The Fragrance of Those Who Came Before
Thank You for Your Eloquence and Inspiration Dr. Deepak Chopra
I was born an old soul. I always knew I was the sum of the people who came before. The people we call ancestors have been whispering to me since I was a child. I guess I wasn’t ready to meet them until now, the year I retired. I wish I could lay claim to the word ‘fragrance’ as a way to describe the feeling of those who came before, but I have to give credit where credit is due. I am inspired to write this essay because of the way Dr. Deepak Chopra so eloquently described his ancestors on the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.” Upon learning about those who came before, he told of the visit he made to the banks of the Ganges River in India with his parents’ ashes. He said he wants to leave a letter to the grandchildren he has yet to know about that same site. He wants them to know the fragrance of their ancestors. I am a firm believer that the last piece of human self-actualization lies in the knowledge of our individual pasts.
Knowing from where we came gives our life a purpose. My mother said I came out of the womb fiercely independent. When I think of my mother and the women who gave her life, I know why I came by my independence so naturally. My grandmothers on my mother’s family tree were poor women who raised their children alone. My own mother had to raise us alone for the years after my father left and before she married my stepfather. What I learned from my grandmothers, fierce pioneer women from the American southwest and immigrant women from Spain, was that nothing stood in their way to rear their children; and, they didn’t rely on men to keep them strong. The women on my father’s side of my family tree began in the Southern California Pechanga Indian tribe and from before the potato famine in Ireland. I can see the sacrifices they had to make in the imagination of my writer’s mind. These are the bits and pieces of a lineage I yearn to know more fully before I die. The women of my genetic line have taught me that with a strong will, I can achieve anything. I grew up with this drive and have realized many of my dreams.
Even the sad parts of our past give dimension to our character. As well as poverty, alcoholism runs strong on my father’s side of my family tree. His great grandfather, Jacques, came from France and married a Pechanga Indian, my great grandmother, Dominga. They started one of the first wineries in the area of Riverside, California. I’m not sure if alcoholism started there, but being in the wine business is as good of a place as any to speculate where the interest began. I thankfully dodged the alcohol gene, but my father and brother did not (nor did most of my father’s relatives). My father died young from burning a successful life at both ends of the candle, yet my brother survived to tell the tale. The character dimension I have gained from this genetic fact is the knowledge that every human being is flawed in one way or another. And, it is through these flaws, obstacles and road blocks where we learn our true strengths in this life. If we keep an open mind and heart to those who suffer among us, we can only be more empathetic and authentic. Because of the sufferings in my immediate family, I was a child who befriended the underdogs at school. I have confronted bullies for as long as I can remember, and then I became a teacher who protected my students from bullies. My brother once asked my mother, “Where did Jeaninne get her confidence?” My mother’s answer, “I don’t know, but it’s always been there.” I like to think I have my ancestors to thank.
If we know the diversity of our past, we are less inclined to judge others. The Mexican culture resonates with me. It has inspired my teaching and my writing. I knew from the time I was very young that my mother’s maiden name was originally Gutierrez. My grandfather dropped off the z and claimed he was French during the Great Depression. My Hispanic roots go back to Spain, so there is something in me that is deeply connected to the Spanish language. I learned to speak Spanish in my 40’s and am proud of my fluency today. I used to try to tell people I was Mexican instead of Spanish, but I couldn’t lie. However, when I learned in a National Geographic special that the DNA of the pre-columbian indigenous people from South America up to Alaska is of the same strain, I am allowing myself poetic license to think that my Pechanga bloodlines link with those of the Indian nations in Mexico. It excites me that I have a very diverse lineage. It means that I am truly the melting pot that America represents. Whenever I see or hear about racial prejudice, it sickens me. I devoted my career to educating my Latino students to be proud of their heritage. It is my life’s passion now to write about injustice via the stories I tell. It is clear to me that my ancestors knew me well before I knew myself.