Sunday, July 29, 2012

Where Did You Come From, My Friend?

I have a friend who sometimes looks in the mirror and wonders… where did you really come from?

We are a nation of immigrants from every corner of the earth. Every race, color, religion, ethnicity, philosophy.
- We are human beings.
- We depend on one another.
- We speak one language… Humanglish.

As Americans, we want the same things:
- The American dream
- Freedom, liberty, justice for all

My friend belongs to a wonderful adult group in the center of America's largest urban cosmopolis, a group with superb programs on every possible topic – from art to literature, history, music, every domain of thought and culture from all corners of the globe.

Members come from many geographic areas, Russia, Israel, Hungary, Poland. The background of most of the 700 members stems from the laws, traditions and culture of the Old Testament.

My friend's heritage, as far as she knows, comes from both the Old and the New Testaments. Currently, she has the coloring and physical characteristics of Northern Europe.

Sometimes fellow members of this group ask her, "Where are you from?"

She replies, "Here."

Then they ask, "Where are your parents from?"

She repeats. "Here."


Longer silence, accompanied by a puzzled look.

Then, with a broad smile, "But where are your GRANDparents from?"

Now, slightly embarrassed, my friend says quickly, "They also came from here. Everyone in my family has been in America for a long, long time. I think they came originally from England or France. I'm not sure. It was so long ago. It's never been a question…"

The questioners shake their heads, perplexed and walk away, leaving my friend to ponder.

What should she have replied???

She could have said, on my father's side there was a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Hampshire. On my mother's side there were a few Methodist ministers…

But given the way history happened, there were probably some other pieces of the geneological puzzle. But she had no proof – there was nothing in writing. And all she could do was piece together bits of history that MAY have happened.

She recalled her history lessons from grade school…

Maybe this: A couple of hundred years ago my paternal relatives sailed in a flimsy boat across the Atlantic. Some of them died on the way. Some were killed when they landed, by wild animals or the harsh New England winters or the Native American tribes already here on the land.

Some might have married those same natives.

On my maternal side, they came across that same ocean, but landed further south, maybe Virginia or the Carolinas or Georgia's penal colony. Everyone knew the southern lands were colonized by escaped convicts from Europe.

Some might have co-habited with people with dark skins, some of them with African-born slaves.

So, if she could trace the lineage honestly, she'd have to answer her colleagues' questions by admitting she might come from slaves, convicts, slave-owners, from that side of the family!

When my friend was in college and worked at the Henry Street Settlement House Camp up in Westchester county one summer, the people there assumed she was also Jewish. She had dark hair then. And a tan.

My friend looked in her mirror recently and thought: What does it really matter where your or my relatives came from???

We are here.

This is our home… on the little struggling planet called Earth.

America the beautiful… my country 'tis of thee… God bless America…

Thelma Straw

P.S. My friend is that face that stares back at me in the mirror…

P.P.S. Please share with me your thoughts on this topic…


  1. T, as a second generation American who is married to an eleventh generation New Yorker, I can share one insight. Being the grandchild of Italian immigrants put me in the firing line as a child, to be called names and be distained as a wop, a dago, and a greaser. This, even from Irish schoolmates whose families had immigrated maybe one generation before. Once, when as a fourth grader, I asked a nun of Irish descent why the Virgin in the Christmas pageant was always played by a blond girl, when Mary was Jewish and probably dark haired, she replied, "Because God prefers the fair-haired people of the north.". When I married David, whose family came to New Amsterdam in 1620, his aunt declared, in my presence, "I don't know why David had to marry her. She's so newly arrived from the immigrant classes." I know you would never do or say such things, but this is the kind of treatment that newly-arrived people often expect.

  2. Wow, that nun should have had her mouth washed with soap! As a child, I moved every year to a new place and a new school. From Malden, Mass. to Burlington, N.C., so I was familiar with being an outsider myself. The custom of being asked my origins from very grown people is a new thing, especially as I have lived and worked in NYC for over 40 years, with every possible kind of ethnic group! I think the current turmoils abroad, plus the openness from TV talk shows and social networking, have caused some sea changes in behavior patterns. tjs

  3. The nuns dumped all over me, too, partly because I was the only Protestant in the parochial school first grade and partly because they were an ill-natured lot generally. (Germans, my nuns were.) Later on, in public school, people asked me where I came from; they seemed to be satisfied when I identified myself as Canadian. I thought it was a New Jersey thing. In Illinois, everybody was Swedish, so it was pointless to ask.

  4. P.S. to all readers of our blog: I swear on my honor as a former Girl Scout there was absolutely NO collusion between me and Sheryl Stolberg of the NYT or the American Society of Genealogists and their article July 30 on slavery and roots!!! tjs

  5. I know someone who is so interested in her past that she has begun a DNA test on herself. I'm a real 'mutt' but of the recent emigrant ilk. And things really never are what they seem where personal history is concerned. Take for instance my great grandfather who we always thought was the beginning of the drunken Irish line of the family, well, when one of my aunts did some investigating, this old guy turned out to be French. And there are shady stories of my mother's background about who her ancestors were. So I say, now if someone might ask me where I'm from.... I know that I will respond, "Well, Manhattan, of course!!!" I love this post. Thelma, you always bring up such interesting topics!!!

  6. Marge, thanks for your generous comment! I always look forward to your excellent photos on Pushing Time! tjs