Connecting with the past

September 07, 2012, Friday/ 17:39:00/ ELLE LOFTIS

Last month, we received the news that my great-grandma’s sister had passed away. Almost a hundred, she was still gardening and living on her own until just weeks before her passing. Her sister, my great-grandmother, and I were very close.

From the age of 8 until 11, I would spend most of my summers at her house. She was from the south; years of living in Michigan hadn’t erased all of her accent. As the oldest great-grandchild she had in our town, I was fortunate to be able to spend that time with her before she died of cancer when I was 11. In that short time, she told me a lot about my extended family and Tennessee, where that side of my family have lived for generations.

So many times in my life I have arrived somewhere new with a sense of déjà-vu. Although I never have been in that particular location before, something feels familiar. I was raised Catholic, and my mother passed on to us her love of and belief in a lot of mystical aspects of Catholicism. We grew up with the stories of saints, angels and the Virgin Mary. Growing up in this environment made it easy to fit into the mystical aspect also present in Turkish culture. Many of my close friends and their families here carry or display a talisman such as an evil eye, a nazar boncuğu. From having my “fal” read by looking at my discarded coffee grounds to having hot lead poured into a basin of cold water over my head, I have experienced many superstitious cultural traditions. In general, my Turkish friends seem a bit more connected to their mystical and superstitious side than my American friends. When I say to them that on my first visit to Turkey I felt oddly like I had come home, my Turkish friends all nod understandingly, and not because they are necessarily huge fans of Turkey. They are acknowledging that unknown power that all religions and cultures try to explain in their own way.

For the past 10 years of my life, I have tried to get more in touch with my own personal energy and spirituality, part of which translates into discovering more about my past and ancestry. This has been a personal quest that has at times been jarred by major life events, like motherhood and expatriation. Why do I feel certain ways at different times? From childhood I have felt this strong connection with my past and a huge thirst to know about my ancestors and where we came from. It was difficult to get many people in my family to talk about their past. My maternal grandfather served in the South Pacific in World War II, but was always pretty mum about his experience there. His mother had died when he was young, and both she and his father had come over from Ireland at the turn of the century. From there, no one really knew or tried to find out. My paternal great-grandfather fled Germany in the 1930s. He wanted nothing to do with Germany after he arrived in the US; he was so horrified by the changes going on there at the time. While he maintained some contact with his family back in Germany, upon his passing all ties were lost.

Staying with my great-grandma during her last years of life was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. She would always tell me that I was an “old soul in a young body” and talk to me about her family, her life and her experiences. She occasionally mentioned her mother in passing. Her mother had died when my grandma was about 8 years old, during the influenza epidemic post-World War I. My grandma was left along with her seven brothers and sisters to help on the farm and help with raising the younger siblings. Even at my young age, I could tell that those years had left their permanent mark on my great-grandma. After she passed away when I was 11, I didn’t think too much of her stories, until her sister passed away recently. Curious again, I started to research our family using several genealogical websites online. Within seconds, my great-grandma’s mother’s death certificate came up. Even though I knew the story, I wasn’t prepared to feel such an overwhelming sense of grief. That night, I mourned a relation of mine who had passed away decades before I was born, but whose premature loss I felt from my great-grandma.

As I continued my research, more and more interesting details came to light. My mother’s side, which I always assumed to be totally Irish, is not actually so. I found the immigration papers of my maternal great-great-great-grandparents. They are listed as emigrating from Hungary but have distinctly Turkish-sounding first and last names. Could I have Turkish ancestry? Is that why I felt such a strong sense of coming home when I arrived in Turkey? The time period during which these ancestors came to the US was one of strife between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Territory then passed back and forth, particularly in the Balkans. Could they have come over as a result of that conflict? Their daughter, born in the US, married the son of Irish immigrants. I definitely am researching this more in detail.

In America, so many people came and continue to come to start new lives. At times, this means not elaborating too much on the past. I find a similar trend in Turkey -- especially here, where so much of the national psyche has been defined by major wars over the past 150 years. Almost all of my Turkish acquaintances carry some effects of that time, including my husband and his family. Can’s paternal side was caught up in the Balkan strife in the late 19th century. First they left Albania, then Bulgaria, and were finally resettled by the Turkish government near Balıkesir in the early 1920s. Can remembers his grandmother speaking a unique dialect of Bulgarian on occasion, but it was lost after she passed away. This is not a unique story in Turkey. Almost all of my friends have them. İstanbul in particular is a good example. Turkish people from all over Turkey have moved here for various reasons, with everyone pretending they are originally from İstanbul when really hardly anyone is. Just like America, in a way.

As I continue to research more about Can’s ancestry, and mine, it continues to fascinate me. Every name I come across I acknowledge the spirit that relation had and that a part of me carries. My relations may not have been famous or noteworthy, just courageous, ordinary people. While I have always felt a connection with my roots, that feeling increases the longer I live away from the country I was born and raised in. Thankfully, decent research on genealogy can be done online. It has only been a short journey, but already is fascinating. Each relation is a thread in the multicolored fabric of my life. Delving into my past has brought up some surprising finds, which have spiritually explained my sense of connection and identity.