Monday, March 16, 2009

What Are You?

Growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City makes you a white girl from the suburbs, very few ethnic neighborhoods to be found in Johnson County. There was a rumor about someone in high school being Italian, of course with mob ties, but that was all just talk, certainly not possible. Jewish was about as exotic as it got, although you didn't actually know anyone was Jewish until their seat was empty on Rosh Hashanah, and even then it took a few hours to figure out why about a third of the class was missing. For years I dreamed of being asked to swim at the Jewish Community Center, so curious to see what actually went on behind those closed Jewish doors, and sadly, never invited.

Eight grade touched on ethnicity for about 10 minutes in the extremely controversial "Decisions for Living" class taught by science teacher Joe Long. "Where is your partner's family from?" questioned Joe Long. My table mate was Julie whose last name was quite long and very Italian. It took me about 10 guesses to get to Italy. Having never been asked this question before I went with England, assigning based on my very white bread surname. That evening I asked my dad the same question, "You my dear are what one would call a Heinz 57". I was even more confused.

In Chicago everyone has an ethnicity. Neighborhoods still tout their ethnic pride, if you grew up near Lincoln and Lawrence you are probably German, if you are from Bridgeport, Irish, and Taylor Street, Italian. Years ago a colleague asked where I was from. Kansas City offered no clue as to my ethnic heritage, she probed further "what are you?". My mutt response was unsatisfactory, everyone is something, how could you not be something?

Researching my family history has taught me that I am, in fact, something. I correctly guessed that my family name was British, that branch of my family coming to this country in the late 1600's from the west coast of England. My grandmothers were both Celts, one from Ireland and one from Scotland. The remaining piece is somewhat a puzzle, English and Irish being my best guess.

As an adult I notice that my mother, her sister and brother all have red hair like their mother. And they all like shortbread. My father's mother, Mary, and her sisters Margaret and Katherine, all short Catholics with a penchant for apples and potatoes. Mimi loved Bing Crosby and although she grew up in the "Irish Need Not Apply" years, so much of her, in her cooking, or singing, or faith, clearly stemmed from her deep Irish roots. With my Aunt Katherine I share a love of tea, with BonBon, shortbread, and from Mimi, apples, Bing and my Catholic faith, a choice I made as an adult, possibly giving me the roots I never knew I had.

The white bread surname is still mine, and I couldn't be prouder. Although my children will live their life identified as Irish, it is my responsibility to teach them the other names that came before, all making lasting impressions on who they are. Oddly their love of sushi follows no known family lineage.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, slainte!


Margaret said...

Here's a secret I've rarely told -- one summer night 2 friends and I climbed the fence at the Jewish Community Center pool, and slid down the slide, splashing into those coveted waters! A security guard hustled us out, and I discovered I'd submerged my watch and ruined it. Time stopped that naughty night.

northsidefour said...

I love it! Who knew that about you?


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