Links to the Past…a New Perspective

“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also

true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination

is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”

Henry Miller


This week’s installment…which should have actually been posted over a week ago…has been a difficult one to get down on paper…my thoughts are… every…where. So I thought I’d start with Mr. Miller. I came across this quote a few weeks back and it stuck with me. I’ve never really been a Henry Miller devotee; I’ve picked up and put down Tropic of Cancer countless times, but hey, you’ve got to love a writer who keeps on writing even when his books are banned.


I mentioned previously that my family—my ancestors—made a habit of “arriving and departing” as they crossed our nation, as I put it, like one hulking mass of kudzu. (A description my mother did not like by the way.) In my search for roots and a sense of belonging…belonging to some particular place…I’ve found I’ve already gained a new perspective. With each new discovery…with each new story of an ancestor I never knew existed…I do become a bit more “eternally anchored”…part of one big long linked chain.


So…I’ve opened this door…and oh my, well, once you do that, any number of things can come through…and have. I am a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information coming my way.


When your perspective starts to change, so to must the stories you tell yourself. What is the story you tell to others? The story of you? For me living on the east coast, my story made me a bit different: born in 1960’s Los Angeles to mid-Western parents whose expectations were more or less a “get good grades in school, go to college, and be happy” sort of ideal. Southern California in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s always seemed to me the sort of place people went to live the life they always thought they wanted, leaving behind family pressures and expectations in the states they’d moved from. One result of this was that the married couples who’d escaped together often ended up getting divorced…once free…they wanted to escape each other as well. My mother told me that in my Brownie troop I was the only girl whose parents weren’t divorced. Even at a young age I sensed the relief of that escape…from family traditions and expectations…of wanting to create a whole new story for yourself.


It was eye-opening to me in later years when I learned of the family pressures put upon some of my east coast friends… to leave public high school for a private school education, to attend Ivy League schools or join particular clubs, to dress a certain way, or even to date from a small pre-approved pool of candidates. In college I had a friend who was tormented by the fact that her mother would only allow her to get a teaching degree—a proper pursuit for a young woman in her family. This friend was also quite proud to let everyone know she was on the Social Register. And later, while working as a development director, raising funds for major Philadelphia institutions, I got to know a few ladies of a certain social stature. This usually entailed event planning, whereby there was a committee of important people, and my job was to make their ideas a reality (on a budget no less). “Dear, this is how it’s always been done…” was the response I most often heard when, silly me, I’d question why we needed to do something a certain way. The ladies were always happy to teach me the correct way. The way they were taught by their mothers, and grandmothers, and great-grandmothers…in one long chain of propriety.


Several years back I was invited to join a private ladies club in town. It’s one of those clubs where you are proposed for membership and other members have to write letters of recommendation, then you are invited to lunch to meet more members before a particular committee discusses your worthiness. My friend who was on the membership committee at the time explained to me that I was classified as an “unknown”… sure they liked me, but who was I? Who was my family? What were my connections? This club, like many other private clubs with waning membership, needed to decide what to do when there’s no family legacy to determine one’s value. (Despite my lack of “family”…I was asked to become a member, and did, but after all was said and done I realized the club wasn’t the best fit for me. Well, it’s nice to be asked at any rate right?)


When it comes down to it, what I tell myself is that while I’ve always appreciated the traditions and yes, even some of the old school formalities of these long established institutions…underneath I am always thankful that this was not the world I was raised in.


There is another private club in town that I joined and actually became an active member of. The Franklin Inn Club operates in the same sort of manner…with letters of recommendation and the like…but this one is…different. A bit irreverent perhaps. Quirky certainly. It’s a sort of literary club and at one time you had to be a published author to become a member. Luckily for me, that isn’t the case today, but it was my motivation for joining. The bookcases are filled with a hundred years of Philadelphia writers. I wanted to surround myself with writers both past and present. It has certainly provided great inspiration for my own writing. And at the long scarred wooden tables in the dining room we discuss all the things you are told not to bring up in proper society…politics and religion are especially popular topics. We have a fairly decent range of views, although admittedly we lean farther left than right, but that balance can shift at any time. You are guaranteed at minimum one bowtie sighting per visit.


It was at the Franklin Inn last Friday night that I had the occasion to visit with my friend Martin Burke. Marty, an esteemed historian who specializes in Irish and American history among other subjects, had just presented a talk on the Careys, a Philadelphia publishing family. While at dinner I took the opportunity to ask Marty some questions about my family research. I was looking for further perspective into the actions of my Scotch-Irish ancestors and this notion of “Orange Irish” that I had been pondering. Earlier in the week, another friend who is a professional genealogist, shared with me that she’d come across information that noted St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Philadelphia prior to the American Revolution. This made me feel a bit more confident in the idea that the McGuffin clan (who I discussed in my “Wearing of the Orange” post) had always worn orange to celebrate the day. Marty however dismissed this notion telling me that the Scotts would not have been so keen on celebrating William of Orange—an Englishman—by wearing his color. According to Marty, it wasn’t until much later, following the surge of Irish immigration after the 1840 potato famine, that the distinction between green & orange, Catholic & Protestant…became important. It seems that those early (Protestant) Ulster Irish immigrants, the ones who had arrived in the British colonies, wanted to distinguish themselves from the predominantly Catholic and largely destitute new wave of Irish immigrants in America. Thus the use of “Scotch-Irish” became popular. Likewise, by this time there was less variation among the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists…they were all Protestant, not Catholic…and the color orange could be adopted by all denominations.


Certainly, this explanation would make sense for my great-great-grandfather Preston Robertson McGuffin, who came of age during this time period. He would have been proud to call himself Scotch-Irish and wear the color orange to distinguish himself as being from a long standing Protestant (and patriotic American) family. But what still has me perplexed about this great-great-grandfather is the name he chose for his third child (and first son)…Charles Cromwell McGuffin. When I told Marty of the “Cromwell” name he laughed and said it was a bold move. At first I focused on the middle name, but now that I think of it…Charles…and…Cromwell? Didn’t Oliver Cromwell get Charles I beheaded? Cromwell didn’t believe in a monarchy…but he didn’t much like the Scottish Presbyterians either. It seems he disliked the Irish Catholics most of all. What was Preston McGuffin thinking naming his son Cromwell? Was it a political statement?


When I told Marty that the mother of said Charles Cromwell was named Elizabeth Jane Briscoe he laughed even more. According to him Briscoe is a big Irish name…Irish Catholic. This notion didn’t feel correct to me as the Briscoe family I had so far uncovered all seemed to come from a place called Crofton Hall in the Cumberland region of England. Dr. John Briscoe, I told Marty, came over from England with Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. The family helped settle St. Mary’s City. Well that explains it he said…Lord Baltimore was a Catholic. Somehow this was a fact I’d missed or long forgotten from high school history class. Yes indeed, Calvert had arranged to establish Maryland as a refuge for English Catholics. Okay, so maybe I do have some Irish Catholic ancestry after all?


After our dinner conversation I read up a bit on Calvert and the founding of Maryland. I read that Lord Baltimore actually lost his colony during the time that Cromwell was in control in England. If Elizabeth Briscoe McGuffin was descended from English Catholics that founded Maryland, would she really allow her husband to name their child after Cromwell? I read a bit more and found mention that not every settler that arrived with Baltimore was actually Catholic. Calvert believed in tolerance so he allowed some Protestants onboard as well. I dug a bit deeper to see if I could figure out Dr. John Briscoe’s religion. Three facts lead me to believe that there really is no question that he was Anglican—Church of England. First, the Briscoe family that remained at Crofton Hall funded (in later years) the local church, St. Andrew’s which is Church of England. John’s wife, whom I believe he married prior to leaving England, was a woman named Elizabeth DuBois. With a bit more digging I found that the DuBois family was considered minor French nobility who lost their titles and left France because they were Huguenots…Protestants who were not allowed to freely practice their religion. Elizabeth’s brother lost his title because he didn’t agree with Catholicism…would she really go and marry one after all that? And while I could not yet locate the burial records for John and Elizabeth, I did find that their son was buried at Trinity Parish in St. Mary’s City…the earliest Anglican parish in Maryland.


I was still curious about this notion that the Briscoe family name is Irish. It’s fairly easy to find information about the Briscoe family…there are several infamous Briscoe descendents (which I will touch on at a later date)…important enough that people felt the need to dig into their heritage and publish it. It appears that the Crofton Briscoes as they are known came to England on behalf of William the Conqueror. One account has Robert de Brisgau of Brisgau in Swabia bringing 100 lancers to join in the battle for England. Another branch of this tree did indeed immigrate to Ireland at some point, founding a big clan of Irish Briscoes. My branch, however, stayed firmly in the Cumberland area of England and acquired more and more land.


The stories that are starting to reveal themselves have to do with the great lengths my ancestors went through for opportunities… to own land, to worship according to their individual beliefs, to create a new way of doing things…they would cross continents and seas. A particular line I have not yet talked about is hard-core Scottish…with solid and long roots intertwined in the legacy of Scottish Independence. When I realized I came from this long line of fierce battle-to-the-death warriors, I said to my mom…don’t you just wish you knew that sooner in your life? When she asked why I told her… well when someone pisses you off or tells you “no”…you can just say f*ck you…you don’t know where I come from. She agreed. It’s nice to know what you’re made of. It really does change your self-perspective.


Last night, I went with my friend Jenny to see a play at the Wilma Theatre here in town, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class. I didn’t know anything about the play beforehand. But as the universe always seems to do, before me was a story that deals with the exact things I was thinking and writing about just before I walked out the door and over to the theater. What do we inherit from our families on a biological level? What are the family traits that we carry through the generations without ever realizing we are doing so? The father in the story references his Scotch-Irish ancestry when he hears his daughter has been jailed for causing mayhem, proudly indicating to his wife that their daughter gets her fierce nature from his side of the family. This notion of what is carried in the blood…and passed down from parent to child…is a major theme. Are we cursed with what we’ve inherited?


I found it interesting to learn the playwright spent his early years in Southern California and that the location for this play is also Southern California (circa 1960). The family, trying to live the American Dream has gone as far west as they could…there is literally no place left for them to go to seek out further opportunity…the mother hopes to take a vacation in Europe…”everything will be different there” she tells her son.  The playbill contained a quote from The Cambridge Companion on Sam Shepard which summarizes nicely some of what I touched on earlier:


“There is no escape from the family. And it almost seems like the whole willfulness of the sixties was to break away from the family… We were all independent…we were somehow spinning out there in the world without any connection whatsoever…Which is ridiculous…you could be the most outcast orphan and yet you are still inevitably connected to this chain. I’m interested in the family’s biological connections and how those patterns of behavior are passed on. In a way it’s endless, there’s no real bottom to it.”


But if we carry this biology…this literal DNA connection with all those endless ancestors who have come before us…I am left to wonder do we then also carry the weight of our entire ancestral experience with us? Should we?


One thought on “Links to the Past…a New Perspective

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  1. I’m learning so much about our ancestors from you. They are taking on flesh and not just names. I can’t thank you enough.


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