In circles where the topic of cultural and ethnic identity comes up (which, obviously, isn’t many of the circles I spend time in), I always find myself cringing inwardly at some point throughout the conversation. As a white person, I struggle with feeling any desire to connect to my culture; after all, we have screwed up. A lot. Aside from this, as a mixed woman of mostly European descent, with whom do I align myself with? I am Irish/French/German/British/Swiss/Native American and possibly many small degrees of other ethnicities, all of which are complex and noteworthy and deserve both my pride and my humility when taking my heritage into account.
On Wednesday morning, my one remaining grandparent, my maternal grandmother, peacefully left this world after a month of declining health and almost twenty years of living with a mind that was irreversibly damaged by a massive stroke. It’s very sad to realize that the last remaining tie to that generation of my direct descendents is gone; I will no longer have the opportunity to spend time with someone that close to my family who has lived through events and decades that my parents have only heard stories about. Not only that, but she was a very sweet and lovable woman; she always smiled and laughed when people came to visit her, even after she lost the ability to communicate with words.
Yet there I’m carrying around so much joy on her behalf; when I cry (and I do, often) it’s because I feel like this is a beautiful thing for her. I truly believe that she’s now been completely restored, both mentally and physically. Her sharp mind is fully functioning again, and the woman who loved to dance is no longer bed bound and feeble. Most importantly, she will never feel loneliness again. She is back in the company of people she loved dearly; her siblings, her large extended family, and her husband, and probably most importantly, Jesus.
In spending the past few days reflecting on her life, I’ve been overwhelmed by the many photos and tidbits that have been unearthed; not only of her life, but of her parents, and her parent’s parents. I’ve been somewhat amazed by this part of my history. I knew my grandmother, but only heard stories about her mother and her mother’s mother. As Jason and I were looking through some of these photos last night, he remarked how strange that some of the non-physical similarities between me and my grandparents and great-grandparents were almost biological. In other words, not only was I bound to end up looking like them to some degree; I would also inherit their characteristics, their hobbies, their personalities.
For the first time, I feel a connection to my culture. I feel a sense of identity that I have affection and pride for.
My great-great-grandmother Molly emigrated from Germany and homesteaded on the land that I would one day marry Jason on. In her flower garden in the front yard of her cabin (the cabin we still visit) she grew hollyhocks.
So when I spend time under the branches of the plum trees and love the land that I’m so blessed to be able to visit, I am taking after her. I also have a packet of hollyhock seeds in my seed box that I had intended to plant in my front yard one day, in the same way my own mother grows hollyhocks along her front fence.
And seriously, who wouldn’t feel proud that this epic couple was a part of your family?
My great-grandmother Alice, who married Molly’s son, was the daughter of a beautiful Native American woman whose picture is displayed in my parent’s house. Alice was beautiful and graceful; she cared for her own children and oftentimes opened her house to her many grandchildren. She, too would spend summers in Door County with her husband.
Jason and I have very likely stood in that same spot.
And then there was Grandma. I like to joke that I was named after a Bob Dylan song but in reality my name is a tribute to her, Joan. My middle name I share with my dad’s mom. My name itself is a part of my history, and I love that. I love that I have a name that not many other people have.
After her stroke, she came and lived with us for awhile. Because her mind had been damaged, she had to re-learn how to do many normal things, including how to read. As a 7-year-old struggling with my own reading, I found myself somewhere around her level. So we read to each other to pass the time. We read kid’s books and school books and I think I even read her some of my comic books. Within a few years, I was reading far beyond my grade level and went on to excel in most academic situations because of my reading skills.
While she forgot some things, one thing she remembered was how to crochet. So, one day she taught me. I never forgot how to do it, and when I got older I also taught myself to knit – all because we spent one winter afternoon working with yarn. Every time I let wool run between my fingers and create something, I think of her.
One thing that I didn’t know – and discovered this past week – was that she worked as a secretary for 11 years. A secretary!
My grandmother was a devout charismatic Catholic woman. My first memory of attending church was with her and my step grandpa, when I was four or five. I don’t remember very much about anything, but I do remember singing next to her, and singing with all of the vigor my little voice could muster. I doubt I even knew the words, but I sang nonetheless. After the Mass, I asked her if I had behaved well in church, if I had been good.
“Yes” she said, “And you sang so well!”
And so on Saturday night, when I found myself playing my guitar and singing hymns at her bedside during what would be my last visit with her, I thought of that day. I look at her hands, and my mother’s hands, and I see mine.
Ever since I remember, my grandma had red hair. In fact, it was some time before I realized that it wasn’t even her real hair color and that she likely had grey hair underneath. She did – I saw it on Saturday for the first time. And while her natural hair was beautiful and thick, I like to remember her as a redhead and joke that I get my red hair from her.
This week has been full of happy (and sad) tears, full of the ache of a beautiful end to her story. It has also been many moments of looking through these photos and saying, “Oh, there. There I am. That is where I come from”.
In doing this, I realize that I would like to see photos of my father’s family as well. To explore a whole other side of my history that I know in word but not image. I know, from scanned images of old census records, they were farmers and shipbuilders and that they came from France and Canada and Switzerland and most significantly, from Ireland.
I want to remember where I came from, and I want my children to know the stories. I want them to know that I grow vegetables because my father did and I grow flowers because my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother did. I play my guitar and sing because both of my parents have a voice, and my hands, long and capable just like my grandma’s hands, learned from my father how to pick out the chords on the guitar. I spend as many hours as I can spare along the shores of Lake Michigan, and sometimes I bring a bag of yarn along to pass the time.
I have hair which, in its natural form, is curly like his and brown like hers (and also dyed red, like Grandma’s). I have his nose and her eyes, his Irish stature and her long arms and legs. When I have children, they will share these features with Jason’s features; his (truly) red hair and hazel eyes and intense propensity for freckles.
We’ll gather this weekend to honor her life. My family will sing songs at the funeral. I will see cousins and uncles and family that I haven’t seen since I was 19. One of my cousins has become a mother since then. I have grown dreadlocks and gotten married and become a homeowner. And while I have changed, have become my own person and created my own family, I will honor my inheritance. I will feel grateful for the things that were passed on to me that can’t be defined in physical characteristics. I will, maybe for the first time, identify myself as a part of a culture and not have to feel ungrounded.
Jason saw these pictures and said, “She seemed like she was kind of a free-spirited person, wasn’t she? Like you and your sister?” Yes, I think she was.