I can tell how important history is just judging by the litany of nationalities most people rattle off when you ask them that many-faced question what are you? A recipe of blood and muscle, the genetic reason for the dimple adjacent to your left eye and your family’s indefatigable constitution. The “tough stock” my mother credits for our dark hair and long lifespans, despite a functioning alcoholism and stubbornness as thick and dense as an old Redwood tree.
You may not have realized it—though it’s something I have always kept as a universal truth—but every story is a history. What may have been your least favorite subject in school is in fact the thread of life that dutifully tracks the progress and pitfalls of us, the needles. I could tell you a few histories, I know more than my fair share. The war-fraught story of the Carthaginians; the mythical tale of Santiago—Matamoros, or perhaps the account of my great-great-great grandmother who boarded a ship from Ireland to Pennsylvania, escaping a potato famine that left half of her home country dead or starving at best. I couldn’t tell you the story of my grandmother and her Mexican blood, because she’s hidden it under unsuspecting boards and pockets of her old mind; all tangible proof of its existence went up in flames when a fire consumed her childhood El Paso home. I could tell you the history of love and how I’ve come to know it in an embittered, hopeless kind of way. But I don’t want to. Some histories hurt more than others.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about what other people did and where they did it and with whom. I try to reveal why they did it, but that’s always the hardest part. For too many years I have read and researched and hypothesized about tribes and cultures and world wars and civil wars and feuds of family and crimes of passion and people, always people, who talk to me with dead, cracked lips. Don’t tell me that dead men tell no tales, because I’ve chosen to pursue a life of making sure they do, and figuring out why any of it matters at all.
If and when you decide to dive into the catacombs, don’t be surprised when you find things you never wanted to find. An explanation. A truth that guts all whom encounters it. A destructive mess of a person, who happens to look a lot like you.
I was seventeen when I first reached backward blindly into the past. I was apart of a dig in Virginia; as my hands pulled two hundred year old nails from the ground–nails caked with dirt and indecency, nails that once held together the walls of slave quarters–I felt firsthand that most history is stained with guilt, and drips with blood.
While searching I also find things that I immediately cling to, fogging the mirror a bit until I say we look the same. An uncle who wrote for Yank magazine and was far braver than I even in my drunkest, most fearsome state. One who wrote so beautifully I inject myself into his prose. I see myself there, an upshot of his words. But he is far, far better than me. His words, long dead, are still more alive and haunting than anything I could ever write, I fear.
On my father’s side there is a woman who supposedly came from the dusty plains of a forgotten Mid-Western territory, arrived on the poorest of California soil, and bore ten children before running away and leaving them all behind. An entire family has judged her. But in pictures I see her dead eyes and think she had a big bruise of a reason to run.
“You looked like your uncle when you were a baby, you drum your fingers like my mother.”
“You inherited a temper that launched a thousand altercations, a temper that drove your father and I apart.”
Are all of these people holding me with puppet strings, guiding me along our fault line of familial unrest? Or perhaps it is I who binds myself to them with blood ties, when they want nothing to do with my unmetered sonnet of mistakes.
My mother and I were walking out of a bar in Ireland one early summer evening when a man with gray hair and glasses stopped us in our tracks.
“Are you American?”
His accent was clearly Pennsylvanian. I knew this because most of my mother’s family lives in Pennsylvania and speaks with the same quirky, inflected voice.
“Yes!” we both chimed eagerly.
It was our first time in Europe and every interaction seemed magical. We got to talking—I can’t remember why—but the conversation progressed naturally. He was in Ireland with a group of students, if I can recall. I am ashamed to admit I hardly remember the trivial particulars. They had biked the Ring of Kerry that day and he said the others were back in their hostels nursing bruised inner thighs and tired lungs. It was his first time in Ireland as well, finally making the trek to our shared motherland after a lifetime of listening to his parents speak about their hometown of Kilkenny.
“After she moved to America, my mother got a job waitressing in Atlantic City and my father worked in a construction lot there. One day he noticed my mother at the restaurant where she waited tables and he eventually worked up the nerve to ask her out…As she walked out of the restaurant one evening, he dropped an orange down from the construction crane he was working on. Scratched into the peel was a request to meet her for dinner at such and such time at such and such place.”
And she went. And not too long after, they married. And stayed that way for 65 years.
“It’s funny,” the man told me, “my father may have dropped down an orange for her, but she always joked that she really married a lemon.”
I loved his story so much I didn’t notice the Irish rain drenching me rotten. All I could see was a million stories, veins of blood, and oranges that had brought the three of us together on the corner of that cobblestone street that afternoon.
Another thing about history. It brings people together with a synergistic substance much thicker even than blood.
This fickle world rests on uncountable dead bodies and living histories, those who suffered through it all just so we could make the same ugly, beautiful mistakes again. I’ll surely meet more such people in my anchored wanderings, dreaming of a place that feels both familiar and new like the best stories do. I’ll try to remember each of them and shove them into my pockets only for them to fall out and smudge with each new sun that rises. It is the permafrost of the past, that layer that resides just below everything we thought we understood. We cannot ever fully see it, or truly know the full picture of our collective joy and pain. I am too busy chasing the stories to see how it all connects, to see that it is the reason for everything.