An American family — myth, memory, imagination, and lies by
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Prompted By Family Myths

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America has really busted through in the myths department. Europe was plagued with the Brothers Grimm, no need for wordplay there. Maybe the Brothers Bummer would be more appropriate. Our creation myths have to do with humans, not gods, people like Paul Bunyan, Marie Laveau, the very real actualization of the divine feminine (look her up if you don’t know her), Fredrick Douglass, Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, Rosa Parks.

One can only imagine the glories and horrors...

Myths in America have more to do with the delicious tradition of making up glorious lies, the more outrageous the better, although an American myth needs verisimilitude. Mark Twain personifies the glory of the great American lie, lies so grand yet so believable they have gained mythical stature. A celebrated jumping frog?

Disclaimer: Our current Thug in Chief does not qualify as a great American liar.  His lies crawl across the swamp in a film of pathological scum and are instantaneously expunged by the goddess of the Great American myth.

My family, having arrived here in 1640 (Virginia, the Townsends) and in 1849 (Pennsylvania, the Degelmans), qualifes for membership in the fat, cast-iron cauldron that renders family myth, memory, imagination, and lies into a rich, variegated porridge. Apparently, one of my Townsend ancestors married a Cherokee princess. I translate that to mean that some ancestor took the woman as a slave although she did imprint her legacy (if she existed at all) on my grandmother, her daughters, my aunt and mother, all of whom enjoyed a decidedly un-English cast to their lovely features. Between 1640 and the 1880s, the Townsends made it across the wilderness to Portland, Oregon. One can only imagine what glories and horrors transpired during that ancestral odyssey.

For real, a great, great grandfather started a creamery in western Oregon that processed the milk of the famous Tillamook dairy cows. These bovine artisans and my ancestors were said to be instrumental in creating Tillamook cheese. Tillamook cows, like coastal wineries, thrived on the isolated but ideal meadows facing the Pacific, where sun, wind, and fog conspired to make the ever-so Tillamook cows graze on just-right Tillamook grass. The creamery flourished and the Townsends owned the first electric automobile in Portland, a Baker Electric, a sensible town car for the ladies.

Myth becomes reality when my grandfather and his brother broke into a savage battle over the creamery. My grandfather, who suffered his entire life as a fool and a romantic, gathered up his beautiful but tubercular wife and young daughters and moved to San Francisco where he would pursue his ambition to become a stockbroker. The year? 1929.

Louise Nydegger Degelman, Butte, Montana 1906

History and myth fared better on the Degelman side, where word has it that my grandmother, Louise Nydegger left her Pennsylvania farm and its dour, bearded patriarchs to become one of the first women to enroll in Penn State University where she graduated magna cum laude and left immediately for Paris to study at the Sorbonne where she earned a PhD in linguistics. Here she is in Butte, Montana, where she met and married my journalist grandfather after returning from the Sorbonne. She taught the children of striking copper miners. I think most of this really happened.

(Here, I suggest you visit an early Retro offering, “Charles and Louise — liars, lovers, and mythmakers”.)

Before Louise left for the Sorbonne, other Degelmans fought in the Civil War on Union gunboats that patrolled the major waterways, as tactically important as our interstate highways are today. Most survived the war, except for one Degelman, who died of cholera on his quarantined vessel, moored in the middle of the Ohio river.

Placerville,  July 4, 1880 — A Degelman boot shop sign hangs on the left side of the street.

Next, the Degelmans surfaced in Placerville, California, where my great grandfather started a boot shop. They apparently came across the plains in Conestoga wagons but I have no record of that, so the wagon train could have been mythical. My cousin, Jon, son of Louise, named after her Paris-matriculated mother, bears a remarkable resemblance to Charles the bootmaker.

(You can find more on this saga in another Retro piece, Placerville, 1988 — Galoots in mud boots”.)

Uncle Ernie poses in pastry chef regalia

My great uncle Ernie was a pastry chef. I remember him because he would make popovers when he came to Massachusetts. Most of the time he lived in California. He was a pastry chef at the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. Myth has it that he lived in a cave above the hotel in the summers. Then we found this photo of his cabin in the Greenhorn Mountains.

The grownups referred to Ernie as “a confirmed bachelor” or a “nonconformist.” Like many “nonconformists,” Ernie was an anachronism, a hipster out of his time.

Uncle Ernie’s cabin in Sequoia National Park

My grandmother, Louise, with her Sorbonne feminism had to be a hipster as well, but both these characters flourished during the progressive times that marked our entrance into the 20th century.

Because he died when I was so young, much of my father’s life is blurred by time. I’ve written much about him, often in Retrospect, and trying to understand his life and the role he played in mine still has me alternately sparring and dancing with shadows. Or maybe it’s like stirring that ancient cast-iron cauldron full of myth, memory, imagination, and lies.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    This is so beautifully written, Charles. I’m amazed by how much detail you know about your ancestors. Myth or reality? Who will ever know, Your stories are a tale of American history. I really enjoyed reading this, and you are so right about Trump. The only myth there is his self-created distortion of the truth.

    • Thanks, Laurie. I do know a fair amount and Retro has given me a chance to gather much of it in one place. Ah, yes, two hundred years of glory, horror, hard work, myth, and lunacy. What a legacy. I’ve uploaded a few pics from one side of the family, but have lost access (temporarily, I hope to my mother’s family photos. Ah well.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Another wonderful piece of writing, Charlie. Thank you for sharing so much of your family, both fact and fiction, with us. And what an interesting family tree you’ve got there, dating back to the beginning of this country. Dan streamed a Ken Burns doc about “The West” recently with Conestoga wagons and the hard scrabble life of the pioneers. Your family lived it. I particularly love your last sentence “of myth, memory, imagination and lies”. Just wonderful.

    • Thank you, Betsy. There’s a lot to find in any family story that rolls across the continent for over two centuries. But I do appreciate that we had several historians, archivists, and storytellers in the family. But you know… story tellers. Liars, almost by definition, as per my last line.

      I’ve managed to upload a few pics from my father’s side of the family. My mother’s side photos have disappeared temporarily into cyberspace. Yikes!

  3. Marian says:

    Marvelous story, Charles. It opens up a window to a colorful, if different, historical family saga. I always thought it would be fun to know more stories about my family, true or not. For Jews a lot of history has been erased, unfortunately, and things get blurry very quickly. We can trace one side back to the 1850s in Romania, but we have almost no stories about them.

    • Thanks, Marian. I’ve researched and written a bit on immigration, and I know how difficult it can be to find old stories, especially since the Nazis and the cossacks did their damndest to bury history along with the Jewish people. I have very little real information about the early settlers in Virginia, hence my claim that “one can only imagine the glories and horrors” of colonists who took over two hundred years to cross the continent. Perhaps the new ancestry tracing tools could yield more info for all of us.

      I’ve uploaded a few pics to this story from my father’s side of the family. My mother’s side has mysteriously disappeared into cyberspace, temporarily, I hope.

  4. Suzy says:

    Amazing and wonderfully detailed story of your family and its myths. I love the phrase “the fat, cast-iron cauldron that renders family myth, memory, imagination, and lies into a rich, variegated porridge.” So descriptive! I also love the ad for the Baker Electric, which you describe as “a sensible town car for the ladies.” It’s great that you know so much about your ancestors, both the verifiable and not. Thanks for sharing them with us! Now where are the pictures?

    • Thanks, Suzy. I had a devilish time locating pics from both sides of the family, but I’ve uploaded a few from my father’s side. I like the idea that I don’t know the whole story, a great excuse for lying or mythmaking, as you wish!

  5. Charles. Let me join the others and say WOW to the storyteller and his story!

    Your knowledge of your family history is enviable, and the photos are marvelous!
    I have so little knowledge of my own family history beyond my grandparents who emigrated in the early 20th century.
    I do know that my maternal great-father was the rabbi in a small Ukrainian village, much like that in Fiddler in the Roof,, and that he sired both my Catskill-hotel-owning grandma. (see my earlier post MY GAME MOTHER,) and my theatrical great-aunt (see this week’s post, AUNT MIRIAM, DIVA.)

    But why didn’t I record more stories of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation? And why did I never ask my father about his WW II experiences.
    Too late now, and much regret!

  6. Charles, your fascinating saga reminds me of an episode of “Finding Your Roots”! Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and his team of genealogists have a truly amazing knack for unearthing the secrets and characters, heroes and scoundrels among them, buried in the past. I’m just enchanted with your great uncle Ernie — and what a wonderful photograph! Having been to the Ahwahnee on several occasions, I can just imagine him there…and in his summer cave. The stories HE could have told!

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