The Tempest of

I can talk to just about anyone about just about anything. Gallbladder surgery. Grandchildren’s precociousness. […]

Carrie Willard / 7.24.17

I can talk to just about anyone about just about anything. Gallbladder surgery. Grandchildren’s precociousness. Train schedules. Weather patterns. But, I do have one achilles’ heel: ancestry narratives. As soon as someone starts talking about their third great-grandfather’s cousin twice removed, and how that person fought in the battle of Waterloo, my eyes glaze over and I start to sniff out the exit. I just … can’t.

I think this reluctance started when we lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, where everybody seems to have some colonial something-or-other, and I was just known as the gross Yankee that married the bachelor priest. (The nerve.) I could no longer make conversation with anyone about anything: I had to draw the line somewhere, and I just could not abide ancestry conversations. I believe the words “criminally boring” escaped my lips more than once in our car rides home from these events. The only thing worse, to me, than hearing about someone else’s ancestry research was hearing about how someone’s ancestors came over on the Mayflower. GIVE ME A BREAK, American royalty.

I’ve told myself and anyone who will listen that it doesn’t really matter where your people are from, but what matters is what you do with what you’ve got and who you are right now. I’ve also been told that this is a gross Yankee categorization. But “Where are your muthah’s people from, dearie?” generally produces some disappointing answers from me. I’d much rather hear about the time you were a finalist to be on Jeopardy, or how your grandson is a Rhodes Scholar. More doing, less rearview mirror gazing. Theologically speaking, aren’t we all just one family anyway, adopted into the body of Christ by our baptisms? School family tree projects make me cringe because of the inherent bias against the students who may have been adopted, or may not know about their ancestry because of slavery or poverty in their past. I prefer the forward-looking approach, which makes me feel self-righteous for sticking up for all of those children of adoption, and like so much of my delicious self-righteousness, it comfortably fits right on my shelf of patting-myself-on-the-back self-talk, right next to my “I don’t care about your fancy ancestors” preferences. Not having any fancy ancestors myself, this bias fits me like a well-made glove.

About my own ancestry, I told myself the story that I had been told: that my family came here from Germany and Austria after the Civil War (phew), but before World War II (double phew). This narrative came from my dad’s side of the family, which was the only side that anyone knew anything about, because my mom’s parents died when she was very young. The German ancestry explains my broad shoulders and fair skin, and my father’s and grandfather’s tendency to sound like they have a small animal in their throats when they want you to stop talking about something (“aaggghghghgh”). This one-sided family tree also dismissed me from controversies involving Europeans vs. Natives, North vs. South, and Robber Baron vs. Exploited Working Class. By claiming a boring family history, I was excusing myself from the conversation that might have put me on an uncomfortable side of any given fence. As long as my ancestors were semi-starving and barely surviving on cabbage and organ meat in Central and Eastern Europe, I was exempt (in my mind) from any infighting and class warfare in the past. Tidy.

You can probably see where this is going.

Earlier this summer, my husband realized that he needed a break from the constant news cycle. And so, he turned to everyone’s favorite social media platform for dead people: He filled in his own family history first, of course, tracing his North Carolina roots back to Germany. When he started asking for my mother’s mother’s maiden name, I made sure he wasn’t signing us up for an off-shore bank account, and gave it to him, not expecting anything to come of it.


Guess who has an ancestor who came to this country on the Mayflower?

You know it.

My husband edged around the idea before telling me about it, and had to break the news of his ancestry research to me gently. As it turns out, my forefather is one Stephen Hopkins, who not only traveled on the Mayflower but, before that, was a resident at the Jamestown Settlement. As a prisoner. (Of course.) With some help from an archeologist friend (those years in Williamsburg introduced us to the most fascinating people), we learned more about Hopkins and his exploits in the new world. He was first shipwrecked on his way to Jamestown, and the ship ended up in Bermuda. This shipwreck captured the imagination of a certain playwright in England, and there’s a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest named Stefano, supposedly loosely based on Hopkins. Because Hopkins and his traveling mates didn’t quite make it all the way to Virginia, the team of ne’er-do-wells (led by Hopkins himself, naturally) decided to try to defect on their obligations to the people who paid for the trip, which landed him in jail. Some time after he was released, things were so bad at Jamestown that when they began to run out of food and supplies, they had to send some folks back to Merry Old England. Hopkins went home, and then returned to this side of the pond on the Mayflower, not as a pilgrim, but as a “stranger” on board. His troublemaking didn’t stop on his arrival in Massachusetts. He was fined for selling alcohol on the Lord’s Day (#bless), and got in some other trouble involving shuffleboard and, separately, a pregnant indentured servant.

In other words, I couldn’t just have an ancestor on the flipping Mayflower. I had to have one with a checkered past. And naturally, one that I’ll want to talk about at cocktail parties.


On many levels, learning about Stephen Hopkins has not changed who I am. It’s an interesting story, but it doesn’t change the fact that I still have to get up and go to work in the morning and pack my kids’ lunches and figure out what to do about the dog while we’re on vacation. On the other hand, learning about this ancestor has reminded me that I’m just like everybody else who has a story to share, whose ancestors fought on one side of history or another. I hold fast to the belief that as Christians, our baptism effectively adopts us into one family, and that regardless of what our ancestors have done or failed to do, or even what we’ve done or failed to do, we are all welcome and forgiven and included under the wide tent of God’s mercy. I will admit that I kind of like that I have a badass renegade in my family tree. For one thing, it almost removes the pressure to keep a clean record—Old Grandpappy Hopkins already took care of soiling the family tree long ago. Not only that, but it reminds me that even Mayflower passengers needed forgiveness, and at least one took his New World opportunity as a chance to start again, even knowing that he’d make more mistakes and need forgiveness again. That must have been exhausting.

All of this reminded me of a television scene I saw recently. In the spirit of cringe-watching television series which make me slightly uncomfortable, I watch Casual on Hulu. The main characters are a brother and sister, both adults, who are remarkably close, perhaps too close, for adult siblings. Alex and Valerie share intimate secrets with one another, and they sometimes share a home. The cringe-y-ness sometimes comes from how closely they are entrenched in one another’s lives, but it also comes from their interactions with people outside their family. In a recent episode, Valerie finds out some news about her past and her heritage, and she learns about it in a very public, somewhat humiliating way. Afterward, she spends some time with Alex, and admits that it bothers her.

Alex: Val, what does it matter?

Valerie: Maybe my life would be different if [circumstances had been different].

Alex: But look at you. Look what you became. Yeah.

Valerie: I don’t know what I am. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be. You asked me what I’m most afraid of, and that, that’s it, that. You know I’m 40 years old and you have this idea of yourself, this picture, and in one moment, it’s just like, it just totally changes.

Alex: No it doesn’t. … You’re the same person you’ve always been. You’re the frizzy-haired girl who writes her name on the wall. You’re a good mom, and a good sister, and sure, there may be some other girl out there [in different circumstances] … but I don’t want to know her.

Valerie: Do you really believe that, that it doesn’t matter, that I’m still the same?

Alex: I know you are.

Most of us don’t get shocking news in public, life-changing ways. But most of us also probably don’t have a pathologically close relationship with a sibling who has known us our entire lives, and with whom we share our deepest, darkest secrets and fears.

We do have Jesus, claiming us as His own, and giving us each other to remind us that we are part of a family of forgiven sinners. In the Episcopal Church, when someone is baptized, the entire congregation says to the baptized person: “We receive you into the household of God.” There’s no entrance fee or D.A.R. application with a background check. In the 1928 version of the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer, the rubrics instruct that “The Minister of every Parish … shall warn [the People] that, except for urgent cause, they seek not to have their Children baptized in their houses.” This admonition against home baptisms, I’m guessing, had nothing to do with clergy reluctance to make home visits, but everything to do with the idea that we baptize people into a family of believers. The family of believers includes people who talk too much about their Mayflower ancestors, and people who don’t know their mother’s maiden name. The large tent of forgiveness extends to Stephen Hopkins and every forefather who stood on the right and wrong side of history. The Church exists, in part, to remind us of the long history of flawed believers before us, and the present company of the flawed faithful among us. I’m more grateful for the blessed assurance that we are all forgiven than for anything that can be found on a family tree.