said many times. I recognize it now as a quote from Jack Benny but my father applied it to his life.

"I found out more about my family, though," he confided. He had taken my mother on a trip to New York state, near his old town of Elmira, a few years earlier. It was the last big trip they would ever take. There, he visited graveyards and photographed church documents. He followed up by reading census records.

"I've got it all written down in notes," my father pointed to a document on the table as he told me about his family history. "Not that anyone else can understand my notes, probably. Maybe your mother could."

Next to him, my mother sipped her coffee and laughed. She must have seen his pages of Gallagher family history. She would have known that they amounted to a lot of disjointed fragments. That was a problem with my father's projects. Some never finished. When he did bring one to an end, he tended to be abrupt. He was done, apparently, because he had satisfied his curiosity or his desire to complete a collection. He put the finished project on a shelf or in a box, unlabeled. That was it. No one else could make sense of it, maybe. In fact, no one could find it.

When he was younger, he made labels or indexes for his projects. In middle age, he found a place for each collection, often sorted. Past his middle age, he lost the desire to make his work accessible. He kept his collection of genealogy records but if they were in different cigar boxes in different parts of the house, that was fine by him or at least it seemed like too much trouble for him to fix.

"Where are they, Bob?" she asked.

"The best part of the material is a summary in a notebook." He paused to self-assess. "Somewhere."

"In our bedroom?" It was a reasonable question. Sometimes he used his nightstand as a filing cabinet. Same for his dresser. Same for the shelves in his closet.

His gaze grew distant. He frowned. "Maybe. It's all somewhere."

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