That Old, Familial Itch
Who do you think you are?
I’m not trying to pick a fight. I’m just naming my new
favorite TV show.
I can’t believe it took so long for TV Land to tap into
the genealogy craze. I know all about this, from my time at the Bath County
Historical Society. Believe me, it’s a wonderful, warm feeling when you can
place in someone’s hands the very leads that will unlock the secrets of
Throughout the spring, summer and fall, in they would
stream — their eyes hopeful, lugging bags loaded with notebooks and scraps
of yellowed paper.
The “spirits” were always busy at work in our research
library and museum. Once, they managed to lure two sets of relatives, who’d
never heard of each other, into the building at the same time. I could write
a whole column about the spirits at the historical society. Maybe I will one
day, since many of you may already think I’m loony.
“Who Do You Think You Are?” — the TV show — chose
celebrities we’ve all heard of to kick off their first series of shows.
Sarah Jessica Parker discovered a link to the California Gold Rush, and then
to the Salem witch trials. Emmitt Smith ran up against the traditional wall
that African-Americans encounter while looking for their roots, and then
barged through it like the football hero he is. Lisa Kudrow found herself
thrust into a haunted concentration camp in Europe.
The truth is, they didn’t need celebrities to capture the
attention of much of America. How many of you are looking for your
ancestors? How many of you have discovered fascinating stories, or links to
historic events? I’d venture to guess that most of you have.
Here’s my own story. I love tramping through cemeteries.
One early spring day, I was hunting around one, looking for some info for a
feature article I was writing. I couldn’t quite read what was etched in one
tombstone, so I lay flat on the ground and rubbed my fingers over it, to
figure it out.
While doing this, I bemoaned the fact that I knew more
about many people’s ancestors than I did about my own. I knew who my
grandparents were, and that was that. It made me sad.
Later that night, I was overcome with a sort of madness.
My mother and I were driving to Maryland to see my great aunt and suddenly,
my arms and abdomen began to itch in an all-encompassing way. I scratched
and dug at myself. Red bumps were everywhere.
“What in the world is the matter with me?” I wailed.
Mom asked what I’d been doing, and when I told her, she
said, matter-of-factly, “You’ve got chiggers.” Ick.
We spent the night at Aunt Margaret’s. I was sleeping in
the attic bedroom, thinking about the cemetery. Suddenly, my eyes fell upon
a pile of boxes under the eaves. One was labeled “Margaret’s family.”
I crept over and opened up a treasure trove. Inside were
lots of old photographs of relatives who hadn’t lived long enough for me to
know them. I finally got a gander at my great-great-grandfather, Aloysius
Dent Jarboe. He looked like a fun guy. Also there,
neatly delineated, was a list of 14 generations of my mother’s family. In
about an hour, I went from knowing nothing about my heritage, to learning I
was descended from Col. John Jarboe, born in Dijon, France, in 1619. He came
to Virginia in 1642 and hiked his way through the new world to St. Mary’s
County, Md., where he settled, became the sheriff, and raised a family. My family. They
lived at Long Lane Farm, overlooking the Patuxent River. There’s a naval air
station on the old place now.
I was elated! I learned the story of Joseph Jarboe, a
Catholic priest during the Civil War. He was captured by Yankees, giving
Last Rites to dying soldiers on a battlefield. He was sentenced to be
hanged. Just as Joseph was heading to the gallows, who should ride up but
Gen. Phil Sheridan. The general, one of Father Jarboe’s former altar boys,
ordered him released and then embraced him. Surely the spirits were at work
I was scratching absent-mindedly while I pored through the
papers. “Darn those chiggers!” I muttered. And then it hit me. The spirits
in that cemetery were listening. They knew I was itching to find my past,
and they kindly obliged.