I was born and raised in the USA. It’s an accident of history, as most of our backgrounds are. Some of my biological ancestors migrated from the Jewish community in Dvinsk in the Russian empire (now Daugavpils in present-day Latvia), while others likely came from Slovakia or Hungary or Romania, and from Sweden or Finland, and from the Mediterranean countries, and, even further back, from some sliver of the Middle East. It’s a broad mystery I’m unraveling through DNA testing.

And then there’s my adoptive family, the family in which I was raised. The accompanying snapshot is of my Grandpa Dallmann — my mom’s father, Martin. His parents had emigrated from Germany and Norway in the 1800s and had settled in Nicollet County in Minnesota. Until he was 5, my grandpa knew only German (it’s what was spoken in the home), but he learned English quickly once he started school. That was especially important — it would later be necessary to diminish one’s German presence to avoid persecution during World War I.

My grandpa grew up, married and started his own family — he and my grandma, my mom, and my aunt and uncle. During the Depression, they lost their home. But if someone, even a stranger, ever came to them for assistance, assistance was given.

By the time I came along, my grandpa was in his upper 60s, retired from a career that had ranged from farming to running a co-op grain elevator to building homes. He still had a shop in his basement, where he could be found working on projects every day. It wasn’t all power tools — he did many things, with great care, by hand. (Especially, I imagine, when I was around.) I loved visiting him there — the hum of the fluorescent lights under a sound-absorbent ceiling; the murmur of an AM radio tuned to a popular local station, KTOE; the quiet industry of a gentle man. There, I was loved, watched over, secure.

He’d once been known as having a knack for making dandelion wine. He played the accordion at barn dances. He read U.S. News & World Report — and he knew his Bible, inside and out.

He and I would sit at the kitchen table for evening snacks, usually crackers with summer sausage and cheese. He’d guide me as I’d cut the shapes of states out of Kraft singles or slices of Velveeta. When I was interested in geography, he made a mounted U.S. map. When I got interested in meteorology, he made me a laminated one on which I could draw lows and highs, warm fronts, cold fronts.

My grandpa died in 1976. Without him, I couldn’t be who I am. Without anyone in my wild mix — and without their being welcomed, however hesitantly, at some point in this great country of ours — I couldn’t be me.

 

David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.