Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Breadbasket timetravels

I'm in Kansas, experiencing the miracle of 17-year cicadas. This is a cicada:

Living in the ground their entire lives, they emerge in huge numbers only at precise intervals exactly 17 years apart, disappearing again a few weeks later. The insects make the most incredible racket, like a sea shore made of grasshoppers.

That I'm here for the cicadas is a remarkable coincidence. The Kansas brood, as it's called, is the only cicada population in the world blooming in 2015. But I didn't come for them. I didn't even come for the other inexhaustible delights of Kansas. I'm here, like a hero on a metaphorical journey of self discovery, to find where I came from.

This is George Joseph Staubus, born 1926. He died last year, and was my mother's father. For my whole life, and indeed for my mother's whole life, he lived in El Cerrito, California, in a modest but glorious house overlooking the San Francisco Bay. He moved there with his wife Sarah in 1954. But he was born and raised here:

This is Brunswick, Missouri, population ~800 and falling. The first suggested search term when you type "Brunswick Missouri" into Google is "Brunswick Missouri funeral home". It's about as far away as you can get from an ocean anywhere outside of central Asia. It likes to call itself - ambitiously - the Pecan Capital of Missouri. Most of the stores on its one commercial street are boarded up or sell antiques. Many of the houses are similarly abandoned.

The first white people to see Brunswick are thought to be Lewis and Clark, but it wasn't until the 1830s or so that the town was properly established, largely populated by German fortune seekers. Not originally among them was a certain Christian Staubus, my earliest known ancestor, who came to the New World at about the same time, after having served as a Prussian officer at the battle of Waterloo. His grandson, George Washington Staubus, and his great grandson, George Washington Jr, came to Brunswick to farm the rich Missouri soil. I find it strange to think that I am separated from the Napoleonic Herr Staubus by a mere five lifespans - George Washington Jr was George Joseph's father, and my great-grandfather. This is not necessarily impressive, however: my mother remembers a famous relative who lived to 102 and had been born during the Civil War. The oldest person in town at that time probably remembered the War of Independence.

As a boy, some of my grandfather's classmates rode to school on a horse. Yes, the grandfather of me, reared in the age of cat videos, knew a time when the main transport fuel was hay. The school consisted of one room and one teacher, who taught all ages simultaneously. George had no electricity or running water at home and had to survive prolonged sub-zero winters with nothing but wood fires.

After being sent to study accounting by the US Navy during World War Two, George eventually ended up becoming an academic. The young, folksy country lad, with his traditional Protestant upbringing, got his first teaching job at the University of Buffalo, where he met a Jewish girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn. They were married after 6 months and remained happily together until death did them part, over 60 years later.

Sarah Mayer was the daughter of proper hardcore immigrants. Her mother, Anna Lipshitz, hailed from a rustic homestead somewhere around the border of Poland and Ukraine; she and her many brothers and sisters were sent one by one to America as soon as their parents had gathered enough money for the next. Having come through the horrors of Ellis Island by herself at the age of 16, Anna had nothing but her siblings' names to go by - miraculously she located them in the seething cesspit that was New York in the 1910s. Working whatever jobs she could get, Anna scraped by, marrying another Jewish immigrant and producing, in contrast to her own parents, a single solitary child, Sarah. (Incidentally, as my mother's mother's mother, Anna's religion is what makes me technically Jewish).

Sarah had electricity, modern transport and all the glories of city life, such as the ability to spend a nickel on the movies every Saturday. What she did not have was money or personal space, living in a special kind of poverty equal in degree but opposite in kind to George's. Her position at Buffalo was only secured after her city university was asked to send male professors. They wrote back saying that the men had all been killed at war (those that hadn't were the ones now in needing of teaching), but they had some superbly qualified women to offer.

The coming together of these two souls, and the incredible longevity of their union, has never ceased to fill me with awe and inspiration. The two extremes of the quintessential American experience personified in the homely figures of my grandparents - an experience that could not be further from my own.

Why does family hold us in such a powerful spell? I know, rationally, that family is the result of relationships formed during one's upbringing, that the idea of blood ties is a purely social construct, and that people who died before I was born can't actually influence who I am in the slightest. Yet I can't help feeling fascinated by my ancestry. It's a gateway into a history that feels otherwise so alien.

Coming all the way to Missouri in pursuit of this dilemma, I've encountered another aspect of it. We've been staying a few hours from Brunswick with George's Kansas-based 90-year-old brother, great-uncle Charles Staubus. Last time I met him was in 1990, before my first birthday. Today he enjoys terrifically good health, living alone in a beautiful, well kept-suburban house. In 1945, his parachute regiment raided Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" HQ near the legendary Berghof residence in the Bavarian Alps, and he still keeps the Fuhrer's personal writing stationary in a box under the kitchen table. Also in attendance were Charles' sons Keith and Kent, and their children - my second cousins, not too far from my own age - all of whom I had not previously encountered; even my mother hadn't seen most of them since the 70s.

Kent lives in South Dakota and is an exceptional photographer and train enthusiast; his son Matthew is a computer science prodigy. Keith is a lawyer in Dallas, Texas; his daughter Addison is a talented graphic artist and a student at Texas Christian University. They say grace before meals. They consume red meat with incredible frequency. They use the term "good old boy" unironically. And they're all ridiculously lovely. My blood kin who I didn't even know existed. Their last name is all Staubus. We all knew the same story about great-grandfather George Washington - how he used to say that he only liked two kinds of pie: hot and cold. Now we're facebook friends. The cicadas will be gone soon, but we'll still be family when they return. Weird.

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