About the Wheelers: in search of my father’s family
[The following is yet another family history essay. It has no connection with Norfolk, although it does contain a story about a witch. I doubt it will interest anyone other than my close relatives, but I am posting it here in case it might be of use to someone who shares some of my father’s lineage.]
My parents divorced when I was in my early teens. Far from being saddened by this, I was delighted. There must have been a point where the two of them enjoyed each other’s company, but if so, it had taken place long prior to my birth. Trapped in a conflict where neutrality wasn’t an option, I sided with my mother, although we later fell out very badly indeed.
This is why most of what I ever knew about my father — about his earlier life, his family background, about the sort of person he was — came to me by way of my mother, who by that point was consistently negative about him.
My mother had previously parted company with the rest of her family, comprising her brother and half-sister, as well as their offspring, over the terms of my maternal grandmother’s will. As this happened when I was still very young, almost everything that I knew about her side of the family also came to me via her own narrative framing. And then when she duly fell out with me, when I was in my 20s, she made it clear that I was no longer a member of the family — that I was not only a disappointment to her, but also to the many generations of my forebears, too.
So it was that when I first dipped a tentative toe into genealogical research last year, the whole project felt disloyal, transgressive — taboo. It has taken me months to get remotely comfortable with it. At times, the emotions it threw up were surprisingly raw.
Yet at other times, the longer perspectives of historical time brought seemed to encourage a strange sort of healing. If those around me didn’t always understand the value of collecting long and gappy lists of largely unremarkable dead relatives, it’s probably because this healing process wasn’t something they themselves wanted or needed.
Of all the challenging moments of this journey, though, perhaps the most difficult were those involving my father, who died in 2006. Here was a man I’d last seen at some long-forgotten court hearing over visitation rights and child-support payments — the almost mythical antihero of my early life. I’d tried to banish him from my memory, and had almost succeeded. Now I was going in search of him.
This is his family story, which is also my family story.
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My father, Charles Lovelace Wheeler, was born in 1925 in rural Kentucky. “Lovelace” is, by the way, pronounced “Loveless” — in the late nineteenth century, even literate Wheelers were quite capable of spelling it “Lovlis” in family Bibles. He was the eldest of eight children — seven brothers and one sister. His parents were farming people, although I’ve been told that in the depths of the Great Depression, his father also ran the backwoods equivalent of a corner shop.
His childhood was, I think, spent at Talley’s farm, Hammonville, Hart County. Even now, judging from a cursory visit via Google Maps, the area is very rural — flat land, not all of which has even now been cleared, cut through by meandering streams — “creeks”, I guess — and studded with Baptist churches. To this day, Hart County is a “dry” county. There are places with barely-credible names like “Barefoot Hollow”, “International Harvester Road” and “Lion’s Den”. Fort Knox, next to which the US gold reserves used to be housed, is nearby — a testament to the remoteness of the place.
While naturally very beautiful, it would be fair to say that Hart County is neither a very wealthy area, nor a very ethnically diverse one. Yet it’s a place in which my father had deep roots. He must have grown up knowing that one local road, “Wheeler Road”, was named after his father’s family, while two others were named for his mother’s Talley lineage. He must have known that his family, both material and paternal, had been amongst the earliest founders of this little community.
For the sake of simplicity, though, at least for the moment, let us pursue only my father’s direct patrilineal ancestry. First, how did the Wheelers end up in Hart County, Kentucky?Read the rest of this entry »