Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Family Plot

My family on both sides had been up there so long that I was raised to regard the place as a country our people had founded and could never leave. Oneida County. Our history - the history of the DeAngelis clan, the Noyes, Jervises, and Bryants - was everywhere. I’d heard the stories all my life, had seen all the documents and paperwork and photographs, had spent my childhood on an endless and relentlessly personal history tour that seemed to cover every nook and cranny of the county, and I still couldn’t keep much of it straight.

How, then, have I spent my life? Touring ruins, inhabiting ruins, extracting ruins, documenting and preserving ruins. Trodding in graveyards and listening to stories that my family has been telling - and living, and re-living - for two centuries. The first DeAngelis in Oneida County was a guy named Pascal C.J. DeAngelis, my great-great-etc. grandfather, who in 1798 received the deed for seven and a half acres that were set aside for the Public Square in Holland Patent, where the original DeAngelis family home was located on the banks of Willard’s Creek (in the seriously unlikely event you should ever visit, it was located where the Presbyterian church now stands). There were old family homes - on both my father’s and mother’s sides - all over the county. I grew up in a house built in 1869, 17 miles outside Utica and just up the road from the Baron von Steuben Memorial Park. Von Steuben was some character who trained Revolutionary soldiers, and Pascal C.J. DeAngelis was said to be a confidante of the fellow.

Another old relative of my father’s, William W. DeAngelis, made a fortune in New York City before returning to Holland Patent, where he set about to immortalize the Baron in any way possible. My mother was raised in Steuben Valley, north of Holland Patent. Her family included John B. Jervis, who was an engineer on the Erie Canal and a railroad builder. When I was a kid the Adirondack Railroad steam train would still occasionally huff through the county, and right through the Public Square in Holland Patent.

On the other side of my mother’s family was a man named J.H. Noyes, who founded the Oneida Colony of Perfectionists over in Sherrill. Relatives on both sides of my family purportedly took part in the siege of Fort Stanwix (over in what is now Rome but which was then Lynchville), at which it is said the American flag was raised for the first time in battle.

You see what I was up against? I had ancestors buried all over the fucking county, and my parents seemed to know where every one of them was, as well as the details of their lives and the circumstances of their deaths. My father always claims that our relatives named half the noteworthy stuff in Oneida County.

The Tug Hill Plateau? That was us. Tessel Hill, the highest point in the county? That was also us. Did we also name Hardscrabble Road? I once asked. My father gave it a moment of thought and then shook his head.

“No, no, I don’t believe so. We could have done better than that, I’m certain.”

I really could not have cared less, but it took me a long time to realize this. I’d been brainwashed, and all throughout my childhood the world was steadily being shrunk around me until it would all fit within the borders of Oneida County. This is our place, I was told. We are stewards, and there is no more noble calling. It didn’t help matters that I was the first recognized fuck-up in the DeAngelis family (my mother did have a sister who spent the last half of her life locked up in the Utica State Hospital, a fantastic and archetypal Greek Revival building that was like something out of a horror movie; I really used to love visiting there when I was a kid).

I was the first male member of my father’s family - or so I was regularly reminded - to be rejected by Hamilton College over in Clinton, and ended up at Mohawk Community College in Utica, where I racked up D’s and incompletes before dropping out. Through my mother’s brother-in-law, who was an Oneida County Commissioner, I got a job at the Oneida Silverware plant in Sherrill, but after I’d been there less than three years it closed for good.

My father tried to interest me in writing a family history, and I feigned enthusiasm for this idea as it allowed me to spend long stretches of time at the old DeAngelis cabin on Lake Ontario outside Oswego. My father would come over on the weekend bearing boxes of books, old newspapers, and all manner of genealogical documents, and I would go through the charade of allowing him to intone into a tape recorder for hours at a time, essentially rehashing all the old stories I’d heard a million times before.

When I’d get restless I’d just drive all over the family’s depressed kingdom. I’d go up and down Route 365 listening to music. I’d go to Rome and Utica and along the canal, taking pictures of the most moldering sites I could find (there were lots to choose from). I’d go to Fink Hollow, Stittville, Remsen, and Barneveld, and up to the Great Sacandaga Reservoir and over to the Oriskany Battlefield, a place I had actually always enjoyed. I liked all the Revolutionary War stories, but if you met my father, a fat, waddling asthmatic who was damn near blind and had never really worked a day in his life, you’d have a hard time picturing anybody who fought in that war and did great, brave things with their lives as anything but an accidental and almost imaginary relative, impossibly distant and long since estranged. Yet these were the indistinct ghosts he - and by extension me, all of us - spent his entire life in the company of. I had a sister in Utica, cousins all over the county, a few friends, a dog I loved. I was lucky, I guess, to live in a house full of books.

More and more often, as my father worried out loud about the progress of ‘the history,’ I would find myself at the Turning Stone Casino, run by the Oneida Indian nation, or what was left of it, and I would wander around there all night, occasionally playing the slots or blackjack, but mostly people watching and killing time. And inevitably I would emerge into the cool, swirling mist that would cloak the giant parking lot as the night, feeling its way back west, retreated from the morning.

And I would stand there in the parking lot of what was now the largest employer in Oneida County, and I would ask myself what I was doing there, and wonder why the hell I didn’t just leave once and for all.

I might stand there for a long time with those old questions pacing in my head, and I would invariably come up with the same answer: where in the world could I go? Sometimes, even, I’ll admit that I’d substitute a how for that where.

This was my home. All I had ever had were my people, and in one way or another all of us - rooted, entrenched, interred - were buried somewhere out there in the Oneida mist.


  1. Freedom from history is a valuable gift.

  2. Good stuff; hope your trip is going well. I especially like this paragraph: "... and I would ask myself what I was doing there, and wonder why the hell I didn’t just leave once and for all. I might stand there for a long time with those old questions pacing in my head, and I would invariably come up with the same answer: where in the world could I go? Sometimes, even, I’ll admit that I’d substitute a how for that where."

  3. Setting aside my ambivalence about the entire region, I have to confess that it boasts some of the weirdest, most beguiling place names I have encountered anywhere: Schenectady, Skaneateles, Canastota, Canandaigua, the aforemantioned Oriskany. Their pronunciation amounts to a secret handshake.