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Plausible Undeniability
by Gil A. Waters

Because I grew up in a bland, East Coast suburb far removed from my Midwestern roots, I rarely met any of my extended family members. Of course, since the invention of the automobile and the airplane, geographical distance only goes so far in explaining the dearth of family connections experienced by people such as myself. A certain degree of emotional distance is also to blame. In my case, this was due in large part to the fact that the families of my mother and father were unlikely to view one another with any sense of familiarity, let alone friendliness.

Although neither side of my family was over-populated by over-achievers, at least my mother’s side included professional musicians and artists who lived in real cities like New York. My father’s family was more likely to include professional railroad and carnival workers in Wichita. It was differences like these that bespoke a gaping chasm in world view within my extended family unit.

The full breadth and depth of the un-familiarity between the two halves of my lineage became alarmingly clear to me during my first adult meeting with my father’s brother, Billy.  I remember this encounter with the intensity of a childhood nightmare. My then-wife and I were in the midst of a cross-continental marathon: driving from coast to coast with only a couple of over-night stops in which we slept in a bed. Since Wichita was on the way, we took advantage of my birthright to stay at Uncle Billy’s for free.

I was disappointed to find that my uncle bore more than a passing resemblance to my father; stocky, bald, and devoid of the refined Irish facial features I shared with my mother. I was more perturbed by the Pat Robertson book displayed on the living-room bookshelf and the sound of Rush Limbaugh’s voice emanating from the radio on the bathroom sink. I could have derived some comfort from the placement of Mr. Limbaugh next to the toilet and the fact that my uncle knew how to read. But it was too horrifying to admit that I was closely related by blood to someone who felt an affinity for the psychotic wing of the American Right. It was incontrovertible proof of my long-standing suspicion that I belonged to a family which had swung down from the trees and into the trailer.

I couldn’t be too surprised by this unveiling of my inferior cultural pedigree, however. My father had told me stories about his intellectually stunted childhood and the barbaric customs of his — our — extended family. There were the cousins who moved from Wichita to Oklahoma City to be closer to Oral Roberts. And the aunts who prayed along with the televangelist by placing one hand on the television screen and the other around a large glass of hard liquor. But there was a comic-book quality to these stories that stripped away any sense of connection to the characters and events my father described. I could still pretend, with seeming plausibility, that I was my mother’s child, but not my father’s son.

Standing there in Uncle Billy’s living room, however, the veil of surreality lifted and a terrifying pall of undeniability took its place. Not only were conservative troglodytes teeming and breeding throughout the barren landscape of Middle America, but I was one of their kinfolk. I felt dirty, as if I needed to soak myself in bleach for a few weeks to remove the genetic stain. But, like Lady Macbeth, I have no hope of removing that damned spot that marks each cell of my Midwestern body.

I have never returned to the land of my birth since that fateful, cross-country drive, although I have flown over it with my eyes shut. But I’ve been unable to escape the tangled web of kinship that is my inheritance. When Aunt Martha dies, I’m sure to get a call from Cousin Betty, telling me how the funeral went, how Uncle Verne is holding up, and how all of us should really try to stay in touch. Chances are that I won’t know who Cousin Betty is and will have only the vaguest recollection of Aunt Martha and Uncle Verne, but I will offer my condolences and pledge to do my best to keep the family tree alive.