Monday, June 3, 2019

Growing up Acultural

It took a genealogy conference to wake me up to the fact that I must have grown up in a cultural vacuum. When everyone else in my childhood was had come of age in the era of Heinz-57 conversations—I had friends who claimed being Italian, or German, or Irish, or Norwegian, who were all plain ol' American in my eyes—I didn't really feel like our family had a claim to anything foreign. Yeah, my dad felt the obligatory tug on Saint Patrick's Day to give a cheer for the Irish. But it took me half a lifetime to credibly demonstrate that that was just a coverup. He wasn't really Irish; in reality, his roots were Polish—and that, still true up to half a generation before his own birth. How could he have missed that?

So this weekend, as I sat in on conference sessions at Jamboree featuring speakers focused on researching eastern European roots—that includes Poland, folks—I felt strangely like I couldn't relate. I felt like the man without a country; Poland seemed no more my heritage than Ireland had been.

How that could be, I'm not sure. I certainly could identify with my friends' roots. My Italian friends had all that delicious food. So did my Jewish friends. The Germans could sing their heart out and dance those Oktoberfest kinds of dances. The Irish had their own signature easygoing style. But my family had...well...nothing.

Of course, we did have a heritage. After all, my mother's Broyles line did come from Germany—in the early 1700s. Any heritage that may have crossed the Atlantic with my German forebears has long been lost to me. There is no stirring in my chest at the thought of German allegiance. I can't even get excited about a German genealogy conference—even one being held a quick forty five minute commute from my house.

The "foreign" culture that became part of my family's heritage came much more recently, but it was one of the best-kept secrets to their own descendants of a mere generation removed from the immigrants. Any cooking styles, or holiday traditions, or customs, or mannerisms, or norms never seemed to cross the Atlantic with my grandparents and their families. To my grandparents, the fact that they were Polish was a detail to be hidden from the public's prying eyes. In fact, they went beyond that tight-lipped policy to masquerade as children of another culture by changing their name to blend in, in a city of millions, as if they were Irish immigrants.

To this day, my grandparents' descendants still cannot figure out the reason for the secrecy, though we've collaborated on research and recollections to try to arrive at a conclusion. All the usual "tells" don't provide clues: looking for holiday traditions, or favorite foods and recipes, or repeated use of foreign-sounding given names. Photos of my grandparents as adults reveal thoroughly modern Americans. And that's the very impression they worked hard to present.

As I sat in the Jamboree conference sessions this past weekend, benefiting from all the tips on how to research my Polish roots, I felt such a strange disconnect. I feel like I'm looking for the persons my grandparents never were. Yet, at the same time, that was indeed their heritage; it's just that they chose to keep it hidden. But is a culture a culture if it is never practiced? How can I say my roots are Polish if I have no idea what that culture was really like? There is no way to arrive at that feeling of coming home when you've been robbed of your family's own culture.

Perhaps that is no different than the compulsion an adoptee feels to find her own people—that set of unknown relatives who hold the key to who the adoptee "really is." In one way, it can be the means to arrive at that feeling, "This is the way I've always been meant to be." But in another, sometimes disappointing way, that lack of instant recognition, that let-down feeling, wakes the searcher up to that reminder of disconnect. Culture is sometimes only what we make it out to be. And discovering what it is supposed to have been can be a disappointment.

The irresistible yet insidious lure of genealogy, though, will make sure I don't succumb to the temptation to walk away from it all before discovering that point. Of course I'm going to, like a moth to a flame, be drawn to the mystery. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum—even a cultural one. 

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