Would Your Ancestors Have Merit?
Unless you are a descendant of Native Americans, all Americans are either immigrants or descended from immigrants. So from time to time I think it's important to remember the people who are the reason why we're here.
The anniversary of my great aunt Beatrice Grossman's death is this week, so she came to mind. Aunt Bea was one of three sisters who emigrated from Lodz, Poland with their mother in the early 1900s. Being the youngest, she was the one who took care of their aging parents and never married. She also parlayed her skill as a hatmaker to make costume hats on the world's stage -- Broadway. Many of the famous musicals of the mid 20th century featured costumes adorned by hats and headdresses made by my Aunt Bea.
Aunt Bea learned English by reading newspapers, magazines, and especially, books. She became a voracious reader and my Mom, her niece-in-law and also an avid reader, became the willing supplier for her reading habit. Mom shared her collection of Michener novels and other books from our library, and the two would discuss what they'd read and plan other reading adventures. I think growing up in a house full of books and hearing literature discussed regularly had a lot to do with why I became a writer. Aunt Bea also contributed to my writing career in another meaningful way -- she helped to pay for my education.
Unbeknownst to my family, during her years making costume hats Aunt Bea, who lived very simply and frugally in the Bronx, had been squirreling away money to give some day to her nephews, my Dad and my uncle. It wasn't a fortune, but in those days it was enough to make a big difference in our college choices. It allowed me and my sister to attend private universities and focus on our education. And it helped my parents retire when they were ready and not have to continue working to pay for our college debts.
Aunt Bea probably would not have scored high on the "merit" test now being proposed to determine which immigrants can enter the U.S. legally. She probably didn't speak English very well when she arrived here; I don't think she had a lot of formal education; and her hatmaking skill probably wasn't something that unusual in early 20th century America, i.e., I imagine a lot of people knew how to make hats.
But she contributed to the American economy and culture and made my life and my family's life better, and in her way brought the American dream to life. I hope our lawmakers will keep the Aunt Beas of the world in mind when they make the rules that will determine which immigrants will have the chance in the future to enter the U.S., and which ones won't.