reclamation project

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.

Cuban rootsPedro 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.

4 thoughts on “reclamation project

  1. So Paul, today you shared in your “Welcome” remarks how much you discovered anew about yourself during your three months in your home in SC, most notably “the joy of being outdoors”.

    I imagine that some of what you may be doing in SC after retirement (uhhh I mean in addition to re-hirement with Pontheolla) is continuing to discover “who you are”. I imagine there will be much joy and maybe even some sorrow as you discover things about yourself and your heritage that you never knew. I hope as you continue to write, that you share some of what you’ve learn so we can all “discover” more about you as well.

    You often hear “retired” people say that they’ve “found themselves” or “rediscovered life” once they have more time on their hands, so I look forward to your discoveries after February that may help you fill in the gaps in your family history. May you embrace all of what you learn, even the parts you’d rather not, because they’ll all be part of who you are.

    I’m happy that you may have the opportunity to make family discoveries, because there’s so much of myself I don’t know. In addition to my not meeting my father, we know nothing of his biological family because he was adopted. I’m always happy when folks have an opportunity to learn more of who they are because I’ve always felt I only know “half” of myself. So I’ve lived my life trying to be the best “half” I can be. You know that I wish you all the best!


  2. As always, truly, I thank you, Loretta, for your unstinting encouragement. As for your “trying to be the best ‘half’ (you) can be”, please know that from where I sit and from what I see and know of you, you’ve succeeded and you are succeeding! I do hope that as I continue to write that discover more “pieces” of me or, at the least (and if this occurs, it won’t be small!) I can “jigsaw” these pieces into a more coherent picture!

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  3. I think it is a very American trait to know little about one’s background. We are a nation of “leavers” and “self re-inventors.” Our forebears left–or were compelled to leave–the old country. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, those who had already arrived in eastern and mid-western cities, left to trek West. They didn’t stop until they hit an ocean. As they left, many seemed to shed their old identities and re-invent themselves. Until the Baby Boomer generation, there seemed to be an complicity among our ancestors (unless the were DAR or descended from the Mayflower) to lose all trace of their origins. Our grandparents and parents (and who knows about their grandparents and parents) were not given to talking about their backgrounds. People of European descent occasionally celebrated traditions of the “old country” but mostly, the old languages and any distinctive features of their cultural origins and family histories were relegated to the past; the emphasis was to assimilate and blend in. So few stories were shared. I know next to nothing about my father’s paternal line, except that my grandfather was born into abject poverty and was a “self-made man” who gave me the gift of an education, which he saw as the ticket to success in America. Ironically, he was the most financially successful of his line, despite never having gone to college. I know next to nothing about his struggle. Similarly, my maternal grandmother left behind poverty in Arkansas and came to California following World War One. She never looked back–or talked about it.

    I often wonder about the lack of curiosity or interest in passing along family history. Was there an element of shame about the past? It is a true loss to never know the hopes and sorrows that shaped my forebears–and which continue to shape me and my descendents. My mother is descended on her father’s side from an indentured servant who came to Pennsylvania with William Penn. We know this only because one of my cousins (in the pre-internet era) became passionately interested in tracing our genealogy. And now, my daughter is married to a descendent of an indentured servant who came to Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower (you can bet there are meticulous records of his descendents!) The knowledge of such details opens up new worlds of understanding. But how on earth did my maternal grandfather end up as a career military officer when he came from a long, straight line of Quakers? No one seems to know or is interested in sharing. Subsequent research on my part has uncovered evidence of a turn-of-the-century divorce. One can only imagine the drama!

    Incidentally, Paul, I think Enrique paid you an immense compliment. I do hope you will find your way to Cuba after you retire. We went there with a church group ten years ago, and it was a very rich experience.


  4. Thank you, Caroline, for sharing your richly nuanced perspective of what I would term a cross-culturally/cross-racially engaged and endured genealogical amnesia that seems part and parcel of the American experience. Truth to tell, it is good for me to know I am not alone. That said, your words bear a powerful resonance within me, particularly, “it is a true loss to never know the hopes and sorrows that shaped my forebears–and which continue to shape me and my descendents” (amen to that, for known or unknown we are influenced by all that came before us) and “(t)he knowledge of such details opens up new worlds of understanding” (amen to that, too!). Thanks also for your insight about the compliment paid to me by Enrique. This was not the first time someone assumed I spoke Spanish because my countenance incorporates features that some view as distinctively Hispanic. And Pontheolla oft has mentioned that we need journey to Cuba one day. Again, Caroline, I thank you.


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