Immigration, Family History, and The Stories We Tell

With all the news and debate about immigration I’ve been thinking a lot lately about family history.

My mom’s parents came to the United States from Poland in the early 1900s. My grandfather emigrated first. My grandmother planned to follow soon after, but due to changes in U.S. immigration law it was nearly a decade before she could.

Two of her children traveled with her. She and my grandfather had four more children, including my mother, after settling in the U.S.

For a long time, I never thought much about that part of my family history. My grandparents died when I was pretty young, and the few Polish words I knew faded out of my vocabulary. (All I can say now is the equivalent of “How are you?” and “Fine.”)

Early Hard Times

Starting out in the United States, things probably didn’t seem too great to my grandparents. They were poor—as in, not enough to eat and sleeping around the stove in the kitchen during winter poor.

My grandmother had cleaned houses in Poland and she did so again in the United States. At least some of the time my grandfather couldn’t find work. My mother told me she got made fun of at school for wearing clothes with patches and because the kids saw my grandfather working in the street as part of a work/welfare program.

My uncles told me one winter they stole sleds from a nearby orphanage. It’s a terrible thing to do, which they realized as adults, but they said they were so envious because people gave sleds and other toys to the orphans, while my uncles and their siblings never had any. (My mom first heard that story when I did, when she she was already in her seventies. She was shocked. She remembered the sleds but had never known where they’d come from.)

My grandparents never learned to speak English.

My aunts and uncles had limited opportunities for education. My mother was quite proud of being the only girl in her neighborhood to finish high school.


My aunts and uncles were the hardest working people I’ve ever known. Sometimes to a fault.

One of my cousins told me it never occurred to him to take a vacation from his high stress job because his father (my Uncle John) worked six days a week and never took a vacation. My cousin didn’t realize that was a thing that people did.

My parents, aunts, and uncles all felt strongly about the privilege of growing up in the United States. All three of my uncles served in the United States Armed Forces with distinction during World War II. I still have an article from the local paper about that.

That generation also highly valued education for their children. Those children–all middle aged and older now–include lawyers (one who clerked for the United States Supreme Court), CPAs, writers, professors, musicians, and pretty much any type of occupation you can imagine. (I have a lot of cousins.)

Family members also helped one another.

When one of my aunts had four children in quick succession, the other sisters and sisters-in-law came over and helped wash diapers and care for the kids. When one of my adult cousins became ill for a long time, my mom was among those who took shifts getting her through each day.

Most of our parents are now deceased. My cousins and I don’t see each other all that often. All the same, I feel certain if I were in trouble or needed advice I could find it within my extended family.

My parents and most of my aunts and uncles volunteered in their churches, for veterans organizations and other non-profits, and in their communities. It was something I thought everyone did until I got older and discovered it wasn’t.

Different Views

I never talked with my aunts and uncles or parents about issues relating to border crossing.

But one evening the subject of bilingual information and education came up. Chicago was posting more and more signs and instructions at government offices in Spanish as well as English. More schools were providing some amount of bilingual education.

My Aunt Irene expressed anger about this practice. She said that her family had to learn English and if people came to this country that’s what they should expect to do.

My Aunt Hermie thought there might be some value to having help available in multiple languages.

Unlike Irene and my mother, Aunt Hermie was born in Poland. She spoke only Polish on arrival to the United States. She was put into a class with second graders although she was twelve years old. The other kids made fun of her, seeing her as old and stupid. She dropped out of school and went to work instead in a laundry where she worked for many, many decades.

This family history might be why my mom volunteered for over a decade as a literacy tutor for people for whom English is a second language. It was something she enjoyed doing, and she felt so pleased whenever anyone made progress.

Life And Fiction

Characters exactly like my aunts and uncle don’t appear in my novels, and I haven’t imported wholesale their backgrounds or experiences.

But the idea that people with good intentions can hold strongly opposing views is a theme woven throughout my fiction. And the family stories about determination, hard work, and doing your best to leave the world a better place than you found it are ones I try to be guided by in my life.