stories thicker than blood

I’ve been told that I have a great-grandfather who was named Данило Пиҗ. He lived in a small village near the towns of Борислав and Дрогобич, in the Kingdom of Галичина (Galicia), part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It wasn’t a great place to be, back then. That area had been split in two by the major powers of the time: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the one hand, and the Russian Empire, on the other. All of the people in the region thought of themselves as Ruthenian (Галичина), and had a common culture; but in the late 1800’s, the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on one side were allied against the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire on the other, and that tense and antagonistic border ran right through the middle of the Ruthenian people. One half was called the Kingdom of Галичина in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the other side was called Україна (Ukraine) in the Russian Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was crumbling, and the Russian empire was in a shambles.  Described as “one big madhouse” by politicians writing at the time, Russia was overrun by terrorism and unrest that would continue to rise until the collapse of the Empire in 1917. Ruthenians in Україна were being oppressed, and even hunted down and driven to extinction. Reacting to this, Ruthenians organized repeated uprisings and revolts in an attempt to defend themselves and gain a cultural and national identity.

It was into this world, on Christmas Eve in 1896, that Василь Пиҗ, my grandfather, was born.

I’m not sure what happened to his father, Данило, my great-grandfather. All I know is that in 1913, the year the First Balkin War started, my grandfather, at the age of 16, got on a boat to come to the United States. On his immigration form at Ellis Island, he said that he was coming to join his brother, Дмитрий Пиҗ, who had come to the United States a few years earlier.

What happened to Данило? Was he dead? Or had Данило just found a way to save up just enough money to send each of his young sons over to the United States, one after the other, to escape the impending war that was about to drive all of Europe into chaos? Did he knowingly stay behind in a poverty-stricken and war-torn region, so that he could send his children to a better life? It is a beautiful idea. I have no way of knowing.

Василь left Europe from the port of Hamburg on September 4, 1913 on the steam ship Amerika, and landed in New York on September 13. There were 2302 passengers. He had $12 to his name when he landed. These are facts I know from immigration documents.

Василь lied on his immigration form, too.  He claimed that he was 18… or at least: he claimed he was “almost” 18, just two months shy. In fact, he was almost 17. Not a surprising move, for a young man traveling on his own to a new country. He actually lied a second time, years later, as well. He worked at Columbia Steel & Shafting, and was good friends with his work mates there. On June 5, 1917, he and two of his buddies from work all went down to 1st-2nd Ward in Carnegie, PA, and registered for the draft. He was 20 years old, and not eligible; but he wanted to register with his buddies, so he said he was 21.

It’s another cute, heart-warming story. I think it’s true. It could be. The story is consistent with census and draft registration documents. I can imagine him: young and eager, in a new country that he loves. A small group of friends working together, a desire to serve and stay together as friends: it’s a movie-plot story, with my grandfather as the leading man. Did it happen that way? Sure. Maybe. I’ll never know.

AncestorsI love all of these stories.  I love the pictures, too: tattered and damaged black-and-white photos that someone has told me, “These are your ancestors!” I try to imagine myself in their time, in their places, in their lives.  I cannot, of course… but I can tell myself a story. I can imagine that I can imagine.

It’s fun to weave these stories, but in my more serious and sensible moments, I have to ask myself: do they matter? Are they real?  And even if the stories of these people–in long-ago times and far-away places–are in fact real, what do they have to do with me?

There are a great number of stories that I will never know. Some people have an easy time of genealogy, digging up records and histories and stories that were passed down through the ages. Some people have records of connection to nobility, or can find hard evidence in the form of documents that date back centuries.

Not I. I am half Galician by my father and half Bavarian by my mother.  War-torn countries, border-land countries,  non-English-speaking countries. And as far as I know, I have no noble blood or ancestors of great historical achievement. Among my ancestors are those who grew wheat, fought in wars, lay bricks, conducted orchestras, and broke rocks in quarries.  As measured by the common American understanding of the term in the early 21st century, my ancestors have always been pretty much “middle class.”

In most cases, the birth and death records of my ancestors would be likely to have been destroyed when the small church of their town was bombed in one of the dozens of wars that raged through the area.  Or, just as likely, birth and death records were not properly kept, as was often the case for people not born of “noble” blood.

So I can find fragments and piece together evidence and weave tales that might–or might not–be true about strangers that I have no connection with. No connection, that is, except that we share some great-than-chance correlation in our genetic make-up.

Or in the more old-fashioned way of saying it: we share blood.

Does that matter? Does it matter that in my ancestral line there might have been a woman who cooked meals for a Cossack, or a pipe-organ builder who ran off with a musician? Does that say anything about me?

Of course, there is always genetic testing. I am reading “DNA USA: A genetic portrait of America” by Bryan Sykes. He talks about the way that tracking both Y-chromosome and mDNA sequences can help to paint a picture of where a person’s ancestors came from.  When combined with a strongly documented genealogy, it can reveal amazing details and interesting stories.  It can add color, flavor and depth to the stories and the photographs that are already there.

But in the absence of a well-documented genealogy, genetic analysis does not offer much.  A map with some vague colors and lines, perhaps.  Some portion of my ancestors were probably from this region over here, and at some point they moved over there. No real stories, nothing to help me imagine the names and the faces and the lives of any of these people.

So I guess it’s not really the “blood” connection that really matters to me, after all: it’s the stories themselves. But again, the question rears its ugly head: why should I care? I’m not a mystic. I don’t believe in inherited virtue, or “genetic personality,” or anything that might justify making their stories a part of my own story.  So why is the desire to understand my ancestors so powerful?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. I think I have to turn the question on its head.

Why am I–along with millions of other people–so drawn to these stories? Why do we have such a strong desire to make these stories about distant strangers a part of our own self-story? People constantly search through records of distant times and places, trying to find out something about the personalities of people across the gulfs of centuries, and ask: “What does this tell me about me?”

It is against all rational sense…. which is why it is all the more interesting that so many people do it.

And I do it myself.

I don’t think that the “blood connection” really matters. I live in a time and a culture that is constantly telling people that blood does not matter: you are your memories and your values and your choices in life… you are not your ancestors. In my more rational moments I know that these sweet stories of Василь Пиҗ are nothing more than that: sweet stories that have no more connection to me than anecdotes about a stranger.

But in my more romantic moments, I phrase that same piece of knowledge differently:  maybe these sweet stories have no less connection (rather than “no more”) than any other. Because even though the blood might not matter, the story itself still does. It becomes part of my self-story exactly because of the meaning that it has, and the meaning I have chosen it to have, for me.