My Grandfather's Dress

It’s the hazy end of a summer dinner party. Emptied dishes lay across the table setting, hollow bottles are scattered, cheeks are rosy, and laughter is the song that holds the humidity around us. It’s the events of last night and the ones of tomorrow. The conversation moves from family anecdotes to tales of lineage, and the people around the table discuss the traditions of Irish step dancing, Jewish holidays, and sweat lodge gatherings. Fear of missing out sets in and I desperately cling to the scant Italian traditions my family practiced.

I grew up thinking I was mostly Sicilian because that is what I was told. Though, it was never clear to me how much of me was Sicilian, and how much Irish, and am I really Danish? What does it even mean to be French Canadian? Though despite the ambiguity of where I am from and what makes me up, it was always clear to me that I was Sicilian. This always felt more fact than belief because my goombah grandfather was living proof, and even though he’s never told a tale that wasn’t tall, everyone else in his family was sure of our heritage as well.

But we were Long Island American Italians, which is a completely different kind of Italian. The two cultural traditions that my family practiced were eating seven fishes on Christmas Eve and yelling regular conversations. Even though that was the extent of our customs, my Sicilian identity was something I held on to and exaggerated at times for my own comfort. I took such pride in being Sicilian, and growing up on Long Island around so many other American Italian families, I felt I was a part of a family larger than I knew.

As I got older it became clear to me that I was not as Sicilian as my grandfather persuaded me to think, and my Anglo-Saxon surname was not such an ill fitting dress after all. Just because it fit though, didn’t mean it wasn’t uncomfortable. You see, this dress was handed down to me from a family who I just don’t know very well. It was made and worn by a descent which I have never felt the descendant of. The fabric has unknown origins, the style is vague, and the colors appear faded. My goombah grandfather’s dress, however, is bright with embroidery, made with a regional linen, and sewn by people with faces and stories. I so wanted that to be my dress.

A month ago I received the results of my Ancestry DNA test. It told me that I was roughly a third English, a third Western European (probably German), an eighth Irish, and a tenth Sicilian.

One tenth.

My identity and connection to the family I know best had been reduced to a tenth. I know that’s a silly thing on which to focus, because obviously my genetic makeup doesn’t erase memories and love. What it did do was legitimize the gnawing feeling of always knowing I wasn’t as Sicilian as the rest of my family. My hand-me-down dress became itchy. It was proved that I needed the very few traditions my family practiced because it was the only way I knew how to be Sicilian. The rest of them simply were.

In the DNA report there is a “low confidence” portion that details your heritage with very low percentages. The report told me I was three percent European Jewish. My mind flashed back to when my father was married to his second wife, and her family shared their many beautiful Jewish traditions with me. I flashed to another memory, when my three Jewish roommates invited me to participate in their Rosh Hashanah celebrations and say prayer with them. All of a sudden the fiber of my fabric felt less arbitrary as I recollected the strong sense of belonging in those moments.

Then I received an updated version of my DNA report. AncestryDNA does this as they receive more DNA samples and gather data from more regions of the world. My updated report now tells me I am roughly half English, a third Irish, an eighth French, and a very small amount of Norwegian.

I’m not even Italian at all anymore.

Or European Jewish.

My sister, who only shares half of her DNA with me, asked me why I’m so obsessed with finding out my heritage. “Why can’t you just be here now?” which I don’t think she said knowing there’s a book titled Be Here Now, but she was getting at the very soul of its message. She’s right, I absolutely could not care and just be who I am with the appreciations and passions that I have. If I let go of this though, I won’t have a hand-me-down dress, and I like hand-me-downs. I like traditions. I like culture and heritage and ethnicity and the stories of how families came to be. I especially admire when a person’s culture is so intrinsic to their identity that it feels like they’re living up to who they know they are meant to be. It’s a kind of fate that was created before manifest destiny. It’s the steps that were taken on earth’s soil long ago that led to my footsteps here. It’s our people’s origin. Not everything happens for a reason, but there’s a reason I’m here, and I want to feel connected with it.

It’s connection. It’s knowing that my connection is real and belongs to me. It’s the feeling that the stitch and weave of my dress matches that of many other dresses. It is to know the story of my dress. It is to know the meaning of my dress.

In perpetuity,

Hannah

Nutrivi. Chalk Pastel on Paper. 2018.