VIEW FROM AFAR

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DALE SUDERMAN
The descendants of Jacob and Aganetha Suderman will meet in the Tabor Cafeteria on July 16 and 17.

For 70 years the Suderman clan has gathered in Hillsboro or Oklahoma for a Suderman reunion. And before 1935 the children of the 12 Suderman patriarchs and matriarchs who lived to adulthood gathered informally for a “cousin’s reunion.”

When I was a child, I asked my father if we had any famous ancestors.

“Well, the Suderman side of the family descended from horse thieves,” he said.

(My father was more moralist than humorist. I suspect he made up this yarn to teach me humility and warn me that my wilder impulses could land me in the pokey.)

But I believed my father, and for years imagined my Suderman ancestors stealing horses in Germany, Holland, the Ukraine and even in Kansas-endlessly migrating to stay ahead of the sheriff.

The truth, according to my grandfather, was more prosaic. My great-grandfather got off a train in Peabody with a bunch of kids and was given a wagon ride to a relative’s home south of Hillsboro where they spent the night.

On his first morning in America, he was found behind a haystack weeping. He was on a desolate frontier with no money, no land and a whole bunch of hungry kids to feed.

America is a new country and we search endlessly to connect with our ancestors. For example, family reunions have become hugely important for African-American families in the past decades. In part, this is due to Civil Rights laws that give the basic right to eat in restaurants, stay in motels and move about the country freely-an unknown freedom until a few decades ago.

When I ask African-American friends about family genealogy, they tell me stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents-often from the Deep South.

“But we can’t trace our roots back very far,” they tell me. “At a certain point, our ancestors had only first names and if there was a last name it was the name of some farmer who owned them.”

I remember having breakfast with a retired couple in England. They spoke proudly of the educational accomplishments of their adult children.

“We are Irish and have lived in Manchester, England for many generations,” she said.

“But can you trace your genealogy back to Ireland?” I asked.

“You Americans don’t understand. When you come from the working poor in Europe, you don’t go looking for ancestors. Only folks who believe they have royalty in their families do that.”

I had never thought of that.

A friend of mine told me proudly that his wife was a direct descendant of the ninth-century ruler, Charlemagne. I was duly impressed that he had married so well.

Then I learned about ‘pedigree collapse.” If there is a new generation every 25 years, over a 1,200-year period a person would have 281.5 trillion grandparents-more than the total number of people who ever inhabited this planet.

What really happens is that people marry their cousins-sometimes close kin and other times distant cousins. This explains why pedigree chasers can always find somebody famous in our ancestral haystacks.

Geneticists theorize that everybody on planet earth is about a 50th cousin to every other person.

(And if one comes from a cultural or regional group where you found your mate in walking distance, the blood relationship is much closer.)

“That woman is too close kin to herself,” is how a demented Appalachian woman in a psychiatric unit described a rude staff person for me.

She may have been crazy. But she was at least half right.

In another 70 years, the Suderman reunion will expand to be a gathering of most of the folks who live in the Great Plains. No mailing list will be needed. Just invite everybody.

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