Fifty years ago, my mother died a month before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In their close proximity of timeline heaven, I’ve always imagined that she was able to discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis and the negative effects of the Cold War on Russian-Americans with the noble soul she humbly admired. Both issues were of great concern to Mom since her parents fled the old countries and gave her birthright in a free society.
Rumor stands that my parents were descendants of Russian Jews but raised as Polish-American Catholics. The only evidence I’ve haphazardly gleaned are discharge papers from the Russian Army belonging to my Great Uncle Joseph. I also found a stack of mysterious photographs when I was 5 – gruesome war images purportedly depicting Holocaust atrocities. They were hidden in my father’s tools, so I didn’t inquire about them until I was over 30. Secrets were guarded with somber reverence in our house, as though the KGB would rush the premises and tear open the floorboards.
Since three languages were spoken in our family (I can curse in Polish and toast in Russian), I grew up with a slight, indiscernible accent that my mother quickly sought to correct. In second grade, my speech classes with Mr. Lombardo began. A quick study, my husky, little voice sounded perfect diction that semester.
A scrawny towhead in striped cat glasses and wrinkled tights, I proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance as a dramatic colloquy and sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” with operatic gusto. Soon, my round, kerchiefed nesting dolls were replaced with a firm-figured, bubble-blonde beauty wearing blue eye shadow. Bullwinkle, Boris, Natasha and Squirrel no longer resonated familiarity in my ears, but I knew then it was more than a Saturday morning cartoon. Social science in America mocked fear and the new kid on the block. Without my mother’s astute sensitivity to pecking-order psychology, “Little Ruski” would have been a certain label for me to endure.
All traces of Old World inferences were systematically erased. We killed the coops of chickens in our suburban backyard, cut down the pear tree and replaced our fresh food with a 3-foot, aqua-blue pool and a swing set. Pink kitchen appliances and a 19-inch color console disguised the house where duck blood soup still simmered on the basement stove near the double sink where headless fowl were once plucked and drained.
At 10, my house was gone and the family divided, but my mother’s determination had set a course for the future. Every year I lost a little more ethnicity, screaming for the Beatles and crying over the Vietnam War. I’ve cheered for pyrotechnics every Independence Day. Officially American, cleansed from the suspicious, shadowy commie conspiracy within safe red, white and blue borders, we assimilated in order to protect our entitled freedom.
The melting pot principle mingled generations of ethnicities into one nation. Those who fled deadly oppression truly understand America’s obligation to speak freely and dissent. In a republic born of ideals and romantic dreams, the intricate mandala of cultures we draw on beaches coast to coast unite this land of hopeful survivors in each grain of sand. Our hearts are one.
I’ve never faulted my mother for guarding me from fanatic, narrow minds. Every child of immigration has a unique cross to bear, and there is no shame in assimilation. It is an honorable sacrifice to give your child up to freedom with the love of true patriotism in her soul.