Wherever you go you take your ancestors with you
The words of a wise Hawaiian kahuna – or elder – echoed in my mind as I walked through a torrential downpour brought on by a sudden pineapple express – a storm system from Maui. I was headed, with an industrial-strength umbrella, towards a gleaming office tower where I would soon be interviewed and fingerprinted for my UK work visa.
Fittingly, the tower was located right nextdoor to Christchurch Cathedral, where my great grandparents, Ruth and Arthur Jones, were married in 1908.
They met on the steamer from Liverpool and fell in love. Later, Arthur would return to England and never come back, abandoning his young family to the whims of the Depression, while Ruth ran a rooming house to feed her three children.
Meanwhile, my great-grandmother Martha Ann, born in the West Midlands to a coal mining union organizer and his wife, who left for a better life in North America, met my great-grandfather Bryant, himself the son of a Midlands miner, in a place called Coleville on Vancouver Island. The mining town is now known by its Indian name, Nanaimo.
There was a family story about an ancestress, a certain Lady Beauchamp, related to the Earl of Warwick, who had been disowned after she’d either 1) eloped with her coachman or 2) in a slightly racier version, taken up with a highwayman. Whichever it had been, the end result was that she and her family were reduced to living on the edge of the family estate in a thatched-roof hovel.
A few generations later, after lifetimes of dawn-to-dusk mining and misery, Canada beckoned like a lifesaving beacon, and soon their descendants bore children with the peoples of the Blackfoot and Similkameen nations, organized new world miners’ insurrections, and even went to Hawaii to recover from winter-rain-induced pneumonia.
And now here I was, plucky great-granddaughter, going to great lengths to return and live and work in the old country that everyone had been so glad to leave.
I thought about all these ancestors now, in the waiting room of Worldbridge Visa Services, where I would soon offer up my biometric data to a clerk, which would then be signed, sealed and delivered to the British High Commission in Ottawa on a street named after Lord Elgin.
I thought also of my Mussallem great-grandparents who had arrived here in 1908 from the Bekka Valley – Orthodox Christians fleeing the Turks. Since Canada was then part of the British Empire, my English ancestors needed no special permits to arrive in Coast Salish territory. But my Lebanese great-grandparents – who then lived in Greater Syria – had their passports stamped Asiatic when they arrived in the New World.
I also remembered my great-grandfather Ditmars, who had journeyed here from Nova Scotia, after his ancestors, who had arrived in Long Island from Denmark in 1630, were loyal to the crown and came north after the Revolution. His mother, Josephine Soulis, was a French Huguenot (whose family had fled Catholic persecution in Bordeaux), who had married his sea captain father, Jeremiah Vanderbilt Ditmars (in old photos I saw he had a white beard and smoked a pipe).
But those were a lot of ancestors already, and the waiting room was getting crowded. (Auspiciously, I’d received this appointment on Remembrance Day, after a walk on the beach and a prayer for my great-uncle Rex who died in the war, and after seeing an eagle land on top of a totem pole.)
Still, it was time to honour ancestors – or at least consider them – as I offered up my fingerprints, unique, as are everyone’s, to a peculiar confluence of destiny and DNA. (Fingerprints and visas, they beg the questions: Who are we, where did we come from, where are we going and who grants us permission to be there?)
The clerk was a middle-aged woman with long blonde hair named – I kid you not – Sunshine. At first she seemed rather aloof, almost suspicious, and I felt a bit nervous. I remembered the stories about Ellis Island from elderly Lebanese relatives who had fled the Turks, guns a blazing. Names mis-spelled, or simply changed. Bribes and hidden valuables. I thought about my ancestor Cornelius Bryant who had been banished to the colonies for allowing a work gang to queue jump where he worked at the old East India docks, and his subsequent sea journey round Cape Horn, where a third of the passengers died on route and he recorded descriptions of now-extinct flying fish in a journal. I thought about the last time I’d travelled to America and been put through a decompression chamber.
I thought about why I was going to England, four generations after my ancestors had left it. About how newspapers here were dying, and about how reportage on important global issues – especially anything about (God forbid!) the Middle East – was either non-existent or gutless, neutered and overwhelmed by lifestyle stories and celebrity news.
Of course there is a fine tabloid tradition in England – but even that has a sort of folksy, narrative quality (I remembered a recent tabloid story about a prolific council flat lad who had fathered children with seven different women – it was headlined Sunderland Shagger in Love – and presented him as quasi folk-hero).
And perhaps that was what attracted me to England. Storytelling had not been overwhelmed by consumerism, or technology. It had a long tradition, and narrative journalism – and a keen interest in stories from around the world (rather than stories about how to cocoon a safe distance from that world) – were a part of that.
The clerk observed me coolly from behind her big desk. But when I told her about New Internationalist and the issue on bees, her face lit up and she began a long monologue. First it was about bees and colony collapse, then about her bee-friendly balcony garden that the neighbours complained about, then about a chestnut tree – planted in honour of two men who had died in World War One – she had saved from being chopped down.
Soon it was about her English ancestors who, as it turned out,were Welsh coalminers (and, who knows, with all my Jones ancestors, could well have been related). And then finally, after all that, she took my fingerprints.
At first they did not take. I wasn’t pressing hard enough, she said. Perhaps I was hesitant to have such an intimate bit of biometric data, really the story of me and all my ancestors, recorded for some clerk at the British High Commission. What happens to all the stories that led up to the fingerprint, I wondered, when all that data is compressed, stored, digitized? Will they still be honoured?
But finally, it took, and I pressed my fingers down firmly – perhaps with a certain confidence now that I was taking my ancestors home.