Thursday, August 2, 2012

Roots in Wrath


Do you know about your family's history? I wish I knew more about mine. I've been thinking about my roots ever since I decided to move to a different country. I know that I'm mostly German, but like most Anglo-Saxon Americans, we weren't really a cultural celebration type of family and I know next to nothing about my European ancestry. I only connect with my German roots by loving Dachshunds, Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich.

Wie auch immer.


I would like to tell you that I'm related to some King, Queen, Duchess or famous rotten scoundrel, but I know this is actually where I come from:

 

And this is how I came to be born in Oregon by way of California:

Oklahoma Dust Bowl Refugees in San Fernando, CA. 06/1935.

My roots are 100% American working class.

My Grandma Bea, who just celebrated her 85th birthday, made the epic trip from Oklahoma to California with her many relatives during the Great Depression. She's told me stories about the journey – about the lard sandwiches they ate, about the crowded camps they stayed in, and the hope and ambition each person in her family had for their future  in California. Those sparkling dreams were met with incredible hardship and sacrifice, but somehow our family survived.


Unfortunately, I haven't been able to visit my family in over three years. They've been on my mind a great deal lately because I love and miss them so dearly. It will probably be at least another year before I get to see any of them again. Before I left, we all talked over the possibility of either me visiting them in Oregon or them visiting me in Chicago, but, it was decided that it would benefit me more if they  gave me money instead. After all, I can't eat well wishes and sentiment. The Depression might have happened almost eighty years ago, but we're still the same practical, tough old birds we always were because the pain and price of being poor is the same as it ever was.


I'm sure a fair number of films have captured these working class blues before, but two really hit home for me: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), where an ever so lovely elderly couple are forced to separate because they can't afford to take care of themselves during the Depression, and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which has become our family movie of sorts. There are so many haunting images and moments in that film I'll never forget – Jane Darwell sorting through her beloved trinkets and holding the teardrop earrings to her face, John Carradine's lifeless body hitting the water after he's killed with a club, and Henry Fonda's walk as he shuffles off from his family at the end of the movie. The film's power comes from those hard to swallow feelings, those gotta-do-whatcha-gotta-do-hurts-so-bad-i-wanna-cry times when your loved ones die, you're so hungry you're numb, misery at every corner moments and you have no choice but to get yourself up, dust yourself off and do it all over again. There's no use crying over what you can't control.

Though I miss my family, I am truly grateful for the sacrifices and support they've given me over the years to help me achieve my dreams. I'm not there yet, but I owe every little bit of my success to the canning factory operators, grocery store cashiers, lumber mill laborers and, yes, Okie migrant workers who worked so hard and dreamed of better tomorrows to help me get here. I am proud to be working class, proud to be part of my family's American dream. With their history on my side, I know I can make it.





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