In Praise of Mongrels,
Before the wedding, my mother’ parents, who were high (albeit lax) Episcopalians, came a calling on my father’s parents, who were staunch Irish Catholics. As a safety precaution, my paternal grandmother hid all the sharp knives.
Or so my mother’s story goes. The parables of Pamela Crawford Holahan, if not always literally true, were figuratively so. Her father had told her repeatedly that Irish Catholics married their own kind. And in fact, the branches of my father’s family tree are festooned, without exception, with emerald names like Doyle and O’Shanahan.
What’s more, there was a sizeable class difference. My Protestant grandfather was a college professor, his counterpart a switchman on the New York New Haven Railroad. One chose not to drive the family car, while the other never owned one. Nonetheless, their first meeting was pacific, although likely awkward.
This writer is the hybrid issue of that amalgamation. I am a mongrel, a mutt, a religious half-breed—and proud of it. My genes are as pure as the driven snow downwind of a coal-fired power plant.
My bother Richard recently had his DNA analyzed and shared the report with me. Assuming there was no hanky-panky, our ancestry should be identical. I am 84 percent “British and Irish” (these should be separated, but for some reason they are not), with a dash of Scandinavian, a soupcon of French and German, a pinch of Iberian—and then came the big surprise.
I have Japanese DNA swimming in my gene pool. Not a lot, but some. It’s a familial mystery and almost certainly will remain so. Perhaps I should give sushi another try.
My ethnic diversity may be tame by contemporary standards, but differences we had a few. In catechism class I learned that Catholicism was the one true faith and that the unenlightened were headed for trouble in the Hereafter, even nice-as-pie Protestants like my mother.
Mom didn’t help matters along by staying home on Sundays —in blessed secular solitude—while dad took my four brothers and me to mass.
Still, the notion that anyone, however high and mighty, would have it in for my mother made absolutely no sense. That sure wasn’t the deity for me.
The fault, of course, lies not with our gods, but with us. We prefer the familiar and fear the unknown. In this country we increasingly live among and associate with like-minded people. We compulsively separate ourselves into clans. It provides the illusion of safety.
The biggest difference between my Episcopal cousins and me wasn’t religion or politics but baseball: the Giants or the Yankees, Willie Mays against Mickey Mantle. It wasn’t exactly Sunni versus Shia, but it came close at times. And yet, there are adults who will come to blows over such trivial pursuits.
In this ever more complex world, some of us have decided that increasing separateness is the ticket. I’m white and you’re not. I’m rich and I’m going to get richer. I’m a liberal and I know everything there is to know about you name it. You’re different so you can’t know anything worth knowing.
Such separation and doctrinal purity does not have a good track record, whether the rigidity emanates from the left or right. Hitler and Stalin went that route and tens of millions died along the way — enemies and followers alike.
Do we really want to relive history? Shall we bring out the sharp knifes and hone them some more? Are we going to refight the Civil War? Is that the path toward greatness?
In June, a container ship collided with an American destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, and seven Navy sailors drowned. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and fellow travelers, inside and outside the Beltway, should take a good look at the faces of those who died to defend this nation.
My mother was right: America is an amalgam—always has been. It is our strength, not our weakness.