Bist du krank im kopf
You know those Ancestry DNA kits?
I’ve been obsessed with them for a while now. My family lore is heavily German. I hear all about Germany this and Germany that. German language. “Bist du krank im kopf,” my maternal grandfather used to ask me.
I’m pretty sure he was a little psychic.
And the German recipes.
Oh, sweet lord of hosts. I blame my body type entirely on the early influence of my paternal grandmother, who was dedicated to the principle of all forms of carbohydrates being represented at the dinner table. And the breakfast table. And the lunch table. And the snack drawer.
So when I spit in the cup and mailed it to some poor dude in Utah (honestly, dude, tell me more about your life because how did you wind up extracting genetic material from people’s spit all day), I expected to open the email containing my results to see something along the lines of “congratulations, you’re still a super white German lady.”
But I held out some little hope for Scottish/Irish credentials.
When I was 16, my aunt took me to England, Scotland, Wales, and France. Over the course of two weeks we traveled all over the island and through the chunnel to Paris. She comes from Ipswitch, a town in Suffolk, near London. But by far my favorite place in all of our travels was Edinburgh, Scotland. Something about the city just felt right to me. It’s odd. Sometimes you just put your foot down somewhere and it’s like something inside you docks to the ground. Like a phone with its charger. You just feel synced.
That was how I felt in Scotland. It was dark and Byronesque, so it matched my soul perfectly. Macbeth had always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Men roamed the city wearing kilts, unironically, with unabashed bravado. I didn’t know it at the time but it was the place where J.K. Rowling was writing the series that would deliver her from near-destitution to worldwide acclaim. Like Rowling, I even had a favorite pub in Edinburgh, called Filthy McNasty’s, where I insisted we eat and drink three days out of three.
My poor aunt.
Stuck with a crazy person in Scotland.
McNasty’s was a great, dark little joint, not unlike the Leaky Cauldron, where one could procure for a nominal sum a potato the size of one’s head, and have it stuffed with all manner of delightfully unhealthy accouterments. And, as was true on the rest of the landmass, Scotland was a place where someone who looked sixteen or better could enjoy whiskey and beer without any judgment or questioning from the barkeepers.
I’m not saying I took advantage of that.
There are so many things I remember about Edinburgh, but most of all I remember them all coming together in my mind to create a deep sense of adoration, comfort, and longing after I left. And all of that emotion is wrapped up neatly in the image of the potato I ate at Filthy McNasty’s.
I suppose I hoped that the results of my DNA test would legitimize my obsession with the place by proving a genetic predisposition toward what felt like an authentic Scottish identity I’d always carried within.
It’s third on the list, and it’s only 12 percent of my genetic composition, but I can claim to have Scotland in my blood.
Well, okay. So, Ireland really, according to what little research I’ve done. While 99 percent of my family did immigrate to this country from Germany over the years, there’s one fellow, Robert Graham, who came here from Ireland. Mind you, he’s the father-in-law of my fourth great aunt. So I’m grasping at straws here, but it’s there. There’s some genetic something that’s held over this long to give me a yearning for a country I’ve never seen and a palpable heartache for its neighbor, which I have seen.
Literally all I know about Robert is that he was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland on July 12, 1765. We share a birth month. He had a son, also Robert, in 1797, at the age of 32, and that man is the one who connects me with Robert Sr. He was the first of his family to come to America, according to the note added by the genealogist who added his record on findagrave.com, and he moved from Centre County to Venango County in 1802. From that same note, Robert owned 400 acres of land on Bully Hill at the mouth of Sandy Creek in 1810. And for several years after moving to Bully Hill, Robert had to go to Westmoreland or Pittsburgh for all the salt and iron he used, bringing it back on horseback or on foot. Robert Graham died on May 19, 1835, at his residence in Sandycreek Township at the age of 70.
None of this matters. Not to my everyday life. But something about knowing it seems to have opened up a space in me. I feel roomier.
That sounds weird, I know, but I can’t find another way to put it.
I feel expanded.
And finding all this out brought that fraking potato roaring back to the forefront of my mind. Of all things. How does something like that get sorted and stored in memory, forgotten for so long but right there, front and center, when the right trigger calls it back?
Food is so inextricably linked to place. We remember the recipes our mothers and grandmothers made each holiday. We remember the smell of their kitchens, and if we think back, isn’t that smell tied to the colors and the floor plans, and the appliances, and the sounds, and everything to do with that space where we first encountered the smells and the tastes to begin with? And when we taste those foods, when we smell them again, no matter where we are, don’t we come roaring right back to that original space all over again?
We eat to live. That’s true. But a secondary effect is that when we eat we connect. We connect with people and we connect with place. Every time I eat a potato, from today until my last day, I’m once again in that dim wooden booth at the back of Filthy McNasty’s, with its scarred parquet floors and mismatched chairs, its screaming scarlet entrance burning electric bright against the tarnished brick that surrounds at every angle. It’s 1999. It’s raining outside, hard, and the sky is the color of pewter with lavender edges where the sun aches to burst through. We’ve just been to Edinburgh Castle, and every step I take on the stone street outside, when I leave, will echo against the cavernous facades of buildings in the narrow, winding, uphill road that will return us to our hotel. The air will be wet and heavy, even after the rain stops, and although the misty streets will look damp and slick, they will feel clean and new. A policeman in a checkered bowler and a long, black rain coat will lean in to ask the radio on his shoulder, enlisting the help of officers across the city, “where’s the Woolies,” when we ask him whether there’s a place to stock up on tiny bottles of shampoo and little tubes of toothpaste the size of our ring fingers. He will laugh and smile, and he will wave us off with a nod when we thank him and leave, clopping our way up the cobbled path and into our futures.