Though I come from a bit of a melting pot of ethnicities, most of my lineage, in fact just about half, is French. My father’s maternal line is French Canadian and both of my mother’s parents have French lineage in New Orleans directly from France and from those who relocated to New Orleans from French Canada. I always felt that if I searched deep enough, I would find a common ancestor between my mother and father. The French colonization of Canada was isolated to a very small region. Surely, there was bound to be a crossover! Ding! Ding! Ding! SUCCESS! I’ll take 9th Great Uncle Grandpa for $500, Alex!
I found a glimmer of a possible connection on a late night Ancestry.com binge a few years ago. However, trying to unravel 300 years of lineage crossover hurt my brain. There wasn’t a computer screen big enough to zoom out as much as I needed to compare the lines. I’ve had a pin on the task of tracking down the exact person that linked my mom and dad but I have been distracted with other parts of my lineage. In my research for this blog post, in which I had no intention of talking about the possibility of my mother and father being related, I accidentally stumbled across the answer! What do they say about finding something when you stop looking? A watched pot of water never boils? Something like that!
But before we get into more about my 9th great Uncle Grandpa Jean, let’s talk about his great-grandparents and their children and grandchildren, whom this blog was originally intended to be about, Nicholas Hébert and Jacqueline Pajot.
Jacqueline Pajot was born c. 1544 right at the height of the European Renaissance in the St. Gervais or The Marais neighborhood in Paris near the Place Baudoyer to bourgeois candle maker, Simon Pajot, and his wife Jeanne Guerineau. This was a time in French history where Paris was the largest city in Europe and was a hot spot for social, political, religious, and artistic change and growth. Discovery and innovation were the theme of this century. During Jacqueline’s lifetime she saw the first street lighting by candles, the first theatre open, the first ballet performance, the beginnings of primary and secondary education, and the growing importance of merchants, especially those who made household items, like her father. I imagine Simon stayed quite busy since the city administration decreed in 1524 that lanterns with lit candles should be hung in front of houses at night. By 1594, a new decree from the police called for lanterns to be hung in the streets of each quarter, with city officials designated to see that they were regularly lit.
At the end of the 15th century, another new industry was born: the printing of books. By the 16th century, Paris was the second most important center of book publishing. In 1500, there were 75 printing houses, second only to Venice. In spite of their growing popularity, books were still considered luxury items. They were printed and sold in the neighborhood nearest the University which was about 2 miles from where the Pajot’s lived on the other side of the Seine. The growing availability of books increased the desire for primary education. Most noble families had private tutors for their children. Schools were organized by the church and were for boys only. As religious reform was growing, many Protestant schools were popping up and sometimes even included girls! However, this wouldn’t have applied to Jacqueline as her family practiced the religion of the Crown, Roman Catholicism. Jacqueline would have perhaps studied with the Ursulines, a religious order for women that provided secondary education for young women, however, the curriculum was limited to reading, writing, sewing and embroidery.
King Francis I helped strengthen the city’s position in scholarship and learning. In 1530, the King created a new faculty at the University of Paris with the mission of teaching Hebrew, Greek and mathematics. Though the growth of the University had positive effects for many, it had a darker cause as well that would be the beginning of a dark time for Parisians for years to come. The University devoted much of its attentions on fighting Protestant heresy. Throughout Jacqueline’s life, she would see a continual increase of tensions between the Protestants and Catholics that would greatly impact her later.
As mentioned before, the Pajot’s were devout Roman Catholic’s as most “good” families were in Paris in the 16th century. They are listed as parishioners of Église St. Gervais. The Église St. Gervais is a perfect representation of a church in that era with a melange of Gothic and renaissance features. The lower nave and the choir stalls, which featured hand carved scenes of daily life, different professions of the time, and various animals, represent the leftovers of the late Gothic style. Though the chapels were complete in 1530, the facade wasn’t constructed until the early 17th century, after Jacqueline died. The facade features an “up-to-date” design more reminiscent of the architecture of the renaissance era, more specifically known as French Baroque.
It was at Église St. Gervais that Jacqueline is said to have been married at least 2 times. I can not find any record of her first husband. Her second husband is documented as Louis de Cueilly. They were married in about 1555. They had 3 children. In my research, I have found varying information about Jacqueline’s birth date. Different sources range anywhere from 1535-1547. It is documented that she was widowed 3 times before marrying her third husband, Nicholas Hébert, in 1564 at Église St. Germaine de Prés, a 6th century abbey on the Left Bank of Paris. If Jacqueline was born closer to the later estimated dates, that would mean she would have been married three times with multiple children all by the age of 17. Though this seems extreme for us in the 21st century, it wasn’t too uncommon in the mid 16th century. The legal marriage age for women was 12, however most women didn’t marry until their early 20s unless they were from a wealthy family, like Jacqueline. It was with her third husband, Nicholas, with whom she would mother children of importance to my family history and the history of many families in the New World.
Nicholas Hébert was born in 1547 to Johannes and Joanna Hébert in Paris. He was an apothecary, grocer, and spice merchant. In fact, he succeeded Michel de Nostradame, more famously known as Nostradamus, as chief apothecary and court physician to Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, after Nostradamus’ death in 1566. (If any of you are as big of fans of CW’s Reign as I am, you know how exciting this discovery is!!!) Nicholas owned the Coeur Royal, the Trois Piliers, and the Mortier d’Or at 129 Saint Honoré St. Many notable historical moments occurred on Saint Honoré Street. It was on Saint Honore St. that Joan of Arc was wounded in 1429. At 9 Saint Honoré St., in 1610, King Henry IV of France was assassinated by a Catholic zealot. At 92 Saint Honoré St., 15 Molière, the playwright, was born in 1611. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, clergyman and political writer during the French Revolution, lived at 273 Saint Honoré St. Maximilien de Robespierre was sheltered by Maurice Duplay at 398 Saint Honoré St., where he was later picked up by the cart which took him to the guillotine on the Place de la Concorde in July 1794.
It was at 129 Saint Honoré St. that Nicholas and Jacqueline’s children, Charlotte, Jacques, Louis, and Marie, were born and raised. The Mortier d’Or was a large three story house built in 1415 for wine merchant, Jehan de Paris. It was made of freestone with two separate living quarters. The ground floor housed the store where Nicholas dispensed his spices and medicines. His son Louis followed in his father’s footsteps and learned the apothecary trade. He assisted his father at the French Court. They are almost certain to have had unusual access to the palace. To this day, the ground floor of 129 Saint Honoré St. still serves as a vitamin and supplement shop.
As with many of the bourgeoise, Nicolas supported the Guise (Catholic League) in the Religious Wars. He soon found himself in financial trouble and was forced to sell one of his estates, the Coeur Royal. In 1570, Nicolas had to mortgage Mortier d’or.
In 1572, Jacqueline’s mother, Jeanne, was very ill and dying. On October 3, 1572, Jeanne had her will drawn up. She had stated that all goods that belonged to her would go to her son Isaac, who was 23 at the time and living with her. To avoid any difficulty, she specified that “all the wood of chêne (oak), water, and house as far as can be seen” would belong to Isaac. However, she had named Nicholas Hébert the executor of her will. Jeanne died a few days later and on October 16, Nicholas drew up the inventory of goods from her estate. In her will she stated that above all she wished that her children live in friendship without argument or difference, which it seems is one of many wishes they didn’t respect.
Isaac, being the eldest son, was unhappy with how Nicholas had divided Jeanne’s goods. He demanded to see his mother’s will, which Nicholas, as executor, continued to put off. Isaac wasn’t satisfied with Nicholas’ procrastination so he tried to speed up the process by involving the provost. He claimed that he and his other siblings were owed various sums of money and objects from Jacqueline’s estate. The matter was to be settled out of court, but it would only add to Nicholas and Jacqueline’s already struggling financial situation. Isaac realized that the price of conducting business through the provost was such a large expense and it would be more than the sum of what he believed to be owed anyway, so he dropped it. They eventually came to an agreement and made appropriate divisions among all of the siblings in the amount of 150 pounds.
However, the next year, all of the family mutually decided to turn against Nicholas and Jacqueline once more. They approached the provost with a different charge and yet again came to an amicable agreement. A significant sum of money would be distributed equally between the Pajot children.
After much familial strife, Jacqueline, Nicholas and their children ended up with Saint-Mande and its vineyards a bit outside of the center of Paris. On July 15, 1580, Jacqueline died as the result of a fall. There are no records of foul play, but it does seem oddly suspicious to me that a man in financial trouble, who has already tried to swindle money out of his in-laws, would lose his wife to “unfortunate fall.”
After his wife’s “mysterious” death, Nicholas hired Jehan de Paris to tutor his children. He remarried 2 years later to a widow named Marie Auvry. Some of Nicholas’ goods were seized over an inheritance issue with a new sister-in-law. Nicholas was on the verge of bankruptcy. He had to borrow heavily and when he found that he was unable to meet his commitments, he was taken to court and forced to sell his remaining shares in Mortier d’Or. However, even that was not enough to settle his debts and he was sent to prison for two years in the Chatelet. When he was released, he was very ill and his second wife had passed away.
“Like all edifices in the Old Regime connected with the administration of justice, the Châtelet enjoyed a very sinister reputation, even worse than the storied Bastille. Relatively few Parisians of common stock were ever able to claim the dubious distinction that a relative or friend languished in the dungeons of the Bastille; many more could make the claim for the dank chambers of the Châtelet, inherently far more fearsome than the dry and relatively comfortable prison a mile to the east.”
Around 1589, Nicholas married for the third time to a Renee Savoreau. She had many financial interests in the Chartres region. (I’m sensing a common theme here). He lived out the rest of his days in St-Germaine-des-Pres until his death in January of 1600.
Though Nicholas and Jacqueline’s stories both seem to have come to a sad and untimely end, their descendants went on to leave their mark on the world, specifically the “New World.” Their son Louis, who learned his father’s trade of medical arts, science, and pharmacology, is widely considered to be the first Canadian apothecary, the first European to farm in Canada, and the first colonist of Quebec. He followed his cousin on an expedition to Canada in 1606 in hopes of making a fortune in the fur trade. However, as a pharmacist, he seemed to be more interested in plants and horticulture. He was highly regarded and particular note was made of his knowledge and pleasure in cultivating the land. In 1617, Louis was the first private individual to receive a grant of land in the New World from the French government. On April 11, 1617, Louis, his wife, Marie, and 5 other French families set sail on the Saint-Etienne for Quebec. Louis was recognized as having been of great service to the colony; for being a physician and surgeon, for being the principle provider of food, and for having fostered good relationships with the natives. According to the Historical Demography Research Program of the Université de Montreal, Louis and Marie are considered the tenth most important couple in French-Canadian ancestry at that time, with 4592 descendants by 1800. There is a statue of Louis and Marie in Montmorency Park.
So what does all of this have to do with my 9th Great Uncle Grandpa?
Well, Nicholas and Jacqueline had another son, Jacques Hebert. Though Jacques might not have been as historically significant as his brother Louis’, it turns out he is pretty significant in my family history. Jacques had a son named Antoine. Antoine had a son named Jean and thus we meet Great (x9) Uncle Grandpa Jean! Jean was born in Port Royal, Nova Scotia in Canada in 1653. Jean and his wife Anne Doucet parented at least 13 children, hence the ancestral wires crossed in my genealogy.
The Heberts on my dad’s side remained in Canada until 1887, when my great-great-great grandfather, Pierre Hebert, immigrated to Munising in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. On my mom’s side, my Hebert ancestors were actually a part of the Ile Saint-Jean campaign, which was a series of military operations in 1758 that deported the French colonists, or Acadians, back to France as the British conquest swept through Canada. The Acadians refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the British crown which led to their eventual deportation. Of the 12 transport ships, 8 made it to France, with a death toll up to 1,500 people. One of the survivors was my 6th great grandfather, Theodore Bourg (Son of Jean Pierre Bourg and Elizabeth Hebert), who was only 13 at the time of the deportation. Theodore grew up in St. Malo, France, a port city in Brittany in Northwestern France. St. Malo had a tradition of asserting its autonomy in dealings with the French authorities and local Breton authorities. From 1590 to 1593, Saint-Malo declared itself to be an independent republic, taking the motto “not French, not Breton, but Malouin.” If anyone knows me or my family, you will know that this attitude has seemed to have survived all the way to 2017. Theodore Bourg remained in St. Malo until 1785, when Spain paid for 7 ships to transport Acadian refugees from France to settle in Louisiana. Theodore, now 39, his wife Anne, and their 3 children, Theodore (5th great grandfather), Anne, and Magdaleine, boarded the Le Saint Remi on June 27, 1785 en route to Louisiana. They arrived 75 days later and settled with several other families along Bayou LaFourche. And the rest is history!
Is your head spinning yet? Mine is! Perhaps this chart will help.
So there you have it! Sorry Mom and Dad, but you are cousins. Very, very, very distant cousins. Oh, and just in case that bit of news wasn’t enough to handle for one day, you two are both related to Hillary Clinton, who shares a common ancestor mentioned earlier in this post, Jacqueline Hebert’s father, Simon Pajot (remember the 16th century candle maker?). I know you will both be thrilled about that. But, at the end of the day, if you really think about it, we are all related somehow. It just takes a certain level of curiosity, stubbornness, and a yearly subscription to ancestry.com to really prove it.
Out of my 16 great-great grandparents, 2 were German/Spanish, 2 were Scottish, 2 were British, 7 were French, and 3 were Spanish. That means that more than a quarter of my ancestors are of Spanish descent. Pretty surprising, right? Other than the fact that I have an affinity for tacos and anything made from an avocado, you would never know that blonde-haired, blue-eyed little me has any connection to the land of passion and conquistadors. Though a few ancestors were from the mainland of Spain, the majority of them were Isleños (islanders), a name given to the people from a small Spanish archipelago 60 miles West of the Moroccan coast called Islas Canarias, or The Canary Islands.
The Canary Islands is likely derived from the Latin name Canariae Insulae, meaning “Islands of the Dogs.” According to some historians, the islands were given this name because it contained a “vast multitude of dogs.” Some have even speculated that the native people, the Guanches, used to worship dogs and treat them as holy animals. They would even mummify their dog with their owner to help guide them in the afterlife. The ancient Greeks even have recorded that there were a people living far to the west who were “the dog-headed ones,” who worshipped dogs on an island. The most notable dog native to The Canary Islands is the Perro de Presa Canario or the Canary Mastiff. They were originally bred for working with livestock (note for later).The importance of dogs in their etymology and culture is retained in their coat of arms and depicted on their flag.
The Canary Islands is the largest and most populated archipelago of the region. It is made up of 7 large islands and several smaller islands, all of volcanic origin. My ancestors come from the islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote.
Tenerife is the largest and most populous. It is known internationally as the Island of Eternal Spring with temperatures ranging from 64-82 year round. It is believed that Tenerife is the location of The Elysian Fields mentioned in ancient Greek mythology. Perhaps this is the namesake of the street in New Orleans. Tenerife is also famous for hosting one of the world’s largest carnavals.
Gran Canaria is the third largest in the archipelago in area and altitude. It was populated by the Canarii who are thought to have arrived as early as 500 BCE. The capital city of Gran Canaria is Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which is also jointly capital of the whole of The Canary Islands with Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It was the first stop Christopher Columbus made on his way back from the Americas.
Aguimes is another notable city in Gran Canaria from which many of my ancestors hailed. Aguimes has been restored to reflect the perfect picture of a traditional and peaceful Canarian town. It has some of the best preserved cave dwellings including a church built into the mountainside and many popular cave restaurants.
Lanzarote is the easternmost island in the archipelago. Like the other islands that make up The Canary Islands, Lanzarote has volcanic origins. It has solidified lava streams as well as extravagant rock formations. It is sometimes referred to as the “Island of 1,000 volcanoes.” Arrecife, meaning rock reef, is the capital city. The name was given to the city in the 15th century in reference to the black volcanic reefs. Ships would utilize these reefs as a hiding place from pirates.
I have yet to uncover exactly what city my ancestors were from in Lanzarote. In the late 18th century, there were volcanic eruptions on the island for six years from 1730 to 1736. My 7th great grandfather and grandmother, Domingo† and Maria Campo lived in Lanzarote during this time of extreme volcanic activity. They are both recorded to have lived until 1751, so it seems they survived the eruptions. I can’t imagine living during a time where the threat of volcanic eruption was a daily concern! The volcanoes are now classed as historical and therefore dormant, although you can feel the heat under the surface atTimanfaya. Today, the heat coming off just nine layers of volcanic rocks is used to cook steaks and fish for tourists.
So what does this mean for me and my family? Why would these people leave behind such a seemingly paradisaical land? How did they traverse 4,300 miles of ocean and become such an important link in my ancestral chain?
From the first arrival of Europeans in the mid 1500s until statehood in 1812, Louisiana flip flopped between Spanish and French rule several times. During a time of Spanish rule in the late 18th century, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, sought to grow his army to protect against British expansion and populate Louisiana with more Spanish citizens. In 1777, the Spanish government issued the royal order to begin recruitment from the Canary Islands. At about the same time, the Canary Islands was going through an economic downfall and many jobs were being seized by the industrialization of other major European cities and countries. A plague of African locusts invaded the islands. Paired with a terrible drought, the locusts ruined the dried-out crops on which the farmers depended upon for survival. This created a perfect opportunity for Governor Gálvez to recruit. He offered Canarians (preferably married with children) an escape from their poor living conditions, land, farm tools, a house, a monthly stipend and a fresh start in a new land across the Atlantic.
One of Gálvez’ recruits was my 7th great grandfather, Manuel Nunez de Villavicencio*. In July of 1778, Manuel, his wife Josepha Suarez, and their 5 children set sail for Louisiana on the S.S. Sacaramento, the first ship of Isleño immigrants heading for the port of New Orleans, under the command of Captain Benito Ripoli y Barcelo as a part of the Louisiana Batallion. Manuel and 260 other passengers arrived approximately 6 months later at the port of New Orleans.
The Isleños settled in four towns strategically placed around New Orleans to guard the city from British invasion: Galveztown, situated just below Baton Rouge, Valenzuela, located along Bayou Lafourche, Barataria, located along Bayou des Familles in Jefferson Parish, and La Concepcion, later San Bernardo, located in St. Bernard Parish along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs (see map below). Manuel and his family settled in the latter along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs, sometimes referred to as the “end of the world.” It is situated on the extreme outskirts of the bayou, where the land and sea blur into one. There he made his living as a farmer and fisherman. Manuel and other Isleño farmers in the area provided the New Orleans market with the majority of their garlic, onion, bean, potato and poultry supply. The inhabitants adapted to their new terrain and learned how to best profit off of the land and sea as farmers, hunters, trappers, and fisherman. However, their work would be put on a temporary hold. Shortly after arriving in the new world, Manuel and his many of his Canarian brothers, served in the Revolutionary War in the Gálvez expedition from 1779-1783.
The few published church records from the time in the St. Bernard Parish suggest that Manuel and his sons were probably the progenitors of the Nunez families in the area. By the mid 1800s, most of his descendants were living in the upper part of the Bayou between Reggio and St. Bernard. They brought the tradition of domesticating cattle to the area, hence the name Terre-aux-Boeufs or “Cattleland.” Ranchers from all over Louisiana and even parts of eastern Texas brought their herds of cattle to St. Bernard for training. Isleños specialized in livestock domestication due to a scarcity of horses and mules in Tenerife. In their homeland, they were forced to use oxen for crop cultivation (remember the dogs?). In addition to cattle training and farming, many Isleños worked on sugar plantations, harvesting sugar cane and cypress. Vincent Nunez, grandson of Manuel and my 5th great grandfather, was a prominent merchant and sugar planter. Apparently prominent enough that robbers pinned his house for a break-in in November of 1852, though they only got away with a few “sundry” items.
The Isleños brought so much more to Louisiana than farming and ranching techniques and men to build Gálvez’ army. They brought rich cultural and social traditions that are deeply a part of the southern Louisiana lifestyle to this day.
Something that I’ve experienced within my life, that was most likely passed down from my Isleño ancestors, is the importance of family. Isleño’s entire social life was centered on the family and Roman Catholicism. Religious holidays were of great importance and celebrated extravagantly with dancing and huge feasts. If you know my family, you have most likely been to one of our infamous crawfish boils. We often celebrate major holidays, like Easter, blasting music, playing yard games, and sucking crawfish heads with family and friends. Growing up, Christmas was an all day event where everyone in the family, immediate, extended, first, second, third cousins, and even ex-husbands and wives, crammed into my great grandmother’s den to open presents and eat food until we were sick. However, this practice wasn’t reserved for major holidays only. Every month we would have a birthday party to celebrate all the family members born during that month. If it wasn’t a holiday or a birthday, chances are many of us were still gathered at grandma’s house eating dinner together several times a week, if not daily, like our ancestors, who ate all meals together as a family. Many of my grandmother’s recipes featured a medley of beans that had been stewing in a pot all day with salt pork or pickled pork, a culinary tradition passed down by our Spanish ancestors.
An observation was made by Raymond MacCurdy, who spent 7 years amongst the Isleño community in village of Delacroix. He observed that the people were “very devout and superstitious, stoic, have a sense of humor, and are extremely hospitable…they respect and obey their elders.” Add in the parties and the importance of family, and you have an exact description of my family.
Another tradition of great importance to the Isleños of Louisiana was décima singing. This was a Spanish tradition traced back all the way to the 15th century. Due to the geographical isolation and lack of formal education in that part of the state, oral traditional art was the best way for the people to pass along their stories and traditions. Generally, décimas are a stanza of poetry consisting of 10 lines per stanza, 40 lines, or 4 stanzas, per song. These songs were often sung at events in the communities, such as dances, weddings, and holiday celebrations or even after a long day of work or after a meal at a friend’s house. Their musical influences seeped into the mainstream at the beginning of the 20th century as Latin Jazz made it’s way to the forefront of the dance halls and night clubs. Today there are fewer than a handful of people still practicing the tradition, one of the reasons being the loss of the Isleño language that is only spoken by a few elderly in the community. Though the tradition has waned from the society, remnants still live on in Isleño descendants’ passion and affinity for music.
Many of my family members have a natural, raw talent for music. In fact, many of my cousins and my grandfather, direct descendants of the Nunez line, are extremely talented musicians without ever having studied music or learned to read it, much like their ancestors. My most notable Isleño relative, who made a living as a musician, is my 3rd great grandfather (Manuel Nunez’ great, great grandson), Alcide Nunez. Alcide was a jazz clarinetist in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in the early 20th century during the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Stay tuned for a more in depth post on Alcide, his career, and his contributions to Jazz.
Of the four Isleño settlements, two survived into the nationhood of our country, including St. Bernard, the village where most of my ancestors originally settled. They all endured a plethora of hardships including storms, floods, sickness, disease, mosquitoes, intense heat, and the many yet to be discovered mysteries of the swamp. They were a people running away from drought-ridden, locust-plagued land only to find that their lives would be threatened by drowning and disease. It was not the Heaven they had dreamed of however, it was their new home and there was no turning back.
For centuries they would endure many threats to their home in the form of natural disasters. Floods, hurricanes, and intense heat made it extremely difficult to create a life sustained by farming and fishing. Living so near a disappearing coastline makes for easy work as a fisherman, but can be disastrous for a farmer. The Isleños have persevered through centuries of major hurricanes including several just after their arrival in the late 18th century, the hurricane of 1812, the Chenier Caminanda Hurricane, categorized as the deadliest hurricane in Louisiana history, Hurricane Betsy in 1965, up to the historic Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some, growing weary of constant reconstruction, have moved to other cities, other states even. However, time and time again, Isleño people return to the land their ancestors built up from nothing but a marshy swamp. They have tenaciously fought to restore these lands, preserve their culture, and press on.
Aside from my deep love for dogs, it is in the of spirit of perseverance and preservation that I feel most connected to my Isleño ancestors. While cherishing and honoring the rich traditions that make up the very essence of who we are, we continue to press forward, through the storms, standing at the end of the world, ready to face any challenge life may bring.
†Domingo Campo -> Francisco Campo -> Antonio Campo -> Simon Campo -> Josephine Campo -> Frank Cuadrado -> Odeal Cuadrado -> Odeal Ayo -> Tracy Pigrenet -> Me
*Manuel Nunez -> Estevan Nunez -> Vincente Nunez -> Victor Nunez -> Alcide Nunez
->Mary Nunez -> Dora Mae Mocklin -> William Pigrenet -> Tracy Pigrenet -> Me
Anyone that knows me knows that I am pretty obsessed with origin stories. I’m not talking about comic book heroes’ sagas. I am talking about where things come from. What single thing sparked an idea that evolved into a common practice in everyday life. I love etymology. I love the idea of word roots and why they are what they are. I love thinking about where customs and traditions come from, where last names come from. I love searching for original intent and intention in behavior. Psychology is fascinating to me. Maybe it’s because I studied acting, which is basically a study in human intent. Whatever the reason is, this has spread into it many side fascinations, a major one being ancestry.
I spend countless hours and money a year on ancestry research. So many cultures have a deep appreciation for their ancestors. It seems to be a practice in American culture that has lost its value. Perhaps because we are such a vast melting pot of so many different origins and cultures, that it has become harder to trace. Or perhaps because people ran to America to escape from their origin story and rewrite a new one. But to me, it is such a precious gift to know your origin story. Unfortunately, dark parts of our country’s history has ripped that privilege away from so many who yearn for that knowledge. This only fuels my fervor to search for and treasure my roots that much more.
As I read about cities and wars and tales of my ancestors, I can’t help but feel a visceral connection to these people. Some stronger than others. With some, I swear I recognize traits that me or other family members share though we are separated by hundreds of years of time.
Thus far, I haven’t really done anything with this passion other than compile notes and records that slow down my computer as they pile up. I have thought about writing a historical fiction novel or screenplay about some of my favorite ancestral stories, however that would require that I be adept at writing! For now, I will share their stories in a humble weekly(ish) blog post.
Many of these stories are still tangled with endless plot holes and unexplainable twists. My hope in writing this blog is that I can solve some of these mysteries while sharing some pretty interesting tales and honoring the who, what, where, when and (the toughest) why, that literally makes up who I am.
There’s something about these house, these hours, the wee small ones, tiny, baby, minuscule hours of the night where only the wolves can see and speak and congregate together with their kind. Their likeness, fur matted, together in a circle, huddled mass. Amen. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost of the night, the invisible sheet covered being, three in one, two, three, one, two, three. Guard my sleeping children. Night lights burning bright, the first star I see tonight. If I can even see anything at all. What is there to see beneath the covered sky masked by the smog and light and colors so bright they dull the night lights left on by Mother or Father to keep us safe from the magical boy outside the window pane, pain, paint, pain, pain, pain, pain, pant like the wolf. The hot breath of the wolf howling for me to come hither. Whither must I wonder through the forest or else I’ll be lost or found. Who knows the difference? Am I contrite or contrived controlling ink from a pen? NO! Get out and stay out. I’ve had enough of the walls and the blocks building walls on my thoughts. The true thoughts under layers and layers of brick and mortar, too expensive for a pop-up shop, too easy to not let it flop. Let it go. Let if flow. Let it roll out like thunder. Don’t control. Just let it go, out, out, out, and away from my pen to my head, from my head to my pen. My pen is red like a childhood joke or game. It depends how you look at it. My hand is second guessing. The penmanship fails, the frail, aching, and tired, out of practice, fatigued like a soldier’s threads collected in the Plaza boutique. All we have on this block is one small corner to congregate and create. As if anyone cared what I have to say or what you have to say. What am I doing anyway, other than rambling away in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep because of the caffeine, which isn’t worthy or worth it even. The first thing I can think of because there’s so many filters and filters on filters and filtered through filters of hashgram no filter. Because nothing comes out without being filtered through lomo or loco, amaro of black and white slides of an instamatic app. What does that say about your life or your photo that you make it all up? Nonsense. It’s all nonsense and blocked and walls are built with or without our consent because the tiny glowing screens and particles that make it up impress upon our impressionistic impressionism lives which zoom out to be some sort of semblance of a glowing life with or without the filter, with or without the darkness: a time when words come out and the worms crawl out to be seen, just to be seen. For example, if I must, and I might make an example of myself talking about worms and flowing without a seam or a segment. A section of parts making up a whole of a soul…or a sole…or a soal? Who even determines the meaning when autocorrect will just make a decision for you anyway and you have the audacity to think you matter. When your handwriting changes every page, every line, every word you’ve ever heard changes meaning and scope. Just chalk it up to experience so you can take something home in a styrofoam box to have something left, if anything is even left when you decide to go searching and pray there’s no mold eating the meal you were intended for with or without the dowry. Selling yourself once again to a man or THE man, with or without the meaning you deserve or intend to tend to yourself or take care, if that’s even allowed. But most of the time you won’t have a say anyway, because you are stuck wide awake when the world is asleep and rumor has it you’re more likely to be a psychopath for enjoying the night and the crickets song and the cricking and screeching of the owl and barn noises. The inhabitants who inhabit the night with you by their side, they don’t seem as crazy as you do with or without the cursive “z” or “y” because who even writes like that anyway? A mix of letters, a mix of styles. Keep it pure. Segregated. That’s what they want. That’s what they tell you but you know it’s wrong. You never believed them. There is so much more and you have always known, whether you could make it out or not, or if you could translate or decode the writings of late night ramblings. Somewhere between the mixed style and writings lies the answer.The answer only found when the early bird is fast asleep dreaming of that worm, who does his best work at night. Because it’s all connected, whether wiggly, squiggly, square, straight, black, white, gay, or rainbow skinned, the pigment is all the same to the worm, the defeater of man. The king of the feast, seated in the Father’s lap, to the left of the Mother, who knows the difference in a subtle bark better than Father could ever scrape a stray hair from his trousers. Mother knows. She knows the night. She created it. She lies and breathes and prays and sins best under the night lights. Keep my children safe. Burn steadfast tonight.
If anyone knows me, they know that I am a very intense person. I take things to heart, especially things I am very passionate about. I am a 110% kind of gal. I think a lot of people in my generation have this kind of go-getter, make-things-happen type of attitude. We are a generation whose parents said “You can do anything you want. You can be whatever you want to be.” We are a generation who gets the privilege of saying “I am the first person in my family to go to college.” Continuing education is the new high school. I think because of this, a huge part of my childhood was centered around answering the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A simple question that we have probably all been asked from the time we were just learning to talk all the way to graduation day 16 years later. As lucky as we are to be presented with this freedom to make such a huge decision, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with this question, at least for me. Because when I heard this question, it wasn’t a question that would simply help me pave the path towards future career goals, but more of an existential question. “What do you want to BE when you grow up?” We were encouraged to give answers such as “A Firefighter” “A Doctor” “A Vetrinarian” “A Lawyer” A Movie Star” etc. Once we established a solid answer, and received a few encouraging words from family and friends, we pursued this life of learning and training towards BEING this certain label or person. Well, me, being the intense person that I am, took this VERY seriously. I said “I want to BE an Actress. I want to BE a Singer. I want to BE a Dancer. I want to BE a performer.” I had complete tunnel vision focusing on being this identity. It defined me as a person. My whole life was dedicated on figuring out how to be a professional theatre performer.
So like most theatre folk do, I dreamed my whole life of moving to New York City. I wanted to be at the center of everything, contributing to the hustle and bustle of crazy city life. I was going to be on Broadway, maybe even a celebrity one day! I spent my whole life as long as I can remember focusing on that one dream. I would always be the one who never gave up. I was going to make it despite the warnings and the ridiculous odds. I was different! (Weren’t we all?) Except, when I got there I was sort of paralyzed. I used to think I would do whatever it took to follow this one narrow-minded, poorly planned dream. But when I was face to face with the reality of the industry, the early mornings, the politics, the countless uncontrollable factors, the games, I found that I had to force myself to even go to an audition, much less take a class or practice. The dream I had chased was not the reality I was living. I felt like a complete failure. That haunting question played on repeat in my mind. I had no worth if I didn’t accomplish this one thing I set out to do because I had defined who I was by what I DID.
I started tossing around the idea in my head that maybe it is okay for dreams to change, or at least the fine print. I knew that before I made any major life altering decisions, I had to get to a point where I wouldn’t feel like a complete failure for changing my mind. It was very difficult because people would reach out to me and tell me how brave I was and how much they looked up to me for having the courage to leave everything behind to pursue my dreams. Though I gladly accepted the kind words, it secretly put a lot of strain on me to live up to their expectations. Even more so, I felt that I had to live up to my own unreachable expectations. I could see my younger self in my mind’s eye shaking her head at me. “You were supposed to be the one who made it.” The phrase “making it” bothered me for years. I finally discovered that “making it” doesn’t only have one definition. I remember when I was younger performing at local theatres in Oklahoma City and Dallas and looking down on those who had day jobs and pursued theatre as an extra curricular activity. I thought, “Well if you were really serious, you would be in New York trying to have a REAL career” or, “They are way too talented to be performing here. What a waste of talent.” What I didn’t stop to realize is that they WERE making it because they were happy. After all, if BEING a performer was the goal, those community theatre actors were doing that way more than I was sulking in my over-priced, 600 square foot excuse for a suitable living space in Queens.
At the end of the day, I still felt like a complete failure. Yes, I had excelled in many different areas of life, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t this specific thing that I told myself and everyone else I was going to be. Then one day it dawned on me, probably after talking to my mom on the phone or hours of pinning motivational quotes on Pinterest, that (as cheesy as it sounds) all I was required to BE was ME. IF “me” didn’t want to live this supposed life that a theatre artist is suppose to live, then that is okay! I had always defined who I was by what I did, all because of that one question. “What do you want to BE when you grow up?”
Well what I want to BE is kind. I want to BE loving and a good spouse. I want to BE helpful and encouraging. I want to BE a good friend and a good listener. I want to BE educated and interesting. I want to BE well-rounded and cultured. I want to BE fun! I want to BE happy.
At the end of the day, I wasn’t happy. I had to make a change. I let the weight of trying to BE something instead of trying to DO something become two separate entities and a huge weight fell off of my shoulders.
The many sacrifices we had made to live that lifestyle were no longer worth it. We had been miserable for several months. Ben had been experiencing similar feelings artistically over the course of living in New York City as well. We would alternate between who was inspired to be there and who hated it. He even wrote a musical about it! We said that we were worried for the day that we both hated it at the same time, because we knew that would be the end.
It was Easter weekend, the season of new beginnings. After 3 years in New York and 2 in Boston, we decided it was time for a new chapter in our lives.
So 6 weeks and 1500 miles later, we landed back in the land of the OCU stars, Oklahoma City, OK. Random, I know.
Honestly, it’s very strange. I never thought I would EVER be back in Oklahoma City, much less living here. Like Dorothy, I feel like I was in a weird dream, then I woke up and realized I never actually left Kansas (or Oklahoma). Because as wonderful as Oz is, what is a life where happiness can float away as easily as a bubble in the wind?
So here we are, back in Oklahoma City, filled with wonderful memories of talking scarecrows and dancing tin men, flying monkeys, glittering buildings, strange roads, and a lot of evil witches. But Oz isn’t going anywhere. That’s the beauty of it. It’s always there. Who knows, one day a twister of fate might sweep us back that way but I now can reflect on a very different message that Dorothy taught me. That no matter how wonderful Oz might be, and it is wonderful, the true message of The Wizard of Oz is to remember that “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t go looking any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with….”
Well…you know the rest!
And as far as that QUESTION goes, I hope we can re-word it just a bit for future generations. Maybe we should take a hint from the French who ask “Qu’est-ce que tu fais dans la vie?” which translates literally to “What do you do in life?”
I love that! It empowers and comforts me to know that there’s a limitless amount of things I can DO in life but only one thing I can BE and that is ME!
I just read Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, a historical fiction novel about Edgar Allan Poe and his alleged affair with the poet Frances Osgood. It is set in 1840s, high literary society, New York City. There were a lot of really awesome quotes from the book that I wanted to share!
“The stench of rotting sea creatures commingled with sweet scent of perfumes, as did the spicy odor of unwashed human flesh and the aroma of baking pies.” – about downtown Manhattan; still pretty accurate in 2013
“The unspoken truth was that New Yorkers considered everyone in the world to be just a tad – well, more than a tad, a lot more than a tad – old-fashioned, compared to themselves.”
“Maybe we all have the ability to perceive another’s soul, and do so every day, only we take it for granted and don’t even know when we’re doing it. It’s called knowing someone’s ‘character’ or ‘personality’.”
“If by a soul one means the creature who lives within each of us, a creature born loving, born joyful, but who with each worldly blow shrinks more deeply into its shell until at last, the poor desiccated thing is unrecognizable even to its own self, yes. I do [believe there is a soul]”
“Our soul is as much a part of us as our hand or our voice yet we are terrified to acknowledge it. Why is that?”
“It is as if producing a creative work tears a piece from your soul. When it is ripped completely free of you, the wound must bleed for a while. How similar it is to letting go of a dream, your hope, or your heart’s desire. You must open up and let it drain.”
“Pay attention to fate. It will always have the last word.”
“I admire any wild thing that won’t be ruled by man.”
“Americans are being poisoned all in the name of profit, producing a weak-minded race of people who are given to lust and desire.”
-“How many people have ruined their lives by giving into their desires?” -“You’ll excuse me, but I cannot agree. Many people have improved their lives by following their desires.”
“Desire inspires us to be our very best.”
“Tell me, who is behind a great woman? That’s right. No one. She has to get there by herself.”
“Mid-May in New York: the season for foolishness.”
“Is their a creature more unstable than a woman made mad by desire?”
“It is my belief that marriage is made holy by two souls in communion, not by the order of the law.”
“What if women don’t want to control men’s desires? What if women have their own? Why must women always deny their desires? Why must men always deny theirs? It is unnatural to do so.”
“Don’t fall in love with a poet. All they love is their words.”
“Madness is as a drop of ink in water. It sends sly tendrils from the afflicted person into everyone around until all are shaded in black. Soon one does not know who is mad and who is not.”
“Need is the mother of creation.”
“Wedded bliss is a tale made up to keep the species going.”
“Why are we doomed to crave most that which we cannot have?”
“Fortunate is the person who can succeed in extracting honey from such a flower as this life, whose root and every petal is bitterness.”
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but loving you isn’t one of them.”