The Seeds of My Family Tree
© Copyright 2018 by Elyse Kallen
The author's great-grandparents,Peter and Molly,
a match (maybe) made in heaven
always been fascinated by genealogy, but it’s the family
stories that bring the names on dusty pages to life. In this piece, I
recount some of my relatives’ more interesting love stories and
take a closer look at how romance has changed—or stayed the
same—in the decades between us.
It is a truth universally acknowledged...that in many cases, you can’t choose your family, and once you have them, you’re stuck with them, warts, high cholesterol and all. But as Jane Austen knew better than most, the one exception for many of us is when we choose a partner with whom to start our own family tree.
In my family, and I suspect many others, the seeds for these trees have been found in some surprising places. Within the last two generations alone, I can trace the start of long-lasting marriages to a poker game, an elevator and, no joke, argyle socks. These beginnings help to define the people I love and the times they lived in—as well as my ideas about what constitutes a romance.
Like any good romantic comedy, my parents’ first meeting has elements of good luck, bad luck, persistence and high stakes. You see, I would not be alive today if my dad, who claims to be a skilled poker player, had not been taken to the cleaners unusually early one Saturday night in 1982. With nothing better to do after losing his money, he found his way to a coworker’s party and spotted my future mother across the room.
When he tells this story, she was strategically placed in front of the vegetable tray, so he had no choice but to talk to her. When she recounts that night, however, there are no vegetables involved: he was simply enchanted by her face, her laugh and her striking ‘80s hairstyle.
Whichever version is the truth, both of them agree that once they got to talking, it was not exactly love at first sight. He attempted to woo her with tales of his goofball antics during job interviews, but unfortunately, he misread his audience. As an internship-seeking law student, my mom was not amused. So unimpressed was she that she politely demurred when he asked for her phone number the first time. And the second time. And the third time. She broke down only once he managed to convince her he wasn’t too shady.
Clearly, my parents’ first meeting wasn’t Pride and Prejudice, but Jane Austen could’ve worked with it. In contrast, I don’t know what she’d have done with the age of online dating and dating apps, which are ubiquitous among my fellow Millennials. Instead of dances or even vegetable trays, my friends and I rely on the apps on our phones, swiping left on the people who look like serial killers and swiping right on those candidates who appear slightly less dangerous—or post pictures with adorable pets. Meet cute stories are few and far between; they’ve been replaced by beeping notifications on our phones and decidedly unromantic opening lines such as “hey, what’s up,” “how’s it goin’” and “can I rub your feet?” In case you’re wondering, the answer to the latter was a resounding “no.”
For those who were on the dating scene before the OkCupid or Tinder apps were around to matchmake, I’ve been told that friends always seemed to have a never-ending supply of other friends they wanted to fix up. And that is exactly how my paternal grandfather ended up with my future grandmother’s number.
One chilly day in January, he dutifully called her on the phone—apparently, that’s what phones were used for in the ‘60s—and they arranged a time and place to meet. During the conversation, she happened to mention that she had to return a television set. Knowing my grandma, she probably also complained about the cold, as she has done every winter since then.
On the day of their date, my grandpa was in a crowded elevator in his apartment building, and a few floors down, a woman wrapped head to toe in a heavy winter coat and wearing a huge, fuzzy hat stepped on. She was so bundled up that the only parts of her that were visible were her arms, which were carrying...a television set.
It turned out my grandpa already had a lot more in common with his date than even his friends knew. As soon as the doors opened, however, the mysterious woman darted off the elevator and out of the building. However, like his son, my grandpa was nothing if not persistent, and he chased after her, calling out, “Wait! I’m your date for tonight!”
Thankfully, being chased by a yelling stranger was not enough to put my grandma off. In fact, what she remembered best about that date was not her first impressions of my grandpa or their conversation but rather, that he made her walk to dinner, an entire four blocks away from their apartment building. And what he remembered best is that being the last time he asked her to walk anywhere.
My maternal grandmother had more vivid memories of her first meeting with her future husband. As a member of a religious youth group, she was quite the social butterfly. She went on beach outings, picnics and boating excursions with the group and was taken on more than her fair share of the chaste, 1940s version of dates by many young men.
However, all that changed when a dashing young Navy officer joined the group. In her words, the first things she noticed about him were, “the twinkle in his eye and his argyle socks.” I’m not sure which of those features was enough to set him apart from the competition, but he must have had very twinkle-y eyes and many pairs of argyle socks because they were married for more than fifty years.
No matter what age you’re born into, dating is hard work, whether you wear argyle socks or unintentionally stalk your significant other in an elevator. My generation is likely on the brink of a carpel tunnel epidemic from all the swiping on our phones, but at least we have potential dates at our fingertips. Not all of my ancestors were so lucky, and some had to try harder than others to find their better halves.
Fortunately for them, there was God, the original online dating app. When my great-grandfather Peter, a devout Catholic, decided it was time to settle down, he turned to his religion and prayed that the right woman would come into his life. For this special request, he attended first Friday masses for nine consecutive months. Tradition holds that praying in this way increases your odds of swiping right on your future spouse. Come to think of it, that may not be exactly what the Catholic Church teaches, but close enough.
I can’t say whether God was taking attendance or not, but in case he had other things to worry about, Peter’s coworker Isabella was happy to pick up the slack. What Peter didn’t realize was that Isabella had had her eye on him for quite some time at the factory where they both worked. She liked what she saw, because shortly after he attended his ninth mass, she invited him to have dinner with her family. I don’t know how Peter felt about the invitation or if he had an inkling of his coworker’s scheme, but family stories suggest Isabella was a woman who didn’t take “no” for an answer.
At that very dinner, Peter was introduced to her daughter Molly, who, spoiler alert, later became his wife. Was it divine intervention that led to the match...or just good old-fashioned helicopter parenting? I’ll never know.
Although Peter’s most recent descendants did not inherit the genes for early morning church attendance, the genes for scheming mothers are alive and well. After hearing one too many of my disastrous Tinder date stories, my own mom did what every good mother without eligible coworkers would do and signed me up for a three-month membership on the eHarmony website, in hopes that I would attract a more wholesome breed of men.
I certainly found a different kind of guy. After a handful of messages back and forth, John and I met at a beach on a sunny Saturday afternoon. He suggested we take a walk on the lakefront, and sensing the opportunity for romance, I eagerly assented. Could this be the beginning of my own Jane Austen story? The only thing missing from the otherwise romantic scene was a vegetable tray.
We set out and started off with the usual conversations that do not appear in any Jane Austen novel I’ve ever read: Where are you from? What do you do? Do you hate the same things I do? Yawn. I don’t recall any of my relatives ever mentioning how boring first dates can be.
But this one got interesting when John broke one of the sacred rules of dating and brought up politics. And I don’t mean a polite soliloquy on a city ordinance or even a thoughtful oration on immigration, the economy or the status of U.S.-Luxembourg relations: he demanded a full explanation of my entire political philosophy, which, I soon realized, was diametrically opposed to his.
Much to my chagrin, I did not have an Elizabeth Bennet-style retort at the ready and instead sputtered out something inoffensive and conciliatory. John shrugged and replied, “Maybe we’ll get along better than I thought.” That was red flag number one.
Shortly after that, I must have said something else he disagreed with, because he blurted out, “Well, I could throw you into the lake.” His tone said he was joking, but his eyes said something else. Either way, I began to question his conflict resolution skills. That was red flag number two.
Red flags three and four quickly followed when he kept “joking” about throwing me into the lake. I didn’t laugh the first time, but he apparently expected a different reaction the second and third time. At that point, I began to look around for a lifeguard or a police officer.
Even though John was not my Mr. Darcy, I’ll take my mom’s brand of matchmaking over Mrs. Bennet’s any day. My eHarmony membership has since run out, so it’s back to the Tinder guys for me. As just about anyone who has used a similar dating app will attest, one of the greatest frustrations is the ghosts—but not the ones who look like they’re wearing old sheets. In the context of modern dating, to “ghost” is when one person, without warning, stops texting, Facebooking, Snapchatting and all other forms of communication in order to tell you—without actually having to say anything—that they don’t want to see you ever again.
Sometimes, it’s expected, and other times, it’s not. I once went out with a guy who abruptly cut our date short by saying he had to go home and do his laundry. It was not terribly surprising when I never heard from him again after that. I was less prepared to be ghosted by a modern-day Mr. Wickham, who ceased responding to my texts after more than six weeks of dating. No matter the circumstances, ghosting is brutal but effective.
We may have a different name for it now, but men and women have been abandoning their partners since the dawn of time. I suspect it was even easier to get away with in earlier eras, before a simple Facebook search could turn up profiles for any of the social network’s more than one billion users. In fact, the idea may have held some appeal for at least one of my ancestors in the 1880s.
Family lore has forgotten, accidentally or on purpose, the circumstances of the relationship, but according to the story told by some admittedly inconsistent census records, my great-great grandfather Charles Aaron and my great-great grandmother Ermengarde had some kind of affair while she was living as a servant in his brother’s house. If their relationship started out as a secret, the cat was surely out of the bag by July of 1882, when their son was born. Mrs. Bennet would no doubt need her smelling salts for that one.
However, the next month, Charles Aaron and Ermengarde were married, and they stayed that way until she died twenty-some-odd years later. She may have haunted him after that, but neither of them ghosted the other in life. I’ll never know under what conditions their paths crossed or if they lived happily ever after, but for better or worse, that’s where one branch of my family tree begins.
These stories and the many others that have been passed down over the years have turned into family legends as important to me as my precious Jane Austen novels. Taken together, they show me where I come from and help illuminate where I’m going. No matter how different the culture I live in is from the world my ancestors inhabited, it’s comforting and only a little disconcerting to know that my family is constant and that like me, future generations will be just as stuck with our prominent noses, our quirky sense of humor and our stories.
Elyse Kallen is a Chicago-based creative writer, avid photographer, amateur genealogist and collector of an unhealthy number of hobbies. Her short plays have been produced in the Chicago area, and she has had several short stories published. To read more from Elyse, please visit her blog at http://secondglancehistory.com