Chinese banyan tree has amazing roots.
On being a party to my own untangling of Roots.
How did I get here? Who is the progenitor of my bloodline? How do I untangle that big bunch of Hamrick’s from Virginia anyway? And was great grandpa Samuel J. Wright actually hatched from an egg or does it just feel that way?
Researching my family history has been the most nerve-wracking and thrilling endeavor of the last 20 plus years of my life. I definitely had an interesting introduction, and a completely captivating beginning into the sport of genealogy. Back about 1995 I was planning a trip to NorCal from my home in Maui, I was to spend a few weeks with my sister, away from the preschool where I was teaching (ie. young children to stay safe primarily). So I was not very surprised when my sister suggested a side trip of several days, driving up to Northeast Oregon on the trail of our father’sbirth father, who we had always wondered about and never ever met.
In fact, I would discover much later this trip would be much larger than your basic genealogy excursion, we were going to learn of the man we had only known previously as, The O’Neal. He was the much maligned absent father of our father, who was rumoured to be a ne’er do well bootlegger of the most heinous variety. Our grandmother and our father both hated him from what I could tell, so we were now on the trail of this family famous mystery man who’s surname carried our true bloodline. Our father had been ‘adopted’ by Grandma’s second husband, although no proof of true adoption was ever discovered. So our last name at birth, was different than our bloodline name. As teens we were assigned to do a wee bit of family history research, I think its in 8th grade in California, which was when I first found out about the O’Neal. So I used to write out my name, inserting O’Neil or O’Neill or O’Neal in fancy cursive writing with my own given name. I even thought about changing my name so I could have my ‘real’ name. Especially when I was mad at my Dad, which was pretty often.
My sister filled me in on this trip when I arrived in California. We were going to travel by Country Squire, with my sisters mother-in-law in the drivers seat, and my aunt as well. We were hunting for my aunts father, as my uninterested dad had recently passed on. She was intently interested in locating any information about the now newly revealed Charles E. O’Neall, the father of our father. My sister told me she had requested his death certificate from Oregon and had been sent a certified copy, with his name and with the name of his death informant on the death cert also, a man named, Walter Primm. When my sister located Mr. Primm she talked with him on the telephone and arranged for us to drive to Oregon to meet up with Walter. He was 90 years old I believe, and had known Charles O’Neall for decades, had known our grandmother and her parents as well and said he was looking at a photo of Charles in his living room, ‘right this second’. Obviously my sister had found the correct person for us to learn about our secret grandfather.
So we left California for the long trip to Hermiston, Oregon on a cloudless June morning, three adults and two young children, my nieces who were genealogy veterans, to my neophyte. We stopped the first night in Bend, Oregon, to break up the trip into manageable bites as my sister and her mother-in-law waxed poetic about previous genealogy jaunts they had enjoyed, which I had read about in their previous correspondence. In short order we arrived in Hermiston, checked into a less than glamourous motel and called Walter Primm who said he would be right over to meet us. He was great, my aunt was visibly moved by meeting him and he invited us to his place as well. As it would turn out we were very fortunate to locate him and visit him when we did.
So many things happend on the trip, from a midnight “Elijah!” moment to visiting all the places Charles had lived and worked to finding Walter’s niece and her cache of our families photos, to be regaled with stories of muddy, first dates by carriage and a man completely in love with our grandmother. We traveled to Le Grande to see the house our Dad was born in and the nearby graveyard, to see the very freshly planted tombstone of our grandfather who’d been gone 8 years already. Someone obviously had that tombstone inserted very recently perhaps in honour of our visit. Most impressive we learned of the true character of our grandfather and the proof of his life. He was a virtuous man who did not re-marry until he reached ager 60+ and then he married Walter’s sister Mamie Primm. He had been a railroad engineer for 30 years and had traveled to Sacramento to find his youngest of four, babygirl Patty at her school and tried to see her. We saw there were photos of our Dad and his siblings when they were several years old, someone had sent him a few photos. We learned he had gone with our Grandmother about 1930 to Sacramento but had returned to Oregon at his own Mother’s behest. That struggle was real and my Dad and his siblings lost that battle, as Charles O’Neall stayed in Oregon and lived until 1987, which means we ALL could of known him.
I recorded by hand everything Walter Primm told us and wrote a piece about the adventure so I would not forget the details. I questioned Walter who had very wonderful recall and seemed to enjoy our visit as much as we enjoyed meeting him, and in a way, meeting our grandfather through his intimate recall.
Walter Primm was happy glad to be of help, and we were very grateful for his stories and knowledge of our family history, all provable and easy to understand. And we were just in time, Walter passed away the following Spring, just seven months after our visit, I am so glad we made it on time, and am sure he has since filled in our Grandpa on a very meaningful, genealogy trip.
So this was gnealogy then? I was informed that this was much more than basic family history research, this was uncovering the past and answering questions so many of us had, and laying to rest the bad juju that can happen from slanted, prejudiced opinion of people and the role they play in our lives. We could have had a grandfather if we had been told the truth, my Dad could of had a father. Who knows why things happen? He did desert the family, he did choose his mother over his wife. But he was not a boot-legging devil man with no redeeming qualities. He was a human, with flaws and wonderful characteristics too. He gave most of his money to tele-vangelists, and he gave his small fortune and property to his nephews by marriage, the Primm boys. And when his niece in Bend, who gave us a wealth of family history in photos and stories said, she would sit at his feet, by this time he was blind and had limited mobility, and she would ask him? “Don’t you think you have grandchildren somewhere?” He would wistfully answer, “ohhhh, I probably do at that.” He’s not alone in his wistful longing as I wish I had known my Grandpa too.
And this is why I dig for my roots.