I have lived in Martinez, California, a part of Contra Costa county, for the past 25 years. Martinez is a relatively small town located in the north eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. It still has its small-town charm — there’s a group of alumni who still show up for Alhambra High School football games, some sixty years after graduation, and people still gather for homecoming parades — and even though I’m one of the newcomers, I have adopted Martinez as my “official” hometown.
In doing so, however, I have missed out on other official hometowns. Even though I have always known they were around —and I’m pretty sure I even spoke with one of them over the phone when I was a kid — it has only been in the last year or two that I have become reacquainted with the city and my relatives in Hannibal, Missouri, where three generations of Hiles — my father, my grandfather, and his father before him, were born.
I did visit Hannibal in the early 1990s. We spent the night and I got to see the theater where my grandfather played trombone in the Orpheum Theater orchestra and he met my grandmother, and I thought that was pretty cool. My grandfather subscribed to the Hannibal Post-Courier newspaper in the 1980s, some forty years after he moved to California, and I thought that was pretty cool, too, but I never reached further than an occasional glance at his newspapers neatly stacked in a pile next to his favorite chair. Now that I have been bitten by the genealogy bug, I have come to greatly appreciate the city, its people, my family who still live there, and the friends I have met along the way. More on the Hannibal connection — a lot more — will be forthcoming very soon.
Since I started doing genealogy and family history in earnest over the past few years, it always disappointed me that I didn’t have any roots in my official hometown or in the Contra Costa county vicinity. Turns out, however, I was wrong about that. Recently, I was looking at the website of the Martinez Historical Society and I discovered an article about one James Henderson Carothers (1823-1903), who was one of the founders of the town of Pacheco (next door to Martinez) and a prominent doctor in the area. I immediately recognized the surname as closely connected to my Penrose line and after some digging, I discovered that Dr. Carothers was my 3rd cousin six times removed. What’s more, he, his wife Emily Prince, and some of his daughters are buried in the Martinez Pioneer Cemetery, just a couple miles down the road from my house. What’s even more is that Emily Prince Carothers is the niece of Elam Brown, the founder of the nearby city of Lafayette, who is also, along with extended kin of his own, buried in the cemetery.
So I visited the cemetery the other day. The grounds are located on what we locals call Snake Road (I’ll let you all figure out why) and are currently locked up to prevent vandalism, but if you know the right people and ask nicely, it is possible to get a key and visit. I was all alone when I visited — human being-wise, that is. It was a beautiful, peaceful day — just me and a herd of several deer who were no doubt suspiciously wondering why some two-legged creature was invading their space. There is a map of the gravesites near the entrance and I was able to locate most of my ”relatives” with a bit of careful searching.
So why was it important to me in this situation to find my relatives? In a word, gravitas. My use of the term was best illustrated by the Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, who I got to know when he was in residence a number of years back at my seminary in Berkeley. He told the story of a young, liberal minister in a small, conservative parish in New England. One Sunday, the board of elders met and voted unanimously to fire the minister. One of the elders — the patriarch of the church — had been ill and could not attend the services that day or the meeting afterwards, so the elders went to his house to inform him of the decision. ”We knew you would agree,” they told him but they thought they should come in person to inform him. ”Well, you thought wrong,” he replied. ”Why, you don’t believe all the stuff he preaches about, do you?” ”Of course not,” he replied. ”But when my wife was on her death bed he spent the last eight hours of her life with her, and then spent the next eight hours with me. The man stays!”
That, in my mind, is gravitas, both on the part of the minister and the patriarch. Both had earned through their conduct and deeds the ability to say things that others might strongly disagree with but respect anyway. That is who and what I strive to be. Apparently, I sometimes say things that piss people off. My hope, however, that through my own conduct and deeds I have earned the respect needed to overcome these “disagreements” and I believe that my family tree at least in some small manner helps to confirm and perpetuate that respect. In no small measure that is what The World According to Greg is all about, not only for me but also for my family. Of course, that and $4.65 will buy me a vente chai ice tea latte at Starbucks. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.