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At Home in the Universe

All people, at all times, must have created myths and stories to sketch a picture of our place under the sun. As I would ask myself what is the purpose of life and what is my role in that purpose, I came to wonder who in my past sat around a campfire and asked those same questions.

“What stories we tell ourselves,” writes evolutionary biologist Stuart Kauffman, “of origins and endings, of form and transformation, of gods, the word, and law. All people, at all times, must have created myths and stories to sketch a picture of our place under the sun.”

Cro-Magnon man must have spun answers to these questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Did Neanderthal, Homo habilis, or Homo erectus ask? Around which fire in the past 3 million years of hominid evolution did these questions first arise? (Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (1996), p.3)

Kauffman’s book stirred in me many of those same questions. As I would ask myself what is the purpose of life and what is my role in that purpose, I came to wonder who in my past sat around a campfire and asked those same questions.

And so began the search for my home in the universe. And so begins this next step. I first started collecting information on my family tree in the 1990s. I had been told family stories over the years, of course, and I guess I always had some interest in searching deeper for my roots.I don’t recall now what exactly started the more formal pursuit, but the fact that I lived essentially across the street from the California State Genealogical Library in San Francisco no doubt helped. I was also given a lot of information by an aunt that she had received concerning the Finland branch of the family but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do with it, considering the language barriers. 

Let me back up a second here and identify the four branches of the family from the standpoint of my grandparents. On my mother’s side, her mother’s family emigrated to America from Finland towards the end of the 19th century. Interestingly enough, my great grandparents, Otto William Korhonen and Marianna Fiskaali, did not meet until after they arrived in the United States. They were married in New Hampshire in 1896, lived in Massachusetts for a couple years, and eventually settled in Ironwood, Michigan, where my grandmother Helmi (later known as Helma) was born in 1908.

My maternal grandfather was a Penrose, Gisborn Sherman Penrose to be exact. Born in Hurley, Wisconsin just across the state line from Ironwood, his father Leslie Gisbourne (yes, the spelling was different) was born in Nova Scotia but the Penrose name had a long history in the Philadelphia area. We were related to Senator Boies Penrose, we were told, and, having fallen down the stairs and died in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, he was thought to now be a ghost that haunts the halls of Congress. A brother, Spencer Penrose, was a wealthy and prominent businessman who settled in Colorado Springs, and in 1964 we visited his former mansion at what was then a Catholic convent. I wasn’t able until recently to draw the exact connection between the family branches and for years it remained more convenient to just assume we were related. In any event, Leslie married Mary Alma Carothers of Shelby, Missouri in 1891. Sherman and Helmi were married in Ironwood in 1928, but almost immediately moved to Louisville, Kentucky. My mother, Darlene Greta Penrose, was born there in 1930.

On my dad’s side, both of his parents were from Missouri. My grandfather, Wilbur Vernon Hile, was born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1908, and my grandmother, Mabel Bernice Bousman, was born in Florida, Missouri in 1910. There was very little information known about either the Hiles or the Bousmans at the time, and so my interest in pursuing family tree research waned, even after my having connected with a Reverend Warren Hile, which will be discussed in detail in a subsequent post here.

My interest in learning who had sat around that mythical campfire on my behalf was rekindled in a big way in 2018, By this time, online research had supplanted library research for the most part and whereas in the 1990s I had tracked down maybe 100 or so names, now I have almost 7,000 in my database, which also brings up the serious question of how to pass on all that data to my family. If I were to print out the family tree, it would encompass around 525 8.5 x 11 pages. It also changes on almost a daily basis, both in terms of new discoveries but also in the refinement of the existing data.

And so, finding our home in the universe has come to be dependent on a computer and a website. I wonder what Stuart Kauffman — hell, I wonder what CroMagnon man — would make of that! 

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