Unsolicited Reader Comments on Christmas at Long Lake

“I have enjoyed Christmas at Long Lake hugely…It is beautiful and cleanly written, and I admire it not only for its use of language but as well fro the ways in which, within the framework of the narration of events of a couple of days, it works outward to create a larger thematic universe of boyhood, family and America as manifested at a particular time through particular place. As a writer, it meets for me the ultimate test: I wish I could have written it.”

“I hated for it to end; I cried at times as it brought back so many memories of my own childhood…I gave this book to my daughter as a Christmas present, which she too enjoyed. Thank you so much for returning me (for a while) back to a time when life was sweet and uncomplicated.”

“…masterful, deep and moving. We all enjoyed reading it. It has all the components of a classic work of literature.”

”I read it straight through. A very pleasant experience. This is a fine book.”

“I just finished reading your book and must say it brought back a lot of memories of my own childhood. I really enjoyed the warmth and the love you expressed.”

“I really enjoyed it…I was transported back to my childhood…You were really able to recapture the wonder and awe of a child’s experiences and yet also make tangible the joy of life despite (or because of) a lack of material possessions. The melancholy and inevitability of change also came across powerfully.

“A walk down memory lane. Having grown up in the 50’s, I was especially moved. A reminder of how times and family values have changed. Mr. Skwiot, thank you for sharing your life with us. God bless you.”

“How exciting that some teachers are using your book at the high school! What a great lesson, not only in such lovely literature, but in the history of our area as well. Your vivid recall of the many details of your life amazed me while I read the book, but I understand as I read those last pages this morning that because your life took such a dramatic change, you kept those sweet memories close to your heart all of these years. Beautifully written, bittersweet book.”

“I picked up the book last night, read it until bedtime, picked it up first thing this morning and finished it just now. So charming, so magical, earnest, so touching and evocative of some elements of my own childhood.”

“Christmas at Long Lake” is a wonderful book and excellently written. It made me get nostalgic…”

“I am recommending the book to anyone who lives in the Granite City area. It was a well written book and kept my attention the whole way through and that isn’t easily accomplished. I have a very short attention span. Thanks for the memories.”

“I read your book this week and wanted to tell you how touching I found it. Some of your memories certainly resonated with mine growing up on a small farm…But I was most touched by your sadness in leaving that place, and leaving behind the persons your mother and father were on the farm. I wish your lucky rabbit foot and letter to Santa could have spared all of you from the changes that followed…Thank you for sharing this memoir.”

“…[W]hat a wonderful book… Thank you for a walk down memory lane.”

“A quietly beautiful memoir…Despite living in an old fishing shack in the middle of nowhere, Skwiot regards this part of his life as near Eden, as he writes of old-fashioned pleasures in simpler times as well as of the hard work of daily living. This is the story of Skwiot’s last Christmas in the country as he wrestles with possible consequences of his father’s recent job loss, but there are plenty of meanderings back to other seasons and other times that fill out the picture of blue-collar life in the early 1950’s… This book is a little gem that will be a special delight to those who remember simpler times or life in the country, but for others the descriptive prose just might bring up shadowy memories that never were.”

“It’s not often you pick up a memoir these days about a functional family; a family steeped in Christian values and country ways, straight out of Norman Rockwell’s post-war Americana–and yet human and fallible enough in character to hold a reader’s interest…Christmas at Long Lake does exactly that, reflecting on a boyhood Christmas in 1953 when his father loses his job at the Granite City steel mill and the family is forced to move to the still segregated city of St. Louis…The wonder of this quiet, quick-reading memoir is not the action of the story so much as the beauty of the language, and all that Skwiot manages to encapsulate in character, setting, and emotion within just a few days’ time. Growing up in virtual poverty, this six-year-old’s life was rich and downright blessed in many ways. A great read for anyone familiar with the St. Louis region, urban or rural–and a beautiful little book to stuff in any stocking.”

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On Writing Christmas at Long Lake

Rick Skwiot AuthorWhat Rick has to say about writing Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

While writing Christmas at Long Lake I re-read José Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, which helped me clarify what I was about in my memoir: depicting the last vestige of a folk culture as mass culture attained supremacy.

In my edition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985, with foreword by Saul Bellow, of all people), the translator, Anthony Kerrigan, writes in the introduction:

“Though the “folk” tend to be sound, the “masses” do not. These two distinct words evoke a robust distinction…Ortega wrote essays probing the ‘aristocratic’ nature (in the sense of preservation mostly) of  the folk and their lore…How often in democracies has not the sound instinct of the folk proven more viable than the elitist machinations of the politicians?”

In Christmas at Long Lake I write of an American family but one still very much European, a first-and-second generation American family yet ruled by folk traditions and values, with old world dignity and self-sufficiency, a benevolent monarchy unto itself.

But looming over it is the neurotic mass culture—in the first TV I see as a boy at a neighbor’s home, in the lurking migration of my father from manual work to paperwork and of my family from bucolic and esthetically rich rural America to denatured and sterile suburbia. I view Christmas at Long Lake as a microcosm of the final days of folk culture in America, documenting the death rattle of family life, independence, and freedom.

* * *

Along with that, I think I was influenced intellectually by my sociological reading, particularly C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956 or thereabouts, I think).

In it he posits that a fundamental power shift had occurred or was occurring in America, from power being vested locally in the family, the church, the community, and the school, shifting to large institutions: the government, the economy, the mass media, the corp-orations, etc.

I think that one thing that makes Christmas at Long Lake poignant for many readers is that it dramatizes that loss of power for one family, it being uprooted and twisted because of these larger institutions, particularly the post-war economy, and losing its own dominion. I think readers understand that loss of power, because it has happened to most fami-lies at one time or another, in one generation or another, the forced moved from self-sufficiency and control over the ruling aspects of their lives to powerlessness and dependency on larger institutions.

But intellectual considerations aside, what drove me to write this book was a visceral feeling of that loss for my family.

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Critical Praise for Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

 

“Rick Skwiot works his own magic…As usual, Skwiot’s writing is sure…And his tale has a gritty, blue-collar cachet…This is good reading.”—Kansas City Star

“Skwiot’s vivid descriptions of the physical and emotional landscape of this environment are poignant, entertaining, and instructional…There is magic in this depiction of a setting and a way of life that can be described only as Edenic.”—Library Journal

“Skwiot’s memories of the grandmothers are rich and poignant, and the descriptive detail shimmers.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A heartwarming, thoughtfully recalled, highly recommended memoir.”—Midwest Book Review

“Rick Skwiot has harvested his rich years of childhood in such a way that we can only enjoy, admire and wish for more.”—Solares Hill

“The memoir’s simple, elegant prose and eye for detail banish most sentimentality from the tale. Skwiot captures the magic of the moment…”—Portfolio Weekly

“…a memoir written with sure craft and true heart, a narrative of Paradise Lost, the story of a time when the details of an ordinary day appear to be magical.”—Michael Pearson, author of Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx

“…an elegant evocation not only of a particular time and place but also of the way childhood memories set up a permanent residence in our hearts. This a lovely, elegiac book.”—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

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Assateague Island

By Rick Skwiot
(Published in PortFolio Weekly)

If you want to get an idea what this land looked like before English ships arrived, go to Assateague Island—though you won’t see Assateagues, Gingoteagues, Pocomokes, and Nanticokes, the Algonquin-speaking peoples who lived there then.  But you will glimpse one of the last significant stretches of uninhabited coast from Maine to Key West, a 37-mile long barrier island with unspoiled sand beaches, wild horses, wild birds and peace.

Assateague lies but a hundred miles north.  Take U.S. 13 from Hampton Roads.  Cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.  As soon as you do, you’ll find yourself in another world, one without traffic, urban sprawl, or fast-food franchises.  This is time-traveling back, say, some sixty years, before all that began.  But to time-travel in earnest, you must take a few detours.

Coming off the bridge make an immediate right into the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.  Walk south from the visitors’ center half a mile on a bramble-lined path amid fluttering sparrows to the observation overlook, built atop a World War II bunker that housed two sixteen-inch guns.  These cannon guarded Chesapeake Bay against German submarines.  Though never fired in battle, they could lob a one-ton projectile—ordnance the weight of a small car—some 25 miles, into downtown Virginia Beach, for example.

But more important, from here you can see the saltwater marsh and the sea, and the vastness of the land and water.  You can hear cardinals chipping in the green canopy and an owl screech in the distance.  Then you can descend to the small cemetery below and see, as I did, a black snake slither into the broken grave of a mother-of-three, who died in 1823 at age 25.

Next, get back on the highway.  But don’t just barrel up the Eastern Shore like you have a date waiting in Philly.  Though your destination is Assateague, this is a journey, where you can be enriched all along the way.
 
So detour to Capeville to see what 1940 really looked like.  Though perhaps it looked more prosperous then, with fewer abandoned homes.

Stop at Kiptopeke (“big water” in Accawmack) State Park to see loons and mergansers paddling Chesapeake Bay, to search for shells on the white sand beach, to hike through a pine forest and mount a hawk observatory.

Do not stop at Cape Charles unless you wish to wallow in dubious melancholy.  Despite guidebook claims of charm and interest, the town feels dead, abandoned.  Rusting railroad cars sit on rusted tracks; “downtown” shops lie comatose and empty.  And where are the people?  Perhaps up the road pulling a shift at the Tyson or Perdue chicken factory—the former pouring out a roostery aroma over Temperanceville that put me off buffalo wings for some days.

For an up-close look at the marshland, take state route 180 to Wachapreague, “little city on the sea” to the pre-colonials and “once a resort for wealthy New York sports and fishing enthusiasts who arrived by steamship,” according to the official state travel guide.  But you’d never know it now.

Cruise through Locustville for a view of bucolic farms.  Go to Accomac to study gracious colonial homes and a staunch, redbrick, barred-windowed debtor’s prison—so English, so Puritan.  Wonder about the poor sods—and perhaps sots—who rotted inside, fellow wayfarers for whom most any writer feels a special kinship.

But enough of side trips.  Enough of abandoned farmhouses, abandoned cars, and concrete-block churches.  Enough of the feel of depletion, as if the land, the people, and history were all winding down, a feeling that increases as one approaches Maryland.  But don’t go that far.  Three miles before the state line, turn right on Virginia route 175.  You are almost at Assateague.

If of a delicate nature—or a naturalist—avert your eyes as you pass the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) facility on Wallops Island.  Otherworldly rocket-launching and satellite-tracking equipment looms over the countryside like alien creatures.  You have come for nature study, and this stuff vibrates of the unnatural, of things beyond human comprehension, of dark science.

Cross the causeway and drawbridge to Chincoteague (pronounced “shin’ ko teeg”) Island.  Left on Main Street as you come off the bridge, right on Maddox Boulevard, some seven blocks down.  Then straight, straight on across the saltwater marsh, up over the channel bridge, down onto Assateague Island and into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  Pay your five bucks, which allows you passage on and off the island for a week.

Get out your binoculars and mosquito repellent.  For you have come to a National Wildlife Refuge, established by Congress in 1943 to provide habitat and protection for migrating birds, and to a Mosquito Breeding Sanctuary, though this latter designation is my own, not that of Congress.

Soon, pull off to the right.  Take the short trail to one of the oldest operating lighthouses in America, built in 1833 to diminish the large number of ships foundering on Assateague’s shoals.  Then hike the Woodland Trail to find the rotting hull of a hundred-foot-long ship, now up to its gunnels in sand.  But you have to know exactly where to find it, or just stumble upon it as I did.  Here’s how:

Walk the Woodland Trail loop with the folks looking for the Assateague wild ponies.  But then, on the way back, duck off to the right, down a sandy trail marked “Tom’s Cove.”  After some 200 yards you’ll arrive at a secluded beach, where oystermen work their beds in the distance.  An old house stands on stilts a furlong from shore.  Stroll east down the beach, to your left, and within another 220 yards you’ll find the hull of a wooden ship and be able to imagine the storm or the mistakes that landed it there.

The wild horses, legend says, first swam ashore after escaping a shipwrecked Spanish galleon and have thrived ever since.  On the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of each July, members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company round up a portion of the herd, drive them across the shallows to neighboring Chincoteague Island, and sell them at auction to raise money for their work.

From a distance the ponies look like any other horses, though slightly smaller.  But if you can get up close enough you’ll find that, unlike domesticated steeds, these will bite and kick the affectionate tourist who attempts to pet them.

Other mammals inhabit the island as well, most notably sika, small Asian elk introduced to the island in the 1920s. And river otters, voles, rabbits, raccoons, white-tailed deer, and an endangered tribe of fox squirrels.  Missing mammals include the Assateagues.

A “Brief History” from the Chincoteague Island Chamber of Commerce tells us that after years of battles with settlers, the chiefs of the Assateagues and Pocomokes signed a treaty calling for a League of Peace and Friendship between them and the Englishmen.  But the peace did not last.  Maryland officials got wind of a planned uprising and “shortly afterward managed to dissolve the Indian empire.  Records do not indicate how this was accomplished.” But we can guess.

For those wishing to view wild nature, Assateague’s greatest draw—next to the migrating Homo sapiens found on summer’s dune-lined beaches—is avian, both indigenous and migrating.

The island lies in the Atlantic Flyway, where, in spring, birds return north from warmer climes and, in fall, retrace their journey.  Shorebirds, waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds abound.  Eagles, hawks, ducks and geese; herons, egrets, sandpipers and plovers; gulls, skimmers, terns and more soar, paddle, and wade about.  I saw brown-headed nuthatches, northern shovelers, bald eagles, ospreys, brants, glossy ibises, lesser yellow-legs and yellow-rumped warblers.  With the foaming sea, brackish wetlands, and freshwater pools, Assateague is a paradise for birds and bird-lovers alike.

Furthermore, Refuge literature boasts of its harboring three species of American ticks, the dog, lone star, and northern deer, the last of which may carry Lyme disease.  But after hiking all day, I found only three examples of the dog tick on me.

Bring your bicycle.  Assateague contains miles of flat roads and bike trails.  Do not bring your pets or your beer—neither is allowed.  But pack your fishing gear, clam rake, and crab net.  Surf fishing, clamming, crabbing, and oystering are permitted.  As is searching for seashells, though Assateague is not known for great shelling.  But the Chincoteague Bay waters are said to be ideal for kayaking and canoeing, particularly at the Maryland end.

If you wish to camp, you’ll have to patronize a commercial campground on Chincoteague Island or go to the Maryland side of Assateague, where you’ll find campgrounds run by the National Park Service and by Maryland, in its Assateague State Park.

But if you’d prefer to watch the sun setting over the bay from your own private deck, try the motels along Chincoteague’s Main Street, just a five-minute drive from Assateague.  You’ll also find Main Street restaurants where you can eat local oysters, clams, and flounder as you watch fishing boats return to port, escorted by laughing gulls and great white egrets.

Killing Mother

By Rick Skwiot

(First published in PortFolio Weekly as “The Crossing.”)

The call I’d been waiting for came in the middle of the night, waking me from a dead sleep.

“This is Nurse Something-or-Other from the Good Samaritan Home…Your mother’s passed away…Would you like to come down and see her?”

I’d been wanting her to die for some time, actually praying for it. More than that, I ordered it, told them to remove the feeding tube.

But it didn’t hit me until later, when I got the death certificate in the mail. My eyes went to the Cause of Death, where the doctor had written: “Dehydration.”

I sat staring at the word. Here was the woman who had borne me, nursed me, and spoon-fed me, who, in her delusional days after the stroke, had wanted to fix me dinner from her hospital bed, to feed and nurture me. And I had let her die of thirst, had sat by for three days as she parched, unwilling to extend to her what anyone would to a desiccated houseplant: a cup of water.

But when I told them to let her die, I’d been so beaten down by the years of her steady deterioration, by her endless operations, humiliations, and pain, by the ugliness and stench of it all, that I never asked any questions, just told them to do it, as she had stipulated.

*

But even as she is leaving you, others are taking her from you. When you visit it’s obvious that you’re the outsider, and that those who feed her, bathe her, and count out her pills have a greater claim on her. As much as she may love you, you are now but a mere diversion, a sporadic provider of rare luxuries, and these workers, along with the other old women winding down around her, this is her family.

You, however, are the chronicler of her deterioration—the sole constant witness among the passing parade of generalists, specialists, nurses, and neighbors—as she moves in and out of hospitals and hospices, and into wards providing steadily increasing care and decreasing independence.

You come to note the routines, the rules, the subterfuge of the House of Death. You mark the perverse, chirpy denial of death practiced by doctors and nurses, and come to practice it yourself. You perceive the protocols of death, as when you ride down the elevator with an aged man strapped to a gurney, his mouth open, eyes aglaze, obviously dead, but without the white sheet pulled up to conceal his face, so as to pretend old John’s merely off to the hospital for some miracle cure.

You note, too, the customary cheeriness and helpfulness of the orderlies and nurses who feed, bathe, cradle, and carry the useless, festering, and unaesthetic old bodies, who change the soiled diapers and the soiled sheets of these old women—all the ugly chores the women’s own children wish to avoid, seemingly at any cost.

You see how basic, and base, are our needs. In your darker moments you view human beings not as noble, Godlike creatures, but as devouring organisms putrefying plant and animal matter, infernal machines for producing feces. For that is the smell of any death house: feces ineptly masked by chemical disinfectant. It’s that odor you dread most, even more than the images of the defeated bodies, the wild cacklings of the demented, or the confused gazes of the old women you pass, sitting in their wheelchairs, thinking you their doctor or son. You can’t get the stench out of your head and your sinuses for hours after leaving, and miraculously it reappears days later as you once again approach the death house.

You note the etiquette for seating guests, the stares, and the stage whispers in the dining room, where you take Christmas dinner with your mother and a table of strangers. Out tall windows you see the brown river rushing by like irretrievable time, and across it black-trunked trees growing from bottomland like bruised fingers of Death.

But what you notice most are the old women eating alone, those without kin who care to visit. Why ruin a holiday with the smell of death, with awkward silences and mediocre food? You endure it but then, before sunset, rush away to bolt good liquor with cheerful friends, to kill the taste and dull the ache.

*

I understand how some people get worked up over capital punishment or abortion. But I think they’re missing the boat, the biggest boat, on which we all have a ticket. In places like the House of Death, it happens all the time, with everyone’s complicity—doctors, nurses, patients, and heirs.

It makes perfect sense in the abstract: Why keep alive folks for whom there is little hope of healing or even regaining consciousness, draining away life savings they’ve earmarked for their children?

The physical reality, though, is another story. In retrospect, I would have rather walked into my mother’s room and shot her, or something, just to know that she wasn’t wandering parched and demented in an endless desert for her last days as I stood by and watched.

Yet even now, five years since she’s gone, I think to telephone her with good news or a query about the past, then catch myself. That impulse to call tells me that she’s not fully gone and won’t be until I too cross the river.

Blood Simple

A St. Louis novelist reflects on ancestry, race, DNA testing and hyphenation

From St. Louis Magazine July 2008

When I was a child, we lived on a lake in rural Illinois outside Granite City, where my father worked at a steel mill. But on weekends he was outdoors. In winter, ice skating on the frozen lake or walking off across the shorn cornfields with his shotgun and hunting dog, searching for rabbit. In summer, working in the garden, repairing the rustic house or fishing shirtless from our boat dock or from his homemade rowboat, gliding over the still lake.

My mother, a blue-eyed, blonde granddaughter of northern German immigrants, would then caution him: “Put a shirt on, Ed. You’re getting too dark.”

Jim Crow in St. Louis

Although my father’s parents came from Poland, he was not a round-faced, fair-haired Slav, but rather dark and wolfish, with olive skin that turned deep brown in the sun. My mother feared that when they visited friends or family across the Mississippi in segregated, 1950s

St. Louis, people would think she was with a “colored man” and abuse them for the transgression — “colored” then being the common public term for African-Americans, with St. Louis Post-Dispatch classified ad headings for apartments reading, “For Rent — Colored.”

While my parents — and Jim Crow laws — have long since passed, my personal questions about race have persisted, for I inherited my father’s strong facial features, dark skin and surname, in addition to his mercurial Slavic soul. This led me always to identify with my Polish heritage over my Germanic side and consider myself a Polish-American. Now, thanks to DNA testing, I’ve had to revise that designation — and my perceptions about race, ethnicity and culture.

My curiosity about my father’s dark heritage was whetted by my parents’ refusal even to entertain the question. “You don’t need to know” was their usual response whenever I asked inappropriate questions about procreation and such, and they employed the phrase to end any debate or inquisition into our pre-American past as well. But in this case it was not out of embarrassment or delicacy, but likely out of ignorance and indifference.

Cass Avenue Poles

My father knew and cared little about his family’s European past. To him it was a stigma best ignored, hidden or denied. Born in 1914 in the North St. Louis Polish community, centered on Cass Avenue, he viewed his ethnicity as the social handicap it surely was in Anglo-centric St. Louis society, and for a while had anglicized our surname to “Scott.” Although Polish was his first language (he learned grammatically correct, slang-free English in the St. Louis Public Schools), he refused to teach me any of it: “Speak American,” he’d say.

However, I frequently heard Polish spoken, as his mother, Mary, who had come to the States in 1910, spoke virtually no English, even until the day she died, 60 years later. As a result, she also was little able to quench my curiosity about family history. Though I do recall a story she once told me — likely with my father translating — about Cossacks (she had claimed) raiding her village when she was a girl. They came on horseback as she was sitting outside with a neighbor who clutched an infant son to her breast — that is, until a horseman lifted the child from her arms on the end of his saber.

My Polish grandfather, Joseph, whom I never knew, had come to the United States in 1892 and worked in steel mills in Scranton and Chicago before finally settling in

St. Louis. From genealogical research that I once conducted in a vain attempt to unearth my “dark” past, I learned that he came from the same small Polish town, Zawady, as my grandmother. However, he left Poland two decades before she did, when she was but 2 years old. When she did finally come to St. Louis, alone, they were married within a few months. I suspect it was an arranged marriage of some sort, with him paying her passage over. Such was immigrant courtship and romance circa 1910.

So despite my genealogical research and thanks to my parents’ lack of knowledge and/or interest in such issues, I still didn’t have an answer to my question: What was I racially? Though nominally Polish-American and German-American, I knew that a large measure of other genetic material — seemingly not northern European — tinted the mix. I conjectured in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake that we were “perhaps descendants of raiders from the east. Or of Gypsies … Or perhaps of the Neuri, militant Iranian nomads who inhabited eastern Poland in the fifth century B.C. and who, according to Herodotus, turned into wolves at certain times of the year.”

What I didn’t realize until I finally submitted to DNA testing was how significant my non-European genetic makeup was, how genetically insignificant my Polish heritage was and how wrong I had been my whole life thinking myself a Polish-American.

DNA and Bloody History

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a coiled molecule composed of chromosome cells that transmit genetic information from generation to generation in all living organisms — like a set of blueprints. Segments along the length of a human DNA molecule form sets of genes that we all share, though individuals can inherit different forms of a given gene, making everyone genetically unique.

After making arrangements with a testing lab called AncestryByDNA, I was sent a test kit, which contained two plastic swabs that I used to scrape DNA samples from the inside of my cheek — this is painless — and then mailed back to the lab in Sarasota, Fla. The lab then analyzed my DNA markers and compared my genetic composition to major population groups around the globe.

The test results indicated that only some two-thirds of my DNA came from northern European sources, with the rest coming predominantly from south Asia — that is, India and the Middle East, with a couple of percentage points from southeastern Europe — Turkey, Greece or Italy.

According to historians, the most common way that such Indian DNA mixed into European populations came via the migration of the Roma (often referred to as Gypsies). Some believe they came into existence as a people a thousand years ago when Middle Eastern Muslim invaders conquered northern India and marched the Roma back to present-day Afghanistan and Iran as slaves. Other historians think they were low-caste Hindus recruited and sent west to battle encroaching Islamic armies.

In either case, the Roma remained in the Middle East until the 14th century, when they began moving into Europe. Their migration — from India to the Middle East, then through Turkey and Greece to eastern Europe — suggests a genetic road map paralleled by my DNA results.

Ever since their arrival in Europe some 700 years ago, the Roma have found little warm welcome. They have been alternately shunned, enslaved or slaughtered. In the years after my Polish grandparents landed in America, the Nazis attempted a Gypsy genocide that may have cost half a million lives, some eastern European Communist regimes tried to eradicate the Gypsies through sterilization — as did Norway, until 1977 — and in the 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of Gypsies.

Similarly, descendants of my Middle Eastern ancestors have not fared well since my grandparents came to the States. Foreign intervention, war and oppressive Islamic fundamentalism have beset Persia/Iran and Afghanistan, with somber results for many inhabitants. And we know what the 20th century meant to whatever Polish and German kin I may have had in those homelands: totalitarian oppression, saturation bombing, bloody battles, death camps, invasion and hunger.

A Fortunate Migration

There is no way for me to know or gauge the suffering of my ancestors — whether Hindu, Arab, Slav, Turk or Teuton — or to assess what impact, if any, it has on my character or essence. But I do know one highly pertinent and pivotal fact of my ancestral history: On April 5, 1892, my grandfather Joseph Skwiot disembarked the SS Bremen in Baltimore and after some two decades working in American steel mills managed to afford to have a bride sent him from his hometown in Poland. As a result, I was born an American.

Whatever genetic connection I might have with Gypsies, Germans, Slavs or Persians plays little role in who I am compared to that one central fact of family history. Anyway, scientists say that we all share 99.9 percent of our DNA, regardless of our ethnicity, and can all be traced back to a common ancestor in Africa 200,000 years ago — which suggests that race is nothing more than a social construct.

What matters profoundly is that I have had the good fortune to be born and raised in a functional society, one that has done a rather good job of sustaining me — feeding me, educating me and protecting me from foreign invaders, oppressive rule or theocracy. Conversely, my ancestors — either by force or flight — left communities that were significantly dysfunctional for them: low-caste Hindus in India, likely heretical Roma in Islamic lands and lower-class Poles and Germans in rigid European aristocracies where their rights and opportunities were severely circumscribed.

And I am glad they did. However sorry I am for their suffering, it has miniscule effect on me in relation to the safe and nurturing environment in which I find myself. The social mobility, material opportunity and safety offered in the United States compare favorably to most of the remaining world — a fact obvious to disadvantaged people everywhere. Which is why folks like my grandfather continue to flock here — legally or illegally and often at great expense and risk — from societies far less functional for them and their families.

I am also glad for the $670 worth of DNA testing I got. Not for its opening up new avenues of genealogical investigation and knowledge for me or for the possibility of finding famous or infamous kin, but for alerting me to how truly unimportant my genealogy is and how preposterous my lifelong self-perception as a Polish-American has been.

Assuming that my light-complexioned mother transmitted to me only northern European blood and accounted for roughly half my genetic makeup, then the darker portions came solely from my father. Which suggests that, genetically, he was likely more Roma and Arab than Pole. Thus my Polish-American designation was correct only in a minor cultural way — in that I descended in part from people who came here from Poland speaking Polish — and little more. Speaking no Polish and having never been to Poland, I am now forced to reconsider my ethnicity and its meaning, and find it fairly meaningless.

Whether I am descended from Europeans or not, from whores and horse thieves or popes and princesses, matters not. What does matter, I see, is that I have been granted a culture that nurtures all ranks of people rather than oppressing or enslaving them on dubious grounds of race, religion or class. I witness socially disadvantaged and/or politically oppressed people from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Western Hemisphere coming here and actuating themselves materially, intellectually and spiritually. The prostitute’s granddaughter becomes a professor or priest; the steelworker’s grandson writes books and magazine articles instead of performing mean physical labor for a bare subsistence.

So I am abandoning forever my hyphenated existence — my Polish-Americanism — and suggest for accuracy’s sake that we all should. By jettisoning the Polish-, Irish-, African- or Mexican- prefixes, we indicate that we are a new race — not genetically speaking, but culturally, which is ultimately what counts.

Christmas at Long Lake Q&A

From a Sauce Magazine email interview.

Q. What sparked your desire to write this memoir? Was it something you’d been contemplating for quite a while?

A. I think one of the first short stories I ever tried to write, years ago, attempted to capture the ongoing sense of loss I feel for that place and time. The beauty and mystery of my early childhood still haunts me and guides me. And I think my mother’s death prompted me to write this, too, for while she was still alive that history was still alive…My parents, like many, lived largely anonymous lives and left little mark in the larger world—except perhaps on me. I wanted to write this book not only to honor them for what they gave me, but also so I could travel back to that time and place, and to be with them again as they once were.

Q. I think of you primarily as a fiction writer … how was writing a memoir like this different than writing a novel. In what ways was it more challenging?

A. First, writing a memoir is like writing fiction in that you want to structure a narrative around scenes and to write or recreate dialog that shows character and to layer in the sensory detail that will bring the reader into that time and place and the world of your book. (I’m sounding like a writing instructor here.) It is more challenging in that, in a memoir, you are limited to what you are given. You can’t concoct new characters or events to make it work better. So you have to dig deeper to mine better whatever riches you have.

Q. What research did you do for the book?

A. The greatest research I did was to dig down into myself, to go into my memory and commit it to paper. It was at the same time a gratifying and a wrenching task, for the whole book is about loss—loss of a way of life, of innocence, of family, or the irretrievable past. Often, as I sat at my desk writing the manuscript, I would be overcome with it, with the loss and the beauty of it, the warmth and goodness and solidity, and literally tears would be coursing down my face as I relived the sweetness of my early days. The only other research I did was for broader historical and municipal background.

Q. The beautifully described setting of this book was one of the most impressive parts, for me. How difficult was it for you to put the pictures in your mind of your childhood home into words?

A. The whole book was a labor of love, for the place and time as well as for the people. It was a pleasure to try and craft the sensory depiction of the physical world there, to recreate it so the reader can see it and smell it and taste it and hear it and feel it. That, for me, is the pleasurable part of writing. The structuring and architecture and such are agony, trying to figure out what your work ought to be. But the wordsmithing and layering in the sensory stuff and making it come alive—that’s great fun. I would put myself back there, for example, on the frozen lake with my father, and I could bring it all back: the smell of burning leaves, the sting of the cold air, the feel of the ice on the soles of my shoes. Then it’s just a matter of selecting the right details that make it vivid for you—they’ll make it vivid for the reader as well.

Q. Did the final book end up as you expected, or (as often happens in fiction) did the “story” change and evolve from your original conception?

A. It evolved a lot, mostly in terms of structure. I wanted to write a book that captured the place and the time but also wanted a compressed narrative that would keep readers with me. As it developed, my challenge was to compress the memories of four seasons over six years into a narrative that spans only 36 hours. To do that I used a variety of rhetorical devices, such as flashbacks, and “essays,” such as the chapter on my first grade experience, or the chapter on the rustic nature of the house itself, as interludes within the narrative. That was the most demanding aspect of writing it, that structuring, to keep it moving while still getting in everything I wanted to say about the place, to paint the picture while still telling a story.

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