In his recent Opinion column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote about his Italian grandfather, who sneaked into this country (via Canada), worked hard, married an American citizen, eventually got his own citizenship, and lived to see his children prosper.
Bravo for the Bruni family! Their story is typical of many, I’m sure, and should be considered as we figure out a way to deal with new generations of immigrants wanting the “American Dream.”
I’d like to contribute a small piece to the discussion, pointing out that women, especially in my family, were also important to the success of the immigrant generations of America. My ancestors came a little earlier than Mauro Bruni did, so I’m looking at the generation of my great-grandparents.
If you're interested, go below the squiggle...
Among my four great-grandfathers, one worked hard and prospered, lived a long life, and was much loved by his grandchildren. He also waited several years to marry his beloved bride because her father had died suddenly, leaving her mother with three younger children to provide for. My great-grandmother, the fourth, and the oldest unmarried daughter, of the seven children in the family, went to work until the youngest children were raised. Only then did she marry. Her husband had used the intervening years to save the money to buy a small shop, which became quite successful, and led to a bigger store, and a bigger one… until they finally had enough money to help their only surviving son buy a home in which the whole family could live. It was a true American success story.
My other three great-grandfathers were not as successful. One died while his children were still teenagers, and his wife supported the family as a seamstress for many years. My father remembered his mother and his aunts doing “piecework” after supper to help his grandmother, who somehow scrimped enough from her savings to help him attend the local state university, despite the protests of the men in the family, who thought that education just moved people beyond “their station.” Needless to say, my great-grandmother had a permanent home with my parents until she passed away just before I was born.
Another of my great-grandfathers abandoned his family—just walked out one day, never to return. His wife worked at anything she could find, mostly nursing, until her children were grown. Her eldest daughter stepped in to help as soon as she was able, and continued working all her life, never raising a family of her own. (The younger brother, my grandfather, married the daughter of the seamstress I described above. He found it so “natural” for the women of the family to provide the income that he was often between jobs, and leaning on his mother or his mother-in-law for support, which his oldest son, my father, despised.)
My fourth great-grandfather was moderately well-educated, and worked as an accountant. He was also an alcoholic, and sometimes he drank his paychecks before he made it home. His wife did small jobs of nursing and sewing to make ends meet, and encouraged her daughters to “make do” with little, a habit they carried into their adult lives.
By the time of my grandparents’ generation, my family had mostly made it into the middle class, with a few glitches now and then, and the women of the family expected to stay quietly at home to raise their babies, something that the previous generation (with one exception) had not been able to do.
The point of this little story is that women—even back in the days before they could vote, get a college degree, or even have a bank account—worked outside their homes if it was necessary, and they sometimes provided the only income. Our modern idea that traditional 19th century women stayed at home, taking care of their children and submitting meekly to their husbands, needs a little more scrutiny. If one of today’s conservatives actually went back to the “good old days,” he or she probably would find that they were amazingly like modern times, with women doing whatever they have to do to help their families survive, because that’s what they have always done.
(P.S.: I’m not providing any specific names and places in this story, because some members of my family—the conservatives—still think parts of it are scandalous.)