When the occasion seems to call for it, I have proudly claimed being a first generation American, based on the fact that my mother was born in Norway and “emigrated” here. While this is technically true, I use this fact like a politician to claim a sensitivity to something I have never really experienced. My mother was a year old when she came to this country. Her father was on his way to citizenship and her only sibling, a sister, was born in this country. Through effort and determination, her mother assimilated quickly among other young mothers in the growing town of Waukegan, Illinois.
Even though I did not suffer any trials of assimilation or indeed adjustment issues of a first generation immigrant, I am drawn to the stories of those early years. I explore the details, looking for clues to who they were, that can tell me who I am, why I have taken the paths and made the choices that I have.
My sisters and I reminisce about our mother and her independent spirit. Life as a housewife in the 1950’s did not really suit her. She was more interested in politics and the library than cocktail parties and neighborhood gatherings. When other mothers were creating adorable Halloween costumes, our mother was writing programs for the local YMCA or a letter to the editor. She loved to cook but was not content with meat, potatoes and jello. An early adherent to fresh and local, she would haul us out of bed during summer vacation to help her pick strawberries or apples at the nearest U-Pick farm. Her mothering of five children was loving but haphazard. We might be enrolled in swimming lessons but sent alone on the bus to attend without the proper swimsuit and hat.
At the height of the civil rights movement, she enlisted the local synagogue’s help to pilot the first HeadStart program in Northern Illinois. With too little funding to hire someone to recruit students, she drafted her teenage children to go door to door in poor neighborhoods. At ages 13 to 16, my siblings and I were cold calling on families to enroll their four year olds in this new program. Her single minded pursuit of what she believed in was perceived as boldness. Today, jeopardizing our safety for her program would be considered folly at best.
In a time when women choose their names, own property and have their own checking accounts, my sisters and I marvel over her choices and bemoan that she was so unconventional. We laugh to remember how she got us to cook, clean bathrooms and scrub floors, so she could pursue what really interested her.
My peers and I think we were the first generation to make hard choices about careers and child rearing, whether to marry or stay married, to use our college degrees in a male dominated work force. We are proud of what we rejected. We didn’t trust anyone over thirty, or forty or whatever decade marker we were approaching until sometime in our fifties when that no longer worked. We insist on not being ignored in our old age. As boomers, we believe that we are the ones who changed it all.
But in fact, we stand on the shoulders of those women who stayed at home and made our school lunches, sewed our clothes and read us stories, who advocated for college for both girls and boys. If they worked outside the home, they balanced the routine jobs of sales, typing, nursing, social work or teaching with their family life. Devoting time to leading the Sunday School, or the PTA, organizing the neighborhood fundraiser, they taught us how to use our skills in the community.
Now, my granddaughters listen to my stories of immigration as pleasant but archaic tales of a time that has little to do with them and their concerns. But our daughter asks about my life? What was it really like to be the only woman in the boardroom? Did your employee ever do this? How did you figure out how to be where when?
She recognizes in my stories the determination of her grandma and courage of her great grandma, to leave homeland and everything familiar. I tell her that I only recently have come to appreciate the difficulties they faced and the strengths we inherit.
The Shakers have an old song that ends,
To bow and to bend I will not be ashamed
To turn, turn will be my delight
'Til by turning, turning,
I come 'round right.
Do daughters just keep turning? Have I turned away from, around and now towards my mother? Eldest daughter of eldest daughter am I coming round right? Maybe, we are all assimilating, adapting the past to the present. A new generation in the way things are now, built upon the bowing and bending of another generation.