This I Believe

Robert - Kennebunkport, Maine
Entered on November 29, 2006
Age Group: 65+
Themes: immigrant
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The Journey Home

From a pest house in New York City, my great grandparents, Jeremiah and Ellen Lyons, had the first glimpse of their new home, America. Forced to flee famine and oppression, they left Dungarvan, County Waterford, Ireland in 1845. Filled with hope for a better life and $1,500 sown in Jeremiah’s underwear, they made the crossing. But when Jeremiah caught the cholera on board ship, he was isolated from his wife and two young daughters, Bridgit and Margaret. Upon arrival at the docks, Jeremiah, unknown to Ellen, had been placed in a pest house along the shore line. There he was nursed by anonymous caretakers. For three months Ellen searched every shanty and shack in New York City until, in the words of the story recited at every family reunion:

One day a man said, “Well, yes, but it just couldn’t be him”,

“He was so old and bearded and thin.”

If she wished she may come in and look,

There were no records on the book,

He seemed to be traveling alone,

His memory was gone, and without name or home.

Thus she found her Jerry, lying on a bed of straw,

His face was drawn in a look of awe.

What had happened in the past there was no telling–

He raised his head and whispered “ELLEN”.

The money had disappeared. After Ellen nursed her Jerry back to health they joined with other recent arrivals to build the railroads from New York to Chicago. Near that windy city, with a growing family–including my grandfather, Will–they became successful farmers and later moved farther west to Iowa and finally Dakota Territory where they spent the autumn of their lives with their pioneer sons and daughters. Ellen and Jeremiah brought with them, and passed to their children, and their children’s children, a passion for education and a strong commitment to exercise the civic virtues of their new country.

They were the real radicals in America’s history. These people lived in their adopted land, not as victims of the oppression they had fled, but as confident and contributing citizens who saw that their own fulfillment was in helping to build this country, its schools, farms and businesses. When I reflect on their odyssey, I realize that the journey to my home, began in a pest house in New York City where the kindness of strangers gave my first American relatives a taste of the goodness and greatness of its people.