–A blog by Cameron McWhirter
In 2015, both of my parents died after long, chaotic declines. First my father in the Spring, his labored breathing finally giving out in the hospice wing of an enormous hospital in Evanston, Illinois. I remember watching a ladybug crawl across a window of the ward where doctors awkwardly told me it was time for shift from treating his many system failures to palliative care. I remember wondering at the bug’s tiny black legs as it moved, the steady energy of the little creature. My father couldn’t even sit up. How was the bug so high up from the ground? How was it alive this early in a Midwest Spring? Beyond the window, the glaring blue dome of the sky arched over Chicago to the south.
Nine months to the day after my father’s death, it was my mother’s turn. Her heart gave out while she was pushed in her wheelchair to her nursing home’s dining room, a few miles north of the hospital where my father had died. My brother called me with the news as I sat in the kitchen of my home in Georgia. When I hung up, I told my wife, trying to sound calm, telling myself to slow down, sound calm. Continue to eat your dinner, that’s what calm people do, I remember thinking. But then I almost choked to death as I tried. Maybe it was a panic attack. I have no memory of what I was eating. I stood at the sink, yakking and spitting. I gulped water and gasped; my chest tightened and my legs trembled. This is what death will feel like when it comes for me, I thought, The body fails the conscious mind trapped inside it, like a sinking boat dropping its captain into a dark ocean.
The whole year was grueling and surreal — a collapse of what had been a slow-motion disaster of decades. It was a terrible strain on my brother and I, my parents’ only progeny. Dark humor: we called my parents’ house “the House of Usher.” The year was a blur of frantic phone calls, exhausting hospital visits, funeral directors, insurance agents, my parents’ friends, bankers, lawyers, home health care workers, nurses, doctors with a range of specialties, plumbers, cops, lawn care workers, estate sales experts, dumpster companies, financial documents, legal papers, old tax records, brittle love letters, yellowed photographs, stained rugs, curled wallpaper stained with nicotine, old shoes, reeking furs, mold-caked novels, stained mattresses, rotting food, shit, piss, a legions of ghosts haunting my parents: their own families, forgotten lovers, dead friends, regrets, on and on and on. I’ll get into all that later, I suppose. It’s part of this story.
But first I want to talk about family lies, old ones lasting generations: lies about Jews, Scots, Irish, Native Americans. These are origin lies that other dysfunctions use as soil to grow, spreading gray roots and black vines.
Disasters, even small ones like my family’s, bring buckets of shit you are forced to carry. But they also bring liberation: they uproot lies, at least some of them — at least partially. It takes work.
The great American poet William Carlos Williams’ masterpiece Paterson is wondrous, the kind of book you have to stop reading and put down periodically because you are overwhelmed by how good it is. While describing the endless roar of Paterson’s falls, he wrote:
No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since
the world it opens is always a place
a world unsuspected
beckons to new places
and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
Those lines are a good place to start a discussion about my lying mongrels. But my family’s little saga is only important as part of the broader American story — how this nation of immigrants was, in many cases, a vast liars’ club. Our intertwined family trees are peopled by dead frauds. They lied about their past, their race, their ethnicity, in the U.S. or before they even got here. It’s a quintessential but unexplored part of the history of immigration: people reinvented themselves.
Now, thanks to scientific and technological advances, a growing number of people learning about the lies of their ancestors.
This blog is not simply a genealogy discussion. It’s a site where I want to explore a more fundamental issue: the historical delusions that individuals, families, nations, religions and ethnic groups embraced — and which later generations have accepted as facts. Today many of these delusions are exploding; and much richer, more complex understandings of ourselves, our families and our nation are emerging.
That’s a very good thing. So in this space I’m going to chatter away like Voltaire’s historian and pester my ghosts to try to get at the truth.
Charles Darwin, in his oft-quoted section in “Origin of Species,” employs the metaphor of the Great Tree of Life:
As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.
The concept of a family tree is a simple, ordered delusion, like a map or a table of contents. The idea that you can graph it all out neatly, that it flows uninterrupted from then to now with luminescent lines of being inexorably splayed out from a radiant locus, which is you reading these words — it’s beautiful. The metaphor of a solid, living form, with roots and branches implies a sense of, if not purpose, at least direction. Kings and emperors loved genealogical trees as a way of establishing power and authority. We use them today for a smaller but similar purpose: to give ourselves a little strength and confidence as we move through our troubled lives.
They link us back to lost worlds where everyone who walked, breathed, laughed, ate, fucked, wept, worried, smiled, dreamed, regretted, hoped, slept or ran now are an endless tree of ghosts, a stadium of vapors staring down at you, the latest production of all their toil.
When I was a kid, I had periodic bouts of interest in family history, an offshoot of my general interest in history as a whole. My parents didn’t give me much to work with, some family stories, a few scraps of paper.
For the McWhirters, the story went like this: They were stonemasons, then later bricklayers from Greenock, an industrial city on the west coast of Scotland. We were lowlanders, Presbyterians. The slogan on the family crest, probably cribbed from the church song book was “Te Deum Laudamus” — We Praise God.
The crest itself showed a type of harp, a cruitear in Gaelic, which one of our ancestors supposedly played so well for an ancient King of Scotland that the monarch gave our family some land. Mac an Chruiteir means “son of a harpist” and morphed over time to MacWhirter, and other variations including McWhirter, MacQuarter, McWherter and McCruiter. Most McWhirters lived in Ayrshire, on Scotland’s lower west coast, across the Irish Sea from northern Ireland. Many still do. Somehow whatever land the king supposedly gave to the McWhirters was long ago lost and any musical talents disappeared over the generations, at least with my line.
The story of how the McWhirters came to America is sort of a John Henry tale, except my family ultimately surrendered to the machine with a whimper, not a bang. One day in Greenock a machine showed up that cut or laid bricks (I was never sure which) much faster than any person, certainly faster than any McWhirter. So the McWhirters packed up and immigrated to Australia. That’s were my grandfather, Sydney, was born, of course, in Sydney. The family story is that they lived in Australia for about three years, until one awful day this mysterious brick-making or brick-laying machine showed up in the British colony, putting the McWhirters once again out of work. Then the family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Chicago where, alas, the machine was already there and they all set out finding other things to do to make a buck.
When I was twelve or so, I got a hold of large white sheet paper and drew out, as best I could, my first attempt at a family tree. My handwriting was awful, my spelling weak, the genealogical lines wavering. The effort quickly became a confusing mess, a writhing series of vines, all ending abruptly just a few generations back. I kept it folded in various drawers for years and took it only recently to review my work. In addition to its other failings, it was full of inaccuracies. I threw it out.
My father grew up on Chicago’s North Side, in Albany Park, a working-class neighborhood west of the lakefront. When people picture Chicago, they see that stegosaurus skyline spiking along Lake Michigan and bulging out at the Loop. But most of Chicago is, and has been for more than a century, low, poor immigrant neighborhoods — a sprawling grid of rows and rows of modest homes and small apartment buildings with families trying to make it in the U.S. Poles, Irish, Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Mexicans, Serbians, Croatians, Lithuanians, Vietnamese, Chinese — every ethnic and religious group on the planet has come through the city, working in steel mills, slaughterhouses, whatever they could to cover rent and keep their kids clothed and fed. Migrants came too by the hundreds of thousands — blacks from down South and Puerto Ricans.
In the 1930s, Albany Park was almost all Jewish. My father grew up on Monticello Avenue in a second-floor two-room apartment with his father Sydney, mother Martha and older sister Gloria. His bachelor uncle Jim McWhirter, “Unc,” lived on the first floor. Jim owned the building, being a quasi-successful smalltime contractor.
My father’s family was poor in comparison. My grandfather, a Chicago sanitation district mechanic, paid his brother a nominal $10 a month for rent. My father slept in the same room with his father while his mother slept in the next room with his sister. They had a one-eyed dog named rusty that slept outside in a doghouse. In the winter, my father was sent out to chip ice from Rusty’s water bowl.
His parents were simple, at least the way he always presented it to my brother and I. Grade school educations; they actually met attending public school. My father told a story that once his family was at the kitchen table discussing Canada, and his mother mentioned Regina, the town in Saskatchewan. She pronounced it “Re-geen-a.” Like someone named Gina with re- in front of it. My father, a bookworm, corrected her, saying it’s Regina, rhyming with vagina, which actually is correct. His father smacked him in the face. “Don’t you ever say that in front of your mother again!” he warned.
My grandfather rarely drank, perhaps a beer or two after work. He would crunch the caps in his teeth as a trick for his children. They would listen to serial shows like the Lone Ranger on the cathedral radio. The family listened to a famous famous speech on that radio in which FDR warned war clouds in Europe. My grandfather once walked my dad by a German bar and pointed out men in brown shirts — American Bund. The family argued at the dinner table about Hitler — my dad and my grandfather arguing against Hitler and my grandmother and his sister arguing that he was okay, that he gave every German a job. The family attended to the small Albany Park Presbyterian Church, while all of their neighbors attended synagogues.
As my dad and his sister sat at the kitchen table going over their mathematics homework, my grandfather urged them to work harder.
“You’ve got to beat the Jews,” he told them.
you want to know
whether i believe in ghosts
of course i do not believe in them
if you had known
as many of them as I have
you would not
believe in them either
–archy from “ghosts,” the lives and times of archy & mehitabel
In 1916, Don Marquis, a prolific writer then working for the New York Evening Sun, introduced readers to a cockroach named “archy.” The tales about Marquis’s little bug were popular from the 1910s to the 1930s; book collections of the columns sold well. I know a woman whose mother loved the stories so much she had her daughter read them to her as she lay on her deathbed. The dying woman recited passages from memory. Marquis and the Sun are both long gone — and mostly forgotten. That’s too bad because the insect’s philosophical musings are simple, funny, sad and beautiful.
The story of archy goes like this: he had been a free verse poet, but had died and was reincarnated as an unfortunate insect. He crawled out at night in the newspaper office and jumped on the keys of Marquis’s typewriter to tell him about his life and the adventures of his friend, a female cat named mehitabel. Archy’s letters contained no punctuation or capitalization because the little insect could not move the sticky keys, the story went.
In a column called “ghosts,” archy talked about how after you die, you have to wait around before you are assigned another body. That’s when archy met all those ghosts, and they made stuff up to bolster their egos or gloss over things they that brought them shame — just like people do when they are alive.
Of course, archy was right: ghosts lie to you. Not just the dead you knew in life, but ghosts you never met, ghosts that were dead before you were even conceived.
Note: Mr. Marquis’s books sadly are out of print. I found this copy of archy and mehitibel on a dusty shelf of an a used bookstore. Read more about Marquis here and here. Download some of his out-of-print work here.
Africa, where evolutionary biologists say humanity began. It’s early 1987, in a wadi in guerilla-held western Eritrea, a region of dry riverbeds and jutting red and black mountains.
I am on a academic fellowship, studying ethnic divisions among the Eritrean groups fighting against the Soviet-backed Ethiopian regime. I’m supposed to only conduct my research on refugee camps over the border in Sudan, and that’s where I start. But I’m 22, so when an official in the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front asks me if I want to go “ab meda” — in country in the Tigrinya language — I say yes, of course. This happens all pre-Internet, pre-wifi, pre-email. In the Sudan, telephone service is spotty and expensive, and postal strikes regularly stop all mail. For months, I’ve had no regular communication with my family, my girlfriend, my friends or the foundation that sponsored me — no one to tell me it’s stupid for a 23 year-old American to go into a war zone with Marxist guerrillas slugging it out with a well-funded Marxist dictatorship. So I go ab meda.
I travel for months in a war zone with the guerrillas. I don’t see any other caucasians for weeks at a stretch. My only contact with the outside world is a handheld shortwave radio that I listen to at night after the fighters cut the generators. Every morning, the Ethiopian MiG fighter jets fly over to look for targets in the mountains.
We hide in bunkers. If the planes come while we are out in the open, the fighters tell me to freeze where I am, crouch. The pilots are looking for movement; that’s what they target. Don’t move, even though the deep impulse when you hear the sound, hear them coming, is to run, run like hell. I grow used to hearing the sound of rockets in the morning.
I learn to discern the roar of a fighter plane and whoosh of a passenger jet traveling from Addis Ababa to Cairo or Jeddah or Nairobi. Every night, the skies to the east flicker like an approaching thunderstorm, but it’s not lightning: its artillery and gunfire.
One day these German relief workers arrive in a bunker where I sleep on a stone slab in a shabby old sleeping bag, captured by the rebels in some raid on a military outpost. They were in country to see about funding a water purification plant and some other aid projects for the rebels.
We sit around a fire and sip tea. We make introductions. To make small talk, I tell them, “Oh, my grandmother’s parents were German.” I vaguely remember this fact, y only connection to the country, a place my father and mother were never interested in visiting, though they took my brother and I to Europe several times.
My father told me his grandmother would only address him in German when he was a boy in Chicago, in the 1930s.
One of the relief workers squats next to me and asks, “What was their name?”
“Oh, Jews,” the German says flatly.