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Family, heritage, and identity

On May 31, 1966, my grandfather, for whom I am named, died at the age of 55. I was born three months before his death, so while I never got to know him, he at least got to meet me. He’d been diagnosed with leukemia a couple of years before his death, and by the time I came along this man who had been a firefighter and who had played semipro football and baseball was barely strong enough to hold a baby in his arms for more than a few minutes at a time. There’s one picture that I know of that shows him holding me – I think it’s from my baptism – which is in a framed collage of photos that my folks gave me on my 30th birthday.

Recent discussion on my RoundTable mailing list has gotten me thinking about my heritage and how I identify myself. As this coincides with the anniversary of the death of Charles Kuffner Senior, I’m feeling the need to write some of this down. Ethnically, I’m half Italian, three-eighths Irish, and one-eighth German, but in truth I have no idea what that really means. All of my grandparents were born in the US, and all of my great-grandparents (many of whom were also born here) were dead long before I arrived. I have no real contact with my ethnicity – I may as well be Swedish or Greek or South African.

There are a few parts of my background and personal history that are identifiable as “Irish” or “Italian”, mostly the latter and mostly having to do with food, not that there’s anything wrong with that. My mother and grandmother were and are excellent cooks, and I grew up on homemade tomato sauce, which any fan of The Sopranos knows is properly called “gravy”. Some of my grandmother’s recipes have thankfully been preserved, and Tiffany (also an excellent cook) has made a great effort to use them. We’ve partly revived a Christmas Eve tradition of a big fish and pasta dinner that my grandmother used to host, and last year Tiffany made a traditional Easter bread from one of the old recipes. I have to say, if you can only save one part of your heritage, keep the cuisine.

I think what I miss most, if you can miss something you never really experienced, is knowing the generations that preceded me. There are still a few people left from my grandparents’ time, and I knew some of those who have died, but even there I’m talking about people born and raised in the US and spoke English. I’ve heard tales of my mother’s Italian-speaking grandparents, my father’s shy and reticent German grandfather and his brash and somewhat obnoxious Irish grandfather, but these people are historical artifacts to me. I may as well be reading about them in a textbook. I get jealous of Tiffany sometimes, as all eight of her great-grandparents were alive when she was born.

So is it a good thing or a bad thing that I’m so thoroughly assimilated into America and its culture and so thoroughly divested of my “roots”? I think on balance I’m better off. Lord knows there are plenty of parts of most people’s histories that are better off left behind – ancient grudges, enemies, scores to even, and so on. And it’s not like I’m ashamed in any way of my Americannness. I guess I just feel like there’s a piece of my puzzle that’s gone forever and I’ll never really know how it would have affected the picture of who I am. I fear that some day when I try to tell my future children about who they are and where they come from I won’t be able to tell them the full story and that as a result I will somehow have failed them.

I am, as someone once said, what I am. I’m an American of various extractions, raised in New York and living in Texas, who prefers to look forward but never forgets to look back from time to time. I’m an intellectual liberal problem-solving sports-loving more extroverted than introverted homeowning sax-playing one-woman-man laid back kind of guy who finds therapy in writing about this sort of thing. I can live with that.

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One Comment

  1. pynshai says:

    beautifully written!!!