This is my impression.
On both sides of my family, the bulk of my ancestry immigrated from Britain during the early colonial period. On my father's side, many of them were Quakers, and participated in things like the Underground Railroad and protests for the rights of Native Americans and so on, and refused to fight in wars and so forth. I know less about my mother's side of the family, but was told that there were connections to both Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson.
Mostly, they were small farmers. My father was raised on a farm, and my mother's mother was raised on a farm, and it's small farms all the way back so far as I know.
My mother and father both came from single-parent homes.
My mother's family moved to the Philippines immediately after World War II, and it was there that my maternal grandfather vanished from sight. When I lived with my grandmother in my early twenties, every time I drank, she would tell me about how he died. Every time the story involved alcohol, and every time it was different. The degree of departure from reality this indicated was my first sign that my grandmother might be as crazy as I.
My maternal grandmother, my Grandma Jean, was very close to me. She was the one person in my childhood who provided me with a safe place and a sense of being cared for. She was a brilliant woman, a flapper-era UC Berkeley graduate with a career as a children's librarian that was publicly recognized by everybody's favorite president, Lyndon Johnson.
She was a world traveler, amateur photographer and natural scientist, and full-blown religious lunatic who habitually engaged in meditative practices for twelve to fourteen hours a day, no fooling. She slept four hours a night, and when she wasn't specifically doing something else, it was Christian Science. She was proper, correct, the kind of person who concerned herself with how forks were being held and whether infinitives were being split.
It is important to note that as generous and loving as Grandma Jean was to me, she had a basically adversarial relationship with my mother, which I was never closely involved in.
It was at the family get-together following her death that I heard an alternative version of reality. Supposedly, my grandfather actually become a wet-brained alcoholic while in the Philippines, and my grandmother smuggled him back to the US after claiming he died in order to claim his pension from the merchant marines. She stashed him in a St. Vincent de Paul up in Oregon under a false name and visited him yearly until he died.
I've also been told that a man who worked as an MP in the South Pacific during and after WWII once looked at a picture of my grandfather standing next to his best friend. He pointed at the friend and said, "That son of a bitch was the biggest diamond smuggler in Asia."
My father's father I know a little more about. He was a kind, gentle man with an intimate contact with nature who unfortunately would occasionally get naked on the bus and claim to be Jesus, which made him a disgrace in his small, religious community. After he began self-medicating with alcohol, my maternal grandmother had him institutionalized, where he eventually died. I spent my childhood believing that he had hurled himself from a high place -- the mental image was always a metal mesh catwalk, a man in shackles, a look of resignation as he jerks out of the hands of the guards -- but my father has since told me that he died of a heart failure, partially as a result of overeating in response to his situation.
Like my maternal grandmother, my Grandma Knight is a very religious woman, though in a much more restrained fashion. (By which I mean to say, she's religiously observant, not nuts.) She's a conservative woman with a strong personality. After my grandfather was institutionalized she provided for her family for a number of years during the fifties and sixties, I believe working at a meat packing plant. Again, remember that this was a small rural community, and reputation counted for a lot. Or so I imagine...
Neither of my grandfathers was spoken of when I was a child, and they fascinated me. In some ways, I don't quite seem like anyone else in my family, and I always imagined that my grandfathers the missing parts of the puzzle. I had to piece together my images of them from overheard conversations and dropped remarks and hesitantly answered questions and piles and piles of outright lies. But I wound up imagining that I was somehow a cross between them, that the mystic of the woods and the seafaring soldier-of-fortune combined to make me.
I don't know their names. I never knew their names.
There are things I'll never know, but I do know this much --
Until now it never struck me that if the revisionist version of my Grandma Jean's story is true, they both ended their lives in a virtually identical fashion. There may be something to this coherent narrative stuff, but it's already getting kind of creepy, isn't it?