I’ve met people who never satisfied their need for belonging. They are orphans from Uganda or children, now adults, who were put up for adoption. What I take for granted, they never had in their lives.
When you know where you belong you can be sure of who you are. There is truth in who you become as an adult. Without the roots of belonging, there seems to be no introduction to your life, no character development, and a big piece of your story is missing. My sense of belonging is rooted in three areas.
I know my mother and father. I know who they are, where they came from and what they did for a living. I met some of their parents, my grandparents. While some of my grandparents died before I was born, I heard stories about them.
I knew when and how they immigrated to America. What it was like when their family first saw the Statue of Liberty. What it was like growing up in New York City as a first generation American who didn’t speak English. The problems created in both families when my mother, a Slovak born in Austria-Hungary, married an Italian.
I even heard the story of my mother’s first pizza. She actually thought pizzeria was a chain of restaurants. You can’t make this stuff up.
I knew my father’s and mother’s brothers and sisters, as well as their kids and their stories.
Our family was dysfunctional yet functioned. It was full of highly charged arguments, yet we would defend each other with all the strength we could muster. It was full of judgment and full of love. It was my family. These are my roots of belonging.
And then there was everybody else and their families. There was my next-door friend, Nicky, whose dad was rich because he worked construction. His hourly wage was one and half times what my dad made.
I still remember Nicky’s dad first showing me a car air conditioner. He showed me how you could remove the vent and slip a can of beer into the hole to make it cold.
I remember the Italians, the Polish, the Irish, the Jews. Everybody had kids. Everybody had parents and grandparents. And everybody had stories. I remember when Jewish Paula fell in love with Irish Catholic John. I remember the stink it caused in their families and the gossip among the adults.
There are so many stories. There was the first time I heard about sex from the neighborhood teenagers. My first cigarette I smoked behind the Jewish old folks’ home. The first beer I tried while hiding in a fountain at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. And lots of stories of my five best friends—two Greeks, one Italian and two Irish—that shaped my childhood. This was my neighborhood.
St. Paul’s was a beautiful church with stained glass windows throughout and the lingering scent of incense inside. As a child, it seemed huge. It had spires and big, brown heavy doors which opened with no effort because they were perfectly weighted.
I remember the confessionals and my first confession. There we were at seven years old asking each other, “What are you going to tell the priest you did wrong?”
I remember learning and being drilled by the nuns on the catechism. The impact the stories of the saints had on me. We were told they went into leper colonies, sustained beatings, and served the poor with complete selflessness. These men and women of God loved Jesus unto death.
In eighth grade, one perfect spring day, they loaded us all onto buses and drove us to a beautiful, park-like city called Newburgh, NY. We learned this was where the priests and nuns went to school to get their training. We sang songs, played, and had fun.
Then they handed us brochures, the first brochure anyone had ever handed me, asking me to think about becoming a priest. They made it look like such fun. I remember thinking it looked like a life filled with meaning and respect. I was tempted. This was my faith.
Don’t Live a Lie
Over the years, I sometimes tried to be someone I wasn’t. I tried to deny my roots and feint living the life of roots I wish I had instead. But I am the product of these roots.
It didn’t mean I couldn’t go to college and improve my lot in life. It didn’t mean I had to continue in their middle class, blue collar ways of hourly employment. It doesn’t mean denying the people I grew up with.
It means I need to be true to how I got started. Because without my roots of belonging, I am living a lie.