Sarah Miller | Longreads | July 2016 | 10 minutes (2,438 words)
There’s an Ancestry.com ad in my Twitter feed: “What Does Your Last Name Say About You?” It follows me everywhere, as if it can sense my annoyance.
I find the current obsession with genealogy, specifically as practiced by Boomers and members of “The Greatest Generation,” to be extremely tiresome. If you’re a person who bought your house for 2.5 times your salary which then increased exponentially in value, what more about yourself could you possibly want to know? And that’s not even taking into account all the Americans who have had their last names thrust upon them, in many cases violently. The advertisement’s tone of innocent curiosity strikes me as embarrassingly naive.
I am sure there are defensible reasons for studying one’s genealogy, but I don’t want to think about them because my contempt is important to me, and personal, and possibly even genetic, because of all the people in the world who don’t care about genealogy, I’m pretty sure no one cares less than my father.
* * *
I don’t know the story of my father’s birth, but I do know some facts. In February of 1938, my grandmother, Anne Peters, moved from Niagara Falls to Baltimore. In June, still in Baltimore, she wrote to her family and said she had run off and married a man named Carl Miller. In September, she returned to Niagara Falls, pregnant. Her name was now Anne Miller, but the marriage hadn’t worked out, she said. In October, my father was born, and she named him Roland Merritt Miller—Merritt was her mother’s maiden name. She never spoke about Carl Miller again. One piece of information floated about, which was that he had gone to Northwestern, but that was it. My father says he doesn’t remember when he stopped asking about it, but that is the only thing about Carl Miller anyone ever told him.
We spent a lot of time with my grandmother when we were growing up. She had been a bookkeeper for a power company in upstate New York and after she retired she just took care of my brother and me. If we moved, she went with us. By the time my brother was eight or nine he was already a jock and always at some stupid practice, so my grandmother and I were always together, alone.
She lived in small, dead-quiet second floor apartments in old houses in the town where we lived in western Massachusetts. I never saw her get mad. She was always in a mildly good mood, always happy to see me. Still, she wasn’t a cozy sort of grandmother. Our time together was spent as if we were two old women, having our meals, reading our books, watching our programs—60 Minutes, Columbo, Kojak, Match Game PM, The $25,000 Pyramid, Hollywood Squares. We played Jacks and Gin. At 8:30 we had a midnight snack of Canada Dry ginger ale and Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies. She had been born in British Columbia in 1907, and she had a colonial reserve and said tomato and potato with soft a’s. She drank Red Rose tea and Canadian Club whiskey and made potatoes and eggs together in a blue enamel pan. Her bookshelf contained Francis Moore Lappé and Adelle Davis paperbacks that she pulled out regularly and brown volumes of Rudyard Kipling that she never touched. She liked the newscaster David Brinkley. One time I told my mother I thought my grandmother looked like him and she told me not to tell her that but I did anyway. My grandmother seemed neither upset nor amused. She may have said “Is that so?” or “Maybe I do.”
My father is so much like his mother—easygoing, pleasant to be around, completely satisfied by mild comforts and routines, modest, measured. He was a superintendent of schools for thirty years and people were often mad at him, but he was rarely mad at them. One day a woman, a total stranger, called the house and screamed at him for ten minutes. He eventually cut her off, and before he hung up, he said “Thank you for calling.” Then he came into the living room and turned on the Celtics. “People tend to get very emotional about their children,” he observed, leaning back in his rocking chair and pouring ¾ of a bottle of Molson Ale into a glass. He gave the rest to my brother and me to split.
My parents came to my room in the middle of the night on my 8th birthday and told me that my grandma was dead. None of us cried. My parents weren’t crying because my grandmother had bone cancer and they were relieved she was no longer in pain. I wasn’t crying because they weren’t crying. But for a year or so after she died I would lie awake and think, the world is empty, there is nothing here, everyone is alone. I thought about outer space so hard I felt like it was screaming.
* * *
When I was little any time I had to fill in a family tree or talk about my grandparents I actually named my grandfather as Carl Miller and said that we didn’t know who or where he was. Since there was absolutely nothing else exciting about me I treasured this aspect of my identity. Whenever it came up I would pray to myself that they would ask me more.
“Your dad doesn’t know where his father is?”
“Isn’t that weird?”
“Has your dad ever even met him?”
“Does he care?”
This was perhaps the best part of it all. After my grandmother died we asked my dad if he wanted to find his father. “I don’t know,” he said. “Not really.”
We asked him a million more times and a million times he seemed uninterested. As a kid with two parents I lived with and who were married and who I saw every single day, I was both astonished and impressed that my father didn’t care who his father was. Our Carl Miller conversations were free of anguish—if anything, Carl Miller was a sort of family joke. We had a long driveway people liked to use for turning around, and once in a while, if a random car paused in front of the house my brother or I might say “Maybe it’s Carl Miller,” and one of my parents might respond, “Tell him we don’t have any money.” My mother might look out the window and say, “Nope. Too ugly.”
My mother always seemed much more interested in my father’s parentage than my father himself was, but she generally held back. But one night, when we were teenagers, she said something like, “Honestly Roland, you can’t tell me that you really don’t want to meet your father.”
My father exploded good naturedly. “For God’s sake,” he said. “I’m a grown man. Why would I want to meet him?”
My mother wanted to know if he was scared. I watched my father try really hard to see if underneath his feelings of not caring he might secretly care.
“Or maybe you feel like you’d be betraying your mother?” she asked.
He shrugged guiltily, a hapless expression on his face I know well which said: “I’m well aware that many people are often in extreme emotional anguish, and I’m sorry I am not one of those people, but not that sorry.” After a while he said, “I honestly don’t think about it that much. And I don’t think my mother did either.”
* * *
When I was about 30, my father and I went to Florida to visit my grandmother’s sister, Charlotte. My grandmother and father lived with Charlotte and her daughter during World War II and for a few years after. After a few vodkas Charlotte started crying and told my father that Carl Miller didn’t exist.
My father then admitted that a few years prior he had written to Northwestern and asked them about a student named Carl Miller who would have attended sometime in the 1920s or 30s or even closer to the turn of the century, and they told him no such person existed. He hadn’t told us, he said, because he had kind of forgotten about it.
“So where did she get the last name Miller?” I said.
“I don’t know,” my father said. “I guess she made it up.”
I thought this was seriously the most thrilling thing I had ever heard in my life. Not only did we not know who my father’s father was, our last name meant absolutely nothing. I thought about the number of times I had heard, “This means your ancestors milled flour or corn” and I had always been like “Yeah maybe” but mostly “What does that have to do with me?” Now I knew. Nothing. My last name had nothing to do with me.
Charlotte followed up later with some credible speculation that my father’s father was an old friend of my grandmother’s, someone my father knew well. This man had a daughter who was still alive. My mother told my father he should see if she would be willing to get a DNA test.
“I don’t want to bother anyone,” my father said, but I know the person he didn’t want to bother most was himself. Also, I’m sorry, that guy was a good guy—I knew him—but he looked like a turtle, and my dad looks like fucking Tab Hunter. I mean, I’m exaggerating, but let’s just say that unless that guy had some special reserve sperm, it’s not him.
The woman who might have been his half sister died a few years ago.
I don’t mean to suggest that my father never looked for his father because my grandmother was so perfect. It’s just that she was the sort of person who was all right with what was in front of her, and my father absorbed this. In order to want to meet his father my father would have had to have some moment where he paused to think about what was missing from his life, and I don’t think my father strings together a lot of those moments. To pursue this mystery, he would have really had to believe that finding out who his father was would make an impact on his day-to-day life, or would make him, somehow, a better husband, father, school superintendent, lawn mower, fish-catcher, tidier-of-sheds, head-shaking-watcher of PBS NewsHour. He keeps long lists on yellow legal pads, and while “write NW letter re: CM” made it onto that list once, it seems that “Find out who my father is” never did.
* * *
I suppose this could sound like some paean to my father, and I don’t really mean it to be. I have very mixed, often pleasant, but decidedly unworshipful feelings about my parents. I like them best when I feel a sort of indifference. Not to them as people, not to our relationship, but to the fact that we’re related. Yes they are the people who conceived me, yes my mother gave birth to me, but they are also just the people who happened to do this. We are matter that came very close to each other in orbit. Some might think it’s kind of cold to look at your parents like this. I think it’s cold that everyone walks around with the conceit that their family is special. Imagine a world where we did not all think that those closest to us were the most worthy of attention or pardon or praise. “I’m so proud of my family,” people are always saying, and I guess that’s not a bad thing, but what if you were proud of the people who lived across the street from you? What if you were proud of every resident of your town, what if I was proud of the homeless people who manage to put together their camps and set up their coolers and stoves in the woods behind my house?
When I was a teenager I told my father I felt distant from everyone in my family. “It’s not that I don’t love you,” I said. “I just don’t feel like I’m a part of things, but I also don’t mind.”
“I think that’s ok,” he said. “I think more people feel that way than care to admit it.” The fact that he didn’t say it hurt his feelings is one of the most loving gestures anyone has ever made on my behalf.
* * *
In my fantasy, the guy in whatever office in Baltimore my grandmother went to to change her name looked like one of those dudes in all those documentaries about how taking acid is actually good for you. He’s in worsted pants and a white shirt with a stained mandarin collar and round spectacles. I can’t picture my grandmother young so she is herself as I knew her, old, slowly dying, wearing the not particularly nice purple knit dress she always wore, but pregnant. “Smith? Jones?” she suggests, and the guy sitting behind the desk, says, “Too obvious. What about Miller?”
“Miller is fine,” my grandmother says, and then she goes to a bar and has one Manhattan and a dish of nuts.
I have heard exactly one story about my grandmother’s parenting of my father: When he was in first grade, he got in trouble for writing with his left hand. My grandmother went to the school and told his teacher never to say a word to my father about which hand he wrote with ever again.
I never saw a moment of sentimentality between my grandmother and my father and little explicit affection. They loved each other, but they had something that is even bigger than love. It was as if each of them were both the breather and the air. I have never been around a parent and a child who had less tension between them. The last name Miller says nothing about me, but if pressed I would say I appreciate the way it evokes a beautiful neutrality, and the way it reminds me that all of us could so easily have been someone else.
* * *
Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl. She writes essays and humor pieces about herself, feminism, wine, food, celebrities. She also writes poems but only about David Brooks. She lives in Nevada City, California. Find her on Twitter: @sarahlovescali.