It’s autumn. It’s the autumn of my life, and that cliché is falling upon me like a ton of dead leaves.
On the yearly calendar, it’s the very beginning of autumn. The trees are overwhelmingly green. As I type this, sitting on the deck, I’m wishing I wore shorts instead of jeans. But time moves fast: When I began writing this, our autumn sedum was light pink. Just two days later, it is approaching the deep red it will soon become.
On the calendar of my life, I am deep into the third season. That doesn’t sound right, but I can’t dispute the numbers.
I’m searching for the origins of my great-grandfather Bernard Akerman.
I’m searching for the origins of my Jewish DNA.
Increasingly, I’m convinced those two searches will lead me to the same destination.
Family history has become my passion in recent years. I have solved a few mysteries, connected with a few previously unknown cousins, and identified many more new-to-me relatives—and quite a few new mysteries.
My Great-Grandpa Akerman has been one of those mysteries from the get-go.
I’m trying to get to bed earlier. It’s a continual challenge. But it was going well this week — until last night, when I stayed up doing family history research until 3 (!!!!) a.m.
Then I went to bed and dreamed that I was driving along a ridge, across the grass and dirt and rocks, at high speed. I wanted to be on the highway that ran parallel on my right. But I was having a very hard time getting there.
Gee, I wonder what that was about?
I have written frequently about my ongoing efforts to get on track, stay on track, get back on track. I think about it even more frequently — like, pretty much every day.
I fear that like the Lyme bacteria inside my body, which change their shapes to hide from my immune system and my antibiotics, I’m becoming a tiny round ball: curled in on myself, invisible to the rest of the world.
This illness saps my energy and keeps me from working, from volunteering, from circulating in my community. And so I’m afraid that people will forget about me. I’m afraid they already are.
That was only one of two reasons I couldn’t pick up a prescription that was waiting for me. The other reason: I was at the wrong pharmacy.
I pulled out of the drive-through lane and into a nearby parking space, trying to figure out what to do next. The wallet must have fallen out of my jacket pocket, I realized. I turned on the interior lights and looked around inside the car. No luck. I texted my therapist to see whether it had turned up in her office, one of the three places I had been that afternoon. While I waited for her reply, mind buzzing with anxiety, I tried to think straight.
Should I drive home (without my license), make sure the wallet wasn’t there, grab some cash, go to the right pharmacy, and pick up my prescription? Should I retrace my steps in hopes of tracking down the wallet? I tried calling my husband for his common-sense advice. The call went straight to voicemail. I decided to drive back to the location of the yoga class I had just left and look for the wallet there.
It was after hours and the building was locked, but I followed some other people in. Climbing the stairs to the third floor, I found the door locked, so I walked back down to the second floor and took the elevator. In the makeshift yoga room, my wallet was nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, my therapist texted back to say that she didn’t find it, either.
So I went home, trying not to freak out. My husband was there, calm and reassuring. “Maybe it’s in the car,” he said. By that time, it occurred to me to use a flashlight. With the help of two flashlights and two pairs of eyes, we spotted the wallet and extracted it from its hiding place, between the driver’s seat and the center console.
Crisis averted. Time wasted: about an hour. Anxiety level: maybe 5 out of 10. Errands accomplished: 0.
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.
“When you’re building a house from the foundation up,” my friend said, “each stone has to go in the right place.”
I loved my friend’s image of the way I’m trying to rebuild myself. Even more, I loved the empathy: the way my friend understood why this work is so hard, why it’s going so slowly, why it takes so much of my energy.
I am rebuilding my foundation, stone by stone. Sometimes the work is backbreaking. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s mind-bending, and sometimes it just plain makes my brain hurt. Other people can help me find the stones, or help me figure out where to place them. But the actual rebuilding is my job.
“You don’t have to find yourself,” says the sign at the yoga studio. “You have to create yourself.” But I think I do need to find myself.
That’s not to pick a fight with the sign at the yoga studio. There is no ready-made, off-the-shelf self waiting to be discovered, like the perfect wild raspberry hidden along the trail. Finding myself is not a matter of practicing the right asanas, chanting the correct prayers, or following the proper program. It will take a lot of creative effort. So maybe we’re on the same page, the yoga-studio sign and I.
Still, “finding” is a central part of what I need to do. When I lost my father, I lost a part of myself. Three years later, I’m still not sure what that part is, let alone how to find it.