The phone in my classroom where I was a bilingual teacher rang one morning-the school secretary wanted me to take a call from Central Office. With typical efficiency, the caller gave no greeting: “I’m filling in the forms for New York State on employee ethnicity. Do you consider yourself Caucasian or Hispanic?”
Not sure exactly how to answer, I joked: “Do you have a box that says, ‘Spanish-speaking Jew with an Irish Name?’”
There was a slight pause (was she really looking?) before she answered, “No.” I told her just to check “other,” and we hung up.
Even though I had been joking with her, my own response started me thinking more about who I really am; the “I” that is both more and less than mother, wife, daughter, tía, teacher, writer, adventurer. The “I” that is at its most basic: a first-generation American kid from a working-class Jewish family growing up in New York City, who wound up with the moniker Maureen Morrissey.
How did I get here? For that, and sometimes with bitterness, I have history to thank in general, and Hitler to thank in particular.
As near as I have come to understand, both of my parents started out in more than comfortable circumstances. Mom was born to a wealthy community in Berlin with surgeons and opera stars as relatives. Her family had been there for generations and were well-established. She would have grown up to be a German debutante with a large choice of wealthy suitors. Dad spent his early youth bouncing back and forth between Brussels and Amsterdam, the grandson, son and nephew of diamond dealers. He was a careless youth, who preferred ice skating long distances on the canals to attending to his schoolwork. His mother, my Dutch “Oma”, was on her way to becoming a well-known cellist in her corner of the world.
And then BANG- down comes Hitler’s sledgehammer and suddenly my German Oma and Opa are grabbing my then nine-month-old mother and little else, and making for the next ship out of port, bound for whatever country would take them in. They left, according to stories, amid the jeers of the rest of the family-jeers of disbelief that they could be so crazy…which later turned to pleading letters begging for help, which soon turned to silence.
And BANG- my Dutch Oma and Opa throw together a nine-car caravan of family, friends and neighbors, heading for Portugal to grab a boat for the Dutch East Indies-leaving behind brothers, sisters, and my great-grandparents, as well as a handkerchief full of diamonds that was meant to be used as passage money or bribes as the need arose. That handkerchief has remained a family mystery that divided us even further. That journey was filled with death and heartache and led them, a year later, into the Japanese prison camps in the heart of Indonesia. (see http://histclo.com/essay/war/ww2/cou/indo/w2i-intern.html for details on this little-known piece of history.)
Many years, deaths and changes later, my parents met in Ecuador as teenagers and then re-connected in New York City in the mid-1950’s. And less than a decade later I was born and named after mom’s favorite movie actress, Maureen O’Hara. I was raised in a home where Dutch and Spanish were the first languages, but admonished strictly by my father not speak Spanish outside of the house for fear of being labeled Spics. His mistrust and loss affected his entire life and all of ours (and, without doubt, that of my children as well). It was simply fate that I then married an Irishman, winding up with an name as common in Ireland as John Smith is here.
If you met me on the street, you would have no idea that behind my relatively benign façade hides a wild torrent that doesn’t exactly know where it is supposed to flow. Yet, flow it does. I am a living piece of history, a direct result of a world-changing era. My future and that of my family is as unknown as my past was indefinite. I am a link in a twisting chain; whether I am a weak link or one that holds it all together remains to be seen.
On a related note, my Dutch Oma’s birthday is tomorrow. Born in 1898, she would have been turning 114 years old. Hartelijk gefeliciteerd, Oma!