Busloads to the border.

Tonight I listened to this recording of children crying helplessly for their parents at a detention center on the southern border of the United States and remembered the feeling in my gut the very first time I heard the sound of an animal being slaughtered. I was nine or ten and sitting in my mom’s minivan as we rolled slowly over the speed bumps on our way into the mall parking lot. A crowd of anti-fur activists was blocking the entrance to the department store — Bullock’s, maybe — playing a tape on loop of a living animal being destroyed.

Involuntarily, my eyes salted with hot tears, which I attempted to wipe away with the backs of my hands so my mom wouldn’t notice I was crying. My face was hot and red, and a crank deep in my belly was prying open a fissure I’d never felt before: a nausea like a gush of lava was rising up in me as my eyes continued to fill mutinously with tears. The shame of being human. The horror of what we do.

I wanted no part of it.

I’m familiar with that reaction now: the revulsion that geysers through me, the vision that blurs with nervous tears when I face down that anxiety. But I don’t think I’ve felt that way from an audio recording since the very first time — until tonight. The aural blitz of another living thing’s suffering, disconnected from the present moment — from the speed bumps at the mall, from the New York Times tabs open on the desktop. The wail of an invisible child, disembodied and held in no one’s arms, of a little voice gasping for her father over and over.

The child became every child I taught in a classroom or a sandbox, became my goddaughter and my cousins, became the child I was and the child I hope someday to have. The child was no outlaw. The child was in exile. She was a refugee from her country and we forced her into exile from her mother’s body.

Were you a child?

When home was the body of someone you loved: the crescent of your mother’s chin, the down of her breasts, the lap bar of her arm. When your universe was your father’s singing voice, his hand taking your smaller one in his.

The uniformed agents said they were going to take the children for a bath and then they took them from their parents and didn’t bring them back.

Once, a group of uniformed agents told hundreds of filthy, half-dead travelers they were to be given nice, hot showers after days inside a windowless cattle car. Maybe they felt hope for the first time in days when they were locked inside a communal shower and gassed to death with hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

How far are we from this?

Today, Masha Gessen published an essay about the new task force formed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to find naturalized citizens who ‘should not have been naturalized in the first place.’ Gessen points to the troubling assumption implicit in the creation of this force: “that America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here.”

Are these children — whose only home is the warmth of their parents’ bodies, who have faced god-knows what odysseys to reach this country — the face of depraved fugitives?

Are their parents?

We are imprisoning newcomers seeking nothing but a better life. We are kidnapping their children.

We are deporting people who have built those better lives here. We are sending them back to nowhere.

We are erasing the stories of people who have documents allowing them to be here. The new USCIS task force of attorneys is seeking out citizenship applications with falsehoods on them. Gessen calls the distinction between a lie and an innocent mistake “fuzzier than one might assume.”

Here is my great-grandmother Clara’s Petition for Naturalization:

Clara Naturalization

Here are things that are untrue:

  • Clara lived on Crest Lake Drive. (It was Crestlake Drive.)
  • Clara was born in 1892. (Clara was born in 1894.)
  • Clara was born in Elisagrade, Russia. (Clara was born in Elizavetgrad which, at the time of her naturalization, was actually called Kirovohrad.)
  • Clara’s daughter was Lillian. (She was born Lea.)
  • Annie’s birth date was February 28, 1919. (It was February 2, 1919.)

Was Clara a liar? How could there be so many innocent mistakes? Shouldn’t her naturalization be revoked?

Should we dig her up and send her back to Russia? To the place where she watched neighbors murdered in front of her during a pogrom? To the countryside that was decimated during the second world war, where her relatives disappeared into the ether of history?

Here is the Manifest of Alien Passengers Applying for Admission on June 5, 1920 in Detroit, Michigan:

Canada Border

Lines 1-6 are my little family: Clara, age 28; her children George, Sam, Joe, Lea, Annie, from 1 to 7 years old. There is no nearest friend or relative. My great-grandfather is somewhere between Hamilton, Ontario and Dayton, Ohio. Clara is alone with five children, unable to speak English fluently. On that day, she kept each of her children firmly beside her.

When I think of what they would have said if they had been separated.

If my grandmother had been taken from her mother at three years old. If Annie, who was breast-feeding, had been taken from her mother. If the children had been divided from one another in addition to being taken from their mother.

My grandmother was an immigrant. She came here at three and was naturalized at 24. I never heard her call herself anything but an American.

She devoted her life to helping refugees come to this country — because of the life she was able to have here. Away from the pogroms in the shtetls faced by her parents and grandparents, with two feet planted firmly in American soil, she looked right out to the horizon line and wrote her story.

We are not giving these children a chance. We aren’t giving them a reason to love this country. We are instilling them with fear and terrorizing them by ripping them away from their parents — the parents who courageously brought them here to start a new life. To dare to dream a better future for their children, the way all of our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents did.

I cannot abide the anguish in the children’s voices on that recording. I cannot bear the things we humans do to one another. Can we stop it? Can we get busloads to the border? What do we do to feel proud to be Americans once again?

 

Here is a living document from Slate on how you can help fight family separation at the border. 

 

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Mothers’ day.

I remember the hundreds of mornings my own mother brushed the tangles out of my hair as I look at this photo of my grandmother patiently plaiting my mom’s curls. I think of the mothers before her and the ritual of taming girls’ hair and of those moments together in the morning, of watching my mother’s face behind me in the mirror — the patience or exasperation or concentration knitted across her brow — and of all these quiet, quotidian practices we take for granted as the duties of mothers.

Today on Mother’s Day I am filled with gratitude for my own mother, and for my beloved Grandma Lillian who I miss every day, and for my Grandma California June who I never met, and for all the mothers who suffered and loved and brushed their children’s hair on countless mornings because that is what mothers do.

The personal is political.

August 16, 1944

Wednesday

My darling,

How does one write a letter of this kind. How does one say my sister received a wire from the War Dept. that her husband was killed in action. To write these words down — to have finally put these words of misery on paper are almost more than I can bear. The war is over for us, Hy, when we know that when the war is over, our family circle will not be complete. To know that Harold is not coming home to Annie and Susan. Oh, my darling, how hard I prayed to God to be good to us. I pushed any other thought in the background. Don’t tell me he was in the Marines on combat duty — others have returned. Why not my sister’s husband? Oh, God. Hy, to look at Susie at 17 months and think she should never know her father’s wonderful smile and the love he has for her.

I tell Annie to keep going for Susan’s sake. We give her pills, I tell her how mistakes have been made before and can be made again — But how much longer can I bear that look in her eyes. I know her soul is dead. She only thinks it can’t be true and that is why she opens her eyes at the beginning of another day.

Monday night Annie called me to say “Lillian, my husband — is dead. They told me so. But it isn’t true, is it? No, Harold can’t be dead. Not Harold. He promised to come back to me.”

Ruthie came over and stayed with Robin so Marty, Dad and I could come over here. I’ve been here since then. Mother is taking care of Robin. I can’t go back to my house when I have so much — and Annie has nothing — nothing.

All day long they sit on the couch and talk to themselves — to Harold.

Dad is gone this time. Whatever mind he had is holding on by a thread — that Harold will come back — that somewhere a mistake was made.

If ever I asked you for anything, hear me now — Work, Hy. Finish your school and then go over there. Finish your work — not for bars and a salute, but to carry on where Harold left off. They made him a first lieutenant — do you hear that — “We deeply regret to inform you that your husband 1st Lt. Harold N. LeVine was killed…”

You know how proud we were of our lieutenants in the Marine and Air Corps — they didn’t have much chance. You give them that chance. Give them that chance, Hy. You have always done what you have set out to do. Let nothing interfere with your work. Annie is proud of you, Hy. Even now Hy, when her life has fallen to pieces she tells everyone her sister’s husband is going to Officer’s School. She tells them about Artie when they come to talk about her husband. Don’t fail her, Hy.

Don’t worry about us. Put every thought out of your mind except school. That is what I need from you, Hy. That will help me bear this misery — if ever I am to have happiness, it must be because my husband brought it to me — by hitting back in the only way he can now. God will help you, Hy. I know he will. He must.

Love,

Lillian

Annie writes to Harold every day. Give her hope, Hy. She has had enough of death. The only way she can live is to keep that hope. Nobody must take it away from her.

I love you very much.

Lillian

Sisters: Annie & Lillian
Sisters: Annie & Lillian

This was the letter my grandma sent to my grandfather 73 years ago today when her sister’s husband was killed in the Second World War.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this letter today. About Harold, an American Jew who died on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from his home in Chicago. About my other great-uncle Art (“Artie”), an American Jew who was shot down in a plane by Nazis and kept as a prisoner of war at the infamous Stalag Luft III in modern-day Poland. Art and Harold went missing within weeks of one another, and three tight-knit families in Chicago were shattered with grief.

Continue reading “The personal is political.”

Leoti Leni West.

Just arrived, wrapped in newsprint advertising a gun auction in Spokane, WA: Three books written by my great-great aunt Leoti Leni West (1851-1933), the first high school teacher in the state of Washington, who traveled from her home state of Iowa to establish Colfax Academy.

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At her retirement in 1922, she was the oldest active public school teacher in the state.

The red paper-bound book has a handwritten note inside from the recipient, noting Leoti gave it to them in 1905 as a gift. The hardbound book “The Wide Northwest” was signed by Leoti herself.

Interestingly, Leoti’s niece — my great grandmother Jessie Mabel West — was also a high school teacher in Laytonville, California, and married her pupil (scandalous! I believe they met when he was about 16 and she was 19), my great grandfather John Curts, a lawyer and school teacher who founded Amador County High School in Sutter Creek and was Principal of now-defunct Grass Valley High School. (He also helped incorporate the town of Sutter Creek and was mayor.) Many educators on multiple sides of my family!

I’m very much looking forward to reading about Leoti’s life in her own words. I’ve found her listed on the census living alone in a house she owned in 1900! That was practically a revolutionary act for a woman in that day and age.

Daddy-O day.

My father who is no dad stereotype, whose million voices are the cacophony of comfort I crave, whose long letters I receive with deepest joy, whose stories I carry in my clenched fists, whose laugh lines and ruddy cheeks I wear, whose affinity for wit and laughter and empathy I strive to reach, whose creative and abundant spirit is bound up in kindness and love and the same crippling nostalgia as my own. I love you to the moon and back and back and back.

Father/Daughter

I started this iteration of my blog (and corresponding instagram @instagrandma_100) as a daily ritual to remember and honor the women from whom I came, and to share their stories. But I wouldn’t have stories (or grandmothers) without all the fathers too. So today I share a letter fragment from my own beloved and exceptional dad, who made the startling point that I am “the next daughter” after dear Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died as children in 1911 and 1912. His own father and mother had only the two boys, and my father’s brother had no children of his own—only a son through marriage. His mother’s three siblings died in childhood, never married or had no children of their own—again, one son through marriage. 

So it was my father and mother, seventy years after the last little girl died, who brought the next O’Connell daughter into the world.

He writes:

Will and Alene would, if they were omniscient, be pole-axed at the idea that the only modern-day (and next) daughter of their family would be the one family member to visit their baby girls after 105 years. Sweet old Alene would gather you to her capacious bosom for sure!

In memoriam of the O’Connell girls and who they might have grown up to be, and to the mother and father who loved them.

Will & Agnes, 1909
The apple of his eye; Agnes & Will, 1909

 

Honoring our ancestors.

Today I visited my great-aunts Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died in childhood.

Agnes & Margaret, 1910

They are buried in the children’s graveyard at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The sea of graves crowned with cherubs and lambs broke my heart, and I read every name as I walked through the rows searching for my girls. I met a man who feeds the cemetery’s feral cats and is followed by a murder of crows — birds so black and glossy they look cartoon. I told one stalking me to at least be useful and lead me to my O’Connell babes.

Finally I found them, a few rows away from where the nuns are buried.

OConnell girls
Untouched for 105 years

The engraving was unlike any other I saw and I wondered if my grandfather, who was an artist in addition to a lawyer, had done the lettering himself, decades after his sisters died.

I spent a solid twenty minutes with a spray bottle and a toothbrush, uncloaking the stone of its chartreuse lichen and giving the lamb back its face. I don’t know who last visited their resting place, and my father has never seen it, but it’s been a good thirty years, if not much much longer.

When I visited my family in Ireland last year, cousin Ted told me it’s family duty to clean family graves. So here I am, in 2017, carrying on the Irish tradition of my ancestors in a Catholic cemetery in California.

OConnell babies
After a little love & soapy water