2. “A-me-ri-can!”

1967 John Paul Godges

The author at the age of five in the fall of 1967.


IN 1968 AT THE AGE OF SIX, I watched in suspense as my mom and older brothers and sisters launched into a spirited discussion—somewhere between cooking dinner, scrubbing the floor, playing hide-and-seek, doing homework, and practicing the piano—about who took after whom. The discussion was about nationality more than personality.

“Mary Jo’s still got blond hair,” somebody said, “even though she’s not a baby anymore. That makes her the Polack of the family.”

“Joe’s got those big Abruzzi hands,” somebody else said. “That makes him a good dago.”

My brothers and sisters were mostly joking around, poking fun at each other’s inherited traits from the old country, and vying to see who would qualify, on balance, as what. But they were also doing two things that struck the kid in me as mighty important: They were defining themselves as individuals, even as they were carving out some sense of place in the family.

I didn’t want to be left out of place. “What am I?” shrieked the six-year-old with an identity crisis.

The room fell oddly silent. I found myself becoming the object of a rigorous inspection from 10 to 12 eyeballs gazing down upon me from on high. Hmm. No Roman nose—not yet, at least. Hmm. Nope, no pasty white northern skin, either. Hmm. Can’t detect any Latin passion. Nor any Slavic stoicism. Hmm. Maybe I was still too young, too unformed, to have exhibited any telltale ethnic traits, physical or behavioral.

I can’t recall who broke the silence, but the exasperated response spoke for everyone. “Oh,” someone finally bellowed in mock resignation, “you’re A-me-ri-can!”

Everyone burst into hysterics. They were so proud of themselves, having dodged a tough question and, best of all, having found yet another way to amuse themselves.

But something deeper was also happening at that point in the discussion. There was something almost unheard of in our family: instant unanimity. The clever response about my being an “A-me-ri-can” worked as a sort of armistice, a friendly way to tear down the flimsy familial fences by pointing toward a common future. At least the youngest child in our brood of six—the final legacy of this particular generation—would be exclusively and unambiguously American. For good or naught, the destinies of everyone else in the family—along with their light Polish hair, big Italian hands, and God-only-knew-what other inherited idiosyncrasies—were inextricably tied to that common American destiny.

The discussion ended. It had reached its logical conclusion.