Two summers ago my father and my uncle moved, reluctantly and regretfully, to an assisted-living center. Maintaining the house they had shared for two decades and more had become a burden aging backs and aging legs could no longer bear. My father, older by three years, was the first to go. Toward the end of the summer my wife and I stopped to visit my uncle. After dinner, in a simple ritual as old as time itself, my uncle gave into our custody the family heirlooms he and my father had held in trust: a set of china, the family bible, and a small metal box, olive drab, the kind of box in which ordinary people who thought bank safety deposit boxes a superfluity once kept important papers.
The bible my uncle passed to us is a wonder. Folio-sized, six or seven inches thick, covered in leather worn smooth with use, grown brittle with age, ornamented with embossed letters once gilded, too heavy by far to hold long in the hands—our family bible has the weighty, portentous look a wisdom book ought to have. Leafing through we discovered, tucked between almost every set of pages, scrap after scrap of paper someone had once hoped to preserve, bits and pieces of our family’s story. For an hour we turned its pages, groping our way toward some understanding of people who died before we were born.
When at last we turned up the lid of the metal box—my uncle had long ago forgotten what lay within—the pungent smell of musty paper long sealed away swept to our noses, momentarily turning us from what would turn out to be an even greater miscellany: birth certificates, baptismal certificates, long forgotten birthday cards, letters, and newspaper clippings, old deeds and wills, gasoline ration cards from World War II, the certificate of registration for my paternal grandfather’s first car, issued in 1919 when he was a boy of seventeen.
One item in the box stood out – a packet barely the size of my stretched-out hand wrapped ever-so-carefully in linen creased and spotted with age. “What,” I wondered aloud, “could have been so important that someone years ago wrapped it up like an Egyptian mummy?” Given my family’s modest background, old stock certificates or similar riches seemed unlikely. And yet, my pulse quickened a bit at the mystery. I laid the packet flat on the dining room table and carefully peeled back the folds. Inside I found what I needed to make sense of the bits and pieces tucked into the enormous family bible.
What I found was a much-handled slip of heavy paper, folded in half from top to bottom, folded then in thirds from side to side. At the bottom left-hand side was an embossed seal that proclaimed this an official document issued by “The District Court” of Rhode Island to my great-grandfather. The text was simple and direct:
Be it remembered that at a District Court of the United States holden at Providence, within and for the District of Rhode Island, on the 10th day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and two Thomas Collins of Warwick in said District, having produced the evidence, and taken and subscribed the oath required by law, was admitted to become a citizen of the United States according to the Act of Congress in such case made and provided.
The six sections into which the sheet had been folded had worn apart at the seams; the linen backing had been applied to hold the pieces together. I like to imagine Thomas, my great-grandfather, folding and unfolding his citizenship papers, reading the text again and again, hardly able to believe his good luck—until the pieces began to fall apart, the linen backing was applied, and the linen-wrapped packet was placed in a metal box for safekeeping.
My people—my wife’s as well—were immigrants. Their English was accented—English and Irish accents on my side, Scottish and Lithuanian on my wife’s side. Our fathers and uncles paid for the privilege of their new citizenship fighting in Europe and the South Pacific. My wife and I, third-generation Americans, the second born on American soil, have reaped the benefits.
My great-grandfather left the mills in Manchester, England for the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts and the hope of a better life. My paternal grand-father rose to become a licensed electrician. Back from the war, my father settled into a classic middle-management position; every work day he backed from our suburban driveway every in an white shirt, a jacket and tie. My wife and I were the first in our families to earn college degrees, five between us, and the tradition has been passed to our three children, all of whom have multiple degrees. The path on which my great-grandfather set us when he crossed from England just over a century ago has led steadily upwards. Judging from the much-handled state of his citizenship papers, I like to think old Thomas had a better-than-good idea of what he had begun.
Since I heard it first back in the sixties, I’ve loved Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Was Made for You and Me,” a song that describes better than anything I know the geographical richness of America: “From California to the New York Island,/From the Redwood forest, to the Gulf stream waters.” Like me, Woody wanted to celebrate America as an “endless skyway” leading to a “golden valley,” to “diamond deserts.” But American is more than a place, however big, however grand, however beautiful. America is a transformational experience. I’ve traveled widely abroad, representing American formally and informally. In Great Britain I taught as a visiting professor; in Central Europe and the Balkans I’ve interviewed students desperate for scholarships to study in America. I spoke last summer with students at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. Those international students believe what I believe—that America is a magical place where some strange alchemy works on new arrivals and remakes them, raises them to new heights.
Trouble is many of us lucky enough to live here are beginning to forget who we were, where we came from. Though it’s fashionable these days to mock Emma Lazarus’, she was on the right track when she imagined what “the Mother of Exiles” would say if her “silent lips” parted:
. . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
The first generation will struggle with our language, our ways. The second generation, though they will no doubt keep the best of the cultures from which they came, will turn in time to American ways—to baseball and American football, to backyard barbeques, to fireworks on the fourth of July. And the third generation? That’s an easy question.
Look for greatness. Look for the fulfillment of the classic American Dream. I know. My family has lived that dream.
And that’s what I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.