I can hardly make it through an entire TV show without seeing at least one commercial for ancestry.com. We are obsessed now more than ever with where we came from. Technology has made it an almost effortless endeavor to get a birdseye view into our distant past. The commercials always feature testimonials from people for whom the discovery of their roots has been an eye-opening experience. But what are we looking for? A sense of place in a world of fast-shifting paradigms? To be grounded in a strong feeling of identity in a world where the concept of identity is taking on new meaning? Or is it simple fun curiosity?
I did not grow up this way, but now I wish I had. As I came into my mid-20’s I began to wonder about our family history, and why we never talked about it. The more I learned about some downright fascinating stories about my ancestors the more unbelievable it seemed that nobody bothered to pass down the legacy; perhaps it was not recognized as such. I grew up very conservatively. For example, children did not insinuate themselves into adult’s conversations; you basically went temporarily deaf when adults were talking. There was great acknowledgment and respect for elders and you had to “know your place.” So there was no such thing as questioning them about the past. You learned what they told you.
The women in my family have an incredible history.
The last time I was able to spend time with my grandmother I realized how much secrecy cost her. I spent my childhood with her and that last summer I was able to be with her was my own eye-opening experience. In her old age she looked back at her life and openly talked about her regrets. I saw how lonely she had been. And that her almost limitless generosity especially to the children of her community may have been a way to compensate for it. But she was a genuinely kind woman who strived to help others however she could, and she was a greatly admired lady. If I look back I wish I could have been more brave and let her know she could talk to me. Now that I am getting older my relatives and friends comment on how much I look like her now! I am very proud of that.
I was downright stupefied to learn that my great-grandmother gave birth to two or three children at sea. She and my great-grandfather were sea merchants who traveled from island to island in a little wooden boat that they built by hand. The maritime trade was passed down to my mom and her siblings, with one of her brothers becoming very successful and influential in the country and the region. I myself am a trained mariner and if it weren’t for my illness I would hardly ever be on land! When I think about the mental toughness it took for my great-grandmother to not only be a female mariner back then but to do it while pregnant – multiple times! – I think that’s where I must have gotten the resilience and determination to overcome the severe health and personal challenges that I have experienced.
One day at my grandparents’ home where I lived I opened the front door when someone knocked. In that first instant I was startled speechless by what I saw. My mother! “She came to surprise us!” I thought. But in the next second I realized that something was different. Something around the eyes was different. My heart fell as I realized that she wasn’t my mother at all. But who was she? She asked for my uncle. I told her he wasn’t there and took her contact information in the back of my school notebook. She turned around and left. I never saw her again but I found out who she was. A secret. Someone whose mother would not allow my grandfather to claim her because of the circumstance of her conception, but whose twin-like resemblance to my mother betrayed her fierce effort to obscure her daughter’s heredity. She and my mother were friends in school and everyone just assumed they were sisters. The (open) secret cost her dearly: from her father openly acknowledging that she wasn’t “his child” and lifelong separation from the family she struggled to keep some contact with while trying to honor her mother’s wishes – like the day she came looking for my uncle. Whenever she came to town she made sure to ask for him. If I look back, I wonder if she saw the flash of shock on my face and why she didn’t ask who I was. She passed away this week. During one of the two times that she and my mom spent time together in adulthood my mother attempted to bring up the secret, but she stopped her in her tracks: “Let the past be the past.”
Let the past be the past. That’s how I grew up. But I have learned that the past can live on in the present and into the future when we try to run from it. I will take the ancestry DNA test in the near future. There are so many things I would like to understand and I believe the insight I would gain could provide a foundation to build my understanding of where I came from. Understanding of the self is a beautiful thing.