Today is St. Patrick’s Day. It’s kind of a fun day here where I live. People wear green, there are parades, bodies of water (and beer) get dyed green, and there is some serious partying that can occur.
I’m Swedish-American, so I don’t really get wrapped up in the whole wearing of the green thing. In fact, when I was in grade school kids would pinch me black and blue on St. Paddy’s Day because I wasn’t wearing green; the teacher would give me a little green shamrock to pin on my dress so I would be safe. People acted like this was normal, but it made me a little cranky, to be honest. Why was it OK for me to be pinched because I wasn’t like the other kids? Why did I have to pretend to be Irish when I wasn’t even a little bit?
I knew I was Swedish. We had stinky lutfisk at Christmas and really great cookies. I didn’t foist lutfisk on anyone else (if you’ve ever been exposed to this stuff, you will understand that only the worst of the worst should be bullied with lutfisk…), or even share my cookies, so why should I have to wear green? I was Lutheran and the Irish kids were Catholic. The Jewish kids had candles, dreidels and chocolates instead of Christmas. It was all good in my eyes; everyone was an immigrant as far as I was concerned.
Years later I gave my grandmother a blank journal and asked her to record our family’s story. Wow. As it tuns out, it is a pretty good one, so I want to share it with you.
My great-grandmother’s story is one that is not all that unusual; she came to the USA as a young women, worked in service, met a young man at her church, married, raised a family, and had a good life. My great-grandfather’s story is the one that I want to share.
John Alfred Anderson (known as Little Al) was brought to the USA by his parents when he was 4 years old. I’m not completely sure of the date, but it would have been 1862 or 1863. His mother died soon after they arrived, and his father returned to Sweden leaving the children behind. Little Al was left with an older, married sister and his brother was adopted by another family. When he was 11 years old his sister could no longer support him and he became a child on the streets of Chicago. He was on his own during the Great Chicago Fire and lost his most precious possession, his bag of marbles, when he buried it for safekeeping on an island in the Chicago river. To make things worse, Little Al was a Swedish child, and there was prejudice against Swedish immigrants; chances are he did not speak English. The odds were not in his favor.
Believe it or not, it all worked out. He became active in a Lutheran Church and was supported by that community. He somehow came to the notice of Julius Rosenwald, the great Jewish philanthropist, who “helped him acquire his engineer’s license and then hired him to provide the steam-power for the sewing machines in one of Mr. Rosenwald’s garment factories”, as my grandmother related. My grandmother remembered getting a new coat twice a year from Mr. Rosenwald; he would have her mother come to the factory to pick out the fabric and he would personally select the lining and buttons. Later in life Little Al became a citizen, started his own business, the girls grew up, they both married, and they all lived good American lives. There were amazing adventures later on in the family, but those are other posts.
When I said that I was Swedish-American, that was the literal truth. I’m half Swedish (on my mother’s side), and on my father’s side my ancestors have been here in America for over 300 years. They settled in the original colonies along the Atlantic coast, fought the American Revolution, and lived during the time when our constitution was written and the USA was born. They eventually left the coast, crossed the mountains, and settled in a western wilderness known as Tennessee; their story is truly an American one. But each branch of my father’s family all started as immigrants, every single one of them.
Today immigrants are under attack here in America, and there have been numerous bomb threats and instances of disrespect directed towards members of the Jewish community. People are confronted for speaking a foreign (non-English) language or for dressing in clothing that reflects a different culture or religion, and they are told that they should go back to “their country”.
We are a nation of immigrants. My mother’s family here in America was saved by the kindly intervention of others and by a man of a different heritage and religion who reached out to help him. Just as it was not OK for me to be bullied as a child for not being Irish, or for others to insist that I needed to pretend I was Irish, it is not OK to marginalize or discriminate against others who are different from us or who are just now arriving on our shores.
My father’s family fought so that this would be true.
This is our story.
This is America.