The Gene Pool: The Literature Edition

Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.


Item #1: The Dead by Billy Collins
via book and the Internet

(I came across this poem recently, and wanted to keep it around to read. It nicely sums up my connection to my ancestors while I’m researching them.)

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.


Item #2: City of Thieves by David Benioff
via book

In the introCity of Thieves book coverduction of the book, the author (who currently heads the writing team of the Game of Thrones series) explains that he kept asking his immigrant grandfather to tell him what life in Russia was like during the Nazi occupation. His grandfather repeatedly refused to talk about it, but gave him a blessing of using his authorly skills to make a story up. Benioff researched the siege of St. Petersburg and then built a narrative around the historical facts. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that this technique is exactly what I’m attempting to do with my ancestors’ histories.  The result is an incredibly moving tale of two ‘criminals’ and their odd journey through the battle zones of World War II.

This book will stay in my library as an excellent example of blurring the lines between history and fiction. I think you’ll enjoy it too, although, I will warn you that it does not pull any punches when describing the human condition during wartime. I sobbed through several chapters in this book. I am not much for sobbing generally.

For more on my impressions of this book, read my review on Goodreads. Warning: SPOILERS!


Item #3: Who Do You Think You Are?
via television

Not quite literature, I know, but the fourth season premieres on TLC this Wednesday night with Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame. Who Do You Think You Are? is a show that researches a celebrity’s ancestors and then recounts an interesting tale from their findings. The first few episodes on NBC were admittedly dry, but the Mormons over at who produce it have found a way to jazz it up a bit. The episode on Christina Applegate’s father has stuck with me for 2 years.


Like what I did here? Read other Gene Pool installments: Paul Fronczak & San Miguel and Coincidences!

Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories  I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.


It was true. Some women just weren’t meant to be mothers. Enid saw it on the preoccupied faces of the women sitting around her. She knew they were all the wives of boatmen. They had that look about them—eyes like two emptied glasses of vodka. A lingering smell of sadness. She also knew that they were in the bus station awaiting the arrivals of their husbands from the river. She knew these things because, up until today, she had been one of them.

A woman dressed in purple sat next to Enid. The woman had been staring at the Arrivals board and sucking air between her teeth for the better part of an hour. Her plum hat bobbed with every intake of breath. When her giggling children ran back to her, she shushed them before they could explain that the station clerk had neighed at them like a horse. Enid felt the woman’s mood pull at her and repeated the words her pastor had told her to comfort her sensitivities: Happiness is a distasteful emotion to those still awaiting its arrival.

Enid was determined not to wait for happiness any longer. She was on her way to family. She took a swig from the flask in her coat. She looked from the iron-clad clock hanging from the ceiling to the Departure board to her children sitting on the other side of her. Adam gently swung his legs and Delia whispered something kind to baby Laurie lying in her lap. They could tell something was different. Their father had only been gone a week and they were already back at the bus station.

Berl, Enid’s husband, worked on a Mississippi steamboat shoveling coal into its coffers. He did this day in day out from St. Louis all the way to New Orleans and back again. Not an easy job, but steadier than most. It’s the job that kept them in the disintegrating Missouri town away from family. Seemed like every week Enid heard about another family packing up and moving north to the factories. She’d noticed the dwindling of the merchant’s stock over the past few months. No more lace for dresses, no more flowers for Sunday supper. Slowly and steadily, she witnessed the people of her town march away like ants in a rainstorm. The newspapers called it a depression.

A few weeks ago, Enid had confronted Berl about how bad things were getting at the house. His leaving her with the kids for months at a time was wearing on her. Friends no longer visited; they’d either moved away or were busy with kids and extra washing. She had cried all the way through her practiced speech. She knew she sounded unreasonable, but she needed to tell him that the life he gave her was not one she wanted. He yelled and condescended: Things are the way they are till they’re not, he had fumed. If I can work the ovens 16 hours a day, you can certainly wash a few diapers and make a few dinners. It burned her up even more that his reaction was exactly what she expected.

A meaningful cough from another woman nearby brought Enid back from the argument. Adam was kicking the bench across from him. She grabbed his leg and began singing. My Country, ‘Tis of Thee then I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket, Delia’s favorite. In between verses Enid nipped more at her flask. She was just beginning Pennies From Heaven when the clerk’s voice announced that it was time to board the bus. She stood and gathered her things.

“Adam, I need you to be in charge until someone picks you up. Stay put, it shouldn’t be long. Mama’s going away for a little bit; she just needs a break is all. Tell Gamma I’ll be back when I find my peace.” She stepped onto the bus knowing more than her kids’ eyes had followed her out the door. She sat down in a seat just behind the driver—the side opposite the station and finished off her flask.


This is new fiction inspired by the prompt “Where have all the flowers gone?” See other answers to the prompt by clicking on the badge above!

The Night of the Fox

The first night it happened Margaret awoke to find a small fox standing on her chest. She instinctively froze, not realizing she was holding her breath until the fox shifted his weight from his front to his hind paws. She felt the pressure of the animal ease off her cleavage and sink further into her belly. She exhaled, then stole a quick glance at her daughter, still sleeping in her crib. She could feel the fox’s stare as she did this.

Margaret blinked back to calm eyes, which turned her fear down to a simmer. Even in the dark room, she saw intelligence on his face. His expression reminded her of a day long ago when her grandfather consoled her after falling down the front stoop. The fox slowly lowered his long, thin nose. She saw the white of his chin recede in her field of vision as the plain of rust on top of his head expanded down the length of his body.

He tapped gently on her collarbone to get her to focus. When he was sure she was present again, he turned his head toward Ella. Following his gaze she saw that Ella had thrown off her blanket in her sleep. Margaret was reassured by the gurgling sounds only a sleeping baby could make.

With a quick wink he jumped off the chair–updraft of musk and the smell of fresh soil–and across the plush rug. When he approached the crib, he reached a paw through the slats, grabbed a corner of the pink blanket, and patted it over Ella.

Satisfied with his work he scampered over to the wall below the window and knocked. Three quick raps. Then Margaret heard the unmistakable sound of birds chirping before three starlings zipped into the room. One held a green ribbon in its beak, the loose end fluttering by her face like a butterfly.

The ribbonless birds swooped, picked up a Winnie the Pooh barrette in tandem from the mantle above the fireplace, and clipped it onto a small tuft of Ella’s hair. Blink of an eye. Meanwhile, the third bird dexterously tied the ribbon into a bow on the top railing of Ella’s crib. Four more quick raps. The birds sailed out and the fox hopped onto the sill.  He kicked out his right paw with a flair and gracefully jumped down into the flowerbed Margaret herself had planted that very morning. She saw the birds struggling to hoist up the screen from the lawn. Two paws helped them lift it vertically and the screen clicked into place.


Preposterous, Margaret thought. The very idea. She decided the whole sequence was a product of lack of sleep and midnight feedings. She picked Ella up careful to  avoid the birds’ pretty bow. She closed the curtains. A lullaby about silver clouds and blue birds and only loves popped into Margaret’s head. The more she sang it the more she grew convinced that the visit had actually occurred. She was singing still when she heard the sound of her husband’s alarm clock in the next room.

“I think a fox winked at me last night,” Margaret told her husband over breakfast.


Margaret recounted the strange event, describing every minute detail to convince him, and herself, of its reality. Her husband remained bullishly unphased. When Margaret finished her husband concluded between chews of his toast that it had been just a dream.

She took his hand to the pink bedroom. She showed him the green bow on the cradle. They discussed the intricacy of the ribbon’s lacing–far superior to either of their abilities. She lifted the curtain and pointed out the fox tracks in the dirt. She even hauled out her plastic bag of ribbons, dumped its contents onto the floor, and together they determined that they did not own green ribbon. She expressed her disappointment that birds, and not her own mother, had clipped the first barrette in Ella’s hair. It was the only thing during the fantastical night that she regretted.

“What do you think it means?” her husband wondered. She heard a note of psychoanalysis in his voice. He was still not convinced.

“I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Didn’t you ask the fox?” A ludicrous question in any other circumstance.

“It hadn’t occurred to me,” Margaret said.



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The Prince and the PEA

This isn’t easy to admit, but, on my nightstand underneath two books lies a folded-up piece of paper–a photocopy of pages 160-161 of a book called Living Fully with Shyness & Social Anxiety.

If you’ve never met me that admission may give you the wrong impression. I’m not a shy man. I say hello to strangers on sidewalks. I lead game nights and book groups regularly. I freely express opinions.

No, I am not shy. But I am most certainly socially anxious.

Not familiar? Here’s an example: Twenty years ago I played a practical joke on an acquaintance with whom I was trying to befriend. I wrapped a birthday present in a plastic bag, placed it in a box, and poured whatever I could think of on top—peanut butter, mayonnaise, coffee grounds, frozen peas, moisturizer. I left it out for three August days and then gave it to him. After mucking through layers of rancid gloop and dry heaving twice, he stormed off. I was never invited over to his house again.

Pretty typical high school trial-and-error stuff, right? What makes this an example of social anxiety is what the author of the book, Erika B. Hilliard, calls Post-Event Autopsies (PEA).

[A post-event autopsy] occurs when we go over and over a particular, past social event with a fine-tooth comb. We filter through bits and pieces of the event, picking out the bad parts and obsessing about them, sometimes for days and even weeks.

Yes. That. All of that. Only in my case the span of time is decades. Twenty years later and I still obsess about that birthday party. The guilt, shame, and embarrassment is as fresh as if it happened last week. It sometimes still keeps me up at night no matter how many mattresses I lay over top of it. That is how pervasive social anxiety is. (For a funnier example of my anxiety, click here.)

You can imagine that this kind of self-punishment doesn’t make socializing easy for me. It’s sometimes hard to leave my house. The dread of socializing has nothing to do with the nice people I will visit or the good time I know I’ll have. It’s about the panic that I’ll mess up and have yet another event in which to fret over for eons. Sometimes the stress I feel at the onset of a social interaction is so high I’ll preemptively blurt out something rude just to relieve it. A technique that often results in bad first impressions.

For a long time I thought everyone shared my fear. When I started telling people about it though, I started fearing I was the only one. Others would try to help me by saying things like Just don’t worry about it. (Non-worriers are an alien species to me. Don’t they know that ceasing to worry isn’t like closing floodgates on a dam? ) Worriers have to process through it. It’s similar to the routines people with OCD undertake to quell their anxiety. Worrying is my version of checking the stove exactly a dozen times.

Before I found Erika Hilliard’s words I’d make myself feel terrible over and over again. Now I just read through the paper on my nightstand when I start feeling the anxiety and it acknowledges my feelings. It reassures me that it’s natural and useful to regret things, but it should never damage my self-esteem. After all I would never harp on a friend for 20 years for an adolescent mistake. Why am I harping on myself?


Irfan says it means “broken pieces,
reunited,” as we rearrange picnic tables
linearly. We eat: polynomials aligned
between paper plates. Our sums
ask for seconds then run down
to the pier. Flip-flopped variables.
Playing cards appear; 
I keep score,
tallying different equations.


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The Crime of Writing Tall Tales, My Notes on Bayliss Park

I wanted to jot down some of my research for my story Bayliss Park before I forget what’s true and what’s not. The genealogist in me feels guilty posting something without proper documentation. I’m already wanted by the Genealogy Police for crimes involving my flagrant use of embellishment while inventing my ancestors’ lives.

It started with this funeral notice I found on for my 2nd great-grandfather:

The funeral of Josiah James will take place this afternoon at 2 o’clock from his late residence near Wickham’s Brickyard in the northwestern part of the city. Friends invited to attend. Mr. James has been here only about three weeks, and he was stout and hearty until Thursday last when he took sick. He came from Harrison County, MO. He leaves a wife, and ten children.

(source: Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, Iowa, Sunday, 02 April 1882, Page 5, Column 1)

Iowa as a state didn’t have a law for keeping death records until 1880, and the law wasn’t enforced consistently until 1924. So I don’t hold out any hope of seeing Josiah’s death certificate and determining what he passed of. Instead, I began looking into what could have brought down a “stout and hearty” man so quickly. He was obviously feeling strong enough to move his wife and six youngest children 150 miles from Missouri to Iowa just a month or so prior.

I found the article below in my process of scanning the newspapers of towns from the time in which my relatives lived there. It’s a great way to gauge a community’s world view and it’s cool for me to think that my forefathers probably read and reacted to the very same pages. Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’s free online collection of historic newspapers, is usually my first stop.

typhoid case
(source: The Weekly Graphic, Kirksville, Missouri, 4 Nov 1881)

“Let others come forward in the same manner at once.” Love it. It’s this kind of demand that makes me nostalgic for a time I never lived in. Can you imagine just leaving money at the WalMart and trusting that it would be applied to the sick man’s cause? Parts of me want to write the story of Arment and Mrs. Rudolph, even though they aren’t family. A clear example of how researching genealogy can inspire fiction.

So, Arment’s story is what sparked the idea that Josiah passed of typhoid fever. The article verifies that the disease was in the area at the time. I learned that it was common for people to contract it while traveling. If it was typhus that killed him, perhaps Josiah’s health was already compromised by the stress of starting new at the age of 54. I’ll never know; so I wrote the story to fill in some gaps. Add to my family’s lore. Genealogy Police be damned.

Olivia JamesIt occurred to me that his wife Olivia was a newly single mother in 1882, after just arriving in a new city. Thankfully, all 4 of their older children were living in Council Bluffs and could support her. Josiah and Olivia moved, it seems, to be closer to them. Still, she must have been a strong woman; it’s this fact that made me characterize her as I did. And that picture of her. I love it, but it initiates so many questions: Why is she sitting in a fancy chair outside? Who took the picture? Why does it look so staged? The interview format was a way for me to explain these questions. For more on Olivia, read my post Delano, Herbert Walker, and Hussein; or The Stories Middle Names Tell.

Samuel Hurd was the son of a Council Bluffs family. He would have been just 16 when the James brothers probably came down to Harrison County, Missouri, to help their parents move. Later, Sam would marry Lena James (the pictures are really them), as his cousin Martha would marry Lena’s older brother, Noah, my direct descendents. That family tie makes me think the Hurds and the Jameses knew each other well. So it’s not impossible that 16-year-old Samuel helped them move. What is impossible is that Lena and Sam would be courting soon after Josiah passed. Lena was only 9 at the time of the move. I aged them up for the sake of the story.

Lines of Credit


“When did you know you were lost?” he asked. He wore a green vest that partially obscured the peaceful beach scene on his t-shirt. The brown and blue wavy lines sharply contrasted the meticulously parallel aisles in this little gas station somewhere in western Nebraska. The cashier propped himself up on the counter between us using both of his tattooed arms.

“On Easton. The third time I passed that barn with the tractor mural. Any idea where 12774 is?” I handed over my credit card to pay for the gas and a packet of sunflower seeds.

“Easton’s tricky. Ends at Owen Road and doesn’t pick back up for seven blocks. Might be time to invest in a GPS, bud,” and then he walked my card over to a machine tentacled with wires that stretched out over every surface of his workspace. Two off-key notes chimed: bing bong. We both looked toward the door.

A woman—her face, eyes, mouth, even her nostrils all circles—stood in the center of the main aisle. She and the cashier stared at each other for a long moment.

“Amanda? What the fuck? I’m working.”

“I found it, Darrell. I found all of it! And don’t think your sorry ass is staying at my place no more. I have kids to think about. I don’t want them anywhere near that. Your shit’s in the parking lot.” She turned her back to us. Two dings—more accusatory than the first —sirened as Amanda shoved the door open with both hands. Darrell ran out after her screaming something about how whatever she’d found helped him to pay the rent. He made a point not to name his transgression.

I was left with the rurrs and whizzes of the six refrigerators chilling more drinks than there were residents in the county. I checked the counter for my card. When I stepped behind it to search further, I heard the rising intensity of their muffled argument through the bulletproof glass.

They stood off about halfway between the station door and the first pump. Amanda had her back to me, hands on hips. I could tell she was looking at her still-running car as Darrell yelled at her, jabbing my credit card in her face on every third word. Fumes escaped from the car’s tail pipe as if fleeing the scene of a crime. To the left of the car sat two open diaper boxes and a scratched-up motorcycle helmet. The decal on the side of the helmet was of a woman’s breast, a jeweled charm dangling from its pierced nipple.

I vacillated. I didn’t want to get involved; I also didn’t want the argument to escalate any further before I could get my card back. Two more dings rang out like the beginning of a boxing match. Ding ding.

“You have my card, man,” I said as rationally as I could.

He stopped gesticulating and turned to me. “Stay the fuck outta this.”

“I don’t want the fuck in it. Just give me my card back and I’m gone.” A car door slammed. Amanda. She gunned the engine, spraying gravel toward us. Darrell sprinted after her managing to pound her trunk once before the cornfields of Route 71 hid her from sight.

Darrell’s shoulders fell when he finally gave up running. He scratched his head and turned around. When he got back to me, I asked him what he was going to do.

“Boss has a cot in back he uses to sleep off hangovers before he goes home. Don’t think he’ll mind if I use it a few nights. I’ll be fine.” He handed me my card without stopping. I heard two soft dings uhh hemmm, then I was alone.

For a second I wondered if he’d even charged me for the gas, then I figured it didn’t matter. I put the nozzle back in its cradle, screwed the black cap onto my tank. When I drove by the front of the store on my loop out of the station, I saw him sitting head-in-hands on a low pallet of pork rinds.


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Bayliss Park


The following transcript details three interviews conducted between May 16th and 18th, 1909, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Only excerpts pertinent to my father, SAMUEL HURD’s melancholic state are enclosed.

Wallace Hurd


(Interview: LENA HURD, alone, in her parlor on Eighth Street.)

Q6: When did you first regard a change in your husband’s disposition?

Lena Hurd:
Leona JamesThat evening in Bayliss Park. We were walking hand-in-hand by the fountain. Spare me that look, son, long ago your parents were young and carefree. We came across your grandmother sitting alone on a bench knitting. I remember being touched by the sight of her there, so calm just days after Father’s [pause] ceremony. I looked behind me when I felt my hand pull back and found your father rigid, gaping, as if turned to stone by Medusa, yet still clutching my hand. I thought it a jest at first. I waited for him to say something amusing. It wasn’t until I stepped toward him that I noticed a tear falling from his jaw. Mother looked up then, saw our queer tableau. She thrust her knitting needles into a skein of yarn and plodded off—I presume back to the house. I coaxed Sam to a bench to get his bearings, then we walked home, and have never talked of it since.


Samuel Hurd(Interview: SAMUEL HURD, same day, also quite alone. I began by reading his wife’s response to the question above.)

Q1: Do you remember the encounter of which your wife speaks?

Samuel Hurd:
Clear as day.

Q2: Do you remember what upset you so?

SH: The sweater your grandmother was knitting that night reminded me. [He stares at his splayed left hand.]

Interviewer: I don’t understand.

SH: It was the same color red and the same knit as the blanket I wrapped him in. After. The coward that I am chose to stay with the body instead of facing your mother, your grandmother. Not when I knew I was responsible for his death. Just weeks after moving his family hundreds of miles. And your grandmother having all those young mouths to feed.

Interviewer: Respectfully, sir, the typhus took him. He drank bad water is all. Some tainted creek along the way, I expect.

SH: No one else fell, boy! Only men in our caravan. And it was my hand that done it. I’m sure of it. I was the cook. I’d just recovered from the fever myself. Didn’t think twice about making supper until after we’d arrived. A father and son fell soon after, the McDevitts, then your uncle Noah and your grandfather. We were lucky to only lose the one.

Interviewer: If what you say is true, Father, no one blames you for it.

SH: Your grandmother does. Starting that very night on the park bench. The poor woman was mourning her husband’s death in solitude and we come in prancing about like songbirds. Oh, the way she looked at me. As if I were Death himself coming to collect her.


Don't be fooled by her humble expression. This woman is a troublemaker.

(Interview: OLIVIA JAMES, in her side yard on Avenue D. She shucked corn throughout the interview.)

Q3: Do you remember an evening when Father and Mother happened upon you in Bayliss Park?

Olivia James:
I always set [sic.] in the park after dinner, Acey. All of Council Bluffs has occasioned upon me there at one time or ‘nother.

Q4: This was just after Grandfather’s wake. You were knitting a sweater? Mother said it was the day she realized Father’s black mood.

OJ: Now, I do remember one time lookin’ up to see your father eyein’ me right good. He was wantin’ some time with your mother. I had jus’ set [sic.] down and had to get right back up so’s they could court without this old hen clucking about them.

Q5: Father said you gave him a queer look?

OJ: Oh, Acey, I’m sure as shellfish I did. Back then, I could only get away from that house once in a blue moon. It was prob’ly the first time I’d been by myself in weeks.

Q6: Did you notice any changes in Father’s mood after that night, Meemaw?

OJ: They were both so forlorn after Josiah passed. I was glad to see them at ease after an ungodly week of undertakers, corsets, and house guests. Your mother eventually stopped treatin’ me as if I were a crystal decanter, but Sam was never the same again.


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