My oldest daughter, Xenia, has been obsessed with Greek Mythology since she discovered the origins of her name.
The literal translation means "guest-friendship" and comes from ancient Greece, where hospitality and kindness were regularly offered to visitors or anyone traveling through a village. The Greeks believed that the Gods mingled with the common people and offering kindness to strangers was one way to make an offering to the divine beings. One could never be certain about the presence or absence of the divine.
Understanding the origins of her name opened doors to an entire landscape of Gods and Goddesses, tales and beliefs that had previously been unknown to her and that do, unfortunately, remain unknown to many people out there. She memorized their names and symbols, recited tales about epic battles and romantic triumphs to anyone who showed interest. Because of the Greek origin of her name, she drew on this history as a part of her own.
Like my daughter, I have grown attached to certain mythologies and historical stories as a way to connect, as well, often using them to escape from my own realities and family stories. I always associated having a large chunk of German ancestry with the Nazis, even though my great-grandparents left Germany before the reign of Hitler. Instead of dwelling on this faction of my history, though, I looked back beyond modern history and studied my Pagan roots in pre-Christian Europe, identifying strongly, as a woman, with the thousands-- possibly millions-- of women who were burned at the stake during the religious crusades for honoring their traditions. I looked at a book printed about my mother's family tree, leading me back to the founders of libraries and emancipation groups in Virginia and even back to Abraham Lincoln on her father's side. On my father’s side, I became obsessed with the dust bowl after reading the Grapes of Wrath and learned that my grandparents and many of my aunts and uncles embarked on that same journey in the 1930's, picking fruit and nuts to feed their family upon arrival in California. And then there's the few ounces of Native American blood on both sides; no one can quite pinpoint exactly where it came from. And no one in my mostly Caucasian family seems to want to discuss it. I suppose I am a typical American "mutt", a mixing pot of all the good and bad all mashed into one restless and curious woman, identifying with the underdogs in my family history more often than not.
Still, I often catch myself peering back through time and the many complex stories I've found there to gain perspective. There is a longing in me, and most of us, I think, to feel a connection to the unnamed ancestors from far-off places that are, according to some traditions, supposed to offer us guidance and protection. I do this all as an attempt to transcend the confusion and bitterness of immediate circumstances, to make new memories, and to write a new family history for my daughters.
The morning that I received notice from the National Geographic Geno Project that our DNA test results were in, Xenia was asleep on a couch in my older sister's living room. We were there in my hometown to be with my father the weekend of my step-mother's unexpected death. I found it particularly ironic that I first embarked on the test to escape my ideas of family in the traditional sense and yet there I was, just miles from where I was born, receiving the news I had waited months to hear. It's always complicated with families, I suppose. Ten or fifteen years earlier, I was sort of estranged from most of my immediate relatives, out exploring the world, building a family of my own and discovering the inner workings of myself and how my childhood had informed my world view. In that moment of clicking on the email, I felt a distinct shift in how my relationships had changed, in how moving forward had brought about so much change in how I relate to the people in my life.
So there we were-- me at my sister's computer as coffee dripped into a pot in the kitchen and as my brother-in-law fed and otherwise tended to the sheep and goats and horses on their family farm-- and my daughters were both still asleep in the next room. As I clicked through the pages on the National Geographic website, the mysteries of the past began to open up: 1.9% Neanderthal, .8% Denisovan and much what I suspected already from my grandmother's lineage, a large percentage of Northern European genetics, specifically German filled my bloodstream. But much to my surprise, however, I discovered that over half of my biological make-up included Mediterranean and Southwest Asian ancestry, meaning our secondary genetics are Greek. This, I thought, is like Xenia winning the lottery.
But even still, clicking through websites in the air-conditioned house in the hottest slice of the Sacramento Valley as the sun rose above the Sierra foothills, the circumstance of the moment I found myself in lent themselves to a strange feeling of resolve. A mere day since my step-mother's death, sitting in such close proximity to the land and the people and the memories that often caused so much confusion and pain, the family roles began shifting into new and unexpected positions, and I felt a balance that I had searched for through much of my life. My personal history seemed to be rewriting itself, healing itself and creating a new story with new perspectives. I was offered a chance to relearn the story of my family, even if many of them had passed on thousands of years before my birth in places like Greece and the Middle East. Time and circumstances no longer seemed to be pulling me but instead, it felt as though they had begun to gently hold my kids and I between the importance of the present moment and the solid ground of the past.
is a displaced social worker, mother, world traveler and activist turned writer and wannabe Anthropologist. Burlison is a staff writer at The Pacific Sun in Marin County, CA, a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a book reviewer for the The Los Angeles Review. She also leads writing workshops and co-edits a zine at Petals and Bones, and is currently working on her first book.