Who’s To Blame?
I blame the Cub Scouts. Specifically, the Webelos.
See, they had this family history merit badge (Actually, it’s a merit belt loop. A belt loop??? Boys are so weird!). Today it is called Cub Scout Heritages. I don’t know what they called it back when my big brother plopped the handbook down on the kitchen table and told my mother his troop was doing a family tree project.
There were questions on family heritage and tradition. And there was a family tree chart — the first I had ever seen. It even had spaces where you could paste pictures of your grandparents and great-grandparents. I was instantly riveted, but I would sooner have handed my brother the key to my leatherette Five-Year-Diary than to betray interest in his smelly old Cub Scout book.
So I hovered around, pretending to review my math homework, while my mother helped my brother fill in her side of the tree. She couldn’t remember all of her grandparents’ names, unsurprisingly, since my maternal grandfather was the sort of immigrant who left the Old World strictly in the past. But scanty as the information was, it was also familiar; I had heard the stories my grandmother told my mother about Germany and her girlhood. I eyed the other side of the tree, wondering what my father would have to say.
In due course, my father arrived home from his usual fun day at the dental practice, and the book was pushed across the table to him. He had a bit more to fill in — three of his own four grandparents, and a first name for his maternal grandmother. Dad’s father hadn’t been born in Brooklyn, where my father had grown up; no, he had come from upstate someplace. Dad thought that some of his family had fought in the Civil War. They’d come to America because of the potato famine in Ireland.
I had never heard any of this. I had never heard my father discuss anything in the past that did not involve the Great Depression, World War II and how different his youth was from our own thoughtless, pampered existence. Much as I value those stories today, at the time they reduced me to resentful monosyllables and hasty retreats. This was fascinatingly different. I forgot to feign interest in my math homework. It wasn’t necessary, anyway, since my brother had already drifted away, leaving me the only audience. But the moment didn’t last long. Dinner was ready, and the book was cleared away.
In my mind’s eye, though, I could see the family tree, the lines filled in and the spaces still tantalizingly blank.
I thought: Someday I’ll fill that in.
I have no idea whether my brother got the badge (belt loop, whatever). I, on the other hand, got hooked.
Curses, you pesky Webelos!