Who do I think I am?

Like my Family Tree - old, propped up, but still growing strong.

Like my Family Tree – old, propped up, but still growing strong.

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.

20 thoughts on “Who do I think I am?

  1. I started doing my family history a few years back. Once you start uncovering real lives behind the names it becomes sort of addictive.
    What a great story about how your grandparents got together. If it hadn’t been for that chance encounter, well, I wouldn’t be sat reading your post now and commenting.

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    • Andy, digging into family history is on my list of things to do, hopefully sooner rather than later. Good point about my grandparent’s encounter. It’s sad I never got to meet my grandmother, but then, if she had lived they would have stayed on the reservation, my mother wouldn’t have met my father, and you wouldn’t be reading and commenting on this post. . .

      Life is amazing, isn’t it? Thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate it.

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  2. I so love this, and the last two sentences…pearls:-) I’d choose singing over studying genetics any day, not that I don’t think genetics would be fascinating, but I think there’s more of the truth about life in singing! Tuneful blessings, Harula xxx

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    • Thanks, Harula. At University I did try to get into a genetics course, but it was not in my degree studies and always conflicted with a course I did need for my degree. And singing has always been at the top of my list for things I wish I were better at. I agree with you about singing – it’s food for the soul!

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  3. Dear Mary, Why limit yourself to genetics and/or singing next time around? I’d bet good money you’d be marvelous at anything. Why not set your sights on ruling the world (We could use some skill, and empathy, and fairness, and *competence* in that arena)?
    Lovely piece, beautifully written.
    Andy

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  4. I second what Jack said above! Personally, I’ve always been drawn to people who are a little off-beat, who march to their own drummer. People who go to conventions where they dress up as Mrs. Danvers and are active fans of Jasper Fforde! And also can really write! I’m so glad I discovered your blog! (Personally, I think I’d study genetics, unless I was reincarnated as Shakespeare in another universe.)

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  5. Pingback: For the Love of Literature | Ramisa the Authoress

  6. “I look back and see qualities like tenacity, hope, and a desire to be better and farther than from where they began” – Mary, I just love to read your work. Even though I knew no one that you have written about, I was captivated. Thanks for sharing part of your story

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  7. This post was like leafing through a picture album that spoke with each page turned. The way you tell a story- with pace and romance and soul- is a beautiful thing.

    I truly admire your wanting to know more about your family history. Personally, I feel as if I know too much about mine, and none of it is coming back Royal Family . . so maybe it’s okay to quit while I’m behind . . .But you are right on, the whole thing is a soup.

    In my next life, I want to come back as the backup quarterback to Peyton Manning- since he’ll probably still be playing….hopefully in his home town of New Orleans, because I would LOVE to be a pro football player in New Orleans, especially if I didn’t actually have to like, play football. Either that, or I want to come back as a Bengal tiger. And if there are no Bengal tigers in the future, I don’t want to come back at all. .

    Wonderful post, Wild Words.

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  8. Mary, even your readers are so eloquent! I want to say something profound but all I can think of is how much I enjoy everything you write – and the more personal the better. Searching my own family history I keep falling in love with the people more and more, and being so pleased that they are all perfectly ordinary people who have led interesting but unexciting lives and kept moving moving moving… Do keep telling your stories, please… They do matter…

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  9. I think about my family history too. All my grandparents are gone now and I think of the questions I’d like to ask them, things I would’ve never thought of as a kid. When I was a kid all the conversations I had with them were about what I’d done in school, my friends, etc. I’d love to know more about the lives they had growing up and what they dreamed.

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  10. What a lovely family history– gamblers and bootleggers and made up names! I recently watched a movie about bootleggers and am so intrigued by the idea of a speak easy! I wish I knew more about my family’s history.

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  11. ” My grandparents fell in love, got married, and my grandfather gave up being a trooper to join his new mother-in-law’s business.”

    Mary, I laughed out loud loudly after reading that. Oh the wonders of dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin. LOL

    What a wonderful article, a thoughtful tribute to your Grandmother, and beautifully written. I especially love this sentence:

    “I look back and see qualities like tenacity, hope, and a desire to be better and farther than from where they began.”

    And this one really captured my attention:

    “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.”

    And perhaps magnetite, cryptochrome and the Earth’s magnetic fields as well? We ‘oddballs’ ask the same questions. 😀

    Thought you would like this:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13811-birds-can-see-the-earths-magnetic-field.html#.UmgMGRB0K2A

    They have now found the same compounds in the human eye, and suspect that we can innately detect the magnetic fields.

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  12. Pingback: Weekly Writing Challenge – DNA Analysis | Joe's Musings

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