Those Who Are Dead Are Not Dead, They’re Just Living In My Head

When I got up this morning, I looked online and saw that my mother had posted a reminder that five years ago today, my maternal grandfather had died. The matter was obviously on her mind—and mine too, especially once Facebook had prompted me to share the obituary I had written for my grandfather while I was living far away in northern Thailand. I was reminded of his immense activity in old age, in his garden or working with cars or grilling up steaks while drinking copious quantities of rum and coke. I remember him turning off his hearing aid so that he could be strategically deaf when he didn’t want to hear the chatter that everyone else was involved in, and the fact that the last few times I saw him, whether in or out of hospital visits [1], he was tired. Seeing him unable to keep awake while his family sat and chatted around him, one could see his life ebbing away. Many other memories come to mind too, some of them that are prompted when I recollect his walking cane, purchased because of his longtime hip problems, something that may become necessary for me at some point because of my own health, or pick out a suitable tie clip for church and am reminded of some family story or another. He indeed died five years ago, but he still lives on in my head.

Tomorrow as I write this, seventy years ago, my father was born on May 25, 1946. It is perhaps superfluous to mention that my father too, who died ten years ago this past February, is still in my head as well, and not only there. I remember traveling up to Pennsylvania to go to the funeral of his mother, my paternal grandmother, only to hear voices being me talking among themselves before the service began that they could see Johnny’s boy in the front row, having scarcely thought of it before given my general absence from Pennsylvania for many years. I think my father would have been happy that I resembled him on the outside; even more than most people, he was keenly sensitive to questions of inheritance, and of the sort of insecure suspicion that it was a comfort to him to see his form replicated so closely in my own. Perhaps he would be less pleased if he realized how melancholy of a thought that was for me. Having known other fathers who were similarly doubtful about the paternity of their children, with the need to be reassured through seeing themselves live on through their little ones, I am struck by the poison of suspicion that mars so many relationships, where people seek physical signs of inheritance because they lack faith in the goodness of those around them. Are we so different from those who sought a sign in the time of our Lord and Savior, and were told that no sign would be given to them except that of the prophet Jonah, who spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea creature and was them vomited onto shore to give his subsequent prophetic ministry instant, albeit unpleasant, credibility.

As I drove to work through terrible traffic caused by an accident on the Interstate Bridge, I listened to a book on the hidden history of mankind as expressed through genes, where the author was speaking about her own love of genealogy and its embattled status among many people. I first became familiar with genealogy because of an assignment given to me by my 5th grade teacher, which led to one of the most remarkable cases of good timing in my life, as the assignment encouraged me to talk with my great-grandfather Chauncey, a hulking man of athletic build who had been born in 1900. The assignment was given precisely at the right time, where I had an ironclad reason to ask for family stories from a man who enjoyed drinking root beer and smoking Cuban cigars, watching college football, and making various pronouncements in line with his background as a child growing up in the early 1900’s of limited graciousness towards ethnic and religious minorities, not wishing to acknowledge his own longstanding Jewish ancestry in the face of his family’s longtime Unitarianism. Had the assignment came a year later, I would not have been able to hear what I had, because many of those stories would have been lost because there was no one to spend time listening to a lonely old man who had lived an extraordinary life of activity, excellence, and times of great difficulty as well during the Great Depression. As it was, because I spent time listening to his stories, he too lives on in my head, long after he was gathered to his fathers in the grave.

My interest in genealogy has led me to ponder and reflect upon the ways of my ancestors [2], their gift at naming things, their mostly ordinary lives as farmers or theologians or merchants, their dark personal struggles, the baleful effect of war and politics on their lives, and their ability to cope with the tragedies of life in a fallen world. I have pondered the qualities of my own that came from long-dead ancestors with a similar passion for justice, and a similar scholarly way about them, given that my family is mostly of the blue collar farmer and mechanically inclined fashion, leaving those of us with more bookish inclinations to seek an understanding of scattered kin with the same sort of interests. With other ancestors I have seen their struggles as ordinary soldiers in the face of massive wars. Far from being an aristocratic preserve of elites, my search for my family background has shown that I come from fairly ordinary people who have often lived extraordinary lives. Perhaps the same may be said of me as well. Who needs to be descendent from the illegitimate scions of European royal and ducal houses when one can be from a line of people who were able to live in dignity and a fair bit of success without ever feeling the need for celebrity even as they conspicuously sought excellence in a wide variety of fields.

Nor is it only my own family dead who are in my head. My love of history, the fact that I read biographies and memoirs, study the horrors of war and genocide, and have a strong interest in the traumas of our haunted world, have ensured that many people’s stories and lives are inside my head. Whether one is looking at the poor souls who departed Ireland in the grips of famine to go to exile around the world for the purposes of mere survival, or whether one looks at those who were buried in forgotten mass graves in Eastern European marshes, or those who were dragged from their homes in slavery, or driven from their homes by rapacious settlers looking for virgin lands to destroy through their plantation agriculture, they are in my head as well. We are a haunted world, and it should come as no surprise that we live in a world where many of us are haunted. We may be haunted by the gap in our family histories that others have created by suppressing the truth, leaving fears and gnawing concerns to fill the gap, or we may be haunted by the knowledge of what we or others have done. And once we are haunted, we generally continue to be haunted, because it is much easier to start the process than to reverse it once it is well along.

And yet I wonder if this is the reason why the Bible is so full of genealogies, and takes the pain to remind us that while the curse of those who disobey God extends to the third and fourth generation that the blessing of those who turn to God extends to thousands of generations, essentially eternity. There is an asymmetry in life, in that the curses do not last nearly as long as the blessings, even if both wise and foolish decisions make a mark and lead to a bias in not only our behavior but in the habits that we pass on to others. Perhaps that too is why the Bible records both the good and the bad about the people in it, in stark contrast to the lying chronicles of Chinese emperors who gloss over the loss of tens of thousands of soldiers in forsaken Burmese jungles as glorious victories, or Assyrian rulers who glory in showing the skulls of their vanquished opponents piled up outside of burning cities while naked slaves are dragged out by lines cut through the cheek, but carefully airbrush their history free of any defeats. Perhaps to know both the best and worst of what our ancestors are capable of is to place before us a choice as to which way we will follow, to know that God is merciful to forgive, but that no positive or negative aspect of humanity is foreign to us and to our backgrounds. Will we choose life or death, blessing or cursing? The choice lies before all of us, person by person, family by family, nation by nation, generation by generation. Which will we choose, seeing as we will be haunted either way?

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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