Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Waking up With Lady Liberty
Today is no ordinary day. It is the last one of a transatlantic crossing and much too short a visit to England, Ireland, Iceland and Newfound. I had hoped to spend lots of time in Ireland, birthplace of my great-grandfather, so the few hours on a bus tour around the city of Dublin turned out to be not nearly enough.
It is 4:30 in the morning and as I make my way up to the open deck and worm my way over to the starboard side of the cruise ship, I find myself as wide awake as the city that never sleeps. I greet the new day by looking at the magnificent New York City skyline. She is kicking up her heels like a chorus line of Rockettes loaded with sass and bling. “Just look at me,” she seems to say, “am I not the most exciting city in the world or what?”
I have visited New York City in the past, but never have I sailed into town at 4:30 in the morning while hanging onto the side of a ship and wondering how my great-grandfather must have felt when first he glimpsed, as I am doing, the grand Lady Liberty herself.
I hope he heard the story of how the statue came to be constructed from toe to crown and how it ships transported it piece by piece from France to America, but he probably didn’t. However, I bet Great-grandpa wiped tears from his eyes as often as I am doing while standing at a similar railing and looking at The Lady shine the light of freedom on him.
What might he have been thinking? What would he have turned to his little brother and remarked, both of them having recently fled the devastating potato famine in Ireland and both of them scared out of their Irish britches?
“Look at ‘er there, lad, the ol’ gurl hursef. That’s our noo mum. She’s gon’ tek’ caire of us naiw, she will.”
Lil’ brother likely whimpered at the mention of their mother, a victim of poverty and neglect, buried mere months before the boys set sail. Perhaps he moved a wee bit closer to his big brother, the one charged to take over once they set foot on American soil, the one who would find work however he could so that his brother would be fed, clothed and schooled proper in this, their new country.
My guess is they looked across the New York Harbor that day at the torch held high by The Lady and were warmed by her light just as I am today. They came here with nothing, having left everything behind in the fallow potato fields of Ireland. In time, their losses would be replaced with fulfilled dreams made each night as they grew into men and good Americans. Like so many immigrants throughout our history, their earnest prayers were answered, their hopes rewarded.
Many Americans will never have the opportunity as I did to look upon The Statue of Liberty at daybreak. Seeing her at least once should be a requirement for every citizen of our great country, but then, one of the things that makes us great is that we don’t require it of our people. It is no surprise to me that The Lady’s power too often gets lost amid the information overload that we are fed and must sift through day after day. But she is patient. She is willing to stand her ground and remain strong for all of us.
Lest we forget what she stands for, the poet Emma Lazarus summed it up in her work engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The Lady lifted her lamp to a homeless, tempest-tossed Irish boy and his brother and when she did, our country became stronger. He became a proud citizen and later served his country. His descendants would have filled him with awe: A symphony musician; NASA Engineer; lawyer; Episcopal priest; psychologist; writer; teacher; good Americans all.
Nothing will ever diminish the spark of hope woven into the fiber of the Statue of Liberty and imparted to those who see her for the first time.
“Give me your tired, your poor…”
Sunday, July 1, 2012
I remember the day Mama cried as though her heart would break in two.
I had seen her get mad at Daddy or at my brother, and at me more times than I could count. When she lost her temper, she never used the four-letter “S” word, and she never cried. Instead, she yelled SHITE! I grew up thinking of that particular non-word as an expletive.
Apart from the strangeness of seeing her tears that day, I sensed something else but at my young age, how could I possibly have understood?
“Mama, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
Gazing at her only daughter who still smiled with baby teeth, more tears fell and were followed by a ragged intake of breath.
I crawled into her lap, reached up and wiped her wet cheek. She squeezed me so hard I thought my ribs would break. I let her hold me close, intuiting even in my naiveté her need to hold someone.
After supper while she visited with Daddy’s sister, I overheard the reason behind Mama’s tears. My young aunt, still in nurses training, had not yet married and she and Mama were close friends.
Daddy had left for the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to train. My parents scrimped and saved in order for him to realize his dream of becoming not merely a policeman like his father, but a top detective. We had very little money and none coming in after he left, but they were young and willing to make the needed sacrifices.
Before she married Daddy, Mama had had a sad life. Forced to quit high school at sixteen after her mother died with Typhoid Fever, the family expected her to help raise the other children. In 1930, only a year after the Crash, nobody had any money to spare and there were no jobs. Mama grew vegetables, raised chickens and milked the one cow they owned. While helping the family to survive, my mother was able to develop a strong work ethic.
Her education, by necessity, had to be cut short but she was bright and eager to learn, so she kept her mind open to new ideas and possibilities.
When Daddy set off to make his dream come true, Mama asked Mrs. Willie Berry for a job as a waitress at Berry’s On the Hill, a popular restaurant located not far from our house. Mama might not have been educated, but she knew how to serve food. With Daddy gone, there were bills to be paid, children to be fed.
Mrs. Berry, a gentle woman, hugged her. “You’re a godsend! Not thirty minutes ago one of my waitresses up and quit. You can take her place.”
So why had Mama cried like her heart would break?
On Saturday night, she put on her new uniform, got my aunt to babysit and then struck out on foot for the restaurant. She had never held a paying job before so landing one filled her with a sense of pride.
Wearing a big smile, she walked over to the table of eight women seated in the large dining room. The hungry customers were busy talking as she approached with her pad and pencil all set to take their orders.
Mama knew the women. All of them. Some were her neighbors; others were friends she had met at church or at Eastern Star meetings.
While telling my aunt what happened that night, she began to cry again.
“They looked down their noses at me,” Mama said. “The minute I put on that waitress uniform I ceased to be their friend. I was only their servant.”
My aunt patted my mother on the hand.
Mama said, “I took their orders and when I turned to go back to the kitchen, they giggled and said spiteful things behind my back. I heard it all. What did I do wrong? Why did they make fun of me? Cappy needed shoes and Boo needed a Scout uniform. How else could I have paid for them? What did I do that was so terrible?”
In my bed that night, I cried for my mother. At the time, four-year-old Cappy had no idea that
grownups were occasionally mean or unkind to each other. I only knew that women she’d thought were her friends made her feel bad about herself for doing whatever she could to take care of her family.
And knowing that, my heart broke for her.