You Dirty Wop!

Having read my post “And Speaking of Prejudice”, about his mother, my grandmother Marie Gregory, my now 88-year-old Dad called me with some memories of his own experiences with anti-Italian bias in the early years of the 20th century.  Unlike Grandma’s, though, Dad’s experiences were, shall we say, a bit more, hmmm, prosaic.

He recalled, for instance, a childhood incident in which a handyman walked into their home on Southern Avenue, chuckling. It seemed that one youngster frequently rode his bike past the house and, if Dad’s father, Charles Sr. (best known as “Pop” or “PopPop”) was out working in the yard, the boy would yell, “Dirty Wop!” as he pedaled past.

This time, though, the situation turned out a bit differently, as witnessed by the handyman..  “Kid,” he told Charles Jr., “your old man just picked up a brick and lobbed it and knocked that little snot right off his bike.”  (Pop was, after all, a fireman, and accustomed to handling heavy equipment accurately!)

Fortunately for my grandfather, it was a less litigious era. At any rate, the boy was apparently undamaged, since he scraped himself and his bike off the pavement and made his escape, never again riding by to scream epithets at PopPop.

Dad had his own encounter with anti-Italian prejudice when, as a sophomore in high school, an older boy chose to repeatedly shove him and repeat the “Dirty Wop!” sentiment. Consultation with his friends resulted in a possible solution to this problem.  It appeared that someone in his crowd knew Big Sal, who, for $25.00, specialized in handling these delicate situations.  In the mid-1940s, $25.00 was a ton of money, of course, but Dad was already working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore and had his own funds.

As it turned out, though, Dad didn’t need to divest himself of all his earnings. The next time he encountered Bully Boy, Dad explained that he was going to send Big Sal and his henchman after him.  Scoffing, the bully decried the idea that Dad even knew anyone named Big Sal, but Dad’s cohorts, eyes widening, backed Dad up. “$12.50 each, for Sal and his helper,” they explained, “and”,  jerking their heads in Dad’s direction, “he works,  he’s got the money.”  Dad further explained that Big Sal specialized in removing those body parts which would ensure that the bully would not be siring future generations of racist morons.

Apparently, this final threat did the trick. A coward, as all bullies are cowards, the moron backed off and never bothered Dad again.

Oddly enough, the druggist for whom Dad worked throughout high school–just as much a part of the Italian-American community as Dad–always greeted him with, “Hey, you dirty Wop!” Dad always replied jovially with the same sentiment–thereby proving (as if proof were needed) that it is not our words themselves that ever have any real meaning; it is the intent with which they are spoken.

Chosen Relatives

A few years back one of our young relatives was disconcerted to realize that most of us were not, after all relatives—at least, not biologically. Like many another family these days, we have gathered together groups of people to whom we have an emotional, but no biological tie.  We have step-relatives  and their spouses and children; honorary aunts, uncles and cousins; half-brothers and sisters; adopted children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren; exes and current spouses; and people whom we just plain like (in fact, sometimes a lot more than we like our actual relatives).

Having become acquainted with the reality of our non-relationships, the young woman was uncertain if she should continue calling most of us by our honorary titles of aunts, uncles and cousins. I understood her dilemma, for I often found myself struggling to explain our family’s complicated relationships to friends and acquaintances.  “My sister-in-law’s sister” is a cumbersome mouthful, and a little confusing.  Even worse was attempting to explain, “The second wife and children of the stepson of my brother’s estranged brother-in-law by his now-divorced wife.”   (Yeah, try figuring that one out!  It makes the vintage song, I’m My Own Grandpa, sound perfectly logical!)

So I’ve decided (because, of course, I’m an expert in these matters and my opinion should bear extreme weight!)…anyway, I’ve decided that we need a universal term applicable to all these confusing familial relationships; one that would cover all bases, all options, without prejudice or explanation. Of the many possibilities I considered, Chosen Relatives is the one I liked best.  And because that is still a bit of a mouthful, I think it should be shortened to Chosatives, or perhaps even just Chosives.

A chosative is, basically, anyone that we welcome in as a family member, and who usually joins the family as an adult. They are someone who is present for birthdays and christenings, and holiday dinners.  They come to share our joy at weddings and our grief at funerals.  They are there to listen when the world crashes down about our ears, and to offer sound advice (without even complaining when we totally chose to ignore the advice and therefore compound a bad situation into a worse one).  They lend a hand when someone is ill and needs care—meals brought in, or transportation to a medical appointment.  They show up at the hospital with flowers and cards and (most precious) time to visit.  They step in to look after our pets when crisis strikes and we can’t be home. They babysit the youngest members of the tribe.  They are that special someone who is loved as much as, or often more than, our “legitimate” family members.

In one of my favorite holiday movies, a character exclaims, “You are born into a family. You do not join them like you do the Marines!”  But that is just the point: If we are fortunate enough, we often do join a family.  They gather us in under the shelter of their wings, and we become bound with them, heart and soul, body and spirit.

And what more could any family member truly be?

Families, Holidays, and Chaos

A few years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice tolerance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my very-Christian acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Christmas, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I was now forced to ask, could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even a rejection of all faith) to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.