“The play concerns an aristocratic Russian landowner who returns to her family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. Unresponsive to offers to save the estate, she allows its sale to the son of a former serf; the family leaves to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down. The story presents themes of cultural futility – both the futile attempts of the aristocracy to maintain its status and of the bourgeoisie to find meaning in its newfound materialism.” Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard
We ate a picnic lunch under a shade tree in the abandoned graveyard of our great-great grandmother Jincy. The secluded cemetery had been neglected so long the headstones themselves had returned to the earth. Lined up like a search party, we used branches to sweep the overgrown grass for copperhead snakes. A cousin brought posh fried chicken from a place in the city with an ampersand name, and the elders passed around a bag of sweet cherries obtained at a roadside stand. We spit cherry pits into the sunken graves of our ancestors. “Maybe the next time we come here there will be a cherry orchard…”
I was spending a week in the country with family, and visiting a cemetery in Bonne Terre, Missouri was on their agenda. My mother’s cousin is an amateur genealogist who seeks out such places in search of primary source material, which was goth as hell until old age and heart failure threatened to make his hobby a permanent one. This day’s itinerary had expanded to an up-before-dawn expedition to the Boot-heel of Missouri, a famous hideout for bootleggers and criminals in olden times. “I just learned I’m related to Jesse James, so this is very on brand. Let’s get in trouble!” I announced. We piled into a jeep, stopped at a general store for floppy hats to avoid ticks, and made our way south.
After visiting the MacGregor burial site, we traveled to my great-grandmother Ruth’s family farm. It lay down a long dirt road that was gated but unlocked and lacked a “No Trespassing” sign. I clambered out of the back of the jeep and opened the gate. A man on an ATV came toward us from one direction while another pulled up from the opposite in one of those old-timey Ford trucks. “We called the owners and asked if they were expecting company. They’re on their way,” ATV man said with more warning than generosity his voice. We politely introduced ourselves. “Chicago,” he said a with distrust, “you’re on private property.” “This is my ancestral homeland motherfucker and people in Chicago know about locks,” I thought but didn’t say. He informed us that the old Vance farm had been torn down and that retired teachers from St. Louis now owned the property. We left a note in their mailbox and drove on deeper into inhospitable terrain. I learned that trees painted purple indicate danger and trespassers must leave immediately or be shot. I wondered if educating the rural south about fences and locks could bring down the NRA. After several more cemetery stops and detours to towns that looked like sets for The Walking Dead, I picked up the atlas and saw that we were well south of Illinois. And Kentucky. We were surrounded by Arkansas and Tennessee and generational poverty. The setting sun drew eye-level and scorched my right arm as we were meant to be heading back to St. Louis. “We are going in the wrong direction!” The further we drove, the more anxious I became. I’d wrapped a scarf around my head to keep my hair from slapping my face as we cruised up and down winding back roads in the open jeep. In a town populous enough to have a gas station, I was told I looked Muslim. If copperheads and ticks didn’t kill me, white people might. I regretted no local had smugly remarked, “You ain’t from round here, are you?” Because I was.
“I’m going to say… Middle Eastern.” “Italian.” “Greek.” “Eastern European.” “Russian.” “Wait, wait. I know! I know! Armenian.” I was soliciting guesses about my ethnicity. After years of condescendingly being told I don’t look Irish and being mistaken for Spanish (in Europe), Latina (in my neighborhood), Italian (by the patriarch of my Sicilian step-family, whom we dared not correct), Russian (by politicians), Slavic (by wooing men), Indian (by Indian friends), and Arab (by voters), I took a DNA test.
It was a gift from a friend, inspired by an evening of conversation about how little I knew of my grandfather. He died when my mother was young. My mother died when I was young. I didn’t even know what my grandfather looked like until a few years ago. I only knew all of his descendants look alike. I imagined we were Jewish, the most obvious reason for wanting to hide one’s ethnicity in the early 20th Century. He was born in 1898.
I spit in a tube and took it to the post office. The company said my results would be available in six weeks. They arrived after two, during my week in the country with family. After receiving the notification, I poured a glass of brandy and lit a cigarette to calm my nerves. If there were a secret, was it my place to uncover it? What if my mother’s talk of Irish, French, and Cherokee* were a lie? What if all the looks as if I were delusional when I claimed Irish heritage were justified? Could I handle the truth? Assuming there would be a number of steps before arriving at the Results page, a number of opportunities to turn back, I clicked the link in the email. A large blue map appeared on the screen. A large blue map of Europe. The whole entire rest of the world was empty.
UK & Irish: The breakdown included Irish, but not Scottish, which I am, but which has not gained independence from her colonial overlords so they don’t count. Vote Yes.
French & German: The breakdown even included Switzerland which isn’t a real thing let alone ethnic anything in my anti-Swiss opinion which I can have because I am Swiss.
Northwestern European: More of the above. But with the Normans and Saxons and Celts and Gauls screwing and invading each other, the admixture is too confusing to call.
Scandinavian: Is there anyone the Vikings didn’t fuck?
Southern European: “Oh, I can see that!” said my cousin. A feisty 3 percent.
Broadly European: This one included Russia. And the whole entire rest of Europe.
In shock, I came up the stairs with the laptop. “I’m the whitest person alive. White supremacists wish they were this pure. I could join the KKK.” My family gave me a look of horror. “It was a joke. In very poor taste. I apologize.” They sleepily scrolled through my results. “So. You’re European. Cool. Ok, well I’m going to bed.” 100% Boring.
Alone, I felt a surge of relief that I’d not been delusional when I told people I was Irish. And that my grandfather had not been switched at birth, as a friend had suggested. A rush of conflicting emotions followed. I felt humbled that there was no “mystery” ethnicity to explain my exotic appearance or my grandfather’s background. I felt ashamed of wanting to be all the interesting things people saw in me, of not wanting to be basic. I feared the test had been switched with someone else’s and reminded myself of the infancy of this science and that all humans came from Africa and panicked that I may be an alien because I had no African DNA. I felt a distressing euphoria upon finding out I am 100% European. What racist propaganda had I subconsciously internalized to produce that pleasure? I felt defensive. I hadn’t colonized, raped, or enslaved anyone. White supremacists, nationalists, and racists never mention the fact that the history of Europe (and America) is a history of invasions and migrations. Even the use of the term “white” implies all colors. White is not an ethnicity, as if by spontaneous generation a thousand fair-skinned Christians appeared atop the Alps and hiked down and in different directions evangelizing Western culture. I felt complicit. I have an affinity for Enlightenment ideals. I sobbed and soon developed a migraine and became delirious with pain and information.
This is my grandmother whose mother’s father’s farm I attempted to enter and was run oft from. She was one of 12 children born to share-croppers in southeast Missouri. She was born in 1911, but she told everyone 1913 or 1921. I stole this photo off Ancestry.com. I’ve never seen a photo of her this young. She couldn’t afford a sitting in a posh room or hair tonic, but she was a style icon in spite of the fact. She eventually got some hair tonic and opened a salon after my grandfather died. Growing up with her was like living in a Wes Anderson movie. mtDNA: T2b.
I returned to genealogical research to find information about my grandfather. The most respected sites disagree about the identity of my great-great-great grandfather. One option presents a dead end. The other asserts that he descended from slave-owners and European royalty. This could explain my grandfather’s silence about his family. He was an elected official and active in the Civil Rights movement, before there was one. A family plantation could have been a source of shame or motivation, and even a liability.
I find the royalty claim bit harder to swallow. If you spend any time at all on genealogy websites, you will find you are descended from nobility. My mother said we were. See, she would say the things that made you not believe her. I’ve never understood the American obsession with royalty. We fought a revolution to split from the British Empire. We assert (wrongly but forcefully) that hard work can make anyone rich and powerful. I understand wanting to be a royal now. All play, no work, glam taxpayer-funded weddings attended by Amal Clooney. But a descendant? What would your royal family think of you? You saw what happened with Meghan’s dad. And the life decisions and historic turmoil necessary to engineer such a fall from grace seems traumatic. Especially as an American. We’re meant to do the opposite: Overcome poverty and rise up through the classes over the course of generations. It’s the American Dream, if not the reality. If you’re an average American with a royal pedigree, your orchard was axed and replaced with purple-painted trees. You’re going in the wrong direction.
When I recovered from my migraine, I ventured outside to see off my cousin Rosie as she packed her car. As I gave her a hug, she said, “You’re my vampire princess.”
“You sleep during the day.”
“I had a terrible headache.”
“You wear all black.”
“I’m wearing flouncy blue and white pajamas.”
“You’d sleep in a coffin, admit it!”
“I have that spectrum thing where I need to sleep cocoon-like.”
She backed away. “Why are you arguing with me? I don’t want to argue.”
The headache had left me fragile and irritable. “I’m Irish,” I stumbled to explain. The DNA test revealed as much about human nature as it had about me as an individual. My entire life people have projected identities onto me that were not simply incorrect and dismissive, but frequently those we are encouraged to fear or deem “less than.” Like I was that hole in airline counters where people weigh and check their baggage. I not only allowed but participated in it. The test wasn’t important because Irish is best. It was important because my mother knew who she was. And I knew who I was. And know knowing who you are safeguards against being what others need you to be. And people needed me to be The Other. I could hear myself, the cringe-inducing absurdity of a white woman upset that people had judged her by the color of her skin. “Of course it would be cool to be a vampire. Or Persian. Or Latina. But I’m not. And I’m done. Done with people adjudicating my identity.” It felt I’d been waiting my whole life to be able to say this, the way it poured out. “I’m not a vampire. I’m a human being.”
As I unpacked my baggage, Rosie, being a cool Millennial, nodded in understanding. “I see you,” she said, pseudo-ironically. “But you have to admit you’re a princess.” Rather than mount a defense about problematic patriarchal stereotypes, I jocularly replied, “I do have the same DNA as many royal families, sooo…” and gave a pantomime shrug.
I am related to nobility by way of a shared maternal ancestor 10,000 years ago. My most notable cousin, thousands of times removed perhaps, is Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
*My mother did claim to have a Cherokee great-grandmother. She and her cousins spoke at length about this woman with whom they spent time and whom they knew as their great-grandmother. The woman’s existence and heritage are thoroughly documented. She was my grandmother’s sister-in-law’s grandmother. My grandmother and her sister-in-law were as close as siblings, and their children were too. Given the intimacy of the family, the age of the children when they knew her, and her treatment of them as her own, I don’t find my mother’s claim disingenuous. She had no reason to think this wasn’t her great-grandmother. By all accounts, she effectively was.
This reminds me that family and DNA are not equivalent, and the latter is no substitute for the former. I have no Sicilian DNA but count among my family a Sicilian stepfather who has contributed far more to my identity than any frisky Viking a thousand years ago.
But I don’t regret the test. It’s good to have the receipts, as the kids say. I’m no longer ready to call Henry Louis Gates Jr., with whom I also share a maternal ancestor, in desperation. The genealogical research I’ve done since the test is a hunt for cool old photos rather than a hunt for a holy grail. I’ll find new branches and sweep them across archives like the flashlights of a search party. And one day there may be a cherry orchard atop the bones of my great-great-grandmother. A satisfactory, even poetic denouement.
“View from Rosehill Cemetery: Vicksburg”
Here we have watched ten thousand
come and go.
And unmarked graves atangled
in the brush
turn our own legs to trees
vertical forever between earth
Here we are not quick to disavow
the pull of field and wood
we are not quick to turn
upon our dreams.
–Alice Walker, Revolutionary Petunias