By Hailey McLaughlin
I’m from County Caven and County Longford, both in the northern part of the Republic of Ireland. I’m also from Luxembourg; Posen, Poland; and Nue-Weimar, Russia. You could also say I’m from the Wisconsin towns of Sussex, Westfield, or Milwaukee. Take your pick.
If you asked me, I’d say all of the above. I’d say I’m from the woods and from the city. I’d tell you where I wish I was from, but they’re just places I haven’t called home yet.
I could get technical with you as well. I could tell you I was born in Menomonee Falls, and spent three years of my life in a trailer court my dad owned in Sussex. I could tell you how we moved up north to an unincorporated town and lived in my grandparents’ cottage as my family built their house. I could tell you my hometown officially has 1,128 residents and I dread being one of those people counted in the population.
The town of 1,128 isn’t where I wish I were from, but it’s where I lived the longest. It’s where I graduated from high school with 76 other people in purple gowns on May 31st, 2015. It’s where I had my first kiss in the back of a beat-up truck on a spring night in 2013. I can’t tell you the history of this town, but then again, I’ve never really cared enough to learn it.
What I can say for sure is there are three resale shops, but really they’re junk shops filled with frayed clothes from the 1980’s, old kitchen appliances and broken toys that were found in a water-stained box, tucked away in someone’s basement. There are four bars on Main Street, which is less than a quarter mile long. They have names such as The Happy Tap and The Thirsty Beaver. They open at 11 a.m. and the local legend, the old man who drives the “Hooter Scooter,” hops from each of them with an open Miller Lite tucked in the cup holder.
I was never proud to be a Pioneer. I thought our one festival, Dairylicous Days, was just a chance for some of the locals to talk about how much they love cows. I would never want to be from Westfield, yet when people ask me where I’m from, I automatically respond, “Westfield, Wisconsin. It’s about 45 minutes from the Wisconsin Dells. It’s between Portage and Stevens Point on I39. Just look for the big statue of a pioneer.”
Where I believe I’m from is different. In my mind, I want to be from the green hills of Ireland. Orange, white and green mean more to me than the purple and gold of Westfield. I find pride in my Irish last name and the bond I feel with my land, a trait my dad always told me was very Irish.
But I’m also a girl who eats homemade pierogis and celebrates every holiday, even if it doesn’t apply to my own heritage. My mom says that’s a very Polish thing to do, as she puts green food coloring into her beer on St. Patrick’s Day. She is decked out in an Irish flag scarf and a “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” tee shirt. She doesn’t have a drop of Irish blood in her.
I feel a sense of longing when I catch my grandpa talking about my Polish family, and a few words in their native tongue slip out. He treasures his “Polish Prince” shirt, and wears it at every family event he can.
I wish I could forget about Westfield and erase that label from me. The worst part is I know my hometown had an influence on who I am and the adult I’m slowly becoming, but it’s hard to feel a part of a community in a place where you aren’t loved. It’s hard to say, “This is my hometown,” when you don’t feel at home when walking the streets. Coming into the city limits isn’t a homecoming when you think about the years of cruel jokes and that you only have three friends in the entire zip code.
I should tell you I have felt more at home in Milwaukee in three years than I did in 14 years in Westfield. I have found a way to carve a place for myself in the Cream City. Every time my car pulls down the drag of Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View, it’s a homecoming. The coffee shops, restaurants and bookstores all feel so familiar to me, even though I haven’t known them for a year.
Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine myself walking down the streets in some European country. Usually, my mind takes me across the ocean to Ireland, an island I’ve actually never even been to. How can my home town feel like a jail cell, while a country that my ancestors left years ago calls out to me. My Irishness shines brightly through my last name. McLaughlin. A strong Irish name, a history teacher once told me.
McLaughlin means nothing in Westfield, though. The last name was an implant name; a name that determined my ranking in the town before I was even in high school.
In small towns: it’s all about who you’re related to.
When you step into the school, the teachers know who your parents are. In each class, on the first day of school and some kid boasts, “My mom and dad both had this teacher. My uncle, too!” This kid will go far in the school.
While I wasn’t projected to go far in life in Westfield, based on my last name, I still managed to carve my own path in school. My friends and I lurked in the back within the music departments and basked in the spot-light during musical season. Even though I wasn’t entirely miserable, I never fit in. I was never who I wanted to be there.
I would like to believe I’m from a place where I truly belong. I would like to believe the history my blood holds can show me where I’m truly from. I would like to believe this history will anchor me in life, no matter where my body travels to. When I’m asked where I’m from, I want my soul to take over and answer.
I was born Hailey Rose McLaughlin of Michael and Sherri McLaughlin and they were born from Dorthey and Edward McLaughlin and Roger and Carol Kryscio. I will always be an Irish, Polish, German-Russian girl, no matter where I live.
Take twenty years from now. I could be living in Bay View, a Milwaukee neighborhood my soul has gravitated. I could be in Switzerland, living my dream of snowboarding down the Alps. I could be in Ireland, living among people who share a common history with my ancestors. I could be in Poland, or in Russia in my family’s village.
Maybe it doesn’t matter where I am. Maybe each place I find myself living will change me.
I’m from County Caven and County Longford. I’m from Luxemburg, Posen and Nue-Weimar. I’m from Sussex, Westfield, or Milwaukee.
Take your pick.
Hailey McLaughlin is currently in her third year at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she double-majors in Creative Writing and Journalism. She has worked with Milwaukee Magazine and Media Milwaukee and is the Editor-in-Chief of the UWM Post.