If my mom were alive today, she would be shaking her head in disbelief and concern about the stories of immigrants being rounded up and deported with little warning. At the age of ten, she journeyed from Lithuania to Boston Harbor with her mother and brother to join her father and half sister in Portland, Maine. Strangely, there were no stories or pictures of that time and all during my childhood and teen years, I never thought of my mother as an immigrant.
Unlike my great aunts and uncles, she spoke English without trace of an accent. A business school graduate, she identified as an American. She attended the Fanny Farmer Cooking School where she embraced modern cooking and hospitality. An adventurous and creative cook, she was known for her excellent baked goods and desserts.
In retrospect, it’s remarkable how little I knew of her first ten years in Lithuania. She enjoyed the “American Way” and relished the role of wife, mother and homemaker. I was about ten when I first realized Mom had a different life before arriving in America. We were visiting a family at a lake when the host invited us for a rowboat ride. In an instant, my confident and relaxed mother shook her head and said, not for me, and encouraged my brother and me to get in the boat and drift onto the water.
Years later, after another similar incident, she was willing to tell me the story of her nauseating and frightening 2 week voyage in steerage; she ate stale bread with water and lay on a hard bench for the entire trip. It would be many more years before I fleshed out the story of how my great grandfather, worried about the conscription of Jewish young men, made three trips from Lithuania to New York to assure safe passage for the entire family. Sadly, in the end, he was turned away because of a cough.
Last night, on television, I watched a segment about refugees, fearful of Trump’s ban and ICE roundups, finding their way to cold and icy Canada. At the border, an American and Canadian custom agent approached a lone pregnant woman. It was heart breaking when the American agent asked if she had a visa. Her body shrank in defeat as he placed her in a patrol car.
I’m grateful Great Zadie had the courage to forge the way for the entire family to undertake such a long and arduous journey. It was a time when health was a key requirement for admission. I believe Mom’s silence about what she endured was as much about her sadness for her beloved grandfather left behind as the upset from the listing boat traversing those miles of ocean swells.
I am grateful for the ACLU, the lawyers and many citizens who embrace and defend the safe harbor of America, the America who welcomed my mother, the America who sheltered and educated me, the America whose values we need to honor and protect.