Even the most fractured families have family lore, stories handed down through generations. These stories are told and re-told when the tribe gathers. The lost sheep tend to be the ones who loom largest in family legend. They are the ones most likely to end up in a memoir or as the model for a character in a novel. The less you know about them, the more interesting they become.
Legend has it that my grandfather Fernen Edward Matheson ran away from home when he was sixteen. All he would say was that he came from Chicago. He refused to tell anyone who his parents were; not his children; not his wife. That’s how the story goes.
The dramatic possibilities are endless. Perhaps his parents were murdering thieves and shielding his family from them was a kindness. From other stories I’ve heard kindness was not in his character. Maybe he was the black sheep of a wealthy family.
“Your aunt hired a detective to look for his family,” my mother told me. “She wrote letters to Mathesons in Chicago. She got back one letter that said: We don’t know him. Don’t ever write back.” Doesn’t that sound like someone who doesn’t want to split an inheritance?
What the storytellers didn’t figure on was the internet. This week I plugged my grandfather’s name into Ancestry.com and up came his death certificate. Listed on the death certificate were his parents’ names. They were John Edward Matheson and Edith Kilbourne.