Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are ~Esmeralda Santiago
When we think of the word heritage, whether our own, our country’s or our species’, it is natural to think of the past, how it has accumulated and informed our collective destiny. My paternal Grandparents were first generation Americans, with families that had emigrated from Ireland and Germany; my maternal Grandfather, on the other hand, was descended from those who crossed on the Mayflower.
I remember being so intrigued by all of this as a child; I felt such pride in my rich cultural heritage, how I could claim all of these places, events and people as my very own. There was no sense of separation from any of it; I was the scrappy Irish, the indomitable German, the noble English fleeing religious persecution…my maternal Grandmother, a glamorous woman, was from French lineage and there were rumors that somewhere mixed in all of this were a few drops of American Indian blood.
I gleefully accepted that all of this was ME; my middle name, Jerome, was not only my mother’s maiden name but Winston Churchill’s mother as well. Long before I really had any idea who that was, I had a full understanding that being able to tout him as a relation was phenomenally cool. I was proud of my family and could listen endlessly to the stories told about our shared history.
Over time, however, that unadulterated sense of unity slowly began to fray. High school biology and Gregor Mendel would clue me into the fact, for example, of the heavy favoritism of certain types of genes. My siblings were all athletic and robust; I was more bookish, artsy and (ahem) “indoorsy”. And as I grew older and more mature, the stories shared weren’t always the happy ones; tales of despair and demons, loss and struggle became a part of the tapestry as well.
When I left for college I experienced physical separation from my family for the very first time and a type freedom I had never known before. I was re-discovering my self as an entity apart from them for sure, but also realizing a new level of kinship; while my family will always be my blood tribe, the friends I was making were my soul tribe. Our connection was not by happenstance; we had been drawn to that particular place by the ways in which we were intrinsically similar. And yet in the course of our bonding, we were able to share and celebrate all the ways in which our family cultures had made us different.
I finally felt truly at home with these soulmates, but more importantly I felt at home with myself in a way I hadn’t previously realized was possible. My family had given me roots; but this soul family I found gave me my wings. That remains true to this very day; I am not “me” without all of them. You cannot tell my story completely or honestly without mentioning all of their names.
This month our contributors will talk about what heritage means to them; in reading through our submissions I was most struck by what an entirely fluid concept it can be. We walk with our families for a time; but then, if we are fortunate, we have an opportunity to strike out on our own. And as much as biological family can influence who we become, it is these tribes that we choose to walk with that best demonstrate who we are.
I so enjoyed reading these stories and I know you will too; Shareen and I thank all of you, our readers and writers alike, for being part of out “tribe”. What we share at this table is sacred, and we are grateful that you have become a part of our heritage, of who we are.