The family I never knew

Isn’t it interesting that when you complete a stage of your life and think that your best, or perhaps most engaging, days are behind you?  I think many of us find it hard to believe that when we graduate from college, for example, that life could be nearly as much fun as the previous years had been.  When the years of child-rearing are almost over, one looks ahead to the empty nest and wonders how it could possibly be as wonderful as the previous years have been.

And then you get a big surprise.  Or two.  Or three.

No, I’m not talking about my move to DC and my divorce.  That’s a blog post for another time.  Today I’m going to tell you about a discovery that took place in the past year came as a complete surprise, one that redefines a person’s self-understanding, and unlocks what might be year upon year of discovery.  Pretty exciting stuff, huh?

The discovery (a revelation, really) of this year, 2017 is:  I am white only because one ancestor in my not-too-distant past decided I would be.

My mom is the last surviving child in her family: she had a twin sister and two brothers, all now deceased.  I remember traveling to Athens, Georgia, for holidays and family gatherings with cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandmother who always greeted us with pound cake and ice cream.  I can still remember the smell of my grandmother’s house, and the sound of her attic fan, which was the only thing that kept her house from being miserably hot in the summertime.

There were no such family gatherings with my dad.  He was an only child; his father died when I was too young to remember him.  Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, was too far away to travel to very often.  When we visited we would see my grandmother, who lived a modest existence in a town full of friends, but very little family that I ever met or knew.

And I never thought that was odd or unusual.

My dad grew up with a few uncles, but not a lot of extended family.  On his mother’s side, there was a fairly comprehensive understanding that included names, stories, and locations.  But this was not true with his father’s side of the family.  He knew his grandfather, Robert Lee Martin, but had no knowledge of anyone beyond him: no great-grandfather, no earlier ancestors, nothing.  It was an almost complete mystery.

In 1997, when the internet brought genealogical resources within reach of more people, my dad discussed this unsolved mystery with a friend who set out to help him discover the identity of his great-grandfather and whatever generations might lie beyond.  After six months of looking, she came back with nothing.  “He must have done something reaaally bad,” she remarked.

My understanding for over ten years was that Robert Lee Martin’s father had done something so bad that subsequent generations wanted him forgotten.

Samuel Martin’s grave marker. An uncle.

Then, two or three years ago, my brother started looking into the question.  My brother is one of those people that doesn’t stop researching, learning, assimilating, and discovering until the entire truth is discovered.  He’s like a dog who smells a bone buried in the ground, and solving this mystery was his new pursuit.  It was not long before he discovered the name of Robert Lee Martin’s father, which led to the grand discovery that has launched an age of self-discovery likely to keep me learning and growing for the next phase of my life.

The details of one’s family — this one begat that one, who moved to this town, whose children are this, this, and that — can be bewildering to even the most interested reader, so I’ll spare you of all the interconnections.  I’ll just end this post with a question, one to be answered in a subsequent post (or series of posts):

What if, at age 53, you discovered that you had a big, loud, wonderful, loving family of hundreds of people, who have been holding family reunions every year since 1963?  What if you found out that there were dozens of relationships, both good and bad, that were your right to enjoy, but you never had the opportunity to pursue?

Robert Lee Martin was born into that family.  He was born in Alamance County, North Carolina.  He died in Roanoke Rapids, where my father’s story begins.  It appears that he severed all connections to the family he was born into because he passed as white.

And so every year a big family gathers in Alamance County and goes to Martin’s Chapel Baptist Church to celebrate a common ancestor. That’s my family too.  Sure, I have grown up with all the social and economic privilege that comes from being white.  I grew up with all the racism that comes with being the child of southern white families.  And how many laughs, hugs, and tears have I missed? How much richer might my life have been if Robert Lee Martin had stayed in Alamance County and had lived as a black man?

In today’s polarized, charged environment, I feel this is a risky, private, and very personal post.  I’m sharing this with you because I feel like I need to.  I hope you’ll treat this story with care and respect.

One Reply to “The family I never knew”

  1. I’m glad you’ve discovered a “new” branch of your family. Your extended-family experience still fascinates me because my own was so different. People used to tease me because it seemed I had a different family reunion to go to each weekend of every summer. I had 7 cousins in my high school class, and grew up knowing, and seeing regularly, most of my extended relatives. I can trace back my lineage many generations on all sides.

    I hope I’ve done enough to demonstrate to my kids how important my family is to me. I think that feeling of connection is really important.

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