In the early years of the last century, my mother and her friend Daphne (not her real name) were driving through Ohio on their way to the East Coast. I imagine them in raccoon coats and flapper hats dashing across the Midwest in a flashy roadster when a police car appeared in the rear-view mirror. They pulled over. The officer approached, and Daphne — a formidable, haughty woman — gave the officer an indignant dressing down topped off by the most powerful, terror-inspiring declaration she knew: “I’ll have you know that my father is Buster Nottage!” (not his real name, either). To which the policeman replied: “Lady, I don’t give a darn who your father is, but you were speeding and I’m going to give you a ticket.”
Mr. Nottage was a man of some prominence in Kansas City. Daphne was used to deference by virtue of being his daughter. But in Ohio, her father’s name was unknown. Very likely, it was unknown in Joplin, Topeka or any other town more than a few miles from K.C. But everyone conceives that he is the epicenter of the cosmos and Daphne expected the officer to genuflect in awe of her pedigree.
My mother’s story taught me the futility of name dropping. My own father was a quiet, modest man, certainly no big shot. No one would cower if I informed him that I was the son of George Gurley, Senior. Moreover, I was grievously ashamed of my name, which provoked much mirth in my formative years. I often found it written in chalk on the grade school playground, contemptuously misspelled “Girly,” a foreshadowing of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s derisive putdown of “girly men.” Some perverse ancestor must have named his son “Gurley” to provoke the taunts and beatings that would toughen him up, as per Johnny Cash’s song about a “boy named Sue.”
This perspective contributed to my lack of interest in genealogy. I couldn’t understand why people become fascinated by their ancestors and waste swaths of time chasing down trivia about Crazy Aunt Nattie or Senile Grandfather Ned. Last year people spent $2.3 billion on genealogy products and services. Many may have regretted the pursuit. “Researching your ancestry doesn’t always turn up heroes and royalty,” according to an article on the subject. “It may turn up a felon, a bigamist or another unsavory character.” Moreover, it may reveal how insignificant most of us are. Once I looked up “Gurley” in a Missouri Historical Society volume. Page after page, an endless roll call of forgotten Gurleys, as inconsequential as falling leaves.
And yet, who doesn’t sometimes long for a stature that would command respect, that would place him beyond criticism? Who doesn’t wish that a hush would fall when he enters a room simply because he’s the great John Doe? Yes, it would be nice. Never to suffer the insolence of waiters, the condescension of petty bureaucrats. Who wouldn’t like occasionally to issue the command, “Off with his head?”
In fact, the disdain for my ancestry changed when I came into possession of a document bound in faux leather tracing the Gurley lineage. There I read that I was descended from Ingelramus de Gourley, who came to England with William the Conqueror. Here was status, big time. Distant Gurleys turned out to be vast land holders. They were on a first-name basis with kings. I began to think more highly of myself. It seemed as if I had some magical power to exploit. The only thing that bothered me was that Ingelramus sounded suspiciously like Ignoramus. By the way, one of my ancestors, famous for his piety, married a woman with the curious first name of “Experience.” How she acquired that name is something I’d rather not know.
The document concluded with a veritable celebration of the Gurley name. We Gurleys turn out to be “a spirited, strong-willed, personable, active, and freedom-loving race of able minds and in various instances of dominant personality…” Who wouldn’t want to be a Gurley man? I pass this along not to boast, or aggrandize myself. However, it does seem to entitle me to a certain amount of admiration, if not homage. Call me “George” if you insist. I shall not complain. But the use of an honorific would not be scorned. “Sire” will do.