The Mysterious Matriarch in My Mind

The steadfast image of my proud Native American great-great-great-grandmother has given me a strong sense of self for years. Does that all change if I realize that I made her up?

The Mysterious Matriarch in My Mind

What’s especially odd is that I can clearly picture her, my great-great-great-grandmother, an Iroquois woman, stout and proud in a black dress, the mass of her dark shining hair piled into a braid on top of her head. She looks out at the camera a bit balefully, as though there was something better for her to be doing, but fine, she’ll pose here, hold still for the five minutes needed for a photograph back then. Something for future generations, she thinks, perhaps dimly anticipating me, a great-great-great-granddaughter who will want to know who she was, or at least what she looked like. I can see her heavy brow, like mine, and her dark eyes, like mine, and the jut of her cheekbones, in imitation of how mine jut if I squint. If I think hard about that photo, I can begin to imagine how I am made a bit in her image. Which is unnerving because I never actually saw the photograph. I’m no longer sure if she exists.

Science tells us that our memories are self-establishing, thoroughly wiping out whatever came before, convincing us that they are accurate. In effect, they become our truth even if they are lies. And so, I think I remember learning about this woman – I have that memory – but at the same time I might be wrong.

If I did make her up, where did she come from? That’s what most concerns me. After all, what does it say about me that I want so badly to have a Native American ancestor? I’m Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, maybe a little bit Welsh — the end product of people who lived in the U.S. before it was the U.S. Nothing exciting. I have the pleasant face of someone you might like to ask directions from, and I’ve had that face since I was a child. People have been asking me where the DMV is for ages. Given that’s how I present to the world, perhaps I can be forgiven for my desire to be something else, someone…cool.

But I should say that I’m not a crazy white lady in thrall to too many adolescent viewings of “Dances with Wolves.” I know better. In the summers when I was eight, twelve and fourteen, I lived for two- to four-week stretches on Native American reservations in Montana and upstate New York, hanging out with the rez kids while the adults went about their business of repairing the Lutheran churches. I have good memories from those trips, such as riding horses bareback with the mountains sprawled out in glory behind us. But when I think back on those visits, I mostly feel sad. I remember rampantly drunk adults, a suicide by car accident one weekend, and the teenagers making plans to leave and never come back. I liked my new friends there, maybe envied their cultural heritage of songs and food and mysterious sojourns in tents, but I didn’t envy them. Their lives seemed hard.

One of the teenage girls from my dad’s church who’d gone on that first trip ended up marrying a young man she met on the rez after many years of cross-country courtship. He moved east to be with her, and I can remember his expression that first time he appeared with her at our very white, very middle-class church: a look of wonderment, already seeing that he’d only fit in if he was willing to continually acknowledge his difference.

Well then, if my memory (or creation) of Grandma Iroquois wasn’t the result of a desire to claim a beloved culture as my own, perhaps it was the possibility of being truly different that I found so alluring. I like to remember myself as a person who was born with the desire to be unconventional, but the reality is that this stance probably was a pragmatic attempt to make my negatives work for me. As a kid, I was hearing impaired, with terrible eyesight and an addiction to reading. We were a little odd: My parents took me to Kingston Trio concerts; I preferred to watch old musicals on PBS rather than “The Brady Bunch”; I was the only kid in my class who didn’t own a pair of jeans to wear to school on “Jeans Day.” But I wasn’t going to try to fit in. I didn’t like jeans, I insisted. I liked “My Fair Lady” and “Greenback Dollar.” I was not like anyone else, even when it wouldn’t have hurt for me to think in terms of connections instead of differences. I wanted to be – and firmly believed I was – special. It’s a habit of thinking that dies hard.

I was quick to insist on my uniqueness, which must have made me wearying to be around. When I think back to all of the things I insisted on proclaiming about myself – such as my early-onset vegetarianism or my ability to sing the entirety of the “Brigadoon” soundtrack at age ten – I feel a pang of regret that I didn’t know about (hadn’t conjured?) Grandma Iroquois back then. I certainly could have used her when I was ten and we made family crests in my art class. Mine had a Bible with a noose around it, since my father’s side of the family were Lutheran pastors from way, way, way back, and my mother’s side were lusty Irish immigrants who fled the Emerald Isle before they could be hanged for stealing horses. A bow and arrow would have looked great on that seal.

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By the time Grandma Iroquois appeared, I had settled down. I was in my thirties then, and lived a life unconventional enough to please even ten-year-old me. I’d traveled a bit, and found, to my surprise, that my face seemed familiar everywhere I went. I’d been identified as Spanish by a stranger on a train, told that I could (and should) pass as “light-skinned” by my African-American students, and, of course, was asked for directions in every country I’d ever visited, having to say “Je suis désolé. Je suis Américain” in Paris so often that my traveling companion wanted to tape a sign to my back. In Scotland, people came up to me speaking German, and in Ireland, I was repeatedly hailed as someone they knew or had met, or wasn’t I Mary’s cousin in from the States for the summer? “Are you Jewish?” I was asked over and over again in Brooklyn. I made my Facebook status “At home in the world” after moments like these, and I meant it. I knew what a gift it was. Maybe I was from everywhere. I didn’t need to declare my specialness.

And then, when I was in my mid-thirties, around 2005, she arrived. I remember that we were in a car going somewhere, my mom, sister-in-law and me in the back and my brother and dad up front. My mom told us that our great-aunt had given my aunt a list of sixty things she should know about the Reed family. One of the things on the list was Grandma Iroquois: Our great-great-great-grandmother had been an Iroquois Indian, full-blood mind you, married to a white man. I was immediately, and thoroughly, excited at this news. As I remember it now, I twitched with excitement, trying not to bug my sister-in-law.

I cannot recall exactly how this conversation went, but I do remember one thing: That my mom said “When Gayle” – my aunt’s wife, for whom I’ve used a pseudonym to protect her privacy – “heard about this, she said, ‘That’s where Shannon gets all of that beautiful hair!’” I was overjoyed. This was perfect! This story took my one great beauty, my hair, and used it to prove that we were much more interesting than I had thought. As far as I was concerned, this was the ultimate story.

There was a photo of Grandma Iroquois too, somewhere, we were told. We’d see it, eventually. But wasn’t finding out about her nifty? My brother and sister-in-law agreed. Talk turned to other topics. For me, the earth was moving. I felt as if my specialness, long believed in if not seen, was now proven true.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that although I never saw the photograph of Grandma Iroquois, I began to believe I had. I looked for her in my reflection when I stood at the mirror plucking my eyebrows. I thought about the people I had met on the reservations and tried to derive group characteristics they had shown, then tried to apply them to myself, an exercise that takes an extremely generous view to not see as faintly racist. I convinced myself that the eyebrows I worked away at on an almost-daily basis were the genetic result of Grandma Iroquois’s blood. I started to read up on the Iroquois nation. I walked through the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian more alertly. I was a little foolish, in other words, and a little bit in love with my own difference.

Until she disappeared. A couple of years after the great revelation, I mentioned her to my aunt, the originator of the legend, during a visit but she looked blank. “I don’t think so,” she said dismissively. I looked over at Gayle, reading a book and making notes on the margins, a retired English professor unable to stop learning, and I couldn’t bring myself to remind my aunt about the nice thing Gayle had possibly said about my hair. Maybe I remembered it wrong. It wouldn’t have been the first time I made a story a little bit more flattering to me.

The next visit, I tried to go wider – could I see the list of sixty things you should know about the Reeds that Great-Aunt Mary Sue (also a pseudonym) had written, I asked? Oh, yes, my aunt responded, and I was so relieved that at least I had not made that up that I forgot to push her to look for it again. They’re moving next year, into a ranch home, so Gayle doesn’t have to worry about the stairs. Maybe they’ll find that list while they’re packing. Maybe they’ll make a copy for me. But I’m not going to ask them about it, because if it’s not real, I don’t want to know.

At dinner with my parents later that year, I mentioned Grandma Iroquois, and my mother looked blank. “Who?” she says. “Really?”

“Yes,” I said, “Yes, you told us about her.”

“Huh. I don’t remember that,” she responded, and this time I was frustrated enough to pursue it. “Remember you said that Gayle said that’s where my beautiful hair must come from?”

She looked sad, and said in a way that cuts right through me, “Oh, I always thought that your hair came from my side of the family, from being Black Irish.”

For a moment, it was as if my brain exploded: Hang on, we’re Black Irish? Oh, man, that is awesome! The Black Irish were so cool. But wait…no one remembers the Native American great-great-great-grandmother? Did I make her up? Why would I do that?

In the end, I let it go, because I love my mom and hated taking away something that she thinks she gave me.

“Well, I think I did get my hair from your side of the family,” I said. “After all, when I’m in Ireland, everyone thinks I’m Irish.”

Perhaps the most foolish thing of all is that I stopped asking. My brother and sister-in-law – younger, with presumably more facile minds – have a better chance of remembering our conversation in the car, but – and here’s the key – I don’t want to know what they remember. I’ve got this little fragment of a broken, if really odd, dream left, and I don’t want it to dissipate when they look at me like I’m nuts. The memory goes away when they say they don’t know what I’m talking about, and I’ve grown fond of that memory, even if it’s entirely made up.

I do sort of think I am nuts, actually. It’s the photograph, or the lack of it, that makes me think my elders are right, that Grandma Iroquois never existed. Because I never saw that photograph, but my mind tells me I did. I can see it in my head. That’s crazy. But, still, I cling to it.

In short, the whole thing embarrasses me a bit now, my pathetic grab at other-ness. I can’t imagine trying to explain this to one of my lost friends from the rez, should they friend me on Facebook. What could I say? It was just so exciting to be different. The little kid that used to be me, the one I carry around inside, was so pumped that at last my specialness had become clear.

I look in the mirror now, and I don’t see the high cheekbones of Native peoples. I see my ordinary cheekbones in a face that’s going increasingly round. I see a tubby, Germanic nose, and reddish highlights in my undeniably Irish-y air.

I should mention my eyes – they’re hazel. Most days they look dark brown, but every once in a while, if I wear green, say, you can see that they actually are hazel. However, I usually check “brown” on forms that ask my eye color because once some guy at the DMV asked me why I had checked “hazel,” and I couldn’t summon up the words to explain that even though I knew that they looked brown at that moment, they really are hazel, and that I was sure of it. So I checked “brown,” and check it still today.

But when I’m filling out a form for something that really doesn’t matter, I sometimes check “Native American/Other” along with “White” for ethnicity – even though I am embarrassed and roll my eyes when I recall how I conjured up Grandma. Because, honestly, who knows? Who can remember? Maybe she was real. You can’t reason away a memory.