digging up the bones
In the 17th century, fleeing the poor weather of the British Isles, my ancestors flocked to America. They set up towns that they named after the towns they had left, and they all started to intermarry and form new and ever-more boring religions.
Later, they decided they’d had enough of the king, and rather than cutting off his head, they cut off lots of other people’s heads — figuratively and literally speaking — in a war. Judging by the number of Daughters of the American Revolution applications in my family’s online history vault, quite a few of my ancestors took up arms against the British, and started a legacy which would continue through to the 21st century.
As a young child, I often took my afternoon naps to the sound of eighteenth-century cannon fire. I was an expert with the tape loom and while I had never held an Xbox controller, I knew my way around ye olde sticke and hoope. My parents met reenacting the American revolution, and I spent my childhood weekends as a camp follower in Pennsylvania’s First Continental Regiment. My parents affectionately called me a “colonial girl,” a name I grabbed onto and held dear throughout adolescence, as I felt it made me special, separate from my peers. I was a colonial girl, a true colonial girl, someone out of her time, someone who didn’t fit in for reasons that had nothing to do with my untamable hair, glasses, and poor social skills.
That’s right, I was a colonial girl. I was a child of the American Revolution. I ate meals off tin plates and pooped in port-a-potties on hallowed battlefields up and down the East Coast.
When my ancestors came to what is now the northeastern United States, they liked it so much they never left. I am one of the only people in my extended family, as well as in my direct family line all the way back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to have lived further west than Ohio — Colorado, to be exact, where I moved after college. The rolling hills of Pennsylvania have nothing on the Rocky Mountains, and this former colonial girl now enjoys a life in the Denver suburbs, where I am the proud mother of two cats, wife of a beautiful woman, and as of recently, the owner of my first video game. That’s right, I have been brought into the 21st century by the 8-bit graphics of Stardew Valley.
Let’s be frank about my childhood: it was good! I grew up in a farm house built in the 1830s in which I only ever saw a ghost twice, and then it was the same ghost, that of my grandfather. I attended well-funded public schools where I participated in extracurriculars. I was adored by my parents, their little blonde-haired, blue-eyed colonial girl. And I enjoyed a feeling that I was special, unique, different from everyone around me.
Since leaving home, I’ve come to the realization that in fact I am special, unique, and different, but that unfortunately, so is everyone else. My blue eyes have darkened to a shade of grassy green. The good news on the hair front is that I exchanged a hairbrush for a wide-toothed comb and started using better shampoos. My high school ex-boyfriend joined the First Continental Regiment, effectively barring me from any further desire to participate in reenactments. Furthermore, I stopped telling people about my colonial life, realizing something of which I had been entirely ignorant during childhood: colonialism is not, actually, a good thing.
I say this with the tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating humor with which I say everything, but I want to be clear that this is in fact a very serious revelation, and one that troubles me. I had an idealized view of colonial America, a time period during which an estimated 95% of the indigenous population of the Americas was being wiped out, and George Washington himself was an enslaver.
When my maternal grandmother, one of the great saints of my life, died in the fall of 2021, I was deep in graduate school, reading Foucault on the train from Providence to Pennsylvania as I traveled to say goodbye to her. In the final years of her life, her memory was slipping, which meant that she, too, was slipping away from me. The Grandma I had known ceased to be, and while she retained her strong spirit through to the end, she was not the same. In some ways, this extended the grieving process — it pulled it forward, through the years preceding her death, and it also diluted it, so that there was no clean break, no easy cut to stitch up. This is, of course, the case with most grief: it isn’t easy. But all the frayed ends left me feeling some momentum that I didn’t know what to do with.
In addition, I felt an immense amount of gratitude towards the women in that branch of my family: Grandma and her daughters, my mother and aunts. I had learned so much about goodness, about being thrifty and resourceful, about faith and kindness. I wanted to know who my other family members were, the ones who had passed away from the earth I trod and went elsewhere, or perhaps went nowhere, or perhaps were dissolved into the air or my skin or my blood.
The 23andme test I took came back with results that were not shocking but were mildly funny: I am 100% Northwestern European. English, Irish, Scottish, German, French: this is it. The blood runs deep and it runs white. My curiosity not yet satiated, I started an account on Ancestry.com and began to dig through the New England dirt to see what, who, was there.
Colonial girl, indeed.
From an ancestor on the Mayflower to enslavers of Black and Indigenous people, the results were nauseating. The more I dug, the more bone I hit, and the bone and its marrow are ugly. Tempting, then, to fling the dirt back into the grave. To rub the headstone free of blood. To move along, hoop and stick in hand, singing an old fife tune.
But then again: no. The dust is in my hair and clothes, worst of all in my lungs, and the very act of breathing feels tinged with new significance. Darkness, meaning.
I am not the only one whose ancestors committed atrocities, horrors from which we would love to turn. But the turning is a privilege. The atrocities are continual, they are among us. They are in politics, in redlining, in reservations, in policy. The atrocities make up the world you navigate, the world I, too, navigate.
So I don’t turn. I don’t. Instead, I begin the work.