They say everyone and every family has a story to tell. In my family, we are pretty ordinary but we have some elements of grandiosity that have never rested well with me. Let me begin by saying that I am a Southerner. From Alabama to be precise and my fathers family arrived and settled in Virginia in 1634. Like many southern families, the story of where they came from has been embellished down thru the centuries and by the time the tale was handed to me I was 25. My father had never before gotten into a deep discussion with me about family history, presumably because he suspected that I would not be all that interested. I had spent my formative years in the bosom of my mothers family and they were more upwardly mobile than my father and his family. My father has his degree in History and Political Science and my mother has degrees in English and Early Childhood Education. My mothers family is more educated in the branches most immediate to me and on my fathers side, you have to reach out to his cousins to find the same level of social mobility and education that my mothers family has. My parents divorce was the first in my fathers immediate family line and he still nurses a wound of some sort over it. Both my parents have long since remarried and our family is the better for it all the way around. But that wound exists for my father in ways I had not considered. For all my fathers stubborn-ness about doing things his way most of the time, he has a tender and humble nature that I have not always taken into account. That is more pronounced in his views on family but he and I differ about our origins. Hence, this post is about myths and what it means to be part of a family that embraced a myth, a fiction, a lie for at least 100 years.
I am watching the end of a mythos when I look at my father and take into account some of his views that I am certain the majority of his ancestors did not share. He is not a traditional Christian and embraces a view of the Christian religion that others call a form of fringe Christianity and one that I consider to be more literary and frankly, quasi pagan for lack of a more suitable term. He picked up this view while in prison for white collar crime. The American minimum security prison system is another story but I think it note worthy that such views flourish there among the broken and the powerless. That said, the myth that I am speaking of is one about my fathers family tree and one in which we have a far more grand point of origin than is factual. For several years, the fly in the ointment of this salve I watched and listened to my father imbibe and prescribe, was obscured by the family mythos of a ‘friend’ of his who has a story far more interesting to tell – one that is the subject of a published conspiracy theory by a certified mental case right wing social theorist. For several years, getting to the heart of my fathers beliefs invovled having to dance around not only his own peculiar views but the psuedo history of his so called friend as the fabrications and half truths fed off one another.
Published accounts of my fathers family tree were written back in the late 1800’s by General William Giles Harding Carter, who was a West Point commander, decorated in the Indian Wars. I do not know the story from his own descendants point of view but I would love to meet them and hear about where and how he complied his information from them. In his version of events, we were descended from one of the three or four knights who murdered Thomas Beckett, later the Archbishop of Canterbury. This claim to blueblood was debunked in the last twenty years, but it astonishes me that this was the history my fathers people believed. They had letters of validation from the Order of Magna Charta Dames and so they thought the myth was reality. I don’t know why exactly but I never believed the story. My mothers mother has a similar tale in her own family about relations to Lord Bowes thru the backdoor but it was always talked about with a wink and a smile and a laugh, not with seriousness.
Because of the strange version of Christianity that my father embraced during his prison experience, I have fretted about his insistence that the family story was true. It has kept me up at night, at all hours, reading voraciously, by turns history and literary criticism, even pop psychology, searching for some explanation for why he might have taken up a religious lie as the truth. It disturbed me to no end that if it was not one myth he embraced then it was another. At times, the story itself was not the focus but it was symptomatic of a larger problem as I saw it. But truth may not be the only insight here to find. Art is another angle on this story and of course, there is art in a carefully crafted tale and in the culture that produces it. Even if it is a lie.
My Dad has invited me to go to England with him after he gets paid for a deal he has worked on and he wants to have a professional geneaological organization research the family history. He wont believe the story isn’t true unless he hears it from them. And it has occurred to me that I may need to prepare myself to be with him when the mythos finally dies. I am not interested in predicting the way he will respond and I think he will need to digest the information. In a way, I look forward to having a convesation with him about new possibilities for defining family history and for researching what we do find. As Dad and I have history as a professional discipline in common, I think we may have a good time together seeking out what truths there are, if we do indeed go to England and pay to have it professionally researched. On the other hand, the pagan in me wonders if I should create a ritual to bury the myth. In many ways, we were caretakers of someone elses life story for over 100 years and that makes the pagan in me quiver. Meanwhile, I am reading about historiography again, and looking for new views of history to get me in the right frame of mind to move forward and the fact that graduation is approaching only makes the need to do so more urgent. The worldview that accompanied this myth is long gone and the best I can say for it is that it was part of an era that is now past. I look forward to talking with my father about his plans for the future and I hope that any discomfort he feels when the truth is fully revelaed to him in a way and manner he will accept, that the humility I know he possesses will not fail him.