Until John Cabot, that well-known Italian explorer (otherwise known as Giovanni, Juan Zuan, Zuam or Zoane depending on how he felt that day) started poking around in 1498, Native Americans were the only residents of Maryland’s rolling landscape and bountiful Chesapeake Bay. The English decided to set up house in Maryland in 1634, hence my propensity for speaking the King’s English. While Congress was still busy penning the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Maryland was doing its own thing with a state constitution “of the people only . . . .” already dumping allegiance to the King of England.
Technically the state of Maryland is in the south being south of the Mason Dixon Line. Virginians would dispute that as they claim “the south starts here.” Maryland remained part of The North during the Civil War but with much Confederate sympathy in the state, men staying put to face the bloodshed in the Union Army numbered only two to one to men fleeing south to join the Confederacy.
Brother fought brother as Maryland was a border state, spanning the north and the south, with planters using slaves, but free blacks in the state numbering nearly fifty percent before the war even started.
My mother’s family stayed firmly rooted with their farm in Maryland since the 17th century. My father’s family came from North Carolina and shunted between the south and the north.
Stick with me. I’ll pull this together soon.
My great, great, great uncle General Daniel Harvey Hill, born in South Carolina, served under southern General Lee but never resided in Maryland. He only set foot in my home state to take part in Lee’s Maryland Campaign culminating in the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of battle in U.S. history with a shocking 23,000 casualties. What had been instilled in me as a child, a sense of pride for my ancestor now fills me with shame, both for the senseless slaughter and the principles he defended.
So it’s in my DNA to be confused.
Am I a southerner? Don’t think so. What’s with boiled peanuts (or chitterlings, hog jowls, turtle soup or grits)? Why would you want to eat them? Am I a Northerner? Don’t feel like one.
The fact is, though I would never give up my American passport and am a loyal and patriotic American despite the George W. Bush years, I don’t feel like an American any more – north, south, east coast or west coast. Like Maryland’s history, my history is more convoluted than Italian tax laws.
I feel more European, more English. But I’m not European. I’m alien to them. Although my accent sounds English to Americans, it sounds American (or Australian, Canadian, Kiwi, Dutch or German) to the English. The Brits can’t place my accent any more than I can place myself. The term to encapsulate my curious mix used to be mid-Atlantic. I feel more cast adrift. Unanchored.
And detached. Detached from English family and friends and – although this is a very banal admission to make – detached from my stuff. I would like to start unpacking my kitchen equipment. Then after getting rid of two non-digital TVs, a washing machine on its last legs, a desktop computer from the ice age and at least three jackets with shoulder pads, we’d still have nothing to sit on. But we need a house first. Then I could prepare a delicious meal whilst dressed in decade-old clothes and we’d eat off our laps whilst sitting on the floor.
All the old feelings are starting to surface again. A displaced person. I never really considered myself as an immigrant when I moved to England in 1975. At the time it seemed temporary, part of traveling. Even though I was resident for many years in the UK, I never fully assimilated. Does one ever in a country not of one’s birth?
So I’m confused, as confused as Mark Twain’s Hank Morgan in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” who after a knock to his head in 19th century New England comes to in merry ol’ England 13 centuries earlier. He manages his circumstances by remembering a 6th century solar eclipse from his history studies in Connecticut. As a trick he pretends to “blot out the sun” and quickly becomes pals with the king laying claim to a percentage of the country’s GDP. Could I pull off something similar? Would it help me to feel at home?
Have you moved away from your place of birth? Would you? Could you? Am I doing the right thing?