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Exploring my Ancestral Past to Discover Where Home Is

evergreen forest with a misty sky

When did we stop telling stories? In this personal essay, I explore my ancestral past to learn where home is and where my family comes from.

evergreen forest with a misty sky

Photo by Clément M. on Unsplash

When did we stop telling stories?

Not stories of fictional characters or mythical beings- the stories that fill our books, our movies, our plays, and songs. Nor stories of our day-to-day, told over coffee to a girlfriend about what’s happening at work or what was experienced on the last vacation.

Stories of our past. Stories of our ancestors.

Where did they come from? What did they do? Why did they leave? Why did they stay?

I recently lost my grandmother. What a weird and strange phrase that is- lost, as if she was misplaced, set aside and forgotten. She past away earlier this month, at the age of 89. I was not close to her, despite her living with, or nearby, my family for most of my life. She did not teach me to cook, to knit, or other grandmotherly things. I never really knew her, even more so as she dipped farther into age, her thoughts clouded by time and decline. I never knew her stories.

black and white wedding photo from 1940s

When did we stop telling stories?

Perhaps it was in an age of the modern wars- when families had to flee countries, hide religions, fight. Times that were not wanting to be remembered. And so it wasn’t talked about. Curious questions or hints of conversations were brushed off, subjects changed, details glossed over. Until no one knew anymore.

My dad loves to tell stories of his own, but I know very little of his parents. I know nothing of my great-grandparents.

It is a cruel trick, the wheel of time; aligned so that when an eager listener finally arrives, the mind of storyteller can often not remember.

When one starts to feel the need to know, to understand, to crave the story, they are left to pick up fragments and piece them together. Like pages of a book, tossed up to the wind- tumbled, scattered, torn. They are chased after and attempted to put back into their bound order, compiling the overall plotline, but missing the details and unsure of the exact order.

When did we stop telling stories?

Or have these stories always been told, yet our modern lives- distracted by to-do lists and income goals and traffic and muchness, no longer allow us to slow down and hear them? Or perhaps, when the women left the practice of gathering together during their cycles, there were no longer daughters around to hear them? Or as they started to scatter across lands as they moved alongside their colonizing husbands, the words were lost to the wind with the distance?

I started to become interested in my own ancestral history late last year, when I started to feel a desire to move out of California. It no longer felt like home, and I was craving seasons- with snow (crazy for this CA beach-town babe), of ephemeral bursting from the ground, of heavy air of summer, or decline and dormancy of fall. Things I don’t feel in California. I had a feeling in my soul of a different environment, and it was calling to me, a feeling of a deep memory that I knew didn’t originate from my own life. It felt a land of my ancestors, a place that felt like home.

a leaf covered road passing between trees filled with fall color

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Where did my family come from?

I knew I was a European mutt, some vague stories told by my dad about how he was from France, and I knew my maternal great-grandmother came from Portugal. But there were still lots of pages missing from my ancestral book.

When did the rest of the generations arrive on this foreign soil? Where did they come from? Why did they leave their homes in search of new ones?

Earlier this year, I did a DNA test, in hopes to piece some of that story together.

I used a test through the company 23 and Me, opposed to the also popular Ancestory.com, simply because I liked the website better and I came across a sales ad coupon code (thanks browsing history and targeted ad space….). 

The findings showed that most likely, a woman lived in eastern Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, who’s daughters slowly migrated north through Africa and the Middle East, until approximately 12,500 years ago after the Ice Age, gradually migrated to western Europe.

The genetic history that is left shows that I’m 100% European (no surprise there), with my ancestors coming from regions now known as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and lands that are “Broadly Northwestern European”.

After my grandmother passed away, I started asking questions. Something I sadly wish I would have had an interest in doing when I was younger. So I asked my uncle and my mom, people who may have heard those stories and remembered them, but didn’t pass them to me. We found my great-grandmother’s immigration papers amongst my grandmother’s things- she immigrated from Portugal in 1920, headed to California on a steamship called Providence.

Old and tattered immigration paper from 1920

Last week, I sent my last remaining grandparent, my paternal grandfather, a letter, asking these questions about him and my grandmother. I talked with him on the phone yesterday, the first time we’d talked in over 7 years.

My grandpa had always been into genealogy, which I heard bits of growing up. But, as no interest in the past, ignored, instead fuelled with the desire to think of the future.

Like my other grandparents and many family members, I am not close with him, and it was awkward to rekindle a conversation. But I got off the phone feeling good- I could tell I brightened his day asking about the knowledge he knew, and I was able to add in a few more lines onto the page of the pasts.

My paternal grandmother came from Virginia by way of Scotland, but my grandfather did not know what generation made the trip across the sea. I know my maternal grandfather’s side came from Germany, but I do not know when or exactly where.

Stories lost, to be discovered in archives, of dreams, of remnant memories from other living ancestors.

lighthouse on Maine cliffs covered in snow

Photo by Adam Bixby on Unsplash

In the early 1600s, my paternal side immigrated from the Champagne region of France to New Brunswick, Canada, moving over into Quebec in 1662. At some point, my paternal people moved into land that would later be known as New England. My great grandmother was born in Maine, my great-grandfather in New Hampshire. My grandfather grew up on a farm in Maine, below Forest Lake, outside of Cumberland. What generation first came to the land that became America is unknown, my grandfather couldn’t remember where his great-grandparents were born.

Why did people leave France in search of new homes in these snowy lands? I suppose that can only be deduced from history books and guesses. But it explains the strong pull that New England has on me. Portugal experiences a similar Mediterranean climate, but California is a new experience in cellular memory- the dry summers and the perpetual sun is not part of my genetic long history. Like the mass of people who call California home, many from Northern Europe, my people are not from here. We are living on stolen land, and in a climate we are not familiar with.

If you follow me on social media, you know that my husband and I have been searching for a new place to call home, outside of this state, but we aren’t quite sure yet.

My genetics are from rugged coastlines and snowy woods.

I think my body and soul will soon follow.

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