Everything you have you have because your family before you had not much of anything save guts and a dream.
Just ask Zeidy. Long before he’d spoil you with oversized pink teddy bears and pop-up books, he had this single pair of shitty old boots that was supposed to last him through his first winter in Philadelphia. When it didn’t, he made judicious use of plastic bags and tape. For the couple of hundred bucks Zeidy and Bubbie had between them when they arrived from Argentina, they had other priorities. (They hadn’t accounted for boots – and so boots would have to wait.) Zeidy worked his tail off. He did it for the boots. He did it for Bubbie. He did it for his three kids, one of whom would go on to become your dad. He did it for you, even if maybe he didn’t know it then. You’re a byproduct of that American dream.
On all sides of your family, it was like this: Your ancestors plotted course for the same destination. They pursued the same promise of a better life for themselves and their children; they simply followed different routes to get here. They were steely English Puritans, among the first European settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were Poles and Russians who set forth for this place only the luckiest of their lot could imagine. And they were folks whose dream started off maybe a little bit like a waking life nightmare: The kind where your country is war-torn, opportunities are scarce, fear is abundant and you have your progeny to consider.
Probably that’s the way it was for your great-great-grandmother, Sithu. I would have liked to ask her about where she came from except she spoke lousy English, I spoke no Arabic and she died when I was a baby. For the brief time I hardly knew her, she was an old woman in a housedress with a tightly-fixed bun in her dark gray hair. From time to time, I resurrect her memory: a hazy hodgepodge of actual memories of my great-grandmother informed by pictures I’ve seen, stories I’ve heard.
In this woman – one part real, one part imagined – I find a little strength.
Once, when I was barely grown, I boarded a plane bound for Amsterdam, where I’d spend a year living, working and studying abroad. And – Lord, child! – I hate flying. I hated it even before that flight when, at 37,000 feet above the Atlantic and somewhere off the Eastern coast of Greenland, a fellow traveler dropped dead beside my seat. True story.
For the next three hours, I sat across the aisle from his body, covered over with blankets and laid out in front of a row of vacated seats in the center of the plane. By the time we landed at Schiphol, I’d shed so many anxious tears for the dead man – and indeed for everyone who had the misfortune of flying with him on that journey to meet his maker – that I forgot the way that, just a handful of hours earlier, I left my sister and my parents at the end of a long hallway at the international terminal of Newark. I left clinging to the possibility that they might visit and knowing, deep down, that it was actually quite unlikely.
For the duration of that flight, I forgot to be homesick.
It only occurred to me when I landed in that place I’d never been, when I hailed a cab to a hotel nearby the flat that wasn’t ready for me, when I found myself lugging two suitcases the size of three grown men up the steepest steps of the narrowest staircase I’d ever seen, when I turned the key to that room on the fourth floor and it was empty and quiet, when I navigated my way to the grocery store that afternoon using a paper map (no cell phones, no apps), when the cashier spoke Dutch and I didn’t, when I slowly counted out the combination of cash and coins to pay for my purchase only to be told I owed three euro cents more (or had I overpaid, I wasn’t sure), when I meandered this incredible, cosmopolitan neighborhood that evening and stumbled upon a marvelous used bookstore, when – excited – I wanted to tell somebody (anybody!) about my discovery but when I came back to that hotel room it was still empty and still quiet and I was still alone.
That night, as I lay in bed listening to the sounds from the sidewalk below (incomprehensible chatter, bike tires and rain), I soothed myself with my family’s stories, your family’s stories.
A long time before I boarded that infamous flight, your Sithu boarded a ship and crossed the Atlantic bound for a place she’d never been. She wasn’t going forth in the name of cultural exchange, in pursuit of learning or for a change of scenery like me. She was going because, mostly, she had no choice. Truth: She amassed a stockpile of shitty memories in her home country. She lost at least two kids to disease or bum luck. (That’s twice the number any mother should.) Her country was at war with its neighbors. It was a flipping dangerous place to be. And, what’s more, her husband said so. Let’s go. It was decided. She was going. And she was going to make the most of it.
In the early Twentieth Century, Sithu and her family immigrated to the United States from Syria. She joined her husband’s family for the voyage to America. Some of them never made it to Ellis Island. They were stopped up in France, redirected to Cuba. They had a trunk or two between them. And from those trunks they built their empire. Sithu raised six kids in America: business owners, factory workers, veterans whose kids and grandkids were even more successful than their parents.
And while, no doubt, few of your ancestors’ immigration experiences are enviable, Sithu and her lot bore an additional burden. They were brown: Brown like the sea of faces you’d see if your switched on the news tonight…people of ancient pedigree living in ancient cities, which are being destroyed along with their families. Brown like those refugees.
This is a great country, Kid. It was built on the backs of ordinary people overcoming extraordinary adversity, surviving, thriving, living to tell their families’ stories. No terrorist or maniacal xenophobe can trump that. You stand a chance because folks who came before you took a chance and because somebody took a chance on them. I hope you never forget that, that you give folks a chance, that you’re grateful, that you pay it forward. I hope you see yourself in the faces of those refugees, that you see yourself in the faces of people suffering sufferings you’ve never known, sufferings you hopefully never, ever will. I hope you see yourself in those faces because someday you’ll find yourself hurting (that’s a fact) and, when that day comes, you’re sure as hell gonna want somebody to be kind to you. I pray they are. You’ll remember their kindness, after all.
I pray the current events of now are long gone and never forgotten by the time you’re reading me. (Know that your Mama was on the right side of history. Know that I hope you are, too.) May you forever share your ancestors’ guts. Be a stranger in a stranger land and somebody’s arms wide open, and remember exactly how it feels to be both. Then dream your world even better.