“Where are you from?” This may be one of the first questions you put to a person who was a complete stranger only minutes before. I believe this question is the most quintessential of any query we may make to another. With these words, we are inviting the other to open up the door to his/her most intimate place as we will also be obliged to do, reciprocating with information of our own place of origin.
I recently read an article on the internet that cited the question “What do you do?” as the defining conversation starter when strangers meet. The author went on to explain that we as Americans categorize and judge one another based on our occupations, or “what we do.” Answers such as “I’m a stay at home mom,” or “I’m the CEO of XYZ, a Fortune 500 company,” will form two completely different pictures of the individual you are conversing with and the conversation will go in two completely different directions. The premise of this piece was that what we do defines who we are. I agree that on a superficial level this may be true, but based on my own experience and on what I’ve learned by reading Toko-pa Turner’s book “Belonging, Remembering Ourselves Home” I believe that the most intimate question we can ask another is “Where are you from?” Let me explain by showing you the difference.
Suppose I ask the question “Where are you from?” and the stay-at-home-mom or CEO said, “I live in Big-City-A now, but I was born in Dayton, a small town in Northern Kentucky. Immediately I become animated and connect to this amazing person in front of me, because that is where I am from. I tell this woman that I too was born in Dayton, Kentucky and that I lived there until I got married. Now the two of us share our family names and people we both knew, where we went to school and what year. We talk of the Ohio River, that was an essential part of both our childhoods. Afterward we part ways, exchanging emails. I did not categorize her in my mind as a certain kind of person because she does not have a paying career outside the home nor did I feel deferential to her because she is a successful career woman who has broken the glass ceiling. Instead I feel we were present to one another as equals, connected by place.
The point is, place is powerful and knowing our place of origin keeps us in-tune with who we truly are. I read somewhere that the Aborigines of Australia believe that the land of our birth holds a piece of our soul and if we leave, we are in danger of losing that piece of ourselves. My husband, Joe, seems to know this as well. He has never forgotten his roots, that he is from Perry County, deep in the Appalachian mountains of South Eastern Kentucky. The pull of the land is so strong for him that at least once a year we make a trip “back home”. There he reconnects with his roots, feeding his soul on the mountains and hollars, rivers and creeks, the very earth beneath his feet. We drive around the winding mountain roads and he points out places, stopping at key spots to share his stories as we go. “Mamaw Poly lived here. There used to be a big weeping willow tree right there.” Further down the road, “That’s where Lonny Grimes General store was. We used to walk there,” and my favorite stop, the old railroad trestle that crosses the South Fork of the Kentucky River. “Me and my cousins, and my uncles, [Bud and Joe Bill], would jump off here into the water below and swim.” WOW. Such awesome memories that keep him anchored to his place of origin. And to his people, all those who went before him.
Toko-pa Turner explores this idea of our origins further when she explains that in ancient Celtic tradition one would ask someone new “To whom do you belong?” She goes on to say that this tradition of asking who are your people, who went before you? is part of many cultures. In some Native American clans one is still expected to introduce themselves with tribal names and lineage. In Navajo culture one would give their mother’s clan first, then father’s, as a necessary part of the introduction ritual. She writes that “when we recognize ourselves as the fruit grown on our ancestor’s tree,” we can feel connected, weaving our roots back to them every time we invoke one of their names. I love this imagery as I know it to be true, especially for me now, in this time and place.
As individuals in this fast paced technology saturated society, where so many of us live far from our family and places of origin, it can be difficult to stay connected or to re-connect to our roots. I believe that is why it is so popular now to do Ancestry.com or send off and get our DNA tested to learn “where we are from,” and “to whom do we belong?” Joe’s Uncle Joe Bill, loved genealogy and had traced his ancestors, the Campbell Clan, all the way back to Ireland and Scotland. He went back to the origins of the name Campbell and even further back to the time when the British Isles were nothing more than various warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I know that Joe and his many cousins are grateful for the legacy their uncle left them, giving them an anchor of ancestors.
My journey back to my origins has been a little more convoluted. I also had an uncle who was the keeper of our family history. Uncle Ted Lukens had genealogy charts and copies of old documents and newspapers stories, chronicling my father’s family history back to Jan Lucken (different spelling), who migrated from the Rhine River area in Germany with a group of early settlers in 1683, to come to the this country, that was not yet a country, and start the settlement of Germantown in Pennsylvania. So all my life I knew of this heritage. If asked I would say “My family is from Germany.” My husband would often joke, calling me a “hard working German broad.” I accepted this identity, since my mother was an only child and all I knew of her family was that her parents came from two different small towns in Ohio and met at a small college in northern Ohio. And that they were not Catholic.
But then in early 2000s, when I was in my 50s, a seismic shift happened for me. Just a few weeks after my last Lukens’ Uncle died, my cousin Kathy called to ask me if I wanted to come over and pick out some things to keep, as she was going through papers, photos and documents in her parent’s home. So I took an afternoon and joined her for lunch and a picker party. Nothing extraordinary happened that day, but later when I had a chance to sift through the box of old yellow typed pages and several photos that I brought home, I learned some amazing things about Who I was and Where I was from.
First thing I learned was that the matriarchal lineage of my grandmother Marie, my father’s mother, was not German. Her father, John Thomas Lewis, was born in Ireland and her mother, Mary Ann McCarthy’s parents came from Ireland in the mid 19th century, probably fleeing starvation during the potato famine 1845-1852. Marie was one of 12 children, a large Catholic family. I recall that one of her brothers was a doctor in Columbus. Her parents owned a small grocery and lived on Jefferson St. in Columbus. As I began to look at the photos, one caught my attention. It was a black and white copy of an original of a beautiful young lady sitting upright in a high back chair, wearing a white dress with bulbous sleeves, her dark hair swept up, forming a wreath around her face. Below the picture were the words “Marie Agnes Lewis, Central High School, Columbus, Ohio 1907.” Also in this treasure trove were a few handwritten pages, signed Marie Lukens. I’m not sure what year she wrote them. I believe this was my Grandmother’s attempt to record something of her life that would survive her. As I read, I wondered if she thought of who would be reading her words some day. She wrote a little about her life in Columbus, before she married. She said she attended the Governor’s Ball. I believe she wanted to make sure that future generations would know that she was a debutante at one time, before she became the wife of a country veterinarian in rural Ohio. She described their first home and the struggles they had getting established. She listed the names and birth dates of her 7 children and was sure to record the military titles of her two sons who served in WWII. And lastly she recorded the birth of her first two grandchildren, my elder cousins; MaryAnn, Aunt Betty and Uncle Tom’s daughter and Jeanie, Uncle Bill and Aunt Martha’s first child.
I didn’t know Grandma Marie well in life. She had lots of grandchildren and I’m not sure if any were especially close to her. She lived over 60 miles away from us and died when I was a 12. But as I read her words and contemplated her picture and recalled my memories of her, an image of Marie began to coalesce in my mind, like a photo emerging on a blank paper floating in a chemical bath. I developed an idea of who she was. Grandma Marie was meticulous and proper, correcting us when we showed our lack of manners. One memory that stands out in my mind is her perfectly clean apartment. (Grandma lived alone in an apartment for the last 10+ years of her life after Grandpa died.) I was amazed by all the nice old things she had; the big poster bed covered in an intricate white quilted spread, the dark wood of her corner tables, smelling of lemon oil and adorned with stiff white crocheted dollies, and the heavy itchy green horse-hair sofa, where we were expected to stay sitting. Not at all like our home, which was dirty, chaotic and loud with no rules.
And mostly I know that Marie Lewis was a devout Catholic girl whose marriage to a protestant, (Grandpa was a Presbyterian.) presented a whole set of challenges. But she did manage to pass on her Catholic faith to her children and her grandchildren.
But now, knowing who my Grandma was, forced me into an identity crisis. If I belonged to her, then who was I? Suddenly I am no longer German. Maybe I never had been. But I am Irish. And Catholic. This latter belonging, really struck home with me when I was attending the funeral mass for my Uncle Ted, my father’s youngest brother, the last of his generation to die. The church was full. So many of my cousins, from many different places, Chicago, Detroit, Hillsboro, and Cincinnati and Kentucky. Some of their children and grandchildren too. And during communion, as I followed the procession to the front, I passed and smiled at faces who looked like me and we all took part of the same bread. It did not matter to anyone that many of us had long ago stopped going to Mass. Some of us now professed to be of another Christian denomination – I was a Methodist at the time. And some had no church home, but we all came forward, one body, all connected by origin. And now I know we are all of Marie Lewis, the Irish Catholic girl from Columbus, who once danced at the Governor’s Ball. And I am her granddaughter.
One last thing I want to add. Toko-pa Turner writes the following in the chapter called ‘Holy Longing”
There is an intactness we intuitively feel in an unbroken lineage… the pride a person feels in carrying an ancestral heritage. … Maybe in hearing our ancestral songs or language or seeing a dance in ceremonial clothes…we are suddenly transported into the depth of our longing to be woven into an older story that ennobles our own life as the fruiting from an ancient tree of kin.
These words speak to me. As I read them the first time, an awareness crept in and I knew instinctively that this is why I feel connected to and so at home in the Catholic church. This is why I can still walk into a Catholic Church, take part in the ritual of the mass, why I love fingering my rosary beads as I mumble Hail Maries, why I can still be a part of this terrible, faulty institution and why it is still home to me. Because I belong to this family, this clan. My origins go back to the old world, to Ireland, to all those poor Irish whose DNA I carry, who knelt before statues of Our Lady, praying on their beads, listening to the ancient Latin words echo off the ancient stone of the little churches of their villages. And all who suffered under the heavy mantle the church placed upon their shoulders.
I am still here because they are still here