Tag Archives: immigration

Celebrating the Solstice

My dear friend “D” entertains annually on the Winter solstice. The party includes many people who don’t know one another, because they come from different parts of D’s life. My original connection was the playgroup that supported D and I though our children’s preschool years. Those kids are over age 30 now, and most of the playgroup mothers are now grandparents.

Not satisfied with food and drink and general conversation (all wonderful!), D always organizes some kind of “sharing”. This year, her topic was simply inspired. IMMIGRATION has been all over the news and dominates many conversations.

We were offered a chance to discuss our family histories, and share about holiday customs that came from our forebears! Seriously, we could have talked all night. There were 16 of us. Do the math. Thirty two parents, sixty four grandparents, and on it goes! Each life is a story.

What did I learn? The most common country of origin for South Jersey families is Italy! (Had you asked me, I might have suggested Germany, but that’s just my neighborhood.) Those with Italian roots reported large families and many variations on the “Feast of Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve.

Next most common was the Irish/German/Miscellaneous cohort. I belong there – German mother, Irish father, maybe some English blood.

Many people like me report data gaps. Family members were adopted (often informally), and their backgrounds remain unknown. Going back only four generations, my family tree includes two adoptions.

Two people reported Native American ancestry. Each could name a tribe, but neither holds tribal membership. Only two in our group reported on ancestors from before 1776, and no one reported membership in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).

Some of us discussed genealogy and/or genetic testing. One woman hired a specialized tour guide to help her find family records along the Rhine in Germany! Several people had done or planned to use commercially available genetic testing.

I spoke early in the discussion, and managed to be brief, but things continued to occur to me. Did anyone else know how to make the German treat called “elephant ears”? Did anyone speak a language that was NOT lost during immigration? Each of my grandmothers said she had forgotten her first language, but my German grandmother remembered a little vocabulary and snatches of song. My mother studied German in high school, and I learned it in college. Gaelic, regrettably, has been lost to us.

The Christmas season is a wonderful time for these types of reflection! Thanks, D, for a great evening.

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The Frost Place – Museum and Poetry Center, Franconia NH

Growing up, I practiced piano under the sharp eyes of my great grandparents. Their picture hung just to the left of my piano. John and Margaret Lynch were born in the mid-19thcentury and arrived as part of the big wave of migration of the Irish to the United States. I don’t know how old they were when photographed – perhaps in their 50s? John smiled a bit for the camera, but Margaret is serious to the point of looking rather grim.

My sister and I decided to donate the photo to The Frost Place, a small museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, because Frost and his family boarded with the Lynches. John and Margaret are mentioned in Jeffrey Meyers biography of Frost published in 1996. After a few preliminary phone calls and preparation of a gift letter, we drove up to Franconia.

The Frost Place is off the beaten track! My GPS faded. The road is less traveled. Eventually we found a few signs to follow.

The Center consists of the house, a barn fixed for educational use, a trail and (best of all!) a porch. What a view! Part of the house is occupied by an invited “poet in residence” every summer. The public part of the house is beautifully restored.

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Frost has been described as America’s most widely read and most loved poet, said to symbolize “the rough-hewn individuality of the American creative spirit more than any other man”. NYT, announcing Frost’s death, Jan 29, 1963

I love small museums! This is a delightful example of that genre, and well worth a drive off the beaten trail.

The Frost Place Museum and Poetry Center

Intersectionality – a personal essay

“Intersectionality” is getting lots of buzz. (See Chronicle of Higher Education, for example. Google it, for more than you ever want to know.)

I stepped into an intersection yesterday. Not in a street, but at my usual place-of-yoga, the local Hindu Temple. I have a long, comfortable relationship with the Temple. They offer yoga in return for a $5 donation. I speak well of them in the community.

Yesterday the regular yoga space looked different. The amount of artwork on the walls had been doubled, and two beautiful “altars” had been arranged, decked with candles and floral arrangements. What?! I had never seen this degree of formality at the Temple. We learned that a Vietnamese group was holding a meeting or celebration. Preparations had been made. Are there Hindus in Vietnam? I don’t think so. My guess is that the group is Buddhist.

Wikipedia tells me that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Vietnam, carrying with it strong veins of Taoism and Confucianism originating in China. I’m not sure what script I was seeing on the new posters in the Temple. Possibly a version of Sanskrit, but it didn’t match the flowing script seen around the Temple.

The Vietnamese event was not set up in the sacred part of the Temple, with the God images. I couldn’t tell if the human figures on the Vietnamese posters correspond in any way to the Hindu deities, or whether they are intended to be divine. I have so many questions!

So many stories waiting to be told. The world comes to my neighborhood!

“Waiting for Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy” by Carlos Eire

This book falls into two of my favorite reading categories – memoirs, and history I “lived through” but may not understand well. The history in question is the Cuban Revolution, which Wikipedia dates to January 1, 1959. Of course, what I remember best is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. I expected nuclear war.

Carlos Eire is about one year younger than me. His childhood ended at age 11, when he was put on a plane from Havana to Miami, accompanied only by his 15 year old brother.

Waiting for Snow in Havana is an amalgam of memories, highlighting Eire’s parents, brothers, friends, teachers and neighbors. His father was a judge, hence a member of the “establishment”, but not so close to the old regime as to have been immediately targeted for execution by the Revolutionaries. Eire lived a life of privilege and received a good education. Catholicism dominated the culture in many ways.

The decision to send Carlos and his brother to the US on their own was made by his mother, who eventually followed them. His father never left Cuba.

Eire’s childhood memories are dominated by danger and death. Danger, because many of the pastimes and activities would put at contemporary parent into shock – rock throwing as a socially sanctioned game, surfing in rough seas… Death, because so many actions were thought to be deadly – going from a warm room to a cold room, etc.

The book is also permeated by anger, especially at the Revolution, at Castro and Guevara and the changes they imposed on Cuba. Eire is still angry. A quick Goggle search makes it easy to find out the details. Eire knows that his own adult voice permeates the book, although it is intended to express his childhood in its own terms.

If you like memoirs about childhood, read this book. It also sheds (some) light on the immigration and foreign policy issues we now face.

“American Ghost – A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest” by Hannah Nordhaus

This book didn’t work for me. It should have – I like memoirs and family histories, and I like the American Southwest, having spent the summer of 1987 in Santa Fe. While I was there, I made a special effort to read “southwestern” authors, like Tony Hillerman and Oliver LaFarge.

Two things interfered with Nordhaus’s effectiveness. One is that the story she had to tell just wasn’t all that compelling. The deep, dark secret at which she persistently hinted didn’t exist, or couldn’t be uncovered. The other problem was her decision to consult a variety of supernaturalists (mediums, spiritualists, “readers” etc.) and included these efforts in the book. Too silly for words!

The good aspect of this book is that it documents the experiences of German Jews in the American Southwest. Santa Fe is an old, old city and it’s good to have this part of its past clarified. I would say this book is of interest to historians and sociologists, not the general reader like me.

“The Boston Girl: A Novel” by Anita Diamant

This novel tells the story of a woman’s life, in the form of reminiscences shared with an adult grandchild. Addie Baum is born in Boston into a Jewish immigrant family that is having terrible difficulty settling in American. The year of her birth is given as 1900. My own grandmother, Anna S, was born in Boston, in 1891.

Addie Baum has two sisters. One jumps into American life wholeheartedly, angering her parents and almost losing contact with Addie. The other sister is frail and anxious – in modern terms, seriously traumatized and depressed. She eventually takes her own life. Addie, much the youngest, has the advantage of being sent to school and finding a “settlement house” where she is befriended and learns to cope with America and understand Boston. Nonetheless, her family forces her to drop out of school.

The best part of this book is its vivid description of Addie’s life from her early teens until she meets her husband. Immigrant life is terribly hard. Addie’s mother miscarries on the boat to America. Her parents fight all the time, her mother being convinced that everything was better in the “old country”. Poverty renders their lives miserable. Addie’s father takes refuge in religion, spending as much time as possible studying and praying in his synagogue.

Reading this book made me realize how little I know about my grandmother’s life. I was told she spoke only German until she started school at age 5. I don’t think she finished high school. I know she worked in a sweatshop – the evidence was always before our eyes. Two joints of her right forefinger were missing, severed by a stamping machine in a sweatshop. Family myth asserts that she started saving money as soon as humanly possible so her children could be more educated than she had been and avoid the fate of factory work. All three of them avoided the factory assembly lines, but only one, my mother, was educated beyond high school.

The author’s main “message” in this book is that the past was not BETTER. Often it was worse than the present.

This book is somehow lacking in narrative drive. Maybe this is what happens when an author has a message and a plot in mind and then writes a book around them. The alternative is the Stephen King approach – create your characters and turn them loose! Let them surprise you! (See blog post December 21, 2013.)

More quibbles… Once again I ask, “If a person or historical period is so interesting, why fictionalize it?” (See blog post December 6, 2013 about the novel Orphan Train.) I suspect that writing fiction is easier, and the author can slant the work according to his or her (contemporary) biases.

I wonder if Diament consulted too many experts while writing this book, leaving me feeling the lack of a distinct “voice”. I read her highly popular, earlier novel The Red Tent and had the same reaction to it – good, but somehow not as “great” as many people seemed to find it.

One (tangential) reason why I read this book was because the title reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s lively memoir (published in 1986), Boston Boy, subtitled growing up with jazz and other rebellious passions. No resemblance. Hentoff wrote voluminously on music and American politics. At age 89, he is still writing! Check him out!

Keep The Boston Girl in mind for a rainy afternoon or boring wait during travel. It will keep you occupied, but not make you miss your plane!

“The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” by Oscar Hijuelos

This book is the saga of a family, starting in the late 1800s in Ireland but taking place mostly in the United States. Nelson O’Brien left Ireland in 1896 and traveled to Cuba as a photographer in 1898 during the Spanish American War. In Cuba, he fell in love with and married Mariela Montez. They settled in Pennsylvania and raised a family of fourteen daughters and one son. O’Brien was a successful entrepreneur, keeping his family “comfortable” or at least approximately in the middle class.

The love between Nelson and Mariela never wavers. Their household is described as busy, noisy, happy and overwhelmingly female.

The main theme of this book is gender, or perhaps the female gender. O’Brien and his son live in a sea of femininity. Each seems alternately happy and baffled. The Montez O’Brien sisters follow many different paths – happy marriage, unhappy marriage, no marriage, teaching, performing, etc. The lone son worked as an actor and later became a photographer like his father. The son “discards” his Cuban heritage by acting under an anglicized stage name.

On the issue of gender, the Montez O’Brien family is tilted sharply towards the female, but other polarities are more even.

In appearance, some of the sisters are Irish, while others strongly resemble their Cuban mother. America is those years was prejudiced against both groups, but dark skin and curly hair were more unfavorably regarded.

The family was also “split” by language. Mariela never became comfortable speaking English, and mostly retreated to dignified silence outside the family. The older sisters were fluently bilingual, but the younger ones, raised more by their big sisters than their mother, never really learned Spanish, and hence were handicapped in understanding their mother and her family. Their efforts to learn Spanish later in life never seemed successful. One sister went to live in Cuba, but none lived in Ireland and few visited there.

This book is full of vivid, sensual images and emotions. The Pennsylvania house, in particular, is described so clearly I felt like I was living there.

Read this book if you like romantic fiction or family histories, or are interested in immigration and the sociology of America from 1900 to about 1960.