Community Gathering

This photo shows a New York City billboard of Ellis Island children covering the side of a building

I’m actually not sure which generations of my family were immigrants—my great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, I’d presume. There are mysteries on both sides: My maternal grandmother’s family has many gaps from her illegitimacy; my paternal grandfather’s gaps stem from his estrangement with my father.

The bottom line is most of us, as Americans, are immigrants.

What I know of my lineage: My mother’s father’s family emigrated from Danzig, now Gdansk, a then-disputed territory on the border of Germany and Poland. Because of this inconclusive geography, I don’t know if my ancestors considered themselves German or Polish, and throughout my upbringing, both heritages were mentioned. These Eastern European relatives settled outside Pittsburgh, with many descendants still there.

My father’s mother’s predecessors came from County Clare in Ireland. Growing up, I never heard her mention her Irish heritage, although some email exchanges before my first trip there revealed said county. When I asked for a specific town within County Clare, she said she didn’t know.

My mother’s mother—New York City, full stop. Her father may have been Welsh. Her mother—no one knows. Thomas and Andersen were the last names. UK? Ireland? It wasn’t discussed.

My father’s father—Italy. Where in Italy? Excellent question. Throughout the years, I heard Naples, Rome, Sicily. While studying abroad in Rome, I found a street near my apartment in Trastevere—Viale Cesare Pascarella. Good enough for me, in the absence of other concrete signposts. Rome it would be. My grandfather passed away a few years back, and I never had the opportunity to ask and find out for myself. Such is the dynamic of respecting the parental relationship and the boundaries that have been long drawn.

These origins, and many customs, have long been lost. However, two things were kept, with varying degrees of success: food and religion.

Nana’s food: My father’s mother liked to cook. She was an Irish cook, first and foremost, with a specialty for roast pork, potatoes, sheet cakes. She did adapt to her first husband’s cuisine, however, and made a decent red sauce. (Sauce was the term, never gravy.) When I think back to meals around her New Jersey table, though, adaptations of what was readily available were frequent features: small white potatoes, brimming with salt, out of a can. Red Jell-o, both cherry and strawberry, sometimes with banana or pineapple, sometimes not. (Young me preferred not.) Pickled beets and onions. So maybe not so Irish after all…

Grandpa’s food: My mother’s father gravitated toward hearty Polish dishes. Potato soup. Pork and sauerkraut. Bread and roast meats. I was at his bedside, giving him a rundown of all the food I had eaten on a trip to Poland, when he passed away. The last words he may have heard were my descriptions of pierogies, kielbasa, and piwo w sokiem.

Religion: All sides were Catholic, although at the end of their lives, most grandparents were lapsed. To my knowledge, none of their children or grandchildren are practicing. In fact, of all the grandkids, only one was confirmed. (Me.)

I don’t know why my ancestors emigrated from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland.

I don’t know if they were good, decent people.

I don’t know if they were demonized.

I don’t know if they worked hard.

I don’t know who they were.

I can only look back two or three generations, and the gaps are still vast.

And with that blank slate, I look at my new fellow Americans, coming in from all over, for a myriad of reasons, and I know—you too could be my family.

You belong here, too.

Ellis Island children billboard photo courtesy June Marie via Flickr Creative Commons

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Decline

“Would you be interested in taking your grandmother’s dining room table?” my father asks.

I pause, and switch the phone to my other ear. Many others must have already declined, as I am by no means the first in line for an acquisition such as this, and I quickly count at least six older relatives who could have claimed it before me. I realize, mid-count, that my father is still talking.

“It wouldn’t be just the table; it also comes with a lovely hutch. I think whoever takes it will have to take the both of them, as a set.”

I try to picture the table. It is rectangular, I can recall that much. Long—dominating my grandmother’s (admittedly small) dining room. Most likely designed to seat six to eight comfortably, although when we were there it often had ten to twelve people crammed elbow to elbow around its perimeter. So many side to side that if your seat was against the wall, opposite the door, you knew you were in for the night. My sisters and I, at younger ages, would take bathroom breaks or steal time outside by escaping under the table, crawling below, past denim and sneakers, pantyhose and heels, to make a run for it.

The visuals fail me. Instead, the sounds at the table come forward, large and loud. Not to verify a stereotype, but with ten-plus Irish-Italian New Yorkers and Jersey residents packed in a small space, the conversation quickly went up in volume, and down in decorum. One year, after my aunt recalled a childhood story that depicted Nana in a less-than-flattering light, Nana called her an asshole in front of the crowd – all in good fun, of course. Insulting (and politically incorrect) nicknames from my father’s childhood inevitably would be used (often as a term of endearment) before the meal was through. And during the multiple simultaneous conversations, there was always the additional cacophony of silverware clinking on plates, new dishes to pass—family style—from the kitchen, more drinks to pour.

Memories of sound give way to recollections of taste. What stands out about Nana’s table, despite the years, was what was always served on it. There were rules to the menu at Nana’s, unchanging, regardless when we visited. Whether we made the trek to suburban New Jersey from Pennsylvania on the day after Christmas, or a random July afternoon during our summer vacation, we knew there would be some variation of the standards:

Roast pork with sauerkraut and “new” white potatoes (extra salty from a can), coated with so many drippings from the meat that their undersides turned dark.

Spaghetti with meat sauce—the meatballs and sausage variety, not the ground beef/Bolognese style. Green salad was served after the main course, as a palate cleanser, and always with crusty Italian bread to dip.

A side dish of pickled beets with pickled onions – regardless of entrée. For many years, I would try to get to the dish before my sisters, so I could devour all of the beets myself, only realizing in my later childhood years that Nana and I were the only ones who would partake.

Red jello, strawberry or cherry, served in parfait cups or with individual servings scooped out of a casserole dish.

Chocolate sheet cake with white icing. Each square slice was then to be cut in half and inverted so the icing would be on the inside, like a filling. This would then be eaten with one’s hands.

And, for most of my childhood, a thick fog of cigarette smoke hung over the table, curlicueing up from several ashtrays placed strategically around the spread, seeping into our clothes and hair, so that our pillow cases, the morning after our visit, would smell of smoke. Gradually, over the years, the number of smokers dwindled, until my step-grandfather was the only one – and even then, he would often go outside to light up.

It had been years, though, since I last had a meal at my grandmother’s house. In fact, the final time I had sat at the table, there hadn’t been anything from the standard menu at all.

It had been about a decade ago, on a trip to New Jersey with Andy, my then-boyfriend, now husband, for the sole purpose of introducing him to my paternal side of the family. It was a rare visit without my parents or my sisters. And I had called my nana a few weeks in advance, told her we would be in the area, and asked if we could have a meal with her.

“No,” was the unexpected answer. “I’m just not up for it.”

We hadn’t known it at the time, but the initial signs of Alzheimer’s were starting to show. She knew it. Her husband knew it. But she didn’t want us to know it. And if she were expected to cook a big meal, everyone else would discover what was, at that time, her own private realization.

So instead we went to her home for a low-key visit, buffered by my cousin and his wife, presenting a dozen doughnuts and a carafe of coffee we picked up on the way over. The six of us sat at the dining room table. It seemed excessively roomy, with plenty of elbow room and more than enough space to stretch out. No one smoked. The room I associated with noise and crowding was oddly quiet and spacious, and I found this otherwise-normal setting bewildering.

Or, truthfully, perhaps I worried because of her initial rejection, wondering whether I had offended her and her husband, if somehow, by coming with a partner and not my parents, if I had upset the natural order of things.

We snacked off paper plates, no silverware needed. Bob, Nana’s husband, showed Andy his latest woodworking creations, several of which were displayed on the neighboring hutch. Nana told Andy a few stories about me as a toddler – stories I had never heard before. And after about an hour, we left.

The phone line is quiet as my father waits for my response.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Let me think about it.”

Read the full essay at The Grief Diaries.