Art by GOLD Collective (who also designed the cover of the book!)
There are many advantages to having chucked both your federal career and your PhD for the allure of self-employment, but as anyone who has embarked on this path knows, the main perk is the ability to undertake nearly all work-related activities in your underwear while eating off brand ice cream sandwiches, with only your own sense of shame and your cat’s palpable revulsion to goad you into putting on pants.
Self-employment also means that when your aunt from Oregon whom you’ve had little contact with over the last thirty years asks you to join her on an At Home on the Range inspired genealogical expedition to Philadelphia, you can say yes without hesitation. It’s only after you’ve given an enthusiastic “yes” that you wonder what you’ve agreed to. That’s a lot of hours with an aunt you no longer know.
Were it not for Gima and my desire to piece together her life, I doubt I would have bothered with pants. But I’m nothing if not intrepid when it comes to a research junket, and Aunt Ann is a maven when it comes to things genealogical. As it turns out, she’s also a beast when it comes to digging up graves in abandoned cemeteries.
I had envisioned a few days in Philadelphia, cruising around neatly manicured cemeteries and quaint suburbs, with most of my time spent pawing through paper records. Instead we arrived at the ruinous Mount Moriah cemetery in ruinous central Philly for my genealogical trial by fire. Finding the family plot involved GPS, an ATV, and a burly ginger packing heat in case she happened upon “dumpers.” After several hours of fruitless digging, almost entirely on Ann’s part, she was able to locate one of our relations, and some strangers who had decided our stretch of turf looked like a nice place to spend eternity. The entire process was made all the more tale worthy by our guide, who was convinced that every other rock was a Native American artifact. Losing patience, and because I am more often than not a jerk, I crushed her dreams. Sometimes schist is just that. She did unearth a partial femur, though. Not wanting to prolong my time there, I lied and told her it was a petrified branch. I freely admit that I was so hot, tired, and sick of being eaten by bugs that any notion of the sanctity of human remains had long dissipated. Whoever’s femur is now irrevocably disassociated from the rest of its skeleton, I apologize. I was never a responsible archaeologist.
Fortunately Ann went easier on me after that, and we eventually made our pilgrimage to Gima’s grave in West Laurel Cemetery where Gima is buried along the edge of the Dougherty family plot. The Doughertys, her mother’s relations, had owned a successful distillery, and the large family marker, simple yet monolithic, unmistakably spoke of Main Line Philadelphia wealth. As has been established, Potters aren’t remarkably sentimental folk, but both of us were a little choked up once we found Gima—Ann for missing her, and me for having just gotten to know her and liking her so much. She and her other relations lie below a towering sassafras tree, which provides shade, and a hangout for birds (who poop). The raised lettering that someone in the Dougherty line chose for the headstones is a perfect catch all for droppings. I scrubbed Gima with a toothbrush we had for just such an occasion while Ann dutifully documented everyone there.
I felt a bit sad when I realized that she was alone, Gia having been buried with Marie thirty years later in a Sheldon family plot. But she died so unexpectedly, I’m sure that Gia hadn’t made any preparations for such an event. Hell, even if she had lived to a ripe old age, I’m sure he wouldn’t have made plans. It was not his strong suit. But at least she’s with her parents, grandparents, and her uncles Sherborne and Parke.
Ann and I traipsed through at least nine different cemeteries in Philadelphia, each one chock full of our Potter and Simonin relatives. It seems that both sides of the family have always been rather poor at the maintenance of our ancestors, seemingly to the point of forgetting that they’re even there. Many a cemetery staffer gleefully indicated that there was room for at least three full burials and several cremations at each site. Perhaps earlier generations aspired to more fecund offspring, but we’ve failed to fill up a single reservation. Part of me is delighted to know that should I come to Jesus at the end of my days, there is many an earthly home for me to choose from. But I am further burdened by the knowledge that there are now all these ancestors who were once nothing more than names on a handwritten genealogy chart from Gia who are in need of attention. Who’s going to take care of them? As was abundantly clear from the litter of broken stones we came across, the perpetual care that we’d paid for amounts to little more than mowing if there isn’t a living relation demanding customer service. Which I did. Might as well get our money’s worth.
At the very least, Aunt Ann has undertaken the task of documentation, and has done a beautiful job of it. So it seems incumbent on me to finally accept the role of family historian. I just hope that the rest of the family proves to be half as interesting as Gima.
And all those hours with Aunt Ann? Turns out I like her even more now then when she was our babysitter all those decades ago. The trip to Philadelphia was definitely worth pulling on pants for.
You can see photos of Alexa’s trip at her Flickr page.