Monday, October 27, 2014

"Where Did We Come From?"

I recently went to the girls’ school and got to chat with their teachers a bit. My younger daughter’s teacher said that periodically my daughter will claim, “I’m Ukrainian; I can’t remember that!” Her teacher wanted to know why Ukrainians can’t remember things. I nearly fell over laughing and pointed out my daughter is only PART Ukrainian, so that’s a BS excuse (and Ukrainians aren’t known for memory isssues, so really it’s a double BS excuse). The truth is only her father is Ukrainian. I’m something else entirely. And even her Ukrainian father considers himself to be a mix of things. To keep things simple, we call ourselves American and Ukrainian, but if we move beyond where we were born, then things get more complicated. So how do we define what we are and why does it matter?

Both my husband and I have traced our families back many generations, and we are both very proud of our family histories. We love the mix we have. On both sides we have people who were adventurous, crossing borders, marrying into new traditions, learning new languages, and taking on challenges that make anything I’ve ever faced seem like nothing. Our mixed up family trees make answering the question, “what are you?” a little complicated and long winded sometimes, but it makes parenting so much richer. As long as people accept the answer of “American and Ukrainian” or “well, mostly Irish-Polish-American and Ukrainian” then we’re fine. At home, the girls get the full stories, though.

My father’s family has been in what is now the US since the early 1700s and originally came from Wales, however almost every generation has married an immigrant. What can I say? We like accents. The stories of my ancestors on my father’s side are wonderful for inspiring the girls when they find themselves uncomfortable in new situations. I remind them of my great-grandmother who came to America from Poland as a young teen, without her parents, riding on top of her trunk in steerage because she was too poor to afford a real ticket, and started a new life in a new county and had to learn a new language. And she did it. We have stories of my great-grandfather who traveled from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Lviv, Ukraine, to St. Petersburg, Russia, to Poland before moving to America and settling in Chicago. Or my grandmother who went back to Poland so she could receive the best music education studying piano in Warsaw just before World War II. The girls ancestors through my father were brave, going where they needed to go to have the best lives they could. Fear didn’t hold them back. That’s a pretty nice lesson for the girls. Plus, they picked up great food traditions along the way. I mean, is there any better food in the world than Polish food? Seriously. It’s the best.

My grandmother on my mother's side.
My mother’s family is proud Chicago-Irish. I have come to the conclusion there is nothing stronger than a Chicago-Irish woman. My grandmother, mother, and aunts are the iron women who could bend Wonder Woman in half. I have never doubted their awesomeness, and they set a very high bar of excellence and inner strength. My mom’s family began coming to America in the 1850s from Ireland and continued to come in waves until just before 1900 including one young man who stepped off the boat and right into the Union army during the Civil War. They were all poor and mostly illiterate according to census records until my grand-parents’ generation. The census records are depressing. They show that often as many as three quarters of each generation would die before reaching their teenage years. While the women were burying their babies, the men were literally building Chicago. Growing up, I used to love walking around the city with my mom who would proudly say, “my family built that bridge.” My mom’s family survived because they worked hard. They didn’t give up. When the girls want to quit because they think a task is too difficult, I remind them of their Chicago-Irish blood. If their ancestors had given up, people wouldn’t be able to cross the Chicago River. The McLennons didn’t give up, and the girls won’t either.

On Saturdays, the girls go to Ukrainian school to learn Ukrainian and celebrate their father’s side. Part of it. He reminds them his grandfather identified as Polish (again, EXCELLENT food traditions) and tells them the more complex stories of his family. Yes, he was born and raised in Ukraine, but his Ukrainian family history is just as rich as my American family history. He has heroes whose stories culminated with him being born in Kyiv which are the things of legends. They lived through countless wars and famines, slept in cemeteries, and spoke more than one language. When he tells them he is Ukrainian, that is just the first sentence in a long book.

Looking back at our families and where we have come from makes our lives so much richer. It gives us a plethora of stories to tell our girls at bedtime. We can draw from more than just our own experiences to teach them and inspire them. I am proud to be more than just one thing, and I am so happy I continued my family tradition of marrying a hot immigrant with an adorable accent. I hope our girls remember these stories and continue to tell them. And eat Polish food. Because it is good. And that can't be said enough.

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