In the 1980s and ’90s, my mother devoted her time to collecting family stories. It meant carting kids over rolling Pennsylvania countryside, tiptoeing through nursing homes, and wandering through wobbly tombstones. I was there for every step, holding charcoal for a tombstone rubbing or following her through hallways of senior citizens.
Graveyard explorations as a kid are a bit unusual, but the familiarity of spending time in these spaces had a lasting impact on the adult I have become. To me, cemeteries are not scary, haunted, or sad. They are places to gather stories and information, a way to learn about others who have passed on before you. In learning about your ancestors and lineage, you know about yourself. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the legacy you will leave behind.
My mother made an elaborate quilt based on these stories. The starting piece of the blanket is an indentured servant from the 17th century. The quilt depicts the positive stories of the ones who “made it.” The ones who gambled away the farm or abandoned their families for daydreams of riches out west did not make the final cut.
My ancestors were some of the first immigrants — not all shining examples, but most of them worked hard and tried their best. From her research, we see hundreds of name changes, from something “ethnic” to something more “American.” We also saw the shifting of faith denomination into one that was more mainstream in America.
I converted to Islam after enduring years of spiritual disintegration. Islam set me on the path I needed. Before I converted, I was never troubled by name or faith changes, but now I see these changes as pressures to assimilate.
As a woman who wears a hijab, whose American heritage runs deep, I still feel put on the spot to prove that I am American enough.
People ask, “Where am I from?” When I respond “Here,” they are not satisfied. Looking for the approval of others is futile.
For me, there is timelessness in faith and God — not in taking our ever-changing country, or money, or status as a god. Reflecting on my mother’s project, I now see I have more ancestors than ever: spiritual ancestors. They don’t share the same DNA but have the same religious unity.
There is a timelessness in following the great men and women who held fast in the face of danger or ridicule, like Noah, Jesus, Mary, and Moses, and all the other devotees of God. They were minorities among masses of people. They didn’t get seized in fear about what people were thinking of them. Their foundation over centuries of changing government and ideologies was God. They did not get caught up in demands for assimilation; instead, they got caught up in prayer and piety. I want that to be my legacy too.
Time slips and slides away from us. I believe the only way to harness time is by linking ourselves to something eternal. Then the fleeting path of time becomes elongated into infinity.
Kristen Obarsky (she/her) lives in Chaska and helps to organize service projects for the Muslim homeschool community. This essay is an adaptation of the story “Formulating a History” published in the book “Muslim American Writers at Home: Stories, Essays and Poems of Identity, Diversity and Belonging.”