“Papa, what am I?”
His initial look of panic gave way, and his laughing blue eyes twinkled mischievously, “Everything but elephant and catfish.”
“No, I’m serious, Grandpa!”
“So am I!”
When I was a child I heard the whispers and the jokes and I noticed things that didn’t always make sense, but I never caught on. I truly was ignorant to the adult “jokes” and comments.
I remember sitting in the living room listening to my parents’ conversation in the dining room. My dad had been to the dentist or doctor and was telling my mom that they told him he had a condition typically “only seen in people of a certain nationality.” He snickered and said, “It must be the BLACKfoot in me!” He really emphasized the Black part of Blackfoot, and they both laughed hysterically until they nearly fell out of their chairs. I didn’t dare correct my dad, but we’d been studying Native American Indians at school, and the Blackfoot didn’t live in the deep South where my dad’s family was from. I didn’t get what was so funny.
My upbringing was peppered with wise anecdotes from “the old Indians,” and household decors often featured artifacts and paintings of Indians. Grandpa was just an Indian; that’s all I ever knew. Sure, a couple of his sisters had nappy hair and I’d never seen an Indian with hair like that, but I hadn’t seen a lot of Indians in my life either. Grandpa looked like the paintings of the beautiful Indian braves that you see advertised in the inserts in the Sunday paper.
My dad couldn’t wait to see my babies as soon as each one was born. Granted, my dad absolutely loved babies and animals. They fascinated him, and he was incredibly tender with them. But, it was always almost as if he was looking for something on my newborns.
When my fourth child was about four years old my dad was playing chase with him in the yard. They circled and ran figure eights, laughing and calling each other Lucy and Claire. Their girl names for each other was their running joke for years. Winded, my dad leaned against the car where I was standing. He grinned watching his grandson continue running in the grass, his curls bouncing as he hollered for his grandpa to chase him. My dad then turned to me and soberly said, “Ya know, every time you or your mom were pregnant I worried the whole time we’d have a throw back, and how would we ever explain that to people?”
I was in my mid 30’s before I knew about my African-American great-grandfather. I finally understood the comments and whispers and jokes and insults I’d heard my whole life.
My maternal grandfather’s mother helped me with my project for a genealogy class I took in junior high. She confirmed, as I had always heard, that her family was descended from poor Irish peasants and she had married a Dutchman. She was very detailed, and I submitted my lovely yellow folder with all of my great grandma’s “facts” to my teacher. I got an A.
In my 20’s I worked with a woman who constantly mocked me. I tried to tell her that I knew my background, and I was not Jewish. She insisted that, having been raised in New York, she had “lived around them” her “whole life,” and she firmly believed that someday I’d find out “there was a Jew in the woodpile somewhere.”
Eventually my mom’s cousin completed her lifelong search for our heritage. She kept running into dead-ends with the information we’d grown up with. However, thanks to the invention of the internet she was able to connect with distant cousins and records that had been impossible to reach before. Once she found those two small key details she was able to track and document both sides of my Grandpa’s family back to the 13th century.
There wasn’t “a Jew in the woodpile.” That’s all the woodpile was! D had been right; I have a Jewish heritage. My Grandpa’s father’s family were German Jews who fled to Holland, hence the “we’re from Holland” half-truth, to escape persecution. When they came to America they chose to lie about their heritage in order to start fresh and not face persecution here. Apparently D wasn’t the only one to recognize it in us though because another of my mom’s cousins remembers being called “dirty Jew names” in school as a child.
Grandpa’s mother’s side was even more interesting. She is descended from French royalty. Our ancestor was apparently a cousin to William the Conqueror. One of our forefathers signed the Magna Carta. Our knighted fathers fought in every single one of the crusades and at one point were supposedly the largest landholders in England. One of our first “fathers” to come to America lied about who he was, even changing his last name. He had earned the nickname “the blade of England,” so was discovered when someone drew him into a sword fight. The story goes that all who witnessed the dual immediately knew his true identity.
My identity growing up was that I was Irish, Dutch, Indian, Welsh, and German…….everything but elephant and catfish. My identity growing up was that I was dumb, ugly, skinny with big hips, a little bitch, good for nothing but sex. Almost all of it was lies.
My true identity is that I am American Indian, Jewish, African-American, French, Welsh, German, and Irish. I love those things. I love the richness of who I really am and where I really come from.
It’s been easy to accept the truth of my ethnicity because I’ve seen it in black and white, printed documentation of the past for future generations. It hasn’t been as easy to accept the truth of the rest of my identity and get over the other lies they told me about who I really am. But, I have got to connect those two dots. They lied. If I can embrace the facts about my bloodline that I have learned as an adult, then why am I struggling to embrace the other “truths” people tell me about myself now?
So, I’m not Dutch. Maybe I’m not dumb either. So, Grandpa wasn’t just Indian, maybe I’m not “just a little bitch.” I am descended from royalty and from people groups who have faced extreme persecution and torture and yet survived and thrived. The blood of martyrs and slaves and princesses pulses through my body. Theirs is the blood of strength and resilience and character. And, they gave it to me. I need to reject the lies, all of them, and instead choose to believe in the richness of my real identity.