Sunday, November 4, 2007

Columbus Day

“Daddy, where do we come from?”

“You’re eight. You don’t need to know yet.” My son is interrupting the eleven and a half minutes a day I allow myself to read the morning paper. My quality time with the timeless saga of human lunacy.

“It’s ‘Roots Week’ at school,” my wife points out, “He needs to know where your ancestors came from.”

“Hunger,” I say.

“Da-aa-ad!” he complains. In Chinese the meanings of spoken words are changed by tone and pitch. My son has just repeated the Miracle by which the English word “dad” comes to mean “oh cruel ignorant ancient one.”

“No, really. Like all immigrants, they came from hunger.” I’m riveted by a local news story about a guy who drove his RV-based meth lab to the county courthouse to fight a parking ticket.

“Dad’s ancestors came from a trailer,” says my wife, glaring at me.

My son is perplexed. “I thought ‘ancestors’ lived in caves.”

I give up. I put down the paper.

“They came from Kentucky and Indiana to Missouri.”

My son rolls his eyes. “Dad, those are states, not countries!”

“Why do we have to come from countries?” Dope-sniffing dogs have surrounded the RV.

“Roots Week is about the children’s ethnic identities,” my wife explains to me patiently.

“Okay,” I concede, as the SWAT team hides in ambush outside the RV. “My father’s family came from England and my mother’s family came from the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.”

“Oh.” My son looks disappointed. “But . . . is that ‘ethnic’?”

I want to tell him we’re not ethnic, we’re just in debt. Instead I ask him, “Well what do you think? If everybody has an ‘ethnicity,’ isn’t that mine?”

He thinks for a minute. (When an eight-year-old stops fidgeting, he’s thinking.) “Did they come from somewhere before THAT?”

“From the Rift Valley in Ethiopia in east Africa.”

“Honey, it’s just a school project. Tell him what he needs to hear.”

“It was in the paper last week. Before several thousand generations of global wandering, we all shared a common ancestor in east Africa. The rate of mutation in our mitochondrial DNA dates and places our common ancestor then and there.”

“Dad, that’s not what my teacher wants to hear!”

“Ah but it’s the truth.” The parking scofflaw, returning to his meth lab RV, is surrounded by a pack of snarling snapping German shepards.

“Okay, you’re a quarter Celtic, a quarter English, and half Russian Jew from your mom’s side—”

“—But it’s not that simple,” counters my wife. “My great uncle Modest’s family thought of themselves as Russian, not Jewish, even though they WERE Jewish, and then there was the Mongol great-grandfather, and—”

My son interrupts, “—but mom! Did they wear ‘costumes’?” Aha. It’s a COSTUME he needs, not a history.

“Come on, I’ll help you,” she says, and they head for the picture dictionary of historical costumes, leaving me with my costume-challenged British ancestors and the ACLU appealing the meth lab parking lot arrest. The amateur chemist is claiming entrapment.

But I’ve lost the train of thought. I’m thinking about the annual ritual of identifying school children by the countries their people left behind.

Every Columbus Day — in Berkeley that’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day — school kids make dolls dressed in their ancestors’ costumes, make a speech about why they’re proud of their ancestors, and bring one of the ancestors’ favorite snacks to share with classmates. The Melting Pot un-melting.

I used to find this harmless — maybe even a good thing in a polyglot immigrant nation.

Until the day a friend, after describing the ethnic and religious identity he planned to imprint on his daughter, asked about our “plans” for our son.

I did my impersonation of a deer frozen in the headlights.

“So you’re planning to raise him as a big Nothing?” my friend asked. By “big” he meant “little.”

“No. Not a ‘nothing.’ We’ll raise him as a human being.” Which I always thought of as . . . something. A big thing even.

Since that day I haven’t thought of celebrating our differences as a very good way to narrow them. Imagine the Russians and Chechens celebrating Roots Day together. Should Serbs and Croats or Hutus and Tutsis be encouraged to celebrate their differences?

“Dad, now I need a food for school. What did your ancestors eat?”


“No, EAT! What did they eat?”

“Meat and potatoes.”

“What’s that?”

“Before you were born, your mom and I visited my grandma at her farmhouse in the Ozarks. My aunts and uncles and their families came for this occasion. As in many cultures, relatives visiting from afar is cause for celebration and over-eating.

Since the men in this tribe no longer hunt, my aunts drove to the supermarket. They came back with big slabs of cheap ground beef in bulk and a gunny sack of potatoes. These three large women chopped up and poured the ground beef and potatoes and a mountain of white flour into a huge kettle of boiling well water on my grandma’s wood-fired stove. They boiled it for about an hour, until it was a thick, gelatinous gray glue. Then they ladled it onto plates and we ate.”

“Your mom had never tasted such a dish, so she politely asked, ‘Mmm. What is this?’ and all three aunts answered in unison, ‘Meat and Potatoes.’ ”

My son looks thoughtful, then worried, then embarrassed and ashamed.

“Mom, did YOUR family cook?”

originally published on MSNBC.COM, 10 September 2000