What am I?

Early one weekend morning, my daughter sat down at the counter, pencil in hand, and asked the one question that every parent dreads.
“Dad, what are you?”

My first instinct was to answer ‘Muggle’ since she is a big Harry Potter fan but then I realized that we’d just finished up the Lemony Snicket books where the world is divided into Volunteers and Villains, so perhaps “Volunteer” was a better answer.

Then it occurred to me that this might not even be a literary question, and that with all the talk of the GOP Primary and politics in general she might instead be referring to what political party I belonged, but that didn’t seem right either since I don’t think she actually knows the difference between the parties (not that many do).

Religion was the next obvious subject, and that made more sense since we’d just gotten over the holiday, she’d been to a couple of different church services and maybe baby Jesus was on her mind. So I launched into an explanation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

She interrupted me after about ten words.

“No, Dad. I mean… I’m half Mom and half you. So what percentage of what are you so I can know what I am?”

I did the mental gymnastics through the question and realized she was asking about her lineage. Which just made me cringe even more. See, my wife’s lineage is easy. Her father is 100% Irish, and her mother is 100% Italian. Easy. Filter those numbers down and my kids start off at 25% Irish and 25% Italian. So far, so good.

Then I come into play.

My mother was 50% Jewish on her father’s side, but my grandfather left the faith to marry my grandmother, who was (is – she’s still alive and well at 93)… let me think… not Jewish. She’s got some German in her, as well as some Prussian, which is more or less German. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure my grandfather’s Jewish family also had some Prussian in them, and possibly German (though they were in America long before either World War).
The family name, coming as it does from my father and my father’s father, etc., is Norwegian, but as near as I can tell, we actually don’t have much Norwegian blood in us. There are actually more Danish genes in my DNA than Norwegian. I think somewhere down the line a bunch of Danes invaded Norway and stole their women, grog, and last names. Of course, with my father’s father, he could have made everything up, including the last name, because he ran away from home when he was 14 to enlist in World War One and had to lie on his enlistment form to get in. Later on in life, he was famously tight-lipped about where he came from and while there were whispers of a grocery store in Mississippi, my father and uncle often figured he may have simply sprouted, fully-formed, from the Earth.

And of course, I’ve got no clue as to the make-up of my father’s mother. I think there may have been some Italian in her, but there may just as well have been Austrian, or Swedish, or Russian, or Cambodian for all I know. My own father took a page out of his father’s book and was not one to give up much information on his parents. Although it was revealed to me at one point when I was applying for colleges that I was 1/32 Native American, but the matter was never investigated further since you had to be 1/16 or more Native American to qualify for any special financial aid.

I paraphrased all of this to my daughter, who took it in, dutifully wrote it all down on a piece of scrap paper, proudly stated, “I’m 1/64 Native American!” and ran into her room to finish her family tree.

But it got me thinking. Over the years I have, from time to time, tried to distill my heritage. Basically, I’m mainly Germanic and Scandinavian, though as far as I know you have to go back four or five generations to find anyone who actually lived in Europe. So does that still count? Most people I know who identify strongly with an ancestry can point to a distant cousin or grandparent or cousin of a grandparent who still lives in the old country or at least has a very thick accent. Me? I’ve got an uncle who lives in Tracy, California. That’s about as foreign as I get.

So what am I?

My daughter may have gotten enough tidbits from my ramblings to fill out her chart, but just saying I’m some percent German and another percent Scandinavian doesn’t seem right. I simply have no ties to those cultures. Though I did go through a phase in high school where I ate Kavli multigrain crispbreads in an attempt to connect with my non-existent Norwegian roots.

The truly cliché answer for me to use would be to say “I’m American!” and wave a flag over my head while singing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. without actually understanding the words. Just off the top of my head, I am aware of family members who live or have lived in California, Oregon, Virginia, New York, New Hampshire, Illinois, Mississippi, Colorado, New Jersey, and Florida. I’m sure there’s more but I don’t feel like digging through the attic or registering on Geneology.com to find out.

There’s a part of me that looks enviously at my wife’s family tree. My father-in-law grew up very, very Irish, and he connects with that culture even to this day, down to the single helping of Tullamore Dew Irish Whisky he indulges in every New Year’s Eve. My mother-in-law, meanwhile, speaks very fondly of her very Italian upbringing, including one story from her mother (my wife’s grandmother) that belongs in a Mario Puzo epic. Through them, my wife has a connection to these two cultures, and she passes this connection to our children in the form of meatballs and Irish soda bread (for now at least).
What do I pass along? What is my history? What is my culture?

When I think of my family tree, I tend to think about who my grandparents were, rather than where they came from. My mother’s father ran a television station in Pueblo, Colorado in television’s infancy;  (he played Scrooge in a live Christmas Day broadcast of A Christmas Carol). My father’s father ran away as a teen to join the Navy for WWI and then went back, in his forties, to serve in WWII. My mother’s mother was the assistant to a Rear Admiral during WWII and had Top Secret clearance. They lived amazing, complex lives and it is there, in the stories they told me (and in my grandmother’s case, still tell me) that I find my heritage.

So what I am is the product of my immediate family. And while I may not have an easy label to drape over it, it is something that I am no less proud to pass along to my children.

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About the Author: David Neilsen