Thanksgiving Blues

There’s nothing particularly stressful or weird going on with my family, but I am still down this holiday season, lonely for people who are long-gone and not coming back. I think it’s a side-effect of ancestor veneration, frankly, that you feel the in ability to be together face to face because you are acutely aware of the ways we are together all the time. It’s like if I only ever saw your words on this screen, of course, it’s better than not hearing from you at all, but it sucks if I think too much about how awesome it would be to have you at my table.

I continue my search for Luke Phillips, who, as you remember, appears in the public record in 1850, full family in tow, living in Pontiac, Michigan. His daughter claims he came to Michigan in 1828, from New York. In 1880, he claims his parents were from Connecticut. There are no Luke Phillipses living in Michigan counted in eithe the US census or the state census between 1828 and 1850. There’s a Luther Phillips, but he’s not the right guy. There are only two Luke Phillipses the right age, one in New York and one in Rhode Island, but both seem to have lived in those places their whole lives.

I did find, courtesy of Google Books, that his daughter gave some of his personal belongings to the Michigan Historical Commission–“workbag, razor, brush, whalebone, piece of counterpane.” I wonder if he was a barber? Or a really misguided whaler, trying to work the Great Lakes? Just kidding.

There is a “Luke Phillips” you will find all over Google Books. Not my guy, but a young Indian, at school, learning to read and write his name. He has a “regular” name, unlike his classmates who have “ridiculous” names like “Sally Running-bear.” It’s just so fucking depressing to read–this mocking, haughty tone. And in other books, we learn that Luke never went back to his family.

And it is reported as fact, which it was, but it’s still just depressing.

There is a Luke Phillips that served in the Revolutionary War. And I wonder if he’s the grandfather of my Luke, but it doesn’t seem to be.

And I found another Luke Phillips, the right age to be my Grandpa’s uncle, living as a “farmhand” from the time he was ten in other people’s homes. I found another uncle of my Grandpa’s in the same situation–Barlow. I wouldn’t have known he was one of us, except my Dad told me that his Dad talked fondly about his Uncle Barlow. That got me looking through all unaffiliated Phillipses in that county, and I found Ole Luke.

I don’t know if he’s one of us, but I put him in the family tree anyway. Shudder all you want, true historians, but you shouldn’t be trusting as fact anything you find on that isn’t backed up with primary sources. I have, for instance, given my Grandma Doris two sisters named Margarete, one by my Grandma Teck and My Grandpa Herb, and one by my Grandma Teck and an unknown spouse and I can’t figure out how to undo it. I like to think that Aunt Peggy would get a laugh out of that, though.

And Luke is the right age in the right place to be one of us, and being named Luke would make him named after his Grandfather, and that seemed fitting.

The Phillipses have been in Michigan since before it was a state and they have never had an easy time of it. I don’t know. Maybe the mysterious Luke did, but no one in my line since him. Luke’s son, Oscar, was born deaf and mute, and was sent to the Asylum for the Deaf and Blind, even before it was completed, in order to learn a trade, given his age at the time (about 20), but probably also to learn to read and write. The annual report from the Asylum that I read talked about how meaningful it was for families to get letters from their deaf children, no matter how poor the spelling (which I found to be a charming touch), because before then, they could only guess that they were interpreting the deaf person’s signs correctly and the deaf person had no way of communicating with someone outside the family who didn’t know the meaning of that person’s particular set of signs.

Families were often surprised to discover that their deaf children were particularly bright.

Bah, that makes me tear up, too.

After he met his wife, he took up farming, first near his people and then near hers. I think he was fairly shitty at it. As long as her dad was alive, their family stayed intact. But after her dad died, their kids seemed to not stay in the household consistently, ending up with relatives or with neighbors. It’s hard to say with certainty what went on in that house, but I know what went on in other Phillips households, and why other Phillips children went to stay with relatives, so I’m going to guess it came from somewhere. And I suppose trying to keep order in a house where both parents are deaf at that time would have limited the resources they had to draw on for successful child-rearing.

Oscar’s son, Frank, was working as a farmhand when he married Ina Mae. I don’t know how long he had been working as a farmhand, but my Grandpa was born in a house that was also functioning as a chicken coop/barn, out by Marshall, because that’s where the farmhand and his family lived–in the barn.

My Grandpa managed to bust his ass out of poverty, by selling insurance to whoever would buy it from him. He was, for a long time, the only insurance agent who would sell insurance to the black people of Battle Creek (or so the family story goes). He told my dad that he never earned below $10,000 a year, the whole time he sold insurance, and I’m sure, when he was just starting out, $10,000 a year was a shit ton.

It was not enough to protect his progeny from the chaos, his chaos. And so, we all spin out from him, like fucked up stars on our way out to our own galaxies, where we, too, will fuck up. You like to think we could come to some understanding–“We all will stop hitting our kids, because the line for us between ‘spanking’ and needing to break you down so far you won’t dare come back up is too thin.” for instance–or something,  to try to move away from the things that keep us mired in troubles, but we don’t.

Oh god, well, this is depressing the shit out of me.

And I have grocery shopping to do and laundry to finish and dogs to walk.

The past is an interesting place, but it also fucking sucks.

And, probably, the same can be said about all these winter holidays. All these ghosts you were so freaked out and happy to see at the end of October are lingering and growing stale by now. No wonder there are so many holidays of light in December. You need something to encourage the dead to back off.

One thought on “Thanksgiving Blues

  1. Sometimes remembering family stuff is painful in a Philip Larkin sort of way. And sometimes it’s painful because you miss the people so much, in one way or another. And sometimes it’s a joy, even remembering the parts that were painful at the time. Consciousness and memory are wonderful that way.

    Maybe we have such feasts this time of year to feed our dead, sate them so they won’t have the energy to bother us.

    I have no conclusions or advice, just that insipid observation.

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