I have been thinking about my ancestors a lot lately. Their middle names, foreign to my tongue. Where they came from and why they went.
I know so little of them.
That never used to matter much until recently. Maybe it’s because I am getting old enough to realize I came from somewhere. I have a context. An entire bloodline of people that managed to survive.
What did they survive?
I can only imagine from the pieces of stories passed down: They were pilgrims (though not of the famous Plymouth Rock type). They were poor (some were beet farmers in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution broke out).
Before my parents’ generation, most did not go to college. My maternal grandfather finished 8th grade before he was pulled out of school to help on the family farm (a fact he boasted of my whole life). They were religious. At least some of them immigrated for the chance to practice their faith freely.
But what did their laughter sound like? What were their favorite foods? How many languages did they speak that are now long forgotten?
Did they marry for love? What were their deepest fears? What gave them hope and what did they leave behind?
Something I’ve taken for granted as a white American is that I belong. I lay claim to a country that was not my ancestor’s birthplace, nor their ancestors’. I never really questioned what it meant to be American, I just accepted it.
There are early signs of something not quite right. Symptoms of being homesick that I could not name or pinpoint as a child. An uneasiness. A feeling of shallow roots. Of a lie, or an intentional forgetting.
Who are we? And why was it so important to create an entirely new identity? What did it mean to erase the old one?
We’re familiar with the immigrant story. Sometimes triumphant, mostly tragic. Sometimes voluntary, mostly not. We (the white Americans), do our best to keep ourselves in a category altogether different from the bruised and broken, the more recently arrived migrants whose status we barely admit is human.
When we do look far enough to admit we are not actually from here either, the plot reads heroic. The obstacles overcome! The tenacity, the courage! The contributions made (not to mention the things/people destroyed in the process) towards democracy!
There are threads of truth. What I mostly feel is absence. I am a transplant without knowing from where I’ve been uprooted. What earth do I need to thrive? What mix of soil, sun, and water?
Perhaps I am thinking of my ancestors because we are in tumult. Individually, collectively, human-ly. I want to know what they survived and how because they did. I want to know what throughlines to follow, what wisdom to suck from my own marrow.
I want to forgive their trespasses, make amends for their wrongs, put a name to the grief I feel yet know is not quite mine.
I hear them, calling.
Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.
Here I am.Google+