Watering Down the Hate
That's the realization I had as I was reading Marshall Tito in Queens, an editorial in May 4th's New York Times.
In it, a Bosnian man describes the awkward community made up of warring refugees from the former Yugoslavia who now number ten thousand strong in Queens. You don't easily forget the beloved teacher who later swats a loaf of bread from your hands and points a gun at your head. You don't forget hiding from the former friends who later shun you because you are now the "enemy". You don't forget hate.
And yet you have to. Unless conflict is to continue for generation after generation, you have to move on. How?
My grandmother was born in Dubrovnik. It was 1900, long before the ethnic tensions bubbled over and tore the country apart. Her parents moved to New York City, where her father, who was half Irish, practiced medicine. But Dr. Mooney and his Slavic wife were homesick. They sought other Yugoslavs, others with whom they could speak their language and relax their struggles to become American. They found other immigrants from their world in a creekside Hudson Valley working town a couple of hours north of New York by train. They bought a little farmhouse down the road from the Yugoslav lady who grew grapes and happily returned each summer to remember where they'd come from.
Their children, my grandmother and her sisters and brother, preserved some of those memories. Together, they spoke in Serbo-Croation, though they were all Americans. They called it "nashki" - "ours." It bonded them. They used it to cut out people who didn't belong.
Yet none of them married Yugoslavs. My grandmother married a Jew. So did her sister. And here's where it gets strange. My grandparents never told my dad and my uncle about their Jewish relatives.
My father, born in 1937, often joined his father to visit a woman he remembered as a "nice old lady." He didn't know until after his father's death that she was a relative. He didn't know his father had been rejected by his family because he married a Catholic. He didn't know his dad had bought a house for his parents and his aunt...and that aunt was the nice old lady who used to make pies in honor of their visit. He didn't know his father's brother. He didn't know he was a hybrid; a Catholic/Jew raised as a Catholic.
My mother, born a year earlier, was the eighth child of a poor dirt farmer in Indiana. She told of boarding the creaking bus that took her to school, hearing the other kids hoot "Cat-Licker!" Her mother was a Catholic of German descent. Her father was a Protestant who didn't think a fight about the Pope was worth the trouble - he converted. If those kids had known Lou Gobel's secret, my mother would have had a lot more trouble. He was part Native American.
It was something he told his kids, but my grandmother would quickly deny it. "He's just kidding," she told them. It was bad to be Catholic. It was much worse to be Indian.
There's no proof. My mother looked for it. Her father said his grandmother came from a tribe he called the PinkaMinks. A ridiculous name. It had to be a joke. But the Iroquois River near Kankakee Illinois is also known as the Pinkamink River. He had the high cheekbones, the deepset eyes I've seen in pictures of native warriors. My mother believed him. I do, too.
So here I am, the product of intermarriage between religions, between ethnicities, a blend of nationalities both friendly and fraught with tension. I am no longer a Catholic. My children combine all my bloodlines plus the Irish and Polish blood of their father. Their children will blend those lines still further.
This is how conflicts end peacefully. They end when there is no more "them" and "us." It takes time.