A few weeks ago, my husband got really excited about tracing his ancestry. He’s got that all-American hodge-podge of ethnicities represented—some German here, a little Norwegian there, a touch of French. While much of what he dug up needs to be researched and fact-checked and documented to much greater degrees, some of his preliminary poking around traced a possible line back to the eleventh century, which is pretty incredible to think about.
This got me interested again in my own lineage, which some family members have done much of the work of tracing. Mine looks a little different—I don’t have to go very far before I leave the country, for one thing. My mom and my paternal grandparents were all born in the Netherlands, as were pretty much all the others on the list. While my husband knew his great-great-grandmother (this is incredible to me), I only knew two of my grandparents. One of the grandparents I didn’t know was old enough to be born in the nineteenth century, which is pretty impressive.
The most “famous,” on my dad’s side, is Hugo de Groot (or, appealingly, “Grotius”), a seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher, mostly known for some foundational work he did on international law (really enthralling stuff). He was also a “theologian, Christian apologist, playwright…[and] poet,” though, if Wikipedia is to be believed, which resonates with me as a creative writer and seminarian. I’m sure a number of seventeenth-century philosophers had these traits, but this one is different—we’re related. And there’s something about that connection that feels meaningful.
I spent the fall semester of my junior year of college in Oregon. It was my first time living more than half an hour from home, and for several months I found myself on the side of a mountain with a cohort of people I had only met at the beginning of the semester. In the journal I kept there, I wrote about wanting roots, wanting to be with people who knew me by the merits of time. Back in Michigan my grandmother was aging, my best friend was planning her wedding, and all the people with whom I had history were going on with their lives.
Moving to New York has been a similar experience. Sure, I moved out of Michigan after college, away from family and friends and my childhood home. I got used to being elsewhere, and I put down new roots with new people. New York is farther from home than Indiana, though, and while I have my husband here with me, which is amazing, I’m still in the un-rooted phase of adapting to a new community (and the giant mess of a first semester didn’t help with that). I’ve heard it takes six months to really settle into a new job or home or what-have-you, which sounds about right at this point.
As Christmas approaches, family is on my mind even more. Family is an important part of the holidays, but for a number of reasons, my husband and I may not be seeing much of ours this year. So, once again, I’m tasting a little of that feeling of a longing for (and relative absence of) roots. Perhaps that’s why looking at ancestry and heritage is such a draw: I am hours and hours from family and old friends (and busy enough that I have yet to visit even the acquaintances I have here in the city). I still feel like an interloper in this bustling city and struggling seminary.
So what do I have? I have my ancestors. I can’t visit them, anyway—most are long dead—so distance doesn’t matter. Still, though, this litany of names acts as a sort of symbolic rootedness. This string of Dutch names, these birthdates and death dates, this long-gone poet, apologist, and philosopher—I have some ownership in all of them. Even when I’m distant from some of my other roots, then, even when I am feeling a bit uprooted, I remember that I have deeper roots, roots that remain unchanged by loss or distance—or even a cross-country move.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.