Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland is my cousin.
After my mother's death, an entire world closed up to me. My mother was the tenuous connection to our family, a family she kept at a distance from herself and, subsequently, to me, connected by the thinnest of bonds that simply broke when she died. I thought I put the old world behind, both the sadness and the joy.
On March 16, the old world came back. President Obama nominated my cousin to the Supreme Court of the United States. Seeing his name, his image, on CNN.com while drinking my morning coffee stunned me, not because I doubted his capabilities in any way but because I had locked up my past, assuming it would stay there.
I began to shake, partially out of excitement for something so great to happen to my family, but also as if I'd seen a ghost, the past coming back to haunt me.
Merrick and I share great-grandparents on my mother's father's side. Merrick looks exactly like my grandfather Samuel. He sounds exactly as all my family did when I grew up, even though some of them were transplants to San Diego, where I grew up. The Chicago accent, their particular accent, sticks with people. It's not just a Chicago accent, but a particular accent influenced by the immigrant tongue and bred within the confines of our small family. I heard my mother, and I wept. The ghosts were real.
In the news conference announcing his nomination by Obama, Merrick eloquently, while breaking through a wall of his own emotion, told the story of his grandparents, including the children of our great-grandparents, escaping persecution. Those children included his grandmother and my grandfather. They lived in a schetel, somewhere in modern-day northern Poland, in an area under Russian control at the time, and left for the United States in the early 1900s, in a period of vast immigration to the US — 1915 by my reading of the smudged and faded Ellis Island record, My grandfather Samuel's sister, who is Merrick's grandmother, said it was just like Fiddler on the Roof, without the soundtrack.
In his speech, Merrick talks about his parents, whom I loved, and the role of their entrepreneurialism in shaping his life, another family heritage pounding strongly inside both of us, living on, reflected in almost all the children of our grandparents and now, strongly, in me.
For as many generations as we can trace, our family has run businesses, and talked about the role of self-reliance, of being in charge of your own success and not putting it in the hands of others. Of letting your hard work pay off directly, and believing in yourself enough to know you can succeed on your own. Hard and honest work is the only way to know true success, a sentiment directly referenced in Merrick's speech.
Merrick credits his father's hard work as a marketing company owner in showing him the power of hard work. I credit my mother's philosophy of independence as a serial small-business owner (way before women typically did such things) in showing me the power to run my own business, the only career choice I have made that without fail makes me happy.
I have never read my family story in a public forum, or heard it spoken for the entire world to hear. My story. Across the world. In my isolation from that particular world that closed up when my mother died, I internalized that history, my history, as if it were completely my own — for in all respects, it had become that. I thought it would die with me. It was a way to cope with the grief of a loss far greater than losing simply my mother.
While I knew a handful of people shared this story, I was isolated from them, and in essence they had died too, in my mind. Never forgotten, but never close by. I honor that history, and them, the best I can — from the front of the college classroom, in my support of other entrepreneurs, in my pilgrimages to places such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, where I utter, "Never again," and imagine what might have happened if my great-grandparents' children had not escaped Europe. You certainly would not have heard about Merrick Garland if that were the case.
Today, that history reemerges as ours. His. Mine. Shared between us, all of us who witness this history as it is being made. Today my story, his story, our story is the story of all of us who witness this historic moment.
I am, of course, intensely proud of this man, whose graduation, wedding, and birth announcements always graced our mailbox, whose name was uttered in my household frequently, often around a discussion of how I needed to be more like him.
He was 18 years my senior and always on the move with school and career, so Merrick and I didn't see each other often, but his stories were spoken as often as if he lived with us. Merrick went to Harvard. Merrick got a great job. Merrick is a judge. Merrick, Merrick, Merrick. A shining star, and the unstoppable reference for what success should be.
And now, from the grave, I hear my mother, God rest her soul: "Merrick is going to be on the Supreme Court; what are you doing now?" I always had a response to her comparison questions. Now, frankly, I do not. Short of becoming the president of the United States, I can't top this.
She wanted me to be a Harvard-educated lawyer, and should I not want to do that, I could take the distant second choice to be a medical doctor, like another (not so prominent) cousin. Those were the acceptable paths, with journalist and, inexplicably, baseball player's wife being wild-card choices.
I didn't get into Harvard — "just" the top public school in the US, UC Berkeley, which fit me perfectly and shaped me into who I wanted to be. What I've done since is take a very modern, polymath path, currently serving in the happiest job I have ever had as a business owner (like my mother) and academic, and always seeking the next newest adventure. Most critically, I am a happy person.
Merrick has no idea the influence his life had on mine, simply by his act of being, and being great by any measure. I became who I am in no small part due to his influence, a fight between embracing his greatness and rebelling against it. It shaped who I am today. He doesn't know this, because our connection ended, like most of the connections I had with my mother's family, with her passing. And I could — I should — reach out to tell him this and congratulate him on his more recent success, bravely brushing away the ghosts of the past and embracing the future. But even if I do not, the power of his influence on my life is not diminished.
Inspired by his path, I took the path to do what inspired me and fit me the most. What I never told anyone is that, in a fit of desperation, my mom put me on the phone with Merrick so he could talk some sense into me about my college choices. He told me to take the path that inspired me the most. My mother never knew that, and it was our little secret.
I didn't go to Harvard, but I did marry a two-time Harvard grad, and I have to wonder: Was I living up indirectly to the standard my mother held for greatness? These legacy issues bear the most complicated story here.
When people tell me Merrick's speech was one of the most eloquent and powerful speeches they have ever heard, that they teared up to hear it, all I can say is that is my cousin. His story. My story. Our story.
They say you can never go home again. I am starting to believe that's because home never leaves you; you cannot go back to a place you never left.
I'm home again.
And in the middle of the political fighting about his nomination, help the Senate remember who and what is behind this man.
My story. His story. Our story.
IdaRose Sylvester has run a Silicon Valley–based marketing consultancy for the past decade. She also teaches now at her undergraduate alma mater, UC Berkeley. Find her on Twitter @idarose.
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