I Am French

This is an entry from this morning in my Journal of Impossible Things.

Today is my son James’ birthday. He’s 23. I wish I could be with him.

I was texting last night with a friend and the subject came up of names and their origins.

When I was young, I thought of being English as “regular”. I guess I assumed that we (all or most regular) Americans were English. We were all descended from the English colonists of the 17th and 18th centuries, right? English was everybody. English was regular. English was boring. I was English. I was boring.

My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, had married a man from Puerto Rico. My cousins were half Puerto Rican. They were not regular. They were not boring. They were cool.

Sometimes I would meet people who were Italian. Or Greek. I had a vice-principal who was Armenian. My father dated a woman named Olga who lived with us for awhile. (I, many years later, found out she’d gotten pregnant and had a son named Roman. I haven’t found him yet.) Olga was Ukrainian. These people were not boring. These people were not regular. These people were exotic.

My middle name is Broughanard. I was the only one I’d ever heard of with a name like that. Somewhere along the line I heard it was Old English for “Great Warrior” or something. But it was still English, and I hated the name, as did my father and his father before him. (I am the third – Louis Broughanard Shackleton III.)

I asked my paternal grandmother, Louis Sr.’s wife, from whence came the name once, and all she could tell me was “it was an old family name” – it had been someone’s surname on some maternal line somewhere, and someone hung it on my grandfather as a middle name, as was a custom back then.

I would have asked my grandfather, but he was a miserable old drunk who hated me, despite my best efforts to win his love. He only liked his granddaughters, and I was the hated oldest son of his hated oldest son. I was an adult researching the family tree when I found a newspaper clipping from the fifties or sixties where he’d been arrested for taking indecent liberties with a young local girl. My grandmother claimed it was a misunderstanding when I asked her about it. (He was 15 years dead at the time.) My aunts, however, sang a different song. He was a child molester.

It was about 2000-2001 when I began looking into my family history.

I wound up getting in touch with long-lost branches of my family that put me in the right directions with little bits of information here and there. I talked to my grandmother extensively. Her grandfather was German! Anton Plattner, a mysterious man “from the Black Forest” who came to America alone with a limp after being shot in the leg “in the war”. Which war? Nobody knew, and he’d never say. He wouldn’t talk about anything before he came to the states. He married another immigrant from Germany – Catherine Neusslein. My grandmother’s father was the illegitimate son of a very young man and his father’s “Irish Maid”. The family paid her a lot of money to have the baby and then go away.

Finally, something not boring!

The Irish Maid story turned out to be not-quite-true, but my great grandfather was initially illegitimate. Mr. Young (that was his actual surname and my grandmother’s maiden name, though I can’t recall his first name just now)* did marry Mary Fitzgerald after Harry was born, but she died a few years later, and he had a second family, the descendants of which gave me the fuller story along with copies of primary documents to support it.

On my mother’s side, I had more luck. On one line, I’m descended from Scottish immigrants – William McKnight, a sept of Clan MacNaughten. On another, I am a direct descendant of William Arnold, one of the founders of the colony of Rhode Island. And Henry Rittenhouse, for whom Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia is named, the family being close friends of William Penn.

Carpenters, who were Welsh. Evanses, who near as I can figure out were escaped slaves from Virginia – African Americans!! (My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was apparently aware of that part, and was decidedly unhappy I’d uncovered the family secret – she never spoke to me again after I called her excited to inform her that her ex-husband was part black.) Bushes, of the same family from whence come two awful Presidents of the United States. Perkinses, one of whom owned a saloon in Morgantown, WV called The Wagon Wheel.

I was not boring or regular anymore!

And finally, back to my father’s side, I found the origin of Broughanard.

During the American Revolution, a doctor from France came to assist the colonies in their fight against British rule. His name was John Brognard. After the war, he stayed, and was even honored posthumously by an Act of Congress.

He had children, and either his son or grandson was named Louis. Louis Brognard. (Pronounce that with a French accent and listen to it…)

I traced my great grandmother through the censuses back to Louis. He was her great or great great grandfather, I can’t remember now.

As near as I can tell, she wasn’t overly literate, and when she named my grandfather after Louis, she did her best to “Frenchify” Brognard, and came up with Broughanard. And this is why I pronounce my name in the French fashion – looEEE – long E, silent S, emphasis on the second syllable.

I am not boring. I am not regular. I am an Englishman, Shackleton from Shackleton in the West Riding of County York. I am an Irishman descended from Gerald, whoever he may have been. I am Welsh, and I am Scott of the clan MacNaughten. I am German, I am Austrian, and I am African.

And I, dear reader, I am French (though this is not Versaille).

I am all of these people, or at least the product of them all. The good and the bad, the regular and the exotic, the famous and the farmers. And I am none of these people. I am unique, the only one of me on this planet. I revel in both of those facts.

I wonder who gave me my love of flirting. Who were the terrible kissers? Who followed all of society’s rules, and who chafed under their yoke?

I wonder what each of my 1024 10x grandparents would think of me, and what they would say about The Making Lemonade Road Tour.


*His name was Jacob, I remembered later. Jacob Young.