My former in-laws in the United States are direct descendants of Christopher Columbus. This is fact. It will now be demonstrated. No other family in North America can make this claim. These worthy people are the Boals. Their ancestral home in America is a tiny village called Boalsburg in central Pennsylvania. I’ll attempt to explain, without the bias of a former in-law, why the Boals aren’t better known, or known at all, in this quincentennial year of Christopher Columbus.

In 1908, the Boals inherited the family chapel of the Christopher Columbus castle in Spain. The bequest included both the stone masonry of the chapel and the many priceless objects inside. In 1909 Theodore Boal—known as Terry—brought these materials across the sea to Boalsburg, where he reassembled the chapel. In 1912 he built a small, stone barnlike structure to enclose the chapel. The only genuine Columbus museum in the New World had been established.

The Columbus chapel can hold only 35 people. Any visitor with a historic sense will stare in wonder at the objects inside. It even has the trunk Columbus took on his voyages, where it functioned as a desk and in which he stored his nautical studies. There is also a large silver cross that Columbus owned. If he did not hold this particular cross when first stepping onto the new land, he carried a similar one. Also transported from Spain were swords belonging to the Columbus family, other personal heirlooms of the great explorer, a small casket containing relics (a gift to the Columbus castle in Spain in 1817), a church maniple more than five-centuries old, and carved Renaissance statues of saints. To enter the Boalsburg chapel is to enter the Spanish Renaissance. Masterpieces of oil painting adorn the walls, including the Pieta by Ambrosius Benson (circa 1535) and The Sacrifice of Isaac by Ribera (circa 1615).

Terry Boal, an international adventurer and war hero had brought home to the tiny town bearing his name the only collection of personal belongings of Christopher Columbus on this continent. He had been studying architecture in Paris in 1894—his stone encasing around the Columbus chapel was done by an experienced hand—and in a whirlwind courtship he met and married the lovely Mathilde Denis de Lagarde. Mathilde provided the family-tree connection with Columbus. When she inherited the Columbus chapel and treasures in 1908, Terry brought this collection, stones, mortar, and paintings to Boalsburg the following year.

I encountered a pleasant, welleducated, hardworking, middle-class Boal family in the early 1960’s, in a growing suburb outside Los Angeles. These Boals lived a short drive on uncrowded freeways from Pasadena, California, home of the Rose Bowl football game. The Boal family living nearby was not notorious (or acclaimed) for their puns, but they did name their eldest daughter Rose Boal. Rose became my wife for three years, from 1969 to 1972, and this brief young marriage allowed my only connection with world history on a grand scale.

I must mention that “Rose” was her middle name, though this did not prevent her from the same teasing I receive for being baptized Tom Jones. We at least started off with something in common. Today Rose’s desire for anonymity from the Columbus spotlight could be intense, and her fondness for me small, so I’ll kindly refrain from mentioning her first name or other identifying facts—with the exception that she did like to sail. She was a tall, graceful, athletic woman. She could sail a small unmotored craft over turbulent waters with skill and ease. Her father was also an expert sailor, and found shipboard life more challenging and exciting than his house in the suburbs. Rose affectionately called him Pilot. Today my former father-in-law lives on his boat, docked somewhere on the California coast, and applies for honorary seaman’s titles. To insist Christopher Columbus was the source of these traits, which Pilot Boal passed on to Rose, would be ludicrous, though it has given me occasion to ponder, especially during this quincentennial year. Rose and I didn’t have children, but it’s likely they’d have been introduced early to toy boats.

I also can’t avoid letting red hair enter the discussion. The Christopher Columbus of Genoa had red hair, as did many of his descendants, including remote descendants, like my in-laws. Other common factors? All were stubborn. All were too widely read not to believe they could sail off into any direction without falling off an edge.

I do not expect to be even a tiny footnote to history, though my all-too-brief connection with the discoverer of my native land interests me. Sixty years after Terry and Mathilde Boal inherited the Columbus chapel in Spain, I began my own whirlwind courtship of Rose Boal near Pasadena, and 61 years after Terry Boal brought home the Columbus treasures, I married his descendant. The guests at our wedding chuckled and giggled at the most solemn part of the ceremony due to our hilarious names—”Tom Jones, do you take Rose Boal to be your . . . ” Back then Rose and I were young 60’s people, baby boomers from the lily-white suburbs, intensely involved with reading about the social injustices around us, two generous and caring people, defining our politics of compassion by our hair-lengths and the number of decals and patches on our jeans. Yet we cared enough for our families to wed in traditional attire, like the little plastic bride and groom figures on our cake, and we accepted the chorus of laughter as we made our vows in a generous spirit. This carefree start made our divorce more poignant.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of our separation and divorce. Unlike the sailor from Genoa, Rose and I are not making the covers of news magazines, and scholars are not holding conferences to present papers and panel discussions on our problems. Yet the date 1992 marks an important date in my own history. The pain of our marriage’s failure returns this year with heightened intensity, and 1 attribute this to the constant reminders caused by the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus. These aren’t the sort of routine lovesick reminders that Chad and Jeremy would sing about. Perhaps that would be easier. I don’t sigh when walking by soda shops or skating rinks, but rather when seeing a bronze statue of Columbus in the town square, sword in hand, looking ever outward.

Okay, 1492 was the big year in his life. But little folk also have anniversaries. In 1972 I was a perpetual graduate student and Rose worked for a mental retardation center. While I successfully avoided the Vietnam draft by advanced education and worked in the peace movement. Rose fell in love with her handsome and well-to-do boss, really a nice fellow, though I’d have been hardpressed to admit it at the time. Rose married her new love. The grapevine tells me they’ve stayed together these past 20 years and have three children. I do not know how well these children sail. My advanced degree is still on hold. Dissertation topics are tricky things.

I don’t need a therapist to understand why the voyages of Columbus fill me with sadness. If my attractive, athletic ex-wife had been a descendant of Danton or Robespierre—I’d prefer Danton—I’d have suffered painful memories throughout 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Anniversaries of loss are painful. Unfeeling friends send me calendars for Christmas, even calendars illustrated by boats and medieval cartography. The wounds reopen. If I marry again, I’ll choose a woman descended from a historic figure with unavailable dates, lost in the mists of time, like Robin Hood or Buddha.