4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school if I state here that my oldest son is a homework kid. On Monday afternoon he sits down with his backpack, opens up his reading packet, and plows through all his homework. For the week. I know. Weird, right? He even fills in his reading log on the first day he gets it. Which makes no sense to me since I sort of assumed the purpose of a reading log is that you read over the course of a week and then you log all your hours, not just one night worth of reading. But whatever. To each his own. He didn’t get it from me.
So last year when he had his family tree identity project, a big, exciting benchmark kind of project for the second grade, it came as a bit of a shock to everyone involved that we found ourselves the weekend before its due date with nothing to show. And I say we intentionally. My kids do their own homework. But they can’t get on ancestry.com or call any of the (now apparent) abundant Uncle Walters in our lives and find out what the name of their ancestors were without my help.
And so it was left to me and my husband to figure out our ancestry. I handed off my husband’s side to him and his mom, and then got to work on my side.
The ancestry question has always made me feel uncomfortable. We are white, muddy American, with forbearers from the Pine Barrens which is like New Jersey’s Appalachia, along with some from the pseudo-Midwest, like Ohio. We’re mostly blonde-haired, blue-eyed. Growing up we ate Velveeta cheese, Kool-Aid, Jell-O, and iceberg lettuce. We went to a Lutheran Church and on Christmas eve my father read a passage from a vaguely German Bible about Mary and Joseph getting denied from the inn to give birth to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby Jesus in a lowly manger.
So you see, ancestry for us was confused.
But my brother had to do a project when he was in high school, and he sort of caught the ancestry bug. In recent years he got onto ancestry.com and went back quite a ways into our muddy ancestry to find out where my family was from. At the time I remember he showed me that I was distantly related to a well-established Northern European Renaissance artist. It actually made me feel a little emotional. As an artist in my family I’ve always felt like a cast-off or outlier, just another chromosomal abnormality left over from my Pine Barrens relatives.
But no. My brother showed me that back 500 years ago art was a thing for at least one family member. He also found at least one family member who came over on the Mayflower. Also, we’re related to Elvis. Go figure.
When I had my brother send me the ancestry information, I sat down with my son. I was amazed by how plain Jane it all was. My people had last names like Stewart, Johnson, Smith. They worked jobs like steel mill workers, house cleaners, bakers. They came from places like Ireland, England, Germany. And although I did not get much from my husband’s side (No offense, Grammy, but the twins are doing this project all over again in about a month, so giddyup…) I can tell you that they also have their share of Walters, and that there’s a handful of Swedish in there, and that none of them came over as Nobel prize laureates.
In fact most of our people were vaguely poor but not in an especially shameful way. Some of them died tragic deaths like pneumonia as a baby, or the baker and his wife who fell asleep in their upstairs apartment and died of asphyxiation because of a gas leak in their oven downstairs.
All these people entered the United States through Boston or New York or Philadelphia, some signing the registry at Ellis Island. All you have to do is look at the registry and then google what was happening in that country at that time to see that we were fleeing famines and poverty and political upheaval.
Last year, through this blog, someone reached out to me to say that they thought that through some epic confusing saga where someone who is supposed to be their aunt by marriage turned out to be their mother or their neighbor was really their mother and my great grandmother’s sister or something else that at the time was vaguely shameful but now hopefully we would just nod and say, that’s OK, was related to me. She sent a photo of her mother that looked so much like one of my sisters I had to sit down on the floor.
We are related, I typed back to this stranger. We are family.
Today I received an invitation to attend an arts and crafts gathering for children to make valentines for the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (raising funds for the Muslim Justice League) at MassArt downtown this Sunday. We can’t go, because… New England Patriots. But I’m planning to set up a large arts and crafts table in my living room for the less interested Patriots fans under the age of twelve so that they can make valentines to mail to the Islamic Society of Boston. Originally I had just planned on having the kids work on valentines for themselves, their teachers and friends, their grandparents. But it seems a good time to recognize where we’re from, you know? With our blue-eyed baby Jesus and our ignorance about our ancestors.
We are from here: Jell-O and Kool-Aid, and with this generation, organic farm stands. We are from art supplies and piano lessons and lacrosse sticks and beaches and oceans and the healing properties of water. We are from a vague sense of God and the interconnectedness of the world, the way we all inhabit this planet together, and how we are responsible for one another. We are from people who flee things, who scraped and scrabbled proudly to do better for the next generation. We became the first people to graduate from college, the first people to get a medical degree, a business degree or an MFA. We became artists… again.
And so, whoever you are, wherever you are, you would be hard-pressed not to be connected to my people somehow. Whether from Jell-O and Velveeta, baby Jesus or Mother Earth, or the baptizing splash of the ocean on your face, from an ocean voyage or a kayak, a smuggler’s boat or a luxury liner. We are one in this sea of humanity.
Today I looked up in the dictionary the definition of immigrant and refugee. And honestly, I’m not certain my people were fleeing religious persecution or genocide or natural disaster. I don’t know if there was no chance for them to return home ever, or if they just came here willingly, hopefully, to build a better life.
I can’t go back in time and stand on the shore and welcome them, hug the weary mothers, offer milk and bread to their tired, hungry children. I can’t ask them how they got here or find out why they left the place they called home, whether for education, love, industry or survival.
But I can make them a gorgeous valentine*, all my Muslim brothers and sisters who came to Boston to walk the freedom trail and especially all their neighbors from countries that couldn’t possibly support hopes and dreams right now. And I can say you are welcome here. We are family.
*And you can, too. Make a valentine, or 20, and send them here. (Suggested donation of $20 per family if you’re feeling so inclined!)
Design Studio for Social Intervention
1946 Washington St
Boston, MA 02118