I always thought I was Italian. That is the only heritage I really considered operative in my life. I knew my father’s father (Ignazio “Jimmy” Zazzera) immigrated from Italy through Ellis Island. His wife (Mary Kasara) was born of first generation Italians here in this country. My last name was Zazzera. And the Zazzera’s and Italian culture (especially Catholicism and food) were a big deal in Carbondale, Pennsylvania—the town I was born and grew up in. Even my Mom’s best recipes were Italian.
But my mother had no connection to Italy by birth. I knew her heritage was vaguely European—that her father (Joseph Blaum) had German heritage and her mother (Doris Jones) had family from Wales. But I never really knew much more. My perspective changed when a few years ago I took the Ancestry DNA test. Frankly, the results surprised me.
As you can see, I am (unsurprisingly) Italian. Thirty-five percent. Thats quite a bit, but somehow I expected it to be more. More surprisingly, I am 30% Irish (from Connacht), 14% German, and 13% Welsh. I always thought my roots were Mediterranean, but it turns out there is a lot more Northern European influence in my heritage. At the risk of shallowness and stereotyping—this explains a lot.
Having most recently travelled to Ireland, that place feels more like “home” to me than Italy (and I like Italy a lot!). Is it because I like Guinness more than chianti? Is it because the embracing of mystery in Celtic spirituality suits me more than the dogmatic Roman versions of Christian faith? (Not that Ireland doesn’t have its own problematic religious history.) Is there something in the rugged, green landscape and climate that pulls me in? Is it because I like pub music more than opera? Is it the amazing welcome I received throughout Ireland?
Seriously though, something felt different about Ireland—more familiar. What a strange thing. I like a good pasta more than lamb and potatoes. I’m not that enamoured of shamrocks. The Blarney Castle didn’t do a lot for me. But if I could only choose one country of the two to return to, it would be Ireland. I think knowing that somehow my ancestry is connected to that land opened me up in new ways. (I just recently discovered a note in a family record book that tells me the birth name of my great-grandmother on my mother’s father’s side was Mary McDonald—now there’s a connection!) Knowing that the Great Famine is in my family history gives me pause. Reflecting on the maritme history of Galway, I wonder who in my lineage spent time at sea. Walking in the rocky and vast Burren, I think about how empty expanses invite us into contemplation.
Knowing a bit more about my ancestry has actually freed me up to think about myself in new ways. How does history shape our character? Does it make any difference to be rooted in a people who sought to escape oppression? Is it personally formative to be connected to a culture that sees the land not as an object but as brimming over with life? Might it be a good thing to have a fiddle player in your lineage?
If nothing else, our ancestry is a lens through which we can see ourselves. And when we take that lens to the land of our forbears, I have no doubt the experience can be profound and transformative.
Spiritual Practice: Finding Your Ancestors
Though I have traveled to many places, I have never gone in search of my ancestors. I suppose I could have found connections in Italy, or Germany, or Ireland. To be honest, I don’t know enough about my forbears or my relatives in faraway places. Yet I am certain that this kind of travel can add a depth and connection to all we do. With enough research, we might be able to find the graves of those who preceded us. If we have some family and personal information, we might can make connection with distant cousins.
In September, we spent a loud and joyful evening with the Irish family of a good friend of ours. (We were visiting Ireland with her and her husband.) We met her Irish family in the bar of the Salthill Hotel in Galway. We were early in arriving, but over the course of the evening people came in one after another until there were close to 20 of us. What started in a small corner of the room began to overflow the space. Though there were no children in attendance, most other generations were represented. There were tales told of family, of jobs, of travel, of deaths and births. Plenty of pints of Guinness and glasses of Irish whisky were drunk. There were questions about President Trump, inquiries about Irish politics, and learnings about local villages and towns. I spent a good part of the evening with a man who told me about his stone masonry work—he showed me pictures on his cell phone of a kind of shed he built which looked like the overturned hull of a ship. Amazing.
Here is the question. How might it change our travels if we even discover small connections to our heritage? Here is the practice. Find one historic connection, large or small, that ties you to the place you are visiting. Then use that as a window into the land and culture you are experiencing. Visit a graveyard. Take part in a festival. Walk where your grandfather walked. Find a piece of clothing your great grandmother might wear. Meet a distant cousin for coffee. Then, ask yourself, “Do I see my life a bit differently now? Do I see the world differently?” It might change your whole life.