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Martha's big adventure -- Family relations - Martha Carr

Imagine my surprise when I got a call from reader, Homer Muir, in Huntington, Ind., who wanted to know if we were distant cousins.

He had seen my name at the top of my column in the Huntington Herald Press, and instantly my middle name, Randolph, and then coupled with my last name, Carr, made the 79-year-old Homer sure he'd found a little bit of family.

Turns out he was right, and he only had to go back about 350 years to find our common ancestors, Thomas and Mary Carr. Thomas, Jr., who was born in 1678 in Spottsville, Pa., married Mary Dabney, who was born in 1688 in New Kent, Va. They were married in King William, Va., and lived out the rest of their lives in Louisa, Va. The last part of that story I'm very familiar with, and was raised on the stories of my father's family growing up in Louisa right down to the wedding of my grandparents.

After that, my grandfather, Cary Peyton Carr, hightailed it for the big city of Richmond, Va., which must be where I got some of my wanderlust and draw to big cities.

What always gets left out of my family history are stories about my mother's side of the family. My father's history is so colorful that I didn't even notice how absent my mother's side was until a few years ago. That's when I started doing a little digging.

It was a surprise to learn that I had a great-grandmother, Charlotte Pool Toler, who was from Arkansas and knew all of the folk songs of her time. She had ten children, her last as late as 45 years old, and died in her 90's.

Those are the kind of details that I want to know, and it's sent me off on a search for the American folk songs of the 1880's, Charlotte's heyday, that were prevalent in Arkansas. My mother, Leontine, remembers Charlotte singing them and I'd like to give some of the songs, now forgotten, back to my mother.

Tracing family histories is very big right now in America and there are two new shows capitalizing on our need to know where our roots twist and turn.

NBC has a new show, "Who Do You Think You Are," that premiered on March 5th and travels with celebrities as they find out more about their family trees. The first episode featured actress, Sarah Jessica Parker, as she set out to know more about her mother's lineage. At the beginning, Sarah was convinced that her family was fairly new to America and not very distinguished. She makes a joke that if they knew about the ship, the Mayflower, it was because they either helped to build it or cleaned it.

However, it turns out that she had a relative, John S. Hodge, who took part in the Gold Rush of the 1850's and another relative, Esther Elwell, who was one of the last accused in the Salem Witch Trials. Pretty heady stuff.

Other celebrities who make the journey in future episodes are Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith and Brooke Shields.

PBS is airing "Faces of America," hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who used genealogy and genetics to see not only who people were related to, but who is connected now. The actress, Meryl Streep, learns she is related to the director, Mike Nichols. Stephen Colbert, Eva Longoria, Queen Noor and others are featured as well.

There is an innate need to know where we come from and how we fit in to our surroundings, and when we find out more about the small details, we feel our own definitions of ourselves grow, change and then somehow make room for the possibility of more.

Once I knew that my great grandmother, Charlotte, had a passion for singing and her husband, Charles Toler, was a whiz at retail and owned a lot of general merchandise stores, it added to my ideas about what I might be capable of doing.

That's what we give to subsequent generations of Americans when we head out the door to try yet again. We're a unique land of every ethnic backgrounds, who still have one thing in common. We all believe we can do better and we're willing to try over and over again.

Remember that the next time the economic woes are getting you down. You come from great stock and there are unseen roots spreading out deep into the ground to support you. More adventures to follow.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.