Return of the Non-Native

63

Illustration by Mike McQuade

My dad was a dervish of a father. When I annoyed him, he’d suggest I go play in the street. I learned to shoot pool with him at the local bar when I was 10—outings that ended with a quick “Don’t tell your mother.” But when my favorite doll broke, he melted down paperclips to fuse a hip replacement for her. He fished. He smoked. He swore with precision, rolling delectable curses around his mouth like a sommelier.

And he could tell one hell of a story.

Much of it was family folklore. Like when his father, Raymond Stankorb Jr., fighting in Germany during World War II, stumbled upon our family’s castle—a castle!—ransacked after a battle. Our American ancestors had been Jews named Steinkopf who changed their name and assimilated in Ohio as largely non-practicing Baptists. But the German kin had tougher luck. The legend was that, seeing the family home empty, Grandpa surmised they had fled or maybe were dead. Then he pilfered a small mirror that had been left behind.

Dad’s own domestic tales were more Dennis the Menace than Anne Frank. He claimed bobcats lived in the trees outside his childhood home in Milford. Quality time was spent romping around his grandparent’s farm in Withamsville. I pictured him as a 1950s kid with black-framed glasses, skinned knees, and a perpetually dirty face. I imagined him as a quintessential midcentury American teenager, folding a pack of smokes James Dean-like in his shirt sleeve and steering an old hearse into the drive-in.

I grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, where my father moved in the 1960s looking for work. I was a good kid, shy, on the honor roll. But I spent a lot of time dodging the reputation that dogged my name. From time to time—oddly, often at the library—I would be asked, “Stankorb? Do you know…” Fill in the blank with names of my extended family—spread-out “half-relations” of all sorts due to the long stretch between the progeny of my father’s first marriage and me, the product of his last.

“No. Don’t know them. Never heard of them.” I always lied. Some of the Stankorbs I knew about in Youngstown drank heavily. Some got into worse trouble. Many had unpaid library fines.

But that was in Youngstown. My father’s childhood home existed in my imagination as a magical place, the sunny setting of his happy tales. I rarely visited his Cincinnati—once or twice to see my grandparents, then for my grandmother’s funeral. And so, unchecked by reality, my vision of southwest Ohio as the place of idyllic childhoods grew more exaggerated over time.

Grad school took me west to Chicago and marriage sent me east again to Cleveland, then Washington, D.C., for five years. When, last year, my husband was offered a job here, the relocation felt like moving home. Which makes a certain amount of sense: It’s where my ancestors settled generations ago. I knew there was an old family farm somewhere here that once stood, packed full of Stankorbs. I’d seen photos of it growing up, a stark white farmhouse with my father’s great-grandmother—and my alarmingly aged great-great grandmother Clara—standing erect out front, her white hair whipping loose from a tight bun. But I didn’t know any of these Cincinnati Stankorbs. They were just echoes, faded pictures, and silly stories. Now happenstance was re-planting me on top of my roots. Little did I know what coming home could really mean.

“Lay down in front of it!” my husband said, laughing and pointing to a tombstone inscribed with the name Sarah Stankorb.

I refused.

We had lived in the area about a month, and at my father’s encouragement, had made the trek out to Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Union Township, where most of the world’s Stankorbs appear to be interred. Sarah was my great-grandmother and I am her namesake; other than that I knew little about her. I didn’t know much about my female ancestors at all—except that many of them married hard drunks, and that they mostly had hard-drinking sons. Standing in front of her tombstone, I did some quick math and saw that she died at 35, just a few years older than I am now.

Nearby, my grandfather’s stone listed no death dates, although I knew that he passed when I was in middle school. I wondered who’d been tasked with this last detail. Maybe Dad let this one slip—he spent some time in the bottle working through his grief after his father died. Or maybe it was my grandfather’s only other child, my uncle Gary, who neglected to take care of the inscription. Gary is also no longer with us. From what I’ve been told, he quite literally dropped dead on a bar stool.

“Hey, look over here,” my husband called. He’d found a patch of aged markers, among them one partially covered with yellow moss and an obelisk sliding off its shaft. I’d already looked up old census records and had gone back as far as I could, to the time before we were Stankorbs and census-takers jotted us down as Steinkopf, Steinkorb, Steinkorp. The obelisk marked the grave of George Stankorb—the forefather who changed the surname and was the first to cross from Württemberg, Germany; born in 1820 and buried here with his wife, Elizabeth.

“It looks like it’s about to fall over,” I said.

“It looks like someone should fix it,” my husband said to me meaningfully.

I glanced around the graveyard at all the Stankorbs, feeling as though I’d suddenly inherited my ancestors, all of them strangers to me.

Stankorb, foremost, is an idiotic name. It’s never spelled correctly and means nothing. I regularly get mail addressed to Sarah Stanford, Stanko, Stankovich, Stantrob, and, quite rudely, Sarah Stank. Growing up, my father told me Steinkopf, our alleged original family name, meant stone basket. In college, a professor told me that kopf actually means head, thus I concluded that I come from a lineage of rock heads.

Nevertheless, I wanted to stand where they stood, see what they saw, understand the weird hurricane of self-destructive habits that lives in my bloodline. I needed real leads. I needed more than what I could find in census records or my dad’s old stories.

My father’s cousin Jerry, who spent most of his life in the area, told me over the phone that he’d lost the clipping of an article that once appeared in the Mt. Washington Press (or was it The Clermont Sun?) that depicted the original Stankorb cabin on Fulton Grove Road in Withamsville. Jerry had been told the family’s original name was either Steinkorb (that’s the version that means “stone basket”) or Sternkorb (the very cosmic-sounding “star basket”). And he had a clue for me. Jerry said that his dad told him there were three brothers who settled here, one of whom changed the name to Stankorb. The other two kept the original name—“Whatever it was,” he said—and got into a fight with the newly-minted Stankorb brother over the name change. As a bit of a thumb in his eye, they carved the original family name into the cornerstone of a building in Madisonville.

It was a little Indiana Jones: Find the building, find the stone, reveal the name, and understand something—some truth about my roots.

I spent days searching archives until I found a wine distributor list that noted a “John Stankorb’s saloon” that went out of business in Madisonville in 1887. There was no address listed and no Stankorb saloon in Madisonville in business directories from that time. When I told some locals that I was hunting for one of Madisonville’s oldest buildings, they directed me to the old main intersection at Madison and Whetsel Avenue. There was no cornerstone with the family name, just  the remains of an old Fifth Third Union Trust Co. office and two vacant lots. The building and the stone—if it indeed existed—were gone.

Still I plowed on. More research showed that at one of those vacant corners, John Stirnkorb’s tavern once stood. It had been built around 1896, long after John Stankorb’s saloon evidently went out of business, but was knocked down in 1996.

So the names and dates weren’t matching up. Old newspapers showed John Stirnkorb was a reasonably upstanding chap. He was a one-time city council candidate, and other than the time he was fined for “selling intoxicating beverages” on a Sunday, he lacked that certain miscreant Stankorb je ne sais quoi. Stirnkorb lived and died in Madisonville. He’s buried somewhere other than Mt. Moriah, where John Stankorb is.

But could John Stirnkorb’s father, Johann, have been the one who held a grudge over the name? Johann was born about a decade after my great-great-great granddaddy George, also in Württemberg, Germany. Could they be brothers? Possibly. But there was a population of around 1.5 million people in Württemberg at that time and plenty of them had names consisting of stars, stones, and baskets.

I began to feel like I was chasing the Stankorb equivalent of an urban legend. And what about this John Stankorb anyway? Until I got the scrap of information about his saloon, he’d been an unexplored prong on the family tree—just my great-great grandfather’s big brother. When I saw his birthday, I laughed: July 21, 1857.

His parents, George Sr. and Elizabeth, were married in February 1857—it seems with little John already on the way. Notably, George’s name was misspelled on the marriage license: Stirnkorb.

My father was just out of high school the first time he got married.

“They came over to us and said they have to get married because she’s pregnant, you know,” my Grandpa Mack, dad’s stepfather, remembers. Grandpa Mack didn’t think much of the girl and wanted to make sure my father was actually the one responsible. It was an inauspicious beginning for a family.

“I heard she kept the kids in a dresser when they were small,” I said. “And that when they cried, she’d shut the drawers.”

“Yeah,” my Grandpa Mack shook his head. “And after they got divorced, she was even worse with the kids.”

This was the Cincinnati marriage that produced my oldest half-brother, Mark, who I grew up knowing as that voice on the other end of a long-distance collect call from prison. A voice that told me to stay in school so that I would not turn out like him.

My husband and I moved here about a year after Mark died from HIV, finally out of jail and living in a nursing home at 50. I felt guilty for having a dead half-brother I barely knew, so one of the first things I did when we arrived was make a public records request for Mark’s arrest history.

I retrieved the information at the Clermont County Municipal Courthouse, which overlooks the County Jail where Mark was probably held as he awaited trial. In 1999, he robbed a Bank One in Bethel. (Perhaps it was a girlfriend’s idea, as he claimed on a separate occasion when he robbed a gas station.) During one of his long stays in prison he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as schizophrenia. While he was behind bars, he’d stay on his meds; when he got out, he’d go off them and wind up back in jail. Between prison stays, he’d occasionally make it to Youngstown, needing money, looking lost, and laughing with a ludicrous giggle that was both boyish and chilling.

I eyed the jail and considered the different courses of our lives. The gentle touch of my mother, the evidently insane sting of his. The father we shared: the man who left him and stayed with me. The father who met and married my mother after two failed marriages and who, after many years, finally found his way into sobriety, into becoming a new man. Despite the fact that my own marriage offered me the opportunity to leave this legacy behind, I’d kept his name.

After nosing over Withamsville’s original land surveys, I showed up one morning on Fulton Grove Road. Looking lost or innocent or disheveled (or all of the above), my son and I knocked on the front door of a vaguely familiar white farmhouse with a sprawling old barn. I described the Stankorbs and my quest to find my roots to the current owners, Janet and Andy, who were kind enough to let us inside. Their kids played with my son while Janet told me about how she had researched and restored the house. My instincts were correct: It was, in fact, the home built by my great-great grandparents—the home that had replaced the first Stankorbs’ log cabin.

I stood in the house, waiting for some sort of familial connection to overtake me. This was the kitchen where Clara, the elderly specter from old family photos, padded around pregnant nine times. It’s where she raised a reckless, feckless brood of men. I stood at the threshold she must have crossed every day—and felt very little. It was Janet’s house now. And here I’d come, wanting to fill the place with ghosts.

It was inevitable that I interview my father properly for this, but when I finally pointed a tape recorder in his direction, his storytelling turned tame. Because he could, he took some of the juiciest elements of our family history off the record. (Thanks, Dad.) When I mentioned the “family castle” his father found in Germany, he scoffed. “He told me it was a castle, but I don’t know.” He thought for a moment then added, “It wasn’t a castle, that’s for damn sure.”

But something else has changed his story-telling bravado. He has been sober for more than a decade, and in that time was my mother’s sole caretaker in her long slog through cancer and its treacherous rounds of chemo and radiation. Which makes him something of a survivor, too—gentler, more vocal about love, a bit shaken by life’s fragility.

I had always imagined him as a rowdy youngster, never a small, innocent kid—like my son—needing care. But of course he was a vulnerable kid once; we all were. And as I asked pointed questions about growing up, his fantastic childhood settled into a bumpier tale. His father headed off to war when he was 2. His mom took a job at Lunken Airport, so my father and his brother stayed with his grandparents in Withamsville. Dad showed me his parents’ yearbook photo from Bethel High, class of ’41. His dad had been class president, his mom class secretary.

“Had they been married long before she had you?” I asked.

“Couldn’t have been, I was born in ’42. And I’m wondering if they were…” He paused and laughed. “I never thought about that.” He laughed some more, suggesting maybe he was just born early.

His dad was honorably discharged in 1946, after serving in Germany and France. “He came in, put me on one shoulder and Gary on the other, and took us to a candy store on Eastern Avenue and bought us all kinds of stuff. Candy, balloons, and I don’t know. We were really impressed,” he said, then laughed a little more before settling into quiet. “And then, he and mom got divorced.”

My father’s brother stayed at his maternal grandparents’, and Dad stayed with his paternal grandparents, the Stankorbs, until his mother remarried as a Mack, and Dad was ready to start school.

I’d never pictured my father so young, a small boy shuffled between caretakers. But that was the reality. His dad fell hard into drinking and was largely absent after his mother remarried. On weekends my father would take the bus by himself from Milford to visit his Grandpa Stankorb’s farm out in Withamsville. I’d often heard stories about the trek, the small critters Dad sometimes brought along for the ride. But until now, hearing the story as a mother myself with a kid I hardly trust to ride a school bus, I started to see my father anew: A youngster making the best of things, delighting in frogs and snakes and turning the everyday into the fantastic, because that helped a choppy childhood make sense.

“Did you know Pop-Pop took a bus back and forth from his grandparents all by himself?” I asked my own kindergarten-aged son later. I had dragged him out with me to look for the cornerstone, the family farm, and to interview my Grandpa Mack, so he had gotten a child’s-eye view of the territory.

He shook his head, mildly astonished.

“Once he brought his mom a bucket of tadpoles on the bus,” I said, repeating a tale my father had told me hundreds of times when I was a kid. “Another time, he got off the bus and said, ‘Mom, look what I brought you,’ and you know what he pulled out?”

He shook his head again.

“A snake!”

My son’s eyes grew wide and filled with a familiar devilish dance, a mixture of mischief and delight that I had seen before. Stone-basket, star-basket, pocket-full-of-snakes. There it was, in my son’s eyes. And in mine. And in my father’s.

I took a deep breath and began unwinding some of my father’s old yarns for my son. It was like magic, seeing him laugh, as wide-eyed as I once had been. Maybe I added a little, exaggerated some. It’s OK. I’m a Stankorb. It’s what we do.

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