Papa Was an Immigrant’s Baby

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Cartoon by Justin Teodoro

I don’t know much about my father’s life before he married my mother.  I know his parents came from Stanislav, Ukraine and that he was the only child of three born on American soil.  They lived in tenement housing with multiple family members who never spoke English while his father worked in the steel mills along the Monongahela River in southwest PA. I don’t know what they were escaping when they emigrated to the US but life certainly wasn’t easy once they got here. His mother died when he was three and his father when he was eleven.  There was a shuffling between a stepmother and assorted aunts or friends; by the time he was a senior in high school he was working at a filling station and living out of his car.

By the time he was 20, he owned that filling station and when remnants of untreated rheumatic fever he had as a child kept him out of the armed services during WWII, he received training to become an electrical tester at Westinghouse.  He was a strong and steady provider despite a troubled childhood and a bad heart. He lacked having a role model of what a good father should be but he tried, I think, to parent so that his children would grow up strong and healthy and achieve more than he.  My father was a proud American citizen who rose out the deplorable conditions of his immigrant parents to have a steady job, own a home and send a daughter and a son to college.  He loved his family, his church and his country.

It is not lost on me that I am a native born American because of an immigrant’s son. Or that I have achieved more in my life than he did in his because of opportunities available to me that he did not have. But I can tell you this, I am ever so grateful that the grandparents I never met were accepted into this country, that their struggle for survival gave way for their progeny to have a better life and that all of us together have made America great.

It is no wonder that all of this has come to mind in the wake of Trumpp’s [sic] zero tolerance immigration policy.  It is no wonder that images of children in cages separated from their parents have led me to ruminate on the plight of those fleeing horrible and terrifying conditions in their homeland.  And while it is true that my father’s folks came through Ellis Island and were “processed” legally, I can almost imagine the uncertainty of their world, their fear of being separated or rejected, and their wondering if their newly adopted home would afford them some kindness.

Despite what Trumpp [sic] tells his base, I know of no “liberal” that want open borders.  Immigration is complicated but it does not need to be inhumane.  This president is cruel and fails to acknowledge that the talents and loyalty of welcomed immigrants make America strong, not weak.  I recently read about Madeleine Albright’s life as a refugee after fleeing Czechoslovakia as a child.  The Albright family fled Nazi Germany to Great Britain where they were greeted with open arms.  Welcome, they said.  We are so sorry about your home, they said.  We’ll take care of you until it is safe to return, they said.  And that is what happened.  England helped them get home again.  Unfortunately, after their return, communist rule loomed and they were forced to flee again, this time to America.  Welcome, America said.  We are so sorry about your home, America said.  We’ll help you become citizens, America said.  And they did. Can you think of a more outstanding American than Madeleine Albright?  We are a nation of immigrants—and I am a firm believer that is our strength.

Papa was an immigrant’s baby and this immigrant’s granddaughter wishes she could tell him thanks. This immigrant’s granddaughter wishes our president was less cruel in his thinking and more humane in his actions toward immigrants desperate for a new life.  And this immigrant’s granddaughter cares deeply for this imperfect nation—perhaps it would be a more perfect union if more of us remembered our immigrant ancestors and worked together in their honor.

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“I Voted for You!”

A neighbor recently relayed a story to a small group of friends about her 30-something-year-old son getting a new job.  Of course, this proud mama, told of all the training he had to go through, how tough it was for him to be away from home while studying and how it was all worth it when he scored so high on the exams.  We all nodded and smiled, satisfied that one of our own had met with such success.

Now comes the hard part, the mother said, of setting up his own office in his new hometown and wooing clients to trust him with their savings, their investments, their financial planning and, of course, that meant going door-to-door to make introductions.  She then added an little anecdote about one of his recent door-to-door encounters.

A woman answered the door and before her son could launch into his introductory speech, she said, “Oh, I already voted!”  He politely introduced himself and told her where to find his office but she wasn’t having any of it.  “No, I voted,” she said,  “and, in fact, I’m pretty sure I voted for you.  Yes, I’m sure of it!”

Brochures were left and this young man (and his mother) now have a “funny” story to tell.

Really? Funny that he was mistaken for a politician?  Funny that he met a “voter” who was clueless about the election cycle?  Funny that this woman really didn’t know who she voted for in the last primary election?

The story got me thinking about how sensitive I have become about the ill-informed voter.  I am sure that this mother was thrilled to think her handsome son was mistaken for someone who had run for office and had secured this women’s vote.  And for as much as I wanted to chuckle along with the rest of them, I didn’t;  I was saddened to think that this women is probably one of thousands (millions?) that went to the polls out of duty or learned behavior and really didn’t give a damn about the issues or who they voted for as long as they voted.

Before Trumpp [sic] I probably would have laughed along with the others.  But then again, before Trumpp [sic] I never would have suspected that ill-informed voters could do so much damage, that 100 million non-voters were a problem, that our democracy was so fragile.  Before Trumpp [sic], I was the “informed” voter but oh, so utterly clueless.

Today I am working on becoming less clueless… and laughing more.

Redemptive Politics

Kate Hannigan has written the most marvelous book for children about Belva Lockwood’s crusade for women’s rights, A Lady Has the Floor (2018).  Belva was born in 1830, boldly embraced her childhood in NY, determined to get into college when women were discouraged from doing so, became a teacher and championed for her female students to participate in physical education and public speaking (gasp!) just like their male peers, applied to law school but was told she would be a distraction to the young men on campus and therefore rejected, joined the women’s suffrage movement, was later accepted and attended National University Law School.  She was a relentless advocate for women’s rights, equality for all and world peace.

Her list of accomplishments are many but Hannigan highlights her activities as one of the first female lawyers in the country, the nation’s first female attorney to argue a case before the Supreme Court, her time as a suffragette and finally, as the first woman to be placed on a presidential election ballot as the nominee for the National Equal Rights Party in 1884. She received 4,000 votes at a time when she herself was not permitted to vote.

The book, which is ideally suited for third and fourth graders, is a wild romp through Belva’s life using the refrain of “Bold! Determined! Strong!”  Reading this book was inspirational, so inspirational, in fact, that I have shared it with my progressive women’s book club and have bought several copies as gifts. Of course, I now own a copy, as does my granddaughter. I sent a copy to my dear friend whose daughter committed to becoming an immigration lawyer soon after the election, to my son’s girlfriend who marched in DC (and many marches since), and to my go-to friend for anything concerning American history or politics because that is what she lives and breathes in her high school classroom.  And it was the latter’s text to me upon receiving this book that prompted this posting.

She wrote:  [I] am curled up with “A Lady Has the Floor.” Between threats of nuclear holocaust and other trumpian tragedies, I’m trying to stay focused on a path to redemptive politics.  Thanks for inspiration, my friend.

I smiled at her phrasing. Of course as a teacher of sociology she would use the term “redemptive.” I can almost hear her lesson on the four types of social movements: alternative, redemptive, reformative, and revolutionary. And while a redemptive social movement is usually religious in nature, in this case redemptive politics makes perfect sense.  After all, aren’t we asking for some form of personal transformation to see our way through trumpism? Aren’t we all asking for redemption:  To find ways to redeem our dignity as a nation, our global standing among other great democratic countries, our political clout with allied leaders, our sense of the brave and beautiful America we were striving for all along?  We need redeemed from this mess of an administration, from the cruelty that has been given license to show itself between friends and family and neighbors.  It has been 18 months since the election and my feelings for the outcome have not waivered.  With every petition signed, every postcard written, every protest marched, I am asking the participants of our political system for redemption. Redemption politics, indeed!

I believe Belva Longwood was into redemptive politics. She saw an error in the system and worked politically to be delivered from it.  She worked tirelessly for the downtrodden members of society including widows of veterans, Native Americans, and former slaves. And through her activism, came awareness. She is quoted as saying, “I have not raised the dead, but I have awakened the living.”  Bold! Determined! Strong!

I shudder to think what Belva would think about today’s political nonsense. I’m sure she’d be scolding us for falling asleep on the job when she worked so hard to keep us awake.  Let’s hope that we are awake once more.  I have to believe that we are.

With that I’ll say, “Hang in there, my friend, for we are headed down this path of redemptive politics together.”

Hannigan, Kate. A Lady Has the Floor. Calkins Creek. 2018.

My Avian Refugees

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The last of the refugees contemplating a nest on the window frame…

The house next door is an ill-maintained rental.  Years ago the owner, in an attempt to be energy responsible, I suppose, had the walls filled with blown-in cellulose.  Unfortunately, the holes drilled under the eaves of the two story dwelling were left opened — the perfect size for small nesting birds to access the attic rafters.  Sparrows and wrens have made these nifty little holes home for years.

And over the years the second floor renters have complained about the incessant chirping and the mess of excrement left behind but the problem was ignored.  Now that the birds have returned from their winter homes, the commotion has begun again in earnest… well, until yesterday.

Yesterday a handyman showed up and plugged every one of those holes.  The birds are frantic and their distress is audible.  At least one adult bird is trapped on the inside with its mate calling on the outside. Mating pairs that were not separated try again and again to access their nests:  It’s a futile endeavor.  The birds are tenacious and aren’t ready to relocate but relocate they must.

It is funny how a seemingly insignificant happening like the disruption of a few birds leads me to think of our current political conundrums.  I watch those birds trying to make sense of what has happened to their homes, and I think of the Syrian war refugees.  I remember that handyman denying entrance to birds who have already settled there, and I think of the Dreamers, of the ICE raids and the Muslim ban.  I ponder the fate of those displaced birds and wonder what it must be like to be evicted, homeless and rejected by a community that clearly has the resources to relocate them.

Aristotle said, “In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous” and with that thought I wish my marvelous avian refugees a place perfectly suited for family life, a new safe home . Will our marvelous human refugees fare as well? I fear not.

Immigration policy is complex and I struggle to weigh in intelligently.  Donating to charities supporting refugees and other survivors of war, educating myself on the issues (pro and con) so as to become an even more informed voter and reading JFK’s A Nation of Immigrants (1958) as I document the immigrants of my ancestors are things I do from the comforts of my own home.  But, unlike the refugees of the world, I risk little. Nevertheless, regardless of any action or inaction on my part, I still think their voices need to be heard. They deserve to be heard and perhaps, voices like that of Halima Aden will help start the national conversation…

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/halima-aden-refugee-model_us_5ae23538e4b055fd7fc9ea8c

But I Watched…

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Over 500,000 civic-minded marchers flooded Pennsylvania Ave in DC on March 24 for the student-led March For Our Lives protest.  Driven by the school shooting in Parkland, FL, they came to say “Enough!” with the gun violence in America.  They were there to advocate for sensible gun laws that left the Second Amendment intact and assault weapons out of the hands of civilians.  And while this played out in the shadow of our nation’s Capitol building, thousands more joined in solidarity from coast to coast and around the world.

I was unable to attend but I was with them in spirit.  I traded my pink hat for orange, donned my Disarm Hate wristband, and tied an orange ribbon to the peace dove sculpture hanging in our pear tree.  And I watched.  I watched the entire event, riveted to my computer screen and alternated between weeping and cheering for the movement.

I watched as David Hogg, senior at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, scolded politicians who took NRA blood money by telling them, “Get your resumés ready.”  He reminded them that the voting bloc of these soon-to-be voters will be enormous.

I watched as Naomi Wadler, an 11 year old student from Alexandria, VA, stand up for all black American women who had been gunned down, who had lost their lives and their potential due to gun violence. She reminded her audience with poise I haven’t seen in many adult speakers that it would be 7 short years before she and her elementary school friends could vote. She quoted Toni Morrison:  If there is a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.  And this child left me hopeful.

I watched as Samantha Fuentes, a Parkland survivor, lead the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to Nick Dworet.  Nick would have turned 18 the day of the March but was killed in the Parkland shooting.  I watched as the Parkland students sang their original song, Shine, written for their fallen classmates and was moved again:

You’re not going to knock us down,
We’ll get back up again.
You may have hurt us but I promise we are stronger
and we’re not going to let you win.
We’re putting up a fight.
You may have brought the dark
but together we will shine a light.

I watched as survivors of the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings encouraged not only the Parkland students but all students across America to persevere, to never give up, to register to vote when they come of age.  Enough is enough, they said.

I watched as the granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr led the crowd in a rally chant reminiscent of her grandfather’s powerful voice:  Spread the word!  All across the nation!  We are going to be!  A great generation!  Yolanda Renee King is 9 years old.

I watched a parade of signs carried by grieving parents, educators and children of all ages and marveled at the power of their message.  Although I’d be hard pressed to pick out any one with the most impact I’d say it would be a toss up between the little girl who wrote “I am six.  So were they.” and listed the victims of Sandy Hook at the bottom of her sign, and the adult who carried the one that said, “I’m joining whatever political party those kids in Florida just started.”

I watched Emma Gonzalez give her tribute to the 17 killed in her school and then pause for 4 more minutes as her time on stage stretched to 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the exact time it took the gunman with an AR-15 to mow down her classmates.  Her silence was stoic, profound and deafening.  Her silence spoke louder than words and was heard by all who stood with her.

The NRA mocked the assembly, the kids and their message.

The president of the United States of America golfed.

But I watched.  And I heard them loud and clear.

I am no Malala

The 2018 International Women’s Day seemed to have had a sense of pride and feistiness I had not noticed in previous years.  In the United States, especially, women have been in the news this past year for creating movements, entering politics, finding their voices to speak out for equality and breaking barriers in a number of professional fields.  Mothers have fought against drunk drivers, in-school bullying and gun violence.  Professional women have spoken up against sexual harassment in the work place as well as the political arena, teenagers have taken on the NRA and teachers have taken a stand for public education.  Thanks to the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the solidarity of women from around the world (every continent including Antartica, no less!) was the incredible spark that lit the fires of activism. And it just keeps going.

Last night I watched David Letterman’s new show on Netflix, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, as he interviewed Malala Yousafzai, a 20-year-old activist from the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan.  Malala was brought up to value education and often championed for the education of girls even as a pre-teen, a notion that brought her the unwanted attention of the Taliban. At the age of 15, young Taliban soldiers boarded her school bus and shot her in the head.  The assassination attempt was meant to silence her but instead it gave her world recognition and a mission in life.  Her remarkable recovery (in Britain) and subsequent determination to fight for the education of girls where education is denied led her to form the Malala Fund, earn her the first ever Youth Peace Prize in Pakistan, and, at age 17, the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala’s story is extraordinary and her impact is huge.

At one point in the interview, Letterman talks of others he has known that have risen from the ashes of trauma to become a beacon for good.  In each case, the “seed of evil” was the initiator.  Is that what it takes to move forward, to pursue goodness, to be reminded that evil has no place in our world?  Good grief.  And yet, when I reflect on this past year and all the resistance in which women have participated, that seed of evil seems to have played a role.  The #Me, Too movement (sexual harassment), #Never Again (gun violence), Indivisible (Trump and his anti-woman, anti-science, anti-civil rights administration) and many more have been borne out of injustice.  It is frustrating and disconcerting to imagine that humankind may never outgrow the good vs evil drama.

I am no Malala.  The impact that I make in this fight for kindness and empathy toward my fellow beings will be infinitesimal compared to hers but fight, I must.  Resist, I must.  And it gives me pause to think of all that we can do, one small act at a time–evil be damned.

Small Victories

If I ever want to remember how angry I am about this whole shambolic mess in the White House, I read Jon Pavlovitz’s blog, Things That Need to be Said.  When I need a laugh, I head to Randy Rainbow’s song parodies about you-know-who on YouTube.  Most days, however, I need something to remind me that good things are happening in spite of all the craziness this current administration brings to the news cycle.  Reading the Daily Good helps, but their stories, as wonderful and uplifting as they are,  pull from around the world and, quite frankly,  there are days when I just need to know that America, specifically our American democracy, is still working.  Enter Small Victories.

A recent house guest introduced me to this wonderful little newsletter.  Small Victories gathers a week’s worth of good things happening in our political arena and dumps them into my mailbox every Friday.  Hooray!  The newsletter is then archived so that anyone can read them whether you have signed up for the Friday release or not. So, along with my other favorite sites, I have added this quiet, easy-to-read, unassuming site to my political diet.  I wholeheartedly recommend it for your own encouragement and celebration:    https://www.celebratesmallvictories.com

And these:

To keep you positive:  http://www.dailygood.org

To keep you resisting:   https://johnpavlovitz.com

To keep you laughing:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=580dYcYCneA

 

Birthdays Lost

I must say birthdays at my age are rather dull events.  It’s as though it is no big deal to have made it this far, but I am here to tell you that in the wake of the Parkland (FL) school shootings, it is a big deal.  For one thing, I made it to my high school graduation.  I’ve laughed and cried, loved and despaired through six decades and I am fortunate enough to have enjoyed most of it.  Seventeen youngsters will not have the excitement of living out their lives, of exploring the world, of discovering their potential, of finding their passion because of a senseless act of violence by a 19 year old with an assault rifle.  So, yes, birthdays at my age are rather dull events but, oh, how lucky I am to have them!

Alexis Tracton, a freshman at Stoneman Douglas High School, is a survivor of the shooting that took place on Valentines Day in Florida.  This child has seen more tragedy and felt more sorrow and buried more friends in the last 9 days than I have in all of my life.  She mourns the friends who will never see another birthday or graduate from high school.  And while she is mourning, she is also angry—angry enough to write America a letter saying that this kid-driven movement against assault weapons isn’t going away.  Alexis and the thousands of teens across the country are level-headed, brilliant and resolute.  They are questioning policies, practices and politicians without fear—they know fear, they have lived it and they have had enough. And I admire them with my whole being.

Alexis writes about her promise to her dead classmates and teachers, “…I will live for them. I will smile for them. I will laugh for them. I will cry for them. I will fight for them.”  So will we, Alexis, so will we. No matter how many birthdays we’ve had.

Read Alexis’ letter below.

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/alexis-tracton-florida-school-shooting_us_5a8f237ee4b00804dfe6b136

Chevalier, Flagg and Quinn

It is a rainy, foggy Sunday morning and I have just finished reading Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.  It is a delightful little read about Mary Anning (1799-1847), a girl born into a family fraught with poverty and hardship in Lyme Regis, England who just happened to have a knack for finding fossils.  Mary is credited with finding the very first ichthyosaur skeleton when she was only 10 or 11 years old.  Later she would find the first plesiosaur and although her gender dismissed her place in the scientific world of the time, she would later be recognized as a major contributor to the field of paleontology.

This read comes on the heels of Fannie Flagg’s very humorous The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.  I read it as a distraction from the news, laughed through most of it, and, in the end, discovered something about WWII female pilots. Women Airforce Service Pilots, WASP for short, were brought in to ferry aircraft from factories to bases all across America in an effort to “free up” their male counterparts for combat service.  These brave pilots served their country with brilliant determination and unwavering dedication flying every type of military aircraft from fighter jets to bombers but because of their gender were considered civilians not military.  They were disbanded to return to the kitchen as soon as the war was over and in this way, their vacancies would allow returning males from the war to have jobs.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that they were awarded military status and given credit for their service.

And, of course, this followed my reading of The Alice Network by Kate Quinn about female spies in WWI mentioned in an earlier blog.  I did not intentionally pick out books about incredible women— incredibly smart, incredibly brave, incredibly independent—but I seem to be a magnet for them of late.  As I live through the Women’s March Movement and witness the rise of strong capable females in today’s society, I become more aware of those that came before us.  We are persistent, if nothing else.  And remarkable creatures.

Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter in Chevalier’s book, mused about living in a small town after a childhood spent in London.  There were fewer societal constraints so that, in many ways, she was freer (as a female) but she was also limited in her contacts with a more learned, progressive community.  She said, “… I read the paper dutifully, for it makes me at least aware of the wider region, rather than trapped in an inward-looking town.” I concur.  Having grown up in a large city and then settling in a small town, I know how important it is to reach out to a “wider region”  and now more so than ever:  The Women’s Movement has given me that.  So have Chevalier, Flagg, and Quinn.

Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable Creatures. Dutton, 2010.

Flagg, Fannie. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. Random House, 2013.

Quinn, Kate. The Alice Network. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2017.

http://www.wingsacrossamerica.org/index.html

With the Strength of Youth

On the one year anniversary of the Women’s March, my husband and I attended a rally in Erie, PA.  The 2 hours we spent at Perry Square was peppered with great speakers, handmade signs that were both serious and hilarious, and hundreds of like-minded people who understood that the next “March” better be a march to the polls.  The snow and slushy ice beneath our feet did not matter; the message did.

Standing dead center of this gathering gave us an interesting view of the crowd.  No matter which way we turned, we were surrounded by a myriad of protesters.  And the age range was astounding, from the very young to the very old.  Right behind us, were 3 young college students who were just as excited to be there as any of the most seasoned protester.  They were young and ready to be active participants as citizens of Pennsylvania.

Between speakers, our conversations with these newly minted activists yielded one thing: they knew what they were talking about.  The young man holding a sign sporting Senator Toomey’s picture with the word “Missing” talked to us freely about calling the senator, interactions he’s had with Toomey’s staff, and what he knew about Toomey’s record as a senator.  Here was a young man who was engaged, informed and willing to press on to make sure his legislators were being held accountable to the people.  It was refreshing to be in his presence, to listen to the voice of youth speaking for the next generation.

I admire this young man and his friends.  I was nowhere near that level of understanding of my political world at their age.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I’m there yet but I can tell you I was heartened to be in their company.  This level of enthusiasm, knowledge, commitment, and strength is exactly what we need to carry on.  No doubt the value of this rally depends on their strength and the millions of millennials like them.  Smile.  If these youngsters are any indication, the torch has been passed and will stay lit in the years to come.

http://www.goerie.com/news/20180121/hundreds-gather-in-erie-on-anniversary-of-womens-march