My father is a first-generation American. My grandparents came over from Finland when the whole Karelian Isthmus was ceded to the Russians after WW2. Viipuri, Finland became Vyborg, Russia and my grandfather automatically became a Russian soldier. He didn’t much like it so they became Americans instead in every sense of the word. I’ve already written about how they disavowed their culture in the post On Being Finnish. The point is, I know nothing at all about Finland, Finnish culture, language or customs. I’m sure I have a million relatives that I’ve never met. I don’t speak Finnish and neither does my father. I wish I knew more.
On my mother’s side, I know too much. Both my grandmother and grandfather have written family trees dating back to the 1400’s and the 1600’s respectively. Both families are from the upper crust of New York society when things like upper crusts, social registers and debutante balls meant something. My grandmother is the last of nine children, all of whom were college educated and raised in proper society. My grandmother and all of her sisters graduated from Cornell University. The females were Ivy-league educated professors and researchers in a time when, if women did graduate from a higher learning facility, it was usually something along the lines of Betty Crocker or Emily Post University. My family eschewed gender bias. Anything the men could do, the women could as well.
Both families contain nothing but well-educated professionals – doctors, lawyers, politicians. On my grandfather’s side, my great-grandfather was a superior court judge. One of my relatives founded University of Michigan law school. Another, a woman, founded and was mayor of a major city in Michigan that still thrives today. One of my relatives was a doctor who helped pioneer gene research. His descendant was private physician for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia for seven years.
My grandmother’s side of the family is no less prestigious, yet slightly more creative in their endeavors. My great-uncle, my favorite, was best friends with Norman Rockwell, and played trumpet for Count Basie and Duke Ellington. His daughter, a successful artist, was used as the model for one of the six iterations of the Morton Salt girl. One of my grandmother’s brothers invented the machine that wraps individual slices of cheese. My grandmother’s cousin wrote quite a few successful spy novels under no less than half a dozen pseudonyms, some of which, no doubt, most of the American public is quite familiar.
My mother is the first person in all of family history not to have graduated from college. I was the second. At least I wasn’t the first to break with family tradition. My mother also broke with tradition by marrying an immigrant farming family’s son. My Finnish grandparents weren’t listed in any social register and my Finnish grandmother didn’t even have a coming out ball. However, in addition to being non-gender biased, my grandparent’s families weren’t socially biased either. Not only were they intelligent and well-educated (those two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive), but they had open minds as well. They accepted my father and his parents as if they came from Finnish royalty.
So, that’s what I have to work with. That’s the type of family I come from and have to live up to. I have some rather large shoes to fill and I haven’t quite succeeded yet, but I’m working on it. There’s a lot of self-induced pressure on me to succeed like the rest of my ancestors before me. Hopefully, by the time I’m done with this life of mine, I will have a prestigious one sentence epithet to go under my name on the family tree like the rest of my relatives.