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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Reese Kusza

God Bless the Contrary American

I come from a long line of contrary people. Law abiding, but contrary nonetheless.

My mother’s people come from Ireland and immigrated to America 100 years ago. My grandmother was born in County Donegal in 1902 and my grandfather was born in Boston in 1911, but his father shipped them all back to Fermanagh sometime after World War I. Grampa Dan only got back into the U.S. during the height of the Great Depression because he had an American birth record.

Some of my father’s family arrived in the 1600’s. Perpetually late, we missed The Mayflower, but came over on The Elizabeth and who knows how many other squalid little boats. A few were indentured servants, others were religious or political oddballs.

We worked our way through New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, fought in the American Revolution and died from disease, childbirth and the hardships of any farmer trying to eke out a living. We often had to move out of town because we were the wrong religion (Methodist or Baptist instead of Congregationalist) or for being rascally abolitionists or some such.

Nathanial Lyon was a crazy uncle who died in the Civil War (someone has probably defaced his cenotaph by now). He may have had unpolished boots and a grubby uniform, but it is said his men respected him. The nuts don't fall far from the family tree and who knows which stories are true and which were tall tales told to amuse us.

My mother’s parents came here with nothing but brains and strong backs and managed to carve out a solid, working class life for themselves and educate their children. My grandmother worked as a domestic and went to night school and then nursing school. My grandfather started off as a bottle washer and worked his way up to second cook. He finally got a job as a trolley car driver and then New York City bus driver. They loved being Americans and never looked back. They were not nostalgic about Ireland.

My father’s parents were a bit more established by the 20th century, but the money was so old it had disintegrated. I am not sure if my Nana came up with that one or I did, but it sounds good. My father went into the Navy instead of going to college.

Our parents raised us in a very egalitarian way. We lived in an integrated city and went to integrated schools. Our house might have been the smallest in the neighborhood. I had friends in the projects with bigger apartments and two bathrooms. Mum and Pop walked the walk. I don't know how many they've helped besides me, but I know they haven't frittered money away living in some upscale enclave while talking nonsense about stuff they haven't lived.

I was fortunate to go to high school in the Bronx with women whose parents also scrimped and saved enough to send them to the nuns instead of a lousy public school. Our parents came from all over the planet, but had one thing in common. They knew hard work and a decent education would keep us out of trouble and give us a better life than they had.

And they were right. The women I went to school with are successful and respected members of their professions and communities. They are doctors, lawyers, nurses, business owners, members of the military and law enforcement, educators, mothers, wives, you name it.

The school survives today and hasn’t been made into condos yet by the Archdiocese of New York because of her Alumnae. We want to continue that tradition for other young women.

We were taught to be responsible for our own studies, our own behavior. No one made excuses for us. So what if the neighborhood was bad or our parents didn't speak English or somebody's father was AWOL? Did it really need to hold us back? No!

The expectation was we would pursue higher education when we graduated. And then we would go to work. And many of us would work and raise families at the same time. We would be contributing members of society. We would not be leaving school with our hands out. No one owed us anything. In fact, our school motto is "Serviam" -- "I will serve".

We were taught that where we came from didn't matter so much as what was in our heads and hearts and what we chose to do with that in the world.

And only in America could that have happened.

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