i spend a large amount of time thinking about my family roots. more so i think than the average 32 year old. certainly more than any of my cousins – as older relatives have died on both sides of my family, i have been the go-to person, the repository, really, of the things that my grandparents or great aunts or uncles owned. no one else seems particularly interested in them. among the physical objects that are the most important to me – the things i would grab if there were a fire – are the thermos my grandfather carried to work at Westinghouse every day, the hats my grandmother and great-grandmother wore and the tea kettle that my (only remaining living) grandmother gave me a number of years ago.
i ended up watching a documentary on coal mining in Northeast PA last night on WVIA, the hokey PBS station hailing from the Hazelton/Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area. at times i was overwhelmed by emotion, because these people are where i came from. my great-grandfather, Joseph Snarski, spent his life in the mines. he was known to me as Dziedze (pronounced Ga-Gee), and even though he died a few years before i was born, his life and his legacy is more alive to me than some people whose lives and mine actually overlapped.
the reason i identify with him so much was that he was perhaps the first artist, the first maker, that i knew of in my life. even before i realized my parents had been makers and artists, i would go up to my grandmother and great-grandmother’s houses in Plains and would see the things he made. the driftwood sculpture. the intricately made wind mobiles made from precisely cut Budweiser cans. the wood wall hangings made on a jigsaw.
the other reason i identify with him is that he is part of the reason i am sitting here, right now. sitting here with my ridiculous advanced degree in sculpture, conducting my life with the audacious idea that i could make a living as an artist and as a maker. he went into the mines so his children wouldn’t have to, so his grandchildren could go to college and become art teachers, so his great-granddaughter could get her MFA and make the things that he only could make on evenings and weekends. my family is the American Dream, however hokey that sounds, and i am the recipient of years of hard work and toil and heartache that happened even before i was born. i am standing on their shoulders, and i am humbled by this daily.
it’s my family’s story that makes me realize just how insidious and awful intergenerational poverty can be, how it limits opportunity and economic mobility. i sometimes think about the different person i would be if i didn’t have the family support system that i have. yes, i am a smart and a hard working person, but if my family was unable or unwilling to support me through college, would i even have gone? i certainly wouldn’t have gone to art school, and i certainly wouldn’t have gotten my MFA. i certainly would not be even thinking about buying a house right now. my life would look vastly different than it does. that i was allowed choices, SO many choices, is staggering.
these are the calculations that every young person makes, no matter where or who they come from. and it’s important that everyone in my socioeconomic bracket – those white, middle class kids to who have graduate degrees – acknowledge that yes, that degree may have your name on it, but it should have the names of your parents, your grandparents and great-grandparents on it. it should have their hard work, their perseverance and their luck written on it. we lead lucky, relatively easy privileged lives because they did all this work, before you born, that allowed you to be in a financial position to get those degrees. you didn’t build that. but that’s okay.