I had a nice day yesterday at my 84-year old uncle’s home in Connecticut. He was a graphic artist in New York City for decades and had a chance to rub elbows with some very big names. He had a penchant for that; as an adolescent he caddied a number of times for Babe Ruth (excellent tipper; gave my uncle $5 tips, which was a king’s ransom in the late 1930’s). Uncle’s art career yielded a lunch once with Joe DiMaggio, a collaboration with Grace Kelly (“she thought I was nuts”), and professional relationships with many captains of industry. But the man my uncle looked up to the most was not a CEO, MVP, or Academy Award winner. That would be my grandfather, a humble barber who never owned a car and arrived in the US penniless in the 1900’s at Ellis Island.
Last month, Ann and I were honored to be guests at the wedding of Eileen Hsu and Morgan Evans, and the event took place on a boat ride in New York Harbor. We cruised past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and I paused for more than a moment at what must have gone through my grandfather’s mind when he first saw Lady Liberty. I don’t need to look far to know I’m not alone- Ann’s parents both came to America from Seoul, Korea when she was a toddler in 1969. South Korea was experiencing tension with the North in those days (sounds familiar) and her parents saw the USA as a safe place to raise their daughter. Ann went to NYC public schools, including Stuyvesant High, and graduated from Columbia University.
While I may look like a descendant of the Mayflower, I am only one generation removed from a penniless Ellis Island immigrant. My wife is a first generation citizen, having become naturalized many years ago. Our children are true Americans, like millions of others, not because of any similarity in how they appear but the similarity in their story. They know nothing of the tension and prejudices of even 25 years ago.
Freedom from fear is a big theme in our home, because both sides of my family came to America, not just for a better life economically, but to go to bed at night knowing that we’d wake up safe- safe to express ourselves, safe from persecution, and free to go about our lives with no thought of repercussion from the state about our chosen faith, occupation, or opinions. We live where we choose. We earn our living as we choose, and when we looked for a home in 2007 the only doubt was our mortgage rate. In 1950 my marriage would have been a scandal in some precincts. I’ve never gotten a hint of that. America moves forward rapidly.
So in between the barbecues and fireworks, those are the things I think about lately. Capo D’Orlando, Sicily and Seoul, Korea, living in Briarcliff Manor, on our own terms, free from fear. That’s America to me.
Here’s how another son of an immigrant put it in 1945: