Finding Yourself in your Family History

geralt / Pixabay
geralt / Pixabay

“Kiss me, I’m Irish” “Italians Do it Better”  “Polish and Proud”

When I was a young child, silk screened T-Shirts were all the rage, and while I stuck to kittens and puppies, my friends’ favorites were decidedly ethnic in nature. Growing up in a diverse area in suburban Philadelphia, my neighborhood was dotted with flags of various countries and regions, Puerto Rico, Italy, Spain, and so on.  St. Patrick’s Day was cause for loud and raucous partying, green beer, and endless renditions of ‘Danny Boy’. In fact, everyone around me seemed to be aware of their heritage and very proud.

“What are we?” I asked my mother one day?  She looked momentarily confused by my question, so I went on “My friend Kevin is Irish, and Rosa is Puerto Rican.  My teacher is Finnish, and the Forentino’s next door are Italian.  What are we?” my voice strained with impatience.  “Well” my mom replied “You are mostly English, from my side of the family, as well as partially Scottish.  Your Dad’s side of the family is German, Pennsylvania Dutch, as well as Polish and Ukrainian.  I think also…..”  By this point I stopped listening.  I was, for lack of a better term, a mutt.  This was quite a disappointment to the 8 year old me, who wanted to identify with something. My school’s yearly Diversity Day was rapidly approaching; a hodge podge of ethnic foods, games, and clothing-an event that everyone looked forward to with nearly religious zeal. Everyone, that is, but me.

A week before the event, I was spending the night at my grandmother’s house. She and I were thick as thieves, spent hours together baking and talking, about anything and everything.  That night, I complained bitterly about Diversity Day and my own convoluted ethnicity. I didn’t want to go to school that day, I explained. When Grandma asked why, I responded with typical 8-year-old flair “Because it’s STUPID!” I exclaimed.  My grandma didn’t debate this fact.  In fact, she said nothing at all. She simply reached into a large hope chest and pulled out an enormous scrapbook of sorts. More than a photo album, it included birth certificates, marriage licenses, military documents, and deeds for homes.  It was an entire family history in one very large book.

Lovingly, my grandmother weaved a tale, explaining where I came from in a way I had never heard before. She introduced me to my grandfather’s Ukrainian culture, telling me the story of his family’s move to America, the bakery they opened, selling traditional pastries unlike anything ever seen or tasted by the Pennsylvania locals. The same cakes she baked for me each Sunday, which I loved.  She spoke of her German mother; her passion for reading and talent for writing-a talent and fondness that was passed on to me, evident since I first learned to read at age 2.  I heard about her uncle, who celebrated their Scottish heritage, wearing kilts and playing bagpipes, and like me, loved music.  I listened as she spoke of her sister’s German work ethic, her understated beauty that showcased the best of her heritage: Scottish, German, plus even an Irish ancestry I hadn’t known. We looked at her sister’s picture, her smile identical to mine.

We spoke for hours that nigh. I learned more about my family, and consequently myself, than I ever had before. I finally felt a sense of where I came from, how I became my 8-year-old self, and dreamed about who I would turn out to be in the future. That night, I fell asleep with a newly ignited passion for family history, and even some excitement about the upcoming Diversity day.

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