Monday, April 10, 2006

A pledge of allegiance

Saturday afternoon, we sat in the firehouse in the town in which I graduated from high school and applauded as the VFW (aka Veterans of Foreign Wars) handed out their annual awards. As I mentioned the other day, we were there because my grandfather was named citizen of the year. The VFW officials -- including the emcee, a gruff and off-color guy with a paunch and a twinkle in his eye -- seemed surprised that we (my sister and brother-in-law, D and I) thought it was worth driving 800 miles round-trip for their little awards ceremony.

After all, it was an unfussy affair. There were about 40 people in attendance, all of whom were associated either with the VFW or with one of the award winners (other awards were given out to the fireman, EMT and teacher of the year, as well as to the high school kids who'd won the annual essay contest about democracy). Ours was by far the largest party -- there were 10 of us squeezed at one round banquet table, including my parents, my aunt and uncle and my grandparents.

Lunch was your typical Jersey Shore buffet: sausage and peppers, chicken marsala, penne vodka, salad and some really great Italian bread. (No rubber chicken in these parts, although dessert was grocery-store chocolate cake and Dunkin Donuts coffee.) The whole event only took about 90 minutes, and my grandfather's portion was brief: He was recognized for his unfailing attendance at city council and board of education meetings, where he keeps an eagle eye on financial issues in particular. Several months ago, the local weekly paper, the one in which our college graduation and wedding pictures were printed, ran a full-page profile of my grandfather for this very reason; I suspect that story is what gave the VFW the idea to name him citizen of the year.

So far, I'm sure, all of this sounds pretty mundane. Every community has people like my grandfather, people, often retired, who are active in the civic life and who take seriously their duties in a democracy. But there is some extra meaning here that prompted us to make this spur-of-the-moment trip.

My grandfather is the son of Italian immigrants. His father came to the United States via Ellis Island as a 10-year-old boy, and raised his own family in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey. As a child in what was essentially an Italian ghetto, my grandfather wanted nothing more than to be an American. He begged his mother to cook American food -- meat and potatoes, apple pies and the like -- and scorned the food of his heritage, the braciole, the antipasto, the scungili and calamari. To this day, he detests the taste and smell of garlic. He loved going to the movies, where he soaked up information about what it meant to be an American -- what clothes to wear, what food to eat, what job to hold.

Throughout his life, my grandfather attempted the tricky feat of remaining fiercely devoted to his family while also escaping, as quickly as he could, the narrow confines of the life they wanted for him. He got himself to college -- in the hinterlands of Ohio -- where he earned a chemistry degree. He spent years in Brazil during World War II as a member of the Army Air Corps, his young wife -- a WASP from a family whose roots in this country predate the Mayflower -- waiting at home for him. (I may have the order wrong there -- he may have gone to college after the war on the GI Bill.) And when he returned, he took a job with a large pharmaceutical company, one that is in the news these days for problems with one of its painkillers.

Like many first-generation Americans, my grandfather clung ferociously to the American dream: if you work hard, you will be rewarded. His intelligence, and his fierce desire to succeed, served him well. His career accomplishments -- and the salary he earned -- propelled his sons to prestigious colleges, and earned the family a big, gorgeous Victorian house, since sold, in the north Jersey suburbs. His siblings and their spouses were also successful, though I don't believe any of them had "professional" jobs, strictly speaking (one owned a jewelry store, another worked for the fire department, etc.). Curiously, they all married Italians, as did the vast majority of their children. In pictures, our branch of the family stands out -- not only did my grandfather marry a mitigan (pidgin English for "American"), but so did all three of his sons, whose offspring (myself included) have light hair and pale skin.

What this all adds up to is the fact that the driving force behind my grandfather's entire life has been being American. And so to be recognized, at age 90, as a citizen, someone who contributes in a significant way to the forward progress of our country, is incredibly meaningful -- to him, and to us. I am not patriotic in the same way my grandfather is -- though I do trace a portion of my liberal politics and my tendency toward eggheadedness to him -- but I am continually inspired by his example.