My America

Fine, I’m a urban, Northeast, liberal elite.  Fine, I’m a member of the Ivory Tower.  And fine, my Uncle Stevie gave me my cousin Brian’s old US Marines jersey because he thought I could wear it around Cambridge and start trouble.  (I’m workin’ on it!  Shirt is fabulously warm and has my last name embroidered on the pocket.  If it also proves antagonistic, it might just become my new favorite article of winter clothing.)

In tribute to my cousin and his peers, here are a just a few things I love about my country (inspired by the first in the list, as I lie on my couch on this frigid Boston night):

Antiques Road Show: Based in Boston, this public television show travels from city to city around the country and appraises Americans’ antique items.  The process of appraisal includes some homey chit chat between the curious, innocent, proud owner and an appraiser who specializes in whatever the item is (sports memorabilia, furniture, jewelry, etc.).  The owner explains the family story behind the item, including how it came into the family and how they’ve held on to it over the years.  The appraiser then gives a detailed history of the item’s origins, often by pointing out the significance of signatures, coloring, detailing, etc. of the item.  So far we have friendly Americans and mini-history lessons, plus flashes of reality tv voyeurism by peering into these people’s lives.  And then the best part, the appraiser explains the value of the item ($40k for an original Babe Ruth autographed baseball; $12k for a collection of 6 Russian plates; $$$ for a doll manufactured in Paris and used – unknowing to the owner’s family – to smuggle spy information during WWII).  It’s like a fascinating, informative individual lottery, over and over again.  It’s amazing.  People pulling rugs out of their grandparents’ attic to learn the rug is now worth $15k.  Hanging on to a review copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that your ex-fiancee’s father gave you, only to learn it’s worth $5k.  This one guy tonight kept exclaiming “Holy Crow!”  At least once, the host ventures out of the studio and takes the viewer on a visit to an historic spot in the host city.  So there’s a little urban tourism to boot.  And all on public television, one of the few I get on my $8/month cable (the “reception” package, basically).  I LOVE this show.  It is totally nifty.


Local History, Local Pride: I have been working effortfully to re-connect with my relatives and roots since moving back to Boston in 2004 (though I have always used my own life as a source of intellectual exploration, when not studiously sizing you up).  On my mother’s side, my great-great-great maternal grandparents emigrated to Boston (~early 1800s), meaning I am 6th generation M*sshole.  I have 31.5 cousins, 30.5 of whom live in the Greater Boston area.  When I travel to places like New Orleans, credited as a city full of familial and place-based roots as deep as these, I get it.  Why would you want to live elsewhere?  This is the common sense of many of my relatives, and many Americans.  Just ask the 73% of Americans who didn’t own passports, until now. 

Fortunately for me (but maybe not for the mini-M.A.S.’s someday?), I’ve got a man who loves exploring local history here with me.  It works well for us.  He reads the websites and fills me in on the story behind St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester.  But we’ve gone there to begin with because my grandmother and her 2 daughters (my mom and my aunt) were all married there. 

Then we get beers and life is always good.


AIDS Activism: The credit for my curiosity about life and my need for diverse experience goes to my mother.  A single mother who went from pediatric and e/r nursing to mental health administration, my mother has spent most of her career in urban and/or public facilities.  When I was little and we were newly on our own in NJ, she worked at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, from which she took home ear guns to pierce my ears like she did the babies brought in, and from which I took home What the Moon Brought, a book from the waiting room about two little Jewish sisters who loved to look at the moon and celebrate the Jewish holidays.  Little did I know I’d learn as much about the Hebrew calendar as little Ruthie and Debbie 15 years later.

My mother had many gay and lesbian friends, and working in cities and centers with strong public health emphases, gay pride and AIDS activism were two of the subtle, themes underlying our adventures together.  In high school, I had a Silence = Death sticker in my locker, a bi-lingual English-Spanish poster on AIDS testing and education hanging in my room, and later considered it very cool to have two friends come out of the closet as we graduated.   A lot of this active interest came from a visit to the AIDS quilt with my mom and best friend Laura in the summer of ’87 or ’88. 

The castle building at Columbus Av and Arlington St. in Boston that housed the quilt is now home to a Smith & Wollensky, but without fail everytime I drive by it I think of that visit.  It was hot, and Laura and I filled out a lot of cards for additional info on the project with the addresses of boys we liked (no small form of torture given one of them was raised by Irish, devout Catholic parents).  The quilt held my attention more deeply in hindsight than it did that day, but I’ll never forget the visit, and as the quilt and I grew, I realized how fortunate I was to see a piece of it before it became too big and AIDS became too normalized for the quilt’s impact to endure.   Anti-AIDS activism of the 1980s-90s was my first brush with activism, one I returned to in the late 90s/early ’00s as the disease’s international scourge became apparent.  By then I was in business school, and the job I turned down to become the do-gooder I am today was working for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s anti-retrovirals marketing unit.  That was a tough call, and hardly because of the six figures I stood to earn (though that rationale makes a lot more sense to most people).


American diversity: Again, thanks to my mom, my own clannish roots, and finally, to Deis, one of the things I love is the diversity of our country. I love that my college friends thought I knew more about Judaism than the average American Jew; I love that in my work in black communities in New Orleans and elsewhere I can relate to the experiences of many of the women and families I meet there.  I love that my friends and exe’s include probably a dozen whose parents are foreign born, and that I’ve visited more countries than you’d recognize in my passport because of the experiences they’ve shared with me.  My interactions at home range from those with cousins who still live in public housing and academics who study such people.  I rail against poverty and segregation in part because my life is richer for this breadth.  I couldn’t live like my neighbor Screamin’ Eagles, where all the girls sport the same glossy, straight dark hair and Uggs.  (Though of course my cousin Jane is the best-lookin’ of them all.)


Thanksgiving: Sure, Christmas commercialism starts right after Halloween, and pretty much tries to swallow us alive while we’re still digesting the turkey, but my Thanksgivings thus far have remained a reprieve from the materialist hustle that’s overtaken the rest of the winter holiday circuit.  My mother and stepfather host every year, and the mix of family and friends has changed since we began the tradition in 1991, but the relaxed warmth and peace of the day remains the same.  My stepdad came into our lives in 1990, and Thanksgiving in CT marks an important invented tradition in our family with his entry.  Despite the difficulty you might imagine of such blended-family alterations to my adolescent life, it has become my favorite holiday.


August 26: My birthday (’75), and the day the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, became law (’20).  


You know the rest: New Orleans, NYC, Richard Ford, the Sox, blogging, the M.A.S. 

What do you love?


2 Responses to “My America”

  1. 1 Laura
    February 6, 2007 at 11:20 am

    I just had to comment that every time you mention the AIDS quilt I think of that trip. I had no idea of the importance of the quilt when we were there, as I’m sure my mind was far more focused on the boys that we filled cards out for, but I these days I always feel that I was so fortunate to be part of trips like that with you and your mom.

    Another one that I lump in that batch is the time we missed the English quiz/test to volunteer at the Boston City Hospital Christmas party. I’ll never forget my mom telling the teacher that I learned more with you that day than I would for the whole year in her class. And looking back I’m sure she was right – especially since I can’t even remember our English teacher’s name now but clearly remember those kids we handed out gifts to…

  2. February 6, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Ms. Gallagher, and I didn’t remember that we missed a quiz! I remember my mom taking us all to McDonald’s after that volunteer day. That was another neat experience. How about the time she took me, you, Eileen and Jen H. to volunteer at the blood donation thing and then our car broke down! That was chaos.

    Turns out that blood donation thing was at MIT in the student center. I didn’t have a clue where we were then, now I’m constantly cursing all the undergrads afoot when I’m over there!

    So nice to get a comment from you! 🙂

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