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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