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The Mason-Dixon Line

by Chloe Levine

We celebrate Christmas in Pennsylvania with my mom’s side of the family, the Greenes, in our matching Santa socks. Our stockings are stuffed so full with peppermint patties that they overflow. The homemade presents, covered in sparkly, reversible wrapping paper, are always stacked a few feet high around a tree covered in old digital photos glued to paper clips and hung from tinsel-laden branches. We are the typical American family on Christmas day. They could put us on holiday cards.

My dad’s side of the family —the Goldstein clan— doesn’t celebrate Christmas. They grew up with a Hanukkah bush. We spend Thanksgiving with them instead of the Greenes, crowded around a table, eating tofu, not turkey. Over dinner, we disparage the genocide of Native Americans and debate the implications of recent local elections. My aunt cries when someone takes out an iPhone because “technology and capitalism rule the world!” Everyone leaves with a tupperware of leftovers and a sigh of relief. Normal? We are anything but.

The Goldsteins never have been. They’re Polish-Jewish (and look it) in an overwhelmingly Christian country. They’re liberal at their rightmost; a good quarter are Trotskyists. They lived in four countries before my dad turned nine. They invariably break the rule of not discussing religion or politics. All in all, they’re —we’re— a conglomeration of northeastern, well-educated weirdos who love to squabble and aren’t content unless they’re fighting to help the world. Their strongest belief is that any world with racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, greed, corruption, etc. must change, and they harbor a deep contempt for any passivity and any community that over-emphasizes tradition and heritage. Thus, they —we?— hate the South.

Unfortunately, the Greenes are from the South. The old South. My mom was born in Birmingham, Alabama and started kindergarten in North Carolina during the first year of integration. On our bookshelf sits a genealogy we keep in case a one of us wants to join First Families of Virginia or Daughters of the American Revolution and needs paperwork to prove eligibility. Beside it is a collection of my mom’s grandmother’s memoirs from 19th century Virginia, which cleverly skim over the family’s history of owning tobacco plantations, and owning slaves to work them. The Greenes, liberal though they are, don’t talk about that over Christmas dinner. They talk reindeer and eggnog. Even my painfully Goldstein-ish dad manages a few remarks about the post-holiday sales. Back when we celebrated in my mom’s hometown instead of the Philadelphia suburbs, he spent the meal with his brow furrowed, peering out the window, as though afraid a burning cross would suddenly appear beside the persimmon tree in the front yard.

It took many years to understand that I shouldn’t say “y’all” at Thanksgiving. I shouldn’t help the little cousins make traced-hand turkeys. And I definitely shouldn’t bring up the United States of America, at least not if I’m going to say anything positive. No. I am a Goldstein, the opposite of a “normal” American, because patriotism and quietness and holiday-card-preparedness seem incompatible with justice to them. They abhor stagnancy, and the South, with some towns (though none the Greenes would ever accept) still lined with Confederate flags, seems the epitome of stagnancy. Most Goldsteins have never been south of Washington, D.C. I’m not sure whether they’ve kept their distance out of anger, detestation, or fear. But they’re my family (half of it, anyway), and I would never want them to hate, detest, or fear me.

So I eat my tofu and condemn the Puritans and get into heated conversation about the State Senate and promise to never stop leaning left. It’s not a hard promise to make. I, too, abhor stagnancy. I, too, want to help change the world for the better. I, too, hate the legacy of the Confederacy, and hate that my ancestors were part of it. So I do lean left. I can lean pretty damn far. I just hope they never notice that my feet are still planted, shoulder-width apart, half on the north side of the Mason-Dixon line but half irretrievably on the south.

Commentary by Bernice Arricale

Chloe seems to feel that she cannot be both Southern and left wing in her political views, or the descendant of people who thought they owned other people and enjoy a controversy-free holiday together. Is there a “typical” or “normal”American family? It’s a pretty big, weird and wonderful tent, where Ms. Greene can find Mr. Goldstein and live happily ever after.

Where does Chloe seem to be more energized and alive? Where do you see the mechanism of non-sameness at work here?