God created Adam, perhaps because He needed something to do. Then He created Eve, because Adam needed something to do, or someone to know. They dwelt in the garden, which was fruitful and lush. All was pleasant there, until that unfortunate incident with the apple, which obliged Adam and Eve to leave the garden and make their way in the wilderness. The forest was dark, cold, and forbidding. Strange terrors lurked there. To still his fears, Adam befriended a wolf. Or perhaps the wolf befriended him. It’s not important how this alliance came about; what matters is that it has endured. Ever since then we have had animals in our midst. Continue reading
When I began writing family history, I knew that I might come into conflict one day with relatives objecting to my account of our shared past. That day has apparently arrived.
When my great-grandmother Taube Kurdabrin disembarked from the S.S. Finland on June 25, 1905, she carried her first-born son Schmuel in her arms. He was one year and six months old. Because small children lack agency, they generally make poor subjects for portraiture. I prefer instead to pick up my grandfather’s story in his middle years. We see him above with his third child, my Uncle Jay, who has just caught a fish. The photo is cracked and stained. The world it portrays has vanished. People work miracles now with Photoshop, but I don’t believe in retouching old pictures. Flaws appear in every image and every life, and they are worth noting. The patina tells a story all its own. Continue reading
I never knew my great-grandmother was originally called Taube. I always thought her name was Tillie, the name she used most of her life, the name by which she is remembered today. But apparently I was wrong. I stand corrected now thanks to the record of her arrival at Ellis Island, which I located through the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation. Taube, or Tillie, arrived on June 24, 1905, sailing on the S.S. Finland out of Antwerp, like her husband Chaim Kurdabrin before her. That’s Taube on line 22 in the image above. Her son Schmuel (later Sam) is on line 23. He became my grandfather. Continue reading
Lately I have been thinking about the meta-meaning of family stories. Pardon me for employing such a vague and voguish term, but no other phrase quite seems to express the concept I’m reaching for: some ultimate tier of abstraction that might help me articulate the irresistible (for me) appeal of those family stories I consume so eagerly. Continue reading
Several people who have ready my family history manuscript have told me that it would be helpful to have a family tree for reference. It’s a good idea, and I’m happy to oblige. This is a history of my extended family, and the work is crowded with characters—great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of various stripes. It’s hard to keep track of so many people. Continue reading
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Long before family historians begin formal research, they pass through an informal stage of inquiry. This casual phase, in which an outwardly passive child or adolescent absorbs lore handed down through the generations, is nearly universal. Most of us do it at one time or another. In some cases, that child or adolescent ponders those stories and formulates, over the years, a surprisingly pointed series of questions and tentative answers. Then comes the formal research and, if we’re lucky, an astute and graceful account of one family’s origins.
In Mariann Regan’s case, we’ve been lucky. Her memoir Into the Briar Patch explores the legacy of slaveholding as it plays out in one American family. Mariann–we’ve become friendly through our blogs and on Twitter, so I’ll use her first name here–opens her story with an account of a catastrophic fire that tore through the family home in 1915. Her mother, then an infant, was thrust into the arms of her seven-year-old sister Ansie, who ran from the flames, carrying the infant to safety. Save the baby, the adults cried, save the baby, and Saving the Baby becomes thereafter a recurring metaphor in Mariann’s chronicle.
Mariann pursues this theme through the labyrinth of her family history. The metaphorical baby being saved varies with each episode. We witness strenuous, even heroic, efforts to save the family farm, wayward children, individual reputations, and the family’s collective self-concept. Baby-saving becomes an endless task for this family, which seems fundamentally compromised by its slaveholding past.
In Mariann’s view, America’s odious trade in human beings had far-reaching effects, not only on its practitioners and victims, but also on their descendants. Among the practitioners, guilt and fear were the chief burdens–guilt arising from an awareness of slavery’s intrinsic immorality, fear from a realization that numerically superior blacks could, if aroused, easily wipe out their white overseers. These two primal emotions lead to an endless and contradictory search for expiation and justification, as well as a need to display courage and cultivate physical strength.
Mariann’s research is impressive. Drawing on historical accounts, courthouse records, family papers, interviews, and correspondence, she traces the lives of her forebears as they wrestle with their complex family legacy. We meet strong-willed landowners and sharecroppers, an intrepid sheriff’s deputy, a missionary, teachers, and doctors. Augmenting her research with insightful analysis, Mariann draws on the writings of Montaigne, Alice Miller, Langston Hughes, Henry Louis Gates, and others to sketch an insightful and compelling theory of white racism and black resistance.
These last two qualities are in the end the most gratifying. While some writers and readers may see the memoir as a vehicle for catharsis, there is something overrated about blowing your stack, or having it blown for you. With her mix of deep research and keen analysis, scrupulous honesty and emotional restraint, my friend Mariann has created a moving account of one family’s experience with America’s peculiar institution.