Bill of Rights Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 461, March 23, 2008

"The greatest appeal of socialism is that its advocates
always imagine themselves at the top of the pecking order"

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The Mystery of the Disappearing Grandfather
by L. Neil Smith

Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

The story I'm about to tell you is one of the strangest I've ever heard. The strangest thing about it is that it's my story. Maybe it won't seem all that interesting to you — maybe I'm making a big deal out of nothing — but it's made the last year or so very odd to live through. Please keep in mind that some of it is speculation, and, like so many things in life — like life itself, I guess — it's "a work in progress".

Last year, like many of her age and situation, my wife Cathy got interested in genealogy. Her maiden name is Zike, and there had always been speculation in her family about where it came from. Some thought it was English, a variation on Sykes, others thought it might be Dutch.

It turns out that the name is German, and came here to America attached to an extremely intriguing fellow named Jacob Zeuch (that's pronounced "zoik", for you non-German speakers), a slave-warrior from the principality of Hesse who, with his fellow Hessians, got loaned to George III by one of his cousins to help put down rebellious American colonists.

The conditions under which the Hessians served were absolutely miserable, and, at some point, Private Jacob — and his colonel! — decided to desert. They spent a period as prisoners of war, and then, having been promised land as a reward, they defected to the American side. It must have seemed like heaven to be paid to fight and to be free men afterward. Jacob survived the war, married an American girl, settled in Kentucky, and had a big family. He has many descendants today.

With a little more research, and a little imagination, there's probably a novel in Jacob's story, and it's more than likely that I'll take a leave from science fiction to write in sometime in the coming decade.

But that was only the beginning.

It was a natural development that, with my encouragement, Cathy would employ her new-found genealogical talents to investigate my forebears, my mother's side of the family in particular. There were a lot of questions there that I was interested in finding the answers to.

My mother died a couple of years ago, having lingered for a long while after an extremely debilitating stroke. Following a cataclysmic argument with her own mother, she had left home and severed every connection with her family, in 1945, at the age of 18. As long as she was alive, she resisted, almost hysterically, any effort to look into her background or try to contact her long-lost relatives. I thought I knew the reason for it, but as it turns out, I didn't know the half of it.

Although my mother was born, or so she said, in Los Angeles in 1926, she was brought up, at the height of the Great Depression, in northern Arizona, near the Four Corners, around Tuba City. Her name was Marie Louise Coveleskie. Her mother, Henrietta Phelan Coveleskie, taught school in a one-room, multi-grade rural schoolhouse. Her father — my grandfather, Albert Coveleskie — was a Grand Canyon packing guide and Indian agent on the Navajo reservation. He had two brothers, Jesse and Ned, who were rugged western ranchmen of some kind.

My mother always said she came from a big family, including five older brothers and a single younger sister. The only brother whose name I can remember is Roger, after whom my own brother is named, and who died in submarine combat in the Pacific theater in World War II. Another of her brothers was in the Army, assigned to go from camp to camp instructing soldiers so they could avoid being taken by card sharks.

Being Polish on the Coveleskie side, and Irish on the Phelan side, the family was raised in the Catholic church and my mother attended a Catholic girls' school, although I'm not entirely certain where. My mother's younger sister became a nun. They also had a grandmother — or a great grandmother, I've never been certain which — named Etta Phelan who lived in Los Angeles and always sounded like Tweety Bird's granny.

When my mother was seven years old, around 1933, her father died. He had always been subject to periods of paralysis. He would collapse and would lie out in the sun which seemed to heal him somehow. He would enjoy a period of remission, and then collapse again. In my mother's mind, this was linked with a 300-foot fall he'd taken as a young man, from one of the winding Grand Canyon trails into a bed of sand.

The last time that Albert collapsed, they hauled him away to a hospital and my mother — a frightened little seven-year-old girl — never saw him again. Nor was she ever given any kind of explanation. Some local country doctor wanted everybody to think that Albert's condition was due to a venereal disease, which nobody who knew him believed, and it always sounded to me like undiagnosed muscular sclerosis.

For the next decade, my mother was forced to live with a woman — her mother — who always reminded me, in Mom's stories, of the Wicked Queen in Disney's Snow White, or of Maureen O'Hara at her absolute bitchiest, but with no John Wayne around to give her a well-deserved spanking. At some point, the widowed Henrietta married a wealthy rancher in the area named Lindsay Loy. My brother's middle name is Lindsay.

Apparently Henrietta was a screamer and a slapper (my own mother inherited some of that, and I had to fight it myself when my daughter was young). On more than one occasion, she struck my mother with a concho belt. For those of you east of Kansas, a concho is a decorative silver disk, sometimes as large as a silver dollar, with slots so it can be laced onto a strip of leather. Among southwestern Indians, it was a repository of wealth, and may be again, as the economy melts down.

There was also an incident in which my mother's head was smashed against a cast-iron woodstove because she'd let the overnight coals die. (Living conditions in the Four Corners area during the Depression were primitive; Mom had lots of stories about the many uses of canned milk.) In any case, after one particularly horrible fight, she left home — ordered by her mother never to darken her doorway again — and went to Los Angeles, where I believe she had already been working as a private secretary to the famous novelist and screenplay writer Frances Marion.

She was married to a Navy flier (I never knew his name) for only a few weeks before he, too, was killed in the Pacific war. She met and then married my dad, on R&R in San Diego after spending a year as an involuntary guest of the Third Reich. I was born about nine months and thirty seconds later, in 1946. They were together until Dad died in 1991.

I hope that I haven't bored any of you with all this stuff. It's interesting to me because it's the story of my family, a story I've lived with all my life. I never met any of my mother's people, but they have always been like characters to me, some good, some bad, in some old, warm, familiar, well dog-eared novel. The trouble is that, when Cathy went looking for them, none of my mother's story made any sense.

To begin with, there was nobody — and I mean absolutely nobody — by the name of Coveleskie in northern Arizona during the Depression. No grandfather Albert — hence the "disappearing grandfather" in the title — no Uncle Ned, no Uncle Jessie. Coveleskie, especially that particular spelling of it (which I've been told represents Catholic Poles with delusions of aristocracy) is not exactly an inconspicuous name, especially in a place as sparsely populated as Greater Tuba City.

Henrietta Phelan (who apparently did come from Los Angeles) was married in the late 1920s to somebody named Albert Smith (imagine my surprise) and despite the possibility that Albert Smith was a Mormon (imagine my even greater surprise) they had a relatively small family together, no more than two or three kids. There was no Marie Louise born to them in 1926. Instead they had a daughter the same age, named Alberta.

Was my mother's real name Alberta Smith?

The rest is a truly confusing mish-mash. Some of the names that my mother ascribed to brothers and sisters belong to uncles and aunts. I don't know where all of the tiny, extremely consisent details — like Uncle Ned's half-wolf dog named "Police" — came from. Guess I got my talents as a novelist — for which read, "professional liar" — from her.

There was a Lindsay Loy, and an extensive Loy family, into which Henrietta married. I mean someday to look them up and compare notes. I don't know if anything Mom ever told us is true. (I often wonder if she didn't steal her name from a Catholic school classmate.) Except for meeting my dad in Los Angeles, it appears my mother made it all up — large swatches of it, anyway — and every bit of it may have been a lie.

And I haven't the slightest idea why.

My mother was a rather fearful woman all my life, a sort of "don't run with scissors" kind of mom, but on steroids. It could be she was just afraid her evil, violent mother would find her (according to the northern Arizona phonebook, Henrietta lived into her nineties). Until we found that there were no Coveleskies, I often wondered why none of her brothers ever looked for Mom. She had periods of agoraphobia (so do I) and always kept heavy drapes drawn on the street side of the house. She was remarkably kind and generous, she adored my wife and daughter, but she would talk your arm off (I worry that I do that), and had whispered conversations with herself when nobody else was around.

To a certain extent, of course, none of this matters. I've never met my mother's people, Nor do I ever expect to. Nothing about them, whoever they are, has anything to do with who or what I am, with what I've done, or with what I will ever do. The whole thing reminds me of Lazarus Long's story about meeting "a little lizard who claimed he was a tyrannosaurus on his mother's side". The fact is, Americans remake themselves every morning when they get up. The Japanese (among others) often sneer at us for having "no history", but it's one of the things that make us different as a people, and, I think, perhaps a little better.

Yet in another respect, it's like being right-handed all your life only to awake one fine morning to discover that you're left-handed and always have been. At the very least, it's like taking that last step down the stairs in the dark, only to find, with a jolt, that it isn't there.

Life is strange, and it gets stranger the longer you live it.

So I'm Irish, not Polish.

It explains a lot.

Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas was recently completed and is presently looking for a literary home.

Neil is presently working on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Roswell, Texas, with Rex F. "Baloo" May.

The stunning 185-page full-color graphic-novelized version of The Probability Broach, which features the art of Scott Bieser and was published by BigHead Press has recently won a Special Prometheus Award. It may be had through the publisher, at, or at


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