The terrific thing about having left your religion several years ago instead of yesterday is that you’ve already gone through all the stages of grief, you’ve worked through whatever family drama ensued from the big announcement, and you’re now free to make peace with your past. Which includes deciding which elements of that past you choose to keep, and which you let go.
There are parts of me that will always be Mormon. Like my propensity to hoard nonperishable food; a year supply of wheat in 15-gallon buckets is well beyond even my capacity to fit into my tiny Amsterdam apartment, but I am always overbuying things like pasta and dried beans. My newest favourite thing to store is Huel, an irreproachably healthy meal replacement powder that admittedly tastes like sand, but is a great quick lunch when I’m absorbed in work, and makes me feel like I’m living in a bunker in a dystopian novel.
There’s also my taste for choral music, and the fact that no matter how obscure the corresponding Bible story, I always know what’s going on in violent paintings at museums. And yes, another Mormon thing I’ve kept is my fascination with genealogy.
There’s an old Mormon children’s song that goes like this:
Genealogy, I am doing it, my genealogy.
And the reasons why I am doing it are very clear to me.
I will keep my book of remembrance, I’ll write my history.
It’s a record of my family, my genealogy.
Genealogy for Mormons encompasses both learning about your progenitors and keeping your own family records and individual life story in the form of a diary or “book of remembrance”. In fact, one of my major reasons for starting this blog back in my twenties was to assuage my guilt at not being a diligent enough journal-keeper. Notwithstanding my self-perceptions of autobiographical inadequacy, I have probably a dozen paper journals I’ve kept from the age of six or so. Last year I donated all the ones documenting my international life (i.e. most) to the Expatriate Archive Centre for safekeeping and academic research.
But I also have some significant acquaintance with the other side of genealogy: finding out about your ancestors. On both my side of the family and Tony’s, we go back Mormon for generations (four, five, six, or even more depending on the family line). Loads of them became Mormon back in the mid-19th century when the religion was founded, and crossed the American plains as pioneers. Some even later moved to the Mormon colonies in Mexico after polygamy was outlawed in the United States, so that they could keep their many-wived families intact (my maternal grandfather, in fact, was born in Mexico). From the beginning, Mormons had a religious imperative to find out all they could about their ancestors. The scriptural basis for this practice comes from what is–as far as I know–an idiosyncratic Mormon interpretation of this Biblical verse:
To avoid the earth being smitten with a curse, Mormons consult historical documents like church christening books, census results, and government vital records to construct their family trees as far back as possible. Like many people who do genealogy, they are interested in forming emotional connections to their family members who have gone before. But the primary purpose of Mormon genealogical efforts is to perform proxy baptisms for their ancestors. You can think of it as a way to extend those legendary Mormon proselytory efforts to the dead.
All Mormons are supposed to become what amounts to amateur genealogists, but in practice what happens is that in many families there is a particular aunt or great-aunt or granny who ends up being the repository of family lore. The intersection of this particular Mormon doctrine and various strains of theology and legend can lead to some interesting results. For example, I took a genealogy class at church once, and my instructor was Mormon and also a Young Earth Creationist. He proudly showed us his own family tree, which he had traced back 4000 years, “all the way to Adam!” The only other people I know with genealogical stories like this are European royalty, who liked to bolster their legitimacy by tracing their family lines back to Biblical figures or heroes from Greek and Roman mythology. The Plantagenets, for example, apparently inherited their royalty from none other than Aeneas of Troy (and thus were also divine through his mother, Aphrodite).
This Mormon habit of laying claim to the dead can also have its darker side. It was recently discovered that Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and several other deceased celebrities are now baptised Mormons. Overzealous Mormons have also performed baptisms on the ancestors of public figures like Donald Trump, Stephen Spielberg, and Kim Kardashian. The American Founding Fathers have been baptised dozens of times. In the 1990’s it emerged that Mormons had baptised hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims, causing understandable outrage in the Jewish community. The official guidelines are now that people are only allowed to baptise their own ascendents, so these sorts of celebrity and other unsanctioned baptisms are now much rarer, although they still do happen.
In my family, we have plenty to occupy ourselves with our own family tree, which has been researched back dozens of generations by diligent family members over the past hundred and fifty years. If you go back ten years or so on my blog, you will find the story of how deep I got into the genealogy of Tony’s side of the family for the very practical reason of needing documentation of the Italianness of his ascendents to substantiate his citizenship claim.
Mormons often have what they experience as miracles when they unexpectedly uncover new information after hitting a dead end on the genealogy trail. They invariably attribute these serendipitous occurrences to the tireless work of their ancestors “on the other side of the veil”. We were still devoutly Mormon when we were working on Tony’s citizenship application, and I fervently believed that all of his now-angelic Italian ancestors were working overtime behind the scenes to make it happen. I would have dreams that I interpreted as prophetic. Every new discovery and plot twist was imbued with spiritual meaning for me.
On the one hand, I find my own intertwining of religious belief and terrestrial problem solving at the time kind of fascinating. On the other, I can now see how the exasperated Italians on the other side of the immigration counter might have found my absolute faith in the Manifest Destiny of Tony’s claim to Italian citizenship both ludicrous and obnoxious.
In any case, for me genealogy soon became a way to feel a sense of attachment and belonging to my adopted continent. I am still working on my 10-year quest to finally become Italian like the rest of the family, and I have a feeling that even if/when I finally attain citizenship I still might not quite feel properly European. I have some serious imposter syndrome when it comes to that. I feel like I am always playing catch-up on history and culture. This is one reason I develop extreme attachments to bizarre things like Eurovision and obsessively research the history of every new European holiday destination.
We just returned from our May holiday road-tripping through northern Germany and Denmark. My mother-in-law and I conceived of the trip a year ago when she discovered that although most of Tony’s ancestors come from other European countries, a single one–his 12th-great-grandfather–died in the Netherlands in 1586. After a little sleuthing I found a battle that matched up with his place and date of death: the Battle of Zutphen, September 1586. Further research unearthed a biography of Sir William Thomas, a wealthy landowner in Wales whose “modest Jacobean mansion” apparently still stands. He served as a justice of the peace, a sheriff, and finally a Member of Parliament before sailing to the Netherlands on the orders of Queen Elizabeth to fight on the side of the Netherlands against Spain during the 80 Years War. We decided we had to visit Zutphen, and that we might as well go on through Germany and Denmark, where others of our ancestors on both sides lived.
Zutphen turned out to be a delightful little town. We happened to arrive on King’s Day, so the streets were festooned with flags and orange pennants, and in typical Dutch fashion, one main avenue had been turned into a giant rummage sale. The other was cordoned off, and several bands were playing. It was warm enough, so we lunched outside to live music, and it was the most relaxed King’s Day I have yet experienced in the Netherlands.
Zutphen’s other major draw (for me) was its Medieval chained library. Which is exactly how it sounds: a library where all the books are on chains to prevent their removal from the premises. Some present-day librarians might not think this is too extreme. It is one of only a couple of surviving chained libraries in continental Europe, and turned out to be even more awesome than my (extremely high) expectations.
The library is housed in Zutphen’s main church, St. Walburga’s. So after our tour of the church and library we told the volunteers we had a relative who had fought in the Battle of Zutphen. Did they know if there was an associated cemetery or memorial in town? Ah, was he in the air force? they queried, at which time I realised that they thought we were talking about the other Battle of Zutphen that took place 300-odd years later during World War II (admittedly a rather more plausible conclusion). No, the Battle of Zutphen in 1586, I clarified, adding that William Thomas, my husband’s 12th great-grandfather had died fighting there. They were impressed, and even said something nice about how they still owed William Thomas for his sacrifice. They were happy to inform us that there was a monument to be found on the outskirts of the city, near a dirt road next to the cemetery.
We duly drove out there and by following their excellent directions arrived at the monument we had seen on the Wikipedia page we first consulted to learn about the Battle of Zutphen. The monument actually commemorates the poet Sir Philip Sidney, a much more famous contemporary of our Sir William Thomas, who also perished in the battle.
Unaccountably, the top part of the stone with Sidney’s famous last words appeared to be turned wrong way round when we arrived. Tony’s parents didn’t let that stop them. Despite the solid appearance of the stone, they took the top part and spun it slowly around, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I half expected an underground passage to open up at the foot of the stone. Why the marker was designed in this peculiar fashion I cannot fathom. My working theory is that the top half may be an older memorial to which the bottom was added later (in 1986, to be precise, as it says on the side of the slab).
It’s a sort of long-distance, second (or third or fourth) hand connection. I feel like I have a lot of those. I recently finished Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, a memoir on growing up as a trans-racial adoptee. Obviously, that’s not at all my life experience, but when she talked about the sense of loss she feels when she discovers all the parts of Korean language and culture that she missed out on growing up, it really spoke to me. Like her, for a long time “I tried to ignore the voice of doubt suggesting that perhaps I had no right to any of this”.
What does it really mean to have the right to claim a culture? What makes you belong somewhere? What does it take to be “from” a place instead of just living there? Who are the gatekeepers of identity, and how far back is it allowed to go? The Dutch government says one generation. The Irish government says two. The Italian government says once Italian always and forever Italian, to the fifth generation at least, from what we tested. Is it meaningless to go back twelve generations so I can tell myself that my family only spent a few generations across the Atlantic, and now we are back where we came from? Does the fact that our family is German and Danish and Italian and Scottish and English (off the top of my head) make us more or less European in the age of the European Union? Is this strong connection to distant roots and long-dead family itself a sort of culture that I grew up with? Am I allowed to construct my own European identity myth out of the pieces of my familial past unearthed by a 19th century American religion?