Katie was glad to see her mother. With the memory of her own birth pangs still lingering, she had knowledge now of what her mother had suffered when she, Katie, was born. She thought of her mother bearing seven children, bringing them up, watching three of them die, and knowing that those who lived were doomed to hunger and hardship. She had a vision that the same cycle was destined for her less than day-old child. She became frantic with worry.
“What do I know?” Katie asked her mother. “I can’t teach her anything more than I, myself, know and I know so little. You are poor, Mother. Johnny and I are poor. The baby will grow up to be poor. We can’t be any more than we are this day. Sometimes I think that the year past was the best we will ever know. As the years go by and Johnny and I get older, nothing will grow better. All we have now is that we are young and strong enough to work and that will go from us as time passes.”
Then the real truth came to her. “I mean,” she thought “that I can work, I can’t count on Jonny. I’ll always have to look after him. Oh, God, don’t send me any more children or I won’t be able to look after Johnny and I’ve GOT to look after Johnny. He can’t look after himself.” Her mother interrupted her thoughts. Mary was saying:
“What did we have in the old country? Nothing. We were peasants. We starved. Well, then, we came over here. It wasn’t so much better except that they didn’t take your father for the military the way they would do in the old country. But otherwise, it’s been harder. I miss the home-land, the trees, and the broad fields, the familiar way of living, the old friends.”
“If you could expect nothing better, why did you come to America?”
“For the sake of my children whom I wished to be born in a free land.”
“Your children haven’t done so well, Mother.” Katie smiled bitterly.
“There is here, what is not in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is here—hope. In the old country, a man can be no more than his father, providing he works hard. If his father was a carpenter, he may be a carpenter. He may not be a teacher or a priest. He may rise—but only to his father’s state. In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.”
“That is not so. Your children have not done better than you.”
Mary Rommely sighed. “That may be my fault. I knew not how to teach my daughters because I have nothing behind me excepting that for hundreds of years, my family has worked on the land of some overlord. I did not send my first child to school. I was ignorant and did not know at first that the children of folk like us were allowed the free education of this land. Thus, Sissy had no chance to do better than me. But the other three…you went to school.”
“I finished the sixth grade if that is what is called education.”
“And you’re Johnny”—she could not pronounce the ‘j’—“did too. Don’t you see?” Excitement came into her voice. “Already, it is starting—the getting better...” She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms.
“This child was born of parents who can read and write,” she said simply. “To me, this is a great wonder.”
“Mother, I am young, Mother I am just eighteen. I am strong. I will work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”
“The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then SHE must read every day, I know this is the secret.”
“I will read,” promised Katie. “What is a good book?”
“There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book. I have heard tell that all the wonder of life is in that book: all that man has learned of beauty, all that he may know of wisdom and living are on those pages. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. I have never spoken to anyone who has seen this great thing. But I heard the Lord of our land back in Austria say that some of the pages sing themselves like songs.”
“Is Shakespeare a book in the German?”
“It is of the English. I so heard our lord of the land tell his young son who was setting out for the great University of Heidelberg long ago.”
“And what is the other good book?”
“It is the bible that the protestant people read.”
“We have our own Bible, the catholic one.”
Mary looked around the room furtively. “It is not fitting for a good Catholic to say so but I believe that the protestant Bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it. A much-loved Protestant friend once read some of her Bible to me and I found it as I have said.
“That is the book, then, and the book of Shakespeare. And every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”
“The Protestant Bible and Shakespeare.”
“And you must tell the child of the legends I told you—as my mother told them to me and her mother told to her. You must tell the fairly tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such. You must tell of the great ghosts that haunted your father’s people and of the evil eye which put on your aunt. You must teach the child of the signs that come to the women of our family when there is trouble and death to be. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus. His Only Son.” She crossed herself.
“Oh and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”
“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.”
Mary spoke sharply. “You do not know whether there are not ghosts on earth or angels in heaven.”
“I KNOW there is no Santa Clause.”
“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so.”
“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”
“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes to ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I HAVE to live for.”
“The child will grow up and find out things for herself. She will know that I lied. She will be disappointed.”
“That is what is called learning the truth. It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good to. It makes a person rich in his character.”
“If that is so,” commented Katie bitterly,” then we Rommelys are rich.”
“We are poor, yes. We suffer. Our way is very hard. But we are better people because we know of the things I have told you. I could not read but I told you of all of the things I learned from living. You must tell them to your child and add on to them such things as you will learn as you grow older.”
“What more must I teach the child?”
“The child must be made to believe in heaven. A heaven, not filled with flying angels with God on a throne”—Mary articulated her thoughts painfully, half in German and half in English—“but a heaven which means a wondrous place that people may dream of—as of a place where desires come true. This is probably a different kind of religion. I do not know.”
“And then, what else?”
“Before you die, you must own a bit of land—maybe with a house on it that your child or children may inherit.”
“Katie laughed. “ME own LAND? A house? We’re lucky if we can pay our rent.”
“Even so,” Mary spoke firmly. “Yet you must do that. For thousands of years, our people have been peasants working the land of others. This was in the old country. Here we do better working with our hands in the factory. There is a part of each day that does not belong to the master but which the worker owns himself. That is good. But to own a bit of land that we may hand down to our children…that will raise us up on the face of the earth.”
(Mary goes on to tell Katie how to save for this.)
I was reading the above passage in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I was thinking about immigrants to the early United States versus illegal immigrants now. With everything going on in Arizona regarding immigration it really made my mind wonder. The difference between the immigration of the early 20th century and those of today seem to be the mindset.
Partially to blame is the “fast food” mentality the world has developed in the last 50 years. But people seem to think they will come to the United States and be first-generation American successes, rolling in millions of cash and drowning in opportunity. But it doesn’t happen that way.
Okay, maybe 1 in 673,305,025 come with nothing and find riches and success in one lifetime, and yes, we love America because she gives us hope from that one success story, but that’s not what anyone who has the right to come expecting.
The United States has never really been only about “come make money” to foreigners. The opportunities for fame and fortune are here, but it’s never been her true colors to display those.
Lady Liberty stands in New York harbor crying—“Give me your poor, your huddled masses,” but not promising a dollar bill in exchange for them. Her number one currency has always been in hope and freedom. She gives no promise to the easy life, but gives proof time and time again that if you will come and work hard, sacrificing your “fast food” reward, if you’ll sow without expecting a harvest in your lifetime, she can and has and will place in your family lineage and legacy the opportunity for brilliant success and great open doors.
That’s the difference when my ancestors came to this country, most likely having nothing and no one. They came knowing that they may not be able to better their own experiences, but that slowly their children and their children’s children and so forth would be able to rise up as a true American and see opportunity that belongs only to such. To come to my country, to sneak in, to not register yourself as present, not act like a dues of our society and then to reap the benefits belonging to myself and my offspring and neighbors, who have built a foundation the hard way, who pay their dues to this country ongoingly through taxes, through the law system, through public service, through the military, for you to come in and take with a free hand the benefits we have worked for generations is a crime and a slap in the face to my lineage.
My ancestors who worked in mills, and factories, who only knew a life of struggle and hard work to give me what I have today, and education, a profession, my health, my rights, my citizenship, my character, KNOWING they might see none of these benefits for themselves but ultimately working for a better tomorrow.
You may be much like them in your desires and motives. It doesn’t make you a bad person to want something better, something more magnificent for you and your loved ones than what you are capable of now. But do it the right way. Don’t sneak. Don’t steal our benefits. Way too many people have come to be citizens legitimately for it to be a failed system. Will it take longer? Yes.
But will it be worth it to not risk losing your opportunity forever if you’re caught?
Be the pivot point that your legacy will remember but do it in a way that will make them proud. Work hard, struggle, sacrifice, and surely lady Liberty will look down on your and smile and give you the entrance key to your personal opportunity flowing with milk and honey. Your American identity (not citizenship) and the final knowledge that your dreams are attainable. Come join us, but don't assume your place in line is free.