A Place at the Table: Dealing with a twisted family tree

By Roger H. Aylworth

For Mormon Times

Published: Monday, March 14 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

When people talk about a “family tree,” they usually have an image of a stately oak, with a stout trunk, and distinct, evenly spaced branches.

That just isn’t the family tree I sit in.

My ancestral tree trunk is more twisted than that. My father and mother, Art and Dayle, were easy. They married once, they stayed married, and had a grand total of two kids, me and my older brother, Bruce.

My genealogical conundrum starts a generation further up my family tree. While it is the case that I am a member of the LDS Church, with ancestors stretching back into its early history, this particular part of my ancestral weirdness has nothing to do with polygamy, but it does involve multiple spouses.

My grandfather, Charles Aylworth, was born in 1863, and that little historic factoid can cause some confusion all by itself because my daddy was born when my granddaddy was 50, but that isn’t the source of my twisted ancestry.

Both my grandfather and my grandmother, Martha Hendricks Johnson Aylworth, were married before they wed each other.

Among the three marriages that involved the two people who are my grandparents, there were a total 12 children born, and most of those were before 1900.

By the time that torrent of familial fecundity gets down to my generation — I was born in 1950 — there are a bunch of them, and one whole third of the mob are named Johnson.

The net result is I have a crowd of half-uncles and aunts, several of whom were easily old enough to be my grandparents. Heck, my Uncle Willy Johnson, who everybody in his direct line called Bill, was the closet thing to a grandfather I ever had because Charles Parker Aylworth died in 1927.

These half-aunts and uncles went off producing their own offspring, which in a roundabout way brings us to my half-first cousin, once removed, Itha Stentzel, and her son, John, who is related to me in some way, but I can’t begin to give it a name.

About a month ago, John found my name and an old address in his late father’s address book and sent me an invitation to his mother’s surprise 90th birthday party.

He later confessed he had no more idea who I was than I did who he was.

However, given the fact this was family, in consultation with my dear bride, the saintly Susan, we decided it was important to go.

Also I had a vague memory of somebody named Itha on some branch of the family tree, and with a name like Itha, this had to be her.

Susan and I drove the 50 miles to party. When we walked into the church hall where the party was being held, we immediately ran into John Stentzel, who promptly introduced us to Itha, who I realized was my Uncle Willy’s daughter.

The minute she heard my last name she said, “You are Art and Dayle’s son.” Then to everybody else she explained my folks had brought her to San Francisco during World War II, when Itha was a teenager. She was given room and board in my parents’ tiny apartment on Ashbury Street, and a whole entire dollar a day to baby-sit my brother “little Brucey,” when Dad was in the Navy and Mom was working.

She credited my folks with making it possible for her to meet her future husband, which led to the five boys and two girls they had together, and the family expanded.

I wasn’t even born at the time, but because I chose my parents well, I was important to her.

Before the evening was over, I had met a raft of half first cousins, twice removed, their spouses, their children and in some cases the children of those children, all of whom in some incomprehensible way are related to me.

I like my relatives, even the ones I don’t know, but if we ever want a total family reunion we are going to have to schedule it in the Superdome or someplace even bigger.

Roger H. Aylworth is a newspaper reporter and columnist with a daily newspaper in far Northern California. Roger's column, "A Place at the Table," appears Mondays on MormonTimes.com.

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