This week, there were happy exchanges, by email and phone and in person: “Happy Thanksgiving,” my friends, family and colleagues said to me, and I back to them. Yes, for sure, I am very thankful here on the eve of the wonderful day of Thanksgiving here in America.
Among the many things that I am grateful for, I find an important thread that runs through many aspects of my life. You see, I am especially grateful — thankful — for the waves of immigration to America from all corners of the globe. This created America-the-Melting-Pot; America, more like the Bouillibaise these days.
Permit me to explain. I am grateful that my great-grandmother, Bridget Keegan, married John Greene and they came to New York City. She came into the world in 1842 in the Emerald Isle, and while I don’t know the background (yet), no doubt the Great Famine that gripped that small nation was a powerful force for leaving. They escaped a perilous future to travel to the city of Brooklyn (New York) where they settled with their three sons.
My maternal grandfather (their son), escaped poverty; My grandfather John Greene achieved a college education, became a teacher, was an engineer on the Panama Canal project, owned NY businesses and real estate, and brought his family (of 9, including my mother) into the middle class. His brother, my uncle Richard, in his later years was my first writing coach (when I was only six years old). His son Laurence was city editor of the New York Post and covered President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War Two. He was far removed from the poverty of the Old Country and was fortunate to cover those in power at critical times in the nation’s history.
My grandmother Cora Starr, who married her Irishman John Greene, was descended from immigrants who came much earlier – they were English settlers who came by sailing ship to New England and perhaps [who] were participants in those early feasts of Thanksgiving, made possible in those first dicey years of settlement by Native Americans who befriended the Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Grandmother’s forebears (and therefore, mine) included “Jane Pickens,” her given English name, who was descendant of a much earlier immigration to North America: you see, she was a member of the Lenne Lenape, a New Jersey branch of the Delaware Indian Tribe. And in a later time, grandmother’s ancestors were Quakers journeying to Philadelphia with William Penn; her grandfather was born in Quakertown, PA.
I am especially grateful that the young man and young woman who left the poverty of Campabasso, in the Abruzzi region, in the hills along the spine of Italy, went down to the sea at the port of Naples to board one of the immigrant trade the ships to go to New York City in the late 19th Century. Luigi Tucci and Teresa Garzia met in New York City — then teeming with tens of thousands of immigrants from Russia, Poland, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Greece, and other Old World nations. They married; their son, Giorgi Tucci, is my wonderful wife Mary’ Ann’s father. Her mother descended from German and French and English settlers.
On my father’s side, all of his forefathers/mothers were German or from regions that became part of modern Germany. His grandmother was an illegal, in a sense; she was orphaned in Frankfurt and came to the United States with a migrating family that took her in and signed her in at Ellis Island as their own. I’m apparently the fourth “Henry” in the all-German line my father’s mother was Ana Lily Becker).
We are nation of immigrants. President John F. Kennedy , (while then-US Senator authored an essay at the invitation of B’nai B’rith that would become a slim book:”A Nation of Immigrants” (special edition posthumously published in 1964). Congressman, then Senator and finally President John Kennedy was active in promoting national policies regarding immigration.
His brother, Robert Kennedy, wrote in his memory in the 1964 edition of the book: “I know of no cause which President John Kennedy championed more warmly that the improvement of our immigration policies.” Every step forward since ]the end of WW II in 1945] bore the JFK stamp. This included the Displaced Person Act (welcoming tens of thousands of those unfortunate people whose lives were disrupted by the war); The Refugee Relief Act (which enabled separated families to come together); and later, reforms urged on the Congress, when he was President (1961-63). The book was well into completion when John Kennedy was slain in Dallas, Texas (November 1963).
Robert Kennedy (who would later become a US Senator and candidate for president)observed: President John Kennedy was himself only two generations removed from the Emerald Isle. On his trip to Ireland four months before he died, the president stood on the very spot from which grandfather Patrick Kennedy would depart for the New World / Boston, Massachusetts from Ireland. He would open a modest bar; his descendants would quickly (in the perspective of time) become members of Congress; US Senators; lt. governors; attorney general of the US; President of the united States. Patriarch Joe Kennedy would be a Harvard graduate; movie studio owner; banker; investor; appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James (England), and one of the richest men in America.
His daughters — Euenice Kennedy Shriver, with help from sister Jean — founded the Special Olympics in the late-1960s. her daughter is Maria Shriver, whose former husband immigrated to the USA from Austria as a young man, he became a movie star and then “Governor Arnie” of California.
In his book, President Kennedy urged reform of the nation’s immigration system, and wrote: “In just over 350 years, a nation of nearly 200 million people has grown up, populated almost entirely by persons who either came from other lands or whose forefathers came from other lands. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded [us]. Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionaries…” (President Franklin Roosevelt who led the nation through the Great Depression and WW II was descended from the original Dutch settlers of New York City and state, as was his cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, who created the modern US presidency.)
Here on the North Fork of Long Island as I write these thoughts, we celebrate the legacy of the waves of immigrants who were farmers and craft workers and fisher folk — first English (1640; then Irish, Polish, Italian, and lately, Asians, and newcomers from Central America); Americans of African descent worked these lands for hundreds of years and contributed to the long-term success of this special corner of America).
Our new wine industry is founded in immigrant ingenuity; the Massoud Family (Paumanok Vineyards) was founded by Charles Massoud, born in Lebanon, and his wife Ursula, who came to the USA from Germany to attend college.
As I think about the ongoing debate about immigration, these days sometimes intelligent, sometimes rabble-rousing, and about our still incomplete public policies on immigration, I am reminded of something I learned in early grade school in New York City (where at one time some 60 years earlier there were 200 languages spoken): E Pluribus Unum, Our nation, “out of many, one” (a really great nation with the people united as one). The Latin phrase is on our Great Seal – been there since 1782, adopted by our Congress, very soon after we became an independent nation…yes, of immigrants.
And when I was young, I found the national anthem words were somewhat confusing. My favorite song then was “America, the Beautiful.”
“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea! recall, sometimes with tears in my eyes….”
And then I remember when I was very young reading on past the familiar phrases to find the great words in the second verse penned by Katherine Lee Bates and set to music with the haunting melody by Samuel Ward.
“O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!”
We could add today, though not in great, flowing verse, from river-to-river (our borders the St. Lawrence on the north border to Rio Grande on the south); and shining sea-to-sea-to-sea (including the Caribbean Sea, the isles of which are former homelands of millions of Americans of island descendant. The proud Carib-Americans march every summer in colorful parades in the boro of Brooklyn, New York, a county that is home to hundreds of thousands of of immigrants from the various islands of the Caribbean and from areas of South America and Central America.
And, yes, as the verse states, we are a nation of laws, which is among the many reasons why people will come to make America their home. The laws regarding immigration need fixing, as they did when President John Kennedy urged reforms on the Congress more than 50 years ago. As the verse of the song says…[America] “…confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law…”
I think I’ll add that to my Thanksgiving blessing prayer this year.
To my family – my friends – my colleagues: here’s to a Blessed Thanksgiving to you and yours! No matter where ever you or your family came from – and who ever welcomed you (or their ancestors welcomed yours) to our shores! We have tens of millions of reasons living among us today for which we should all be thankful!