Today. My first Sunday at St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, following a 3-month extended leave. Arriving early with a belly full of re-entry jitters, I walked over to nearby Pennsylvania Avenue for a cup of coffee. Soon, surprisingly, I was transported to another deep and inward place.
Crossing the threshold, Enrique (I shortly learned the new, at least to me, barista), upon seeing me, called out, “Hola!” I replied, “Hola!” He continued cheerily in rapidly cadenced Spanish. I knew enough to say, to stutter, “No hablo español.” Arching his eyebrows, he uttered a soft, “Oh”, then, to my astonishment, said, “Sorry, but you have the look.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I knew what he said, his comment calling, thrusting me anew to look at my roots.
Pedro Silva was my paternal grandfather. Born sometime in the 19th century in Santiago de Cuba, he immigrated to the United States and sometime later married Edith Abernathy. To their union, my father, William, and his sister, my aunt Becky (Benita) were born. When Pedro and Edith died, Edith’s father, my great-grandfather, Herman, took care of my Dad and Aunt Becky, and, as the story goes, decreed, “all who dwell under my roof bear my name.” Hence, I am an Abernathy by default.
Until my father died in April 1996, I knew only bare parts of this family saga. Shortly thereafter, rummaging through his effects, I found pictures of my grandfather Pedro, his sister and brother; even a deed to a tract of land in Cuba.
Over the years, I’ve been left literally to piece together my heritage. For quite a long while, I was angry with my father (that wasn’t difficult as we, even on our better days, had a tenuous relationship) for burying his history and mine. In time, I understood. He was a dark-skinned man with straight black hair, cascading from the crown of his head to the nape of his neck. Unaccepted by whites because of the color of his skin, he was nearly as unwelcome by blacks. Cutting his mane to a close-cropped bush and denying his lineage was an act of survival. I am not sure, indeed, I cannot know how well, for him, he succeeded. I do know that he, possessed of a bright, perhaps brilliant mathematical mind, was frustrated by a life-long lack of vocational opportunities that matched his abilities (yes, true of many black folk) and angry, possessed by a volcanic temper. Sometimes I wonder still: Was his fury a part of a painful price paid for his sense of his need to forsake an abiding, inextinguishable root of his very self?
Innocently, unknowingly, Enrique brought all this to mind for me; truly, brought it up from my bowels. So, unbidden, but not necessarily undesired, I ponder anew: Who am I? I, an existentialist, wedded to the matters of identity, destiny, and legacy, find it difficult, alas, I pray not impossible, to discern with comforting confidence my selfhood, my awareness of my being and my attentiveness to my becoming when so much of my beginning remains in the shadows.