Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Power of Family and Friends

What do you think:  would the Transcendentalists have been as thoughtful or as philosophically prolific if they hadn't lived near each other, talked with each other and helped each other develop as writers?

The older I get, the more I've come to the conclusion that the people around us influence us deeply, for better and for worse.  Do we have family members who encourage us to develop our talents, or do we have family members who pick us apart and shoot us down?  Do we seek out people who challenge us and enrich our lives, or do we seek out people who drag us down into the depths of couch potatohood and "reality TV"?

Where is the line between a "taker" and a "helper"?

"Behind every great man is a great woman supporting him." But will the man become great if he doesn't find that woman to support him?  How much of his greatness occurs because of the habits he learned as a child, because of the self confidence that came from being loved and supported?  How much of his greatness comes from the support and encouragement of his wife?  How much of his greatness comes because he is secure in the knowledge that he has a family and a wife who will all act as a safety net if he fails?  Our society has tended to provide this sort of support and encouragement to men more than women.  Women have been more traditionally routed into the realm of supporter.  What does it take for them to become "great"?

I have no answers to these questions, but more and more I've come to believe that those who support us help to determine whether or not we can be successful (whatever that means) in life.  In other words, what we do individually depends in great part on what our clan of family and friends helps us to do.

No man - or woman - is an island.

That's where family history comes in, for me.  Our families and friends can help bolster us...or they can drag us down.  Even our communities can support us, or they can drain us of promise.  Our success is almost always, in greater or lesser part, due to help and encouragement we receive along the way.

One such story I'm learning about is on Greg's side, back several generations.  The family myth tells of George Washington Abbott, who left his wife and 2 younger children to move down to southern Kansas, where he left the 2 older boys that he'd brought with him in the care of a farm family when he moved even further on.  He returned to borrow a pair of horses from the oldest boy and was never seen again.  Evidently he remarried, because several years later his widow drove up to return the horses.  The oldest son told her to keep them - she needed them more than he did.

This story was told for years at family get-togethers, usually with a chuckle and a shake of the head - "that old rapscallion"!  There seemed to be a sense that George Washington Abbott, good ol' G.W., hadn't, perhaps, acted in the best way, but there were probably reasons for what he did, if only we could find them out.

Of course, John William, his oldest son, wouldn't talk about his father at all.  That made G.W.'s mystique even greater, in a perverse sort of way.

Well, over the years, I've managed to piece together a more complete picture of George Washington Abbott.  I'm guessing he was a charming man, charming in the way of weak men - takers - who pull others into their schemes and use them up, then move on when their usefulness is done.

G.W. was the youngest son of an older husband and wife.  When he reached young adulthood, his parents sold the current farm to him for $1 and the promise that he'd take care of them for the rest of their lives.  Within a couple years, he'd sold the farm, presumably pocketing the money himself.  He married young, produced several children in quick succession, then moved across the river to a bigger town, leaving his wife and young family so that he could "marry" another woman.  Presumably the new "wife" took care of his needs better.

His father sued him to get the farm back.  His first wife sued him for divorce.  George W. took the 2 oldest children, both boys, and moved with his new wife down to southern Missouri, where the four of them show up on the 1870 census.

The second marriage obviously didn't satisfy G.W.'s needs either.  Several years later, his second wife sued for divorce, citing cruelty and abandonment.  G. W. married again.  (He HAD to be charming!  He certainly didn't have anything else to recommend him.) There is no record of what happened to the 2 boys from his first marriage during this time.....

That they survived is obvious, since Greg is descended from the older one, John William.  But, as mentioned above, John William wouldn't talk about his father at all.

I did find a clue, of sorts, recently, about what happened.  Alfred Smith, a Civil War veteran about the same age as George Washington Abbott, had moved with his wife Carrie to southwest Missouri in 1870.  When Alfred died many years later, in 1912, his obituary mentioned his "foster son, J.W. Abbott".

Alfred Smith and his wife Carrie lost a baby boy, Luther, shortly after moving to Missouri in 1870.  Almost 20 years later, J.W. named his oldest son Luther - after his foster family's lost baby boy?

Did John William and his brother Allen Henry ever live with the Smiths?  I have no idea, but this would appear to be the "farm family" where Abbott family legend says the boys were left.  The Smiths never did have any sons to help them with the farm, so perhaps the Abbott boys were "hired hands" as they got older, and John became particularly close to the family.

It is obvious that the families were close in some way.  It would seem that Alfred and Carrie may well have become substitutes for the parents that John William had lost through what amounted to kidnapping and later abandonment by his father.  The Smiths had only 2 daughters that reached adulthood, Mertie and Anna, both of them born when John William would have been in his late teens.  Anna Smith and Claude Smith Abbott, John William's second son, married siblings, Luther Daniel and Lula Daniel, respectively.

As late as the 1950's, from their home base of Wichita, Kansas, Luther Abbott and his wife were still visiting Mertie Smith and Anna & Luther Daniel, who all lived together in California by then.

So it would seem that John William Abbott, whose original family had abandoned him, was able to find a family that allowed him to reach adulthood and then to successfully raise a family of his own.

Thank goodness for the power of friends and the family that chooses us.