A few months before I retired, a dear friend, someone I have known since college days, asked me what I planned to do in retirement, and to my surprise – to hers as well – I said, “I plan to remember who I am.”
These were words I hadn’t planned on saying. I blurted them out and then wondered what they meant. After three months of retirement, I think I know a little better what I had in mind that day.
First, of course, there is the hard work of remembering who I am apart from my identity as a pastor.
Church members over the years have been all too happy to remind me how a pastor should act, speak, think, pray, dress, drive, raise kids, vote, and so on. For 40 years they have made all kinds of suggestions for my behavior and appearance, including (but not limited to) what sort of car I should drive.
I mention a car in this connection because I have been shopping for a new car, and the thought occurred to me, while test driving a nifty little convertible on a beautiful spring day, that this would not be the sort of car that most church members would want their pastor to drive. For themselves, why not? But for their pastor, the one who claims to speak on God’s behalf each week, no way. An unobtrusive sedan, preferably used and with some obvious signs of wear and rust, would be a much better choice.
I did not buy the nifty little convertible, but I felt a brief exhilaration in the moment, knowing that I could.
The other part of remembering who I am has turned out to be a sudden and all-consuming interest in genealogy. I bought one of those kits a few weeks ago, spit in a glass tube, and then mailed everything back to a genealogy site where they are currently analyzing my DNA.
I did not choose the option of learning about genetic diseases. If there’s a chance that I will develop Alzheimer’s Disease, I will learn that soon enough. As for the predisposition to a unibrow, well, I pretty much know the answer to that question. I don’t have one.
I also did not choose the option of learning about “surprise relatives.” One of the painful outcomes of DNA testing, according to the genealogy site, is learning for the first time about half brothers and half sisters. I’m reasonably sure I don’t have any, but for now I don’t need to know. (The ones I know about are surprising enough.)
My main motivation seems to be the issue of identity: Who am I? Where did I come from? Who were the people who came before me and contributed their genes to my DNA? Some of this information I already knew, but some of it is coming as a surprise.
To no one’s surprise, I am the product of chain migration and anchor babies. My family members arrived in western Michigan, established a life for themselves, and then sent home (to the Netherlands) an invitation for other family members to join them.
The Netherlands, as it turns out, did not send their best. Like today’s immigrants, my relatives were poor. They are described in census data as “wage earners.” They were “platers” and “dress makers” and “cigar rollers” – not the best of the best.
But they produced me. They worked hard in less-than-rewarding jobs so that I could go to school (beyond the eighth grade where most of them stopped their formal educations) and make something of myself.
I’ve got a lot more to say about all of this. And I think there’s a book in it, a spiritual reflection on identity, on where we come from, and of course on where we are headed. So, stay tuned.
(Photo: My search has led me beyond the computer screen to cemeteries, including the Fulton Street Cemetery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my paternal great-grandfather is buried. Buried next to Anthony Brouwer is Lena Stoel, his wife, and a 20-year old daughter, Cornelia. Baby Girl Brouwer is in the same plot, but without a marker. She was born July 3, 1903, and buried the next day.)