Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
The story I'm about to tell you is one of the
strangest I've ever heard. The strangest thing about it
is that it's my story. Maybe it won't seem all that
interesting to you — maybe I'm making a big deal out of
nothing — but it's made the last year or so very odd to
live through. Please keep in mind that some of it is
speculation, and, like so many things in life — like
life itself, I guess — it's "a work in progress".
Last year, like many of her age and situation, my
wife Cathy got interested in genealogy. Her maiden name
is Zike, and there had always been speculation in her
family about where it came from. Some thought it was
English, a variation on Sykes, others thought it might
It turns out that the name is German, and came here
to America attached to an extremely intriguing fellow
named Jacob Zeuch (that's pronounced "zoik", for you
non-German speakers), a slave-warrior from the
principality of Hesse who, with his fellow Hessians, got
loaned to George III by one of his cousins to help put
down rebellious American colonists.
The conditions under which the Hessians served were
absolutely miserable, and, at some point, Private Jacob
— and his colonel! — decided to desert. They spent a
period as prisoners of war, and then, having been
promised land as a reward, they defected to the American
side. It must have seemed like heaven to be paid to
fight and to be free men afterward. Jacob survived the
war, married an American girl, settled in Kentucky, and
had a big family. He has many descendants today.
With a little more research, and a little
imagination, there's probably a novel in Jacob's story,
and it's more than likely that I'll take a leave from
science fiction to write in sometime in the coming
But that was only the beginning.
It was a natural development that, with my
encouragement, Cathy would employ her new-found
genealogical talents to investigate my forebears, my
mother's side of the family in particular. There were a
lot of questions there that I was interested in finding
the answers to.
My mother died a couple of years ago, having lingered
for a long while after an extremely debilitating stroke.
Following a cataclysmic argument with her own mother,
she had left home and severed every connection with her
family, in 1945, at the age of 18. As long as she was
alive, she resisted, almost hysterically, any effort to
look into her background or try to contact her long-lost
relatives. I thought I knew the reason for it, but as it
turns out, I didn't know the half of it.
Although my mother was born, or so she said, in Los
Angeles in 1926, she was brought up, at the height of
Depression, in northern Arizona, near the Four
Corners, around Tuba City. Her name was Marie Louise
Coveleskie. Her mother, Henrietta Phelan Coveleskie,
taught school in a one-room, multi-grade rural
schoolhouse. Her father — my grandfather, Albert
Coveleskie — was a Grand Canyon packing guide and Indian
agent on the Navajo reservation. He had two brothers,
Jesse and Ned, who were rugged western ranchmen of some
My mother always said she came from a big family,
including five older brothers and a single younger
sister. The only brother whose name I can remember is
Roger, after whom my own brother is named, and who died
in submarine combat in the Pacific theater in World War
II. Another of her brothers was in the Army, assigned to
go from camp to camp instructing soldiers so they could
avoid being taken by card sharks.
Being Polish on the Coveleskie side, and Irish on the
Phelan side, the family was raised in the Catholic
church and my mother attended a Catholic girls' school,
although I'm not entirely certain where. My mother's
younger sister became a nun. They also had a grandmother
— or a great grandmother, I've never been certain which
— named Etta Phelan who lived in Los Angeles and always
sounded like Tweety Bird's granny.
When my mother was seven years old, around 1933, her
father died. He had always been subject to periods of
paralysis. He would collapse and would lie out in the
sun which seemed to heal him somehow. He would enjoy a
period of remission, and then collapse again. In my
mother's mind, this was linked with a 300-foot fall he'd
taken as a young man, from one of the winding Grand
Canyon trails into a bed of sand.
The last time that Albert collapsed, they hauled him
away to a hospital and my mother — a frightened little
seven-year-old girl — never saw him again. Nor was she
ever given any kind of explanation. Some local country
doctor wanted everybody to think that Albert's condition
was due to a venereal disease, which nobody who knew him
believed, and it always sounded to me like undiagnosed
For the next decade, my mother was forced to live
with a woman — her mother — who always reminded me, in
Mom's stories, of the Wicked Queen in Disney's Snow
White, or of Maureen O'Hara at her absolute
bitchiest, but with no John Wayne around to give her a
well-deserved spanking. At some point, the widowed
Henrietta married a wealthy rancher in the area named
Lindsay Loy. My brother's middle name is Lindsay.
Apparently Henrietta was a screamer and a slapper (my
own mother inherited some of that, and I had to fight it
myself when my daughter was young). On more than one
occasion, she struck my mother with a concho belt. For
those of you east of Kansas, a concho is a decorative
silver disk, sometimes as large as a silver dollar, with
slots so it can be laced onto a strip of leather. Among
southwestern Indians, it was a repository of wealth, and
may be again, as the economy melts down.
There was also an incident in which my mother's head
was smashed against a cast-iron woodstove because she'd
let the overnight coals die. (Living conditions in the
Four Corners area during the Depression were primitive;
Mom had lots of stories about the many uses of canned
milk.) In any case, after one particularly horrible
fight, she left home — ordered by her mother never to
darken her doorway again — and went to Los Angeles,
where I believe she had already been working as a
private secretary to the famous novelist and screenplay
writer Frances Marion.
She was married to a Navy flier (I never knew his
name) for only a few weeks before he, too, was killed in
the Pacific war. She met and then married my dad, on R&R
in San Diego after spending a year as an involuntary
guest of the Third Reich. I was born about nine months
and thirty seconds later, in 1946. They were together
until Dad died in 1991.
I hope that I haven't bored any of you with all this
stuff. It's interesting to me because it's the story of
my family, a story I've lived with all my life. I never
met any of my mother's people, but they have always been
like characters to me, some good, some bad, in some old,
warm, familiar, well dog-eared novel. The trouble is
that, when Cathy went looking for them, none of my
mother's story made any sense.
To begin with, there was nobody — and I mean
absolutely nobody — by the name of Coveleskie in
northern Arizona during the Depression. No grandfather
Albert — hence the "disappearing grandfather" in the
title — no Uncle Ned, no Uncle Jessie. Coveleskie,
especially that particular spelling of it (which I've
been told represents Catholic Poles with delusions of
aristocracy) is not exactly an inconspicuous name,
especially in a place as sparsely populated as Greater
Henrietta Phelan (who apparently did come from Los
Angeles) was married in the late 1920s to somebody named
Albert Smith (imagine my surprise) and despite
the possibility that Albert Smith was a Mormon (imagine
my even greater surprise) they had a relatively small
family together, no more than two or three kids. There
was no Marie Louise born to them in 1926. Instead they
had a daughter the same age, named Alberta.
Was my mother's real name Alberta Smith?
The rest is a truly confusing mish-mash. Some of the
names that my mother ascribed to brothers and sisters
belong to uncles and aunts. I don't know where all of
the tiny, extremely consisent details — like Uncle Ned's
half-wolf dog named "Police" — came from. Guess I got my
talents as a novelist — for which read, "professional
liar" — from her.
There was a Lindsay Loy, and an extensive Loy family,
into which Henrietta married. I mean someday to look
them up and compare notes. I don't know if anything Mom
ever told us is true. (I often wonder if she didn't
steal her name from a Catholic school classmate.) Except
for meeting my dad in Los Angeles, it appears my mother
made it all up — large swatches of it, anyway — and
every bit of it may have been a lie.
And I haven't the slightest idea why.
My mother was a rather fearful woman all my life, a
sort of "don't run with scissors" kind of mom, but on
steroids. It could be she was just afraid her evil,
violent mother would find her (according to the northern
Arizona phonebook, Henrietta lived into her nineties).
Until we found that there were no Coveleskies, I often
wondered why none of her brothers ever looked for Mom.
She had periods of agoraphobia (so do I) and always kept
heavy drapes drawn on the street side of the house. She
was remarkably kind and generous, she adored my wife and
daughter, but she would talk your arm off (I worry that
I do that), and had whispered conversations with herself
when nobody else was around.
To a certain extent, of course, none of this matters.
I've never met my mother's people, Nor do I ever expect
to. Nothing about them, whoever they are, has anything
to do with who or what I am, with what I've done, or
with what I will ever do. The whole thing reminds me of
Lazarus Long's story about meeting "a little lizard who
claimed he was a tyrannosaurus on his mother's side".
The fact is, Americans remake themselves every morning
when they get up. The Japanese (among others) often
sneer at us for having "no history", but it's one of the
things that make us different as a people, and, I think,
perhaps a little better.
Yet in another respect, it's like being right-handed
all your life only to awake one fine morning to discover
that you're left-handed and always have been. At the
very least, it's like taking that last step down the
stairs in the dark, only to find, with a jolt, that it
Life is strange, and it gets stranger the longer you
So I'm Irish, not Polish.
It explains a lot.