Monday, May 25, 2009

Children of Divorce

Farmhouse on the Yorkshire dales.
For generations, my ancestors were content to stay put in the East Riding area of Yorkshire in northeastern England. The records show ten generations who lived there post-Viking invasions/migrations that might have brought Norse blood by way of Gotland to mix with the native English tribes.

The people who became the Dressers were probably farmers, fishermen, tradesmen. My family name indicates a trade, for instance, a "dresser" being one who finishes material before it is finally manufactured into shoes, boots, or cloth. A finisher of hides, one who adds the last touches to fabric, one who "dresses" the fabric. Like "cooper," "baker," "chandler," "miller," many early English surnames followed the practice of identifying an individual with his family's trade.

Being a Yorkshire peasant in the middle ages might not have been so bad; the land was moist, green and met by the sea. It's an area that became steeped in the dissenting Protestant traditions that arose after the break-up of the monasteries in the 1500s, evidence that much more than the monasteries were broken as a result of Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his Spanish Catholic wife, in order to marry his new sweetheart, Anne Boleyn.

Henry hadn't intended to start a whole new religion, but his amorous ways had wide-ranging consequences. The winds of Protest-ant theology were blowing across the European continent and making their way to Britain--along with illegal shipments of printed English Bibles. It's hard to imagine now that it was a capital offense to be caught with an English-language Bible during this time.

Henry, a practicing Catholic most of his life (even after turning the church inside-out) had himself designated as the head of the Church of England and confiscated lands held by the Pope. Former landholders, many of them church-bondsmen, were routed and more and more prime English lands were turned over to private hands. Such are the roots of many a great English countryhome or estate.

Would Britain remain Catholic or become Protestant? The changes affected everyone, aggravating tensions with Ireland, Scotland, Wales and English peasants. Eventually my own ancestors would be uprooted from their native land in order to seek religious "freedom," a freedom that was designed to allow them to practice their own version of Protestantism while excluding others. I do not know when they changed from being Catholics to Protestants, just as I do not know when they evolved from their pagan roots into Catholics, but I am certain that both transitions happened and that it caused some stress in the families making the changes.

Henry's divorce from Catherine triggered a couple hundred years' worth of religious and political strife. I can relate to the fallout from this, although when my parents finally divorced (I was about 14), it was a good thing. In my family's case, chaos preceded the divorce and took the form of my father's drunkenness, horrible fights nearing to violence, jailing and expulsion of my father from the house, and my father's infidelity.

Rowley Parish, East Riding, Yorkshire England

Oddly there were fights about what church we would attend, with my father insisting on dragging us across town to the Episcopalian church (church of England in the homeland), and our mother wanting us to attend the local Lutheran or Presbyterian churches (the northern, Scots influence can be felt in her callings). I went to church with whatever friend came from a churchy family, and especially loved the Catholic Mass, remembering attending Latin services when I was very young (vestige of the old religion in me?). What the churches called themselves didn't seem to matter as much as there was peacefulness in most of them.

The disruption in our family, caused by economic distress and my father's alcoholism, affected my siblings and myself in so many complex ways that it was a relief when my mother finalized the paperwork and finally sent my father packing. Divorce isn't the worst thing that happened to us, yet growing up with its stigma was aggravated by the zeitgeist that mythologized the American family in a "Donna Reed/Father Knows Best" post-war era. And, even now, with divorce so prevalent, it is often added to the listing of an individual's flaws when he goes off the rails: "He's from a broken home," as if to explain why something went wrong with him.

Stability and upheaval are two themes in American history; Americans long for home, permanence, property, yet political moodswings and economic roller-coasters have often been at our backs, nipping at us to pick up stakes, move on. A part of me so identifies with England and Scotland, the homelands of my ancestors, where for so many generations they made their lives. It's a relatively recent phenomenon that I am/we are Americans, and I am trying to sort out what is it that evolved into our Americanisms, and what are the vestiges of the old world I may still carry.

The truth is that all Americans are children of divorce, one really big one that split our parent country in two, and the many smaller divisions that occurred in all our countries and lands of origin: we must deal with exile, abandonment, regrouping after becoming refugees, just as we are required to determine what is uniquely American about us and name what is at the heart of our American experience.

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