Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Too Many "I's"

I’ve been emotionally revisiting my childhood in Brooklyn a lot these days.  Maybe it is the sign of aging.  Maybe it’s the nostalgia triggered by Facebook and finding old friends.  Maybe it’s the trip to Brooklyn over Christmas and the joy of seeing stoops that I stood on, steps to school that I walked on, and the visions of a young Joyce walking down the street.  Whatever it is, it’s wonderful.

There was a question often asked of each other on those Brooklyn streets:  What are you?  Now to the untrained and non-Brooklynite, you might wonder and say something like “I’m a human being.”  You’d probably ask, what do you mean by that?  In Brooklyn, you would answer, “I’m Norwegian or Irish or Polish or Puerto Rican or German or Lithuania.”  Neighborhoods while mixed, often had a dominant ethnic flavor or culture. 

Everyone had an identity.  Everyone belonged to one group or another.  I guess we all knew we were Americans but so many of us were immigrants or children of immigrants that knowing what you were was just part of breathing.  It wasn’t about discrimination or stereotype – although of course that did exist.  It was more of a way of learning about different people, different cultures, and life.

Our block was an interesting microcosm.  We had one Jew.  She was a Holocaust survivor.  We had one large Irish Catholic family and the oldest daughter’s name was Kathleen (of course).  I don’t remember the other children but I am sure there must have been a Michael.  My best friend was Italian.  I learned to eat pasta properly and enjoy the wonders of homemade “gravy” (sauce).  I learned the coolie (end) of the fresh Italian bread was the best part. 

I learned we were on the lower end of middle class in the neighborhood of my block.  The girl across the street whose father worked days at a bank was a higher socio-economic status than being the daughter of a janitor who worked nights.  We still played together and our mothers were friends. 

I learned about the crisis of NIMBY – not in my back yard when our first Puerto Rican family moved on the block.  I heard words like “they are creeping up from 2nd Avenue-soon there will be many of them.”  There may have even been a comment about their birth rate.  Interestingly because of a swing set, a small pool, and amazing jelly and cream cheese sandwiches I became the good will ambassador and played with their children.  I quickly discovered they had a lot more than we did and were very nice.  Anything that was different was a plus – especially those sandwiches.

I’m Norwegian.  I love my heritage and my culture.  I’m reconnecting to it through Facebook, Sons of Norway, and baking.  Tonight I’ll fix Norwegian meatballs for supper.  It is becoming a staple and go-to meal along with the chicken curry and other Pakistani dishes. 

I am the daughter of an immigrant and the wife of an immigrant.  I am first generation and five of my children are first generation.  We are close to the immigrant experience.  It forms my political views.

As I think of the question,” what are you?” it is not as simple as it was in Brooklyn.  I can no longer just smile and say I’m Norwegian.  I’m still Norwegian but the answer now has so many other complexities.  I am a wife.  I am a mother.  I am a grandmother.  I am a doctoral student.  I am … I am … I am …  So many “I’s.”

Labels are so tricky.  They lump everyone into a mold that may not fit for them.  I heard a saying the other day – if the box people want to put you in is too small, they need to make a bigger box.  Another label defines me these days – I’m known as old.  I’m known as a baby boomer.  I am known as someone nearing being put out to pasture.

Yes, those new labels are true if I look at the calendar.  But like the little girl who went after the jelly and cream cheese sandwiches made by the Puerto Rican girl with the swing set in her backyard, I need to make the box bigger.  I don’t fit in the box of old.  I’ve never fit in most of the boxes people have formed to put me in.  I’m not done.  I refuse to quit.  I’ll break any box you put me in and in the process I’ll break the box for others – for I AM A FOLLOWER OF JESUS CHRIST and He broke every mold, stereotype, or box that could ever be formed.
 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20


  1. Joyce...
    I am not sure what the particular subject that you have in mind for your book, But as you write the above type of narrative,( as you have done before), something in me resonates with what you write about. I remember hearing this about Jesus and I think it could be said about us too..."He knew where He came from...He knew who He was and He knew where He was going"
    I find your writing about Brooklyn and all things nostalgic so interesting.
    I think people who read it would, in turn, think about their growing up years. I know that it has led me to explore my unique childhood, appreciating the richness of so much of it.
    I could picture a book, written by you of such memories. But not only memories but your take and observations and exploration of them.
    You had mentioned a memoir ( at least I think you did) I see your growing up memories as a separate book. IMHO. All I know is "keep writing!" Lin

  2. Hi Joyce...
    Your blog made me think of my own cousin Wladzju( Walter in Polish).
    He had a label back when he was alive and that was "retarded".
    He was born to my Uncle and Aunt in Poland. He was born with Down Syndrome. Sadly, my Uncle Walter, his father, thought that his son had this malady because he married my Aunt Stella and she was a divorcee'
    With that said though, his love for his son grew and he was no longer a burden/punishment to Uncle Walter and Aunt Stella.
    He was loved beyond measure by them and by our whole family.
    If you didn't get to know and love my cousin, as you mention, you would have missed so much.
    He had an innocence about him...he was demonstrative in his love and accepted everyone on face value. He had the greatest sense of humor and was always joking and making us laugh. He had a keen sense of discerning people's moods and would respond to them...good and bad. He was happy when others were feeling well and he was sad, and even sometimes scared when he encountered negative emotions. He showed love and appreciation freely.He died in 1966, as a young adult, but way beyond what the Dr's had first predicted. I always felt it was the love and care he received from his parents that allowed him to live longer.
    So, if you saw Wladzju walking down the street, you could see him as different and maybe think "less than" but you would have missed so much more, that comprised the essence of who he was. He was a treasure in our family and a gift from the Lord. I still miss him.

  3. I wish I could have met your Uncle Walter. We had a young woman who worked at the Senior and Disabled Center in Newington. Her name was Robin. I understand, like your Uncle, she died fairly young. She had a way about her too - while most would classify her as fairly low functioning - in perception, she was very high functioning. She always seemed to know when I was struggling. She "cleaned" at the Center during the day time - she "dusted" usually not getting the dust - but she could clean away the emotional dust with her quirky and silly laugh - she would say "Joyce, you're pretty." That was her way of saying, Joyce, I want to make you feel better since I know your having a bad day -
    When we wanted to have a laugh we'd ask her, when did mommy and daddy get married (speaking of her own parents) - her reply was always the same - when daddy had hair and mommy was skinny...
    She was jewel, a unique and precious one of a kind person. She wasn't a label - she wasn't known by her "disabilities" but by her smile and infectious ways.
    She won a few gold medals in Special Olympics - her mother had one framed and gave it to me as a token and recognition of my work with her and her friends in Special Olympics - it hung in a place of honor in my office and is still one of the most precious honors I've ever received -- I might turn this story into a blog so more can read of Robin.


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