by Jenny White
My friend and colleague Corky White likes to regale me with family legends, some of which are quite dramatic in both human and historic terms. They form a stark contrast to my own family history, much of which is unknown, and the part that is known consists of Bavarian peasants all the way down. At some point my grandparents moved from the Old Mill Valley to a regional city and their offspring spread themselves wide across the class spectrum and, in our case, across the globe. My uncle once put together a shallow genealogy, showing where family members were born, toiled, reproduced, and died. There are personal sagas involved in all this – my grandmother met my grandfather when they worked on the same farm, she as housemaid, he as stable boy. He stole up the stairs at night. My mother brought me with her on an ocean liner that docked in New York, where neither of us had ever been. But these are not family legends, they are not even stories people tell each other. They’re too personal, or too uninteresting to other family members who, after all, are living their own complicated stories.
What’s the difference between people who trace genealogies and families like Corky’s that collect legends? As legend has it, Corky’s grandfather, Mark Isaacs, was Abel to his elder brother’s Cain. Cain was Sir Rufus Isaacs, Marquess of Reading, Viceroy to India, who was implicated in the 1912 Marconi scandal in England. Somehow Sir Rufus put the family shame on Mark, who was expunged from the family and given a choice of Canada or Australia, where criminals were sent. If you google Marconi Scandal, you find a third Isaacs brother mentioned who actually managed the Marconi Company, but not the youngest brother, Mark aka Abel. Corky’s legend diverges from the historical narrative because legends privilege those parts of the story that have psychological saliency for the group that owns the legends. What do people learn or gain from performing these narratives at the dinner table, in the car, to children and friends?
Legends tell listeners about episodes of human action within a historical context that in some way represent the collective experiences of the group. People see patterns, storylines that continue through generations, perhaps inspiring – or at least explaining, even excusing – their own choices. In contrast, genealogies are the facts of family history with only a minimal or even no accompanying narrative. Nothing is represented except the fragile physicality of those pinned to the family tree. An obituary – a one-time only narrative – tells the details of a life in digestible and predictable bits: childhood, marriage, children, accomplishments, cause of death. No trumpets sound, no insights are awarded the reader or listener about his or her place in the firmament of life.
By contrast, Mark Isaacs ended up in Winnipeg where he had six children, most of whom he gave remarkable names: Marcus Aurelius, Alvin Sophia, Charlie Lorraine (named after a battle), Kenneth, the girl Leone, and Corky’s father, Reginald Roderick. Family legend has it that this was a manifestation of their aspirations, like the Marquess before them, to rise in Victorian society despite their Jewish heritage. It was also a sign of the family’s “flamboyance” that flew in the face of their desire to blend in. Mark began venturing for longer and longer periods into Yukon territory, speculating with land and fathering children with an Inuit woman. His wife divorced him and then supported her children by singing in a Winnipeg bar, “swinging her legs as she sat on a piano.” Their son Marcus Aurelius carried on the pattern established by his father by abandoning his wife and child and running off to the north woods of Minnesota where he lived as a hermit, shooting animals for food. He finally died of gangrene from a misplaced shot in the foot. Alvin Sophia was told by his doctors that he had six months to live, so he left his wife and two daughters and ran away to Nepal where he became a hippie, riding the rails and fixing trains in Bangladesh (he was an engineer). When years passed and he still wasn’t dying, he moved to the island of Lesbos and lived on the beach. Ten years after his diagnosis, he died of a heart attack.
Corky’s father, Reginald Roderick, was an artist, then trained as an architect under Walter Gropius, but ultimately developed a career as a city planner. That took him to Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and finally also behind the Iron Curtain, including Cuba, which he began to visit regularly just two years after the revolution. When he died, his children discovered a box of passports, all issued simultaneously: US, Canadian, UN, State Department. They also discovered an East German mistress in Dresden. Was he a spy? The FBI claimed he had no file, hard to believe given his sensitive travels. Unless… Another attribute of legends is that one can feel free to fill in the blanks: “The story goes….” A good story is a heightened reality. And there are many ways to leave a family.
Of the brothers, only Kenneth and Charlie Lorraine evaded the legendary curse. Kenneth became a psychologist. Charlie was a script and comedy writer for Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, and Fanny Brice, and remained devoted to his wife, the actress Doris Singleton. Leone, the only girl, had a soft upbringing and considered herself an artist, as so many others in the family did – another legendary pattern. Corky’s mother was an artist and her brother is a painter. When Reginald Roderick was studying at Harvard, he’d often go down to New York, where he became very good friends with a painter named Jackson Pollock. In a short novel by John Updike called “Seek My Face” – a masked portrait of Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner — Updike refers to a scene in Greenwich Village where artists would gather. There’s some intimation in the novel that Reginald Roderick is “the Harvard professor”. A legend turned printed story, then returned to oral narrative form.
The great ambivalences of life are braided into legend to prove continuity, explain our crimes, and glorify our talents. The bare exigencies of birth and death are transmuted into moral lessons and life patterns shared by generations before and after in an endless, continually invented narrative chain. I admit that I am envious of Corky’s suspension in her fascinating cradle of legends. My great-grandfather died when a young man sat next to him on a sack of gunpowder after a village fair and lit a cigarette. But that is no narrative match for Marcus Aurelius shooting himself in the foot in the woods of Minnesota. Because that Marcus Aurelius is part of a larger telling. The legend of Marcus Aurelius contains all that Corky’s family aspires to and fears. Me, I’m writing my own story.