July 27, 2012
Forgive me for my ramblings but when one reaches a certain age, one tends to discover hidden meanings in just about everything taken for granted previously. No, I'm not paranoid and I don't think that aliens have invaded my personal space. What happened today was the reading of a word....a word that I have read or written thousands of times before. One of the most familiar words in my vocabulary and in my knowledge of the English language. The word was...American!!
I began a book written about someone who lived in England, by an English author who has resided in the United States for many years. The word America came up in the Forward of the book so I didn't get very far before putting the book down to think about why seeing that particular and very familiar word caused me to pause and take stock. It made me take stock in who I am and who I have always been.
I am an American by birth. I was born in Ohio 70 years and 3 months ago. There has never been any question that I am a citizen or that I am a product of my illustrious country and all it has to offer.
Here's the problem; I never really thought of myself as American. I don't have any real heritage in my country and even though my parents were also born here, I was raised around my maternal grandparents who were very much immigrants from Eastern Europe. They spoke several languages and I understood most of what they said when they weren't speaking in broken English. I helped my grandfather study for his citizenship test and was proud of him when he passed it. He had been here for many, many years and it meant everything to him to become an official American citizen. He worked hard, purchased a house during the great depression, raised three children and spent his off time searching for lost relatives who had been left behind when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to come to The United States. He had no idea where many of his siblings were or if they had survived the cruelty of long dead Russian Royalty or the deadly winters of his homeland.
Of course, there was no Internet or television back then so he was dependant on foreign newspapers where he read and placed ads in his free time seeking his lost family members. I don't believe that he ever found anyone that he was looking for but a few nefarious characters popped out of the woodwork on occasion and attempted to swindle him and my grandmother out of their hard earned cash and property. Happily, my grandparents were highly intelligent and street smart so they managed to hold on to what was theirs.
My Grandparents were very ethnic and although they were not religious people, they managed to give off an air of being exactly who they were...Jews, who had been forced to escape their beloved home to cross the ocean and seek asylum in a totally different lifestyle. Although they managed to adjust and thrive they were always ethnic in their ways and in the way they saw life.
I was either living upstairs with my parents in their duplex home or spending summers and school vacations with them until I was 12 years old. My grandparents were everything to me...everything!!
I learned how to behave from them (my grandmother could yell at me in about 7 different languages when I misbehaved), and I learned to respect my country from them. I was the natural born American and they were the foreigners but they knew more about my country than I did. They felt a sense of patriotism that I have never felt and a sense of appreciation that I never understood since I took citizenship for granted.
When I read that word today...America......I realized that they were talking about me. This is my country and I belong here. It is the only country I have ever lived in and probably where I will die.
So, why did the word stand out and cause me to put my book down to think about the word? I suddenly realized that I have never considered myself an American. I have considered myself to be a person of ethnic heritage who is here only because my grandparents chose this place to re-settle and call home. I could not look back to early settlers or famous American leaders and I could not relate to those who go back for generation after generation when researching their American heritage. I had none of that in my life and and never will.
Americans were those who could trace their ancestors back to the early days of this country or to famous or infamous individuals. They could look up their history easily and bask in the glory that comes with being an American with a long history of being a part of this great land. I could not do that. I could look back only a few years to two people who spoke with foreign accents and made references to Czars, Cossacks who burned down their homes and lost relatives who were sent to Siberia and froze to death fighting for a leader who shunned and punished them because of who they were. My grandfather would watch early television shows depicting the Nazi's flying in small planes while dropping deadly bombs and at pictures of the survivors of the camps where they held our German and Polish counterparts prisoner and he would swear at the set. Funny, even though I didn't really speak the language he was swearing in I knew exactly what he was saying.
I did speak Yiddish which is defined as "Yiddish is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken in many parts of the world."
Understanding Yiddish (or most of it), allowed me to feel included in the world that my grandparents inhabited even though that world was in America. It made me feel ethnic. It also made me feel less American and less able to relate to the children I knew who were of Irish, English or Scottish heritage and had families who had been in this country for many, many generations. It made me a bit of an outcast among those children but I found comfort within the home and hearts of my grandparents who were for all intents and purposes not only my family but my heritage.
So, today I stared at that word...America and I thought about who I really am and how I came to be the person I am today. I realized that my grandparents contributed to who I am but that since they came to the place where I would eventually be born and raised, that I was really just as much of an American as any of those other children who had long histories in this place. Maybe I was more than that...maybe because my grandparents chose this place and worked so hard to be prosperous here and studied to be accepted as real Americans, that my heritage was truly all that America stands for. That what they began was the same as everyone else who had immigrated here, only not as lengthy or far reaching.
Today, I can no longer speak Yiddish except for a few phrases, my grandparents are long gone and I am the same age that they were when they died. They may not have been born on American soil but they lived and died on it and they were truly American in every sense of the word. And......so am I.
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