A large part of the reason for constantly moving was my father's obsessive desire to escape his French Canadian heritage and reinvent himself as a New England Yankee, to escape working-class poverty, to achieve financial success, to climb the ladder into the safe middle class. He and his family were victims of the racism that infected the dominant culture of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant New Englanders, who saw immigrants, especially French Canadians from the north, as racially inferior. Less overt now, white racist anxiety persists in that area. I think an important factor in why my father married my mother - they were ill-suited to each other - was my mother's old New England family, poor but with the superiority of early arrival, just fifteen years behind the Mayflower.
They never accepted him, of course - how could they? A son in-law with the flamboyant middle name of Napoleon! The genealogical scratching around we've done has turned up more florid French names in his forebears, such as Dieudonné, Narcisse, Norbot and Ovila, which make George Napoleon sound rather tame. Still, they tolerated him and us and we all pretended to be a family honoring equality and diversity.
Growing up we knew very little about my father's family and rarely spent time with them. His mother, Phoebe Brisson Proulx Maloney Carpentieri, married three times: a French Canadian (Proulx), an Irishman (Maloney) and an Italian (Carpentieri) from Napoli who taught my father to make spaghetti sauce - a sauce which I and my sisters all make today, our best, perhaps our only, gift from a hard-to-know father. So there were mysteries for us. There was some talk from our father that we were part Indian, but he believed the proof had been in the trunk of his grandmother Exilda (a.k.a. Maggie), which disappeared after her death and never resurfaced.
The only evidence was his mother's smoky skin color and a few imaginative newspaper stories. There were other intriguing stories, such as one about a growth on our grandmother Phoebe's nose, a voyage across "the river" (the St.-Laurent always imagined) to an Indian settlement where a shaman or medicine man removed the growth in some unspecified manner. Our pleas to our father and to his mother, Phoebe, for details and enlightenment were never satisfied. Anonymity seemed the goal, but these half-stories were fuel on the fire of our longing to know more.
This attachment to clan ancestors seems to characterize all humans, and the ancient stories told about the departed - embroidered and amplified - were perhaps the rudimentary sources of history and of fiction. Certainly the Romans themselves were keenly reverent of their ancestors, polishing the links to old families, the ideal the Gracchi, founders of Rome in 753 B.C., or even the more ancient Etruscans who lived in central Italy before Rome. When Ötzi, the NeolithicCopper Age man, was discovered in a melting glacier in the Alps in 1991, his mitochondrial DNA analysis showed he was in a subhaplogroup called K1. (There are three K1 subhaplogroups.) Roughly 8 percent of today's Europeans also belong to the K1 haplogroup. Many then believed they were descended from Ötzi. Extremely cool to have a five-thousand-year-old ancestor with a stone arrow point in his back. But further DNA testing reports in 2008 showed that Ötzi belonged to a different subhaplogroup, one unknown before the advanced analysis. It is now called "Ötzi's branch" and apparently this haplogroup - his genetic group - has disappeared from the human genome. It may be extinct or exceedingly rare. Now no one is known to have Ötzi as an ancestor - one of the disappointments of science.
For me, many years later, an atmosphere of specialness still hovers over the extended maternal family like some rare perfume that nearly four hundred years of New England residence emits. I imagine this aroma compounded of fresh milk, split oak wood, autumnal leaves, snow, muggy swamps, photograph albums and cold ashes.
1. Most of the older sources place the northernmost snout of the Rio Grande Rift in Colorado, but recent work from University of Wyoming geologists places it in south-central Wyoming.
2. Thomas Keneally, Outback (Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983), 19. Proulx_Bird_i-240_PTR.indd 3 10/20/10 5:35 PM.
3. Keneally, Outback, 19.
4. Luigi Pirandello, "La tragedia d'un personaggio" [A Character's Tragedy], in Eleven Short Stories, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (New York: Dover, 1994), 149.
Excerpted from Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx. Copyright © 2011 by Dead Line, Ltd. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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