Genealogy and Porn

Two disparate topics, genealogy and porn, appeared together in a Time magazine article and yanked me away from researching my ancestors: a thrice-married great aunt, a well-known Kansas historian-journalist, and a Scottish boy who was kidnapped, transported in a ship’s hold, and sold as a slave to an East Coast family.

Teased by the magazine’s coupling, I wondered, what the strange bedfellows of genealogy and porn had to do with each other.Here it is: according to an ABC News study, porn sites are the most visited websites, with genealogy a distant second.

We all have a sense of what porn is, right? Some kind of pictorial or written depiction that aims to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings. And the effects? I like  what one author said in The New York Review of Books: “No literary genre can match pornography for initial excitement and fast-arriving boredom.”

Since I don’t read or watch porn, I can’t attest to its excitement or boredom, but I can attest to the continuing excitement and fascination of doing genealogy. Pornography may have a stranglehold on number one, but isn’t it grand that genealogy beats out every other topic.

I’ve accumulated many frequent flyer miles on multiple digital destinations: like Ancestry, Family Search, Cyndi’s List, and my local favorite, Ferndale Genies.

Never mind that sixty-years separated my initial spark of interest from my current serious pursuit. My interest began in the eighth grade, when Mr. Callaway, our social studies teacher, asked us to interview a grandparent and construct a simple family tree.

After school, I biked to my grandmother’s house, a few blocks away, where she lived with her two sisters, Anna and Jess. None of them, Louise (my grandmother, nicknamed Louie), great aunts Anna or Jess had married, each pursuing separate careers in different parts of California, and returning to the family home post-retirement.

I showed Gramma the family tree chart. She began to jot down birth and death dates for her parents, her two brothers, and her five sisters. Then, I interrupted her.

“Where were you born? What about the old, old people before you?”

“I was born in Louisville, Kansas in 1878. On Halloween, you know that,” she said, arising from her squishy, floral armchair, and disappearing into the back bedroom. She returned with a book and several typewritten pages.

“This book’s about Kansas. It was written by Aunt Carrie’s husband. We have a writer in the family,” she said, with proud emphasis on that last pronouncement.

I thumbed through the book. I was twelve and not particularly interested in history, but I did remember the author’s name: Noble L. Prentis. Then she handed me the typed pages which had lists of people, including a reference to a Scottish boy named Hugh who was kidnapped and brought to America. “I’m going to keep these items safe,” she said, “but you can have them someday.”

Next, I talked to Aunt Anna who had been a World War I nurse on the front lines in France. She showed me the journal she’d kept. “It’s yours when I die.”

I did not see any of these materials when the three sisters died and neither did my mother, Louie’s only daughter. In a sense, their disappearance was of no consequence then. Genealogical pursuits were pushed aside by the advancement of my life: college, marriage, raising seven children, and a career. Occasionally I’d fill in the blanks in my pedigree chart, the standard family tree form that genealogists use, but not until I was closer to the ages to Louie, Anna, and Jess had been, did I take up the subject with unfettered zeal.

And really, my genealogical work has been somewhat lackluster.

Genealogy—focusing on entering data on a pedigree chart—is the backbone needed for the broader subject of family history. I chase down the facts, but I’m more interested in stories, and the questions the biographic facts generate.

Did the thrice-married woman, known to me as “Aunt Paralee” discontinue the use of her middle name, “Lively,”  when she married Harold Waddle, Sr, at turns a Hollywood stunt actor, a private detective, and the guy who played Santa Claus to his grandkids and their cousins? Paralee was a chatty, animated person, the party girl of the eight children.

Paralee’s reputation included being a poor handler of money, which may explain why she extracted the remaining money from her sister Louie’s bank account shortly after my gramma’s death. My mother refused to speak to her and was furious when I visited Paralee in the hospital when she was dying.

But, I liked Aunt Paralee—she had spunk—and years later I think of her with gratitude. She passed those typewritten pages I’d seen as an eighth-grader along to her grandson Bill. He and I have reconnected, shared information, and rejoiced in our heritage. Those notes allowed me to find out more about the kidnapped kid, Hugh Fraser. His story is recounted in a slender reprinted book The Fraser Clan in America (1915) by Deirdre Duff Johnson:

“More than two hundred years ago one morning, there walked along the streets of Paisley, Scotland, a small boy of seven years on his way to school. He was accosted by two men wearing long cloaks. They invited him to go with them to buy candy…One of the men picked him up and carried him along under his long cloak. The next thing the boy remembered he was on board a ship, seasick, homesick and heartsick bound for an unknown port. That little boy was Hugh Fraser, your ancestor and mine…Arriving at last in America…with the rest of the kidnapped crew, he was sold…Hugh Fraser was fortunate in falling into the hands of a humane man who was kind to him. When he arrived at the age of twenty-one, he married his master’s daughter Miss Peggy Cummins. Like Jacob of old he had served fourteen years for the love of his youth.”

I sometimes wonder why I research this family line. I am not biologically related to the Frasers and their descendants. I was adopted. My mother was not genetically related to them. She was adopted.

Still, their stories are my stories, my identity shaped, I believe, more by my familial connection than my genetic one and I’m happy to be associated with the second most visited category of websites rather than the most popular.

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