The recent political conventions convinced me that everybody has a heartwarming immigrant story about how one’s parents or grandparents fulfilled the American dream. But can all stories really be quite so shiny and bright? How carefully must you hand pick facts to create such touching stories?
Let’s be real. Here’s my tale.
Grandpa John was an immigrant at the turn of the last century. Was he motivated to create a better life for his family? Probably not. He was a single scamp when he left Finland. Was it for financial success? Since his old-country family was a quite well-to-do landowner and he never rose above the working class in America, I hope not. What about religious freedom? Maybe. Family lore says Grandpa John’s parents expected him to become a Lutheran minister, a troublesome destiny for a man who didn’t believe in God.
Grandpa landed in the U.S. of A. in the early 1900s and found his calling as a card shark among the miners of the Mesabi Iron Range. He met a lot of interesting folk along the way, including Gus Hall, a perennial candidate for President on the American Communist party.
Now eventually he did fall in love with my grandma and settled down to farm, landing among a Finnish community near Owen, Wisconsin. His eldest son, fueled by the idealism of youth, left America with many fervent first generation Finns in the ‘30s to help Russia create the perfect state (a commitment that resulted in my uncle never coming back and being sentenced to a Siberian concentration camp in the ‘50s as a suspected American spy – but that’s another story.) His eldest daughter fled the fields to become a housemaid to capitalists in Chicago. His second son took over the farm. And his youngest daughter, my mother, married my father, a nearby farmer.
Since Grandpa John loaned my parents the money to buy their place, he considered it his right to move in with us after his wife died. I was only five when he took over the upstairs bedroom. I was quite entranced with the old man, and remembering taking long walks with him on the farm. He loved to talk politics. Well, really, he loved to debate. I don’t recall what he had to say to a five-year-old boy.
I certainly never realized that he was a stubborn old man. Nor did I know that my parents and their farm were held hostage to his loan, until they finally secured a traditional mortgage and paid him off.
Okay, this is not the traditional American success story. But yet, I realize, it is.
I loved the old man to the day he died. I know I was very sad when he left our farm to live with his other daughter. I have often thought of his courage in leaving the security of his Finnish upbringing, of his passion to the day he died for politics and thought, and of his ability to instill the incredible love of learning and reading that imbued my mother’s family and that led to all of his grandchildren going to college and creating the lives for themselves that they wanted.
And maybe that’s what the American story really is all about – recognizing that the world is full of different people with different takes on their dreams, and different ways of getting there. When given the freedom to pursue those differing values in their own way, it gradually creates a better world, one person, one generation, one dream at a time.
That’s something I want to believe in and I’ll give credit to Grandpa John.