What makes an American? What’s the recipe? Well, unless you are purely Native American, the recipe includes immigrants, slaves, and refugees. Whether they came of their own accord, or were forced here in chains or shipping containers, your family came to the Americas from somewhere else. So I thought I’d share the recipe of me.
So this is where I’m from according to a blood test through ancestry.com . But the story is much better than this map. And this map doesn’t even include all my ancestors, my mother’s looks different!
And my sister’s shows much more Eastern Mediterranean! So, that’s the science. Here is the story.
So, who came first?
We’re not sure! There were adoptions on my Great-Grandmother’s side. But they were Presbyterians and had red hair. So let’s say, Scotch-Irish. Along with the Welsh, the Scotch-Irish immigrants came pretty early on, usually as indentured servants or victims of the terrible resettlement policies of England from Scotland to Northern Ireland. The Scotch-Irish were some of the first pioneers in the “Westward Expansion” … to the Appalachians and beyond! My Great-Grandma Miller came from Kentucky, honey!
Here she is with her (short!) red hair. And proper, ankle-revealing suffragette dress! She was the absolute best. Fiery till the last. And a great fisherman. (But she cheated at cards.)
She married the other contender for longest in the United States, Christian Erisman Miller. Here they are:
Well, the Millers have been in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania since the War for Independence. Story is, he was a German mercenary fighting for the British. After the war, he settled in the already German-speaking county with it’s large population of Mennonites who fled religious persecution in the German states. He married one of those Mennonites, and now there is Millersville University (on their donated land)!
The amazing thing is why the Mennonites were here in the first place! Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, was a religious dissenter in England. He did time in The Tower of London for writing Quaker pamphlets with charming titles such as, “No Cross, No Crown.” He famously declared religious freedom in his colony, stating in his Charter, “We cannot make windows into men’s souls.” Which is why the first Jews in the Americas lived in Philadelphia, and why it’s home to the oldest Catholic Church in English-speaking North America. So, when the Mennonites fled Germany, PA was the only colony they could settle in.
Here is their daughter, my maternal-grandmother. I hate to say it, but Grandmom is HOT! She helped her parents during WWII and after, but she soon caught the eye of a dashing fella, and a Catholic! *gasp!*
My maternal-grandfather was the son of Hungarian immigrants, who fled Europe when the Austro-Hungarian Empire landed on the losing side of WWI. And, apparently, people from Hungary identify as Magyars, a horse-archer people from the Steppes who took that land in the early middle ages. It was Latin writers who called them Huns!
Even the women served during WWII in this family!
But obviously we’re concerned with Mary Miller and Joe Sirbak. Because they made my Mom.
Yeppers, so that’s how you make this lady. This woman who left her hometown in Lancaster to move to Philadelphia, to work as a social worker in the blighted area of Front and York Street. She was also shop steward for her union at her welfare office. Yes, I get my bleeding liberal heart from her and that whole nutty family!
So that’s the maternal side of my family. Let’s go back to the tumult of WWI, and the Italians and Greeks who fled here, and check out my Dad’s side.
Here is my Dad with his, my Grandpop Lakis, “down the shore” of course! “Interesting” is barely enough to describe my paternal-grandfather’s story. He was born on the island of Khios, just off the coast of modern Turkey. He spent his days collecting olives and lemons. But he also collected salt from a rock that was exposed at low-tide. Story has it that he had to fight an octopus once on that rock with his knife. He killed it, and his family had it for dinner!
But he also grew up under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. As a young man of 16 or so, a Turkish soldier raped a local girl, and my Grandpop killed that soldier. He had to be disguised as a girl by monks, and secreted off the island on a merchant ship. Well, that ship was torpedoed. So he was picked up by an American ship, which was torpedoed. Whereupon, another American ship picked him up and docked in New York. He decided to stay.
He helped paint the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, but he gambled and was owed money by a sometime concrete contractor and bootlegger named Frank Gigliotti. Frank was a recent Italian immigrant. But his wife, Asunta Camarotta, had returned to Italy. She took all their children, but Frank made her leave their daughter Anna, my Grandmom, as proof that she’d return. My Grandmom Lakis never saw her mother or siblings again. Apparently, her father hid the letters her mother wrote to her. And he exchanged her to fix a gambling debt, while Grandpop Lakis got his Green Card and became a citizen. Grandmom had that kindness that is strong from much perseverance and personal pain.
But even though their marriage was arranged, they were prolific. And Grandpop Lakis eventually owned his own diner — of course — first in Philadelphia, and then in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Enter my Father. He’s that cool guy with the jelly-roll hair and zoot suit above in the upper right. While my Dad’s older brother Mike joined the Navy in WWII, my Dad ended up drafted into the Korean War.
Well, not much left but for this handsome man to go to college on the GI Bill, become a successful freelance artist, and meet that blonde, bleeding heart liberal gal on a blind date at Dirty Frank’s Bar in Philly!
And the rest is my story!
It was a weird and messy road to me. Mercenaries and persecuted religions. Central Asian horse-archers in Easten Europe, who lost WWI and ended up as refugees. Killing octopi and Turkish soldiers! Escape. Backroom gambling. Bootlegging. A real-life, immigrant tear-jerker worthy of Puccini. Criminal dealing for Green Cards. Hey, it’s all good. It’s All-American, like me.
What’s your “American Story”? What recipe of immigrants and survivors makes you 100% American?
Check out my Instagram! There are pictures of things I like and hate! 😊
While you’re there: check out my (Polish, German, English, Irish, Welsh) BFF’s Instagram and share some love.
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