Timelines

I was mucho enjoying Dick Eastman’s review of the photography compilation The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation by Maureen Taylor. Some Revolutionary War veterans lived into the dawn of the age of photography, and Taylor’s book collects as many of their images as she could track down. It’s jarring to consider Continental Army soldiers posing for a photographer. Yet there they are, very old, often frail, but living links to a legendary past.

Time and generations are fluid, a point we often miss because of internal assumptions. Recently at a dinner with old friends, a trivia challenge was thrown down: Who is the earliest president to still have living grandchildren?

Good one! I was trying to think of presidents with considerably younger wives or second marriages. My guesses were Theodore Roosevelt or just possibly Grover Cleveland (the only president who got married in the White House! More trivia!).

But the answer, apparently, is John Tyler (1790-1862), president from 1841-45, or forty years before Cleveland. As of 2009 there were two living Tyler grandsons through his son Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935): Lyon Jr., born in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin, born in 1928. A jaw-dropper, but upon consideration, an understandable genealogy tale. It’s a not-unprecedented combination of longevity and fertile second marriages to much younger wives — in Tyler’s case, Julia Gardiner, 30 years his junior and the mother of Lyon Gardiner Tyler.

I saw another example of this a couple of weeks ago in the story of a (living) nephew of a Civil War veteran who worked to replace the marker on his uncle’s grave. This, too, was a tale of two marriages and two succeeding generations of males producing children late in their lives.

While there is nothing quite that extreme in my own family tree, there does seem to be a pattern of later-than-usual marriages. Our timelines are a bit stretched out, as a result. When my 12-year-old had to make a family tree a few years ago, the teacher couldn’t help noticing that she had a grandfather born in 1913, the sort of date most of the other kids were putting down for the births of their great-grandparents.

But families don’t always reproduce on trend. It is a useful thing to remember the next time we’re trying to figure out a time frame in which to search for Ancestor X. Better not say, “She couldn’t possibly have been so-and-so’s grandchild!” until we’re sure that’s really true.


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