Family riddle

“Eathrie Athrie Tongue Peterie Tongue Peter Mary Hera Yoke and Thunder Thump Suria Mike Dove Jahrs Miller Alerandu Burnett.”

I wonder if every family has never-to-be solved riddles. This riddle involves my maternal great-grandfather, the name he was supposedly christened with, “the much discussed name” in the words of my grandmother. I have never heard of anything else remotely resembling this.

He died before I was born. His aged, bitter widow lived with my grandparents, my mother and me until the end of the Second World War. My grandmother was a dutiful daughter, but harbored old hatreds. It was her father she loved without reservation, and invested with mysterious, romantic and possibly royal antecedents from the old country.

She was a consummate story-teller, my grandmother. Images of my great grandfather were engraved vividly on my young mind. She was always going to write the book. I believed her. But she never did. Hell to Answer: That’s the way I heard it as a young boy and always thought of it after she corrected me: Held to Answer, as in “who shall be held to answer?”

I never understood what they might be held to answer for. But I understood the mysterious origins of my great-grandfather would feature prominently. As my unsupported memory pieces it together all these years later, the story is that as a child my great-grandfather came to the U.S. from one of the independent German states, love-brat of a minor German noble and English “lady-in-waiting.” He adopted the English surname of his mother and they were supported financially from abroad, apparently in relative comfort.

My grandmother never said why he wound up in Georgia. Georgia was the center of my young universe and it seemed all roads led to Georgia. He courted and married a daughter of the Wheelers in the aftermath of the Civil War. My grandmother assured me the Wheelers were Southern gentry, with at least one brave general who wore the butternut.

My grandmother was born in 1902, their seventh daughter, as had been her mother before her. According to ancient superstition, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter was invested with prophetic and other witching powers, but that’s another story. There were also seven brothers. Not all of hers siblings survived into the twentieth century, fairly typical of big families back then.

Her father was well-to-do, as they used to say, and supported the vast family comfortably as a general building contractor.. Her mother of course did not work. Some convulsion of the economy destroyed his business. It would be easy to assume it was the Wall Street debacle, but I don’t know. My grandmother and her next-older sister were flappers in the Roaring Twenties by her account, dancing the Charleston and all that, unworried about money. There were plenty of national convulsions in her youth. The First World War, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the Depression.

But her most poignant recollections were of the dissolution of her beloved father. After he lost his money, he worked as a house painter to support the family and trained his surviving sons in the trade. They made do, but his wife was ashamed of their changed circumstance. He also ran a trot line on the Savannah River, subsistence fishing, and my grandmother recalled going with him to row the boat. She thought it was an adventure and was proud of her strength on the oars.

Her father had always been a gambler who frequented the gambling emporia of the times, including card rooms on the Katy, a paddle-wheel steamer plying the Savannah River between Augusta and Savannah. He didn’t stop gambling when he was a house-painter. He would play Solitaire against the house. My grandmother said you paid one dollar for each card, $52, and won $5 for every card you put up. His wife considered gambling low-class no matter how many groceries his wins brought home.

One of my grandmother’s most vivid recalls was her father sorting out piles of crumpled bills, washing them in the sink and hanging them to dry in the kitchen. My older brain says this resembles winnings from a floating crap game more than money from an established gambling house so maybe he didn’t tell his doting daughter everything. But his gambling proceeds kept them going.

He cried openly in front of his daughter the night Prohibition went in. He had been a heavy drinker since he started painting houses, and loss of a ready liquor supply unnerved him. My grandmother said the lead in the house paint created a terrible thirst among house-painters. Rationalization? I didn’t know such words then. Nor did I wonder if his drinking was triggered by his lost status and antagonistic wife. (My grandmother was proud even of his drinking ability, saying he drank enough to float the Katy to Savannah.)

But Prohibition killed him, she said bitterly. He drank “bath-tub gin” distilled through lead-lined pipes. He succumbed to a form of paralysis over most of his body that sounds like a stroke, probably induced by lead-poisoning. She had to do all the rowing then, and tend the trot-lines, though he insisted she help him into the boat. He died not long after.

Before his disability, he visited one final outrage on his long-suffering wife, who strove mightily to keep up genteel appearances. She was hosting a ladies’ tea one afternoon when he came in so seriously drunk he was afraid his bladder would not last to get out back. So he unhitched his trousers and urinated in the parlor fireplace right in front of the shocked women. My grandmother said, with some satisfaction, that was the end for her mother “putting on airs.”

A simply told tale, the parabola of a single life in these United States. But his origins remained clouded by the mystery of that incredible name, opaque as the gaze he directed at an ancient camera in his only surviving portrait. On the reverse of the browning, stained paper, still easily legible thanks to the quality of old-time fountain-pen ink, the entire christening name is spelled carefully in my grandmother’s penmanship. I have a suspicion — that’s all — that some of the names are her attempt to sound out unfamiliar words.

“Eathrie Athrie Tongue Peterie Tongue Peter Mary Hera Yoke and Thunder Thump Suria Mike Dove Jahrs Miller Alerandu Burnett.”

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Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.