My maternal grandmother was full-blooded Mohawk and a devout Catholic. She wanted to be a nun. On her way to that vocation she met my grandfather, a tall, handsome white man who was also a state trooper trying to catch her mother in the act of selling whiskey. It was Prohibition, and Agnes, my great-grandmother owned a speakeasy. My grandparents fell in love, got married, and my grandfather gave up being a trooper to join his new mother-in-law’s business. Not exactly a propitious union. Nevertheless, it produced three daughters. Only my mother, the youngest, survived childhood. I was named Mary for that grandmother, though I never got to meet her. She died when my mother was three.
My paternal grandmother went without a name for weeks after she was born. My great-grandmother, having recently lost an infant son, wanted to wait and see if this baby survived before handing out a name. Finally, one of great-grandma’s sisters looked down at my poor, swaddled grandmother and said she looked like a little pearl. And that’s the name they slapped on the birth certificate. No middle name, just Pearl and her surname, which was Crawford. It embarrassed my grandmother, not having a middle name. When she married she began using the initial from her surname as part of her signature, to legitimize the oddball she always felt she was, as though just the initial of a pretend middle name would make her just like everyone else. It didn’t, and she wasn’t. And that was okay by me.
I’ve never looked farther than three generations behind me. I know nothing besides a handful of family stories that may or may not be true. I might be related to Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United Sates. I might be related to Daniel Webster, statesman and Massachusetts senator. There might still be a castle in England somewhere with a Stanfield still living in it. I don’t have a pedigree to tout. I know that among the generations whose lives I’ve been told something about, most came from England, Scotland, Ireland, and one at least, from France. Or, like my namesake grandmother’s side of the family, they were already here.
I think a lot about family, about where I come from, and who I am. When I was about seven or eight, I would stare in a mirror and experience a complete disconnect with the image looking back at me. Who was that person, I used to wonder? The face, the stuff behind the face? Was I real? I had no clue. (What a strange child I must have been.) When I got a little older I searched the faces of my parents and siblings for family resemblances, something that would make me feel like I belonged, but there was such a grab-bag selection of this nose with that jaw and those teeth or eyes, hairlines, cheekbones, hand and foot size that not one of us looked much like the other. (Later my siblings and I would joke about the possibility of a milkman or two being thrown into the mix. Except that we bought our milk at the store.) It still amazes me when I run across families whose members look so remarkably alike that there’s never any question of relatedness.
Like my grandmother, I have also felt like an oddball. Within my immediate family I used to think I could have been a changeling left on the doorstep by trolls. The feeling has abated somewhat in recent years. But, sometimes I still feel a little out of sync with the people around me. What I’m passionate about, what I think about, what I like and don’t like, what I dream.
And I think about the list of ingredients that went into the soup that made me:
A grandmother who thought she’d be wedded to Christ, but chose marriage to another man instead. She left behind a daughter who was raised by so many other people it took her eighty years to find a place where she feels like she belongs.
Another grandmother who, for want of a middle name, thought herself so much less than she actually was.
Bootleggers, gamblers, drinkers, farmers, a failed blacksmith who played the fiddle, house painters, steel workers, bookworms, librarians – dreamers, all.
And something else. I look back and see more than just the sum of what they did with their lives. I look back and see qualities like tenacity, hope, and a desire to be better and farther than from where they began. All those things are good in soup.
DNA is like a magic show. I know that sleight of hand is involved, that the trick isn’t really magic, and sometimes I even know how the trick is done. But it’s still strange and thrilling to observe. How do geese know to fly south? How did they know that there was a “south” in the first place? There are all these questions I have. In my next life, I think that I’ll study genetics.
Or maybe I’ll just learn to sing.
This post brought to you by the DP Weekly Writing Challenge.