Friday, July 08, 2005

Spanish Arm, Irish Arm

My arms are two distinctly different colors. My left arm features a permanent fingertip-to-elbow farmer's tan, courtesy of my first few summers in DC, driving a car with no A/C. My right arm remains a fish-belly pale that makes Conan O'Brien look downright swarthy in comparison.

I like to call the left arm my "Spanish arm" and the right, my "Irish arm." Just paying homage to at least a chunk of my muttley genetic heritage.

I'm a genuine Heinz 57 mess o' ethnicities - Irish, Scottish, English, German, French, Spanish, Native American, Prussian Jewish... you name it. My father's side of the family is primarily Irish and Scottish. The family name was MacSuirtain (Mac ZHURdan) until fairly recently. No matter - it means "Son of Jordan" and is one of those "Crusader who probably never got to the Holy Land" names. There are some interesting stories of how my Irish ancestors ended up on this continent. Most of them have to do with horse thievery.

My mother's side of the family is a richer mix - Hessian deserters of the Revolutionary War, Prussian Jews escaping pogroms, French peasants... and Cornish folk with a distinctly olive skin tone, thanks to a Spaniard who, as the story goes, jumped ship from the Spanish Armada and made his way to the Cornish coast. The family name on that branch is Castor, changed from its original Castro. One of my great grandfathers was named Francisco D'oro Castor. He insisted on being called Frank W. Why? Got me! I think Francisco D'oro is a pretty fantastic name. (He's the one who, as the story goes, decided to light up a cigarette next to a pony that was being "vented" of gases after eating too much grass, with disastrous, explosive consequences. All at once, I wish I had been there to see that, and, again, I'm really glad I wasn't.)

So, here I am. An American mongrel. Some of my siblings are more pale, others a bit darker. My sister, Nurse Rachet, and I carried the darker olive tones we assume are part of our Mediterranean heritage. In fact, when Nurse Rachet was expecting her kidlets, she ended up with "mask of pregnancy" - a skin discoloration that looks somewhat like a raccoon mask and is most commonly seen in Hispanic populations.

I laugh about my Spanish and Irish arms, and, tonight at the gym, I met a Cuban woman who commented on my odd 50/50 limbs. We were showing each other scars in some sort of twisted ladies' sports club replay of the great "scar battle" in "Jaws." ("Mary Ellen Moffatt - She broke my heart!") My fellow gym rat looked at my arms, laughed and said, "Whoa! You are a mutt, aren't you?!?"

Yep. That I am. A good old-fashioned American mutt, born out of the immigrant stew that brought Eastern European Jews and quiet Quaker-like Christians together to cross the Oregon trail as a family. The same mix that brought the children of Irish horsethieves and English sailors together in the Minnesota wilderness.

In the end, when the dust of a few generations settled, their children would meet on an airbase in Florida in World War II, and, 20 years later, another goofy-looking mongrel child entered the world only to eventually torture you with bad prose on the Internet. It's an utterly American story that's played out over and over again in families across the continent, where ethnicities and religions and tribes bubble and blend together into something new and unique, yet strangely identifiable as just another one of our common stories.

I may not be pretty. You may not be able to figure out just where my people come from. But I sure am an American. With one Spanish arm. And one Irish one.


Sasquatch said...

Well, I can't boast of that many ethnicities—I'm just English, German, French, Danish, and Missing Link. In college, I believe it was the Atomic Editor who christened me a NATO American.

Merujo said...

NATO American. That is simply beautiful. I'm definitely a "stew pot dregs" American. :-)