Last winter, my father gave me an American flag he had been keeping in his closet. It had been moved there several decades before from his mother’s closet, where it had rested for more than 30 years. It seems I was the first person to unfold the 48-star-spangled banner since it had covered the coffin of my great-grandfather Albert Luyster, who died of influenza in 1939.
Luyster served in the U.S. Infantry, 9th Regiment, Company D, which was dispatched to China during the Boxer Rebellion and the China Relief Expedition. According to Wikipedia, the regiment earned the nickname the “Manchus.” My father told me his mother, Luyster’s daughter, remembered that her father, a tugboat engineer on the Hudson River in civilian life, also saw service in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. That would have put him on the opposite side from my late mother’s family, natives of the island. It occurs to me that couples entertaining the prospect of marriage might do well to investigate their genealogies. If their families were engaged in conflict in the past, it might be a sign they will be again, as were my mother and father.
It was around the time he handed down the flag to me that Dad started getting interested in genealogy. He would prowl around various Internet sites, then report his findings over our weekly Sunday lunch. The Luyster branch of our family, he explained, could only be traced as far back as the late-19th century in Jersey City. That was sorely disappointing. I remember my grandmother saying that one of our Dutch ancestors held the deed to half the city of New York.
As the weather turned warmer, instead of lunch we met for long bicycle rides through Rock Creek Park—at 77, the old man still sets the pace. Last summer, I would draw alongside him in the muggy air, and he would update me on his findings.
His other grandfather, August “Gus” Smith, was an Indianapolis-born newspaperman, a typesetter, who got a job at the Daily News in New York. That’s where Gus’s son Harold and his son, my father, were born. Whereas Luyster served in foreign wars, my father remembered that Gus and Harold used to argue about FDR, whom Gus loathed for dragging America into World War II. Nonetheless, a picture my father has from that time shows two of Gus’s boys in uniform.
Despite the commonness of our last name, my father had little trouble following the trail of Gus’s forebears. His father was also from Indiana. Before that, the Smiths were Kentuckians, and one was a farrier. Shirley is another family name, and some of the Shirleys were Kentuckians, too, including a Revolutionary War vet who went west. Before independence, the Smiths and Shirleys were Virginians, concentrated around Prince William and Northumberland counties, where some were tobacco farmers and tobacco traders.
In the late-17th century, Dad tells me, the trail goes cold. Who knows why? Records can be lost; life was precarious. Or maybe the almighty Internet is still limited in its ability to provide answers.
In any case, family archaeology can be dizzying. Even as we push back further into the past, unearthing layers and hoping to reach some ur-relative, some family Adam, our own lives keep racing forward without pause. My father’s solution is to imagine the progress of his life and project it backward in time. That is, he takes the year of his birth, 1937, and measures the reach of his life both forward 77 years, to 2014, and backward 77 years, which lands him in 1861. For him, this seems to foreshorten time. It left him feeling, after a recent trip to Gettysburg, that the Civil War wasn’t so distant a fact.
Obviously, counting backward and forward can’t slow the march of time—but for Dad it creates the illusion of bringing everyone closer. It helps him imagine himself a contemporary of his great-grandmother, Flora May Rupp, born in 1860.
This idea of genealogy as connecting the living with both past and future is at odds with the classical idea. “Like the generations of leaves are those of men,” Glaucus tells Diomedes in Book 6 of the Iliad. “The wind blows and one year’s leaves are scattered on the ground, but the trees bud and fresh leaves open when spring comes again.”
True, the Greeks and Romans in literature often get to converse with, and seek advice from, shades in the underworld. Still, fallen leaves grow brittle and disintegrate in a season and then are gone. My father’s notion, by contrast, with the generations all on the same continuum, talking to each other across time, captures continuity as well as change. It seems somehow American—like the Stars and Stripes, with its 13 unchanging stripes, and the country’s development tangible in
the growing number of stars.