I was born in Brooklyn but I have no memory of the place; at least not as a child since we moved away almost immediately. I know some of the streets and subway stations from a small slice of time I spent there in my twenties, and of course from stories my parents told. So when people ask where I’m from, I don’t include Brooklyn other than a quick disclaimer, “Well, I was born in Brooklyn, but…” or I simply start with Long Island. That’s where I’m from: the Island.
But I have known Brooklyn. My father’s trips to Ebbetts Field, the neighborhood and park my mother knew as a child. I know about my grandfather’s glass company, and the Knights of Columbus council where he was a Grand Knight before becoming State Deputy for New York. I know there’s a room at that council with his name above the door. I can tell you of St Ephraim’s where my father went to school and Our Lady of Angels where I was baptized. There used to be a butcher shop owned by my great-grandfather, and another owned by his father who came with his brothers from Germany.
At this point it starts to feel like an ancestral home, if we only go back to the 1850’s. How far back must we trace our DNA before we can call it an “ancestral home”? Most of my blood flows from Ireland, a good deal from England, only then does Germany enter the mix right next to Italy, with a spot from Spain as well. “Where are you from?” can be a complicated question for anyone, more so perhaps for Americans.
Last week my son and I were at the docks in Deltaville when someone asked him how long he has lived there. “All my life,” he answered, which is pretty much true since he was three when we moved to our home. I’m certain he will never say, “I’m from Sentara Norfolk General Hospital,” or even Virginia Beach, where for a couple of years we walked everywhere together. Then the man turned to me and asked how long I have lived there, in Deltaville. “All his life,” I said. That’s pretty much true.
Except for college, I haven’t lived in New York for forty-five years. I’ve lived outside of New York for three times longer than I ever lived there.
“Where are you from?” Geez, New York, Virginia, Arizona, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia–again.
Ireland. England. Germany. Italy. Spain (or, more accurately, Iberia somewhere).
This morning I went outside about four and stared at the half-waning moon and what I think was Jupiter. Definitely Orion was in the mix. I wanted to wake my son and say, “Come on, the sky is crystal clear; get the telescope while there’s still time!” But I left instead, driving to Norfolk. We look at the stars quite often, and I’m particularly fond of the half-moon, where the craters along the edge of light are more pronounced. I place stargazing just below sunset/sunrise watching on my list of favorite things to do; those times when I feel most at peace, completely at home in my surroundings. We’ll get up really early–we’ve done so since he’s a toddler, and head to the bay to watch the sunrise cut through the clouds. Or at night one of us will look out the window to the west and call if it looks like a good one. “Get your camera” one of us will say as we head out to the river to stand for an hour, watching the sun settle down, see some gulls or egrets scatter across the marsh, finishing the day in a fashion that can often sweep away whatever issues arose earlier.
This is where he is from. Not Norfolk, and while his ancestral lines link him to Brooklyn and places far away, where he is from has more to do with spirit than spitting into a test-tube. It’s why we can sit in a cafe in Spain and say, “I feel completely at home here.” He’s about to spend a month in Ireland, in Connaught, County Galway, in the heart of his “ancestral home.” Been there; it’s pretty. But it doesn’t have the same sensory pull as the wetlands of the Chesapeake. Call it “distant.”
Maybe where we are from is not nearly as relevant as where we are, where we are going next. I have traced my DNA backwards, of course; it is how they do it. But my mind, my heart, the soul of my existence I must trace forward to completely understand where I am from. At this point in time it is the reason those Great-Greats from Germany and England and Ireland and Italy ever existed at all.
I am from Brooklyn, of course. Like some human sourdough starter, a piece of that place will always be in me and come from me. I like to think it will not be diluted with the passing of generations. And sometimes it rises from me like mist on the river, reminding me of my roots, surrounding me with its ethnic presence. In Ireland I felt at home, and I spent more than a few hours walking the paths of Connemara imagining my ancestors there, gazing across the North Atlantic, dreaming of a different life. It was good to feel their ambitions still hanging in the air like breath on a winter’s morning. Oh, if I could live several lives…
Tonight I’ll be home and we will get the telescope out one last time before Michael head’s to Galway. The Pleiades is present now, and on a clear night we can look up for quite some time in silence and wonder where we came from, where we’re going.