Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Bicycle Rider

William Neat was my great-grandfather, born around 1880.  I could look it up, but it's not important.  He came from the Fitchburg, MA area - there was a small troupe of Neats in the Shirley, Leominster, Ayer region.  I don't think any are left. There was a tribe of Neats who settled in Indiana and Kentucky in the 1800's, who I doubt are related, and a couple in Norwell who don't answer my letters but I suspect are from my line I can trace to Boston in the mid-18th C - but no close relatives.

His daughter Ruth Irene Neat died just before I was born, and so I was saddled with her maiden name as my middle one:  David Neat Wyman.  Neat is an older word for cattle, as you may remember from Neat's Foot Jelly.  Another theory is that it has something to do with St. Neot. Or not.

It was considered uproarious when I was a child, and I tried to conceal it.  Now it's just one more completely unlikely thing in life.

William lived until the early 1960's, but I never met him.  He did come to visit us in Manchester unannounced one night, with some third wife or girlfriend or whatever, wanting to see us.  My mother - I think she had only met him once herself - allowed him to watch my brother and I sleeping for a bit, and offered him coffee.  That he might have money to bequeath occurred to her, but didn't seem a strong enough possibility to be worth waking us. She didn't mention it until decades later.

Oddly, he did bequeath us something in a sense - very good quality bicycles, which he left with my father in Westford, who never got around to bringing them up to us, 45 minutes away.  Which tells you something about Dad.  But he remembered it and told the story years later and apologised, which tells you something else.

Someplace along the way, while visiting my Dad at his father's chicken farm one summer, I was told that William had been a bicycle racer and trick rider. That year or another, I found a book about the history of bicycle racing, autographed by the author to "Bill, the greatest..." something or other. I read it, because there was nothing else except stashed Men's World's (I read those, too; I read anything).  I recall that the book was old then, with sepia photos, and that Belgians and Frenchmen dominated the sport.  There was a fuzzy picture pressed inside the front cover of a man on a bicycle at county fair in the 20's, with "William Neat, Trick Rider" on the back. I think I have seen that photo in adulthood as well.

The only other story I know of him was my father's memory of being taken for a ride in a car around 1931, and his grandfather trying to scare him by driving fast.  Yeah, funny guy.  Al would have been about four.  I think there was real animosity from Ruth toward her father, and she kept away from him.  Whatever that was about is long lost to history, unless my youngest brother or his mother, my father's second wife, heard anything by chance over the years.  But Ruth Irene Neat, a nurse who married my grandfather Carl (in the parlor of a Baptist pastor in New Bedford in front of witnesses whose names mean nothing to me), is shrouded in mystery herself - even though she was a rather close relative to me.  I asked my father about her several times, and he dodged.  My mother was a newlywed when her new mother-in-law died, and my father just disappeared for a few days, leaving her to deal with lots of details herself.  She resented that, as well she might.


Unknown said...

Ahhh yes, Dad certainly dodged and weaved his way around the topic of his mother. I never got anywhere deep for my digging, but on the surface it was clear he was deeply saddened, uncomfortable or both, when having to mention her at all. My mom has shared with me that there were times, early in their relationship, when he spoke very fondly about her, but not much on details. I might have seen a photo of his grandfather on the bike once too...maybe a brief mention from dad, but not sure. Curious, did he ever explain in his long overdue apology what happened to the bikes?

- Scott

Sam L. said...

Sounds like a letter to Dear Abby--family secrets, stories not told or just hinted at... reminds me of the articles I've read this week about genealogical research.

I suspect you are fairly well prepared, professionally, to deal with this.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Scott, I'm pleased to learn that he mentioned her fondly, as little of a clue as that is. Though that does increase the mystery more. If he was fond of her, why the silence? The easy theory is that all the dark threads of our inheritance come from that line - but real life is seldom that tidy in its narrative.

It is even more remote for you, and yet Ruth is still 25% of your DNA. those who loom large emotionally are not the same as those who actually are large. I tend to believe that 80% of who we become is changeable only with great effort. We pretend it's environment because it's a story we know. Sort of.

As to the bicycles, the numbers don't add up. Our last visit with Al was 1966, when Jonathan (but not I) went on a canoeing trip (Saco?). i didn't see him again until 1971, when I sought him out and met you. Remind me to tell you about that sometime.

William died, what, 1964? Or earlier. I'll look it up. I visited Westford last in 1965, which I remember because I considered kissing Susie Creamer in that summer after 6th grade but didn't dare. So the bicycles should have been there by then. But why not just hand 'em over?

Yet I believe the story is true. Al might make up a lot of stuff, but that would be bizarre. I am assuming they eventually made their way to Donny or Jimmy Greenwood. Just a guess.

The DNA part may come clearer, BTW. I am in a study in which the Chinese genome-sequencing supergiant BGI is doing my complete genome. Very cool. As we share up to 50% DNA - average about 25% on paper, but half-siblings actually seem to go at about 38% - you'll have some strong guesses for your own alleles.

Texan99 said...

I never was able to get any information to speak of about my paternal grandfather. Everyone always sort of politely changed the subject. It's awful to think of being remembered that way, to be the kind of person that everyone is rather glad to hear has finally died.