Where Pilgrimage Takes Me
Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" Everything's hunky dory here today ... so far. Alpha is curled up in her cat basket, Beta is out under the tree waiting for a baby bird to fall from a nest, Decibel the parrot is unusually quiet. Heir is at work. Spare is puttering about the kitchen. And I, Anne Johnson, am here to entertain you! Good times, good times.
Since America is such a melting pot, people tend to think of themselves as being "from" somewhere, even if their families have lived here for generations. Until recently, I've been as guilty of that as anyone else. I've always loved telling people I'm "Scotch Irish."
Then one day recently, I found myself by a pretty little stream with nothing in particular to do, and I began to consider where I'm really from and what I should call myself based on my ancestors' "points of origin."
So far back as I can trace, three lines of my dad's ancestors were living in Appalachia a dozen generations ago. Long enough to outlast an Old Testament curse! So far back as I can trace on my mom's side, a German named Peter Mittelkauf arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Morehouse from a place called the Palatine in 1740. He moved straight to Western Maryland, not stopping first in Chester County, PA as Mom's Scotch-Irish ancestors did.
Dad's kin probably win the prize for longevity of occupancy in Appalachia. And what rich names appear in the family tree! There are Mountains and Kennards (sure sounds French to me), Tewells, Imeses, Bennetts, Martins, and (of course) Johnsons. There are Lashleys, which back in the day would have been pronounced Locks-lee.
Conservatively, if I were to book intercontinental, I would have to visit France, Germany, Scotland, and England. And in none of these places did my ancestors have anything going for them -- otherwise they would have stayed put. Where they did stay put was Appalachia. Ten generations. Twelve generations. Fourteen generations (the hardy Bennetts).
I am the first of my family to leave home and live elsewhere. Even my sister still lives in Appalachia.
Therefore, when I think of connecting with Ancestor, my thoughts do not wander to Stonehenge, but rather to Hopewell Township, PA. I like kilts and bagpipes excessively, but given a choice I'll go with a basement bluegrass band first. In fact, bluegrass music bears out my point. It is a coherent melding of African, Scottish, Irish, and English rhythms, melodies, and instrumentation. It is uniquely American music.
You could argue, of course, that probably a thousand generations of my ancestors lived in Scotland. Maybe they fought with Robert Bruce at Bannockburn. Well, that would be a point of pride indeed. But still I would have to return to one fact: At some point, recognizing the immense danger and strong possibility of death, my ancestors climbed on little rickety wooden ships and braved the fierce Atlantic. Then, although life was no bowl of cherries in the fortress hills of Appalachia, they settled in and stayed. And loved it.
Where are my ancestors from? Appalachia. Where do I pilgrimage? Appalachia. Hail the hills and valleys, hail the creeks and cliffs. Hail the spot that will be my grave among my people.
Now, you say, "Anne. Wait a minute. You're chucking the whole of history and settling for a mere 14 generations?"
Okay, scrap that! Let's get serious about this ancestor piece!
Come, all of you reading this. We are all siblings. Let's do the deep ancestor crawl! Off we go to East Africa, to the Afar Valley, to Kenya and Tanzania. There to meet the bored gods that unite all humankind in the cradle of Homo sapiens.
Is that too far back? I don't know. I like thinking of all of us as one big family. It's true, they say. Still, I think I'll let someone else sort out that family tree. And once they do, they can find me on Polish Mountain, sticking little American flags around Joseph Bennett's marker. To me, that's pilgrimage.