On Memorial Day, Awakening America's Inner Life

05/30/2011 01:14 am ET | Updated Jul 30, 2011
  • Pythia Peay Author of "American Icarus: A Memoir of Father & Country and America on the Couch

When I was in second grade, the Daughters of the American Revolution, in search of potential members, paid a visit to my classroom. As the child of an Argentine mother growing up in a rural Missouri town, I knew, even at that young age, that I'd never make the cut. Even so, my mother reacted strongly when I was passed over. "They should have chosen you," she said, archly. Yet my mother could offer no explanation as to why I -- the daughter of an immigrant and an Irish-American father with no known ties to the American Revolution -- should have been selected by this patriotic women's organization.

Some 50 years later, while writing a memoir about my father, I came across a file of papers on my mother's ancestry. In it was a family tree tracing her lineage back to one John Cassin who, as a 17-year-old private, had fought with George Washington at the Battle of Trenton. Yes, the Battle of Trenton, in which, on Christmas night, Washington and his rag-dressed soldiers crossed the icy Delaware River, surprising and capturing the sleeping enemy troops. After the Revolution, Cassin, who was said to have remained personal friends with Washington, became a merchant seaman. In 1799 he joined the newly forming U.S. Navy, where he served as second in command at the Washington Navy Yard and fought pirates in Tripoli; during the War of 1812 he returned to the Delaware to command the naval forces in the protection of Philadelphia. Still on active duty in his late fifties, Cassin became commanding officer of the Navy Yards at Norfolk, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina, where he died in 1822.

How I came to be the descendant of a Revolutionary patriot through my Argentine mother is a tale I will save for another time. Suffice to say the discovery that I was more deeply rooted in American history than I'd ever imagined had an impact on both my relationship with my mother and with my mother country. Sitting in the hushed atmosphere of the DAR Library in Washington, D.C., coming face to face with the burly, proud profile of "Master Commandant" Cassin in a history of the U.S. Navy,* a jolt went through me. As a student of meditation, I'd had spiritual awakenings. In therapy, I'd had psychological awakenings around my personal complexes. But the discovery that I was descended from what in DAR lingo is called a "patriot ancestor" stirred in me an American awakening.

In reflecting on his own "fateful" ancestral links, the psychologist Carl Jung wrote in "Memories Dreams Reflections" that he felt that he "had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished." What did it mean, I wondered now, with some irony, that I, a child of the '60s who'd marched against wars from Vietnam to Iraq, was a "daughter of the American Revolution"? My family's personal "founding father" had risked his life in service to America, so that eight generations later I could write in freedom. His sacrifice seemed to demand something of me -- but what?

To this point, my knowledge of America's origins had been fairly cursory, punctuated with grade school images of Puritans, cherry trees, and liberal tenets around sexist dead white men. So gaining a more comprehensive knowledge of my ancestor's times seemed like a good way to begin my quest. Delving into histories and biographies, events that had been dry and distant became animated. Cardboard cutout-heroes became three-dimensional figures of complexity. What stoked my imagination the most, however, was the intellectual dynamism of the Revolutionary era. Political science geniuses, the Founders had debated each other fiercely, and had read widely in history and among the Roman, Greek, Scottish, French and English philosophers. As the historian Joseph Ellis writes in "American Creation," the late 18th century "was the most politically creative era in American history."

Indeed as it is often said, America is an idea as much as a place. One of the pillars of this American idea is self-determination: the notion that the power to forge one's own destiny lies within each individual. In this sense we are all sons and daughters of the American Revolution, each generation erasing the past and making its own mark anew. Still, as my mother remarked when I relayed tales of her seafaring Irish-American forebear, "If I'd known about that, maybe I would have felt more as if I belonged to this country." As the loneliness behind her words sank in, it dawned that one way of continuing my ancestor's legacy might be through cultivating a kind of reflective citizenship. For if we are always beginning anew, fighting the Revolution on the terrain of our personal lives and on the battlefields of the world again and again, then we never really arrive, we never really build a solid foundation of tradition and history -- and we never really belong.

Greater attention to the nation's inner life, it seems to me, might be one way to heal the American wound of not belonging that afflicts so many. What if, for example, we sought to add a more soulful dimension to citizenship through more philosophical and spiritual exploration of what it means to be independent individuals living interdependent lives? What if study of the nation's founding history was seen as each citizen's lifelong civic duty, as important as voting or community service? What if we protected the American landscape with as much zeal as we defend the borders that surround it? And what if our family's immigration stories were handed down over the generations as part of our birthright, connecting us to our own American lineage, and treasured as an important part of our psychological identity and individuation?

As I reflect on my patriot ancestor's life on Memorial Day -- a time of somber tribute to those who have given their lives in service to their country -- it seems to me that more contemplation could also be given to discovering the deeper meaning of what exactly the military defends: liberty, equality, individual rights, and this evolving American story of which we are all a part.

I welcome your immigration stories, and/or thoughts on America's inner life and evolving story, so please write in!

*"A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps 1794-1815" by Christopher McKee