27 November 2015

A New Film I Saw Today Inspires a Post About My Father's Immigration Experience and the Power of Choices

“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward.” E.E. Cummings.

I never understood it as a child but the United States was paradise to my father and millions of other immigrants. It was long before my dad arrived and remained so long after. Even unto this day. I grew up here and took everything for granted plus I had a strong rebellious streak which, coupled with the time and place I grew up in — Berkeley in the Sixties — made me far less enamored of the US and it all it stood for.

Today the missus and I saw a wonderful new film called Brooklyn which is about a young woman coming to the US from Ireland in 1951. Like all good movies, Brooklyn gave me a lot to think about (it was also visually spectacular and was rich with strong, yet nuanced performances). One thing that quite naturally came to mind was the stunning contrast for immigrants between the US and the “old country.” The main character, Eilis (Saiorse Ronan), while not exactly caught between two worlds, is certainly made aware of the marked contrasts between them. Like many immigrants she comes from a small town and tight community to the ultimate big city, New York. One would think deciding a preference would be a simple matter given the contrasts, but such is not always the case. Life is not always so cut and dried for many people. It was, however, for my dad.

My father was unabashed in his eternal love for Finland, where he grew up and spent his first 24 years, but the United States was everything to him. Supermarkets, oh my god the supermarkets. Aisle after aisle of all manner of foods including fresh produce, meat, fish, packaged cereals, canned soups, bread, coffee, liquor, spices and everything required to bake, broil, steam, boil, roast, fry, barbecue, simmer and freeze to one’s heart content. There was nothing of the sort in the small town where he grew up. And here supermarkets were a short car ride away and he had a car and the roads were paved and there were places to park and he had a job that paid, what must have seemed an enormous amount of money, so that he had plenty of money to buy to his heart’s content.

He lived in a heated home, with electricity and gas and separate bedrooms and for crying out loud indoor toilets and there was running water and a TV set and he even owned the place. Everything was possible. Everything was there. Everything was available. He could go to first run movies, to night clubs, to professional sports events to parks and on boat rides and on ski trips. Neighbors were generally friendly but it wasn’t like everyone knew everyone else’s business. There was privacy. The union took care of his medical needs and those of his family and all he had to do was work hard. There were convenient schools for his children and they would surely go to college and be whatever the hell they wanted. Others from his country followed, including a younger brother, so he was able to maintain his culture and language because many had preceded him. The United States gave my father everything he could ask for. No wonder he loved it.

My dad’s experience was not and is not unusual among those who immigrate to this country. A lot of immigrants come from bad times in bad places. There is poverty, repression, violence, fear, and want. The US can be a safe, comfortable place that affords opportunities. Throughout this country’s history many recent immigrants have very quickly developed into patriotic citizens with an abiding love for their new found home.

(As a life long student of American history and as an observer of current events I hasten to add that immigrants have also been targets of abuse and discrimination and they have been scapegoated and used and abused. The Irish, German, Italian, East Europeans, Jews, Chinese and Mexicans, not to mention more recently our Muslim friends, have faced hardships that in many cases rival or even exceed what they were subjected to at home. Yet the majority have stayed, have assimilated and raised families. Many of them too have — despite their harsh welcomes — become patriotic citizens. Others among them have turned to crime including gang activity and others have participated in subversive political activity, not always without good reason or to bad ends.)

My father left Finland in 1940 to join the merchant marines and see the world. That he did. Of course his departure coincided with World War II so he also saw airplanes attacking him and the periscope of submarine moments before it sunk the ship he was on. He settled first in New York where he met my mother — a woman of Finnish parentage — who hailed from the Bay Area where they moved in time to have two baby boomers, my brother and I. It was 14 years before Dad returned to Finland, to attend his own father’s funeral. I can only imagine what he thought upon returning to his home town. The house he grew up in still did not boast a telephone and the toilet was a few yards away in the form of an outhouse. I wonder what he told everyone about America. Knowing my father I’m sure he emphasized how wonderful everything was and I’m quite certain he encouraged kin and friends to make the move and enjoy the modern splendors of the USA.

It was another 18 years before his next return to Finland. Life was still very very good indeed for him in the States although tragedy had struck his marriage and rocked his world owing to my mother’s mental problems. He eventually re-married and made still more trips back to Finland. Towards the end of his life Dad talked of moving back to Finland. This struck me as both sensible and quite odd. It’s only natural to want to spend your last years “at home” where your roots are. But he’d not spent more than about six weeks at a time in Finland in over 60 years. It was hard to imagine that he could “go home again.”

Where is home, anyway?  For some people it is one structure they've inhabited for the majority of their life or one neighborhood or one city. For others it is more fluid and for others still it is ethereal. Home can be a house or a family or a community. Moving from one to the next can be upsetting regardless of how old you are. It can require great courage and great vision or it can be an impulse. We make such moves seeking something better. Promises. We also make moves for the sake of other people. That person we want to live with or for family. And it always is so central to our identity. “Where are you from?” or “Where do you live?” can be a very personal question for how much it reveals not only about who we are but how we want to be seen.

In Brooklyn, Eilis faces this question twice as she makes decisions that will set the course for the rest of her life. She is young. It strikes me how many decisions we make that will effect us for the rest of our lives when we are still in our late teens and early twenties. As Jean-Paul Satre said, “we are our choices.” My father didn't hesitate to commit to the US. If he ever suffered an iota of homesickness I never heard about it. He was of a generation of Europeans who knew a good thing when they saw it. They were part of the backbone of this country for decades after the war. My dad literally (he was a carpenter) built part of the Bay Area. The flow of Europeans to the US has slowed to barely a trickle these days. In places like Finland life is simply better than it is here in many respects. People come from Finland to study or to visit or work for a few years in a highly trained profession. But Finland is as modern as the US and the living is, if anything better, the schools are judged by many to be the best in the world. The times they have changed.

There was no question about my dad's staying in the US, for Eilis there is a question and it is a profound one. It is at the heart of who we are as people. Creatures who make choices. I'm particularly glad I saw Brooklyn because it has caused me to reflect on my Dad's experience and on the fact that the power to make choices can be at times either a great gift or a serious burden. Or both.

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