I recently learned that my Grandma Guy was a daughter of immigrants. Of course, I knew we’re all descended from immigrants unless we are Native American, but I never gave much thought to where my ancestors came from. To me, we were just part of the big, boring Wonder Bread diaspora.
My mom was the repository for all her mother-in-law’s artifacts; no one else was interested. After my mom died, the trunks of photos and boxes of papers and keepsakes from both sides of the family came to me. Much of it still lies unexplored, but I just ran across a little notebook, about 100 years old. Inside, my grandma’s mother scrawled notes to teach herself English. She was already a mother then, new to the United States of America, probably learning English from her young daughter.
In the mother’s hand: “tisdag, onsdag, torsdag, fredag.” In her daughter’s grade-school hand, “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”
Three things have converged to bring context to this little notebook. First, all the discussion around Arizona Immigration Law SB1070, signed into law last Friday, the broadest, meanest immigration law ever enacted in this country.
Second, the genealogy conference happening in town right now, and third, the time I spent this past week at a family-owned business nearly a century old.
Most of us don’t inherit a thriving and lucrative family business, a place where we can live out our grandparents’ dreams and carry on their good work. The grandson of a man named George did, though.
George came to the United States from England, uprooting his family and bringing them to face the unknown. His teenage son, Thomas, took one look at George’s difficult work in mining and railroading and decided he’d rather do something artistic. His Utah sign business thrives 90 years later.
It’s natural to want to leave something of value to your kids, something that keeps your light burning brightly for a while after you’re gone. Sometimes, people go digging through the past to uncover those lights. The genealogists in town this week are big on that. My mom was, too -- my garage is all the proof we need.
It’s also natural to want to give your kids the best life possible. Immigrants, legal and illegal, are big on that. That’s why European immigrants came here long ago, back when being Irish and Italian and Greek and Scottish each came with their own ways to be looked down upon by others. Each had unflattering nicknames and faced unfair assumptions and stereotypes.
Still, our predecessors came here, withstood the hardship and bigotry they faced, and paved the way for those of us here now. It doesn’t impress me when people make a big deal of pointing out that their families immigrated legally to the United States. Back in the day, we took all comers. It’s no accomplishment that your family got here the legal way; there was no illegal way.
The accomplishment is that your Grandpa Stanislav or Jergen or Giani or Charles was burning so brightly with a desire for the liberty, safety and prosperity of America that he gathered his family, picked up only what they could carry, and got on a ship for an unpleasant weeks-long journey to a place they’d never seen.
If they were turned away, if they were not welcomed, yet a new life was visible to them, so close their hungry mouths could taste it, would your grandpa have done anything necessary to provide for his family? Would he have tried to sneak in under cover of night? You don't know. You don’t know because he didn’t have to.
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.