“A boy like that will kill your brother
Forget that boy, and find another
Forget that boy, and find another
One of your own kind, stick with your own kind”
- WEST SIDE STORY
- WEST SIDE STORY
This Sunday was Flag Day in the U.S. We have an enclosed porch with the ability to fly eight flags, which I do only on special occasions. Besides the American and Episcopal Church flags, which I fly on most nice days, I have a bunch of others, representing my partner’s and my varied ethnicity, places we’ve been, and some (like Wales) that I just have because visually it’s a cool flag. I have a vague sense of the major holidays in these various countries, as well as seasonal fillers to trot out when appropriate. We may the only people in New Jersey with Mardi Gras flags, for example, but I have attended the real thing in Louisiana many times and think observing it with gusto is a great way to usher in Lent.
Since my youngest sister married, it occurred to me that — just among my siblings and our partners — we now don’t have enough spaces to represent everybody’s background completely. Besides our own Italian, Lebanese, and Polish roots, some of which our spouses share, we have connections to Germany, Peru, and various British isles. I guess we can’t have everybody over at once, or someone’s going to feel slighted when they pull up to the house.
With that in mind, I saw with pleasure that a blogger whom I discovered recently, Joe Kay, had a piece from last year republished today by Sojourners. “From This Day Forward… or Backward” starts out by describing the pressure Kay experienced from his family to marry someone just like them: Eastern European and Catholic. There was a tremendous fear that “the old ways” would be lost if this purity was not preserved. As he put it:
“To so many people, my relationship wasn’t about finding someone who fit me — it was more about me finding someone who fit them.”
My family has one pretty homogeneous narrative: my mother’s mother’s mother came from Poland as a teenager, quickly married a Polish man, and lived for most of her life in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where it was (and may well still be) possible to get by while speaking and reading only Polish. When my grandmother was of age, she also married a Pole, and her two siblings who married did likewise (in fact their spouses were also siblings, children of another family from the neighborhood).
My dad’s background is somewhat different. When my Italian-American grandfather brought his Lebanese-American wife to live with his Italian-immigrant parents above their grocery store, the two women both continued to do what they did best: cook amazing meals, each in her own kitchen. In fact, my grandmother was among the few people whose cooking my great-grandmother would eat besides her own.
There was some initial resistance, however, on her folks’ part: Italians, in that age of Mussolini, were viewed with an extra layer of the suspicion that most immigrant groups faced, and the Lebanese compensated for their share of discrimination by playing up their political and cultural association with the French. Once they proved themselves, however, both my grandfather and my cousin’s husband (also Italian) were adopted as part of the tribe.
My parents’ disparate backgrounds did not, as far as I know, cause any strife for their respective families , and neither did they impose any such restrictions on us (our mindset is pretty much Hey, another food to try!). As fate would have it, my sisters still all married Catholic men, two of whom are at least part Polish.
I guess by choosing another dude (and a WASP, to boot!) I wandered furthest from the field of what anybody might have expected from me, but I am grateful to say none of this has been an issue for anybody in my extended clan, including that same Polish grandmother, who is now 94. Thus I had tremendous sympathy for what Kay experienced.
This kind of concern still exists, even in the ethnic soup that is New Jersey. Some cultures prefer to associate only with their own, and to not do so can trigger suspicion and displeasure. An Indian friend’s family took a long time to get used to the idea that his lovely wife, also Indian, was not of their religious tradition; and a young Italian guy I dated briefly told me that if were to ever meet his family, I should not disclose my mixed heritage, the fact that I grew up in another town, or that I was no longer Catholic. And that was just to describe me as “a friend”! I never did end up meeting his family, as there was no way I was going to keep up that charade.
On June 12, we recalled a milestone in our collective recovery from such fear: 48 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that the state had no interest in preventing people of different races from marrying. Since 2003, the precedent this ruling set has been employed in the case for marriage equality for same-gender couples. As we approach the expected ruling that may finally put that struggle to rest (at least on paper) I’m grateful to my kin for embracing the relatively newfangled idea that a relationship is primarily for the people who are in it. As Kay said it:
“If someone really cares about you, they’re going to want to know whether this other person makes you laugh, helps you feel loved, brings out the best in you, and challenges you to grow. Does being with them bring you joy? Does your relationship bring you a deep experience of love? It does? Great! Congratulations! I am so happy for you! You are truly blessed.”
Would that it doesn’t take another 48 years before same-gender couples achieve the same degree of normalcy those of mixed race, ethnicity or religion are at least starting to achieve. In the meantime, as I look forward to empanadas joining the pierogi, insalata caprese, and tabbouleh on the table at family gatherings, I am glad that there is always room on my family’s mental porch for another flag, even if the real one can’t hold it.