The Old Man

I wrote this short essay in December 2005. Kent Gardien, the “Old Man,” died June 26, 2006. Progress on the book mentioned is at Kokernot book.

In November I visited an old man in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Cousin Barbara Jo Brothers and I went with the sole purpose of meeting him, yet I had the feeling that I already knew him, and even that I was seeing myself twenty or thirty years hence. He was extremely frail and only once in my five visits did he rise from his chair, using a walker to make his halting way to the adjacent room where we took dinner.

I felt like I knew him because I’d followed his tracks for a decade. We think alike. We were chasing the same ancestor. I counted as victories the rare times I discovered something he didn’t know, or even visited an archive that didn’t already have his name in the visitors’ log. And I saw myself in him because he had done what I feared doing. He accumulated a huge amount of knowledge about his family—our family—which will go to his grave with him, untold. The last thing he published on the topic was thirty-five years ago.

His tracks ended twenty years ago. I assumed he was dead until a cousin asked me “Why don’t you just give him a call? Here’s his number.”

Soon I was settled into a hotel three cobblestoned blocks from his home in the oldest part of an old city. Each morning I rang his doorbell at the hour designated, usually eleven, and left when invited to leave, usually at two. In between we sat in his upstairs library overlooking Fray Bartolome De Las Casas and he told wonderful stories. Stories of growing up a child of wealth in depression Texas. Stories of his (great-grand) “Aunt Gus” and “Aunt Beck,” both sisters to my own third-great-grandmother, Elizabeth, born in New Orleans in 1831. Stories told him by his (grand-) “Uncle Walter,” who grew up in the home of his own grandparents, David and Caroline Kokernot, who in turn told of the death of David’s father, a waterborn Jewish peddler, on Lake Pontchartrain in the 1820s.

The old man was unpredictable. “I’ll never remember these stories. May I tape record them?” “NO!” “May I take your picture?” “NO!” “I can’t take notes fast enough. May I copy these papers?” “Why don’t you just take them all with you?” When I left town it was with forty pounds of paper in the overhead bin, which paper has been deposited at the archives of Gonzales County, Texas.

And I left with a determination to finish what the old man started and what I started: a published history of our family. Of course it’s made more difficult by all the new information he’s given me, but it will be better for it.

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