And what are your ancestors’ stories?
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here.
Lately, for some reason, I’ve been thinking about my great-grandfather Otis. He lived a long life so I still have memories of him, essentially holding court amongst his grandchildren and great-grandchildren during summers in Wyoming, seeming extremely pleased. Did his father — my great-great-grandfather, Luk Wing — ever expect to have a little blonde girl raised in D.C. as one of his progeny? Did he think about it at all?
As I think more about the arc of time, our places in humanity and what it means to make this world better, I think a lot about our own ancestors and what we know of them and how we can honor them.
I think I’ve done a poor job of honoring my own, because I don’t really know their stories.
I’ve only recently started to know the real story of Luk Wing Hoy, my great-grandfather. He immigrated to San Francisco from Kwangtung Province, China in 1871 when he was only 12 years old, arriving on Chinese sailing vessel and worked as an indentured servant to another Chinese family. Eventually he became a free man, joined the Presbyterian church in Sacramento, became a court interpreter, opened a general merchandise store, was matched with a 15-year-old girl, Fong So, when he was 35 (cool…), and they went on to have 8 children.
Note from our genealogy charts: “Family name was spelled Luk on Westminster Presbyterian church baptismal certificate. Spelled Look thereafter in his children’s names.”
And so the misunderstanding starts with the new spelling of an ancestral name.
Luk Shiu-quan Hoy became Otis Look Hoy, my great grandfather. More on him later.
As a child, the big understanding I had about Luk was that he was killed by a runaway horse cart in the streets of San Francisco. It was like a fairy tale that we all knew this — I even thought it was kind of funny as a child. They had horses?? In the streets! I pictured the rolling hills of San Francisco and a team of wild, snorting breakaway horses and imagined the sad end of my ancestor that I never knew.
This story wasn’t quite right. A few years back I started having “Cousin Brunches” — a chance for all of my local cousins of my generation to get together and hang out a bit. Previous to one of the brunches, my uncle sent us an old document that included clippings about Luk Wing.
One newspaper article about the funeral of Luk: “”Until two years ago Hoy conducted a store… he was one of the prosperous local Chinese. Suddenly he went insane and his last two years have been spent at Napa.”
Uh, excuse me.
Suddenly he went insane?
I immediately emailed my uncle. can we clarify, by the way, what it means when it says luk “suddenly went insane and spent two years in napa”???
He wrote back: He was committed to a mental institution and ultimately died from what was “mental illness”. It is one of those family secrets that was never talked about but I am not sure what makes someone go “suddenly insane”. I know it was said he became schizophrenic but this is a good question to raise to your grandmother.
And so the misunderstanding continues. A modified name. A secret illness that warps into a fairy tale about being trampled by horses to tell the later generations.
Otis — Luk’s son — went on to work on the railroad as a cook as it was being expanded throughout the west. He liked Wyoming. He stayed there. He opened a restaurant, and then a pharmacy, in Cheyenne, and married a white woman in 1922, Edna Fern Gear. They had five children. And then came our parents, and then us.
I don’t know hardly any of their stories. I don’t know Otis’s siblings. I think I have a lot of family still in Sacramento, but I’m not sure. I have no idea where specifically, what village, in China Luk came from, meaning I have no idea where I’m really from — you know, FROM, from, as people like to say. I know nothing about Chinese culture or heritage, though certainly I can’t blame anybody for that — existing as a Chinese person in Wyoming in the early 20th century — you were probably just trying to be as white as possible.
I know my grandmother and her siblings endured racism. I know that my great uncle Ted married a white woman, Nina Belle, whose family disowned her for marrying a man who was half Chinese, and their marriage was almost deemed illegal by the state but eventually was allowed. I know my grandmother married Francois, the son of two Belgian French language professors who were teaching at the University of Wyoming, and they ended up traveling the world as he became a foreign service officer and then an ambassador and four years after his death she still thinks about him every day. I know a few things.
I don’t know much else.
What does it mean that in so many ways I am unmoored from the entire underpinning of one fourth of my family, one fourth of who I am? (I’m pretty fuzzy on the other three fourths, too!). I’m linked to these people yet unlinked.
What about those who will come after me? I’m not sure if I’ll have children, but my niece and nephews and future relations — will fairy tale be told about me, an untrue tale when a darker secret is buried at its core? Or a more glorious one?
So, yeah. I’ve been thinking about our ancestors a lot, and their forgotten stories, and how in many cases we’ve willfully forgotten them in our race to the future or to define our own stories and erase our own pasts, each for our own reasons.
I write and speak often about how many of us are disconnected today, living in virtual worlds instead of mooring ourselves in our own physical communities and rooting ourselves in our own stories. Honoring our ancestors and learning where we came from is a powerful way to do that. Not only to better know ourselves and to give life and credence to what our ancestors might have lived through (here I think of Luk Wing as a 12-year-old boy on a ship, by himself, an indentured servant — my nephew is 12 — how could that have been — I can barely think about it), but to better understand and know that we are linked to one another regardless of time, place, space. Each individual story of ours — so narrow as we know and see it — is actually inextricably linked to that of our ancestors and therefore to entire other worlds and existences, epochs beyond us and in front of us.
It’s time for those of us who have not yet learned these stories to do so. Simultaneously, it’s time for those of us who think our stories may not count or matter to come into the realization that they do — and to think about how we want to live these stories of ours, how we want to tell them, how we want these lives and stories of ours recorded and expressed into the future.
As for me, tonight I’ll light a candle for Luk Wing, Fong So, Otis, Edna Fern, Grandpa, his parents Henriette and Adolphe, Arlene and Raymond on my father’s side, for all those for all of them who have gone before, for all those who will come after, and to all of us here right now holding this anchor in time and this brief moment and the here and now.
Who are your ancestors? And what kind of ancestor will you be?
If you’d like to share your ancestor’s story, email me. Tell me all about them and what you know and how you connect with them. I’ll share a few in an upcoming newsletter.