Over coffee on a recent morning, my wife and I found ourselves talking about our family roots. My ancestors – rigorously investigated by a distant cousin – were Ulster-Scot and Welsh farmers arriving decades before the American Revolution. As they slipped southernly down the Appalachians, more than one Cherokee grandmother (of the Eastern Band in North Carolina) came to populate my family tree.
My wife’s family arrived more recently, but those origins were not well researched. Taking the challenge, I dove into a few of my favorite ancestry websites (it’s a terrible affliction/hobby as I get older). After a few hours of digging, I had discovered a boatful of her German and Polish ancestors.
Teenager Adam Küpper arrived at Castle Garden in 1851, alone, speaking only German. To the hard streets of New Jersey he took, carving out a new life in a new world. More than fifty years later, my wife’s great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island: Andrew Jankowski. Fresh from Cracow, he was poor, hungry, and a pulse away from desperation. As these melting pot stories go, eventually a Küpper son met a Jankowski daughter on the Jersey waterfront, and the rest became the future.
My wife emailed all this information to parents, siblings, and a few cousins twice removed on her father’s side, and I left for the big box store feeling like an Egyptologist who had uncovered a treasure trove. Upon arriving, I was aided by a worker with majestic silver hair, the punchiest demeanor, and a chunky Irish brogue.
Genealogical studies crisp on my mind, I asked, “Where’s your home in the old country?” When he responded with the name of the village of my own Ulster-Scot ancestors, I almost fell over. For the next half-hour we talked about Northern Ireland; we had eaten in the same restaurants, drank at the same pubs, walked the same streets, and remarkably knew some of the same people: He as a local, myself as a tourist.
Here we stood, a Forsyth more than 4,000 miles from his childhood home, and a McBrayer three centuries removed from the same village. On my drive home (a new grill in the back of my SUV), I thought about the serendipity of the day. Germany, Poland, Ireland, Scotland, the Cherokee Nation: These bloodlines run in my son; and my adopted sons bring their own mix of English and African ancestry into our family – and all the stories that accompany those roots.
I thought of how this all speaks to a larger story, transcendent of my own, how we are all beautifully crafted genetic, patchwork quilts – unique in appearance, but made of the same stuff. And I thought of the song I learned in Sunday School: “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.” We are those children, indeed from every corner of the world, and the more aware of this we are – that we are children in the same family – then more like family we can become.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao