Leaving home by air. All of Puget Sound revealed. We live in a complicated waterway. Fingers of water seem to work their way toward the mountains becoming rivers of low-lying clouds. So many lakes tucked into rugged peaks, white flat collections of water, ice and snow. I think I saw The Enchantments, a place mythical to me as I have never hiked the Alpine Lake Wilderness, but part of my landscape just the same. Leavenworth, Cashmere, Monitor, Wenatchee, and the Columbia River quickly give way to dry hills. Across the river, bright irrigation circles leave corners revealing what the terrain is when left alone. All of these changes and only 25 minutes in the air. Big Perspective. We are crossing the nation in under five hours and will take four weeks to make our way back in a patched together replication of a journey that took my family nearly 400 years.
We didn’t visit Plymouth. I didn’t see the rock. I didn’t breathe the air and use intuition or speculation or imagination to get a sense of the first of my family to immigrate to North America. Instead we stayed 30 miles south of Plymouth with an immigrant Chinese family. Mother, father, and daughter crammed into one room while John and I rent the other room. This family is farther from home than my relatives were when they traveled the Atlantic from Europe to this very bay hundreds of years ago.
There are questions around the American forefather of our family, George Morton. He is not the famed George Morton that can be found on Wikipedia and in the manifest of the Anne and Little James that arrived in Plymouth in 1623. Our George may be the son of the famous George, born a few days before his father’s death. Or he may be famous George’s grandson born to his first son, Nathaniel. But he may also be a nephew once removed, born to Thomas, son of famous George’s Brother, who was a bit of a dissenter and fraternized with Indians. There is even a remote possibility our George was born to William Morton, a servant to John Banum in Elizabeth City, Virginia. These possibilities make the reality of George Morton, my 8th great-grandfather and the first of the family to be born in North America, more real. Unacknowledged son, questionable son, ignored son, all seem true to what families can be. For now, I will live with our family tree erupting in this country from this soil.
Su Zhen has been in this country long enough to have no accent, to have graduated from Cornell, and to be applying to law school in top-tier Universities. Her mother speaks no English. I met the mother one night around 11 in their tiny kitchen unloading the dishwasher with Su. Her hair freshly brushed, hung straight down her back and showed no evidence of grey. She wore a long dark blue bathrobe the same color as the towels and sheets and lampshades in our room. Was she responsible for the décor of the apartment? Were we sleeping in her room? She seemed a little uncomfortable to see me. Was it the fact we were all in pajamas or that she depended on her daughter to communicate, or was it something else? Something completely outside of my experience. The kitchen counters held a mix of cultures: Yamamoto Jasmine Tea and Maxwell House Coffee, Torani Vanilla Syrup and Shao Xing Cooking Wine, a rice cooker and a Ninja espresso machine. In the refrigerator there were stacks of individual flavored yogurts and clam shells of tiny eclairs. I didn’t see the mother again and never saw or heard the father. Did they confine themselves to the master bedroom where the three of them slept while leaving the other bedroom to let out via Airbnb?
What makes one immigrant different from another immigrant? Is the forsaking and the seeking similar? Su Zhen’s parents surely came to North America for perceived opportunity. I suspect there was both sacrifice and hope for something different for their daughter. I can only imagine the same in my family. If I jump from the grandparents I knew back eight generations and speculate that something carried through, I can guess the Mortons looked for a combination of freedom and better financial prospects. The research points to a compromised beginning for our George Morton. He was certainly un-acknowledged by his parents. But from his time forward, generation after generation of Mortons were acknowledged. Names and stories passed down to me and all the descendants, so that now I can cross the country touching the places where they were born or where they took jobs and had children or where they left their final markers. Will Su’s family look backwards or forward? Will the United States be a better place for them? And how will they leave their mark on this place we all call home?