I was thinking recently about the first time I heard about the profession of speechwriter. The story actually begins before I was born. My parents were living in an apartment in Bound Brook, New Jersey with my sister Karen. My mom did not like this arrangement, she wanted her own house. And to attain one, she decided to make an all-out effort to charm my dad’s great uncle Dan, who owned a home in Hampton, New Jersey.

I’m not really sure why my mom fixated on this home, because it was definitely not her style. My mom has never liked anything old, and this was a turn of the century house built when Hampton popped up on the map by virtue of being the end of a railway line. The Conley men all worked on the railroads and when they purchased the house, many of them bunked there together between travels to western Pennsylvania.

But this house did have two virtues — it was owned outright by a member of my family, so it was theoretically attainable, and it was on a nice plot of land with some amazing trees. There were apple, peach and cherry trees, and a couple large, incredibly tall pines.

My Uncle Dan was in his 70s by this time, widowed, not in great health. And mom took it upon herself to visit him often, darn his socks and attend to him regularly. But there was a problem in her plan — Dan’s cousin Genevieve was named in his will to get the house at his death, part of a long planned out succession plan for the property.

That was not going to keep my mom from trying, aggressively. And when she became pregnant, she used the best card available to her to win over old Uncle Dan once and for all … she told him if her next child turned out to be a boy, she’d call him Dan.

Well, this charmed him to no end and in September, I obligingly popped out (actually thanks to some forceps … I was breach and really didn’t want out just yet.) Within a year Uncle Dan passed away … and lo and behold … a new will was found that turned over the Conley home to my parents. Genevieve was, unsurprisingly, furious and thought about contesting it, but dropped it and moved on.

So we had the house but, no surprise in retrospect, my mom immediately began to hate it and started planting seeds with my dad about the need to sell it and buy something newer. This was the house I grew up in for the first five years of my life. And I was heartbroken when I heard my mother eventually won her battle and we were going to move.

It was while looking in the basement for things to take with us to the new place that I came across lots of boxes of Conley lore, including a strange looking piece of paper. It was a college diploma. Actually, a graduate school diploma in political science from Georgetown University from sometime in the late 1940s, awarded to Genevieve Connelly (yes, her side of the family spelled the name differently.)

I didn’t know any of the house drama backstory at this time, but it was the first time I’d ever seen a diploma — neither of my parents went to college. And my dad told me that Genevieve, who was still alive at that time, is a brilliant woman. Apparently she was in one of the first few grad school cohorts at Georgetown to accept women. And dad claimed that she once worked for President Franklin Roosevelt. He also said that she used to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s speechwriter.

Now, I’ve never been able to verify this fact and my family has all kinds of odd lore that has been difficult to prove through the years, such as my grandfather’s claim that his mother Lida Billington, who died at childbirth, was a direct descendent of the Billingtons who were on the Mayflower. The families who take such things seriously keep lots of records, none of which can verify this claim. But regardless of the truth of any family stories, they stuck with me at an early age.

And that profession of speechwriter — it was something I’d never heard of and probably wouldn’t think about again for a couple decades, but it sounded interesting. My dad said it might be nice if I sent my distant cousin a letter with the diploma, and I did that. And she thanked me profusely for it and said maybe one day I would have the chance to go to Georgetown.

As it turned out, I didn’t attend the university, but I did spend three summers at Georgetown during high school attending their debate institute and have great affection for the place to this day. I also think, on some unconscious level, that hearing about the smartest person in my family having a job as a speechwriter stuck with me in some way … as if this is the kind of thing I could do.

I still feel a little bad about taking the house from Genevieve, but I’m glad that I was able to do something for her that brought her some joy. I’m also glad that I was the one to find that diploma and make that connection … it might have changed my life.

Family Trees