From the editor.
This was not a typical request. There had been no such visits within our immediate family. We were taught that loved ones were not found at the grave; these contained only earthly remains, and reunions would take place in the afterlife, in heaven.
Nonetheless, I could easily fulfill Mark's request. As the family historian living in the upper Hudson Valley for almost 30 years, I had tracked down many generations of my father's family who lived here since before the American Revolution. We could spend many hours visiting a dizzying number of small plots with headstones bearing the names of DeGarmo, Ham, Spicer, Angel, Sprague, Sutfin, and so on. After all, as you trace your lineage back through the generations, you add the family of each mother and acknowledge another bloodline. If we wanted to be inclusive, this could be a long visit.
We had an interesting day, touring the countryside, visiting a select number of graveyards and house sites in our quest for ancestors. That evening, I posted on Facebook, "Celebrating family, birthdays, and Dia de los Muertos with Mark DeGarmo," and included a photo of Mark embracing a family headstone where my dad, his brother, and their parents are buried.
Among the "likes" and assorted supportive comments to my post was the question, "Are you Hispanic?"
This seemingly innocent question brought me back to school-age questions of nationality, and ultimately, identity. Are you Italian? Maybe, Spanish? "No," I would reply, "DeGarmo" comes from a 'de Garmeaux' with a castle in Brittany, and that our first ancestor in this country was Pierre, a fur trader who left some debts behind in Montreal." I was pleased to be connected to this "vagabond" and his French nobility. I readily claimed my French heritage and still do. This identity, however, doesn't match the genetics. Pierre married a Dutch woman in late 17th-century colonial Albany, and his descendants married many different nationalities over the generations. Though my surname is a reminder, the French has become a very diluted portion of my bloodline.
Borden is my mother's maiden name, tracing back to an English ancestor who came to this country, also during the colonial period, marrying into German, Swedish and many other nationalities over the generations. When asked about his ancestry, my mother's father, called "Pop" by his grandchildren, would reply with pride, "We're mutts, American Mutts, a blend of many nationalities; no purebreds here!"
Pop would follow up with a story from the early 20th century, from the time he was courting his wife-to-be, Bessie McDowell. Sitting in the parlor of his future mother-in-law, he was told by Bessie's mother, "Our family came over on the Mayflower. What about your family?" Without missing a beat, he replied, "My family heard that there were a bunch of ruffians aboard the Mayflower, so they waited for the next boat."
McDowell is Scots-Irish. One or more of this family's ancestral lines can be traced back to the group on the Mayflower and other New England cultural hearths, but the McDowells themselves arrived a bit later. This line of the family also had later immigrants added to the mix: folks from Norway and Ireland in the mid-19th century. Although my great-grandmother felt a need to identify with one of the oldest lines instead of the newer additions, it's interesting to note that her daughter (my Grandma Bessie) was quite proud of her Scots-Irish heritage, proclaiming, "We're a frugal and hearty stock!"
Although my family ancestry can be called "American Mutt," I continue my search to rediscover the journeys and interesting stories of our multiple bloodlines, and seek to discover how these contribute to the family we are today.
"Are you Hispanic?" I did celebrate Dia de los Muertos with Mark that day, but I do not claim "Hispanic" as a bloodline or an identity. But surely Mark does. When he called me with his birthday request, he had just gotten back from Mexico. His life and work has many special connections to Mexico and Latin America, as an artist, teacher, and adopted son. On this most recent visit, he celebrated a wedding as a witness and special guest of the Velasco family who had "adopted" both he and his husband Jan in the 1970s. They identify Mark and Jan as family, with open-armed hospitality and love.
My brother-in-law Jan responded to the Facebook question: "Should it be called the Day of the Dead or also the Day of the Living? If it helps us appreciate what we have and where and whom we come from. Tombstones always make me think, 'They're there and they're not there.'"
Bloodlines can be important but are certainly not the end-all in determining family identity. Mark's celebration of Dia de los Muertos in the graveyards of upstate New York is a natural extension of this identity with his adopted Mexican family. As with all of us, it is but one of many family identities he claims. Family histories are often more complicated than at first glance. Teasing out the details of stories of identity requires careful search and careful listening to all the parties involved, both the dead and the living.
Voices Acquisitions Editor
Founding Director of the Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library