A few years back, when I was writing for a now defunct local monthly publication, I did a piece about how it was when I was a youngun' -growing up in this little village. Things were a lot different then from the way they are today -for which I am quite thankful. Reading various pieces this week pertaining to Dr. King, his birthday, his life, the many contributions he made in his short lifetime too reminded me, once again, of how things used to be here.
My hometown - where I still live today -is in central Pennsylvania's mountains. It's a little village, off the beaten track; quiet, generally very peaceful, a great place (most of the time) for kids to grow up. Not much happens here that is noteworthy much of the time.
I was born and raised here - ok, that's a little redundant now isn't it. But, because of that, because I know and understand many of the things -the idiosyncrancies, as it were - about the area, I still love it, warts and all, ya know.
This area, until pretty much the late 60's, early 70's though was still quite often a very segregated village. Bias, prejudices and the like were often very rampant when I was a child and didn't start to go by the wayside, at least somewhat, until those decades. Ok, in some homes here, I suppose some aspects of those things still exist but not to the extent they did back then.
The segregation here though was not based on race or color but rather on ethnicity and religion and it did keep the village very much divided for many, many years.
The bulk of the population here consisted primarily of people whose ethnic background was either Swedish or Slovak and the religious factors divided people yet again by Catholic or Protestant. (Although there were other protestant churches here or nearby, the bulk of the protestant community was Lutheran -the Catholics either belonged to the church in the village that was mainly Slovak (still even had sermons done in Slovak when I was a kid) or they went to the Catholic church in a nearby area that was a tad more liberal.
My Mom was a bit more lenient about some of the segregated aspects that existed here but my Grandma -not at all in that direction!
When I was about 8 years old, I was invited to a birthday party for a little girl who lived down at the end of our street. Because her family lived directly across the road from my Grandpa's older brother and his family and they "neighbored" with them, Grandma had decided then that even though this family was Slovak as well as Catholic, that it was ok -they were safe - for me to attend their daughter's birthday party.
Little did she know at the time what a life altering event that would prove to be for me!
When I came home, both my Mom and Grandma were pumping me for details about the party - who was there, what does the house look like inside, what kind of refreshments did the mother serve.
I began telling them about the food because that was what really impressed me the most. Usually, other kids I associated with when there was a birthday celebration, it just amounted to kool aid and a cake -ice cream too if we were really lucky, but that was it.
This party though -the mother had fixed several dinner-type dishes - all of which were very good but one in particular really caught my fancy. I began to describe this delicacy, which is was to my tastebuds, to Mom and Grandma and ended up begging, almost on my knees, for Grandma to please, please, please make this sometime. The family called this entre "Halupki" but I later learned in English, this is Stuffed Cabbage Rolls.
I loved them on first bite and have maintained that feeling for them for close to sixty years now. But if you could have seen the look of shock - the horror that registered in my Grandma's eyes stemming from the fact I had eaten "Slovak" food and what's more, I had LOVED it. Well, you'd have sworn they had kidnapped me and brainwashed me or some such thing. It was my first real introduction into the bias and its depth here in the village and right in my own home.
After that, I was a bit cautious as to how much I told Mom and Grandma about some of the other friendships I had developed. Because the village was pretty much divided based on one's ethnic and religious backgrounds, the section where I lived was mostly people of Swedish origin with a couple families that were Slovak, but also Lutheran. Of all the families on our street, only three were Catholic and of them, our next-door neighbors fell into that category. But, since they had moved in there and Grandma had slowly gotten to know them - and determined they were actually very nice, very good people, they were "acceptable" and I was allowed to play with their children.
Well, I really didn't just play with their kids - I darned near lived at their house! They had a very large family - 13 children (11 girls and 2 boys), plus a fairly large assortment of granchildren too when they moved in and with me being an only child, playing over there was like dying and going to heaven! Kids all over the place ya know.
Now Mrs. Little - the next-door neighbor - and her family all attended the Catholic church in the next little village over from ours - the one that had a reputation for being a tiny bit more liberal, not so hard-nosed about associating with other groups and such and as a result, if I happened to be at their house (when WASN'T I there?) and it was a holy day, requiring special prayer time and such, she had no qualms whatsoever about shipping me off upstairs to the girls' bedroom where the kids would all gather to say these special prayers and I had to pray right along with them.
By the time I was about 10 or so, I knew all the usual prayers - Hail Mary - a couple others as well -that were required of any good Catholic child to learn. By that time too, I had also determined that it would not be a wise move on my part to share that little tidbit of information with my Grandmother either or I would find myself no longer allowed to associate with that family at all, you see.
Watching the way this type of bias, prejudice and segregation operated here in my own surroundings and knowing the kids from my class who were strictly off limits for me to really associate with after school, made it very easy then as I started to learn about racism later in school to see it as the evil it was and not something I wanted to be part of in its perpetuation.
I always thought it was rather odd too that at church, one of the favorite songs often chosen to be sung in Sunday School was "Red and Yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight" but yet, the same principle didn't apply across the board to those right here, right under our noses, who were deemed different and also, unacceptable too then, based on their ethnicity and religion.
About 9 years ago - when I got my first computer - and began surfing a lot mainly for geneology information and forums pertaining to family tree research, I came across a posting from a lady who lives in the Cleveland area. I recognized her name immediately. Her younger sister had graduated from high school with me. I knew this lady by name but didn't "know" her mainly because she was four years ahead of me in school plus the fact their family was Slovak, they lived in the predominately Slovak-Catholic section of the village and therefore, association was pretty much off limits as I was growing up. But I e-mailed her and we wrote back and forth, sharing little bits of information. It was an association that has since opened up to a friendship I really cherish too.
As it turned out, the more she and I wrote back and forth, discovered we both had a deep love for history - especially of this little village and its people -we shared things about how it was here when we were kids. Seems that she and her siblings were raised almost identical to me - taught that they were not to associate with those bad people in the other part of town - those Swedes, those Lutherans!
Anne and I laugh about those days and our beginnings frequently. We also both realize it was sheer ignorance of other cultures that created that problem in the first place. And, it is also with regret that we realize now what we missed by NOT having the opportunity to broaden our knowledge bases as young children by learning other cultural groups traditions alongside those of our own family or religious groups.
As I said at the beginning of this post, in the late 60's, early 70's, things began to change here, slowly at first and then eventually opening up. Two people who I credit with being able to really bring that change about were the pastor of our church in the early 70's - Rev. Thomas Rundell - and a young Catholic priest who had grown up here, was a year older than me and who realized the folly of the ways of the village in the segregated way things had always been - Rev. Robert Humenay. Pastor Tom and Father Bob met and were able to strike up a good friendship which slowly -but surely - began to spread and take hold throughout the town and within the churches too.
When the people from the Catholic church in town who were members of their church's choir joined forces with the choir from our church to present a beautiful Christmas Cantata back in 1987, I felt the old ways were finally disappearing from most of the people in the community and good riddance to them too!
Actually I sense a year or two earlier when our parish had built a new church to replace the building that had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground back in 1967, and they had the dedication ceremony for our new building that things were definitely changing. What prompted me to realize that then was that the local Catholic priest (of the Slovak church) actually attended this ceremony and that was a sight I had, as a child, never thought I would ever live to see happen. He had always been one who had been adamant about his parishioners NOT associating in any way, shape or form with any of the other local churches and by doing that, had been one - along with some of the old-line pastors we had then too - in keeping people apart, keeping those restrictions as absurd as they were, in place all those years.
I'm really grateful this change took place here and the old stereotypes, biases were on their way out when my children were growing up as it made it that much easier for me to teach them that racism and segregation - of any type -is wrong and does much more harm than good.
At home, meals in my house are such a mish-mash of ethnic foods - my kids and I eat more dishes that are Italian, oriental and yes, Slovak-Polish in origin than we do food of our own ethnic background.
And that reminds me - I think tonight for supper I'm gonna fix a big batch of Haluski - another favorite Slovak dish. Translated - that would be "Fried cabbage and noodles" and it's one food item that rarely gets any turned up noses when it gets placed on the table too! Now, I just have to figure what, for meat, I will fix to go with that.