Wednesday, October 10, 2012

By Blood

No, this isn’t a vampire story! ‘Tis the season for that, of course, but this is a Columbus Day theme marking the wave of immigrants to what has become the United States of America.

One of the things about being from the USA is that there is always more to that story. Very few of us are actually from the USA, at least when you start the Roots Tour. One of the sad phenomena of our time is that there are people who have forgotten their own immigrant (legal or not) roots who somehow think that other immigrants are not worthy to live here. But I promise not to turn this into a political discussion. No politics, no vampires. That’s almost a theme in itself.
The search for our roots is such a hobby, and for some a religious obligation, that entire businesses have sprung up to facilitate this search with software and websites. College programs sponsor efforts to put cemetery records online. We want to connect to our past and the twisting road where that leads us.

This American obsession with our roots apparently becomes occasionally tiresome. When my husband and I were in Scotland, our innkeeper asked why we were visiting. I thought, Why?? Goodness, it’s Scotland, for heavens’ sake. The land of kilted handsome dudes with that dreamy accent, isn’t it? But of course, I wanted to know more than stereotypes; I wanted full-immersion Scotland. What he meant was, Why would we come to that section of Scotland, a place not classically associated with the fantasies of Highland lassies.

“Well, one of the early mentions of my family’s name is a real estate transaction. They sold land to the Kennedy family,” I answered.

“Oh,” my innkeeper sighed, instantly classifying us as Those People, “a Roots Tour.”

I felt vaguely apologetic for bothering people with my personal interest. But it was my vacation then and I was going to soak up all the Scotland I could get. It was a fabulous trip, complete with the Tor House Ring of standing stones and the ghost in the bathroom.

It turns out, through DNA testing, that my Scotland roots are actually Irish. There always is more to that story! Funnier than that, there’s a good possibility that I’m actually related to my husband, if very distantly. But that’s actually what we are looking for in those roots tours, connections and belonging.

If I said I was Irish, however, that would be inaccurate. I’m an American mutt, like so many of us. There’s something in the patchwork quilt of ethnicities that creates an intricate puzzle for the compulsive researcher. I could amuse myself with English Protestant, French Huguenot, Bavarian Catholic, Austrian, Czech and Bohemian Rom threads to chase. I want to know what they thought, what they liked, what they were good at, what they chose and chose to let go of.

I’m fortunate to have transcripts of the diaries of my great-grandfather Henry who went on an adventure to the California Gold Rush, spent a year or two there selling meat to miners rather than panning for gold himself, then went home “to civilization,” leaving at least one brother in California to be part of the mystique of the cattle business and water rights that are part of the heritage of this state.
Henry went on to be Captain of the 111th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. His diaries of his outfit’s travels through the country include descriptions of playing baseball while waiting for their next orders. His diary also proved to be a life-saver in his case. His book of his first two years of the Civil War stopped a bullet; my cousin owns the remnants of this souvenir of the war along with Henry's other original writings.

The most interesting parts of Henry’s writing are those that make him most accessibly human. When the North and South were trading stray shots across a meadow one evening, not actively engaged in battle but more a game of “chicken,” Henry’s observation, after one bullet went through the sleeve of his coat without touching him was that if these boys don’t watch out, they’re going to hurt someone.

As the company clerk and Captain, he ran the election voting for a fair and secret ballot. The election between Lincoln and McClellan in 1864 was more hotly contested than we are aware, since we know the outcome. But at the time, Henry’s comments on the political scene were fascinatingly modern, wondering if either of the two candidates could pull off what they promised, were sincere in their efforts or were even trustworthy since they were, after all, politicians. We think of “old times” as being idealistic and naïve when people were just as skeptical of leadership as we are in today’s election. Who knows? Will one of the people we elect as President become the legend that Lincoln is now?

I like Henry, a man I never met. My father remembered an old man with a long beard and a Scottish “burr” to his voice. He recounted that as a toddler he sat on this formidable and yet comfortable man’s lap, being in awe of him, listening to stories of the Civil War and of Henry’s little brother George who had been imprisoned in Andersonville, survived, had been a passenger on the ill-fated Sultana, survived and had gone on to become a U.S. Marshall.

These stories and others I would never have known if I had not searched for roots.

I’m on vacation this week and decided that some of it should be a bit of a roots chase. The least documented and documentable thread in my fabric is the Bohemian Romany.

The mention of Bohemian, notably without the Rom, at least gave me a season pass to my first husband’s Polish family. I went no further with the description of my many-hued personal fabric without realizing that had I finished with the “Rom” part, I might have been thrown out. In the USA, we romanticize Gypsies as carefree, musical travelers who may fix your pots and pans in exchange for a stop at your farm and perhaps tell your fortune by firelight. Like so many fairy tales, the more difficult parts have been omitted. The Romany people have not been so well-received, in fact.

Victorian Trade Card Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord
In the mid-1800s in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Roma were forbidden by law to marry each other, an earlier “benign” attempt at eliminating them as a people. My great-great-grandmother complied and married a Gadjo (outsider who is not Romani) even though in her culture it meant that she was no longer one of her own people. Their red-haired son, Franz, left Bohemia to come to the fresh start that was America and with his knowledge of farming, his father’s profession, started a grain company in Kansas. I have a tantalizing photograph from the 1870’s taken just before Franz departed the old country, never to return. Records say my great-great-grandmother was Marie but show no last name. Tragically, the Bohemian Romany, speakers of a specific Rom dialect, were all but wiped out in the Holocaust. Thanks to Franz and others like him, vestiges remain. But I have no children and neither does my brother.

I did not grow up with any Rom cultural customs. I laughingly say that my former “unibrow” which has naturally thinned over time to two fairly normal eyebrows could be my only physical characteristic on an otherwise straight-haired blonde and blue-green décor. When I started reading regular playing cards when I was 7 or so spontaneously, my mother simply did not stop me but said it must be my Gypsy heritage.

So, for my vacation, I’m doing a little Gypsy roots tour. With a Tarot buddy, I’m going to seek out a local Roma hangout and have dinner there for people watching and good food. And I am delighted to have found tickets to a Gypsy jazz concert this weekend. Something about the rhythms, the chord progressions, the emotion of that music stirs my blood, inspires me like an Ace of Wands, to seek both roots and connections and move forward to my peculiar, personal and satisfying creativity.
Best wishes!

1 comment:

  1. In the last years of my father's life, we spent a lot of time researching his family roots. It was a great opportunity for me to record the stories he remembered, and to share something with Dad. His family arrived in the US in the 1720s, so there was a lot to research. That said, no matter what my roots, I consider myself pure American mutt!