I’ve never been all that interested in family heritage, geographically speaking. I’m a smattering of European, and according to my 23&me genetic test, a bit of Northern Africa is thrown in as well. I have always had an interest in my family lineage, but never felt much desire or connection to the various places they hailed from. For a lot of Americans, knowing geographical heritage is important (read: lineage trips to Ireland), I’m sure in part because our history culture wise is pretty limited. I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t have much of an interest, but it just wasn’t there. Not until recently at least.
The most interesting experience I’ve had in talking to an American about their heritage was on a flight home to visit my family. I have met some serious characters flying in between Spokane and Seattle. One such woman sat next to me, and despite my earplugs in-reading a book-please don’t talk to me routine she struck up a conversation, half of which I missed because I didn’t realize she was talking to me. She carried with her a giant scrapbook with an Ireland sticker on top. She informed me, without my asking, that this was her scrapbook from a ten day “heritage tour” of Ireland. I asked if she had just recently gotten back. Nope, it was two years ago-but she drags that thing everywhere, seemingly to start awkward conversations on planes with unwilling strangers. She gave the usual speech of how her family was Irish, or at least part Irish, and she had gone to learn about her heritage and track down the residences of a few of them. Pretty normal stuff. She then asked where I was from, to which I said “all over Europe.” She promptly seemed disappointed and said I needed to figure it out as soon as possible. Followed by “have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” AWKWARD. Also, WHAT? She apparently wanted to pray I would find my cultural heritage. And subsequently do what she thought the whole world should do: go “home.” She planned on moving to Ireland. She then said this to me, “Everyone should just go back to where they’re from, it’s what’s right. Even black people, they should all go back to Africa.” I was…stunned…Did this woman really just say this to me? Is she kidding? Nope, dead serious. I didn’t know how to respond, so instead said, “that’s interesting, will you excuse me while I use the restroom?” After which I sat back down and pretended to nap. There was no way I was about to deal with the subsequent crazy likely to emerge from her mouth. As a result, whenever someone talks about where they’re from I can’t help but think about this woman. She is clearly one ridiculous exception, but the encounter certainly did not spark my interest in finding more about my 10% English heritage. Nor have I at any time felt more connected to Ireland because I know my Dad is part Irish.
Sweden is my closest link to a definitive heritage. My great grand parents immigrated to the US from there, and I grew up with my mother declaring I had such “cute swedish cheeks!” Something I mostly equated with “fat” cheeks. As a side note, I didn’t see one person in Stockholm with “ample cheeks,” so I’m not sure I get the reference. Side note, if I am Swedish, I did NOT luck out and gain the lanky, lean and generally gorgeous characteristics so many Swedes seem to have been blessed with. Dang it. But I was aware, when going to Sweden that I had a tie to it, in some way. When we landed Alex asked, how is it to be in “The Homeland?” I laughed, but surprisingly, felt a growing intrigue. The drive from the airport to downtown Stockholm I contemplated how strange it was to be in the same place my great grandparents, whom I never met, had grown up in and left to start the American heritage of our family. My very existence, in its current form at least, in fact depended on this occurrence. I wondered what life was like for them here, why they chose to leave. We don’t know that much about them, there are no pictures from them in Sweden. At least, none that I’m aware of. So there’s this mystery, and a tangible connection to a culture and place distinct from where I grew up. Teenagers chattered behind us, and I imagined an alternative reality where I was born in Sweden, and how different life would have been (of course, this is an impossibility, but still). I was surprised at my interest, particularly in going to the lake side town where they grew up, what I would be searching for, I’m not certain. But there was, is, an urge to do so. I’m sure it has to do with wanting to be connected to something bigger than myself. The US, as much as I love it, feels temporary somehow, even superficial. Simply, it is young. Of course, at one time Sweden was young too, but the tangible connection of self to something more deeply rooted in history is somehow comforting. This all happened in the short time we spent wandering Stockholm and having lunch before having to catch our flight home to Dublin. I felt a bit silly, really, I honestly don’t know anything about Sweden, or really about my family history. Was this new found fascination just whimsy? But nevertheless it’s there. And more, I very much want to return to Sweden. Ideally for longer than a layover and in more temperate weather.