The bodies of my great-great grandparents were exhumed in 1942 to make room for an American military base where nuclear weapons may or may not have been secretly kept.
Thomas and Jane Cooney were two of approximately 625 people who were removed from three Newfoundland cemeteries that year. Having died recently (1928 and 1930, respectively), they were among the minority identified and re-interred beneath their original shared headstone (inscribed with the epigraph above). Hundreds of other Argentians who remained anonymous – many more of our relatives among them – were buried next to them in a mass grave at Freshwater. According to historians, “the funerals to the new cemetery took place at night, to minimize the traumatic effect on the relatives of the dead.”
I discovered these facts about my great-great grandparents last week. Jake, the kids, and my extended family have found it curious and somewhat amusing that since purchasing a subscription to a genealogy website on a whim, I’ve been
obsessed preoccupied with researching family history. Since I began this project, I’ve found actual photographs of long-dead, never seen relatives and shared them with cousins (and fourth cousins) on my Facebook page; at the dinner table, I’ve regaled the kids with stories of our third-cousin-three-times-removed Captain George Cleveland (also known as “Sakuuaqtiruniq the Harpooner”), who “survived bear attacks, shipwrecks, famine, epidemics, and storms; once drifting lost at sea for five days on a slab of ice without food..” before renouncing his US citizenship and settling in to a life the arctic tundra among his many Aivilingmiut descendants; I’ve spent dozens of hours tracking destitute millworkers through the slums and workhouses of Blackburn in the 1800s. Half-Irish (?) me has yet to definitively track a Foley, Cooney, Green, Dowd, or McHail back to Ireland. I’ll keep trying.
But what’s both troubling and compelling about this research is how little I know about where I come from. Before I started, I knew snippets of my grandparents’ histories, less about my great grandparents’. Beyond that, I knew nothing – not even their names.
Much has been said about American rootlessness, especially in poetry – independence and enterprise, the freedom of the open road, and at the same time a need for connection and grounding through culture and history. When I think about poetry in the context of being an observer of the present moment in all its dimensions – and a scribe of that experience to the best of my ability – I think of this struggle with rootlessness and uncertainty about belonging as one of those things not quite unique, but definitive of that experience of 21st century America.