The Beauty of Black Sheep by Sheila Englehart

Some families look forward to gathering for the holidays. My unconventional family prefers to remain still in hopes they creep by unnoticed. Gatherings are often dreaded and avoided. In fact, the common thread in my family is our desire for independence. I was curious to know where this began, or if someone in my family tree had ever made a connection that stuck. For the first time, I made inquiries with my Christmas phone calls. And what to my wondrous eyes did appear? A whole tree full of outcasts, black sheep for reindeer.

My father struggled to remember pieces of his past. His grandparents on both sides emigrated here sometime during the First World War. One set from Italy, the other from Germany. They found work in a railroad town on an Indian reservation where my parents and I would eventually be born. My father was never very interested in the family history and English was not their native tongue. It kills me that he didn’t pay better attention to the many stories his grandparents probably tried to share. He did remember that, as a boy, his Italian grandfather’s job was to take bags of grain by mule to the mill ten miles from home. After unloading he got to ride the mule home.

“Where was this?” I asked.

“All I know is it wasn’t Sicily.” No mob connections.

His son (my grandfather) did a bad thing. He married a German girl. His Italian family and her German family cast shunned them for that. My father followed his footsteps and also married a German girl his family did not approve of.

I got the impression that my mother’s side didn’t care for my father either. Her father took off when she was a baby. And all I knew about my grandmother was that she had worked for a furniture company and she’d been married three times before cancer claimed her. That alone would have made her a black sheep at that time. And who knows what secrets she took to her grave?

We all spawned from outcasts. And two black sheep don’t produce white sheep. Rebellion was bred into me and history repeated again when I married a man my mother didn’t approve of. But to a writer, black sheep are better than plump geese that lay golden eggs. Why rely on imagination if the coolest characters might be hanging on the branch above you to the left? On one side you might find a great aunt who sold homemade wine to the Indians during Prohibition, while on the other, an uncle who was a famous judge. I found generations of black sheep who defected from their families. Filling in the missing blanks can only make for richer characters, not to mention the deepest connection with my family that I’ve ever made.

Who broke from convention in your family tree? And can you write them into more trouble than they actually lived?


Filed under fiction, fun, life, writing

7 responses to “The Beauty of Black Sheep by Sheila Englehart

  1. I think most Americans are black sheep because our ancestors were the black sheep who immigrated here while the white sheep stayed safely in the old country. We are a country born of rebels and renegrades, free thinkers and dreamers.

  2. You and Kat both make it sound so romantic.

  3. I love family intrigues. Great article! I’m a black sheep in my family – the first and only to get a divorce was just the beginning. Have you read my book, “Night and Day”? It’s fiction based on the true story of why my great-great grandmother came (well, was brought, against her will, from what we can tell) from Denmark to America. You’d enjoy it.

  4. We have lots of stories in our families, but more untold stories than not. I have (actually had, some have died) 60 first cousins on the two sides. One of my great grandfathers left Germany so he didn’t have to serve in an army he didn’t believe in. A funny story–one great grandmothers started smoking a pipe after her husband died because she missed the smell of his tobacco. A shock to my grandfather, her son. “And now Ma smokes a pipe,” he told my grandmother. We pretty much run the gamut of about every life situation there is. But a lot of us on both sides really appreciate getting together. I’ve often felt like the Black Sheep in my family, more because of life choices compared to my brothers and sisters.

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