By DeeDee Corbitt Sauter, Contributing Writer
I have fabulous friends who run the gamut of personality extremes. After all, no one individual has everything. So I love collecting different types of characters; they all entertain me. One of these people attributes all of her characteristics and quirks to her Italian ancestry. She is convinced these tiny chromosomes control every aspect of her being. No free will there, simply DNA.
She’s loud, does not have an inside voice, often confuses rude with opinionated and loves all carbs. Pasta and bread are her dietary mainstays. She is constantly talking about her European heritage and its influence on all her decisions from child rearing to fashion accessories. Ironically, she has never lived outside the Commonwealth of Virginia, where she, her siblings, her parents and even her grandparents were born and reside.
None of them even have a Southern accent, let alone an Italian one. She is almost positive that her great-great grandmother on her mother’s side suffered great injustices and braved significant hardship to come to the United States via a battered, leaky boat. That single connection passed on through oral histories allows her to reference the past as if it was her own, as often as possible.
She is not sure of her father’s past, nor is she familiar with her husband’s background. So they are never mentioned when family trees are discussed. Her children are only aware of Italy and Italian cuisine and Italian style. However, for someone deeply entranced with her heritage, she seems to know very little about the actual history compared to exaggerated caricatures of cartoon Italians.
In the long run it doesn’t matter because she entertains me regardless of her background, even though it’s hard for me to relate.
I am a mutt and I never thought twice about it. I have not considered my heritage while making decisions or decorating my house or naming my children. I just was me without being attached to a past I never experienced.
My mom was German. Born in a farming area in the cold Northern part of the country in the middle of World War II, she thought it was healthiest to sleep with open windows during blizzards. To this very day, I get an inane pleasure at watching the flurry of snowy activity outside while I cuddle behind the sealed glass next to a fireplace. Simple pleasures.
She was organized, quick and highly opinionated. The German language is hard with rolling letters and the people have a dark history mixed with gaiety, dance, music and the arts. It’s deeply complicated. She came to the U.S., through Ellis Island, to be a nanny. She quickly met and married my dad, never returning to live in her homeland, thus bringing her genetics over the Atlantic to further grow the diversity in this country. I doubt she did that intentionally.
My father was created in the Philippines. He lived the first few years of his life witnessing the fight between the Axis and Allied powers outside of Manila. He is not fully Filipino; Welsh, English, Spanish and Southern also course his veins. I primarily think of him as “Dad” and not someone of mixed heritage, even though he did teach me a Tagalog phrase that he himself uses often when out. “Salamat Po” means “Thank you very much, honorable one” or something like that. He receives huge smiles whenever he uses it. But, again, I have never considered myself German or Filipino.
My world of heritage appreciation changed last year when my mom passed away. To connect with and honor her family, my father and I went to Germany to attend my maternal grandmother’s 100th birthday party. What a grand celebration it was! It started with a breakfast which moved to a lunch-dinner, complete with a dozen cakes at a fancy restaurant. Octogenarian women held ornate canes as they visited with each other during the meal. The animated conversation included girlish laughter, and I could see their eyes twinkle from across the room. I was the youngest one there.
Their energy never waned and somehow while I was slumping in my seat with exhaustion, their colorfully embroidered skirts and suits looked crisp and spotless. They all wore heels, some smaller than others, but even their walkers and canes sparkled along with their owners.
I watched them whisper and cavort as they took shots of schnapps and ate cake. They had all survived World War II, and Germany was not known as the best place to live in the 1940s. Some had even lived through World War I, losing family members dramatically to disease, famine and hardship. However, they had not only survived; these German women were a testament to strong living and never- ending hope as they raised and influenced the next generation.
I couldn’t stop watching them. And, for the first time, I understood the drive and joy of identifying with a particular cultural group.
Although I have a fierce patriotic streak that previously hampered my ability to see beyond this country’s borders, I can say, without equivocation, I am proud of my German heritage. Salamat po.
DeeDee Corbitt Sauter is a resident of Prince William County. Her column, “Tambourines and Elephants,” appears monthly in Prince William Living.