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