Catch Up – Day 19

8/17 Day 19

As promised, today’s post is an excerpt from the personal essay I worked on all week in McCarth, Alaska at the Wrangell Mountains Center. I can’t put the whole thing up here because it is only a draft and I’d like to submit it one day. While I struggled with the validity of this topic, I was encouraged by Scott Russell Sanders, who gave me the following advice: First, “Never underestimate the power of a well-told story to inspire others to consider their own stories.” Second, “Every essay you write doesn’t have to be the one that changes the world.” Relieving pressure, this advice helped me get to a draft of the essay that I think at least broaches a subject pertinent to a larger context. You be the judge…

What’s in a Name? [excerpt]

I am writing this because I do not own my last name, though by every document proving my existence, the name “Schultz” owns me. It follows me like a shadow, Schultz. One heavy syllable the sound of a rubber mallet striking brick. The name came from the ancestor that has no lore: Lewis Schultz, my paternal grandfather, a man who held me once before he died.

As Americans, we have contrary impulses to both claim a heritage that is exotic—tales of triumph and emigration, perseverance in the face of injustice; and a heritage that is fresh—a clean slate of Manifest Destiny and new culture. Schultz represents the part of me that is the least. One-thirty-second, to be exact. How cumbersome to dawn a German last name with no personal associations beyond stereotypes. Think German, think rigid, controlling. Think German, think uber hard worker. Think German women, think broad backs and shoulders, bellies like loaves of bread, ruddy cheeks, rose bloom lips. It’s no wonder that growing up, more attention was allotted to the quarter-sized Irish and Sicilian slices of my genetic pie. Family names like Nyhan and Saia, Markley and Russo sound more unique and wordly, rich in culture and tradition.

I have only met my Irish great grandfather through a story passed down over the years. My relatives say he fought his way around the world. They say he jumped ship. They say he was enslaved. They say he went by his own volition. They say he hardly said a word.

In one version, his mother scrubs pots in the sink when the British Navy comes knocking at the door. “You,” they point to Daniel, “come with us.”…[Irish story continues]

… As for the Sicilian in me, this much I know: That it started in Catania Province at the base of Mt. Edna. That my paternal great grandparents buried three children before they left. News of one more pregnancy sent my great grandfather, Aggrapino Saia, northward to Palermo. He boarded the S.S. Italia and arrived at Ellis Island fifteen days later. His wife Angela arrived three months following and gave birth to the first of six children on U.S. soil…[Sicilian story continues]

… What compelled me to keep my German ancestry at arm’s length? The fact that in both World Wars, the U.S. fought against the Germans? That even today the word “German” is often associated with the word “Nazi”? Perhaps it was something more personal. My father always told me that though Lewis Schultz only held me once, he loved me wholly as his grandchild. How could I possibly return such devotion? If I didn’t know the source of my last name, could I ever fully know myself?

The only part of my German heritage that made its way down to me is a mini Daily Register calendar printed by the Methodist Church and worn in my grandfather’s breast pocket 365 days a year. I remember finding it in my father’s desk one afternoon. I had been sent to look for something—binoculars, perhaps—and rifled through the ordinarily private drawers with the bliss of permission…When I finally opened the pages of my grandfather’s Daily Register, I saw that it was dated 1979, the same year he died and I was born…[German story w/ quotes from Daily Register continues]

… From the Irish, I would grow up a fair-skinned fighter. From the Sicilian, I had my appetite and perseverance. And from the German, enough lore to fill every page of Lewis Schultz’s Daily Register. Lewis Schultz who had the courage to plan ahead in the face of his own death. Lewis Schultz who played chess with pen pals all over the country, mailing his moves one postcard at a time. Lewis Schultz who cheated with strawberry ice cream. Schultz who held long discussions with ministers of many faiths. Schultz who attended “family night at Johnnie’s.” Schultz, my grandfather, who had he lived long enough, might have walked with me along the streets of South Boston, sat me down and leaned in close to say, “Katey, let me tell you a story about the tiniest part of you.”

[end] [Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post – “Hiking One Mile in Alaska – as promised]

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