As I was searching on the internet for interesting holidays, I stumbled on October as “Family History Month.” Given that my family, as are many of my friends and colleagues, were from different parts of the world, I decided to do a little research and find out as much as I could about my ancestors. I knew that my grandparents were from Russia and travelled to the U.S. via England, landing in New Haven, CT, NY, and by mistake, Newfoundland, Canada. What I didn’t know was that one of my great-grandfathers had bribed an officer in the Czar’s army to get my grandfather on to a boat and out of harm’s way (Czar’s army). His story is a common one; he arrived in NYC, met my grandmother who was designing women’s wear on the Lower East Side of NYC, and from there went on to have a life of freedom in their beloved United States. My other grandfather followed his brothers to Newfoundland, (now a part of Canada, but then a part of Britain’s vast empire) a “rock in the middle of the ocean,” as my mother described it. He was a peddlar, travelling to all the outposts with a pack on his back. From there, he opened the the General Store in St John’s which, until malls came to the suburbs, was a hub for shopping and mingling. My mom, having this opinion that Newfoundland was a “rock in the middle of the ocean,” begged her parents to let her come to the U.S. for university. She met my dad and eventually became a U.S. citizen.
I find the history of all immigrants fascinating. I have a Romanian friend who grew up under Caeusescu and escaped with a paper bag when she was 20 years old. She often said that Americans don’t appreciate the freedoms they have. I’ve heard that time and time again, most recently from a young taxi driver in NYC. Obama was in town, and this spurred a conversation about politics and life in the U.S. He and his family had come to the U.S. when he was 11. They too had escaped from an African country of violence, their lives filled with fear. He grinned from ear-to-ear when he related his family’s story: his mom went to nursing school, he and his brother were in college, they had work, and his mom had just bought her own home in CT. “This would never have happened in my country,” he said. “Only the U.S. could offer us this freedom and opportunity.” Once again, I heard, “Americans don’t appreciate what they have.”
I know my grandparents appreciated the life they had in this country, and I think about our freedoms every day when I watch the news and see the horrors of war across the globe.
Share your family’s history with us: where did your family originate? What do they tell you about life in the “old world,” versus life in the U.S.
My mother’s parents met on a boat from Italy to America. They settled near where grandma’s sister, Sabella and her husband, Bruno settled: in Nampa, Idaho. Grandma was a brilliant peasant. She spoke Italian, French, Chinese (where she learned Chinese I’ll never know), and broken English. She spelled words phonetically like she talked. I remember a sign she hand wrote and put on her property: Keep out teef! I call Cherriff!
I know very little about my grandparents on either side, but what I do know is how very brave they were. My paternal grandfather came from the UK as a young man and was the foremost tilesetter in th Paterson, NJ, then a robust, growing industrial city. My maternal grandmother was a farmgirl in Paterson and her husband was also an immigrant who was trained as a mason/bricklayer. They owned their own home, raised 8 children to adulthood, and make sure their only two daughters were set for life, giving one their house and the other, my mother, a college education. They did this not knowing how to read or write.
My daughter has spent the past 1 1/2 years using ancestry.com to gather information about our family. My mother’s parents came from Italy through Ellis Island – with very little. I learned my grandfather first went to Stamford to live and then on to Pittsburgh where he had other relatives – everyone else went straight to Pittsburgh. It is amazing to see the census reports for their time in America – and who they lived with (so many relatives in one home). It means so much to me that they endured such a difficult journey to America for the opportunity for a better life – not for just themselves – but for all of us who came after!
My paternal grandfather came “on the boat” from Russia, although he told us he was on the Mayflower. He also, more truthfully, told us that they were “horse traders” back in the old country, which I learned was a euphemism for horse thieves. Grandma Eva was the youngest of her family and was born in the U.S., though older siblings had Russian accents. Her family were chicken and egg people, farmers in Tom’s River, NJ. My Dad spent a lot of time on the family farm down there as a child, with a pony, a mule, a parrot and cats and dogs as pets.
My Mother’s family: Grandpa Sam came from Germany and had 13 brothers and sisters.His last name was Fuchs, changed to Fox. Grandpa Bea, whose maiden name was Zolan, swore she was from French Jewish royalty. (?????) She certainly acted the part.
Correction: Grandma Bea, not Grandpa Bea.
My maternal grandmother was born in what was then British Guiana (what is now the northern eastern coast of South America). Her parents died when she was little and she was shipped off to boarding school in England. She went to nursing school in Winnepeg, Canada where she met my grandfather. Grandpa was from Scotland and in Winnepeg working at the local Bank of England. He proposed often, she said no and eventually she traveled to NYC to be one of the original Henry Street Settlement nurses in NYC in the 1920s. They worked with the newly arrived and poor immigrants. Grandpa followed her to NY and she agreed to marry him, they raised 3 daughters in Queens, NY.
My paternal grandparents were both from Scotland. Both came to NYC through Ellis Island after WWI, Grandpa after serving in the army in Scotland. We have pictures of him in his dress army kilts! Grandma was 10 years younger than him. They met at a Scotish dance in Brooklyn.