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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Sneak Peek: What I’ve Been Working On

About this time last year, my uncle approached me. He had been working on a graphic novel based on his mother’s life, and he had writer’s block.

Would you help me write it? he asked.

I thought about it. It’s a difficult story, one that would be painful to research and write. I knew it would be upsetting, both for me to work on and for others to read.

But it’s also a good story, one with all the big themes: Love, marriage, family, regret. Freedom of choices and social expectations. Religion and morality. Kindness and cruelty.

I’m in, I said.

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We knew we wouldn’t be able to find answers to everything we wanted to cover. We’d need to fill in some gaps.

So we decided to fictionalize–keep the core of the story intact, while changing names, places, and details as needed.

We got started in earnest in January 2016, and took three months to research, interview other family members, plot out a timeline. In March, we had a title. In April, we created an outline. I wrote from April through August, and we revised collaboratively along the way.

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Here’s the potential jacket copy:

For most of his life, Rick’s mother shared nothing about her childhood. While she never spoke of her years before marriage and motherhood, her frequent depressive episodes, use of corporal punishment, and erratic behavior betrayed a foundation of abuse, neglect, and vulnerability. Like his many siblings, Rick attempted to connect with his mother any way she’d allow, and resigned that he’d never learn about her past.

But unexpectedly, in the summer of Rick’s 30th year, Pat asked him to serve as her executor, and traveled to spend a weekend at his home to complete the paperwork. During that visit, she poured out her memories, never heard before—or ever again afterward.  

Stony Road is a story of lineage: the mysteries of our parents, and the desire to understand the forces that shaped them (and, by extension, us). It’s a story of regret and acceptance, resignation and survival. And—despite appearances—it’s a love story, the maddening, persistent, confounding love that only comes with blood and family.  

In September, Rick started the artwork.

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More to come…

All images copyright Rick Stromoski

New, Yet Familiar

This photo shows a baby hand gripping an adult's index and middle fingers

*Dusting off some old stories…the following is a family essay from 2012.

My niece is just about four months old, the newest member of our family and the first of her generation. My sister, her mother, has been sending daily photos, and we’ve all tracked her growth via our smartphones. Day by day, slowly but surely, a personality has started to emerge – playful and goofy, determined and opinionated, sweet and curious. We assign her these traits from these still images, and the occasional brief video, quick glances of how she interacts with her parents, toys, and dog. We see her intense concentration as she studies a new toy, a look of delighted recognition as she snuggles with her father. Inevitably, the comparisons begin, text messages exchanged in response to a particularly evocative photo:

“She looks like you here!”

“This one is a dead ringer for Grandpa!”

“Doesn’t she resemble Mom in this one?”

It makes sense, in a way – she is a reflection of all who came before her, made up of the same genetic material that shaped all of us. Her furrowed brow in one snapshot brings my father to mind, her wide eyes in another are a direct translation of her own father’s. I find myself wondering, too, if there are countless expressions and details that may be mirror images of those we never met – in-laws I’m not acquainted with, but also lost generations. Does she look like my ancestors who fled Gdansk? Or perhaps those who came from Naples? These are details we can’t quite assign, but still may be expressed – and now will be attributed to her directly. I like the idea of a trait, long dormant or diluted, now suddenly rearing back to life through her.

We look for patterns and the familiar with all we encounter, even (maybe especially) with a new baby, the physical collection of all we were and the aspirational determinant of what we are to come. These initial details get her story started, and help us explain the origins of what we can see – so far.

At the same time that we play this game of genetic Memory, matching her details to those we recall from others before, I find myself eagerly anticipating when she begins to assert the traits that are wholly hers without question, the qualities that are uniquely her very own and of her choosing. Maybe she’ll be a gifted athlete, unlike her aunts and grandparents. Perhaps she’ll be artistically inclined, like her parents, but in a medium neither has tried. Or, and most likely, she’ll surprise us all with an interest that none of us anticipate – something wildly off our radar.

I expect this assertion will happen sooner rather than later. I’m reminded of my cousin, now in her twenties; she was such a memorable toddler that her young malapropisms and nicknames have been cemented in the family lexicon (e.g., “all bodies” for “everybody”, “can’t want it” for “no, thanks”). It was her unique worldview, and our delight in her presence, that shaped us, in a way, and how we communicated then and still.

I feel this mix of evocation and anticipation with each daily photograph, with each visit with my niece. It’s a privilege to get to know her, this unique little individual who will also show me and my extended family so much of, and about, ourselves. It is staggering to meet an infant and realize that we will be profoundly important to each other, for a lifetime to come.

Photo courtesy Frank Guido via Flickr Creative Commons

Language Proficiency

This photo shows a page with one term outlined in many different languages

“Bite your tongue,” my friend Beth says. We’re at a bridal shower for a mutual friend, and the topic of in-laws has come up. “Always remember that the way his family does things isn’t right or wrong, it’s just different from how your family does things.”

Different. I like the word, its ambiguity and neutrality. I’ll go one step further and suggest that these differences, so unavoidable in the coming together of families, can institute a type of culture shock. Consider the elements–the people look familiar, the traditions reminiscent of one’s own family rituals, the customs near-replicas of one’s own, yet slight tweaks abound, often in unexpected places. Assimilation is not an instant process, or an easy one.

The first time I had dinner with Andy’s family, years ago, I was stunned by the intimacy of the meal—just six of us around the table, with several pauses in conversation, during which I could hear silverware clink against china, the ice cubes rattle in glasses. Not used to such quiet, I attempted to fill the silences with mindless chatter, playing the fool as everyone else politely listened and enjoyed their meal.

Conversely, when Andy came to have his first dinner with my extended family, fifteen of my loud Irish-Italian-Polish relatives greeted us with a collective roar as we walked in the door. I can only imagine his own sense of culture shock throughout supper as multiple conversations zigged and zagged across the room, from one end of the table to the other, shouts and interruptions being the standard form of discourse. At first, Andy came off as shy, preferring to observe and listen; nowadays he can keep up with the best of us, thought I’d hesitate to claim it comes naturally.

When one enters a lifelong relationship, it seems too that one signs up to learn a new language and culture, one only associated with a small tribe, but essential knowledge nonetheless. Getting to know a new family starts the process of the ongoing education. As the relationship grows and deepens, so too does the understanding of the overall family environment.

Like any expatriate, though, I sense that the culture will never be fully my own. It’s one that will become increasingly comfortable to me, and one I can converse in with ease, yet I comprehend I will never be fully fluent. It’s a welcoming place, don’t get me wrong–but I’m too late in the arrival, a first-generation immigrant and naturalized citizen, rather than a native.

Additionally, I’ve noticed over the years that Andy and I have created a family culture of our own. We communicate in shorthand, based on our shared experiences, and have inside jokes that make sense to us alone. Our weeknight post-work rituals are well established, our cuisine and holiday traditions take their own unique shape. Others outside the relationship (including our extended family) may find adapting to our newer culture has a bit of a learning curve for them, too.

In regard to the in-laws and my husband’s culture, I hope that my assimilation improves each year. During a Christmas visit several years back, we spent the bulk of the holiday with my family, a raucous multi-day gathering of cooking, feasting, music, and gift-giving. We then headed to Andy’s parents’ home for a post-holiday get-together. I sat on the couch with a glass of wine the first evening we were there, basking in the quiet. Nearby, Andy’s mother stretched out in her easy chair, scanning the latest offerings on the DVR. It was a perfect contrast to the chaotic hubbub of my family’s home, and I found an appreciation that hadn’t existed in those first years of initial exposure and rapid learning.

It makes perfect sense, though, this growing contentment as the culture grows ever more familiar. After all, I had fallen in love with the ambassador of the host country, this host family. This place, these people, were an extension of him. They had shaped him into the person he had become, and despite any cultural misunderstandings that lay ahead, knew their influence would be equally positive on us.

Photo courtesy nofrills via Flickr Creative Commons

The Song Remains the Same

This photo shows dairy farms in Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania

Winding country lanes threaded through emerald corn stalks taller than my car; major thoroughfares connected country towns alternately prosperous and depressed. Half a mile might separate neat garden-front homes from exhausted-looking structures with sagging porches and flaking paint, depending on the township.

I was driving along a stretch of highway I hadn’t traveled in years. A family health emergency had led to an unplanned trip to my hometown, and I navigated long-unvisited, yet intimately familiar, roads – the routes where I had first learned to drive.

It was a weekend afternoon, a blistering hot day with not much activity. People were no doubt taking it easy: We passed another car every mile or so. The iPod shuffled through my albums over the car stereo, and suddenly Michael Stipe’s voice flooded the car.

Half a World Away, from REM’s Out of Time. It was one of my definitive high school albums, and a CD I had on as a constant companion in the car, back in the mid-nineties, during those early days where my learner’s permit gave me my first terrifying glimpse of freedom, and the license (scored after three agonizing attempts) authorized it.

Some pieces of music seem tailor-made for certain landscapes. That afternoon, the vintage song, coupled with the instantly familiar hometown surroundings, called up long-dormant memories. I could immediately see and smell my first car: its compact seats, the lingering perfume upholstery-imprinted from its first owner, the steering wheel rubbery under my fingertips.

Researchers have found that music and memory are intricately connected in the deepest recesses of the brain, and I could practically feel my own synapses firing as I continued down the road. The opening strains of the song felt as poignant as running into an old friend. At that moment, the car and its stereo became a de facto time machine, effortlessly transporting me to an earlier era. I was suddenly seventeen years old again, worrying that I wouldn’t get into college, or worse – that I would get in, and wouldn’t be able to afford it. My sisters were driving me crazy; my parents even more so. In my mind’s eye, I could almost see us—of that era—getting ready for dinner, just the five of us, as though none of us had moved away, introduced new spouses to the family, or aged at all.

REM continued to play; the music soothed and consoled, just as it did back then.

That day, it felt as though I traveled with a shadow self. She seemed to spread out inside me, across me, stretching her limbs as though rousing from a long sleep. This younger version of me peered out with curiosity, almost incredulity. You’re married, she seemed to say. You’re already finished with college, and paying off loans. You don’t live around here anymore. The familiar suddenly seemed strange, the aural and visual triggers creating a discomfiting shuffling of time and space.

This is true, I thought in reply to the seventeen-year-old. But I’m still me. I haven’t fundamentally changed. Then—

This is ridiculous, the modern, present-day me thought. I’ve heard this album plenty of times over the years, and didn’t have this time-transport, flashback experience. Granted, it hadn’t been in the car, in this particular place.

But the eyes in my rearview mirror could have been mine or hers. The view through my windshield could haven been 1996, 2005, 2012.

The song came to a close, and the spell broke. The nostalgia lingered for just a moment, perhaps a mile down the road, disrupted completely as a more up-tempo pop song from the past year filled the speakers. I switched off the stereo and drove the remaining stretch home in silence, trying to will my shadow self to stick around just a little longer.

Photo courtesy Gerry Dincher via Flickr Creative Commons