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Biff America: Tired, poor, huddled masses

Jeffrey Bergeron
Biff America

Laura’s grandparents, Abraham and Aliza, came to America from Poland in 1901. They landed in Ellis Island and were processed like cattle. They met in a Jewish ghetto in New York — fell in love and married. Abe wrote his brother back in Poland saying he married an angel. He bragged of her good looks, great disposition and stew.

Two years, and two children later, Aliza died of a condition that now would be only a minor inconvenience. In keeping with an Old World tradition her younger sister, Claire, was dispatched from the old country to take the place of her dead sister.

Aliza got all the good looks and disposition in her family. Claire was a harsh and demanding young girl. She walked off the boat took one look at Abe and said, “You’re the old toad my sister married? To think I suffered six weeks on a boat for the likes of you.”

They married, had five children, and lived together for 50 years without ever really liking each other. Their oldest boy, David, was apprenticed to a printer. After working for slave wages for almost seven years, he felt he knew enough to open his own business. Claire and Abe risked their savings to invest in their son.

Forty years later that same business paid for all of David’s children, one being Laura, to go to college. Each generation has been afforded a better life than the one before.

Steve’s grandfather, Peter, was a tailor in Italy. When he landed in America he found the country needed workers to shovel coal and not to sew clothing. Six years of shoveling led to a job in a clothing shop working for a man who was unskilled and unscrupulous. Peter eventually opened his own shop; he married late and had one child before his wife died.

Peter’s child, Mark (Steve’s father) had no skill with thread but was hardworking and studious. He received a partial scholarship to Yale, working full time until he graduated. He is now a retired psychiatrist. Mark’s son, my buddy Steve, had his father’s intellect and ambition. He worked his way through college, got a job for a big city newspaper, and eventually won a Pulitzer.

When Bridgett Sheely’s widowed father came to America he left Bridgett in an Irish poorhouse in the care of nuns. At the age of 11 an aunt provided passage for Bridgett to come to America. Bridgett found factory work and married a man who mistreated her. She gave birth to four children — three that lived — before being abandoned by her husband. The state took her children away and gave them to the parents of the man who left her.

Martha, the only girl, quit school and left home to work as a maid. At the age of 16 she met, and eventually married, a truck driver named Harold. They raised six children in a house with loud plumbing. Martha insisted that all her children graduate from high school and attend college. The only one that did not, much to her disappointment, was her youngest. While the other children went on to work as teachers, reporters, entrepreneurs, and a U.S. State Department official, Jeffrey moved out west to pursue immediate gratification. Eventually he found modest success and some stability. Just before cancer took Martha she said to her youngest child. “I knew you were capable of having fun, but I wasn’t so sure you could find a wife and keep a job. I’m glad I can stop worrying.” Martha’s made sure her children had advantages she did not.

Those are the life stories of some folks I know well. They are a few examples of some who came to America to look for a better life. In many cases America didn’t particularly welcome them. There are similar stories being lived today. But now rather than Poland, Italy and Ireland it might be Mexico, South America and East Africa.

I will guess it is easier for the new breed of dream seekers than it was for my family’s first generation. We are a kinder nation now.

When you turn on the news someone always seems to be angry about something.

Just last week with the findings of SCOTUS are the ACA and same-sex unions some of us felt it was a positive turning point for this nation and others claimed it was but another step down the slippery slope to an America to be ashamed of.

Truth is with the checks and balances of our politics and Constitution, turning America is like steering an ocean liner, very little good or bad happens quickly.

We have much to relish and some to be shamed by. We are a country that, in my lifetime had segregated schools and water fountains to one with a black president. For every one step back we’ve taken two forward.

When the fireworks lit up the sky on July 4th I felt a profound sense of both optimism and gratitude. Hopeful and confident that this great nation has grown and evolved and continues to do so and grateful that Martha, that, daughter of Irish immigrants, didn’t give up on me.

Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at biffbreck@yahoo.com.


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