The Ties that Bind and Gag

Letter to my great grandmother, Minnie Kelley
I come from a family that saves things. Not significant things perhaps, china, silver plate, (very) small amounts of money, an anvil, a forge…my maternal grandfather died a few days short of his 97th birthday with an inventory of nails, screws, nuts, and bolts in every size, all sorted in mason jars, the lids of which lids were mounted into the floor joists above his basement workbench. Their retrieval was an easy one handed job in the midst of any project. 

Tucked away in an old metal box in the attic of my grandparents house was a large stash of letters. They were mostly the correspondence between my maternal grandfather and his mother while he was in the Marine Corps and between him and my grandmother during their early courtship. - It is wonderful yet disconcerting to reconcile the quoted poems and sheet music my grandfather sent my grandmother with the stoic man who horded all that hardware and every license plate and radiator belt from every car he ever owned. - These letters, together with the letters between my great grandparents and the letters between my great great grandparents, tell a story of loneliness and hard, boring, tedious work, interwoven with a secret desperation for love and its promise to rescue these people from their various situations.

Wedding photo of
Orman Edens and
Minnie Irene Kelley Edens,
my maternal grandmother's parents
December 25, 1912
My mother has spent the last two years photographing and transcribing all these letters, one Sunday afternoon at a time. On Christmas Day she handed me the latest notebook, the photos and transcribed letters between her maternal grand parents and the letters between her mother’s paternal grandparents. These love letters reek of secrecy. disappointment, and yearning. Their semi-middle, semi-working class literacy elicits constant promises of “Please write me back with a long letter soon,” begged for mostly by the men, whose letters are usually short and full of excuses. They are Jane Austin with bad grammar and odd spelling.

Letter form Orman to Minnie when they were dating, April 22, 1911
I grew up deeply socially connected to this side of the family, but I never quite felt that I was really part of them. My mother and I have the same smile and the same raising and alternately furrowing of the of the eyebrows when we take in information. When I look at look at her hands or her legs I see my own exact appendages a little forward in time. 

My mother strongly resembles both her parents, who look so much like each of theirs, yet these American descendants of Brits and Scotch Irish, these Grahams, Kelleys, Lansfords, and Edens with their serious expressions and enormous picture hats, look nothing like me. These letters explain a little of how I was hard wired as a child, but their writers offer nothing to explain what I see in the mirror. It’s a bit like having local maps for small towns from a lost continent.

At some point in getting to know people, I get asked the question of my ethnicity. Part Italian? Dagastani? Persian grandparent? Half Syrian? It’s not uncommon for native Spanish speakers to address me first in that language or for acquaintances to be certain I would know on which date Yom Kippur will fall. In my globe trekking days I was never once pegged as an "American  tourist" until I flashed my passport or opened my mouth.

Last year I decided to find out. I participated in National Geographic's Genographic Project 

42% Mediterranean
38% Northern European
19% Southwest Asian
1.1% Neanderthal
1.2% Denisovan
(Yes, according to NatGeo, I am 101.3% whatever I am. Perhaps that is why I always feel driven to do and be more.)

My MtDNA, the mitchondrial DNA handed down unbroken from mother to daughter, belongs to H7, a somewhat rare, little understood, and oddly scattered haplogroup. H7 originates in Western Asia, and later some of it spread west into Asia Minor, Northern Europe, and the Meditterean. 

In the current climate of racist hate speech, I find myself identifying more with these remote ancestors from what are now Afganistan and Turkey. Even if it’s been a few thousand years since anyone in my family called these places home, I share something with many Western Asians in every cell of my body, and it's evident every time I look in the mirror. Though my percentages do not match the surnames in my family tree, they are not off by so very much. Genetic research regards English reference populations as being, on average, 49% Northern European, 33% Mediterranean, and 17% Southwest Asian.

I look far more like my father’s side of the family. Until I participated in the Genographic project, I had come to believe I was just a throwback from my paternal grandmother’s Jewish Lithuanian heritage, not that I look particularly Eastern European either. To my young romantic mind, however, this Baltic branch of the family was the exotic side, the non Celts, the non WASPS. The rest of my father’s family came from Germany, England, and probably Scotland. Again, the same questions repeat...

The field of genetic research tells us there is no such thing as 100% Northern European, no such thing as 100% white. There are only centuries of migration and the hopeful seeking of connection along the way. That is what humans do. It is the one answer on which my genes, my reflection, and my family’s letters all agree.

Hat tip to Erma Bombeck for the blog title, based on her book, Familiy: The Ties that Bind and Gag.

No comments: