So, Halloween tomorrow, that day of the year when the veil between this world and the ‘Other’ world is tissue thin. It is also Celtic New Year over the three days culminating with All Souls Day, aka The Day of the Dead, on 2nd November. The next day is, of course, USA Election Day. And I have been wondering what the ancestors would be saying to my fellow Americans at this historic juncture.
It’s not that all our ancestors were great and good or wise and kind. We know that US history is stained with the karma of slavery and indigenous genocide as political policy. Robber barons exploited immigrant labour shamelessly.
Come to think of it, some of my own ancestors were probably making some of the cigars those FIfth Avenue Robber Barons were smoking. Today, I was musing whether my Great-great Grandfather Rothermel, who surrendered his Hesse-Darmstadt citizenship in 1859, thought it was worth the journey. According to the 1900 census he was 75 years old and employed as a street sweeper. His wife was rolling cigars in their tenement and their daughter, my Great-Grandmother Lizzie Rothermel, was working as a stripper in a cigar factory just as the union movement was forming. They lived a few blocks from Central Park, but a world away from Fifth Avenue. They lived down near the East River where all the city’s sewage and waste emptied into the water. It must have smelled hellacious in the hot, muggy summers in those days without an EPA.
It has taken five generations for Great-great Grandfather Rothermel’s descendents to achieve a college education, including an M.D. and a Ph.D. His grandson, my father, became the treasurer of a major pencil manufacturer because he had been able to take night classes courtesy of the G.I. Bill. As bright Great Depression kids from families of modest means (which was pretty much everyone in the cash strapped 1930s) college was a unachievable dream for my parents.
Opa Rothermel’s grandson, my Grandpa Joe Smith, had been a labourer, a NYC public school janitor and an elevator operator. He died before the Great Depression and the New Deal. His widow moved back with her parents with her three young sons. She washed dishes in a restaurant according to the 1930 census. Her eldest son, my Uncle Howard, left school at 14 and started working for the US Postal Service to help support the family.
I would not be here but for their grit and resilience. But my siblings and I might not have had our meteoric ascent without opportunities funded by federal and state government. For that branch of the family to thrive there needed to be some help.
My father died when I was five years old. My mother was widowed at age 45 with children aged 14, 12, 10 and 5. An insurance policy paid off the mortgage, but for daily cashflow we relied upon Social Security and Veteran’s Benefits and my mother’s part-time employment during hours where I would not become a latchkey child. Her frugality was bordering on genius. We were all bright kids and she got all of us through undergraduate college degrees. A combination of savings, work, our own scholarship and grant funding from state and federal agencies got us all through bachelor’s degrees.
We had help where previous generations wanted for a little of it.
During the 1960s Lyndon B. Johnson launched a ‘War on Poverty’ that saw many imaginative programmes become open to the Smith kids. The National Foundation for Science enabled my sister and eldest brother to attend college summer courses at the Haydon Planetarium and St. John’s University while still in high school. Our Uncle Howard was still in the family apartment in Queens and provided the necessary bed and board and adult supervision to make it possible for them to attend.
When I was eleven the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania offered a Creative Drama course for my age group at the local college twelve miles away. It was every afternoon, five days a week for six weeks. My mother drove me there everyday and waited, doing errands or reading on a bench, until the session was over.
There was a motley group of kids from both Columbia and Montour counties. We were guided by a skeletally thin, eloquently chain smoking Austrian Jewish refugee, Professor Frohman. What he made of us I cannot imagine, but he worked wonders for me. Before this course I was withdrawn behind a fourth wall of bereavement over my father’s death. I was painfully shy and probably depressed, too. I was a mouse. Over the course of that six weeks, my lion was born. Bit by bit over my teen years, my brio returned.
Because of that publicly funded course I was less scared of the world. Professor Frohman somehow facilitated a space where I became more brave, even as we imbibed his passive smoke.
In the fifth generation we received help, the kindness of strangers funded by federal and state tax dollars. We benefited from LBJ’s administration’s vision of The Great Society. All of the Smith kids worked blue collar jobs during our undergraduate years. My sister waitressed. My brother’s cleaned out the friers each night at the Wise Potato Chip company. My first job was quality control inspector checking emboidered days of the week on bikini panties.
But those were means to an end jobs before we found a life in medicine, education, administration or communication. The world opened to us. Three of us have passports and have travelled abroad.
We were all bright, but so were my mother and father. And probably those ancestors hand rolling cigars and sweeping streets were bright, too. We just had some help. We took what opportunities were offered and ran with them.
That tax funded help began to dwindle during the Nixon years and then dried up during the Reagan administration. The 1980s famously saw the Margaret Thatcher quotation that there was no such thing as society (which may actually be a symptom of psychopathy.)
There are still immigrants striving. But where do today’s Dreamers get the help to thrive?
It should not have to take five generations for an immigrant family to not just survive, but thrive.
Unless your ancestors were indigenous Americans, the story of your family on the American continent began with a migrant. How many generations has it taken for your family to strive before they could thrive? If they still aren’t thriving maybe it is because you never had the opportunity to benefit from the kindness of strangers in the form of a tax funded helping hand given ungrudgingly.
If you did have help, pay it forward. And, as Mr. Rogers told us on PBS back in the day “there are always helpers.”
My life probably would have been very different without LBJ and the Commonwealth of PA. Think about that this Election Day.