An American Odyssey

My father’s forebears appear to have been of solid and unremarkable English stock, with sturdy yeomanlike names such as Gauntlett and Hunt. The name ‘Percy’ may have been a simplification of ‘Piercy’, but it was far more inspiring for his children to imagine that we were related to the Dukes of Northumberland, whose most famous scion, Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, features in a couple of Shakespeare plays. A village named Percy still exists in Normandy, so it was natural for us to make the meaningless schoolyard claim that ‘we came over with the Conqueror’ (in 1066, of course), suggesting that the Anglo-Saxons were indeed fortunate to have been invaded by the ruthless Normans. The standard riposte to such a preposterous remark is now the calm inquiry: “And how are you liking it over here?”, but none of my schoolchums appeared to be ready with such a witticism in the 1950s. On the other hand, my mother’s family was a little more exotic. Her maiden name was Robin, and her forebears included Pierre Robin and Marie Gallienne, who married in 1645, the family coming from France to England via the Channel Islands. Her mother’s maiden name was ‘Blumer’; her great-great-great-grandfather was a shipbuilder named Luke Blumer, born in Germany in 1757, who in 1780 married Ann Bradford in Durham.

Identifying antecedents is necessarily selective. Projecting unique parents over twenty generations would result in over 4 trillion persons: the population of England in 1066 was probably just over a million, so I am probably related to most of them.  ‘Percy’ is the surname I take with me, and which I have passed on to my son. It has had its advantages and disadvantages, resulting in porcine nicknames at school, and misunderstandings about whether it is my forename or my surname. Yet it has an aristocratic tone: from time to time, acquaintances of mine have occasionally granted me the honorific ‘Lord Percy’, which I can ascribe solely to my naturally humble and deferential manner, and I do not challenge the soubriquet.

I met and fell in love with my wife, Sylvia, when she tended to me in hospital after a serious back operation. She was ‘Nurse Goodman’: she had come to the UK as a teenager from St. Vincent, in the Caribbean. Her father, who was descended from Irish planters ousted by Oliver Cromwell, had married a girl whom my maternal grandmother would have described, had she met her, as ‘black as the Ace of Spades’. Rather than the native Caribs of St. Vincent (some of whom I was intrigued to see when we visited the country after our wedding in 1976), her ancestors were slaves from Africa, brought over to work in the sugar and banana plantations. What she said about leaving a tropical island for a dank and gloomy England is unrecorded for posterity, but that was where the work was, as well as the inevitable prejudice.

Our son, James, was born in 1979, and in 1980 the three of us moved to the United States, a relocation initiated by an internal job offer within the software company for which I worked. “Only for two or three years”, we told the new grandparents. Here was the land of opportunity, energy, and expanse, but we had to adjust quickly to the different social climate. Thus I had to assimilate a new set of cultural markers, from ‘Fibber McGee’s Closet’, and ‘Rube Goldberg’, through Miranda rights and Ponzi schemes, to the World Series and the excellent festival of Thanksgiving. I also soon realized that, even if a non-believer, and despite Barbra Streisand’s Christmas Album, one does not send Christmas cards to friends at work who might be adherents of Judaism. Before long I was to learn as well about the defining power of the grudge, and the pernicious side of cultural tradition. A business colleague of Irish extraction explained to me that he blamed me personally for the Great Famine that took place one-hundred-and-forty years earlier, and, in his general hatred of the English, vowed to get me removed from my position. I was so shocked that I forgot to tell him about the oppression my wife’s family had undergone, although to claim that in defense would be to accept the premise of his argument. For whatever reason, I lost my job, and we moved away to another state, accompanied by our son and our daughter, Julia, born in the USA, and hence a citizen.

The USA was good to us. James grew up to become a fine young man. Whether the minority (and hence oppressed) status of his mother assisted in the consideration of his application to Princeton University, we shall never know, but he utterly deserved his place, and had a stellar career there in completing his Computer Science degree. New acquaintances I made would ask whether my wife was American or English, and, in my pedantry, I would explain that she was actually British but not English, which either stopped the conversation in its tracks, or provoked an intriguing dialogue. When they met her, they were invariably delighted, although there must be many who never resolved that essentially American riddle of “Where are you from?”.

James moved to California for his career; we took up citizenship, and retired to North Carolina. In time he met a delightful Vietnamese girl, whom he married in 2008. She had immigrated to the US in the same year as we did, in 1980. I like to joke that both families were escaping from Communism, hers from the real thing, and ours from the incipient workers’ paradise that was being constructed by the Labour Party before Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979. I was delighted that my mother (born 1916) was able to attend the wedding: she embraced the heterogeneity of her family, as indeed my father had done. They both saw so many changes in an extraordinary century. Sadly, she died, in her own home, next to my brother and me, in February of this year, a few days after a formal dinner celebrating the centenary of my father’s birth. She was not to know that James’s wife was already pregnant: in October Lien gave birth to a daughter, Ashley.

We look forward to seeing our grandchild for the first time in December. As soon as she is able to understand, I shall congratulate her (with her parents’ permission) on her uniqueness, and encourage her to forge her own identity, and delight in it. For identity is not about grasping on to a vast groups of persons who may share some vague cultural ‘heritage’. She will confound the labels that the US Census Bureau would like to attach to her, for she will surely belong to the fastest-growing sector of the US population, those who define themselves as members of the human race. We shall probably joke about whether she has the Percy chin, or the Tran eyes, but she will be loved for exactly what she is. There is no cultural baggage in her blood, or ‘in her DNA’, as the mendacious cliché now runs: no bizarre tribal practices, or inclinations to worship unusual entities. No bearing of grudges against some persecution that any of her ancestors may have undergone. No perverse cultural traditions, or feeling the pressure of ‘this is the way our people have always done things’. She can rejoice in her varied heritage, without being inculcated with the injustices or triumphs of Kosovo Field, the Battle of the Boyne, the Alamo, or even 1066. She has had the good fortune to be born in a country where she can choose any religion, or none at all, and can select from the richest set of cultural offerings imaginable. She may not carry my name all her life, but I believe that Lady Ashley bears the future face of the USA.

Tony Percy, November 2011

2 Responses to An American Odyssey

  1. Tony

    My research reaches back only to Victorian times, but you may find the site of some interest. Your style certainly trumps my rather pedestrian prose.

    Season’s Greetings to you and yours

    Ian

    • coldspur

      Good to hear from you, Ian!

      Did you have a site you wanted to point me to?

      Seasonal greetings to you and your family, too. I am sorry I shan’t see you in January at the reunion.

      Tony.

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