A Disappearing Identity
“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” — James Joyce.
My ancestors, the McMurrays of Northern Ireland, had a good reason to run. It was 1846, the beginning of the potato famine and they were dying. They left not only for a better life but for survival. Then, somewhere along the way as our family tree branched out, we lost the plot. We became people who disappear.
It is natural for people to leave home. It’s even more natural to want more from life. We have been doing it since the first troglodyte teen left to make her own pile of sticks in the next cave over. But what my family does is different; we pull geographics. We use a change of scenery to escape the problems in our lives. But no matter how far we run, or where we run to, we find ourselves waiting to pick us up from the ferry terminal, and always, without a doubt, our baggage has already arrived. My mother left her unfortunate existence in North Carolina. My father left his family as the youngest of 14 kids in Ohio, and my sister and I left Colorado for a new life in New York. Not sent off with a bon voyage, plan in hand, or a destination in sight, but always running from, never toward, severing connections when we go. Thinking, Thank the gods that is over, as we walk into a different burning building.
Sometimes even when we do have a plan, we are running with our eyes closed. When my mom’s father died, she pulled us from our lives in Colorado to move to North Carolina to care for my grandmother. Grandma Nancy was a woman about whom I remember only a few things: she pickled everything (including herself), and she loved the song “Memory” from Cats, which in perfect thematic alignment is a song about being an outcast. We moved to Boone, NC, which was not where my grandmother lived, but a few towns over. We brought all our old problems, now compounded by our isolation on the outskirts of town, complete lack of familiarity with anyone who lived there, and no job prospects. It never made sense to me why we left when my mother’s sister already lived in North Carolina, but two days ago, when doing research on Ancestry.com, I found out that Boone, NC is where my mom’s brother Dwight took his own life, something she has never spoken about since.
Disappearing has so many meanings and motivating factors. It can be a choice, like the one we all have, to walk away from life. Walk away forever, like Dwight, or try for a complete do-over: no kids, no partner, no connections to what was. (I admit I have fantasized in this way during desperate times.) But it can never be a true severance because we are connected by memories that never go away. My sister and I do not speak, just like my mother’s sister does not speak to her. The reason does not matter; do you think my sister does not think about her nephew, or me for that matter, every day like I think of them? And what of the memories that do disappear, as they did with my father who died from Alzheimer’s disease. He left when we were kids, and then his memory was wiped of us as adults, disappearing in plain sight. Drinking to forget, choosing to ignore, running from the past; this is who we are.
The story I was never told about my ancestors running from Ireland has a significant moment. This is the moment that my great-great-great-grandmother Maria gave birth at sea. She risked her own life and that of her child so that we could be here. This is also who we are. Now, I can try to reframe my understanding of escapism through her. While I did run from home, I stayed when it counted. I sat by my dad’s bedside until his last moments. I have traveled inward to better myself for my son, so we do not one day see him as he runs from us, nothing ahead but the same things he left behind. This is my new identity. We are not people who disappear, we are adventurers who yo-yo out into the world but always return. And when we return from these long journeys of self-discovery, like Maria, we have given birth… to new ideas.