Night of the Living Dead Relatives

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 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.


First, I want to thank Rawrahs for covering last week and writing a damn interesting essay in a manner only he could do.  Much appreciated.  And of course, thanks for the nice things you wrote about Sue and me.

A whole lot has happened since my last post so I’m going to land on a few of the things that caught my attention and actually stayed in my head.

First, of course, was Sandy, which crushed New York and New Jersey and wreaked havoc for a swatch of about a thousand miles.  I hope none of you who read this have suffered serious losses, but my heart is with you if you have.  My friend Bruce Turkel, who I’ve mentioned before, posted a list of places to donate for any of you want to pitch in.

What struck me other than Sandy’s devastating impact were the acts of kindness displayed throughout the storm.  We are a nation strongly divided along fundamental issues that play out politically, but New Jersey Governor James “Chris” Christie said, and I paraphrase, “We don’t need no steenkin’ politics here.  We got an emergency!”  The caring and assistance folks have given each other, friend or stranger, speaks to something significant about our people.

Also, the Federal Government showed that it had learned from past mistakes and or incompetence (see Katrina) which re-enforces my notion that government is capable of change and has the potential for helping those in need.  People who want to castrate government really need to turn this horror into a learning experience.  Without the federal government working hand in hand with states, many more lives would have been lost or ruined with little or no chance of recovery.

And finally, it actually seems as if climate change is back on the table.

On a much more joyous note, last Sunday brought me together with many friends and family who helped celebrate Sue’s and my marriage.  It was a great night, at a great place, with great people.  Thank you.  I know the out-of-towners were staring Sandy in the face and I just want you to know how much we appreciate your chancing it.  And how much we appreciated the loving emails, letters, and Facebook comments.  It all turned the night into our finest.

On the campaign front, is it too much to ask that politicians’ ads be fact-checked before they’re aired?  After all, it takes about three minutes for people on the Internet to put out the truth after the ads have been seen.  Why can’t both state and federal election commissions do it first?  If we can’t keep astronomical money out of our politics (two billion dollars and counting, thanks Citizens United), can we at least try to control the outright lying?

I ain’t gonna hold my breath.

Despite all that’s been going on, there was still a bit of time to turn my attention to popular culture. (I Want My MTV!!!)

Tonight is the last night of Anthony Bourdain’s television show, No Reservations, on the Travel Channel.  Bourdain first made a splash with his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, a back scene look at how restaurants–and especially their kitchens–operate.  A chef himself, Bourdain chronicled little known aspects–the sociology if you will–of the business with a keen eye and superior writing.

He brought those same skills to nine seasons of traveling around the world to famous and little known countries.  Ostensibly, his show was about the different foods in the countries or areas he visited.  It was–but also about far more.  Bourdain’s spotlight on each region extended way beyond food, digging in to the different cultures and the reasons behind them.  It was always a breath of television fresh air to listen to his script given his talent as a writer.  No Reservations will be missed.

And speaking about television fresh air, I still can’t say enough about Showtime’s Homeland, based upon the Israeli series Hatufim (English translation: Prisoners of War). I’ve written about this show before, but the second season maintains and perhaps surpasses the last.  This isn’t blood and guts tv with violence seeping out of every scene. This is an hour where the story and character interactions keep your ass on the edge of your seat with its twists, turns, and tension.  Claire Danes is simply terrific in her role as a driven, obsessed C.I.A. agent and Damian Lewis right there as a returned prisoner of war after eight years of captivity.  No surprise to me that the show, Danes, and Lewis all won Emmys because they sure as hell deserved them.  If you have Showtime and On Demand, you can watch the beginning of the series until the present.  Absolutely worth the time.

Finally, I’d like to again thank everyone for all their wonderful comments about Sue and our marriage.  We felt the love.  And I got the girl!!

“We are continually faced with great opportunities which are brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.” Margaret Mead

Forever Yours

Those of you who either read or have read my posts know that my nickname isn’t Mr. Sweet.  I’m far better known for my cynicism than optimism.  But this week I’m taking a time out from my usual attitude.  After all, my oldest son is getting married to someone wonderful this spring.  And I thought it might be cool to interview the daughter of one of my best friends, who is getting married this week.  I’ve known her for a very long time and I also know her intended so this chat was pretty enjoyable.

ZK:  “You’re days away from marrying Rich.  I gotta ask, do you have any doubts or fears about being with him, hopefully for the rest of your life?”

Rachel:  “It’s funny, I did have those fears, but after we got engaged, they basically vanished and I haven’t felt them since.”

ZK:  “Even with the wedding looming?”

Rachel:  “Truthfully, none at all.  I really love Rich and I know he really loves me and that’s no different days before marriage than it was months and months and months ago.

ZK:   “So what is going through your mind these days?”

Rachel.  “I’m having feelings I don’t think I’ve ever had before in my life.  It’s like a combination of every imaginable feeling all mushed together.”

ZK:  “Do any particular ones stand out?”

Rachel:  “Probably the mix of extreme excitement and being anxious for the day to finally arrive.  For me the pressure is totally internal since everybody involved in the planning and taking care of details has been completely supportive.”

ZK.  “No fights with Mom and Dad?”

Rachel.  (laughter)  “Some quibbles but nothing I would call a fight.”

ZK.  “So how hard was it to pick a dress?”

Rachel:  “Why would you ask that question?”

ZK:  “What can I say?  Must be the metrosexual in me.  So was it tough?”

Rachel:  “Well, I was with my mom and my dad’s sister and it started slowly, but when we saw the right one all of us knew that was it.  So, I’d say all in all dress shopping went pretty smoothly.”

ZK:  “Do you still think it’s the right one?”

Rachel.  “I love it even more now and can’t wait to wear it.”

ZK.:  “You mentioned internal pressure a while ago.  Can you talk more about that?”

Rachel:  “Sure.  I grappled with body perception earlier in my life and I feel some of those old feelings surfacing. (FYI–Rachel is lovely and not the least bit heavy.) So I have to sometimes work to keep those feelings at bay.  Everywhere you look, there is pressure for brides to look completely perfect on their wedding day. It’s the “Bride’s” day!  Everyone is looking at the bride, waiting to see what she’s wearing, how she wears her hair, what her shoes look like, how much weight she’s lost…That’s a lot of pressure on a single day in your entire life.  And I sure don’t want to look back at my wedding pictures and think I look fat, or my hair not right. So there’s those sorts of things.

ZK:  “I can’t imagine you’re going to look fat.  Unless you spend the next week living in an ice cream parlor.”

Rachel.  (laughter) “I can’t do that.  I work every day and then I work out.”

ZK.  “Well, that takes care of that.”

ZK:  First, thanks for spending this time together.  And for letting me write this up. Maybe it’ll give me some sense of what my future daughter-in-law will be going through before her wedding.  Also, I want to say that you and I see each other almost every week and I’ve been really impressed watching how you’ve dealt with everything.  So my last question—is there anything you want to add to what we’ve gone over?

Rachel:  “Yes.  There’s this amazing feeling of WOW! I’m getting married.  How lucky am I?  My anxiety is purely about the wedding. I am incredibly blessed to have found someone as amazing as Rich.  I know it’s a cliché, but I really feel like he’s my other half.  I try to remind myself of that in case something isn’t perfect at the wedding, I still get to be married to the love of my life.  That’s what really matters, that’s what all this craziness is about!  I truly love him and I know he loves me and I like knowing that wherever we end up in the future, we’ll be together.

“Life is 10% of what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” – John Maxwell