Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dear John

May I call you John?  Perhaps it's disrespectful.  After all, you are my five-times-great grandfather.  I should honor you with a title at least.  Will "Grandpa John" be appropriate?  All right, then.

Grandpa John, I'm writing because I've learned some things that change things between us, and I thought you ought to know.

No, it's not that we are not related.  You, John Wade of Virginia, certainly are my fifth great grandfather, the father of Otho and the grandfather of Sarah who married my third-great grandfather Sampson Zickefoose, father of Peter Hull Zickefoose, whose line leads down to my mother and to me.  I make no complaint touching my descent from you.

The problem is with-- Ah, well, allow me to explain.

This past year when I set my mind to learning more about my family's past, I came across a-- well, let's call it a document, a family tree, authored by another one of your five-times-great grandchildren.  This cousin of mine presented his work well, with thorough footnotes to document his findings.  He wrote that your wife, my fifth great grandmother, was named Sophia Howard, and she might or might not have been descended from the Howards who were the Dukes of Norfolk. I respected the note this cousin made saying this lineage might be dubious, so I was apt to believe him when he said that your father was Zephaniah Wade and your mother, Verlinda Pottenger.

Zephaniah and Verlinda were very interesting people.  I found an online copy of the inventory of Zephaniah's worldly goods when he died fairly young without a will (What's that, you ask?  What does "online" mean?  It means-- Oh, never mind.  Please bear with me).  He had a plantation next to George Washington's Mount Vernon, and the young Washington mentioned the family in his early correspondence.  But even more interesting to me was the information the cousin gave on who your mother's ancestors-- and therefore yours and mine-- were.

Go back far enough here in colonial America, and we find a Nathaniel Bacon.  Not the Nat Bacon of Bacon's Rebellion, but his cousin.  And Richard Kingsmill, Nathaniel's father-in-law, who came to Jamestown in 1616 and so was one of the original Ancient Planters.  Drawing on other sources, I traced Richard back to England, and found that he (and we, Grandpa John) were descended from one Bridget Raleigh (actually there were two Bridget Raleighs in the 1500s, aunt and niece, but I determined which one was ours), and her line goes back to-- amazing places.  In one branch, I learned we were the offshoots of the Dark Ages kings of Northern Ireland and Scotland.  There was early English royalty.  Edgar of Wessex.  Ethelred the Unredy (you see how I spell it to reflect his lack of adequate counsellors, or rede, not any lack of preparation).  Coel Hen, also known as Old King Cole, belonged to us, and more beside.  Especially pleasing to me, I found links to the old kings of Wales.  Cadwallon Longhand, Maelgwyn the Great, and even Roman Emperor Macsen Maximus, Spanish-born but claimed by Wales.  They, too, were our forefathers.

In another of Grandmother Bridget's lines, I found that we sprang from the race that included John Balliol and Devorguilla his wife, founders of Balliol College.  I read about our many-times-great grandfather John "the Red" Comyn, who might have been king of Scotland in the early 1300s, had he not been treacherously murdered by Robert the Bruce in the Kirk of Greyfriars.  I traced our line that married into the Balliols, which included the de Clares and the Earls of Pembroke and went back to William the Conqueror's sister and beyond.

But it was in the Pembroke line that I discovered the ancestor whose name and memory filled me with the most pride.  For I found that our hearts beat with the blood of Sir William Marshal, the first Earl of Pembroke.  Grandpa John, American schools teach nothing about him, so it was not as if I could boast of him to my friends and gain their admiration.  But Sir William is a progenitor worth boasting of, indeed.  "The Flower of Chivalry," he was called.  And, "the greatest knight who ever lived."  A man of strength and skill, never defeated in battle or single combat.  A man of unblemished honor and valor, who with wisdom and prudence served four kings.  The man who convinced King John to yield to the barons at Runnymede and sign the Magna Carta; who confirmed the precious charter and had it reestablished when he was regent for King John's young son and heir Henry III.  A man who was no man's fool or toady, who gained and held the respect of all, a man who could so easily have seized power in those uncertain days and become king of England himself, but who faithfully followed the path God had laid out for him.  Here was a longfather to inspire the highest of aspirations, to induce in me the deepest sense of responsibility and of strength.  Noblesse oblige!  The blood of Sir William Marshal flowed in my veins!  Should I not strive to live up to such an illustrious heritage?

But, Grandpa John, there was one small problem.  It had to do with the dates and places recorded for you and for your parents Zephaniah and Verlinda.  The cousin I mentioned before had it down that you were born in western England or Wales in 1724, and you had an elder brother Nathaniel born there in 1720.  But both Zephaniah and Verlinda were said to have been born in the colony of Virginia.  And the pedigree said they didn't marry until 1727.  This seemed strange to me.  Though even in the eighteen century nice young couples might, ahem! get in a hurry, Zephaniah and Verlinda didn't strike me as the sort.  Especially, not the sort to wait seven whole years with two young sons to have their marriage solemnized.  And what about your place of birth?  Had they travelled to England for some reason and had you there?

But as I said, this cousin's work seemed so convincing overall, that I put these concerns away from me.  Perhaps the dates were transcribed incorrectly from the original documents.  Perhaps the couple actually were married in 1717.  There was an explanation, of that I was sure.  Meanwhile, I added our illustrious forebears to my tree and revelled in how pleased my mother would be when she saw it.

Alas, dear Grandpa John, that's when it happened.  I was engaged in further research, and I came across a . . . letter (we'll call it a letter) written by another of your descendants.  And she argued-- and argued convincingly-- that you, John Wade, were indeed born in western England or Wales in 1724, but you and your brother Nathaniel were not the sons of Zephaniah and Verlinda Wade.  They did have a son named John, born in 1741, and no one seems to know what became of him.  His fate is cloaked in obscurity.  But the same is true of your parentage.  No one knows who your mother and father were.  And so, goodbye Macsen, goodbye King Kenneth MacAlpin; farewall Balliols, farewell de Clares.  They are none of ours.  Ours not the Kingsmills, the Raleighs, the Potyngers, the Chamberlynes or the de Merlays.  Nor ours, alas! the Pembrokes and the noble William Marshal.  All gone, all fallen away-- all is changed.

Forgive me, Grandpa John, and have pity on me for my absurdity and pride.  How I felt about you and our line has altered, and things between us can never be the same. So I bid you adieu, John Wade, son of Zephaniah and Verlinda, and scion of kings, queens, and nobility.  And with due modesty I beg to make the acquaintance of John Wade, son of who knows whom, born who knows where.  You have produced a goodly heritage, and I am honored to be in your line.

Your 5x Great-granddaughter,

PS:   Nevertheless be assured, dear Grandpa John, that I would be immensely gratified if somehow you could lead me and your other progeny to discover who my Wade sixth-great-grandparents actually were.  After all, noblesse oblige!

Monday, February 27, 2012


It may have been noticed that I haven't posted since last August.  Some of that is busyness, some of it is laziness, a lot of it is childishness, but most of it has been cowardice.

Yes, cowardice.  This past autumn I interviewed for a half-time position as an interim pastor with a parish in my presbytery.  During the interview, I mentioned that they could see a sampling of my sermon style on my preaching blog.  Makes sense, right?

What I forgot was that the sermon blog was linked to this one.  And one of the committee members clicked through, found this blog, and, as she wrote me in an email, was deeply disturbed by what she read here.  Seems I was too open with my revelations about how things had gone in my previous parishes, and although I had disguised church and presbytery names well enough, it bothered her.

We talked on the phone about it, and she professed herself reassured about my history and my explanation of it, and said she'd only mention it to the other committee members if she felt she should.  But I didn't feel easy about it.  Up to that time I was pretty sure I'd be offered this job.  After this, I felt my past and my big mouth had come back to bite me again.

It's very like me to write and reveal and not expect what I've written to have any effect in the real world.  Hey, I think in imaginary conversations where I work out how I would explain things to other people; isn't a blog just more of the same?

No.  I guess it's not.  You know the term "chilling effect"?  That's what this had on me.  I felt literally cold inside. I took the link to here off the sermon blog.  And for months I've written nothing.  I was afraid to write anything.  Not here, at least.  Too paralyzed thinking about how what I say can be misconstrued or used against me.

Chicken, chicken, chicken.

As it turned out, after observing certain things while guest preaching in that parish, I decided the position was not for me.  It would have been impossible to do all that was wanted and needed on a mere half-time basis.  But for whatever reason I didn't ring them up and say so.  Maybe I wanted to be convinced otherwise, since I really need the work.  Eventually I heard from the search committee chairman himself: they were going on with other candidates.  I bit the bullet and asked what had eliminated me.  The answers weren't totally convincing, I thought.  Had the one committee member told them about this blog, and he didn't want to say so?  Better not to ask.  And as I said, by that time I'd tacitly withdrawn myself.

That's been almost four months ago, and I hope and expect they're beyond caring what I say here.  But I guess it's a lesson.  I have to be willing to stand up and take the heat for what I publish, or shut the dickens up.