This is a topic I’ve been wracking my brain about since my WordPress peep, The Finicky Cynic, put it out last week in a writing prompt. She asks about her readers’ families’ background (i.e. native born or emigrants) and whether their families’ pasts shaped us in any way today. The reason I’ve been wracking my brain about this is I’ve personally never learned much about my family’s background, either on my mother’s, birth father’s, or stepfather’s sides, and I’ve never been one to think about the subject very much.
Here’s what I do know, though: My mother comes from a family that is of German heritage. How far back the immigration line goes and what specific routes it took, I’m not sure, suffice it to say they’ve been in the United States for many several generations. What I do know, too, is that both my grandfather and grandmother were born in the United States in the early 1920s. As a matter of fact, they lived their entire lives in rural western Wisconsin, raising crops, dairy cows, and 15 children (my mother included) on a farm in that part of the state until they retired from farming when they were in their late 50s. (They didn’t stray too far from that farm either, retiring to a house literally a stone’s throw away.)
Here’s what I also know: Grandma and Grandpa would teach their children… well, what parents who live on a farm teaches their children, I guess: Hard work, whatever that work may entail; tough discipline when necessary; complimentary praise when called for; respect for your elders, especially the patriarch; adherence to strict gender roles; reverence for The Man Up Above, as the country music song goes… or at least reverence for the words taught by the guy in the white vestments at the church on Sunday. My mom, and my aunts and uncles, would go on to pass most of those lessons, or at least their interpretations of those lessons, to their own children, who are now passing most of them to their own kids.
But let’s circle back to F.C.’s question, or at least how I interpreted it: How has my family’s lineage shaped what I am today? To be honest, I’m not sure if Grandma’s and Grandpa’s German heritage has any bearing on how I turned out. Sure, I’ve heeded the lessons of hard work my mom and stepfather instilled in me, at least as far as earning a living goes. (Note to self: My living room needs a serious dusting.) And, sure, some of the lessons Grandma and Grandpa learned likely came from earlier generations who came over from Europe. But I don’t think it’s about where my older generations came from so much as it is about their direct surroundings. Regardless of their own ethnicity and lineage, how your friends, neighbors, and townsfolk live their lives and how they outwardly display their lives and beliefs — even if they may be complete strangers — has an impact with how you conduct your own lives and raise your own family. So it was, I really believe, with my maternal grandparents, who, as noted above, lived in a rural area, which tends to be culturally and morally conservative (i.e. only the women wear the skirts).
All that’s not to throw cold water on F.C.’s original question, of course. Sure, the older generations may have carried their beliefs along with their personal belongings when they came to America (in my ancestors’ case, of course). But just as a story can become a tall tale as it’s passed from one person to another, beliefs within family members tend to adjust between family members and generations. In other words, I am not my grandfather’s grandson. I don’t go to church every Sunday; my musical tastes go well beyond country and polka; I don’t adhere to strict gender roles (I’m a crossdresser, so that goes without saying); I do disagree with my mother and stepfather on quite a few things; and though I helped with my mom’s garden in my youth, I’ve never driven a tractor. (Second note to self: The dust on that bookshelf is thick.)
But then… I can’t help but think about a very, very old portrait my grandparents had on their living room wall. Large (about 3 feet across), oval frame, faded amber and black. It’s a vintage photograph, and it features a man and a woman sitting next to each other in a profile sitting (roughly from the armpits upward). They appear to be in their early 80s as evidenced by their gray hair, gray beard, and withered skin. They were… well, I was never sure who they were. And if I did ever ask when I was a kid, it’s for sure the answer went through one of my ears and out the other. My best guess was that they were my grandfather’s grandparents, if not great grandparents. Whatever they may have been, I was always captivated by their stern stare toward the camera and the viewer. You could just feel the weight of their weathered stares, watching with stern supervision at the subsequent generations of their family.
This talk about that photo is making me think I should at least consider actively learning more about my family’s history. It’s not that I don’t have any mementos handed down from my prior generations. For one, the couch in my living room used to belong to my grandmother, while I have photos of her old house and farm on my walls, and I have a couple of photos from both my maternal and step-paternal grandparents in a shoebox in the closet.
I must wonder, too, if my siblings retained anything on Ancestry.com. I recall one Easter Sunday dinner with family at my sister’s house, when late in the afternoon, Sis pulled Mom over to the computer and shared with her some information she culled from Ancestry.com about our stepfather’s lineage… as well as that of our birth father. Sis invited me, too, but I only took a passive interest. Perhaps I should ask them to share with me what they found, or at least start my own account with that site. Because if I ever have my own children, I wonder what they will ask about what our family was like beyond their parents’ generation.
As for that vintage photo I talked about two paragraphs back… with both of my grandparents long since deceased, that photo now hangs in the den of one of my uncle’s house. Perhaps the next time my far-reaching family sees him, perhaps I’ll finally ask for a confirmation of just who that man and woman were, though I’m definitely sure they were part of our family. (Maybe they were my grandmother’s grandparents?)