Two years ago, my niece, Izabelle Adams, came to school for “Heritage Day” dressed as Pocahontas and brought an apple pie. Her teacher decided that Izabelle had not done the assignment correctly. She was supposed to have dressed in a European, Asian, or Hispanic outfit and brought food from her family’s native land. But Izabelle did do that. She had gone back 400 years to one of the earliest family members in North America. How far back did she need to go? Would it have worked if she came in a 16th-century English person’s garb? After this embarrassing and unwarranted humiliation, Izabelle was convinced we had invented her familial relationship to Pocahontas. I tried to show her the evidence in the form of the countless books that have been handed down generations. I’m convinced these exist purely to somehow make sure nobody could ever marry wrong. But these are written in obscure 19th century language, and impossible to decipher, especially if you’re 11.
Being a designer and a touch OCD, I drew her a chart. It got bigger and more complex. Who knew so much intermarrying was happening in Virginia before 1900? Along the way, I’ve found many cousins and wonderful stories that expand on my Virginia grandmother’s short, “Well she was a true character,” or, “Goodness, I do believe he may have been a drunkard.” And recently a cousin sent me a photo of my great-grandfather when he was 19 that oddly resembled my own high school graduation photo. The outcome is that Izabelle now believes me, but is unimpressed. And I am trapped in an OCD task, endlessly making connections and finding proof of the family stories I heard was when I was 11.