The generation that I mostly have cared for in the last 20 years is the ‘greatest generation’ born in the early to mid 1900’s. These wonderful people were often here as children and maybe grandchildren of immigrants. We grew up as children, grandchildren and sometimes great-grandchildren of immigrants. Suffice to say that hardly any of us were far from the boats or the shores of Ellis Island. As a consequence, our parents always wanted to know the ethnic derivation of the families of our school chums, our friends, our bosses, our co-workers.
This wasn’t necessarily a point of prejudice as much as it was often a point of reference. So if that nice girl Maria came home with me, was she Italian? Who were that boy, Tommy’s, people? Does that last name end in ‘ski’ or ‘sky’ because that could be the difference between Polish and Ukrainian. Our parents and grandparents just wanted to know. In some ways, I think it made them feel worldly or cosmopolitan to ‘figure out’ just where those surnames and your people came from.
When I met my mother-in-law, my husband and his entire extended family were very proud of the fact that they were 100 percent Ukrainian. My daughters have always teased me that I muddied the waters with my crazy quilt of an ethnic background that is only half Italian and nothing else on my mother’s side that anyone can actually attest to. And, as punishment for this transgression, my daughters threaten to bury me in the “Ukie” cemetery. Yes, the Ukrainians have their own cemetery. So maybe they do want to keep out riff-raff like me. And I will haunt my daughters from the dead if they bury me there.
Since we are so dramatically aware of being politically correct, you don’t hear this kind of conversation outside of elder care facilities too much. But once my mother-in-law was comfortably ensconced in her assisted living facility, ‘ethnic-geography’ was the game of the day.
“So, Repko, is it? Where does that name come from?”
“Is it MacClellan or McClellan, because that would be Scotch or Irish, right? ”
“Are you Pennsylvania Dutch or are you a real German?”
These are the conversations you would overhear in the lobby, the dining room and at Bingo. It seemed harmless enough because everyone engaging in the game would just nod their head or say, “Oh” and that would be the end of it.
Since it was a long-standing joke in our family that I was not Ukrainian, I thought that my ethnicity with my husband’s family was at least on the approval list.
This particular day, my mother-in-law was recuperating in rehab for a gangrenous toe. She had been very, very sick and her recovery was very slow. But within several weeks, she was remarkably back to her old self and on the mend so that she would be released from rehab back to her assisted living apartment any day.
We took a little stroll in her new special shoes that were necessary to protect her injured toes and feet, then we sashayed back to her bedroom for a little rest. She was in such good spirits, that I was telling her about all the great things waiting for her back at her apartment.
“So there’s bingo, and your friends miss you at your table, and since the weather is getting nice we will be able to go outside for walks in the garden. Isn’t that nice?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’m getting a bit tired now. These shoes are hard to walk in.”
“I know,” I tell her. “I’m tired myself, my back has been acting up and I just can’t seem to get comfortable to sleep.”
“Oh well,” she said with a chuckle that I recognized as “this is about me not you.” And as we sat there in comfortable silence in her breathtakingly warm room for awhile,we both start to nod off. Her head was lolling to the side and I was losing the battle with my eyelids, and I sort of mumble under my breath:
“Aren’t we a pair? A Ukie and an Italian….”
She sits bolt upright and says:
“YOU’RE ITALIAN???? I thought you were Polish!”
You just have to Laugh…….