The Music of One’s Life

In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin,—seven or eight ancestors at least, and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.   –Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love this image of our ancestors as the musical notes that make up our own songs.

My song is the song of the farmer, the maker, the student, the teacher.

It’s an American song, but it was begun here in this land before it was America. It’s a song with Dutch notes in early Manhattan mingling with solemn Puritan hymns in New England.

My ancestors must’ve been adventurers or at least seekers, coming from Europe to an unsettled unknown. They knew how to pick stones to tame unwelcoming soil and to stay warm where warmth was hard to come by.

They must’ve been loners; they seem to have sought isolation. While some lived in New York City and Boston, they did so when those were very small towns. Then they moved on to the reaches of northern New England and New York, barely settled then and sparsely populated even today.

I recently spent a few days with a favorite cousin and learned the source of another note in my personal song.

I always knew that part of my song included the lilt of Ireland. I could feel the Celtic in me but that’s the side of the family about which I knew the least.

My cousin shared what she knew about my paternal grandfather’s line. She gave me a copy of my grandfather’s grandfather’s marriage certificate, from Kilcluney, in County Armagh.

William Agnew was married in 1848, to Sarah Gray. I still don’t know when they came to America or why but I learned something that thrilled me no end.




William was a weaver.

So the special rhythm of the shuttle being thrown is added to my song; I always sensed it was there!

My song is northern European and rural. It is work music, the music of those who live close to the land and make for themselves. It also contains the strains of art music, as so many of my ancestors sought education to improve themselves and the lives of their children, and to teach the children of others.

My song is rare and unique and mine alone.

And so is yours.

What notes make up the music of your life? Can you see how your melody comes to you from your forebears?