In my 20s, or even earlier, I disowned parts of my life. My Polish and German ancestry, my Catholicism, and even the town where I grew up. I was ashamed, or I was disillusioned, or I wanted something better, better than my lower middle-class upbringing, better than the hand-me-downs from cousins, a city that wasn’t in decay but one that was a vibrant center of culture and opportunity … something else, something more.
And eventually, after college and the disappointment of having chosen the wrong profession, I moved away from that city. My mother had died before I even thought of college, and in some ways, I wanted to be far from all of it, all the family messiness and unexpressed grief and all the things I chose by default. Not knowing what I wanted or who I was.
Years passed and as I worked, pursued graduate studies, and embarked on relationships, I started discovering “myself” and my interests and goals, hopes and dreams. I found my own eclectic spiritual path, and that was okay. I spent time with family at the holidays, although less and less over the years, for various reasons. I made friends in Philly and then in more rural PA and more recently in DC, and I felt like I belonged. At times, I wanted nothing to do with where I came from; at other times I missed what I had identified with or had been attached to during my younger years.
Now I feel a shifting … back to beginnings … wanting to reconnect with family and know more about where we came from. Feeling proud of my immigrant ancestors for realizing their ambition of a better life in America, in spite of hardships during their long journeys, negative stereotyping in the U.S., or poor working conditions in factories in Pennsylvania. No longer embarrassed to say that I’m part Polish, which was a grade school concern, and no longer hesitant to say I have German blood too, since Germany had a rich culture that was there long before the word Nazi was ever uttered (although I am still learning about German intellectual and cultural history).
And as far as my hometown, Reading, PA, my interest has been rekindled. The place where I was born, where my parents wed, where my maternal grandmother lived her entire life, still has meaning to me, even though I was happy to move away in the 1990s. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to get married in my hometown, even though I hadn’t even initially considered it (and of course, due to my love of history, I had to choose a restored Victorian hotel, and my fiancé happily indulged me).
But there’s more there than my own family history, and that’s what fascinates me and provides the backdrop for this family history project: Reading’s impressive industrial past and its gritty present (with its current mix of decay and development), esp. the stories of the industrialists and the immigrants who were part of that past and built the city where I grew up. Reading may continue to revitalize, or it may not, but the past will always remind us of what the city of Reading was once capable of building and becoming.