How appropriate the message for this season is the Genealogy of Jesus.
I have known about my great grandpa Charlie Branch for some time, as a railroad conductor from Mauchunk (Mowk-chunk), Pennsylvania who moved with his wife Pauline and their kids to Prentice, Wisconsin. He loved reading his poetry to those who’d stop by. (It’s difficult to find a translator of Pennsylvania Dutch, but even a bit close, his poetry about people traveling on the train is beautifully descriptive.)
Last month, Dad told me about his grandpa Adam (Mom: “That’s ‘first man’.”) Allbaugh, who always carried a whetstone wrapped in a cloth so it wouldn’t wear through his pants pocket. Dad remembers him sitting in the kitchen, often honing the edge of his double-bitted ax, which he never seemed to be without. That family bought ducklings in the spring and raised them for sale in the fall. One summer, the kids noticed that fewer ducks were returning home each day from the pond, so they investigated and found several headless ducks floating on the surface. Grandpa Adam took Dad along (with the ax always) and found the culprit. Adam carried the snapping turtle by the tail back to the yard, Dad got it to snap its jaws on a twig and pulled on the head as it was dispatched with Adam’s ax. Dad was then sent into the house to fetch a large pot so they could boil up a turtle soup, but Grandma put the kibosh on that. (Snapping turtles tend to carry leeches and all manner of nasty things.)
So, on Dad’s side I have a “first man” and “the man” (Charlie) as great grandfathers. Maybe the habit of hanging out in the kitchen is inherited from them, too. The kitchen table has always been a good spot for doing homework, reading, sketching out the next project, planning the work for the next part of the day, and a good place to be to help with (and avoid missing) dinner. Yeah, you can call us anything except “late for dinner.”
Mom and Dad had often heard growing up that my grandma Grace Allbaugh Branch was rather frail, since she passed away when Dad was three months old, due to bronchitis, but they’d since met her supervising teacher and discovered that Grace was a highly esteemed and respected teacher in northern Wisconsin. She was definitely the opposite of ‘frail’!
When I visited Price County, Wisconsin over the Fourth of July 2014, I attended 1st Presbyterian Church in Phillips, which met at St. Therese Catholic Church at 11 a.m. The first person I met was an elder, Marvin Arneson, who asked me about my connection to northern Wisconsin. I explained that Dad was born and raised in Prentice, and that he’d tell us kids that we were “quarter Swede, quarter Norwegian, and half confused.” After a few moments, Marvin leaned over and said, “That half? That’s the Finn part.” Dad grinned at that when I recounted the story later in Montana, just as I had (for the rest of the trip). If you want to meet everybody, just sit in a front pew. I enjoyed my hour of conversation with Pastor Matt Arneson (Marvin and Marilyn’s son) over coffee and homemade cranberry coffeecake after the service, too.
Forgive the digression, but I wanted to paraphrase Marvin’s line for another inheritance: “The curly hair? That’s the Allbaugh part.” I think we’ve combed through enough genealogy for one day, though there is my Swede grandmother (on Mom’s side of the family) who was an avid fisherman, and with whom I only argued once (just as stubbornly over the color of a crappie jig, and when she changed and started catching fish we were both happy).
I think it was John Gierach who wrote that knowing our family history makes us more resilient (or something like that, or maybe it was some other author). ‘Course, Dad and I reminisced last week about forebears and other bears (black, brown and grizzly) in Alaska and Montana. “Did you read Dan Crockett’s piece in Bugle magazine?” Yeah, pepper spray is good, but you don’t want to be anywhere close to downwind… Spice of life, or life of spice.