There is a field where my ancestors have pitched their tents. Maybe it’s like the squalid tent cities that housed the destitute during the Great Depression. But I can’t get a sense of those ancestors or what they need from me. The dead in my mother’s lineage are a tight-lipped bunch, zipped away from view. But I see the field in my mind’s eye, just as I saw Pueblo Bonito one recent evening while walking in the park.
I had been working that day on a memoir of sorts about my mother’s father, a man named Harry, whom I never met. In order to write my way toward Harry I’d written about the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, a national park in northwestern New Mexico. I first visited Chaco in 1984, about a year after I moved to Albuquerque. Pueblo Bonito is the remains of what had at one time been a five-story complex housing hundreds. I touched the rough-hewn sandstone bricks and the pine of the lintels and floorboards, still visible in places, that originated from trees hauled over 70 miles. The ruins bear some remarkably intact evidence of an advanced civilization: signs of government, art, religion, agriculture, war, gambling, cuisine. But no one can say exactly why the Anasazi abruptly abandoned Chaco and other similarly elaborate dwellings in the late 13th century. Was it climate change? Battle with a nomadic tribe? Internal political strife?
The riddle has captured my imagination, just as Harry has. Sometimes, while writing about him and his parents, who abandoned him when he was very young, I feel like a voyeur, listening in on a conversation I have no part in. Ghosts in their tents, barely audible. But they’re my ghosts.
After a hike that day in 1984, I drove my Corolla into the campground where vacationing families had already parked their RVs and left immediately. I spread my sleeping bag on a barren rock shelf. I had never felt so alone. Or maybe for the first time I realized that I always had felt that way. As the sun set, a vertical bolt flashed at the horizon—“lightning’s jointed road,” as Dickinson put it—and everything my eye fell on divulged its hidden sanctity. I grabbed a hunk of yellow sandstone formed by millennia of wind and rain into a classic Madonna shape. I kept it for years.
After writing about Harry and the Anasazi recently, 29 years after my Chaco visit, I walked with my dog at dusk in the park. I noticed the lights of a nearby apartment building shining in rows through the branches of nearly bare trees, and I saw it—Pueblo Bonito, resurrected, its civilization suddenly alight inside stone walls, its people spectacularly unaware of the ruination to come.
And I knew: I have to find Harry’s grave.
When I think about Harry, orphaned by his living parents, and about my mother, left behind as a child for some years by her parents, I think I have to sort out which strands of fear are “mine,” which are “theirs.” I have often felt that my bones carry the memory of an abandonment I never experienced. Now there’s some science to back up that intuition.
“Memories can be passed down to later generations through genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors,” wrote Richard Gray in the Telegraph last December 1, in reporting on a new study. Researchers Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler of Emory University studied the “olfactory experience” of mice (stay with me) and published the results in December in Nature Neuroscience (abstract here). Dias and Ressler traumatized a group of mice before they conceived any offspring, pairing the resultant fear with a specific odor (“olfactory fear conditioning”). The researchers then exposed subsequent generations of mice to that same odor and measured the neuronal changes: in two generations of offspring, fear was aroused by that particular odor but not by others, a conditioning that was passed along genetically and not socially.
I don’t have access to the entire study and so don’t fully understand its methods and limitations. I don’t really want to assess all of that right now. I just want to take a moment to sit under a new light in this field, where unknown predecessors have pitched their tents and persist, their eras folding into this one. I sense them with me, although I can’t make out their doings. I look at them with something like awe. Not so long ago they worked hard to ensure that not just their own lives would continue but mine as well. The family tree on my mother’s side, with its long untraceable roots amid the Pennsylvania Dutch, is hidden. But I’m beginning to penetrate that black forest to find it.
According to his obituary, which I found online last year, Harry Schreffler was 69 at his death and had worked at the Rahway, New Jersey, Recreational Bowling Lanes, where he’d held the series record, a three-game high of 745. He died at a nursing home, after an unidentified long illness. He was a WWII veteran, survived by a brother.
That falsehood, that Harry had no family but a brother, may be the truest thing about him. Here’s what I’ve been able to discern so far about his early life. In August 1900 his parents married. A couple of teenagers named Nellie and Daniel, they worked as weavers at a silk mill in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Their daughter, Marian, was born the following March and died in infancy. Harry came in April of 1902; another boy, Paul, was born in 1904. But by the 1910 census the family had blown apart. Daniel had enlisted in the Army. Nellie was a boarder in the same county where her two sons also lived: Paul in Mahanoy Township with an older couple (relation to head of household: none), and Harry as a “ward” with a family named Lytle. Within a few years Nellie and Daniel moved to faraway cities—she to Buffalo, he to Chicago. Each lived for decades, never, I presume, to see their children again. My mother told me that Harry rode the rails, was a hobo for a while, before marrying. A compulsive gambler, he was in and out of her life. He and my grandmother divorced after 30 years of marriage.
Sad facts surrounded by mystery, whiffs of scandal, poverty, breakdown, illness. I am writing my way through the scandal as though the action of writing itself were the antidote to it. Some sources say the ancient Greeks distinguished two senses of shame: humiliation (Aeschyne) and modesty (Aidos). But from a young age I knew no difference. What young person does? Jung said, “the unfaced and unfelt parts of our psyche are the source of all our neurosis and suffering.” Unfaced, Harry’s humiliation, the deep bloody crush of it, became my mother’s, and mine. A castaway, an outcast, he casts a big shadow.
I’ve not yet found Harry’s grave. I suppose I need to keep him shrouded a bit longer while I continue to write about him. And while archaeologists are getting closer to determining what caused the breakdown of Anasazi life, most likely internal oppression and extreme violence and the pull of a new religion, I enjoy the fact that we’ll never know for sure.
The mystery stimulates the imagination, which makes me wonder: can art-making undo genetic memory or alter its expression? The field of epigenetics suggests that all kinds of things can affect a genome. If we are possessed of both genealogy and genetics, perhaps the presence of art in our world means that we don’t have to be possessed by them. I’ll be looking for the study that gives us proof of that.