|Family photo. I'm the little tyke.|
Last Friday I decided to get a bowl of clam chowder for lunch. Because we had a meeting at work during the lunch hour I would have to get it to go. I went to a restaurant in Fisherman's Wharf, placed my order and was directed to sit at the bar while my order was prepared. I have many years previous experience sitting at bars but have mostly stayed away from them for last couple of decades in order to maintain my sobriety. I looked up at the TV set but it wasn't showing anything of interest (how often does it actually happen that a TV shows anything of interest? For me its a rare occurrence.) So I looked at the pictures on the wall. It was one of those family owned restaurants that had been a successful going concern for several generations. These types of restaurants tend to be pretty good. The family that owned the place was of Italian ancestry and kept up with the lingo as I could tell by from the banter of the staff. The photos had recurring characters at different ages. Some of the pictures were from fishing trips with beaming men holding up their catch. In many cases the angler was carefully displaying a recently captured crab. There were pictures at the wharf and on the boats and there were pictures of family gatherings and parties. There were day-in-the-life photos. All featured people grinning broadly for the camera. Happy. Most of the photos were in glorious black and white and all were framed. I liked looking at them.
I'm quite familiar with these types of photos. I've spent a lifetime looking at pictures like this of my family, some of which include yours truly. I've seen countless pictures of my dad on hunting or fishing trips, or at construction sites (he was the world's greatest carpenter) or at picnics, barbecues, birthday parties, Christmas Eve celebrations, weddings, funerals, sports events, large Finnish gatherings or just sitting in the damn backyard drinking a beer. In most of those pictures -- including all that were not candid -- my father, and everyone else for that matter, is smiling. All the smiles seem genuine. Not the phony baloney type of smiles my late great brother and I used to conjure up when ever a camera was pointed in our direction (to this day I still give with the put on smiles, I just don't know how to do it naturally).
In some of the pictures at the restaurant, and in many of our family photos, people are horsing around -- good naturedly of course. These are often party pictures. When I was a kid my family, my extended family and all the various Finns they hung out with, were grand masters at having a good time. Here I am a brooding, melancholy figure who sits quiet and taciturn at most parties while my forbearers were all having great yuks at parties.
Last Sunday was my youngest grandnephews' birthday. His first as a matter of fact. There was a large gathering to celebrate this momentous occasion. This was quite unlike similar bashes of my youth. Even though my nephew married a Finnish woman, the vast majority of attendees this Sunday were not from the fatherland. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) I hardly heard any of the mother tongue being spoken. (It's a "father" land but the language is the "mother" tongue. Don't ask me why.) There were also a fair number of people of color in attendance. I found this a welcome change. In my youth it would be all or almost all Finns with perhaps a few spouses either from other European countries or from the USA. We treated them just the same although there were a few Finnish women who would just speak their native tongue thus rudely excluding non Finns from their conversations. My father had a very low opinion of these women. Anyway the times they have a changed. My brother married a Finn but I didn't. My two nieces married an American and an Italian and my daughters and youngest nephew are still in the market.
Some of the Finns I was surrounded by as a child were racist though they were a minority. Finns then were no more bigoted and probably less so than counterpart immigrant groups or indeed US born and bred citizens. It was not a topic that was made much of. This was at a time when referring to an African American as a negro or colored was not at all pejorative. Asians were lumped together as Orientals and nothing negative was meant by it. A man of Chinese ancestry or from China was a Chinamen. I remember hearing my dad and uncle reference a "jew lawyer" but it seemed a way of identifying him rather than an anti-semitic remark and I even got the sense it was supposed to signify that he was a good lawyer. There was nothing negative said about people from Mexico or other Central or South American countries. Of course gay people did not exist in my childhood so weren't spoken of at all. I was practically a teenager before I knew that there was such a thing as same sex couples. When it finally became a topic because a cousin came out it was just seen as an oddity and no one really gave a damn. If you're family it's all good and as for anyone else liking to have sex with their own gender, well that was their business.
Most Finns that I knew didn't get the Civil Rights Movement. They just didn't understand the problem. Everything seemed fantastic to them in their new country so why would anyone rock the boat? I had one uncle who was a virulent racist and when he popped off no one shut him up or argued with him. Then again no one much agreed with him either. Finns at that time in this place were not interested in arguing with each other. Actually I knew of one true oddball, another uncle who was an actual republican. The only Finn who was. My dad thought he was an idiot. Most Finns were part of the labor force and were Democrats. If you ever asked my dad what famous Americans he most admired he'd rattle of the names of recent Democratic presidents.
I loved growing up within an ethnic group and able to speak another language. It gave me a strong sense of identity. And not incidentally I was quite proud to be of Finnish heritage (and still am). I have detailed on this blog my mother's insanity which made for what was, in many ways, a pretty fucked up childhood, but I did benefit from being cocooned within a huge Finnish community. Even people I wasn't related to were relatives. We all drew security from the group and yet felt part of the country as a whole. No wonder everyone smiled in those pictures.