Last evening I attended a Star Wars themed wedding. The officiant was Boba Fett (Star Wars character). We had an Bike Scout as an usher and an Ewok marched down the aisle. It was altogether fitting for an unusual couple. But it got me thinking…
My grandparents — all of them — immigrated to the U.S. about 100 years ago. Independently. From different towns in Poland & Prussia (it no longer exists but formerly extended from what is now Germany along the Baltic coast across what is now Northern Poland). My grandfather had been serving as an aid to a General in the Prussian Army, the rest of my grandparents were simple farmers living in towns widely dispersed throughout Poland. My mom’s mother — the grandparent that we know the most about — emigrated at age 13 when her older brother Laurence sent her the tickets from Milwaukee. She was to land in Quebec, take the train to Windsor Ont, and he would pick her up there. Which he did.
Our daughter shared a link to some 100 year old photos of immigrants in their original costumes and it has me pondering what my grandparents might have looked like when they arrived in the U.S.
I’ve been to Poland, back in the 890’s I guess. (I’m terrible about elapsed time and putting things in chronological order) It was before the Iron Curtain fell, and before Solidarity overthrew Communism. I remember teaching in a small church, and saying some pretty rebellious things — only to be told after the service that the Communist Party headquarters were around the corner and that a few people had become nervous about my comments. Little did I know….
When I was there I saw folks living as they lived — not dressed in traditional costumes; dressed in traditional clothing — and at the time they didn’t look much different than I did except for the cut of the clothes and the fact that all the clothing I saw during that August visit looked a lot hotter than anything I would have worn by choice and also a lot older and more heavily worn. But… I felt completely at home with the people.
In this country we don’t have a lot of uniforms in the traditional sense, but we have uniforms nevertheless. We tell the relative prosperity of people around us by their garb. When folks (particularly in business) fail or refuse to wear the clothing of their status it’s not all that unusual that they find themselves sanctioned as a result. A few days ago I heard reference to someone who’d bought a $5000.00 attache case — obviously the expenditure was not a function of keeping papers safe, it was intended to speak to the owner’s success, their affluence — the briefcase was a status signal.
I’m sure that my grandparents could afford no status symbols when they arrived in the U.S. They were working folks, in fact they worked all their lives. They didn’t know how NOT to work. Almost a hundred years later, when I was in Poland on a speaking trip I saw farmers still taking their 10 gallon (or some metric equivalent) pails of milk to the dairy on horse drawn wagons. Communism had not been kind to their way of life and in many ways they were living every day with circumstances not much better than my grandparents left behind. And that was in the 1980’s!
It’s funny, the ways we identify ourselves. Clothing, possessions, privilege — people use them all and many other ways of telling others where they stand. One of our most interesting experiences some years ago was a short vacation at a clothing optional resort. It wasn’t until people departed that the rest of us had any idea of their social status. During the week everyone had socialized with everyone, pretty much without regard to social class. Being polite and respectful counted for a lot more than the clothing and jewelry no one was wearing. Class and possessions don’t have to divide us; they just do. Some people revel in those divisions; some people want them; the notion of exclusivity is something people seem to strive for.
I think social blindness is one reason I have always loved public campgrounds. I like the idea that I have no control over my neighbor in the next campsite. And when we have gone scouting campgrounds for future visits I have always been turned off by gated communities, vehicle age or length limits, and all the other ‘tests’ that campground owners apply in order to assure that they will only have the kind of guests that they want. I’m sure my grandparents would not have made the cut. For that matter, I suspect that my parents and I wouldn’t have made the cut either.
So, we’re hanging out in Milwaukee. Some people call it the most segregated city; but I say at least people here are trying to deal with the issue. Maybe not always successfully. Obviously they are not. But there are a wide range of nationalities here and they bring a wide range of interests and inputs to be found in neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. While we’re here we’re enjoying the diversity. A few meals at interesting ethnic restaurants; a few conversations with interesting people. I know I shall miss some of that while we are South for the winter, but we’ll have other diverse experiences while we’re there, there so it’s all good.
Thanks for stopping, and I’ll chat with you tomorrow.