Paul Frankenstein’s brother has some thoughts on what people mean when they ask “where ya from”.

He’s of visually apparent mixed ethnicity, and in his experience, people want to know about his mixed ethnicity when he’s asked this question, and he doesn’t care for the implication that answering “America” fails to cut it. Which I can understand.

Yet, in another way, I think he’s fortunate to know what his ethnic background is, and grew up knowing about it.

I grew up with not a clue about my ethnicity, in two different ways. One, I’m adopted, under sixties-style rules, which means I have no idea at all about my genetic identity, and will never know when I meet someone of similar genetic background, what the rest of you out there would think of as family, cousin, mother, or brother.

Second, my real family, by which I mean my adoptive family, had no idea what their ethnic background was. ‘American’, they’d say, with a shrug. This reflected what appears to have been a family tradition of actively suppressing knowledge of family history. My grandfather, for example, flat-out refused to discuss anything about his father, for whom I surmise both he and I were named.

As a yoot, this drove me nuts. Where did our wacky last name, ‘Whybark’, come from? What about the apparent compulsion to not discuss family history? What about my gramps, my dad’s and my own bullheaded sense of personal independence from, even outright disdain for, standard socialization, community mores, and grim, thin-lipped resistance to simply keeping our heads down and fitting in?

I still don’t have answers to many of these questions. I surmised, for example that our last name is an anglicization of a German placename, probably ‘Weiberg’; our family’s traditions of cuckoo clocks, dachsunds, and analytic approaches to work and relationships made me suspect that this was a valid guess.

As it turns out, I was correct. But the name change did not happen at Ellis Island – my earliest American ancestor was a German emigrant to Philadelphia who arrived in the 1760s or thereabouts. I learned this from a comprehensive geneaological history published by the patriarch of a different branch of the family. Included in the book is what I take to be an explanaton of the muteness of my family’s own memory.

Two key generations of my ancestors experienced a catastrophic event that destoyed their lives; and nearly all of my male ancestors in direct descent from the 1700s to the present day have picked up and moved away from where they grew up. The key events? In the 1780’s Philadelphia suffered a massive yellow fever epidemic, and everyone in the first North American born generation died in it, except for one man, who immediately left and took up a frontier life. He eventually settled in Missouri, while it was Spanish territory, and had a family; his sons also reproduced in Missouri.

Then the Civil War happened; it appears that reflecting the unsettled nature of Missouri, the family was partly split bewteen grey and blue. In any event, only three Whybark males survived the war. There’s no evidence that these deaths were in combat, which wuld fit the stats: the majority of the war’s casualties were from disease. The survivors were a Missouri born father and his two sons. The father died shortly after the war and his eldest surviving son (my great-great-grandfather) went west.

The other, still a teenager, stayed, was presumably raised by aunts, and eventually became a lawyer, shopkeeper, and member of the Missouri House of Representatives. I have photocopies of his store’s account books.

So my surmise is between up-and-moving, yellow fever, and the Civil War, a few generations of my ancestors established new traditions of how to be a family:

  • Move on, physically if possible
  • Forget the past, refuse to talk about it
  • Be ready to move
  • Expect tragedy

Observing my life, my father’s, and my grandfather’s, I would say that each of us has constructed their own lives in dialog with this set of ideas about the world and how to live in it.

One thought on “Where ya from?

  1. Compelling bit of writing. Really resonated with me. I know, mostly, where I came from. Given a tree I can paint some family names on it, but I have zero interest in it. My mother came to American distinctly to get away from her family. Later, as she grew up, she wanted to reconnect but not before she had instilled in me a sort of mistrust for the ancestors, the relatives, the others. For most of my life, friends of my mother’s are more like extended family than the “real” extended family.

    As you say, there are rules of how to be a family that get passed down, without anyone really saying anything. Rules that I’m sure I’m, regretably, in the process of passing myself.

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