all FamilyJanuary 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.