As I watch the political polarization in our country grow deeper, I can’t help but think about the divisions I’ve encountered in my own life. Like death and taxes, we can’t escape our differences, nor should we. Mine have broadened my perspective and made me fully appreciative of our blended, beautiful country.
I was raised by a German mother and Polish father, both of whom had parents that still spoke their native language. We were raised to love bratwurst and Polish sausage, poppy-seed cake and apple strudel, Kolachki cookies and much later in life, cold beer on a hot afternoon. Holidays were divided between the two cultures, but to our childish minds, it was one big family.
When I was in college, I visited my Polish relatives in Krakow, which was still under Communist rule at the time. My host mother warned me not to tell other Poles that I was of German descent, because of the deep hatred they had for the Nazis and the country’s aggression over the centuries.
As an American, the idea of hiding half of my heritage for the benefit of the other didn’t make any sense. I was, and still am, proud that my DNA is laced with German discipline and Polish fortitude.
Once I married, I lived with a new type of variance in my life: North versus South. My Midwest dairy-fed sensibilities sometimes clashed with my husband’s chicken and grits gentility, but we always came out the other side with an appreciation of our similarities and differences.
People will suggest that Southern culture no longer exists the way it did a generation ago, and that may be true. But living with a Southerner and his extended family has made me see that we are truly the product of our upbringing in ways large and small.
Take livermush — a popular breakfast item served in my in-law’s home that’s exactly what the name implies. My husband relishes it as if it’s a rare and delicious delicacy, savoring every mushy mouthful. For me, knowing that it’s liver disguised as a patty doesn’t make it any tastier. And once consumed, it’s burped up throughout the day — with a taste that’s doubly awful hours later.
Southerners love to socialize and can spend hours on their front porches, lazily drifting through time. Friends and neighbors might drop by to share an hour or two catching up on neighborhood gossip, sweet tea in every hand. And the notion that stopping by to say “hello” could turn into an invitation for dinner is extraordinarily Southern!
I was unaccustomed to this appreciation of leisurely time. My Illinois family had a front stoop, but no one sat on it. A lot of it had to do with the inclement weather, but we were conditioned to stay busy. When summer is just three short months, you don’t waste a minute of it. You bike, walk, swim, and do as much outside as possible because winter will be slowing down movement soon enough.
Which brings me to fashion. As a style-challenged Northerner, the polished, pretty and timeless look of Southern women is intimidating. It was one of the first things I noticed when I visited Charlotte, North Carolina, as a young wife — the women there were well dressed and put together in a way that I couldn’t imagine at the time.
The prevalence of college sororities in the South may have something to do with it. But maybe it’s as basic as geography. When you don’t have to fight wind, snow, rain and hail, you can spend more time on your hair and choice of shoes and clothing.
We’ve raised our children with a blend of these North-South traditions. They can slip easily from “Yes ma’am” to “Go Cubs.” They can write gracious thank-you notes and then dig into a Chicago-style deep dish pizza with gusto. They display Southern hospitality with a uniquely Northern flair.
Are they Southerners? Northerners? Or simply Americans?
Our country, as divided as it is, needs to recognize that our differences are our strength. That no one culture or way of life is perfect, and that we really are just one big family.
But please … One big family that doesn’t serve livermush.