Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why do I care?

Why would you long for a place you weren’t from?

Honestly, I don’t even get why Louisiana has this hold on me. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid, my family rarely made the trek down there to visit the southern relatives. (My brother was hospitalized for 8 years, and traveling meant leaving him—not something anyone was eager to do.)

And save for one adventurous aunt, my Louisiana relatives weren’t much into traveling. I can count the number of times we visited—us there, them up here—without exceeding the digits on two hands. And my mom never really talked about her relatives, or growing up there, much. In fact, there wasn’t much evidence of this piece of my family heritage in my life at all.

Once, as a kid, I remember lying in my usual spot in front of the TV—probably watching Star Trek—when my mom appeared at the top of the stairs, holding something out to me. She’d been frying bacon for dinner, and on impulse, had fried a piece of bread in the bacon fat left behind. It was, she said, a taste from her childhood. She seemed pleased with herself. But it’s the only time I ever remember her making any food related to Louisiana.

My father’s family food—Italian American fare—dominated our table. And I always identified with my father’s family growing up. It was cool to be Italian. In fact, I always wished we were more Italian, somehow. That we spoke it, or could claim closer ties to the homeland than we did. (It was my great-grandparents who came over…and no one kept in touch with the family that stayed in Italy.)

But still, we knew were the family was from, there were signature dishes, the recipes for which were passed around the relatives, with much arguing over who did them best.

In contrast, my Louisiana heritage always seemed vague and fragmented, hard to get a handle on. Ask my mother what we were, on her side, and she’d rattle of a distressingly long list of possibilities—English, Irish, Scottish, French. It was all very vague and unsatisfying. Nothing you could glom onto, like Italian. Nothing that could allow you to say “this is what I am” or “I’m half this.”

Maybe that’s what’s bugging me. I’m missing a piece of my identity. I’m only half Italian. What’s the rest of me? Whatever it is, even if it’s an amalgam of ethnicities, the key to piecing it together is Louisiana, where they were all forged together.

It has occurred to me to wonder why I care so much about this. There are plenty of people, all around me, with similar stories, who don’t seem to pine, as I do, for their roots in this way. The way I feel reminds me of the way people who are adopted seem to search for their parents, and through them a piece of their own identity. I don’t put my situation on par with theirs. But I do seem to need to connect, more than most, with this piece of my geographic identity.

It makes me think of the X-Files, and that slogan that followed Mulder around “I want to believe.” Except in my case, it’s “I want to belong.” But in a place like Louisiana, I’m not sure that’s possible, as an outsider. And there’s no denying that, despite the entrée of my mom’s origins, that’s what I am.

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