On the anniversary of mother’s death
Some people talk about immigrants as if they’re threats.
Last Tuesday, I lit a candle for the anniversary of mother’s death. I was sixty miles away at college in New Jersey when I got the call to come to the hospital, hopped a train, switched to the subway and headed for the stop at the Williamsburg Savings Bank – I didn’t remember its name but remember my panic trying to find the right station and the hospital. Mother was still alive when I got there. While alone with her, in words burned into my memory, she said “It’s a good life; I don’t want to leave it.” A little while later she began coughing blood; we tried to find a nurse but it was all over. I never got to introduce her to her daughter-in-law or grandchildren.
Mother was an immigrant. She came to the US in stearage with her twelve year old brother, Sam; mama was 8. If they’d stayed in Eastern Europe, they’d have had a small chance of survival. Mom and dad were very deliberate about not teaching me Yiddish. If you’d known them, you might not have realized they could speak it – their English was excellent, largely unaccented, and they were proud of it – even Brooklynese barely made a mark on their tongues. They wanted me to be an American. My dad tried to serve in World War I. His older brother served in France and I had cousins who served in World War II. America was good to them and they loved our country.
We didn’t get further out of state than New Jersey. But we traveled the length and breadth of this state. When I was a boy, a train engineer, Mr. Benedict, took me onto a yard engine in Hancock, NY, and let me take the controls. We Square Danced with the locals on the shores of Lake Champlain and men who’d been in the Dodger organization tried to give me pointers about pitching and batting. In 1955 my dad started taking us to Chautauqua, just about as far west in New York State as you can get. Chautauqua was founded in the 1870s as a summer school for Protestant Sunday school teachers. In the 1950s there were still no places of worship except Protestant churches and you had to be Protestant to own property, but we always felt welcome and loved the place.
On all the trips, to the Southern tier, Lake Champlain and Chautauqua there were historical places to see – markers, forts and battlefields from Saratoga to Lake Erie, homes where presidents lived, where President Grant wrote his autobiography, the Schuyler Mansion here in Albany, and many others. Dad and I became students of American history, joined the American History Book Club and devoured what we bought. When I was eleven, because I kept getting sick, a doctor in Crown Point pumped me full of penicillin and a doctor in Glens Falls lanced my ear drums. So I spent the time going through Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels – Northwest Passage about the French and Indian War, Rabble in Arms about the Revolution – and lots of books about Lincoln and Civil War history. I also studied the history of the labor union movement and lawyers, like Clarence Darrow, who fought for the working man.
Dad and I were born here, though he only learned English in school just like my mother did, but I knew the generation that came over. In my experience, love of America isn’t extraordinary, but typical, of immigrant families, with good reason.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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