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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: The myth of great lineage

Could you survive the Nevada desert on foot? —
Could you survive the Nevada desert on foot? — Russell Wangersky/SaltWire Network

“We’ve been famous as a province for sticking things out when others have given in.” — Dr. John Haggie, Oct. 21 COVID-19 news briefing

We hear that kind of thing a lot.

How strong and resourceful Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were in years past. How they survived, despite great odds.

And it’s not only a thing in this province, though it is quite pronounced here — people in plenty of different places build themselves up based on the resiliency of their ancestors, on their ability to have fought great odds and still survived.

My great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side walked and rode across the United States western desert when he was just 22, surviving hunger, disease and violence as he made his way to the California Gold Rush of 1849.

But it’s a conceit. It’s a conceit because the fact that they had that sort of ability doesn’t mean you do.

My great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side walked and rode across the United States western desert when he was just 22, surviving hunger, disease and violence as he made his way to the California Gold Rush of 1849.

My grandparents on my dad’s side — we called them Pepe and Meme — made their way from Russia (Belorus, to be more precise) to the U.S. in 1914 with basically the clothes on their backs. Pepe’s brother made the same trip, and in a short memoir about his travel, described his possessions in total: “On Feb. 23 we packed our luggage. In fact, I didn’t have a suitcase. I had a white bag, and inside I had one dry cheese, two kolbase (sausage), and a half a loaf of bread.”

Creature comforts? Not so much: “On March 6, we came to New York Harbour. Everyone was saying we were going to land soon, so we changed our underwear. Then we threw the old ones overboard into the water.”

Pepe and Meme met and married when they were working long, hard days in a shoe manufacturing plant. They worked there until they could afford to buy a small farm in Rhode Island.

My Dad said Pepe could spend an entire day loading hay bales onto the wagon, the thick tendons standing out on his thin arms like whipcord, and then go out and do the exact same thing the next day. Because he didn’t have any option. If rain was coming, bales had to get to the barn, and anything else just didn’t matter.

Can I be proud of what my relatives achieved? Of course I can be — and I am.

But does any of that mean I am somehow loaded up with a solid central core of their existential grit? Nope.

Could I walk across the deserts of Nevada carrying my own food and water, or spend endless days working a farm with hand tools and perhaps a horse?

I doubt it very much. I’m comfortable in a relatively sedentary lifestyle, typing words into a computer most days and hoping there’s still coffee left in the cupboard. (Coffee, by the way, that’s available on a shelf only a five-minute drive away at a grocery store.)

Nailing down six bundles of shingles on a shed roof is enough to basically do me in for a few days, between blisters, sore muscles and an aching back.

Our forebears were tough by necessity. We are not. Heck, there are a good number among us — those without any sort of legitimate medical excuse — who are apparently too fragile to wear a surgical mask to go into a store.

Our ancestors may have been famous “for sticking things out when others have given in.”

But a history of bravery and resourcefulness is exactly that — history.

Most of us have yet to prove anything of the kind about ourselves.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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