Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Vacation Report: We Go to the Courthouse to Research, We See Couples Entering Holy Institution of Marriage

Another morning when I have less time than I'd like to blog, since we'll pack and drive in a few minutes across the state from Crown Point to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where we'll be spending a number of days researching at the fabled (for genealogists) Allen County Public Library. Before we pack, though, a final report on events on this first leg of our journey:

So on Friday, we go to the county courthouse to see if Steve can find a record of his great-great-grandparents' marriage. He has, of course, done his homework and knows that the marriage doesn't appear in indexes of marriages for the county. But a basic principle of family history: don't trust indexes, which are imperfect and often downright faulty. And don't believe that when a county official tells you the record you're seeking is not at the county courthouse, the official is necessarily correct.

Steve and I both (and many other folks who do family history) could tell you one story after another of runarounds we've gotten from county clerks who swear that a record is not in their holdings, and then we visit the courthouse, look for ourselves, and there the record is in plain sight. Just yesterday, in fact, Steve returned to the local Lutheran church he had visited the day before, to tell the secretary that he thought the death of his great-great-grandmother's sister had to be recorded in the church's death registry, since he had found her obituary on Friday afternoon and it states that her funeral was at the Lutheran church.

He had gone to the church earlier on Friday to ask about the death record, the secretary checked the death register, and she told him the record was not there. She also told him, though, that the annotations and headings in all their records were in German, and she doesn't read German and has trouble figuring out how to read the registry. Yesterday, when he returned to the church office, the pastor was there and immediately found the death record Steve was seeking.

And so, back to the visit to the county marriage office: we finally find the place after three abortive attempts to locate it, when well-meaning officials direct us to the wrong place. The one woman staffing the office appears not to see us when we walk in, and continues talking on the phone. We have, it seems, acquired the charism of invisibility that morning.

When she finally puts the phone down, she's intent on being unhelpful: "No, we don't have those records. Go to Indiana University Northwest." Steve tells her he has already spoken to the folks there, who tell him the marriage record he's seeking would be at the local courthouse if it exists at all.

"Well, I'll have to call my supervisor." And so she does, and the supervisor tells her to tell Steve to go to Indiana University Northwest. When the clerk explains that Steve is resisting that runaround, the supervisor tells her to look through the micofiche index of marriage records for the county. Steve offers to do the looking, only to be told that no member of the public may touch the office's microfiche reader.

I do understand this lady's reluctance to be involved in this search, especially if an idiotic regulation doesn't allow people searching for records to use a microfiche machine that any halfwit can quickly learn to use. People are also piling into the office in droves to request marriage licenses and to be married, and only one other assistant is there to help. This smiling, welcoming lady has just appeared and is walking young couples through the paces to prepare for their marriages. 

And as the clerk says, "I don't know why the genealogists all come here on Fridays, which are always our busiest days." So I understand her impatience, though I also think it's always unhelpful when public officials do all they can to avoid serving the public and to make public records inaccessible to the public.

The stream of folks getting married and requesting marriage licenses: what an experience. I'm sitting all the while on a little bench observing, since I have no book with me to distract me. People dressed every way from Sunday, in filmy black dresses glittering with rhinestones to tank tops and flip flops. 

The sanctity of marriage seems to have rather elastic applications in real-life USA. Some of these folks look less as though they're entering a holy union from which the dirty gays need to be barred than going to the beach for a scantily clad frolic in the sun.

One young couple (heterosexual, bien entendu) applying for their marriage license, as the clerk assists them (she's finally relinquished the microfiche machine to Steve): "Yes, we plan to be married on that date."

Clerk: "Oh. Who's Brother?" 
Man to be married: "Brother? That's his title." 
Clerk: "A religious title? Brother of what? 
Man: "No, a fraternal brother. We're in the Masons together." 
Clerk: "You mean he's authorized to perform marriages as a Mason? I never heard of that." 
Man: "Yes, that's what he tells me." 
Clerk: "Well, I need to call him and clarify that." And so she calls, to be told that the man is both a Mason and an ordained minister of some church. "Oh, if you're ordained in a church, that's fine then. But you should put that title on the form, not 'brother.'"

And so to repeat myself: if what I saw taking place in the marriage office of one county in the nation this past week in a state that forbids the marriage of same-sex couples because those couples sully the sanctity of marriage, is all about marriage as a sanctified institution, I'll eat my hat.

Comedic it definitely was. Colorful in the extreme. Very human.

But holy? I have my doubts, just as I doubt that interjecting gay couples into this colorful human mix would do anything more than add to its rich diversity and strengthen the institution of marriage in American culture.

No comments: