Prudently pruning the arbor familias

On our family tree, each sedate and worthy ancestor has perched decorously on his proper limb, except for several - and the redhead. The several, and the redhead, do not exist publicly because of prudent hesitancy in the past about acknowledging the ne'er-do-wells and the rascals - and the redhead. We spoke only of the goodies. We never had the attitude of Will Harding, who was proud of his great-grandfather not because he signed the Declaration of Independence but because he was a pirate. With us, several scalawags, and the redhead, if mentioned, brought the no-no, ''We don't speak of themm.'' Let me mention Jebron.

The first of our family to settle in Maine located in what is now West Bath, and when Harry Owen wrote his History of Bathm I wondered if we were historically prominent. We were. There was old Jebron, and it said he was read out of the church for failure to pay his pew rent. He had been cited twice, and twice visited by a delegation of the righteous that urged him to pay up and not make trouble, but he felt the edification was not worth the fee and continued to decline. Down in Massachusetts, whence he had come, he'd have been strung up by the heels or worse for such heresy, but distance had tempered the Mainers and they posted a proclamation on the meetinghouse door. Then the pastor read it aloud from the steps, and Jebron was out. Amused, I mentioned Jebron to one of the family archivists and she bristled. She said, ''We don't speak about him!m''

A few years after that a distant cousin was looking up some records, and came by chance on a curious reference to Rufus. Rufus, like Jebron, had wavered, and had come to the end of his book in the state prison. Being told that ''We don't speak about him!m'' my distant cousin relentlessly entered upon diligent research and jubilantly came up with the horrid truth about Rufus. We had too long been shielded. Rufus was agent for an insurance company and neglected to forward the premiums. Here was a copy of the indictment, another of the jury's verdict, and one of the judge's sentence. Seven years. Then the transmittal of the prisoner, and the warden's receipt to the sheriff for delivery of same. And finally, the death certificate, which said Rufus had passed along with three years and six months of his sentence still to go. My distant cousin, with a Will Harding enthusiasm, had photocopies made and circularized the family. The thing about Jebron had been that while he had shown laudable resistance to taxes and we could rate him right up there with Henry David Thoreau, unlike Thoreau he had not achieved the heroism of going to jail. Now, here, was an ancestor who put Thoreau to shame in this respect, and not for just one symbolic day. I went around that evening and told Will Harding about Rufus, and he told me again about his great-grandfather who was a pirate. But the family tendency persisted, and with our family tree it was still mostly nil nisi bonum.m

As to the redhead, about thirty years ago I got a bill from the secretary of an upstate cemetery association for three dollars ''for care of lot.'' Curious, I drove up and found a tombstone with my name on it; the secretary had sent me a bill on the off hope I might contribute, as they needed money. I checked the lineage, and did find this name - not an ancestor to me, but a many-great-uncle. When I learned his story, and that he had been a wealthy man, I decided not to donate, and I have not visited the place again. He had been an officer in a bank , and on some kind of whimsical impulse had carried away all the bank's money and had eloped to Canada with a redheaded schoolteacher. At the time, the family graybeard told me what was remembered about him, but since he was one of those about whom we did not speak, his story was brief.

Canada was then a budding nation, and opportunities for profitable investment were on every hand. Our hero prospered, and under the wisdom of an assumed name came to own several factories and industries, some banks here and there, and a gold mine. Esteemed by all, his philanthropies multiplied, and he held a seat in Parliament. But the mischievous peccadillo of his youth rankled his conscience, and within he was a disturbed and unhappy man. So he came back to Maine, made restitution to the bank, gave funds to libraries, schools, bird clubs, and boys' camps, and served many years as county commissioner. We never quite knew where to put the emphasis, so he was another we never spoke about.

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