Saturday, October 19, 2019
In Search of a Cultural Identity
This past week, I read a blog post which embodies the exact opposite childhood experience to the one which propelled my frantic search for cultural roots. Ironically, the post centered on the very same ethnic background I now know I can claim: those Polish roots provided me by my paternal grandfather.
While I grew up knowing absolutely nothing of this past heritage, the writer of that post experienced a childhood infused with many tokens of her Polish ancestry. She, however—as did I—grew up with a surname (in her case, Roberts) which, having been changed from its original form, gave no hint of her true ethnic background. "The Polish-American traditions were so close to my heart that it felt problematic to have a surname which conveyed no hint of this heritage," Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz wrote in From Shepherds and Shoemakers.
In Julie's case, hers was a childhood filled with food, songs, and memories of cherished Polish traditions. In my childhood home, there was plenty of food and song, of course, but no one thought to tell us they were Polish traditions. In fact, our home seemed singularly stripped of any ethnic fingerprints whatsoever. We were like cultural air ferns.
Of course, that was not the initiating point of Julie's blog post; her intention was to follow the lead of another genealogy blogger, Jim Scobbie, and write about "Eight Surnames of my Own." Thankfully, despite my own time warped standoff with my reticent Polish grandparents, I can now state six of those eight greats' surnames. But the last two cost me dearly in research time and skeptical brain cells. I can't yet feel confident enough to add them to the eight-great lineup.
It is, in fact, that sense of cultural heritage which drives the curiosity to know—to finally find out: am I really Polish, too, or do I just believe the stories parroted to me as a child? I am not sure parents are aware of the unintended lure of evasive answers to inquisitive children's questions.