I was at my aunt’s 85th birthday party this Saturday, and was talking to my cousin Dan, the genealogist. He informed me that even though our grandfather’s people were Muellers from Germany, he’s traced things back enough to find that our branch of the Muellers were from the Austrian-Italian border and appear to be much more Italian than German.

And there is simply no room in my head for that. It does not resonate, not even a little bit.

Mind you, my sister and I always wanted to be Italian, mostly because we admired the flair, the shouts of “Vaffancul’!”, the quick tempers displayed by the Italian girls in all-out screaming fights with their families. Getting invited to dinner at an Italian girl’s house was an education in alternative means of familial dispute resolution. Screaming? You don’t “resolve” things in Irish families; you let them fester. We had an Irish mother, we got the silent treatment, the freeze-out. It was unthinkable that we’d scream at our parents.

We also sort of admired the way Italian females kept their boyfriends and husbands completely cowed, although as we got older, we did eventually figure out the downside to that approach (the probably-related tendency for their men to cheat, usually with non-Italian women).

I would have been less surprised if Dan told me I was Jewish, since people so often assume I am. When they find out I’m not, they get all flustered and I like to make it worse: “Why do you think that? Because I’m assertive and opinionated?” Heh.

In fact, I rarely even tell people I’m Irish on my mother’s side. (Her mother was a Dougherty.) To be honest, I’m not all that fond of the Irish – except in books. In the world of James Joyce, Maeve Binchy, Edna O’Brien, I love the Irish. But I’m more personally familar with the Irish of Frank McCourt.

Not all of the Irish I grew up with were brutal, hard-drinking, bigoted and just plain mean — but enough to make an impression. They were mean to their wives, yes, but especially to their sons. The Irish fathers I observed seemed to make it their life mission to utterly dominate and destroy the male offspring.

So I never understood this image the Irish have of being kindly people; they’re only like that to strangers. I mean, have you ever been to an Irish wake? It’s like walking into a DMZ. One relative’s on one side of the room, someone who hasn’t talked to a relative on the other side of the room in 20, 30 years, and is carefully keeping track of anyone who’s seen talking to the enemy, so he or she can add them to the list, too. And vice-versa!

I’ve never known any group who could hold a grudge quite like the Irish. You know that scene in “The Godfather”, where Michael Corleone kisses his brother Fredo and says, “”I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart”? Wouldn’t have happened with the Irish. Michael would have waited until Fredo had pneumonia, and he’d put a pillow over his face when Fredo was sleeping. He wouldn’t need Fredo to know. The Irish I knew would never admit someone hurt them.

That’s why I only talk about the Polish side of the family. Don’t get me wrong, the Poles have their own cultural drawbacks (a too-literal belief in the infallibility of the Catholic church, for one), but what I do like about them is they’re pretty straightforward. Not a lot of back-channel back-biting, as far as I can tell. (Since I don’t speak Polish, I can’t be sure.) Some of them drink heavily, but they’re more melancholy than mean when they’re drunk, the way Russians are. (Come to think of it, my father’s family is actually from the Russian border area. Hmm.)

So I dunno. Me, Italian? I don’t look Italian — although we’re talking Northern Italian, the blonds. I can be pretty Machiavellian, so maybe that’s in the DNA. But it’s a lot of work to be Italian – I mean, all that cooking, right? So I think I’ll stick to my own particular mix of European mutt.

5 thoughts on “Identity

  1. Interesting post, Susie.
    My mother’s parents came from Sicily and my father’s parents came from Austria (actually from the border area with what was Czechoslovakia). But my paternal grandmother was always talking about how HER family was really French, having fled to Austria from France during the revolution. Both sets of grandparents broke with fellow countrymen and stayed away from ethnic-based societies here in the US. I grew up not knowing much about either country where the grandparents came from.

  2. Yeah, I was never big on the ethnic stuff. I have relatives who are really into it, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m a human first. But big cities are probably a lot more tribal than less populated areas.

  3. In my youth I was non-tribal (Slovak-American), or maybe even anti-tribal, largely because tribalism was imposed on me so much.
    But now, in my old age, I find that stuff much more interesting.

    However, I think that what one is genetically is less important and formative than what one is culturally. Of course, the two can overlap heavily.

  4. I don’t really believe in races and nations. I think it is more that people resemble their families, and children learn what they see their parents doing and grow up treating others as they were treated.

    It is rare that people become conscious enough of what they are doing to be able to change these early habits and modify the physical material they inherited in their bodies and nervous systems, but it can happen. My dad was far from perfect, but I am glad he broke free from the closed minded brutality of his grandfathers.

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