I pledge allegiance to myself chiefly.
Then to my parents.
In the old country, my mother was linguist. When it came time for her to choose an English name, she chose one with the same meaning in Bulgarian. So “Branmira Andreyeva Grigorova,” became “Winifred Andrews Gregory.” “Winifred is terrible name,” I tell her. But she says, “It all means the same. My private prayer. Peace.” She came of age when the old country fought three wars in a row. Her father, bashta, fought in both Balkan Wars. And then her oldest brother fought in the Great War. Then Boris III came to power. Politically, she supported Stambolijski, but he was ousted then murdered. And when the military began killing thousands of communists and members of the intelligentsia, she fled the old country. She was already fluent in three languages and was conversational in two others; Bulgaria’s best is what my grandfather, Andrey Griogorev, said. When she came to the Greenwich Village, she couldn’t get a teaching job. It was the first Red Scare when she arrived, and she had a funny accent. She became a radicalized laundress instead. They thought she was a Bolshevik. They were wrong about where she was from. But they were right about one part: my mother is a Red.
I like to think of my father as having epochs as if he has a fossil record. There was the age of the Conservatory. He had studied under Joseph Joachim– Brahms’ friend!– in Berlin. He was just 16 when he started. The age of fame followed. He spent his twenties as concert violinist. He married an opera singer and they had a son. But then the age of sorrows. When the first war came, he lost his little brothers and his best friends in the trenches, and then his wife and child to the Spanish flu. Then the age of wandering in the desert. He toured war-torn Europe with an orchestra. He hated it. He went home. He played gigs on the Reeperbahn in whorehouses. Before the next epoch came a cataclysm. An asteroid that struck him down. The Hamburg Uprising. He was a member of the KDP. They took over the city. People died. Innocent people died. He fled to the US. Then an age of change. He changed his hometown from Hamburg to Darien. He changed his name from Oskar Weiss to Oscar Wise. He changed his occupation from musician to music teacher. He met a young Bulgarian socialist/laundress when he was at a socialist meeting in the Manhattan.
They got pregnant, then married. They kept the place in Darien and the place in the Village.
Then I was born, Aneliya Mira Wise.
And I was baptised into a world of intellectuals and the common man. My lullabies were the pages of the Daily Worker. On a soapbox, I stood before I could walk. Before I could speak, I found my voice.
And I pledged allegiance to myself.
Here are my Epochs.
The world turned to a lean time and suddenly my parents’ politics sounded awful friendly. My parents were in the CPUSA and I in the YCL USA. There were riots in the streets. People demanding to be heard. And electricity ran everywhere. I had goosebumps every day. My parents’ apartment in the Village became a soup kitchen on Saturdays and Sundays. We went to Washington for the soldiers. We went to Detroit for the autoworkers. Into this fight, I was born, a screaming pinko commie. Dyed in the wool.
Then the world turned to war again. But it was against fascists this time. “Good,” said my mother, when we listened to Roosevelt on the radio. But my father grew cold and quiet. “The Nazis are a blight,” my mother said. My father remained cold and quiet. I thought he was worried because he was German. Or because they were German and Bulgarian in America. But it was the memories of the last war. It was the memories of losing everything. “I’m glad,” he said, “that we have no one else but each other.” “No one!” My mother turned a shade of purple and the room grew dark. “My family’s still there, Oscar! Under the rule of that Monster! An Enemy of this Country! You may have lost everything, but I have not!” They didn’t speak again until Roosevelt died.
The bomb was dropped.
Then an age of nightmares began.
My parents’ friends got called to testify. It meant “name names.” Whose names? We asked that question a lot. My father was in the Village when he had the heart attack. He’s older than my friend’s folks and my mother, too. Already in his 60s. His father was born in 1840, by the way. We decided to move into the city full time. “Better doctors for Oscar,” my mother said. “Our Neli’s about to start college,” my father said.
The truth is simpler: Darien was always WASP-y but it was getting worse every day. People had these crazy eyes. The eyes said, “There’s a family of damn commies down the street.” Only they couldn’t say damn, because they were all Congregationalists. I was born in Darien but I was also born the child of immigrants, so I was not of Darien. Does that make sense?
Then I went to college.
The WASPs’ eyes follow me in the halls at school. I’m sometimes terrified. But, I have an American last name, though, because my father buried the old him. I have an American nickname, too, because my mother buried the old her.
Here at school, they call me a name I did not choose and it does not mean the same in English and Bulgarian. They call me Nellie Wise here and that name means nothing. I am the anglicized version of European Reds. They don’t know my mom is Bulgarian or my dad is German or that they are Communists. Or that I’m a communist. If they knew, it would be like Darien again. If they knew my mother and father had accents….
Back in Darien, they egged my house once. And my father’s Hudson. Tore up the grass and dumped garbage in the flowerbeds. Our lawn was trashed. “Damn Jerries!” I heard them say. I hid in our attic and watched the WASP boys come to the house. My father was staying in the city. It was me and my mother watching them from the attic. My mother and I sat under the light of candles. The night wore on while we were huddled in the attic. We heard them start singing “God Bless America.” We heard them sing the “Star-Bangled Banner.” We heard them sing “America the Beautiful.” Into the night, rough and rowdy voices barked patriotic songs at us. So I came up with something patriotic as well.
I pledge allegiance to myself.