by Kent Ballard
Sure, you’ve heard of “The Walking Dead.” You’ve probably also heard of “The Talking Dead,” unless you’ve been hiding in a drainage culvert for a few years. I have a different problem with the dead, and I can’t rid myself of them by popping them in the head with a crossbow. I’m besieged by the Annoying Dead. Thousands of them. Literally.
My wife got into genealogy a few years ago. She was dimly aware of some family spat over fifty years ago that caused one side of her family to split away from the rest. Most would consider that a blessing nowadays with the high cost of Christmas cards, but not her. Never one to let sleeping dogs lie, she began tracking them all down. From that it was a natural step into genealogy, I suppose, and within months she was figuratively digging up dead relatives everywhere in the county.
She’s traced them back to Europe, back through the centuries. I think Ancestry.com must have at least three Internet servers dedicated to her by now. They’ve actually made her an “arbiter.” When two researchers can’t agree on what ancient Uncle Clem’s third daughter’s second married name was, they hand all the information to one of their arbiters and they look at all the records and have the final say.
She began to research my relatives too, but I think she’s given that up as a bad job. Every so often she’d rush into the room and breathlessly announce that I was a direct descendant of King Richard III. “Oh great,” I’d say, “how much did he leave me?” At first it was difficult for her to accurately measure my lack of interest, which was total. “How’s old Dick doing these days? I haven’t heard from him for a while. Oh wait—he’s dead, isn’t he? Too bad, the old despot.” It was the same on the night she traced my ancestry to Charlemagne. I smiled widely and said, “Well, sure. I told you about me and Charley before. We used to get drunk and go swimming in rock quarries, bobbing for catfish.”
This may sound cruel, but believe me if it happened to you five or six times a week over a period of months you’d do the same or worse. For all I know she’s traced me back to Moses or Buddha and won’t tell me just for spite now. Or maybe she just became depressed finding so many horse thieves, gunslingers, and train robbers among my kin. Whatever, she seems to have stopped hunting down my side of the family.
Even so, she’d be beside herself with joy at finding one of her own lost relatives. “Honey, I found William Pratt!”
“Who the hell is William Pratt and what did you find him doing?”
She’d launch into some long tale about an old geezer who died before the Civil War. When she gave the date of his death, I’d look at her grimly and say, “He’s dead, Jim,” and go on about my business. Then, helpfully, I’d stick my head back into her office a few minutes later and ask, “1858? You say he died in 1858? Hmm…yeah, that makes sense. There was an epidemic of syphilis that swept through the Dakotas in ’58. Killed thousands of pioneers. That was before penicillin, you know…”
I never should have taught her how to cuss. Her language can be awful at times. That was a mistake on the same level as teaching my first wife how to shoot. Sometimes it’s advisable to think things through first.
She’s not into spiritualism or mediums or trying to contact the dead. That explains why I haven’t had her locked up. But otherwise she lives and breathes dead people. She knows stories from their lives. To her they’re not merely names in an old census report, or faded faces in ancient photographs or tin-types. I believe she could sit down with most of them and in ten minutes be talking merrily with them, swapping old family stories. That is, if they weren’t dead. I’d wonder about her mental health, hanging around all those family members who have joined the choir invisible, but I have my odd habits too. Running the pros and cons through my mind, I came to the conclusion that the strange things I do far outweigh her quirks and if anyone was to be taken away in a straight jacket, it’d be me. Best not to risk it.
But I’m serious about her hobby with the dead. She has collected birth and death dates, plus any information and available photos of gravestones, on eleven thousand, seven hundred and some odd of her relatives. She’s printing these into hand-bound books. The first one has 420 pages. She figures on making ten more before she finishes. I told her I didn’t think it was physically possible for one person to have that many relatives, but she just laughed. “Well, some are in-laws, some are children. Then there are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and their spouses…”
She’s traced tombstones through “Find-A-Grave.” I used to think that was just a kinky site for Elvis fans or old stoners who still believe Jim Morrison is alive. Nope. They have a large and active group of graveyard detectives scouting in every state. My wife has taken cameras and traveled an hour or so to different graveyards to photograph stones for people who have requested them. Go figure. If someone asked me to go a graveyard to take pictures I’d claim that I did but they all turned out black, just to freak them out.
I guess love allows us to simply get over another person’s odd habits. As long as she doesn’t start floating around the house, I can deal with her armies of the dead. She doesn’t complain when I can’t sleep and take an hour or two’s walk through the forest that surrounds our house in the middle of the night. Some folks might find that creepy, too. I’ve listened to her explain the importance of all her research several times. I still don’t understand it. She just does that. And I love her.
But…I will have my vengeance.
When I have ceased to be, when I have left this veil of tears, I’ve made arrangements to donate my skin and vital organs to anyone who can get some use out of them. That won’t leave much, and the remnants will be cremated. Out in our woods, there’s this certain hill, and on it this certain tree, and my final wish is to have my ashes scattered there. No tombstone, no marker of any kind.
My family has all agreed to this, but asked why? I told them if any of my descendants become genealogists, they’ll find plenty of records that I once existed, but they will all go mad looking for my gravestone.