Looking for I Have No Idea What

For my birthday this year I got one of those DNA tests, the kind that's supposed to tell you where your ancestors might have originated from. Thirty percent Irish, twelve percent Polish...that kind of thing. We won't get into all the reasons why this isn't an exact science, and why I'll be taking the results with a huge grain of salt, but the idea was, for some reason, irresistible to me.

So when Jesse asked what I wanted for my birthday, I said I wanted to spit in a little plastic tube and ship off my DNA for analysis. 

While I wait to hear whether I'm any part Portuguese (which I think would be really cool, but which is also highly unlikely), I've dug up a family tree workbook my mom gave me, along with two folders stuffed with papers from my grandmother. 

Tonight, I spent hours carefully transcribing names and dates into the book, until my hand cramped and all my pencils were dull and useless. (Pencils! I know, right? Who uses pencils anymore? I do, apparently. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate a pencil sharpener.) 

This work is a little like a puzzle, a little like a mystery game. Looking for clues. Old handwriting. Death certificates and handwritten birth records and census data. I love it. I'm obsessed.

But why? That's what I'm not quite sure of. I don't know my family history past a certain point. I don't know where we came from, before America. When I asked my parents where we were from, they said "probably Tennessee." I have this feeling of disconnection with my past, with my family's past, this sense of being untethered. 

We're coal people, a mining family generations long. We're from the mountains. But what came before?

When I was four, my parents and I moved to Florida, trading mountains for beaches. Every year, we spent two weeks in West Virginia visiting family, one week with my dad's parents and one with my mom's. Those two weeks reminded me that we were people who did not live where our family lived, that we were a small triangle family cut off from the larger group, from the cousins and aunts and uncles and the big family reunion every September. 

And now Jesse, H, and I find ourselves a little triangle family all on our own here in North Carolina, a place I feel so little connection to. When H is old enough to ask where she's from, where we're from, I want to have something to tell her. 

But my current obsession isn't about having a story for my daughter about her roots. It's about me. It's about my roots. I'm looking for something, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. Am I looking for a home? Am I looking for a feeling of belonging? Am I looking for connection to a place, or a people? A flag, a language, a national food? 

I think part of what I'm looking for is something to return to. I don't want a place to settle. I don't want a home in that sense. I like to move in the world, I like to roam, I like to feel free. The decade--ten years! ten!--we spent in Wilmington left me feeling trapped, caged. I was antsy to leave by about year four. I was ready to leave Charlotte after a year here. I always have the feeling of overstaying my welcome.

My grandparents are gone now. Every summer, those two weeks in West Virginia, the two homes in that state where we stayed, the rooms I'll always have memorized, the smells of biscuits and gravy in the morning, the feeling of the clover between my bare toes, the yellow roses in the front yard, the enormous jars of buttons to look through, the old records, the pink bathroom that smelled of powder and Avon perfume. I remember all of it. I dream about them still, dream that I'm in those kitchens again, dream of the smell of tomato plants in the sun.

But I'll never be in those houses again. I can't go home. I wake up from those dreams and my grandparents slip away all over again, my childhood slips away. And so, I dig through old records, looking for names and birthdates and causes of death, and I wait for my DNA results, and I remember the way the fireflies lit up the West Virginia night, tiny flashes of bioluminescence, tiny beacons. 

Erin BondComment