Friday, July 3, 2015

Independence Day through the eyes of an Immigrant Boy...

Tomorrow is Independence Day.
I don’t remember my first one. But I remember almost all those that followed. I was raised in the generation who looked to this day as something sacred. Something special. Something hallowed and holy in the way that only patriot blood can make things sacred. I knew the stories behind the day. I knew the men who signed that parchment. I knew where it was signed. I grew up where it was signed. I wore that like a badge of honor…my hometown gave us the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and for a while, our nation’s first capital.
My grandparents all landed here from Europe. My paternal grandfather, Joseph, arrived here from Italy in 1908. He was 12 years old. He’d faked a birth certificate, and stowed away in a steamer from the port city of Gaeta, near his hometown of Montecassino, Italy.  I wonder what he thought when he first saw the American coastline approaching. He didn’t arrive through New York, so he didn’t see the Statue of Liberty. He made his way south and found work on the railroad for a while. Eventually, he settled in Philadelphia, where he met my grandmother.
She was born in Naples and her family had immigrated not long after my grandfather arrived here. She lived next door to Mario Lanza during her childhood, until he left for fame and fortune.
Joseph was just a boy when he arrived in America. He was alone. He had no family. He didn’t know a lot of history. Philadelphia was a big city, even then. I was thinking of him last night. I never got the chance to meet him. He died when my father was still a boy. I thought about what Independence Day must have looked like to a kid from Italy, who was experiencing the awe, and fear, of real freedom for the first time in his life. I wonder if he’d ever seen real fireworks before. I wonder if he understood the celebration. I wonder if freedom felt different after his first Independence Day. I wonder if that day became more special as time went on and he came to enjoy our freedoms.
I wonder what thoughts ran through the mind of a twelve year old boy as fireworks exploded overhead and a nation celebrated.
My mother’s father arrived here around the same time as Joseph. He was born on a boat heading to America from the Ukraine. His name was Albert but he was nicknamed “Jake.”
His family arrived in Chester, Pa. not far from Philadelphia. He fought in WWII in the Seabees. He was a patriot through and through. I wonder what kind of stories his parents told him about Independence Day. I wonder what the day meant to immigrants escaping the hell of poverty and oppression in Eastern Europe. I wonder if the fireworks became an outward expression of the explosions of hope in their hearts. I wonder if the boom and pop and flash were larger examples of what this land meant to them every single day.
I know that for me this day still elicits memories and pride. I still get excited at fireworks. I still think of what the day meant. It’s more than a cookout and a ballgame. It’s more than a beach party and the start of a vacation. It’s a birthday celebration. It’s a time to remember when 55 men took it upon themselves to make a brave stand against tyranny, against oppression, against blatant disregard for the very humanity of the people who made up this country in 1776. It is a day to recall, and hopefully to reconnect to, the character and resilience that was willing to tell the greatest power on the world stage of the day, “Enough!”
It is a day to look inside and find the bravery that is woven into our national DNA.
I wonder if that is how two immigrant boys saw it, on their first Independence Day. I wonder how much more appreciation they held for it, given their very different perspectives on the day. I know that it didn’t take long for them to grasp the patriotism the day engendered. Both loved their country. Both raised their families to do the same.
When I look at the state of this nation now, I think that it’s this very special perspective on Independence Day that we are missing. I think…I fear, that we are one too many generations removed from those stories. From those men and women who once were boys and girls who stood in wide-eyed wonder at their first fireworks on their first Independence Day as viewed from inside this wonderful land. We are one too many generations from the stories at the dinner table on Sundays, about what it took to get here, and why that trip was worth it. We have forgotten that getting to this country often took incredible risk and was fraught with danger. It wasn’t an easy ride. It wasn’t a simple task. But dreams are always born from difficulty and hardship. Dreamers dream because they have nothing, but they see an opportunity and that is all it takes to foster hope. And this country was all about Hope.
The hope that only true independence can offer. No government can grant hope. Only God can offer real hope. God and the contents of our dreams.
Tomorrow is Independence Day. The birthday of my homeland. Thinking about how Joseph and “Jake” might have seen it…I have a renewed love for her. A renewed passion and appreciation for the chance she gave to those two immigrant boys so long ago. I love her for what she gave to me…a chance.
And so I say, “God Bless America” and a very Happy Birthday.

…from this immigrant grandson.

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