all Family

January 25, 2017


I’m the youngest of eleven grandchildren of a man named Charles Wilker who in the early part of the twentieth century left a region in central Europe called Galicia to come to this country with nothing because nothing in America was better than the constant threat of pogroms and the certainty of conscription as cannon fodder into the Austro-Hungarian army. He left behind a wife and two young children to find work and send for them later. He didn’t know the language of his new world.

I’m the youngest of eleven grandchildren of a woman named Lillian Wilker who gave birth to three children in Galicia, one of whom died. She eventually followed her husband to America and didn’t know the language either and found that her husband hadn’t established much of a footing. At some point either before or not long after her arrival, he sustained a head injury that either contributed to or was the basis altogether of mental illness that prevented him from gaining steady employment. A couple of decades into his life in the new world, he was found floating in the East River, dead. The children, who now numbered four living souls and two dead, were raised alone by Lillian, who also worked, as did the two eldest children, leaving school for work while barely into their teens. There was one girl, my Aunt Helen, and three boys, my Uncle Joe, my Uncle Dave, and the baby, my father.

This fatherless family made it through the Great Depression while living in Lower East Side tenements. All three boys served this country in World War II. My uncles saw grisly combat in the South Pacific. I like to believe my father, who was rejected the first few times he tried to enlist, was kept safely on land, stateside, throughout his Navy tour with a battalion of similarly spindly aesthetes who had been sorted into a “last resorts” pile. The point is: the Wilker boys served. They were exemplary American citizens, as was my aunt. All four went on to raise beautiful families of children, many of whom who now have their own children, all of us Americans.

I’m the father of the two youngest great-grandchildren of Charles and Lillian Wilker. The youngest great-grandchild, Exley, is the sculptor of the fragment at the top of this page. You can probably guess from the clues—the team name, the one clearly visible number on the jersey, the word “Family”—that this is a card featuring Cal Ripken Sr. and his two sons, Cal and Billy. The full text of the front of the card is probably something like “A Baseball Family.”

I like the fragment better: all family.

We’re all in this together, is the point of my story of my grandfather and grandmother. I love this country for that story and for every other story like it. You’re more than likely the product of a story just like this one. Some people were here before Columbus, but the rest of us came from somewhere else. Here’s another of those stories, from a September 4, 1995, article in The Baltimore Sun by Mike Klingaman:

[Cal] Ripken’s father, Cal Sr., is the grandson of 19th-century German immigrants, Frederick Peter Ripken and Affena Lubina Wychgram. They settled in Harford County and opened a general store in Stepney, a crossroads three miles south of Aberdeen. There, in a tiny room above the store, Cal Sr. was born, the third son of Arend Frederick Ripken and Clara Amelia Oliver Ripken, an Irishwoman whose farming family also immigrated to America in the mid-1800s. Arend Ripken was the first of the clan to play baseball, taking part in sandlot games on weekends.

If you don’t love these stories, you don’t love America. If you build a wall between yourself and these stories, you don’t love America.


  1. Walls

  2. Very moving, Josh. Thank you.

  3. Foolish statement Josh. This visitor lasted ONE day.

  4. Josh, loyal visitor and reader of your books here. Looks like you’re moving into the geopolitical realm more and more. As a writer, you should answer your calling, and you don’t need your readers’ permission, that is for sure (you might need some of our money, but that’s life). I applaud and support all your writing and would read any book you write.

    However, I do think you can anticipate more division among your readers to political posts. It is really hard to avoid in today’s climate, and you’re choosing to stoke the fire a bit. I will miss the apolitical early days of CG, personally. But, this story was beautiful and heartbreaking and real, well written, and worth pondering. Most importantly, it is your truth.

    Here’s $.02 from an apolitical pacifist, as long as the subject has been broached and we’re all trying to reach readers (and in our own gutless, anonymous way, us commenters are doing that as well). For all our president’s faults, he had the guts to say “I’d like to be friends with him.” (re: Putin).

    Everybody else, give Josh a break, if you can find it in your heart to do it. He’s doing this for our entertainment, primarily, free of charge, and a funnier writer I cannot name. It’s worth it just for the laughs he deals like a junkballer catches a hitter looking for a called third strike on a back door curve. You never saw it coming, and before you know it you’re chuckling your a$$ off. If you get off on hate, there are plenty of other media sources that pipe that $hit nonstop, and by all means, I encourage you to move that mouse up to the address bar, double click it, and go find what you seek.

  5. Thanks for the support and the deeply thoughtful impressions, Ochanga. I really appreciate it. No greater compliment to me than saying my stuff made you laugh. I’ll keep trying to find the funny (and whatever else is coming out of me).

  6. A few years ago, before my wife and I had so many kids that we don’t have free moments or energy for such things, I used to break out the laptop at the dinner table and read out a few of your posts for some post-prandial entertainment, much like some enjoy a fine cognac. Yes, I appreciate your writing like a fine cognac.

    I think one of her all time favorites was the story of Freddie Lynn, and his heroic push for 25 homers that effectively ended his career. I hope the effort to write doesn’t take the fight out of you like it did to poor ol’ Freddie. Keep it up. You have a loyal reader base.

    P.S. I also find hilarious the juxtapositions of the dreams and wonders of childhood with the often monotonous and sometimes soul draining rigors of the work of adulthood. You really nailed it in Benchwarmer. I went through half of that stuff myself when my son came. Utterly hilarious.

  7. Thanks for the memory of that Fred Lynn post–I just looked and saw I wrote that thing over ten years ago, which gives me vertigo as I still think of this site as a “new thing” in my life. Good lord, are we hurtling through life…

  8. Feel a bit sorry for the drive-by reader missing out on some fine writing. Maybe they came for the “sports”?

  9. He probably needed to go practice the cello.

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