My Grandpa O’Neil was a man of few words and even fewer stories. Although he lived until I was nearly 30, I can remember him telling only two stories. One, about the man who was so rich that he lit his cigar with a $50 bill, was quintessential Grandpa: always worried about money, and impressed by people who flouted that worry.
Grandpa’s other story gave me a rare glimpse of his mother’s personality. Catherine Kelly O’Neil was born in Scotland to Irish parents. When people would say, “Oh, you’re Scottish,” she would retort: “If a cat is born in the barn, that doesn’t make it a cow!”
I guess Grandpa’s mother knew who she was, and who she was not. But I wonder whether her identity had more layers than the cat-not-cow story might imply.
My family history research has not yet produced any record of Kate Kelly before her marriage to William O’Neil, in Kansas in 1889. But according to a census record, she immigrated to the US when she was about seven years old. So not only was my Irish-cat great-grandmother born in a Scottish barn; she may never have lived in her parents’ native Ireland. And she spent most of her life in the western Pennsylvania coal town where my grandfather was born and raised. All of those influences must have shaped her.
In the past year I’ve been reading novels and listening to music about American immigrants, in part because I crave insight into my great-grandparents’ experiences. Out of This Furnace is about Slovak laborers in the steel towns just outside Pittsburgh—not precisely the path my East European ancestors followed, but pretty close. (The families in Out of This Furnace live in Braddock, just a few streetcar stops away from my parents’ hometown of Swissvale. Most people pronounce it “Bradduck,” but I always hear my Great-Aunt Margaret’s thick accent: “Brad-dock,” with rolled “r” and drawn-out second syllable.) The song “Kilkelly, Ireland”—based on letters from a real-life father—sketches the poverty and lifecycle events of a late-19th-century Irish family. We never hear the return letters from the American immigrant son, who leaves home as a young man, builds a new life, sends money home, but never again sees his parents.
Another reason I’m drawn to these immigrant stories is that I’m intrigued by the identity questions they raise. The Namesake tells of Indian immigrants in the late 1960s, who never become truly American, and their Massachusetts-born son, who belongs partly to each culture but wholly to neither. In Americanah, a young Nigerian woman discovers that black Americans view her as alien, while white Americans lump her together with all other black people. When she returns home, her friends call her “Americanah”—no longer fully Nigerian.
My interests in my ancestry and in these identity questions are intertwined. I suppose most people who research their family histories are similarly motivated by questions of “who am I and where do I come from?” How did my great-grandparents and grandparents—coal miners and factory workers—produce my college-educated parents, who felt mostly but not entirely at home in the white-bread Delaware suburbs where I grew up? How did my mainstream American Catholic upbringing produce me—a pointy-headed liberal vegetarian, bicycle commuter, and observant Jew? My AncestryDNA test estimates that my heritage is, in fact, 10 percent Jewish. Who is the hidden Jew in my family tree?
Some of my identity questions are far more existential. Over the course of 30 years, without realizing it, I developed a sense of self that depended on my deeds and my roles: spouse, parent, journalist, synagogue leader. Two years ago, when I found myself unable to sustain those deeds, and therefore unable to fulfill the roles the way I thought I should, I faced an identity crisis. Okay, I’m not my deeds or my relationships—so who am I? What is there in my essence that defines me and justifies my taking up space on the planet? I felt I was staring into an abyss that was my soul. It was terrifying.
Two years later, I have recovered a good deal of my sense of self. I can’t yet articulate it, but I can feel it. But my identity is very definitely a work in progress.
The yoga poses called “cat” and “cow” are opposing moves that start from the same position. On your hands and knees, you drop your head and arch your back toward the ceiling like a cat, then lift your head and push your belly down like a swaybacked cow. The poses are opposites, but they’re also complementary, moving from one into the other, then back again. Both poses are part of a single practice.
The cat and cow of identity are not always so smoothly integrated. I have a great deal in common with my mother and my siblings. But I’m also different from them. As a child, I identified closely with my father: we both loved baseball, tart apples, dark chocolate. I still identify with him, but I also wonder about his emotional restraint. Beneath his calm exterior, did he feel the same sadness, fear, and anger that I struggle with? Like the young man Gogol in The Namesake, I’m working to figure out how all the pieces fit together.
My Mary Oliver Challenge is about, in the words of her poem “Wild Geese,” letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves. In other words, learning to be myself. Which means I need to learn who that self is and what it loves. The parts may be as different as a cat and a cow. Let’s hope they can share a barn.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.