The Ones Who Broke the Mold
This post originally appeared on That First Year.
My dad took a DNA ancestry test because we don’t know where our last name comes from.
We have very white skin that burns to a crisp in the sun, wavy brunette hair and greenish brown eyes. Sometimes I’m told I look Irish, or German…my mother tells us we have English blood. All I know is that every time someone asks me, “what is that?” when I tell them my last name is Beadlescomb, I say I don’t know, probably a hodgepodge of a name people didn’t know how to write or say back in the olden days.
“You’re lucky you’ll get to marry out of that one,” they say, making note of how weird or strange my last name is. It’s crossed my mind before how I’d love to marry a Smith or a Hall to save time and fit my signature on receipts, but what right do they have to assume I’ll just give my own name away?
I find myself saying, “Yeah, that’s true,” before handing them my signature squeezed onto the dotted line of their receipt.
I believe that our actions, our thoughts, our successes and failures are byproducts of the choices we make. I read books about psychology and the mind meant to inspire positive action, watch TED talks on productivity and healing destructive thought patterns. I believe in taking responsibility for mistakes I’ve made and pain I’ve caused. I’ve seen that choosing my daily rituals and taking action toward my dreams is the only way to bring myself closer to the person I want to become.
But even in believing in the power of my autonomy, I’ve learned not to underestimate the influence of backgrounds—I know my ancestors have played their role in shaping the person I am today. In America, any one of us who is not Native American can trace our lives back to the bravery of an ancestor who chose to leave their home, start fresh in new land. I’ve heard stories of great grandfathers who smuggled themselves onto ships, of families splitting apart in hopes that their heartbreak would one day lead to a better life. My father traced our line back years, and years, and years—generations of Beadlescomb’s stuck in the south—before he found the man who gave us all the chance to be raised as American citizens. My best friend only has to look back to her parents to find the brave two who left all they knew to make a better life for her.
Some of us come from ancestors torn from their families to be sold into slavery. From ancestors desperate to escape war zones. From ancestors who crossed oceans to follow the American dream. From ancestors who were hungry or heartbroken, unwelcome where they were or too adventurous to stay still.
There is so much talk anymore of what it means to be a “true” American. We see images of light-skinned people waving flags, drinking beer, shooting handguns. People with eagle tattoos on their backs in the stands of football games. These people are Americans, there is no doubt.
But let’s not forget we all come from families who started as strangers to this land. My family comes from a long line of individuals who created their identities as farmers in the south, but the results of my father’s DNA test didn’t say “Southern.” He is a puzzle made up of pieces of European blood, the great-grandchild of an individual who decided to cross the Atlantic with only a dream of what life might look like on the distant coast.
The identity of the true American may look different to us now, but it will always stay rooted in the trials of immigration.
So much of life in my 20s has looked like deciding who I want to be. It’s making choices and chasing dreams, travelling and finding people who bring out the best in me. I don’t think it’s a process that ever stops.
Sometimes I like to stop and think back to the person who braved an adventure that changed the course of life for my family. I hold tightly to this long last name that someone probably made up when he decided to create a new identity for himself. I think about my father, who was the first to break the mold and leave the east coast for California. I think about my friend’s parents who left India and ended up in the same city as me—I have them to thank for our friendship. I think about the people who speak in broken English because they braved learning a new life and language. I think about ancestors who lived through unimaginable trials to lead us here and now, fighting every day for a better life for the generations who will come next.
I like to let that push me into doing the things I’m afraid to do. I like to imagine the generations who will come many years after me, imagine what the choices I make now might be able to do for them. Whether it’s standing up or speaking out, participating in protests or marches, relocating or letting myself fall in love. Being the person who I want to be, I think, comes with fear. But I’m allowed to do it because of the people who came before me. I’m meant to do it for the ones who will come later.
My last name is weird and difficult to pronounce. But it’s my legacy to trace back. It’s the point at which my great-grandchildren will be able to look back and say, “She’s one of the ones who broke the mold. She’s one of the ones who brought us here.”
As difficult as it is to sign on paperwork, I don’t imagine myself ever giving that up.