More than 20 years ago, my then-husband and I struck up a conversation with a man in Alexandria, Va. He, like us, was staring out at the Potomac River, admiring the view. Next to him sat an interesting looking dog whose breed we couldn’t determine.
“What kind of dog is that?,” we asked him.
“It’s an American dog,” he said. “Some people call them Heinz 57s, but I call him an American dog because he’s a mix like we are.”
His answer was so true it has stayed with me all these years.
Except for Native Americans, we all came from somewhere else. My ancestors were from Ireland and Germany on my father’s side and Scotland and England on my mother’s. The Irish, in particular, suffered their share of prejudice and discrimination when they arrived here.
My precious great-niece, Chelsea, shares the aforementioned countries of origin and adds to them Norway, Italy and Africa.
Chelsea, whose paternal grandmother is Norwegian-Italian and her paternal grandfather African-American, is a bright, shining child — beautiful, intelligent, witty, kind.
Her ancestors were slaves on her father’s side and slave owners on her mother’s. (Until recently I had operated under the belief that my forebears did not own slaves. My cousin, in her genealogical research, has found otherwise. It was a shameful revelation.)
Embodied in this small child is the history of our country.
In October, on the day of her third birthday party, Chelsea was wired beyond recovery. She hadn’t slept the night before — too much excitement — and her parents could see her spiraling out of control an hour before the guests were to arrive. Her dad put her in the car and took her for a drive so she would fall asleep.
When they got back, he asked if I would watch Chelsea while he took care of a few things. She was fast asleep in her car seat. I just stared at the little being I love so fiercely. She looked so peaceful, so perfect.
In that moment, it was as if all her ancestors gathered round to peer at the sleeping child: the great-great-great-grandfather who caught his arm in a cotton gin and bled to death; the great-great uncle who was murdered on a bet just because he was black; the Civil War soldiers in Georgia; the slaves in Texas; the immigrants whose bravery, desperation or bad luck brought them to America and us to this spot, one county away from Loudoun County, Va., where our Scottish ancestor settled in the early 1700s.
I realized everything that went before, all the suffering and jubilation, loss and gain, culminated in this beautiful sleeping child. Surely our ancestors agree, she is worth all that we have been through.
We are an American family, and we have been blessed.
Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.