Last night, while peeling potatoes for potato salad, I popped in my earbuds and opened Pandora Radio, selecting my Scottish Traditional Station. It both soothes me and stirs my spirit. And, as always, it makes me feel more connected with my ancestors.
I wish I could have known them. I have so many questions that can never be answered.
I thought about my Scottish great great great grandparents, Robert, b. 1790) and Meary (Mary, which at that time was spelled that way), and their son, also a Robert, b. 1818. What drove them to leave Scotland and immigrate to a tiny little port town nestled on a small inlet on the central Northern coast of Nova Scotia, just south of Prince Edward Island? Did they know people or have family already in Pictou, Nova Scotia?Forced off their native land during the great Highland Clearances, according to oral family history, my great great great grandparents and their family immigrated to Nova Scotia when my great great grandfather was a teenager, about 1832. There is a record showing his birth in 1818, born in Nova Scotia, which conflicts with this oral history. I want to know which is true. I want to know where in the Highlands my people came from. How did this affect him? Could the loss of family land be what drove my great grandfather to drink his life and wages away?
I thought about my great great great grandmother, born in Belfast, Ireland in 1830. When did she/her family immigrate to the same Nova Scotian port as my great great great grandfather? Why did they immigrate? Was it because of the potato famine? Troubles between the Catholics and Protestants, which have long plagued Northern Ireland, Belfast, in particular? After they immigrated to Pictou, when and how did my great great grandparents meet?
What did they look like, these ancestors of mine? What color hair, eyes did they have? Did they sing? Write? Marry for love or convenience? What did they do? What traits and physical features of theirs have been gifted to me in my DNA? These are the fundamental questions of my life, because these people, these distant, hazy, decades gone ancestors, are me. Who they are, what they did, where and how they lived, have shaped my DNA, made me, ME.
As I cut up the potatoes, I wondered again about my great grandmother, thinking about the fact that, due to her fathers tendency to drink his wages away before he got home on payday, she, several other siblings, and her mother all, at various times, worked in the cotton mills as weavers, threaders and cutters, and at one time my great grandmother and a great uncle were the only two supporting the family of 11. Long, dangerous work hours, breathing cotton fibers, risking life and limb working around the large mill machines…
My grandmother raised 5 children by herself after the death of my grandfather in 1936. And I thought about the old pictures I found while cleaning out my mother’s house, and I see people of the land, of the outdoors. Cooking over campfires at huge family get togethers, a group of women suffragettes with signs, women of the family posing with cigars in theirs mouths. My favorite picture of my grandmother isn’t the one where she’s dressed to go to church. No, it’s a picture of her in pants, jacket and boots, with students from the college where she worked and my grandfather taught geology, heading out on a hike. That’s her, front row, seated, on the right.
I see that I come from a long line of strong, capable women and fiercely independent people. So, on this Thanksgiving, I am not just thankful for all the things we’re always thankful for, I’m also thankful for for the ancestors I’ve never met. The decisions they made, the lives they lived, the places they immigrated to, all those choices led to me being uniquely who I am.
I look at my hands, worn, rough and scarred from a lifetime of work, yet still strong and graceful, expressive, capable. Do they resemble my grandmother’s? My great grandmother’s? Someone in my paternal line, as I know nothing of my biological father’s family?
My hair and eye color, my inborn traits, physical/personality attributes, the fact that through my maternal line, I am a fourth generation American, all these things have been handed down to me by my people in the decisions and choices they made. Recent scientific research has shown that the experiences your ancestors lived through, altered their DNA, micro evolution at work. I believe with my whole heart that we are not only shaped on a mitochondrial level by the lives we lead, but also where we live those lives. I am deeply thankful for their choices and sacrifices. Without them, I literally would not be who I am.