“That’s where you get your cheekbones.”
This was the reply given to me by an elderly great-aunt as I gaped at her in disbelief. You see, she’d just informed me that despite my sugar-white skin, light eyes and blonde hair, I had a full-blooded Cherokee Indian woman sitting comfortably in my family tree, waiting to be acknowledged. A great-great-great grandmother I’d known nothing about. To say I was a bit gobsmacked is putting it mildly. My great-aunt turned me towards the mirror and ran her knobby index finger along the line of my cheek. “See those? She gave you those.”, she said with theatrical effect. She proceeded to tell me the story of a distant patriarch who fell in love with a Cherokee woman and of the marriage that, eventually, led to me.
Looking in the mirror later that night it was difficult to see past the light eyelashes and pale skin to a woman with a life I couldn’t even imagine. My experience being limited to the schoolroom, I had always thought of Native Americans as exotic, almost storybook, individuals. To think a measure of their blood ran through my veins was just astonishing.
As Americans, our eyes, be they blue or brown, hazel or green, reflect the shadows and light from other lands. We all have ancestors who made that one great wrenching choice: to leave home and make a new life. The tapestry of America is woven and knotted with uniquely colourful threads, each unlike the other, and the resultant creation is stronger and more beautiful than any woven with a single hue. I have felt the primal pull of ancestral memory in the hills of Glencoe; my MacDonald lineage stirring in the marrow of my bones. There are grains of my life in the soil of Yorkshire and Skye, beneath the bracken of Roslyn and on beaches and hilltops I know nothing about. I am even, as I now know, native to this country I call home.
I once heard Stephen Fry expounding on his affection for Americans. It was his belief that our optimism and fearlessness is an ancestral trait springing from all those distant relatives who took squared their shoulders and swallowed their fears to take the great risk of leaving their homelands for the journey to an unknown land. He could see those strong strains of hopefulness and bravery still running through Americans. I love that thought, just as I love the fact that America is made up of so many different nationalities. I find it amusing when I hear Americans speak of “foreigners”, for we are all of us foreigners in this country.
If one has been blessed with the gift of curiosity, it is impossible not to wonder about one’s own personal history. I have journeyed to a few of my own ancestral lands and I know how unusually meaningful those explorations can be. I wonder, have any of you made similar journeys? What magical parts of the world joined together to make you who you are?