The hero Aeneas left his home, the city of Troy when it was in flames, carrying his old father on his back. How often have I thought of that image, feeling the weight of my own ancestors while sometimes wishing I could just leave them behind.
Much of history is traumatic. War, slaughter, famine, plague, and genocide are hardly new. Perhaps everyone on earth is carrying trauma, simply because we are inevitably descended from survivors, even if just survivors of an Ice Age.
When I cam to New Mexico in 1984 I was immediately struck by the respect people had for their communal pasts. They cared about language, names, religion and more in ways I had not been taught to.
In my Eastern European Jewish family, life began at Ellis Island. However, my mother’s parents were storytellers. They weren’t afraid to invoke the past but it was limited, like a lamp casting a single ray in a dark room. My father’s parents did not speak of the past, although their descendants have been able to construct a version, some based on speculation. An example of this black-out–my own father was an adult before he discovered that at least two of his grandparents had come to America, and were indeed buried in Brooklyn. He’d never heard anything about this.
Since these ancestors are still all riding on my back, they often dictate my actions. They fought for justice, loved babies, ate fresh fruit, and valued education. They were also anxious, critical, shaming, and terrified of many–many–things. Fear could make them bullies–dominating who they could.
I’m second generation. My granddaughter is fourth generation American on my, her mother’s, side, and goes back to the Irish potato famine on her father’s.
I can’t put my burden down, and now that I’m old myself I don’t think I really want to. Someone recently encouraged me to focus on the good in my ancestors. It isn’t difficult.
Every morning, first thing, when I turn on a tap I thank my grandmothers for fleeing the Ukraine and landing somewhere where I can easily and simply wash and take a drink of clean water.

2 thoughts on “Ancestors

  1. My daughters share a similar rich DNA profile: Eastern European Jewish heritage from their father and Potato Famine, Red Neck American from me. They don’t seem very curious about family stories however.

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