My sister was freaked out.
We were standing in a cemetery in a village in the Pyrenees region of France, on an August day, and my sister was freaked out. Now, to be fair, she probably would’ve been freaked out no matter what day it was, or where we were. She’s never liked cemeteries.
Part of the reason she was freaked out, though, was undoubtedly the fact that we were standing next to graves that bore the French version of our maternal grandmother’s maiden name, and thus we were somehow (through branches of cousins removed, through little pieces of DNA that a more scientifically inclined person than I would have to tell you about) connected us to the these departed people we were standing on. Thus my sister was freaked out.
When I was asked to write a little something for this project, it was somewhat presumed (understandably due to my sisters and I spending our summer holidays on Nantucket Island) that our ancestors must’ve been something like us: college educated upper-middle-class, used to travel and wearing fancy clothes. Not at all. My father’s family came from villages in Poland and Russia, laden with poverty and seeking opportunity. My mother’s family came from Italy and France, with equally little money and education, and it is that last country we’ll concern ourselves with here today, as, amongst all odds, we still have relatives, various families, in France we visit and know quite well.
Think about that for a moment: How many third generation families keep in touch with folks from the old country? My mother’s grandmother, prior to the War, fell in love and left the little village in which the cemetery that freaked my sister out was located, and travelled across the ocean to America. She was, improbably, the only of her siblings to do so. In her new country she gave birth, and while the man didn’t stick around, thankfully my grandmother Emily did. Emily sent flour to bake the cakes and cloth to make the dresses for the weddings back to her mother’s families in France during the War, and, managed to forge an ink-and-paper connection with some of the relatives. My Francophile parents took Emily and her husband to France for the first time when my grandparents were in their late seventies, and another generation met: They became close, dear friends of my grandmother’s sister’s granddaughter and her husband. They returned with their kids in tow, which included me, to rent a house one summer and tour the country other times. My sisters and I became friends with my cousin Pierre (he and I are pictured from this past Christmas morning here in the States). And somehow, amazingly, over many travels in both countries, through weddings and funerals, I have a French cousin who’s more of a brother and certainly a friend.
But it doesn’t change the fact that on that summer day, some five or six years ago now, standing in my maternal great-grandmother’s village, my sister was a little freaked. Her husband (from Ireland, incidentally) calmed her down, and as we all strolled around the village, having had the local hard cheese and the delicious Madiran wine at lunch, and taking in the breathtaking views of the Pyrenees mountains, we contemplated the same perplexing questions:
Why would my great-grandmother ever leave this?