We’re all American

While I mostly talk about my Irish family (immigrated to the Ozarks), mum’s family came to the States earlier. They were Russian Jews and I had little to do with them, in large, except being raised by my maternal grandmother! They moved to The Bootheel.

They got here Just In Time for the Civil War!

You stepped off the boat, into this land of milk and honey…

Then stopped at the dock.

‘Kiss your wife and babies goodbye. Here’s a uniform, now you’re in X Company.’

They needed cannon fodder; men went straight from the boat to the battlefield so their loved ones became Americans.

-see below for one of many folk songs that tell how many of us came to be American

My maternal Great-Great Uncle’s cavalry sword hung above his sister’s mantle (my great-grandmother, or Gram’s mum). These big families (Gram was one of 19 children) extended over quite a bit of timeline. I didn’t get to know Great-Great Uncle but of course I’m old enough to know my Great Uncles!

I didn’t spend a lot of time in the Bootheel, in spite of being raised by Gram. I can’t say that I feel comfortable there. Why did our family branch choose to live there? A swamp that didn’t let them in town after dark?

She never explained that well enough. Great-grandfather’s brother moved to Chicago and he was known to have ‘made it big.’ When you use paper from other’s garbage in your shoes to keep dirt out of the holes in the soles? Somebody with new shoes once a year may seem rich. ‘Ooo! He’s got a straw hat!’

Where was I?

I’m assuming most people have studied Jim Crow laws in History, Social Studies or seen it in Driving Miss Daisy.

‘Statutes and ordinances established between 1874 and 1975 to separate the white and black races in the American South.’

You may not have been around during that time but I was. Jim Crow applied to wee Lily visiting Grandma and cousins! I lived that shite.

“But…you’re so white!”

Depends on your definition.

In the town where my family settled…correction: outside the town where my family settled, it applied to Jews. It’s not the most commonly-heard term but Jews were considered ‘people of color.’ There’s no logic as to why one group of people are ‘better’ than another. Perhaps, like the Stock Market, it was based upon sentiment. The people in power of that area felt like it.

This defined where they could live and when they could come into town. My family had a shack next to the railroad tracks. Across the road and beside were black families. We were ‘the colored section of town.’

It affected how you associated with others:

My great aunt married an Indian (“Native American,” as we were taught in school). They were forced out of town; we were colored and he was colored, apparently different kinds of coloreds weren’t allowed to mix, either.

Aunt Bessie and her husband moved to the Res where she died about a year later. When you’re sick and poor, you don’t have money for medicine or doctors. You pray. Of my great-grandmother’s 19 children, she was one of seven who died in their twenties or younger.

My great-grandmother and grandmother did laundry for the white people. They went to the back door to get it, brought it home (weren’t welcome in the backyard) to wash, dry, fold and then returned it to the back door.

Blacks and My Family weren’t allowed to buy alcohol but it was widely-known that my great-grandfather enjoyed it. He was popular amongst the whites, who’d stop by after dark to visit (since we couldn’t come into town). And bring a bottle.

I still don’t like going to or through that area. While I can ‘pass’ with my pale skin, light eyes and strawberry blonde hair, it’s hard to forgive or forget what I witnessed and the stories I grew up hearing.