Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In Search of the Past: A Roadtrip.

I've decided to go on a two-day roadtrip this weekend. Initially it was simply to seek out and enjoy some Chick-Fil-A (don't ask), but then I needed something more solid, a real reason to rent a car and make hotel reservations and get on the road.

Listen, I just want to get out of town, if only for a few days.

Not having a car in the city limits you to where you go, and sometimes I just need to break out and get away. Now to get me wrong -- I love living in the city, and I love not having a car. But last week was a really stressful, upsetting week, and despite the efforts of those around me, it just didn't get better. I mean, now I'm okay, but it's time for me to take a tiny break and get out of town. I've rented a car, booked a hotel room (Red Roof Inn -- tres classy!). I'm mapping out spots to stop along the trip down historic Route 66, various oddities and my ultimate goal, my reason for really going, is to visit Alton, Illinois, to visit the grave of my great-grandfather John Edward Baskette.

You see, I never met the man, and he died in 1984 when I was less than a year old. My parents didn't drag us babies to the funeral, and even if they had, I promise you I wouldn't have remembered anything. For those of you keeping score at home, you'll remember that this man -- my great-grandfather -- shares the name of my grandfather who died in April 2007. Grandpa was a junior, who evidently sometimes went by Eddie. This became news to me this week after an interesting connection was made.

I did a lot of genealogy work many months ago, and hit a dead end with a relative whose last name I just couldn't connect to anyone else. I found a guy who had posted in a lot of genealogy forums trying to find information about the same person, so I e-mailed him multiple times with no luck. So this week, bam! This fellow e-mails me back and we discover lo-and-behold, we're second cousins. We both share that great-grandfather, but since he had three or four or five wives, we have different great-grandmothers. But the really interesting part of the family comes from that Baskette-Duval side of the family tree. These folks were related to the great colonial greats, and rumor has it I might be a something-or-other cousin of George Washington. Exciting, nu? (Then again, just about everyone is related to Washington it seems.) But this is the family line that hits Philadelphia DuBois and great French civil servants and state leaders. It's the side of the family that intrigues me.

So inspired by a need to get outta town and this now-found cousin of mine, I've decided to go pay a visit to our great-grandfather, and in the tradition of my family, take a picture of the grave for posterity. The funny thing is that he's not buried with my great-grandmother, nor is he buried with the cousin's great-grandmother -- he's buried with his last wife. So it turns out that my actual great-grandmother is buried in St. Louis, which isn't far from Alton. So I'm hoping to head into St. Louis (and not get lost) and visit her grave as well.

I'm hoping it's sort of a spiritual/healing/destressing trip. The thing of it is, earlier this week when I was looking at some of the genealogy stuff to refresh my mind, I was on the Social Security Death Index looking up "John Baskette" to make sure I had Alton, IL pegged right. There listed, of course, was my grandfather. Deceased April 2007. Even typing it right now, I'm getting all teary-eyed. I can't explain it. Grandpa and I were by no means close. We didn't share inside jokes or close memories and he didn't take me to the park or the carnival or do any of the things a lot of grandparents do. But I idolized him. He fought at Pearl Harbor, he ran across the golf course as Japanese plans shot at him. And he survived. He raised several children, he managed to smoke for more than 60 years and never die -- and that fact made me hate him in some ways. But he was this enigma to me, a man of honor and prestige. I read his survivor story over and over again. And over the past few years before he died, I'd send a letter every now and again and he'd send a typed letter back. I still have those letters. I didn't go to his funeral, because of scheduling and stupid things. I should have made it there. I don't think it really hit me that he was dead until I saw his name and former Social Security number listed on the Index.

Then it was real. In print on that catalog list, it's real.

So I'm going to go visit his father, and perhaps, hopefully, the cemetery was able to pull up an obit on his death so maybe I can know who he was and what he did. I wonder why he lived in Alton, Illinois, and what he did there. Did he commute to St. Louis to work? Or did he move to Alton after he was retired? Did he live most of his life in Nashville like the rest of the family? How did he meet his last wife? Why did he divorce all the other wives? And how did my great-grandmother die, and did she die while they were together? Or after?

I guess a lot of people don't ask a lot of these questions. It was searching for a Jew a lot before, but now it seems I'm trying to figure out how I got here, and try to predict how my children and their children will be, with the genes and tendencies and histories and memories that I will bestow upon them. I don't know how anyone would *not* want to know the answers to all of these questions. Even if they're the stuff of legends, they're the things that define our lineage, that somehow shape who we are.

So I'm going to hop in a car after work on Friday, spend my Shabbos evening driving to Springfield, Illinois, where I'll light my candles in a hotel room and get up the next morning to drive to a cemetery in some city I've never been and will probably never go to again. And I'm hopeful, if anything.

Oh -- and you can bet there will be documentation. Photos. Video. You'll see where I went and what I did. Why? Because by blogging and sharing these stories of my life, I'm documenting so that my children someday won't have as many questions as I do now. I want them to know who I am, who I am becoming.