Not long ago I applied to join the Sons of the American Revolution, which is open to all those who are directly descended through the male line from any man who carried a weapon in the Continental Army or served in the Continental Congress. This takes some work to prove. You need to have certified paperwork for every stop along the way to America’s founding. For me it was six stops – six generations all the way back.
I was aided by a book some distant relatives published, a book that names every Ruse in America from my generation to the founder, Aaron Ruse, in the mid-eighteenth century. This book provided a road map used by Joe Dooley, the Sons’s registrar. Dooley, an enthusiastic wizard at this kind of thing, found court papers, birth certificates that we could not find, census material even though there was huge fire that destroyed much of America’s census material early in the last century.
One day Dooley rather reluctantly told me a rather involved story about my ancestor John Ruse who lived during the Civil War. Dooley said that records indicated that Great-Grandpa Ruse joined the Union Army on a Monday and five days later deserted. Shortly thereafter he moved to Iowa and started using his middle name William.
We cannot know his motivation. Perhaps he was unhappily drafted. Perhaps he was a northern sympathizer to the southern cause. Perhaps he was a coward. Desertion was not uncommon then. 200,000 deserted from the Union army over the course of the war, 18,000 of them from Ohio.
What struck me hardest that day, though, was not shame or anything like that. What struck me was wonder at how delicate the thread that connects me to life. John William did not become one of the 618,000 men who died in that most bloody of American wars. He lived on to fifty-seven years old and sired six children including my grandfather Charles. Of course, John William might have survived the war even if he had not left the field. But perhaps, just perhaps, his act of cowardice, pragmatism, or principle made my life possible.
Once you start down this particular road of wonder it is hard to stop. And we think of everyone who survived before. With modern medical techniques, getting through a long life is a lot easier than it ever used to be. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt says that the population explosion happened not because we breed like bunnies but that we no longer die like flies. I think of each of my ancestors and not just back to the American founding but way back through the mists of time. Medicine may explain some features of modern times, but what about before? How is it that every single one of my ancestors survived long enough for their children to be born? How did they happen to turn the right way one day and not be taken by, I don’t know, a lion? A flood? A bullet? A streetcar? A germ?
I look at my one-year-old daughter Gigi and see how helpless she is, and reflect on how babies rely on us for everything. Leave them alone long enough and they will die – and there go children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on; the delicate thread of life broken.
How is it then that there can be such a thing as the Culture of Death? How can there be a whole generation indifferent or even hostile to the unborn child, the frozen embryo, the coma patient, and the terminally ill? How can there be a generation of souls wholly indifferent to this delicate thread that exists in each of us and that connects us backwards to the beginning and forwards to His return?
But it is not just the Culture of Death that threatens the unbroken thread. There is also the Culture of Selfishness that avoids marriage and, once married, also avoids children. I am an example of the former. I did not marry until forty-seven. How did I come finally to be blessed with a wife and two children at my advanced age? How did I not break the thread, and in not breaking it also avoid a break in the covenant with my ancestors and with my descendants?
At this time of year, I certainly give thanks for the settlement of this land. But my thanks are much larger than that. And my thanks, I believe, align themselves with those of the Pilgrims. I thank God for his Divine Providence that brought me here to these shores, but also and more importantly for His loving kindness that connects me to this delicate yet unbroken thread.