I was raised as a cultural mutt. Half my family or so on each side is German but largely indifferent to that heritage (with occasional exceptions, such as my mother’s fondness for a specific cookie, I believe it was springerles). The other half of my genetics is “generic Western European.” As a teen, I was a francophile, so I convinced myself I was half-French, even as my father insisted I had little if any non-Norman French blood.
My wife is 3/4 Polish and proud of it, albeit not as proud as her mother (who insists on being called Busha, not Grandmother, by the kidlet) or her mother’s parents. Her father is half-Polish and half-Croatian.
My wife and I have been together for more than a quarter century, during which time I have been at various times jealous of her ethnic pride.
At the same time, I was raised in an era and neighborhood where Polack jokes were an acceptable form of entertainment. Even if my perception of Poles has changed in the time I’ve known her, significantly for the better, I had that lingering knowledge of how some people feel.
I thought I’d forgotten about it, but I recently discovered that it was still there in the background.
Our son is named after my father, but in recognition of my wife’s heritage, it’s the Polish version of that name (it’s pretty obvious what it is, but I wan’t make it explicit so the GoogleBots can’t find it). The Dutch (e.g., the composer of The Miami Vice theme) and, occasionally, the Germans use the same name. There’s a common female name in English with the same spelling but a different pronunciation (the middle Brady girl, if you haven’t guessed it by now), so we have to explain the name quite a bit even though it’s very easy to say.
“It’s German, Polish, and Dutch,” I used to say, not consciously realizing that I was hoping people wouldn’t hear the “Polish” buried in there. I would chide myself for stumbling through it like that, giving more explanation than it really needed. We’d decided that we’d raise our child with Polish pride even though he’s only 3/8 Polish, because he’s more Polish than anything else.
Recently, we went to Hamtramck, which still has a fairly public (although dwindling) Polish population. We went to the Polish Art Center with the intent to buy our son a nested doll of his own; he’s obsessed with my collection. We spent a long time there talking to the owner, who was bubbling over with her Polish identity. She praised us for encouraging his ethnic identity. Her eyes lit up when she heard his name.
After that, we went to the Polonia for a late lunch. Kidlet was his usual charming self, walking around the place after he’d eaten and being cute at the waitstaff. One of them asked his name, I told her, and she rattled off a long explanation to the cooks, including his name somewhere in the midst of it. More eyes lit up.
Somehow during that afternoon, the lingering anxiety over raising a child to embrace his Polish heritage, right down to his name, vanished.
Today, I was at CostCo and someone asked his name. I told them, having to repeat it several times. And then, without hesitation or anxiety, I followed it with, “It’s Polish.”
And he’s our little Polish boy.