Writing from the Heart: Ancestors

I want to know where I came from, who I belong to.


I want ancestors. Well, obviously I have some. Everyone does. But I want to connect with mine. I want to see them. I want to hear them.

I watch Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” religiously. I have seen the singer Pharrell Williams and commentator Don Lemon and musician Questlove break down in tears when they were told their people had been slaves.

I was glued to the TV when Bernie Sanders found out most of his family were murdered in the camps. I cried with him. My mother’s parents came from Germany and Poland just before the war. They didn’t talk much about the entire family that was exterminated in Auschwitz. But my grandmother’s brother showed up with a number on his arm, and we heard in whispers that his shock of premature white hair came from witnessing his baby and his wife being shot in front of his 27-year-old eyes.

I want all these stories. I want facts, dates, photos. Was there a brilliant scientist in my gene pool? A gifted painter? A writer? A performer?

Who am I made of?

I have imagined conversations with my people. “Nancy,” the bearded, bent-over elder says, “you are our hope. You will give voice to the voiceless. But you will learn that silence is more than golden. Oh, how hard that will be for you. You will learn to be a listener. You will be our messenger.” Then the small, ancient, disembodied but clearly feminine energy says, “But first you will learn suffering. Don’t ever worry. We are watching you and holding you.”

I have had a thousand make-believe conversations with these ghosts, these angels. But now I am impatient. I want to know exactly who they are.

Many years ago (before it was legal, but you can’t get arrested for illegal drug use retroactively, can you?), I was parked in my car in Gay Head, and found myself staring into the mirror. I saw my face change and age. I saw my skin turn a bronze red, my cheekbones grow more prominent, and my whole face looked like a beautiful, wizened, ancient Native American man. I felt completely at home in this new identity. Yes, I thought. I knew it. I am Native American. I wish he had spoken to me.

But I was ecstatic to know who I really was, especially since I had just read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” The book set the record straight, eliminating the fictionalized, romantic version of Columbus discovering America. Instead, it included the genocide of the Native peoples. When I read those chapters, I remember taking the story personally, and viscerally feeling brokenhearted.

The trip ended, but I was left with a deep connection to what I was convinced were my beginnings.

I remember calling my sister and telling her about my experience. We had always fantasized that we were African American. I’m sure now that it was because the cool kids in our school were Black, and we just wanted to be like them. Also, we had the same hair as our Black friends, the same hair as our grandmother on our father’s side. So disappointed, and even more in need of some kind of confirmation, I obsessed: Who am I really? Talk to me! Talk to me!

This hankering for ancestors is always heightened at Christmas when I visit my friend Kate and am in awe of her majestic tree. She tells me each year (because I make her repeat it) that the 100-year-old ornament from her grandmother was the first Christmas decoration made with glass. She has golden stars cut from paper made in Scandinavia that her mom had on their tree 65 years ago.The tree is a testimony to the very thing I’ve been craving: ROOTS.

So armed with my insatiable curiosity, I did what the ads tell me to do; I sent for the kit. I spat, I affixed the label to the test tube, and off I sent it to ancestry.com.

A few months later, I received the results: 98 percent Ashkenasi.

At first I was disappointed. It wiped out all my exotic narratives. But then I remembered my father saying that at my bat mitzvah I was electric, that I looked as if I belonged there forever.

And the more I thought about what it felt like when I walked into a synagogue, my memories of my childhood temple with its burgundy velvet seats and the choir hidden up high in a curtained-off loft and the sounds of sweet holiness filling my heart, I switched from disappointment to pride.

Maybe I don’t need to meet my ancestors. Literally. Maybe I am an amalgamation, a complicated combo of all of them.

And maybe I have met them. In my imagination. Maybe those words, that wisdom, those images aren’t my imagination at all.

Maybe I’ve been looking in all the wrong places. Maybe looking isn’t about finding.

Maybe they’ve been there all along.



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