I saw our church Ofrenda for the first time on Thursday night. I love its design, with photos of the members of this congregation we have lost this year arranged, like fallen leaves, underneath the tree of life - whose branches in turn bear the names of the people of the Tree of Life Synagogue who died last weekend. I have many colleagues at the universities in Pittsburgh; they have had a hard week, coming to terms with the shooting. One that I am close to is a member of the Jewish community there; I took a photo of our Ofrenda and sent it to her. She really appreciated it; she told me that the one bright spot this week has been the tremendous outpouring of support that they have felt, that has helped morale more than she would have expected. Our trees are connected by our roots; it really mattered to her, knowing that there was a branch of her family here, thinking of her.
Last weekend I was in the UK for work, and spent Friday night at my parents’ house. It was a very happy occasion: Malinda and I recently found out that we are expecting a baby boy in March, and so we were able to celebrate that together. While talking about baby names, Dad gave me the solution to a long-standing puzzle that my Auntie Gill recently solved. My middle name is James, and so is his, and so was his father’s, and I’d often wondered why. It turns out that my Great-Grandpa, Robert Marshall, whose middle name happened to be James, married a woman named Ethel Portrey, whose father’s name was James and whose mother’s maiden name had been: Hannah James. For Robert and Ethel, the number of James’ seems to have been over-powering, and they named their son, my grandpa, Robert James.
James Portrey and his son-in-law Robert were both coal miners, in County Durham in the North of England. From the records Auntie Gill unearthed, you can see that James and Hannah Portrey moved their family 300 miles North from Somerset around the end of the 19th century, perhaps looking for work after a pit closure. Sitting in my parents’ living room, and drawing out my family tree to much farther out than I ever had before, I felt a blurring, between me and history. James Portrey was born in 1868, and so will have moved far from home in his early twenties, just like I did.
When I got home, I entered all these new names into the geneology website that I had started playing around with last year. The next morning, I looked again, and it had matched up my family tree with several others. It turns out that I have several 4th cousins in Seattle, whose mother, Theresa, is working on her and her late husband’s family tree. I could see that she had found his great-grandfather George Portrey, who emigrated to Quebec in 1889, and there was George’s little brother, James - but in Theresa’s tree there was no information about James or his family: no wife, no daughter, no grand-children, and no trace of my father, or of me. Until that point, Theresa and I had had no idea that we each existed. James Portrey’s story was unknown to her, and I knew nothing of George, and I felt the sudden loss of long-lost relatives, something that is an irreversible reality for some, especially those Americans brought here as slaves. Impossible to think that people who had been so close, right there around a kitchen table in Somerset, could become so disconnected, dispersed across an ocean. But a reminder too, that even if never uncovered the roots of our trees are still there, grounding us in a common ancestry that we may lose sight of but that still survives in the dark.