It was one of those moments that sticks with you. I was home from college for the summer, earning my keep teaching kids in the public parks of Yonkers, N.Y., something that remotely resembled tennis.
I had just pulled up in front of the house after a surely worthwhile day of saying approximately 3,000 times, “Keep your eye on the ball.” My mother was waiting for me.
“There is some very bad news. There has been a death,” she said.
The lump started to rise in my throat as 100 faces rifled through my brain. “Who was it, Mom?” I squeaked out.
“Your Great-Uncle Johnny,” she said.
I didn’t know I had a Great-Uncle Johnny, who turned out to be one of my grandmother’s brothers. I was the fourth of my mother’s five children, and by the time I reached awareness, the extended families of my grandparents’ generation had drifted away.
I had second cousins I never met, family out on Long Island that might as well have lived in Nebraska and a Great-Uncle Johnny I’m pretty sure I never met.
“I think he was at your baptism,” my mother explained.
There’s a show on NBC called “Who Do You Think You Are?” The premise is to take celebrities and trace their genealogy.
The first show had Sarah Jessica Parker, who discovered she had a great-great-great-someone who died in the California Gold Rush and a greater-still someone who was accused of dealing with the devil at the 1692 Salem witch trials.
The second show focused on Brooke Shields, who found out she was descended, directly, from King Henry IV, Bourbon king of France from 1589-1610. She got to visit his entombed heart. Some people get all the luck.
I find the show a bit of a hoot, though it always scratches me the wrong way when people expect to find in their ancestry somebody famous. Far and away, most people are just people today. And the same holds true before us. They do just about all the living and dying, but history books pass them by.
I’m not immune to the celebrity itch. “Professional Criminals of America, 1886,” contained police blotter mug shots and biographies of more than 200 con artists and hoodlums. One of them was Cully Lockwood, and I got a cheap thrill wondering if he was a long-lost relative.
But my ancestors seem to be much of what my great-great grandchildren will discover their ancestors to be if they are so inclined to look. My mother’s father worked in a funeral home, played some semi-pro ball, was a plumber and finished out at a carpet mill. The father of his family made hats.
My father’s father — whom I never knew because he died just before I was born — worked for the Port Authority in New York City. His side of the family owned a tavern for well over a century in Newburgh, N.Y. His wife was a flapper who enjoyed her scotch neat and her smokes unfiltered well into her 80s.
I like those stories more than finding out that some ancestor used to go bowling with Woodrow Wilson. There’s such a greater blessing in discovering that your people plugged away trying to feed their kids and pass on the faith.
They are lost to time, maybe just names from a yellowed obituary, census roll or baptismal certificate. But they are part of the People of God, what we used to call the Church Triumphant. Their presence to us is real and now in the blessing of a heritage of faith.
The faith survives the generations — that’s our genealogy. As Pope Benedict XVI told us: “Be seeds of holiness scattered by the handful in the furrows of history.”
If you manage it, that beats famous any day.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.