As my parents grew old, hints and echoes of their histories began showing up in their conversations with me. As I grew older myself, I became aware that our unsatisfactory relationship was rooted in the fact that I simply didn’t know their stories.
Not wanting to be one of those who are still twisted by teenage resentments in their dotage, I set about trying to discover their complicated histories.
They had spent their entire adult lives telling themselves (and me) that the future was what counted and the past was “water over the dam.” They thought they could put the past behind them. They couldn’t. None of us can.
My mother’s grandmother, Hannah Oliphant, was orphaned at a tender age and put into service as a scullery maid in one of England’s grand country homes.
My father’s grandfather, Cornelius Knapp, was also an orphan who grew up being shifted from one neighbor to another until, in his early teens, he ran off and went west. When the Civil War began, he joined the Second Colorado Infantry.
And that’s as far back as I was able to go. But what I discovered was that Cornelius and Hannah played a much more important part in shaping the character and personalities of my parents than I could ever have imagined.
Mary Ellen and Herb Knapp came of age during the emergence of the American middle class as people moved from small towns and farms into cities. This social movement also accounted in large part for who my parents wanted to be and in fact became. I have written about their journey towards the achievement of the American Dream in a dual biography—Hunting for the Plot—whose publication is eminent.