We’ve been much too serious in observing the world from our lofty perch recently and some circumstances have reminded us that life shouldn’t be lived by frowning at others. At least not all the time. So we thought we’d share something that began with a recent telephone call.
We heard from somebody we didn’t know a few days ago who, for some reason or another, started doing some genealogical research on our family. It’s okay, we guess. Everybody needs a hobby and if they’re a genealogist and they’ve tracked their own families back to the people who drew horses on cave walls in France, they need to find somebody else’s family to occupy their time. Not that this was the case with this person, but my family for some reason had become an attractive matter for study and by using various genealogical sites on the internet, this person had gone back several generations—-although (and this happens sometimes with internet genealogy where bunches of people contribute to what they think are their family lines) the chart being developed was traveling down some wrong tracks.
As it happened, one of our own family members had set out on the same voyage some years ago and seemed to be headed in the right direction. Until she ran into a circumstance where the family lines started to resemble the famous Cawker City World’s Largest Ball of Twine. Following the threads became almost impossible. We recall Aunt Mavis telling about it one day. She had heard it from her Aunt Florence when she was younger. Aunt Mavis was well up in years when she told it to us and was talking about a few generations back when one line of the family lived in Pennsylvania, probably a little bit after the Civil War. As near as we can recall—because we’re up in years now ourself—this is what she said, or something like it.
“You have to remember this was back in the days and in a part of the country where some people got started young in the family-making business. But not Uncle Irv. He was about thirty, I guess, and for some reason had never gotten married when he met this widow lady named Bessie. Bessie probably was pushing forty. She’d gotten married when she was fourteen or so and she popped out a kid not too long after that, just before her husband died in a coal mining accident, you know, so the daughter wasn’t much younger than Uncle Irv. But Irv had eyes only for Bessie, not June, and they got married and started a family of their own.
“Now, Uncle Irv’s daddy, Martin, was still alive and he was only a little older than Bessie and when Irv and Bessie started sparkin’, Martin started looking at June, who was in her twenties by now, and they started to hit it off and the next thing you know, Martin married June! Martin had a pretty successful general store, so he offered his younger bride some financial security, which was important because June, she was kinda plain anyway and didn’t want to be a spinster, so she decided she better jump the first broom that came her way and Martin was the first guy who offered her a broom.
“And this is why you’re having so much trouble trying to put together your family tree—because all of this meant that Martin had become his own son’s son-in-law by marrying his son’s daughter-by-marriage. But that also meant that Irv’s father’s wife had become Irv’s mother, also by marriage! In other words, Irv’s daughter was now his mother because she married his father.
“You realize, of course, that there’s a lot of “steps” in that arrangement. Step-mother, Step-father, step-daughter, but it’s easier to explain this mess if we don’t get all tangled up in the “step” stuff or in the “by marriage” stuff.
“Well, as nature ran its course, Irv and Bessie had a boy they named Charles (and with this, she paused for a few minutes while she made sure she had all the information straight in her own mind). And that made Charles–let me make sure I have this right–Martin’s brother-in-law and also Irv’s uncle in addition to being his son.
“Now, that also made Charles a brother of June, who was the daughter of Bessie, who was Irv’s mother because she was the mother of Irv’s father’s wife.
“Now it gets a little complicated (she said this with a bit of a smile) because June and Martin had their own son, Lemuel—we called him Lem. And that boy therefore became Irv’s grandson because he was the son of Irv’s daughter, June.
“Okay, now let me work this out. Bessie, who was Irv’s wife, became the mother of Irv’s mother who was the wife of Irv’s father which made Bessie Irv’s grandmother. But as the husband of his grandmother, he therefore also was his own grandfather!
“And it was all legal.
“But that’s where the family tree turns into a swamp Cypress.”
Now comes the time when we have to tell you, as they say in the movies, this story was “inspired by some actual events.” That’s Hollywood-ese for saying, “One or two things in this story might be related to something that might actually have happened but most of what you see is made up.”
Someone did call the other day about researching the family tree and she was off on some wrong tracks. And we are familiar with the Cawker City ball of twine—my father was unable to keep the A&P Store open there during the days of the Dust Bowl and the Depression many years before Frank Stoeber started forming leftover baling twine into a ball, and we’ve visited the ball a few times. I did have an Aunt Mavis but the rest of the folks were part of the “inspired by” thing.
The story of Irv, Bessie, Charles, June, Martin, and Lem is an old one that goes back at least as far as a London newspaper in the 1820s. We were inspired to relate it because we were listening to the “Radio Classics” satellite channel the other day and heard Phil Harris sing one of his hit songs from the 1940s, “He’s his own Grandpa.” It was a cover recording of a Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe country song recorded for the first time by Lonzo and Oscar, the country music duo of Lloyd George and Rollin Sullivan, in 1947. The song, “I’m my own Grandpa,” remains a staple of country music. Even Willie Nelson has recorded it.
Here’s Lonzo and Oscar on the Grand Ole Opry performing it:
And here are the lyrics to Phil Harris’ version (from an internet site of Phil Harris lyrics):
I met a guy today I knew years ago, when he was 23, And he was married to a widow who was as pretty as could be. Now this widow had a grown-up daughter who had beautiful hair of red, And this guy’s father fell in love with her and soon the two were wed.
Now this made the guy’s dad his son-in-law and changed his very life For his daughter was his mother because she was his father’s wife. Now to complicate the matter even though it brought him joy, He soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy.
Now his little baby then became a brother-in-law to his dad, And so became his uncle and though that made him very sad, For if the baby was his uncle then that also made him brother, Of the widow’s grown-up daughter who was of course his step-mother
[chorus] (He’s his own grandpa) Now you’re catching on. (He’s his own grandpa) Well naturally! It sounds funny I know, but really its so. (He’s his own grandpa) Well wait a minute, get a load of this!
Now his father’s wife had a son who kept them on the run, So he became his grandchild for he was his daughter’s son. His wife is now his mother’s mother and of course that makes him blue Because although she’s his wife she’s his grandmother too!
(He’s his own grandpa) Fun in the living room (He’s his own grandpa) Absolutely! It sounds funny i know, but really it’s so. (He’s his own grandpa) Yea, but look, get the payoff.
Now his wife is his grandmother, then he is her grandchild. And every time the guy thinks of it, it nearly drives him wild! For now he has become the strangest case you ever saw, As husband of his grandmother, he’s his own grandpa!
(He’s his own grandpa) And loving every minute! (He’s his own grandpa) Oh tell me more! It sounds funny I know, but really it’s so, He’s his own grandpa. He’s his own grandpa!
And THAT, my friend, is a real example of the badly-abused phrase “traditional family values.”