Biff America: From humble means (column)
The factory foreman sized up the immigrant teenager. She was not much to look at — under five feet, weak chin, thick glasses and bad teeth. But beneath her long skirt, her legs were thick and her arms and hands seemed small yet strong. For the 14-year-old Irish girl, it was her chance for a foothold in her new world. To the foreman she was little more than a tool to build shoes. Life was hard for foreigners in 1908.
“Do you drink?” He asked as he stared down at the scared teen.
“No sir,” she whispered in a Galway lilt.
“Do you smoke?”
“Do you cuss?”
“Sometimes,” she admitted.
The foreman’s scowl turned into a half smile and said, “Ya, me too. You are hired.”
The 14-year-old immigrant could not believe her good fortune. She would be working from 8 to 6 Monday thru Saturday for $8 a week. The foreman told her about a rooming house where she could rent a room, without running water, that included breakfast and supper for $4 leaving her $4 a week to spend on herself. America was truly the land of plenty.
A few years later, that girl, Bridget Sheely, married John O’Malley and had three children. She was abused and eventually abandoned by her husband. She could not support her family on factory work so she reluctantly gave up her children to her in-laws (whose son, John, had abandoned her).
She never heard from John again. Most assumed he died in the flu epidemic in 1919. Bridget’s kids, Billy, Johnny and Martha were raised by their grandparents and several maiden aunts and saw their mother rarely. Martha was my mother.
Domino was born in Three Rivers, Quebec. The family migrated south to New Hampshire where there were workers needed to build a railroad line. Domino’s father was killed in an accident, crushed to death, and Dom was forced to quit school at the age of 12 and work.
When Dom was a young man the family once again moved south and ended up in Brockton, Massachusetts, where Dom got factory work, and on the side, began a small freight hauling business.
Initially, Dom had a partner named Rene. They would share the lifting, packing and driving. They used horses and mules and eventually purchased a truck. One night they were hauling a load of freight from Brockton to North Boston. It had snowed recently and the truck got stuck. They knocked on a farmer’s door and after they shoveled out the wheels he pulled them out with his mules. They thanked him and went on their way.
Only a few miles from their destination, they got stuck again, this time not so bad. They got out of the truck and began shoveling again. Dom noticed Rene using a shovel he did not recognize and asked about it. Rene said it was the farmer’s and that he thought they might need it so he tossed it in the truck. Rene and Dom got the truck out and delivered their load.
The next day Dom gave his partner an ultimatum, “Either you buy me out or I’ll buy you out. I won’t be partners with a thief.” Dom ended up as sole owner.
Dom eventually married Calista Detore who’s family migrated from Normandy. They would have preferred Calista marry a Frenchman but settled for a Canadian.
Calista and Dom raised 6 children: Donald, Irving, Harold, Stanley, Norman and Marie, in a rented farm house. They grew much of their own food and maintained a small trucking business. All the boys worked from an early age (9 or 10). Harold was my father.
Harold, at about 9 years old, began his working career with a paper route that would take him three or four hours every day after school and longer on weekends. As he got older, factory work followed.
Bridget’s daughter Martha (my mother) quit school at 15 to work as a nanny in order to get out from under the watchful eyes and criticisms of her grandparents and aunts. A 15-year-old girl dating a 25-year-old man would be a scandal today, but Martha (my mum) quickly fell in love with Harold (my father) and married five years later. They had six children of which I was the youngest.
All Americans (other than natives) have immigrant family stories similar to mine. Perhaps not Irish and French but rather countless other races, creeds and colors. They came to this nation, often escaping dire and dangerous conditions, seeking a better life. When my grandparents arrived, I’m sure many who were already here, resented them. But through hard work, honesty and perseverance — once given the chance — they thrived. Bridget, Domino and many million others are what has made, and continues to make, America great…….
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or Shop.HolPublications.com/Products/Biff-America-Mind-Body-Soul
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