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Leaves and Branches

Because the main character in the novel is a large, Queen Anne style house, I found I had to create a genealogy of the generations of human characters who had lived there.

I had to build their lives, invent their histories, chart their births, marriages, deaths. And because I got pretty attached to even the characters who were dead, who don’t even show up in the novel, I lovingly buried them in a small cemetery right on the grounds of the house.

I became devoted to these generations of fictional beings. I got to trace the arc of their made-up lives and see what tragedies they faced, what joys. I didn’t feel as though I had power over them; rather it seemed they were revealing themselves to me.

So then I got the bright idea that if I could invent a genealogy of fictional characters, surely I could trace a genealogy of actual people. Surely I could figure out my family tree.

My former mother-in-law, Betty, did an exhaustive genealogy of her family and her husband’s family. From their father’s side, my kids are admixtures of Scots-Irish (the dark hair) and Prussian (the love of borscht). But more than that, Betty traced the emigration patterns for both families as they made their way across Europe, across the Atlantic, across the eastern states and into Nebraska, then Kansas and finally to Northglenn, Colo., where she and her husband still live.

It seemed to me I owed it to my kids and my curiosity to find out what I could about my own ancestry.

Family history has never been like a window to me, but rather like a mirror reflecting the images of the current living family members. We are a small, closely knit family, but we are, as far as we can tell, a family without a history.

We don’t even know our real last names. My mother’s maiden name was Gray. My father’s name (and mine) was Page. Since we’re not WASPs you know something happened to those names somewhere along the way.

But even the anglicized versions are disappearing: My mother had a sister who had a husband and children. End of the Gray line.

My father had two sisters, each with husbands, only one with kids. I have two sisters and two daughters. And even though my daughters are legally Pages, I figure the Page line is nearing its end, too.

My mother started a trend that continues in our family, giving me her maiden name as my middle name. She decided to be bold and spelled it the Danish way, the way her father had before he had come to the United States. And she always made it clear that ‘Grae’ sounded nothing like ‘Gray’ but more like the sound of harsh gargling. Not pretty, but authentic.

Page and Gray are making their last gasps as middle names for nieces and nephews: William Gray, Sophie Page, Jesse Gray.

So I decided it was time to figure out where we had come from and I signed up with The first few sessions were rewarding. I got to see the actual censuses from 1920, 1910 and 1900. My father’s grandfather was named Fred. Both Fred and his wife, Christina were born in Germany. They had seven children: Fred, Jr., Richard (my father’s grandfather), Alwin, Maurice, Rose, Arthur, Lillian and Albert. Fred was a baker. They rented.

But I didn’t get even that far on my mother’s side. The 1900 census shows my grandfather, as yet unmarried, living as a boarder with a family in Troy. He was born in Denmark. He could speak English. His occupation is illegible on the census form. He had a draft registration card, so he must have been an American citizen by then.

That’s about where my information source stopped. It was maddening. I did search after search, scanned passenger ships lists, obituaries, newspapers. But I was never even able to find out my ancestors’ home towns in Denmark and Germany.

The fact is there was nothing extraordinary about my ancestors, nothing to distinguish them from the vast mass of immigrants who came to this country and were assimilated. They lived working-class lives. They were renters or boarders. The men were day laborers. The women were housewives and mothers. They graduated high school, but didn’t attend college. And because they succeeded in so little of what society deems worthwhile—wealth, property ownership, professional careers—the traces of their lives have disintegrated like antique newspapers.

Not only do we not know our real last names, we don’t know many of our first names, either.

Most of realize that one day we will be forgotten, as my ancestors were forgotten. But in searching for my ancestral heritage I learned a sadder truth: Even if someone wants very much to remember you, if it happens that you were a person of little or no means, little or nothing will be found to remember you by.

So I returned to my fictional genealogy. My characters’ heritages are detailed in my imagination—vivid and well-documented. And more interesting than my own.

—Jo Page

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