My last grandparent, my paternal grandmother, died when I was 15. I miss her still. Grandma Esther was a mere slip of a thing, in her usual housedress and glasses with lenses so thick she looked like an owl. I remember her as self-effacing; never wanting anybody to make a fuss over her, content to slip into the background of any scene. If she were alive today, I’d tower over her physically, although I’m no giant myself at just 5’ 3 ¾”. But as the years roll by, I’ve come to realize that my life has been built upon her small shoulders.
While family histories that are handed down orally become more fluid than those written down, the truths that I’ve been able to glean about my grandmother are these:
Esther Pivo left Bialya Podlaska, Poland, on what-was-likely a crowded immigrant ship with her sister in the late 1920s. Coming through Ellis Island, she either accidentally was given or purposely took the date of July 4, 1900 as her birthday. She stayed with a relative in the greater New York City area, where she worked as a seamstress for a year or two and then went back to Poland to marry my grandfather and bring him back to the U.S. If we’ve learned anything from movies and books about immigrants in the early 1900s, it’s that the ocean passage from Europe to the U.S. was a notoriously bad one for the lower classes. My grandmother made that trip three times.
My grandparents first lived in Sunnyside, in the Bronx, where my grandfather co-owned an auto repair shop and my dad spent his early childhood. My grandmother, still a seamstress, may or may not have marched for the right to unionize, depending on who is telling the story, and on what day. At some point, they moved to a chicken farm in Toms River, New Jersey. When I knew them, they were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Lakewood, New Jersey.
We had little in common, my three siblings and I and these foreign-born grandparents who spoke English with accents and resorted to Yiddish for quick, heated discussions. There wasn’t much to talk to them about, whether in-person or via phone, and our conversations usually involved the requisite: How are things? Good. How is school? Good. Anything new? No, not really. Love you. You too.
I did try to find out more about their past, but whenever I asked, my grandmother would reply, “Ach. Better you don’t know.” She’d change the subject or, more often, push more food at me. Food was her love language.
The truth was that my grandparents were more than just immigrants. Like so many immigrants today, they were also refugees. They fled violence in Poland. The Cossacks raided their village, raping and pillaging, long before the Nazis came along and finished what was started. A few relatives dispersed to Israel, a few to America. Of those who stayed, there is no trace.
“Better you don’t know.” She never talked about her history. About her family. About her birthplace. I wonder if she ever looked back; if she was haunted in her dreams. She sought out a new beginning so that her future generations wouldn’t have to live the way she did: oppressed, fearful, limited. My debt to her is immeasurable. I am not just the grandchild of immigrants–I owe my life to their immigration.
After my grandmother’s death, I was helping my father clean out their apartment when I came across a notepad with my grandfather’s angled handwriting on it. Even now, the memory breaks me. The notepad had the words from a letter that they sent to my brother and me in sleepaway camp a few years before. My grandparents had taught themselves English, but it was never perfect. So there, on that notepad, Grandpa Phil had written the words, over and over and over again, until he got the English nearly right. Although we owed everything to their sacrifice, he didn’t want to be shamed in our eyes.
The story of our country is a story of immigrants. Not just the story of my paternal grandparents. Not just the story of my maternal great-grandparents, who were also immigrants. It is the story of us all, as individuals and as a whole. We owe it to them to keep the ideals of the “American dream” alive. The potential for anybody to start a new, better life, with the freedoms granted in our founding charter, the U.S. Constitution.
What will our country become if we close our borders to those fleeing violence or those looking for a better future for their children and their children’s children? What will we, as a people, become if we learn to so easily and callously turn our backs on the suffering of others?
To paraphrase my grandmother: Better we don’t know.