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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My Favorite

Like parents and children, writers aren’t supposed to have favorite works, right? Each piece holds its own special place, the result of a unique hybrid of ideas, experience, workshops, feedback, revisions, more revisions, pitches, and (hopefully) acceptance and publication. Each work is a snapshot of the writer at a particular moment in time, and reflects the writer’s state of mind up to and at that point. Writing is too subjective a process to rank what’s produced. How can one piece stand apart from the rest?

Yet having said that… my short story, Acquaintance, is my all-time favorite piece I’ve written. Originally part of a larger novel, it was able to be coaxed out and morphed into a smaller work. Sometimes you work on something big, only to find that distillation is what’s needed. In that case, while the effort and result may not be matched in volume or size, the alignment between labor and product lies (hopefully) in resonance and meaning.

Thanks, ink&coda journal, for publishing my favorite.

Read the full story here.

Photo courtesy Jonas Boni via Flickr Creative Commons

Him + Me = Wii

This photo shows the Wii Fit box and balance board

“Do you think that you’re paying enough attention to Andrew?”

The question about my husband came from the unlikeliest of sources. I had turned on my television and Wii Fit game console for a few minutes of balance games, coordination exercises, and yoga stretches. Like many days, I was prompted to take a “body test” to measure BMI, coordination, and the like. Today, however, the Wii Fit avatar took a different approach.

“I haven’t seen Andrew lately,” the Wii Fit said. “How has his posture been?” I was given four options for my answer: Better than before, Worse than before, No Change, or I don’t know. I thought for a moment, considering Andy’s posture and carriage through the years. No change, I selected. I pressed the key to go to the following screen.

No change, the Wii registered, then the accusation. “Do you think that you’re paying enough attention to Andrew?”

“What?!?” I squawked at the game. “You’re supposed to be a virtual personal trainer, not a couples’ therapist.”

Indignant, I took a photo of the screen with my cell phone and sent it to Andy (I believe I typed ‘WTF’ as the caption). I then went through the rest of my workout in a huff.

I’ve saved the picture on my phone and have delighted in showing it to friends and family. Most react with equal parts laughter and disbelief.

“Who do you think wrote such a program?” my friend Kerrie ponders one afternoon over coffee, after looking at the photo. “Why would a question like that even come up in a fitness video game? Maybe the programmer has relationship issues.”

That may very well be true. But a funny thing happened, almost subconsciously, since I got the pixellated reprimand from my video game. I’ve started paying a little more attention, at least to our health and fitness habits as a couple.

“Let’s make steak this weekend,” Andy suggests, and when I don’t enthusiastically reply right away, he asks what’s up. I note that we’ve already had red meat twice this week. Do we want to have it again, or is that a little indulgent? Will the Wii Fit take notice of our weight gain, and yell at me again?

Or there’s the reminder card from our dentist; we’re a few months overdue for a cleaning. Instead of ignoring it again, I tack it up on the fridge. “We should definitely make an appointment this month,” I say. “When are you free?”

And it’s funny—with this introspection, I’ve found that that I often feel closest to Andy when we’re attempting some fitness-related endeavor together. Thursday evenings have become gym-date nights, when we meet at the gym after work for our respective workouts and then go home and cook dinner together. (Or, for full disclosure, get takeout.) In our twelve years together, we’ve discovered a mutual love of hiking, a pursuit neither of us tried in our single days, and have tackled trails throughout New England, Nova Scotia, Colorado, the West Coast, and even Iceland and Australia. There’s something immensely satisfying about challenging your physical limits and seeing your partner do the same, and the shared experience of toughing something out, as a united front, naturally results in greater intimacy.

I read recently that the weight-loss show The Biggest Loser actually has the best success rate of lasting relationships resulting from a reality TV program (much more so than any of the actual dating/romance reality shows), and it makes a lot of sense—the contestants are each committed to personal improvement, healthy lifestyles, and fitness goals, and can encourage each other along the way. Sounds like an ideal recipe for good partnerships to me.

As for the Wii Fit and its pesky questions, I don’t know if I’ll ever be so detail-oriented as to notice posture—and its improvement or deterioration—over time. But strangely enough, a mechanical reminder to be cognizant of one’s partner’s overall health isn’t necessarily misguided or inappropriate, even if the source itself does take some getting used to.

Thankfully, whoever designed the Wii Fit program perhaps intuitively knew not to overdo it. I recently logged on for an exercise session and went through the start-up prompts.

“Good evening!” the Wii Fit said. “I haven’t seen Andrew around lately…”

I hesitated, wondering what irreverent comment was coming next. I took a deep, relaxing breath, then proceeded to the next screen.

“Let’s work on improving your balance!” the machine said.

“Yes, let’s,” I said to the screen, and proceeded to do just that.

This story originally appeared on DivineCaroline.com.

Photo courtesy M dela Merced via Flickr Creative Commons.