Barry Smith: Irrelativity
October 26, 2009
It’s the ultimate cosmic genealogical irony – by the time you’re old enough to care to ask questions about your family history, most of the people who could have answered them are dead.
During my recent trip to the Deep South, my birthplace, I discovered an unexpected tidbit of family lore. It’s the sort of intriguing thing that, short of a long-lost inheritance, you hope to discover when you start digging around the family tree.
Here’s how the story goes …
Years ago, back in the 1930s, a man named Charles E. Roden lived in Arkansas with his wife and two kids. One day he announced that he was going out to chop some wood. He made his way to the banks of the Mississippi River, took off his boots, clothes and cowboy hat and jumped in, never to be heard from again. Maybe an accident, maybe a suicide, no way to tell. The Mississippi is notorious for drowning folks. It’s a huge, swift-moving river that routinely feeds on the casual swimmer. End of story for C. E. Roden.
Flash forward to 1965, a good 30 years later. The family of the late C. E. Roden has made their way to California. One day the son, Willard Roden, gets a phone call from a very Southern-sounding woman.
“Is this Willard Roden?’
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“I’m calling from the Credit Bureau. I see here that your father is a Mr. C. E. Roden. May I speak with him?”
“No, I’m afraid he’s deceased.”
“And what was the cause of death?
“He drowned in the Mississippi River back in 1936, I believe it was.”
“Well,” the woman says. “Actually, he, uh … I think you’d better have yourself a seat …”
Or something along those lines. Obviously I don’t know how the conversation went, because, like I said, all the people involved in this story are now dead. But I know that something along those lines took place.
The woman placing the call was my mother’s Aunt Edna. Aunt Edna was born and raised in Mississippi and worked for the Credit Bureau in the ’60s, so in this pre-Google era she had access to records that others didn’t have. Edna’s last name was also “Roden,” not the most common of surnames. One day she notices a man in California, a fellow Roden, has listed his father as C. E. Roden. This got her attention because … wait for it …
… that was HER father’s name!
Coincidence? Possibly. But she thought it was worth talking to this Willard Roden fellow, so she called him up. Long distance! Not cheap. After talking with Willard and doing some asking around (Edna’s “C. E. Roden” had passed away by this time), Aunt Edna realized that the dates and places and other details matched up.
Willard’s father was HER father!
Mr. Charles E. Roden didn’t drown that day in the Mississippi River. In fact, he somehow made his way across the river to the fine state of Mississippi, met another woman, got married, settled down and set about having seven kids. One of those kids, Charles William Roden, is my mother’s father, making him (for those of you new to genealogy) my grandfather.
And, as far as we know, C. E. Roden never bothered to mention the fact that, just across the river a piece, there was a family waiting for him to return with a stack of firewood. Everyone was shocked by this discovery. Especially Willard. Imagine it – for all of your adult life you think that your father’s dead, only to find out that he’s been alive and well and procreating like mad just on the other side of the Big Muddy. Heavy.
Soon after this discovery Willard came out to Mississippi for a visit. He met all of his half-brothers and sisters and his father’s new wife – his stepmother – who wasn’t much older than he was. Awkward. By all accounts, now third-hand, it was a pleasant visit, and Willard even stuck around for a few weeks.
A month ago I’d never even heard this story, and now I’m trying to piece together the details. I even discovered a few pictures taken during Willard’s visit, way back in ’65, a year before I was even born. There he is, a friendly looking older man posing with his simultaneously newly discovered and long-lost family members. They’re friendly poses, with hands firmly on shoulders, but you can see the confusion in everyone’s body language. Who was this suddenly mysterious father that they shared?
Their interest in their family history had certainly been piqued, and the only man who really knew the answers was no longer around to be asked.