Friday, January 04, 2008

Genealogical Meanderings

Some unexpected nugget passed through my glassy-eyed torpor last week, goosing an unsuspecting neuron or two. It was my own fault for not having my defenses up: I'd only been walking by when the lame pre-teen TV drama caught me in a weak moment, and I was standing there fazed for who-knows-how-long, hypnotized by the lullaby of its low-effort awfulness. My kids were no doubt likewise getting their noggins numbed, making room for instructions on what to consume.

I shook my own head, trying to regain my senses. My coffee, I realized, had gone cold some time ago. I registered giddy schoolgirls.

"Tom Higginson? How cool!"

Evidently, some distant cousin is a popular musician. (A popular musician! A popular musician!) Surprising to me, because I imagine it as the sort of name that you'd think a famous person would change his name from (but in Tom's case, I can see how no one would really expect "Hey There Delilah" to be such a hit). It's the sort of name that is just rare enough that your ears perk when someone else utters it, but not so unusual that it presents any phonetic challenges. (Or so you'd think. About half the people I meet read it as a Higgins--which is considerably further up in the collective consciousness, but regrettably calls to mind either insufferable English pedants, or insufferable English servants. The other half think there must be any number of Es in it.) But more than being somewhat distinctive, it's a little conspicuous. It bubbles up comically out of the throat with a couple too many syllables for those hard Gs. There's definitely a giggle in it, and there will always be some joker in the group that can't resist offering up a playful version, which usually sticks. My wife still hasn't forgiven me for making her a Higgy.

I know little about our particular line, but the family name already seems to have been decently mongrelized before it ever came to America. My grandfather was Irish (great big pumpkin head and everything), but if it's an Irish name, it evidently means "descended from Vikings" (talk about your lethal injections) with the patronymic then applied in an English fashion. But it's more likely from the big island in the first place, one of a zillion medieval diminutives of Richard. (Maybe they meant descended from the Saxons?) According to certain purveyors of genealogical kitsch, a line of Higginsons showed up in the county Sligo "in the old times," and according to a less dodgy source, they've been haunting northern Ireland since at least in the fifteenth century, imports from everyone's favorite neighbor.

I asked my father when the clan made the trip over the Atlantic, and he answered "during the famine" in a way that made me feel dumb for asking. In order for this to be true, my great-grandparents would need to have been at least 50 years old when my grandfather was conceived in the States. I understand that they had children late, but even if you stretch the math, it wouldn't really jibe with my favorite family story (indeed one of the very few I know), in which my great-granddad met and fell in love with a woman on the other side of the line ("Dad, I don't think there was a line in 1850"), or at least across the sectarian divisions floating around Ulster, got married, and then got the hell out of the country. Quite probably there's a missing generation (or some other error) in there, and it was hard enough to pry that piece from my grandfather, who didn't associate with his relatives. Like many of his generation that lived as children through the Depression, he ended up bitter and eccentric. Of the 150 or so Higginsons that came to Ellis Island in the 19th century, about 40% were from Ireland. I did find one with my great-(great?-)grandfathers name, in the alleged time frame. Maybe it's him.

I probably come out "English" by means of percentage, but those ancestral Brits on both sides are really all old Yankee families, back from when Great Britain was in the habit of exporting the Puritans along with all of their interesting people. (The direct line from minor American revolutionaries involves a runaway's re-emergence in another state, which didn't quite satisfy the imperious DAR hags when a cousin was interested in her status.) It's seasoned here and there with more recent immigrant stock, the aforementioned Irish being the most prominent, but I'm an octoroon Swede too (that one's too recent an addition to be violent), and the same fraction German (the timing of which could actually work). I don't feel a claim to any of it, really.

Google puts the lie to any claims of a scarcity of Higgies. There are a number of prominent ones out there. In addition to cousin Tom ("Can I call you cousin? No? Too bad."), there's an athlete, an actress, an important civil engineer, and a chef, these last two sharing my first name (the former sadly died this June). There's a retailer of industrial products, and (aptly enough) a publisher of genealogical histories. There's even a (perhaps even more aptly) Higginson enema. No shit!

Historically, Higginsons have become British military dinosaurs and royal family suckups (yuck), among the original witch hunters in Salem MA (even worse), and philanthropists (hey, what about family?). I've no idea if any of these people are my relations, but I like to imagine my father's forehead and jaw on Thomas Wentworth, who can safely be called the most famous holder of the surname. He was a minister and writer who came to the radical conclusion in the nineteenth century that there was no moral excuse to offer blacks and women anything less than full equality and opportunity in society. He put these beliefs to test, leading an (otherwise) all-black regiment in the Civil War, and preaching and publishing and corresponding in impressive volume. He's probably most well known for discovering and publishing Emily Dickinson. We're almost certainly unrelated, but if I had a son, I'd have lobbied to call him Tom, and certainly not after the pop star.

There are, I've read, more people alive today than have ever lived. I suppose that means there are more Higgies than ever too. You see them everywhere once you start looking, and that's no doubt the case for anyone who likes to pretend they have an obscure appellation. It's kind of a trip posting under my own name here, and if I worry a little about nutters taking an undue interest in me (which admittedly is a remote possibility in my professional life too), it's also satisfying to have a crack at knocking "Keith Higginson Financial Services" off the top of the Google results page. All of that information at our collective fingertips, and it's as impossible to break out of anonymity as ever. Thank god.

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