I signed up for a free two week subscription to Ancestry, something to help occupy my mind while Tim’s gone. My goal in this research is to find out as much as I can about my father’s family, about whom I know next to nothing. My mother’s family is well documented, a task undertaken with precision and detail by my diligent and learned Aunt Joyce. But Dad’s history is muddy.
In the first couple of hours, I found some key pieces of information I never knew; my paternal grandfather’s history and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.
Both of my father’s parents were immigrants. My grandfather was brought over as a boy by his parents, who later changed the family name to simplify it for American use. My grandmother apparently showed up in America at age 22. Because of the difficulty of tracking women due to name changes, all I can find about her is her age and her country of origin when she arrived. I have no idea what town she came from, how she got here, whether she traveled alone, whether she had siblings, or what her parents names were. Maybe as I get more sophisticated at this I’ll find out.
My father, then, is first generation Polish and Russian. The story of immigration in this country is as close as my own father.
It’s also as close to me as my husband, whose family brought him here from Canada when he was 12.
It’s also as close to me as my ex-husband, who came here as a Fulbright scholar when he was 32 years old.
With the exception of my Canadian husband, whose parents came here because of a job change, all of these people came to this country to improve their lives. My Polish and Russian ancestors…wow, that sounds like such a big deal, but it’s just my grandparents, the woman on whose knee I sat in a picture in my photo album. That woman, that grandmother, that ancestor came to this country to have a better life than she had in Russia. What were her circumstances there? I don’t know yet. But for a young woman to travel from whatever remote village or town or region she lived in, in the 1900s — the days long before airplane travel, when making such a journey was really difficult — suggests her life in Russia was pretty grim.
It was much easier for my ex-husband to travel. He arrived in southern Illinois by jet plane on an all-expense paid trip, a two-year scholarship that afforded him an education that he hoped was superior to what he could achieve in the Philippines. It wasn’t his intention to stay, and the Fulbright scholarship carries with it strict prohibitions on remaining in the U.S. beyond the intended study period. But he, too, hoped for more than his home country could provide.
Right now, down in Texas, we have children running to our border from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, running from escalating violence and exploitation. The average age of these kids is 10 years old. They are approaching the border without their parents, apparently sent in the hope that they’d be safer here than they would in their home countries. The reports of what’s going on in their home countries are pretty grim, and I’m struck again by the difficulty these kids are facing in their trek. They’re walking hundreds of miles to get to safety, to a place where they won’t be in danger of dying because they happened to be born in a deadly place. All they want is to live. That’s all. They’re kids. Their parents want them to not die. That’s what most parents want for their kids, at the very least: we want them to not die.
And yet I still see people clinging to their fervent belief that these kids are somehow vermin, dangerous, a threat to our country. The xenophobia is strong in some of the rhetoric; they’re being compared to rapists; it’s being suggested that they’re bringing ebola (a virus found only in AFRICA) to this country; they’re being called terrorists.
They’re fleeing danger and trying to survive. How are they different from my grandfather? From my grandmother?