Chris Potter shares a fascinating glimpse into Carpatho-Rusyn culture in this week's City Paper. Two things struck me. First, there's the notion of an ethnicity without a nationality as the Rusyns aren't really from anywhere. Kind of like the Roma. Minus the hate. Second, there is the idea of building “postmodern culture” which balances tradition with innovation … like creating a Rusyn pop culture. Not as silly as it sounds when you consider how much of the cultural identity of this people is rooted in the Internet and other forms of media.
This sort of story is right up my alley as I have been working on my genealogy for years. I have more than 1,200 people in my family tree. I was brought up to believe I was primarily Irish Catholic with a little German Catholic thrown in for good measure. Imagine my surprise to discover that most of those “Irish” people were really German and not Catholic. Most of the Irish were Protestant, too. The German Catholics remain untainted by my research. They were just cheap, mean and long-lived.
I also discovered that my Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania roots run really deep … I have one great-great-grandmother who came to the US circa 1870 from Glasgow and she was the most recent arrival. My Dad's family has been in the Pittsburgh mills for at least five generations and my Mother's family worked farms and oil rigs in Butler County going back to 1800. I even found a third cousin once removed who has evidence qualifying me for the Daughters of the American Revolution if I should be so inclined to join.
I've also found some intriguing ethnic/identity mysteries. My paternal grandfather's mother's family were named Lescallette and appear to have migrated into Allegheny County/Washington County around 1860 from Maryland. I've found other Lescallettes, but no one knows from where they came to the U.S. It seems to be a big mystery and the older folks indicate that it was very hush, hush.
Also, my father's maternal grandmother, Jane Rice, seems to have just appeared circa the 1920 Census along with her siblings and their children. No record of them prior to that. No record of her in the Catholic Diocese even though she attended Mass faithfully (her husband was a Methodist). No one recalls her telling any stories of her childhood or her family. She was obsessed with moving up the social ladder and distancing my middle-class newspaperman great-grandfather from his working class relatives.
I can make educated guesses about the poverty and trauma, either personal or political, that would drive someone to eradicate their roots. But I want to know. I'm seriously considering DNA testing. My grandmother is still alive and its not invasive so we could tackle the mother's mother thing that way. The Lescallettes are a problem. All the men died without male heirs. At least, they disappeared from the historical record — probably killed in WWI.
What could the secrets be? Pogroms? Criminal behavior in the motherland? Poverty? Ethnicity that wasn't considered “white”? — this is the most popular conjecture amongst my relatives because my father, his brother and their mother have some physical features that appear to be non-Cacausian. One time a woman walked up to me and asked me about my African-American ancestors — she descended from African-American and Italian families. She just asked me out of the blue. It was disconcerting to say the least.
What's most fascinating to me are the individual stories. My mother's grandmother's sister lived 5 blocks from my current home, prompting my mother to recall childhood afternoons spent in Northside bars keeping her great-aunt company while her great-uncle (not actually married) worked. And their brother was a priest! My father's great-grandfather was born out of wedlock, kept and raised by his mother. The migration timing suggests she was impregnanted while on the boat. One can only sadly speculate how that came to be. He died young, leaving a widow with four children to raise. She farmed out the kids and got a job on the tugboats. In 1906! My grandfather's brother created a whole separate identity for himself, including a social security number. Everyone thinks that is kind of nifty, but I suspect there's more to the story.
No word on who are my homosexual ancestors. I have a few suspicious, but that's probably all I'll ever know.