“I loved America!” my grandmother exclaimed not once, but twice, during a conversation about her arrival in this country in 1899*.
Her sister, the one slated to leave for America, got cold feet shortly before the departure date. Not about to waste meager savings spent on a ticket, the family sent the younger Carolina in her place. I’ve often wondered how she felt—still a teenager in 1899. One of a massive influx of immigrants, far greater in number than the estimated total of 43 million here today.
She reminded me that kids were expected to grow up way sooner then. Nobody gave much thought to sending a girl from a fishing village in Sweden halfway across the world, and she loved cities. Entry was more or less assured. In the United States, arriving immigrants needed only to have a modicum of health and no criminal record. After 1917, minimal literacy and “at least twenty dollars” in one’s pocket were added requirements.
A far cry from how another loved one in my life managed to get here! At age eight, Jackie left her own grandmother behind in their impoverished village. At great risk, after two tries, this child managed to reunite with family already in Minnesota. For thirteen years, I’ve witnessed my young friend scale many invisible, seemingly insurmountable walls.
Social class, ethnicity, economic privation, prejudice, plain old hardship all played a part. So much so that some years ago, she came horrifyingly close to giving up the struggle, along with her life. A stranger, or an angel, intervened, and, blessedly, that traumatic low was brief.
My grandmother knew sorrow and hardship, too—losing babies and a beloved son killed in World War II. She lived with the ongoing challenge of my grandfather’s “drinking.” A highly skilled tool-and-die-maker, he was let go from a string of jobs. Only his talent, after he’d “dry out,” earned him second and third chances with employers. But we cousins heard about comical moments—how everyone ran around picking up Pa’s beer cans to hide from the preacher when he came to call.
In the face of all this, my grandmother’s good will and generosity became the stuff of family legend. There’s the story of a hungry man knocking at the door. He asks if she can spare a slice of bread. She welcomes him in instead, insisting he sit down with the whole family to eat. Several years later an elegantly dressed gentleman appears at the door. It’s the once-hungry man. He has turned his life around, returning to thank her for deeming him worthy of the meal and that lively hour with the family. An act, he says, that restored his faith in humanity and in himself.
Grandma’s young counterpart has a generous heart as well. Jackie has advocated for her struggling younger brother to get him reading instruction. Cared for her baby sister while her mother worked. At holiday time, packed shoeboxes full of gifts for less fortunate children. These days she rises at dawn to participate in an internship at the university and at the end of each long day moves on to a job where she works until one in the morning.
Jackie exists daily on four hours of sleep in order to pay for her education and to help support the family. Stretched to the limit, financially and sleep-wise, she is, nonetheless, rich in spirit. Holding fast to her dreams, Jackie behaves as if they are already coming true.
At the end of her life, my grandmother’s “estate”—distributed among the surviving seven offspring—consisted of an equal number of envelopes, each containing one hundred dollars. But my mother often said, “Growing up, we didn’t know we were poor.” The family’s wealth resided in the love and the laughter that were staples in their lives. It’s still the hallmark of gatherings of our extended family today.
Yet someone more judgmental might find it easy to malign a woman giving birth to so many babies that she and her alcoholic, sometimes unemployed, mate could barely afford to raise—particularly because she was an immigrant. Find it even easier, perhaps, to denigrate today’s “Dreamers” and others driven to build a better life here.
Aware of the challenges, I’ve asked myself, “How desperate do so-called “aliens” have to be for food, safety, freedom—as well as longed-for reunions—to risk crossing the border into the U.S.?” They face possible death by dehydration, sunstroke, starvation, and/or hypothermia. A recent New York Times report indicates that at the southern border “the frequency of deaths amounts to a humanitarian crisis”—the number of dead qualifying as a “mass disaster.”
I started thinking about bracelets worn a while back by some youth—WWJD embossed on the bands: What Would Jesus Do? I cannot imagine Jesus digging even one shovelful of dirt for a wall to keep out the poor that he championed, “the least of these” with whom he identified at every turn. His most bitter words, after all, he reserved for the Pharisees who took pride in their own higher status, ever zealous to guard it. The sect demanded unbending adherence to religious creed and the letter of the law. I picture my grandma shaking her head.
But this post isn’t meant to spark heated debate. It’s a loving tribute—to my immigrant grandmother, an iconic figure among my kin for four generations, and to a young woman who might as well be my granddaughter. I love her that much.
Peter and I danced at Jackie’s quinceañera when she turned fifteen. I hope to dance one day at her wedding. A few Saturdays ago, I attended her twenty-first birthday party. “She has a pure heart,” a friend of hers remarked to me that night as we celebrated. I couldn’t agree more.
Like my grandmother, she’s an inspiration. Like her, she blesses the lives she touches. How fortunate that both of them came to bless, with their very presence, this country.
Jackie recently received a green card and legal status. She hopes to become a citizen in five years.
The top photo commemorates the wedding of my grandmother and grandfather. The second was taken on Jackie’s high school graduation day; the third at her 21st birthday celebration. The fourth is Jasper Johns’ famous “American Flag”.
*In the preceding post, I describe how my feisty grandma burst through the veil during a monthly session with wise entities on the Other Side, thanks to my daughter’s abilities to connect clients with this collective called Spirit.