Wednesday, March 07, 2007

All Past is Hearsay

She was buried in a place called hope.

Every time I read the obituary, every time I look at her picture, I search for some subtle detail — a glimmer in the eye, a crooked smile, a hidden dimple — for the slightest hint of shared DNA.

But I don't see anything, really. No similarities. Just that line about her place of burial, and the realization that — perhaps — we are keenly alike in our sense of irony.

She was buried in a place called hope.

She's my father's mother. But for as long as I've been alive, I've been physically unable to call her "grandma" — she died too long before I was born.

And though I've seen a picture of her once before, this was the first time I'd seen her obituary. Until a couple months ago, none of us knew even the slightest detail of her death. Not even my father, who was too young to remember.

But the more I stare into that photo, the more I look at her features — the more I question the very nature of my heritage, which had long been sold to me as something to the effect of: two different Native American tribes, some Dutch, some English and some Irish. Maybe.

When people ask me about my lineage, I generally utter the word "mutt" and change the subject. I mean, until two months ago I didn't even know a thing about my own grandmother (there, I said it). How on earth could I trace my lineage back further than that, on either side?

It's something I've often envied in others: an understanding of roots; of heritage; a discernible, undeniable history.

I feel like the progeny of mere chromosomes completely unconcerned with preserving their present, all the while obsessed with their past.

There again: the irony.

So on my paternal side, it looks like — yes — I'm 1/16 of a local tribe. On my maternal side — where history is only slightly better preserved — there's a picture of a man, supposedly my great-great-grandfather (though no one's certain) with dark skin, dark silky hair, a pointed nose and an impressive stature. They say he's Cherokee. Though, again. No one knows for certain.

When I was a kid, I was tremendously proud of this purported Native American lineage. It was the only thing I had to latch onto, as far as ethnicity is concerned. We'd go to the occasional POW WOW or war re-enactment and watch card-carrying Native Americans beat on drums and chant around campfires. I generally felt connected to these people, knowing that — if you looked back far enough — we shared the same, bittersweet history.

My family generally paid a small fee to attend these activities. And it wasn't until I hit my early-teens that I realized just how sad the whole situation was. I was paying to observe the remnants of a society (estimated to be 1/8 of my ancestry) all but annihilated by the remaining seven-eighths.

You can see this gross monopolization in my features, too. My pale white skin (but, oh, does it tan well!). My blue-green eyes (they were darker when I was younger). Those quintessentially high (or so I'm told) cheekbones, and a faint almond shape to my eyes.

But it's all so muted — diluted — by everything else. Like staring at the face of a woman just two generations removed and turning to someone, saying:

Do I look like her? Can you see?

Tell me you see.


Matt said...

Oh, don't worry, dear. Some day soon, your dreams will come true and the percentage of whites in America will continue to plummet (currently 69%, excluding non-white caucasians from the Middle East and North Africa) and we can once again be "ethnic."

I am 1/16 Blackfoot and my dad once tried to claim some money for that, believe it or not....

Matt said...

Besides, there's nothing wrong with diluted. Subtlety is beautiful.... I love the Afghanis w/ their dark olive skin and light green eyes....

Woodrow said...

I don't know either. I just go with "Okie".

XOXO said...

I feel the same way about my "Granddad," as I'm sure I would have called him had he lived past my dad being 15.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Matt - I'm not exactly looking to "take back" the land that 7/8 of my ancestors stole from 1/8. And I'm not necessarily looking to make said 7/8 a minority, either. I'm fairly indifferent on both grounds.

Rather, it'd just be nice to have a better grasp on where I'm coming from...

One of my cousins — the same cousin who found the information about our grandmother — did get "Indian money" as they say. But she had the same tribe on both sides of her family.

Academic Advisor said...

My great-grandfather was shot and killed in mysterious circumstances when my grandfather was 8-years old. I've never seen his picture or his obituary. I only know his name. For all I know, the circumstances of his murder, if it was murder, were competely mundane in reality; they're only mysterious due to the silence during their lifetimes of the people who knew and the absence of those people now. The supposed mystery has plagued me, my siblings, and my cousins for decades, but I wonder if we haven't fabricated it for the same reasons that you stare at an obituary, searching for answers to questions that are misplaced.

I'd love to offer you something profound... or even flippant. But all I can do is commiserate.

Winter said...

Why did you try to make me cry at work today?

Anonymous said...

I am the last first cousin on either side. I never met any of my grandparents. My next oldest sib wasn't even an idea when the last one passed. There were many of my first cousins I never met until two summers ago. In some ways I understand how you feel about not knowing your roots.

Anonymous said...

I can trace myself directly back to the neander valley. very little delineation.