Grateful My Mom Was an Immigrant

Goldie, My Mom

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.

18 thoughts on “Grateful My Mom Was an Immigrant

  1. Hy Kempler

    Amen! I was an immigrant as was my entire family
    I am grateful beyond measure for America. We need
    A better, more humane system for fixing our illegal
    Immigrant problem, I will be grateful when it is created,
    Thanks for your heartfelt piece.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Hy, thank you for sharing your own gratitude as an immigrant child of an immigrant family. I am so grateful to have you as a dear friend. Yes, humaneness is so painfully absence in the stories. Would that there were more awareness of the meaning of safe passage for the immigrant in Trump’s administration.

  2. sheila kempler

    Faye. Thanks for the memories, Yes, we are here because a loving family member made it to America first
    and then spent a decade working to bring his wife and 10 year old daughter, my mpm, first to Ellis Island and then to a small apartment on the Lower east side.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Sheila, thank you for sharing the story of your immigrant mom. There are so many immigrant stories from our generation which evoke gratitude for such loving and courageous effort to cross the seas to gain safety for family!

  3. Rosemary Booth

    This “close to home” story feels like not only an essay–but even more a testament to plain courage, and hope. The piece is also a portrait, and I really like how details about the writer’s mother unfold slowly, and how her harsh backstory is gently revealed. Endurance and caring seem to shine through.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Rosemary, how well you have described the intention of my story— how, over time and certainly with maturity, I came to understand the underbelly of my mother’s fear and how it was she was so proud to be safe in America that she adopted the American, and modern lifestyle. I’m pleased you experienced it as a “testimony,” for that is how I experienced the writing of this essay.

  4. Elizabeth Levinsky

    It is amazing the questions we forget to ask our parents when they are still alive! Your mother very much became an American! I Have so many unanswered questions. I am very lucky that my brother Irving remembered about his life in Russia, the trip to America and his life here as an eight year old “green horn”. We have a video of him relating his experiences. We are so lucky to have it. But still I still have many unanswered questions.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Liza, yes, I can relate to your regret over unanswered questions. As Mom aged, I was fortunate for the occasions that I was able to flesh out some of the story and that Mom was open to share. Wonderful that Irving had the presence of mind to make a video!

  5. Beverly Bader

    I am moved by your lovingly written essay of your mom’s and Great Zadie’s immigrant struggles.
    I was sad to learn that his illness blocked him from reaching the “land of opportunity.” Your mom
    was a confident and resilient woman who was eager to learn and develop her passions. I was fortunate
    to have met Goldie in her home in Portland, as well as in your home in Waban, and even though I didn’t
    know anything about her immigrant background, I was impressed with her intelligence, warmth and kindness. I remember how comfortable I felt in her presence.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Bev, thank you for sharing your lovely personal story of my Mom. It was so heartwarming to recall that you had met her on two occasions and of your comfort in her presence. She enjoyed meeting and talking with you, and often asked how you were.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Kat, Yes, it was the terrifying part that prompted this post to consider the many wonderful immigrant stories that root our lives and our country’s history.

  6. Patricia Rogers

    Faye….this was so apropos to our current state of affairs….but also inspiring to hear the story of your mother’s most difficult journey. What i am certain of is that she raised a smart, gifted and loving daughter!

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