How do you find out about your ancestors?
Thirteen asked me a few days ago about her heritage. How would she, she wanted to know, go about drawing a family tree? We talked a little bit about the family members who have completed genealogy studies—and then I asked her: what’s your interest? “I just want to know where I come from.”
Hers is a good and fundamental need to know. In part, I’m certain, she’s hoping there’s an exotic ancestor or a drop or two of royal blood in our past. And I suppose, if just about anyone traced back far enough, there would be both princes and pirates in some part of the family bloodline.
Our ancestry is mostly European, mostly western, with one significant branch of the family arriving just about the turn of the last century from Lebanon. My light-haired, blue-eyed children don’t look it, but they are one-eighth Lebanese.
My extended family isn’t awfully close and those drops of blood meant little when I was growing up. I had no bloodline connection to my most interactive grandparent, Norma Bourjaily, nor to my Aunt Eileen, married to my father’s younger brother—my Unca Paul (https://overneathitall.com/2014/06/)—for sixty-six years. But this remarkable woman, a tiny dynamo, was a relative life force in my world. It is her life I remember today, celebrating her memory in light of her death late last month.
My Aunt was 96 when she died—the math reveals that I met her for the first time when she was my age today, 50. It was my first visit to their big house full of treasures in Yellow Springs, Ohio, but it would not be nearly the last. My Aunt and Uncle lived halfway from our Iowa home to the East Coast; so, they were the logical stopover any time we drove East. As a college student I was guilty of calling just a day or two before I would be arriving, of bringing friends or—once—a springer spaniel with me with even less notice, and of arriving late and leaving early. Nonetheless, with steadfast good humor, my Aunt always had a freshly made bed, clean towels, and a delicious meal awaiting my arrival. In the mornings, after our visit and breakfast, she would bustle around her kitchen in order to send me off with extras—a banana and a muffin, a bottle of water, a baggie of trail mix. If my adult cousins were in town, they would be summoned for my visit. Each time I would promise that the next time I’d stay longer or arrive at a decent hour. And off I would go, destined to repeat the pattern over and over.
My Aunt’s care packages sometimes included treasures: family photos; gifts for the folks at home; and once, the Pre-Columbian figure my blood paternal grandmother, a woman I never met but from whom I inherited both writing and yoga, wore around her neck for years. In my current mood of clearing out, I ponder especially the items that I will keep for my children. The most important, I believe, are the things that will connect them to their history, a sense of who they are. So although it’s not a piece I can picture myself wearing, the stone woman sticks alongside copies for each of them of my grandmother’s book. I am especially grateful to my Aunt for sharing this little figure with me.
Remembering—the kind of time travel our minds allow—is another gift. My Aunt, long before her mental acuity was compromised, had memory slips when she talked. Stretching for a word but not wanting to stall in the middle of a thought, she would replace the word with a charming little hmmm or the phrase “kind of thing.” If the word truly escaped her, she would put these together, “It’s a hmmm kind of thing.” And somehow, I like to think because we were related, I would always know precisely what she was talking about.
It felt odd to me to miss posting on the last full super moon, when there was a lunar eclipse no less. Driving my mother in the convertible to see easily the eclipse, conveniently timed in the 9pm hour, I saw neighbors out watching. The moon is my favorite rock, and that night it felt really good to celebrate its majesty in community with so many people. And somehow it was okay skipping that particular post, just as it feels really good now to sit across from Sixteen at a coffee shop, writing in celebration of my dear departed Aunt and a whole new cycle of the moon. Happy new moon—on our way to the Hunter’s or Travel moon. Thanks, as ever, for sharing the journey with me, Rxo