Around 1900, my Grandma Rose clutched her younger brother’s hand and walked out of their village in Russia. They were delivered to a dock, and left on their own. They were herded across a gangplank, onto a ship, then down into steerage. No ocean breeze, minimal water, starvation rations. Both children were under ten years old.
Rose worked first in a sweat shop, then as a waitress where she eventually married her favorite customer, also new to the country. Rose and Sam had a son and a daughter. Their daughter was my mother.
Fast forward 2 generations.
I was in my second year of college, talking to another sophomore. I said something about wanting to help new immigrants and to my astonishment, he became furious. He yelled that his grandfather had arrived in the country with a few dollars in his shoe, and had built his life from scratch. He then listed several hardships his relative had suffered, all terrible by any standard. He said that nobody had reached out to help his grandfather, so he didn’t see why he should make any effort on a stranger’s behalf. Survival of the fittest.
I doubt this man remembers our brief conversation from decades ago, but I do. I’ve thought about it several times. Mainly, I’ve wondered how our grandparents could have experienced such similar suffering, while he and I reacted so differently. His conclusion: let new immigrants deal with it, see who came out on top, test their mettle. My conclusion: I never wanted anyone, anywhere, any time, to go through the hardship my grandparents suffered.
Since college, we’ve all changed. I’ve grown in ways I never would have predicted. I haven’t spoken to my college classmate in decades, so I don’t know if he still feels the same way about immigrants. But I do. In this way, my 19-year-old self is still going strong.
RIP Rose and Sam, Grandma and Grandpa. And RIP my classmate’s grandfather, a man I never knew. May your suffering guide the world to a better tomorrow.
Amy has written two novels, both available on Amazon. Her blog contains posts on subjects ranging from gender equality to a Rolling Stones concert, from parenting to watching the film The Exorcist.
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