exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

i know because i love them more and more

by Jen at 5:05 pm on 29.11.2009 | 2 Comments
filed under: family and friends

the other day on thanksgiving, i rang up my brother dave’s house to talk to the family gathered there. after chit-chatting with all and sundry, my brother raul’s girlfriend, passed the phone on to dave’s long-term-partner-now-new-wife. as she handed over the phone, the girlfriend called out, “hey Mrs. B___! jen’s on the phone!”

as she did so, it suddenly struck me: after being one of only two Ms. B___s in my family tree for years (the other being the one who gave birth to me), another woman now shares my surname.

you see, my grandfather’s surname was B____. he had sisters who all changed their surname upon marriage. dad’s surname is B____. my dad has five sisters, who all changed their surname upon marriage. my two sisters have both changed their surnames. my mother is Mrs. B___ by marriage, and although my parents divorced years ago, she kept her married surname.

so for several years now, i have been the lone female B___ who is descended from this particular line of the family tree… stuck way out of the very furthest twig of the limb. and in spite of childhood teasing, misspellings and mispronunciations far too numerous to count, and marrying twice… i’ve never had any inclination to change it. i like to joke that that’s out of sheer laziness, but the truth is that i’ve always been very attached to my surname.

my surname is pretty unique, even in cities chock full of multi-cultural populations. in fact, for many years, it was thought that outside of the cluster of B____ relatives in the new york/new jersey area, there was another cluster of distant cousins somewhere in california – and that was it. these days an internet search brings up a small smattering of people, who are, i’m sure, in some way related to me by historical lineage – i can see the familiar high slavic cheekbones and noses staring back at me with such familiarity in people’s facebook profile pictures, including those with alternate married surnames. my particular surname goes back to a tiny island called unije, off the coast of croatia, where my grandfather, Matthew B____, emigrated from when he was barely a teenager. he journeyed alone by boat (his father Martin having emigrated to parts unknown in the states several years earlier), landed at ellis island, as in the classic american immigration narrative. there’s a famous family story that a dockworker at the port, who happened to know Martin B___, happened by chance to recognise my grandfather Matthew B___’s surname from the hundreds of names on the ship’s records, and managed to put him back in touch with his father who was also working the docks. in a city of millions, what were the chances?

and so it was another set of coincidences that lead me, in one of my periodic google searches, to find a book called “The History and Families of Unije”, a small genealogical book put together as a personal project by an author tracing his own family history. unije’s modern history has been checkered by the forces of war – it has been a various points part of austria, italy, the former yugoslavia, and now croatia. in 2005, a set of parish records were uncovered which dated back to the 18th century. suddenly, thanks to this book, i now can look back and trace the origins of my B___ surname to 1753. i can see pictures of the island where my grandfather lived as a boy. i can see the olive mills and the sardine factories. this amazes me to no end.

i’m not a history buff, and i’m not a genealogist. but something about this commonality with people whose blood lives on in my veins pulls deep at the core of me. it feels essential to who i am. i am the granddaughter of an immigrant, i am the great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Martin B___, who was one of about 140 inhabitants of the tiny island of unije in the early 1700s. even before i knew this, i felt it.

genetic links are strong stuff. in recent years, my brother and sister who were adopted as infants, have both been in contact with their biological birth mothers. i have seen them standing next to each other, their mannerisms, facial features and smiles mirroring each other. in spite of the years of separation, and differing surnames, they are linked at the cellular level. as my brother dave married the new Mrs. B___, i watched his birth mother and biological sister look on with smiles that were perfect images of the one beaming across his face at his new bride.

this is the truth of why i have kept my surname. it is, for me, a way of representing those links to people whose dna from hundreds of years ago, still circulates through me, and whose immigrant story has made my life possible. i am a B___ because my grandfather and great-grandfather left their stone houses and olive mills and sardine factories to travel across an ocean to the docks of lower manhattan.

but it also represents the links with those to whom i am tied not by the genetic bonds of blood, but by bonds of choice and love. my siblings and i are not of the same genetic descent, we don’t look alike or act alike… but we are family just as true as if we were born that way, and our shared surname reflected that. my new sister-in-law is of greek heritage – her parents too, emigrated here, and are also part of the famed american melting pot. she shares none of the B___ dna, but in adopting her into our crazy family, she is just as surely “one of us” now.

i am Jen B___. the B___ represents my family – the old and the new of it, the blood, bonds, marriages, divorces, adoptions, journeys, oceans, history, stories, deaths, olive mills, birth mothers, misspellings and cheekbones of it all. for me, it represents all of who i am, past and present.

it is my family, it is my identity, it is quintessentially *me*. i wouldn’t change it for the world.

it’s cool to love your family – feist

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3 people like this post.


  • 1

    Comment by Your Sister

    1.12.2009 @ 14:01 pm

    i thoroughly enjoyed that post. well stated!

  • 2

    Comment by Jen

    4.12.2009 @ 18:32 pm

    aww. you know, i still miss the fact that i don’t share the same surname with you and cat anymore!

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