My genealogy is fairly straightforward: mostly Polish on my mom’s side and Norwegian on my dad’s. There is a smattering of other ethnicities as well, most of them Anglo-Saxon: Lithuanian, Scots-Irish, Welsh, Dutch, English, Danish, etc. And Cherokee Indian. No, seriously. According to a family tree that my father sketched out as far back as he could, my great-great-great grandmother was a Trail of Tears-era Cherokee by the name of Running Fawn. I wish there was a photograph of her in existence somewhere.
Where am I going with this? Well, Father’s Day was 10 days ago, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with my own father these past few weeks. My mom has been visiting her daughter and granddaughter on the other side of the state, and it has given my dad and I time to get to know each other better. Our recent time together has confirmed something that I long suspected: although we are sometimes so different that I wonder – jokingly – if I was adopted, I know that most of the time, I am my father’s son.
The Family Tree
My dad was born into a large family that included two brothers, four sisters, one half-brother and two half-sisters. His mom came from a long line of Nelsens, one of whom American-ized the family surname by spelling it “Nelson.” The greater Nelson (or Nelsen) clan came from Norway and Denmark, and started a new life in America over 130 years ago. No chance at U.S.-Norwegian dual citizenship for this blogger.
My dad’s father has similarly long-established roots in the U.S. Grandpa was the son of blue-collar immigrants of British descent. Those Brits – explorers (my globetrotting passion has deep roots) – left England for the New World on the Speedwell, that sailing ship which is most famous as having left at the same time as the Mayflower, only to turn back thanks to some kind of problem, re-port in Rotterdam, and try again several years later – adding Dutch blood to my ancestral mix in the process.
How did all of this lead to my father becoming the man he is today? The truth is complicated, of course, but I thought I’d climb down one more branch on the GringoPotpourri family tree and tell you a bit about his parents – and then conclude with a few humorous observations about the old man himself.
The stories won’t be balanced; there is more to tell about my grandpa than there is about my grandma, if only by virtue of the lives each person lived before, during, and after their marriage.
Come, Loyal Reader. Learn more!
My father’s mother, the only grandparent I ever knew, was one of three children, all of whom grew up in Northern Illinois. Her name, of course, was “Ruth.” (I had a conversation with a friend of mine one time and we deduced that all grandparents from that era were named Ruth. But I digress.) My dad, never one to mince words, told me the family history as it really happened, warts and all. According to him, Grandma Gringo outlived three husbands and never traveled any farther outside Illinois in her life than to nearby Wisconsin and Indiana. The way my dad tells the story, his mother was prone to silly superstitions, old wives tales, and astonishing prejudices.
To me, Grandma Gringo was someone who looked like the dictionary definition of “grandmother.” Beautiful white hair, bone china tea sets all over her apartment, and a closet-full of identical blue house dresses. I remember that she always complimented whatever wrapping my mom wrapped grandma’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas presents in. “This paper is too nice to throw away,” Grandma would say as she careful untapped one end of the paper as opposed to tearing the paper to shreds, something her grandchildren would do. After Grandma Gringo passed away in 1997 (one month shy of her 87th birthday), we discovered closet-after-closed packed to the gills with wrapping paper from holidays past.
Grandma Gringo was a frail woman; I doubt she weighed more than 90 pounds. I remember her struggling to breathe while I visited her at hospice during her last days. Her mind, though, was tack-sharp until the end.
Once, during a Cub Scouts caroling performance that grandma attended, my mom asked her what she thought of the concert at its end. Her response: “Someone was out of tune.” She could walk into a room and immediately notice a crooked picture frame. (I have this blessing/curse as well). She would read a child’s book report and point out every misspelled word.
During grandma’s eulogy, I described her as a “history teacher.” She was always the person whom I would first consult if I had to write a report in elementary or middle school about my family history. I remember putting together a report on Norway, complete with a hand-drawn Norwegian flag on the cover page. Grandma was instrumental in putting together talking points of basic Norwegian cultural history. I am fairly certain that my mom still has a copy of that report. One or two years later, I had to write another report, this one on Poland. Although my Polish genealogy comes from my mother’s side of the family tree, I nevertheless (with mom’s blessing) consulted grandma once again. I know my mom still has a copy of that report.
Grandma had a tough adult life. She was responsible for eight children, and spent most of those children’s childhood lives waiting for grandpa to return from active duty in WWII, or from work in Asia and the Middle East. His paychecks were back-dated and came infrequently, and my dad marvels at how far she could stretch them. “She was so resourceful,” he told me recently, “she could take a can of soup and eight slices of bread and get two delicious meals out of it.” (Aside: I don’t know about the five-loaves-two-fish thing, but I will concur with my dad that Grandma Gringo was an incredible cook.)
I was a pallbearer at her funeral service. She was a good grandparent – again, the only one I ever really knew. When I learned, years later, that she was married two more times after she and Grandpa Gringo were divorced, my head was filled with confused thoughts. I remember family photo albums with pictures of her, and I remember other pictures of him, but I don’t remember any of grandma and grandpa together. As a child of parents who were still married (and are still married today – 46 years!), the idea of divorce simply never occurred to me.
I know almost nothing about her second and third husbands. My father, for as much as he likes to talk, is surprisingly taciturn in this regard. I know that her second husband was named Tom and her third husband was named Omar. I know that one of them was a violent man and the other a lay-about drunk. I know that, late in life, she had a daughter whose children I would play with when I was a child myself. And that’s about it.
I never got to know my paternal grandfather, as he passed away when I was young, although I have seen pictures in the family photo album of Grandpa Gringo holding me in his arms. He lived closer to my father than to any of his other children during his final years, and I’m told that my dad was the only child who ever really got to know him. “He was fonder of making children than of raising them,” my dad once said, in his trademark blunt manner.
Grandpa Gringo died at age 74. I was barely three when he passed away, and I can hardly remember him. Based on stories that I’ve been told, the traveler in me would no doubt have loved to know him better.
One of seven children, grandpa showed an aptitude for mathematics and mechanical sciences. “Wishy-washy” was a term lovingly used by my dad to describe his own father. Grandpa’s engineering skills served him well later in life as he bounced from job-to-job at various machine shops across Chicagoland. But first: the early years!
Grandpa Gringo was something of a patriot. He lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy at 17. His lie was eventually uncovered and he was discharged. He found work during Prohibition as a beat cop on the streets of Chicago. My dad, a man of unbreakable integrity, tells me while beaming with pride that grandpa refused to take a bribe from Al Capone’s men. Hearing this oft-told tale, I can’t help but wonder how grandpa made it through the Twenties without being killed!
It gets worse. According to my dad, grandpa was a Northern Irish Protestant on a majority-Irish Catholic police force. He received all the shit assignments as a result – bad beats at bad hours in bad neighborhoods. I imagine that he took his licks like a man; it was the Depression and he was surely grateful to have a job.
Somewhere around this time, Grandpa Gringo experienced love and marriage – albeit briefly – to a Polish woman, Rose, the daughter of staunchly-Catholic immigrants. Their union was ill-fated, however, as bad plumbing on Rose’s part led to her death during childbirth. Their child survived, but it didn’t matter to Rose’s grief-stricken parents. Grandpa tried pointing out to them that he and Rose only tried to have children at their own urging, but in their eyes, the whole ordeal was somehow grandpa’s fault. They kicked grandpa out of their lives and raised the now-motherless newborn as their own. He never saw the child again.
Grandpa left for Florida, where he found work with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Grandpa’s heart healed with time, but he lost his job during the Great Depression and returned to Chicago, where he cashed in any favors and got his old job back. He still had the same thankless beat, courtesy of his religion and his Northern Irish bloodline, but he found love for the second time one day when he was directing traffic and the future Grandma Gringo crossed the street. They quickly married and stayed together for over 20 years, although I have been told that their union was not a blissful one.
As the Thirties made way for the Forties, my grandpa found himself able to escape the Midwest – and his rocky marriage – by reenlisting in the Navy. He was called “Pops” by most of the enlisted men because of his age. He served on a WWII troop ship off the waters of Melbourne, Australia, and later fought under Chiang Kai-shek in China. Short stints in Burma and India came next. I don’t know which country he was fighting in when he learned that his first child – his son by the late Rose – was killed in action.
World War II was followed by a decade spent living in Saudi Arabia, where he worked in the oil fields with figurative grease monkeys. According to my dad, a monkey of the literal kind (a cantankerous capuchin) dropped a wrench into a moving machine engine on one 120-degree day. The wrench jarred a bolt loose, which flew across the garage and hit grandpa in the face, costing him an eye.
Grandpa Gringo flew home every two years…which was as frequently as Grandma Gringo would become pregnant. I can’t imagine her raising a large family on her own, but I suppose that if grandpa’s oil field earnings reached her with any regularity, that had to have helped. At one point my grandpa’s contacts in that part of the world earned each of his children admission to the prestigious American University of Beirut, but his wife strenuously objected. I wonder how different my dad’s life would have been had he attended college in Lebanon instead of in Chicago. As with so many things, who can say?
Disagreement over college education was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Grandpa and Grandma Gringo divorced when my dad was a pre-teen, and my dad recalls that his oldest sister, a hard-working woman who died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2008, shared much of Grandma Gringo’s burden in raising her younger children.
Grandpa, never one to give up, got married a third time, this time to an Italian woman named Theresa. They lived in Rome and had a daughter, whom I met for the first time in 2009. It seems that this marriage was a sad affair as well – Theresa had leukemia, and Grandpa’s considerable oil field earnings were eaten up as he sought medical care for his wife at many of Europe’s best hospitals. She was repeatedly denied entrance to the United States as her parents were gypsies and her lineage was thus deemed “impure.”
Theresa ultimately outlived her husband by 30 years. I am told that he took odd mechanical jobs around Chicago to make money to build a retirement home for him and Theresa, who waited behind in Europe. My dad says that Grandpa never took good physical care of himself, and that it was no real surprise when a series of debilitating strokes ultimately cost him his life. He never made it back to Italy, and died in a fleabag apartment in Joliet. My dad was his only regular visitor.
My Old Man and Me
My dad was a middle child in such a large family and the oldest male in the household if you consider that his father was working overseas most of the time. He was the first Gringo to graduate from college. He enrolled in a commuter school on the G.I. Bill, and he did all of the leg work in assuring that I went to a faraway school, as he wanted me to have the formative residence hall experience that he himself never did. I am forever grateful.
My dad is obsessive-compulsive in areas of neatness and organization. His DVD collection is sorted in alphabetical order, and his books are shelved by both genre and size. I am sure it’s no coincidence that I am the same way. He likes trivia and geography, and so do I. He is fascinated by religious history but largely mortified by religion itself, and so am I. He called his three years spent living in Germany three of the best years of his life. Somewhat similarly, I call Germany my favorite country in Europe. He is honest, punctual, and hard-working…as am I. He doesn’t have much tact…and neither do I. On a scary-funny note, he talks to himself a lot…as do I.
I answered the phone recently and the caller was a longtime friend of the family. He thought the voice on the other end – mine – was that of my father himself. A few weeks ago, I ran out to greet one of the professional lawn mowers that manicure our lawn, and the kid commented that I looked and sounded exactly like my dad. “I’m not sure how to take that,” I replied, half-joking but also half-serious.
My dad and I are not alike in every area. We don’t vote the same political ticket, for starters. He likes college basketball whereas I couldn’t care less. Additionally, he doesn’t share my love of garlic and spicy food, and I don’t understand his obsession with The Lawrence Welk Show (unless it is Welk as portrayed by Fred Armisen on Saturday Night Live). We both like WWII movies, although I can’t fathom why he thinks The Guns of Navarone is a better film than Inglourious Basterds. Nobody’s perfect, I guess. I tease him with affection, of course, and he responds by insisting that I am not adopted. 🙂
Random thoughts to close this out: We are all products of our environment. My dad came from a large, dysfunctional family…and never really wanted that for himself, I don’t think. He and my mother had just two children, compared to the ten (!) that his parents had over all of their collective marriages. We moved a lot over 40 years, but always with the hope that bigger and better things were just beyond the horizon. (This turned out to not necessarily be true, although it wasn’t for lack of trying.) Money was always tight for his parents, as it was for my parents, and as it currently is for me. I fear for and suspect that my niece will have the same problem. And so forth and so on.
Some vicious cycles continue ever onward…but love prevails.
Thanks for everything, dad. You are a good person and a great role model.