So far my posts in About My Caliche Challenge have been about learning to garden with caliche soil.
Today I want to take time out to talk about some of the “dirt in my blood.”
Some of my thoughts have been triggered by recent national discussions of racial identity and political tribes. When I was little, my family history was presented to me in simple terms that a young child could understand and safely repeat in any social situation. My Dad was an Italian American raised on a farm in Central California and my mother was an Irish American raised by artists and musicians in San Francisco. When I was old enough to become aware of political parties, I was told that my father was a Republican and that my Mother was a Democrat. As my understanding of politics developed, I learned that my father was a Conservative Republican and my mother was a Liberal Democrat. I grew up with lively discussions at the dinner table. These discussions included loud voices, hand waving, laughter and lots of love. With such daily interactions, the idea that people would reject one another, much less hate each other, over different political opinions was beyond my comprehension. That lesson came later in adult hood and is a different story that might never see the internet. Today my parents have been arguing and listening to each other for so long, I doubt that either could be identified in terms of conservative or liberal. A few years ago, the Republican Party sent my Dad a letter inviting him to leave the party. Dad declined, but kept his views. Mom still registers as Democrat. Today I call myself liberal, largely because liberals are less likely to reject me for having opinions of my own.
It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I started to question the completeness of my ethnic history. My Italian heritage was traced to my paternal great grandfather’s family in Piemonte Italy. My Irish heritage was traced to paternal great grand parents who came from Belfast Ireland. I knew that my paternal grandmother was born in Oklahoma and my maternal grandmother was born in Michigan. The ancestry of both wasn’t discussed much.
My identity growing up was Irish Italian Catholic. I went to Catholic elementary schools and mass every Sunday. We were required to take Irish dancing lessons and my sister became a champion Irish dancer 30 years before River Dance. Much of my Irish identity was learned through Irish music which historically served as newspapers and history books. I was told the my paternal grandmother was “black Irish” and “mostly Celt.” When I was in my late forties I learned that my paternal Irish grandfather was an Episcopalian. Horrors! The one group of people I learned prejudice against was my maternal grandpa!
Much like puppies and kittens from the same litter, we came out different colors. Three of us were blonds with blue eyes. One sister was “brown as an Indian.” That, I learned was because my father was Italian. My uncle has almond shaped eyes, “because Marco Polo brought Chinese over the Alps.” No one looked closely at the shape of my grandmother’s teeth.
In elementary school, I broke up a group of boys circled around my sister who were threatening her for being “Mexican”. I had no idea what “Mexican” was. I just knew that my sister wasn’t one. Physically speaking, I was fully grown by the age of 13. At the time of the incident, I only had an inch left to grow. My darker sister was the runt. My stature and indignation sent the little boys scattering. Had it turned into a scuffle, I suspect that the trained feet of a petite Irish dancer would have caused much more damage than a my size.
I found out the source of traits that my sister’s schoolmates tormented her over when I was in my late forties. I was looking at a wall of family photos with a paternal aunt. “So which of grandma’s ancestors came from Ireland?” My aunt just repeated that she was “mostly black Irish” without answering the question. So, I studied the pictures. I noticed that the men tended to be very large and light colored. One by one, I pointed at each. “Where did he come from?” “Where did his ancestors come from” The answers were various Scandinavian countries. None were from Ireland. Still looking for the source of “black Irish” and “mostly Celt” I started pointing at the women. They were of smaller stature and very tanned. “Where is she from?” The answer for each female ancestor was the same – “Oklahoma”. “Ok, but where are her ancestors from?” I asked. “Oklahoma,” my aunt answered. Then I studied the pictures more closely. “All right,” I responded. “Which tribe?” “SHHH,” my aunt whispered. “People might discriminate against her.”
My Dad told me a story that pulled it all together for me. He told me about when he and his family were having dinner in the farm house that my grandfather built as a wedding gift for my grandmother. My Dad and his siblings were talking about this ethic group in town and that ethic group in town. Apparently references to groups other than their own were misinformed. My Piemontesi great grandfather, who overcame considerable hardship to come here, had heard enough. He slammed his fist into the center of the table. When the plates, cups and saucers stopped clattering, the patriarch’s voice boomed. “We are all Americans.” Thanks Dad for telling me the story and putting it all together for me.