Sunday, December 14, 2014


Sam Strachan, my grandfather, is the middle of the back

This time of year both Dear Abby and  Miss Manners are besieged with inquiries about how to handle whom to invite to holiday festivities.  It’s much harder these days because of blurred lines about romantic relationships, families that are “blended” by serieses of marriage, adoption, fosters, floaters, and so on.  Much of the advice is not just about who has to be invited, but how to manage conveying the decision.  How can they arrange the places at the table to fit the picture of the family they desire for Christmas?  Gerrymandering.  Re-arranging the boundaries.

Elbridge Gerry, 5th Vice-President of the USA

The word gerrymander was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts Congressional election districts under the then-governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.  

Gerrymander is a conflation of the governor's last name and the word salamander. Elected to the Second Continental Congress, Gerry signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He was one of three men who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 but refused to sign the United States Constitution because it did not then include a Bill of Rights.

So what we have here is a word conflating a national patriarch, a cranky father of our country, with a salamander, vulnerable as a newborn with little cartoon hands -- only four fingers like Mickey Mouse.  Two ends of the family continuum.  And yet the mythic metaphor is that a salamander can be thrown into fire and emerge unscathed, like a phoenix.  In Britain the broiling element above and behind the burner surface is called a “salamander.”  I’ll just leave it there, though I’m really putting myself into a bit of a family fire by telling you the following.

When my brother, who had had frontal forebrain cortex damage in a fall a decade earlier, began to deteriorate, he was staying with cousins who had a major ranch.  For a while he “earned his keep” by gardening and making things.  He did NOT want to live with me.  I thought he was okay, safe, seen now and then by the VA, and taking long walks with the coon hounds.  Suddenly the cousins wanted him out of there and pressed me to take him.  But then he went off walking down the road to town and disappeared.  

I did what I could by telephone, which was next to nothing.  I could not understand.  Years later they finally confided that he had become paranoid, barricading himself in the basement.  I had sent a "request for a welfare check" to the sheriff, and talked to the deputy on the phone, but he was a family friend who didn't want to embarrass anyone. 

My mother’s sisters married brothers.  When that generation was young adults, we all visited back and forth.  Then we became distant.  Once a cousin told me she had been afraid all her life.  Another said that she had been taught NEVER to open the door to someone she couldn't really name -- this in a crime-free place with not even blinds on the windows.  I didn't make connections. 

One day I was looking through a box of old photos with my aunt and came to a face that looked like my uncles but was no one I knew.  He was another uncle, a sibling, who had been institutionalized on and off throughout his life.  I have no idea what the diagnosis was.  Maybe schizophrenic or what we would call bipolar now.  He shows up on genealogy websites (1899-1987) but is never mentioned by the family, who were afraid of him.  No wonder they freaked when my brother showed signs of dementia and no wonder they didn’t tell me the real facts of his behavior, which would have meant quite a different course of action on my part.  I’m not afraid of dementia.
Victims of the Philippine War

Now the other side of the family, my father’s side.  His mother was WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) so we were a dedicated teetotaling family.  My grandmother’s brother had died of alcoholism, probably triggered as a soldier fighting in the Philippines 1899-1902, another of those atrocities of empire and resistance.  The brother lived long enough for a short marriage that produced a son but then was lost to the family.  I knew this story and have continued to be an abstainer except for champagne at weddings and VERY expensive Scotch which is rarely around.

Cut to the present.  Cousins from that side came to visit and brought as a hostess gift a couple of bottles of wine.  We astonished each other.  They live in a prosperous mono-culture that assumes everyone, especially relatives, would be just like them, but they didn’t know their own family history.  They never knew about the great-uncle and had not continued the teetotalling nor even been aware of it.

The kicker is that the son of this family began to drink in grade school and by adulthood was nearly destroyed by alcohol, drugs, and bipolar swings.  Even then the family did not eliminate alcohol from their lives, not that in their prosperous suburb it would have been possible to shut out alcohol or drugs.  The family kept these developments secret as long as they could and they still live guarded lives.  

This is their code of arms, truly

Another branch is proud of the family name “Strachan,” particularly since it is associated with a “tumulus” or manmade hill that once held a stone fortification one could consider a sort of castle.  They think of themselves as Highlanders and the women dearly love “Outlander,” the series romance that’s about to start on television.  I grew up with the Strachan crest on the wall.  “Non timeo, Sed Caveo” with an alert stag.  ("Not timid, but cautious.") 
That's a thistle in the stag's mouth -- he's not Rudolph.

One day there was an ad for a calypso band in town, led by a man named Strachan.  My father was a little confused by a Scot playing calypso, but he went down to introduce himself to someone he felt sure was related.  The man was black.  He was descended from slaves named Strachan because they were owned by a Strachan.  My mother, a Pinkerton, thought it was very funny.  She’d put up with a lot of jokes about being related to the Pinkerton detectives, which she was in a distant, roundabout way.  We were not surprised by her ability to figure things out.
Every family wants to think it is the best of all families or, if it obviously is not “best” and maybe more obviously doesn’t even constitute a properly definable family, the tendency is to just leave out the parts of the story they don’t like.  Gerrymander.  Bob Scriver’s mother’s maiden name was MacFie and she was ever so proud of that.  Her nice neighbors, over for a bridge party, happened to pick up a little book that showed the tartans of the Scots clans and looked through to find MacFie.  It interested them greatly that a black crayon had been used to eliminate one sentence, so when one of the ladies was visiting at the Prince of Wales Hotel on the Canadian side of Waterton/Glacier Park and spotted that same little book in the gift shop, she bought it.  The sentence that had been censored was:  “Macfies were noted as sheep thieves.”  By the next day every white person in Browning was enjoying that sentence.  

"Rupert" and "Angus" from Outlander.  Note sheep carcass.

Counterphobe that I am (one who is aware of potential danger, but goes towards it -- “Non timeo, sed caveo”), I don’t fear drunks, crazies, sheep thieves (no sheep anyway), nor the descendants of slaves.  I do fear family sometimes.  It is a wonderful thing when people who are genetically connected or who were raised together can find friendship and shared values.  But I’ve been watching “The Borgias” and I know that it can all go terribly wrong, esp. when some people are ignored and pushed out of consciousness and others are made into heroes out of all proportion.  Watch those boundaries.

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