Lately, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to what I say. What does my story say about who I am and where I’m going? Is it a good story? Does it include any of the wonderful things going on in my life? Or have I fallen back on the old story, in which I complain and complain about how much things suck?
How you just answered that question might have more to do with your socio-economic status than you might think. When something crappy happens, those of us from a lower-class background tend to say, “Yeah, that sucks, but what are you going to do about it?” And then we sit back, trapped, knowing there’s no way to escape (much less rise above) whatever yucky thing just happened.
But if you happen to come from a family of better means or have catapulted yourself to a higher level of education, you’re probably going to see that you’ve got options. And those options color your life—who you are, what your story is and how you live it.
At least that’s the implication in a profile I just read about Fred Gardaphe, a kid who cut his teeth on drugs and violence in Chicago’s “Mafia-town,” then grew up to become a Professor of Italian American studies at Stony Brook University.
What? You might say. How did that happen?
He changed his story.
Well, first he had a little divine intervention. After his father and grandfather were murdered, a gypsy told his mother that he, too, would die if he didn’t get out of Chicago.
So his mother scraped together enough money to send him to a Dominican school, where the priests taught him to question authority.
“That was the bomb that blew everything up,” he says. “They taught me I had to get out of this place. It was getting hard to remain in the world in which I was born while being nurtured out of it by school. The question became, when do you leave?” (25, “Tracking the Ties That Bind”)
I read about Gardaphe in a profile from On Wisconsin, the alumni magazine from UW-Madison, a place near and dear to my heart. The piece (excerpted from Alfred Lubrano’s book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams) caught my attention because
- I also grew up in Chicago
- I’m also from blue-collar (a.k.a. immigrant) roots, and have kinda, sorta worked my way up the ladder. Or continue to try to. Although my peasant roots are always showing up in one way or another, like when I’m swearing my ass off or packing eight bags of food for a two-hour plane ride or shoving stinky salami sandwiches into my broods’ hands. But I digress.
In his essay, Lubrano accompanied Gardaphe on a trip back to his hometown and then wrote about it. He tagged along as Fred met up with a bunch of his old childhood pals. Listen to what happened when they reminisced about the old days:
Turns out everybody Fred used to know is either dead or on dialysis. “Whaddya gonna do?” Chucky asks, and the men contemplate the question, so very blue collar in its dual implications that everything is out of your control, but you’ve got to learn to live with it. “Whaddya gonna do?” practically qualifies as a working-class philosophy of life (25).
And with that one line, everything fell into place for me. After all, I come from that same immigrant working-class background, and damn if I didn’t hear Whaddya gonna do most days in one version or another. In fact, I still hear it every time I visit (or Skype) my relatives in Serbia. Something awful will happen, but instead of doing anything about it, the person will just sigh and say: “Sta ces?”
Yeah, that really sucked, but what are you going to do about it?
Until I read Lubano’s article, I never thought about how much that one little saying impacted who I was and where I was going. And let me tell you, that saying hung over my head for years, strangling me in bits and pieces.
Just like Fred Gardaphe, I didn’t know how to get out until I went away to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And just like Gardaphe, I lucked into some great professors who taught me there was a world of possibility living outside my immigrant family’s door.
Without that education, I never would have gone on to grad school, never would have taught college, and certainly never would have become a writer.
All it takes is one person—one person who, knowingly or unknowingly, changes your life path. For me, one of those people was Toma Longinovic, the first Serbian professor I’d ever met. That fact alone—that highly educated Serbs existed—blew open my world view of who I was and what I could accomplish.
Like Gardaphe, all of my Madison experiences melted into the idea that I could study and write about my past, thereby making sense of it.
These days, Gardaphe has published eight books on Italian-American culture and has “spent a lifetime studying those very traditions that I thought I had escaped when I left for Madison (27).”
What I get out of this is that any of us can change our story if we’re willing to take a long, hard look at it.
Which is why I’ve spent the last 13 years writing about my heritage and the challenges that have come with being Serbian American, particularly after the Yugoslav wars.
It’s also why I started this blog—so that I could take a long, hard look at myself and my marriage. Because bit by bit, as I learn more about who I am and who my husband is, I’m also learning how to change our story.
Sometimes, all we have to do is start.