The Lives of the Dead

Some of the most interesting people I meet are dead…

Archive for the category “immigrant experience”

Asch in Ashes

NEW!

 

Mir

I was thirteen, and my brother sixteen, when we left our family home and set out for the New World.   It was a great adventure – both exciting and terrifying – but as long as I had my brother to care for me, I felt safe.

He and my parents had been saving money to send us both together.  The plan was, they would continue to save and my brother would find work and send money home, until eventually they would join us.

My mother had a younger cousin who had been living in New York for several years. She was, by our standards, a “real American” already,  settled with a husband, an apartment, and a job.  They had agreed to sponsor us and take us in until we could make our own way.

My brother was a big strong boy, tall for his age.  He quickly found work ferrying packages from suppliers to manufacturers, from manufacturers to the showrooms and shops.  It had been agreed by all before we left that I was to continue my education for at least two years.  My parents wanted me to also become a “real American”. They made my brother promise to keep me in school.

Our cousins were very welcoming and kind.  They gave us a corner of their small apartment.  There was just one cot, and my brother and I took turns sleeping in it while the other slept on a pile of folded blankets on the floor.  I often let him have the bed, even when it was my turn because he worked so hard during the day and was so physically exhausted.  I didn’t have the heart to make him sleep on the hard wooden floor.  It was by the grace of his hard work that I was able to remain in school. Since I didn’t have money to contribute,  I made myself as helpful as possible – cleaning,  washing, cooking some simple meals,  doing marketing and errands, mending clothing as I’d been taught by my mother.

When I was 14, and my English passable, my cousin found me a job at a small restaurant owned by her friend and her husband.  The husband cooked and the friend waited tables, but they had a young daughter who needed attention after school while they prepared for the dinner customers.

It didn’t pay much but it was the perfect situation for me.  I started in the afternoon, so I didn’t miss any classes.  I would sit with the girl while she did her schoolwork, and my own English skills improved.  Sometimes if they needed extra hands, I cleared tables or swept the floor or even chopped vegetables.  Occasionally, they’d send me out for an errand.

They were good to me and I was determined to justify their faith in me.  I worked hard and they came to rely on me more and more.  For this, they raised my pay as much as they could afford. It wasn’t much, but it enabled me to contribute a bit to the rent and to my parents’ travel fund.

I had been working there for just over a year when we received terrible news.  My father had become ill and within a very short time had passed away.   My brother and I would not, could not, let my mother remain alone in the Old World.   My brother took on extra shifts and I found additional work minding other children in the evenings.  Within the year, there was enough in the fund to bring her to us.

In the days before her expected arrival, I was so excited I could barely eat or sleep. When we met her at the boat, we all burst into tears at the sight of each other, touching each others’ faces and stroking each other’s hair, reassuring ourselves that we were all real.

We went back the apartment and my mother and her cousin caught up on the family news, remembering old times, laughing and crying.

Later, the three of us squeezed into our corner, with my brother and I insisting my mother take the cot. It was obvious we could not remain in this situation for much longer.  Fortunately, my mother was an experienced tailor and seamstress, and she was able to find work quickly.  Within a couple of months we were able to move to our own small room on Hester Street.  It was tiny, and the bathroom, down the hall, was shared by others, but to us it felt like paradise, an unimaginable luxury to be living with just our own family in our own room.

I finished school in my sixteenth year, and my mother got me a job at the factory where she worked, making ladies’ blouses.  Initially I was thrilled to have a real job; to get a regular paycheck; to be an adult among other women like myself and my mother — new immigrants, filled with hopes and dreams for a better future – but the novelty wore off quickly.

We worked long hours, six long days a week in very unpleasant conditions. The supervisors treated us more like slaves than workers. But, with the three of us bringing home a salary each week, we were able to save money.  The dream was for my mother to buy a sewing machine and have her own tailor shop so we could get out of that awful factory which seemed to suck more life out of us every day.

And then,  one Saturday afternoon,  there was chaos!  A fire!  There were so many flammable scraps and pieces around that it didn’t take long for the fire to be raging.  The doors were locked as they always were.  There was no escape.

I pressed to the window with my mother and the other women, barely able to breathe, terrified of being burned alive and equally afraid of jumping onto the unforgiving pavement below.

In the end, I jumped.  My mother stayed.  It didn’t make a difference.  We, along with dozens of our friends and coworkers, all died that day.

My brother,  alone and lonely,  soon took a wife.  They named their children after me and my mother, so our story would not be lost – a story of two women with dreams, unfulfilled.

 

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If you are enjoying this blog,  please click the link above to subscribe and receive posts via email (new posts every three days).  When you think of others who might enjoy it too,  it’s easy enough to help spread the word! Post your favorite stories to social media.   Email a particularly apt link to a friend.   Even better,  talk about the concepts with others (whether you agree or disagree. )
Also,  I have started a discussion group on Facebook,  for conversations about any of the concepts/issues in the posts.  Honestly, these are things in here which I don’t fully understand myself.  I would love  get your thoughts on this…even if you think this is all a bunch of hooey!

Great Expectations

NEW!

 

Kor

My parents  did not have much formal education but they possessed a natural intellect and curiosity.  They read voraciously – books, several daily newspapers, news and educational magazines.  Our shelves were filled with literature and second hand books on politics, history, art, science.  I was encouraged to explore them all.

I was an only child by choice.  They both held civil service jobs which, while it provided steady income, their salaries were not high. They decided when they married that it was better to devote all their available resources to one child rather than spread the money thin over a larger brood.   I was the sole beneficiary of their time, their attention, and their assets.  My mother wore the same out-of-date cloth coat for a decade so there was enough money for me to take violin lessons.   When I was born, my father gave up cigarettes and drink to save for my higher education.  They did without restaurant dinners so I could go on class trips.  They took me to museums and free concerts and lectures by powerful speakers and to political rallies. Every week,  my mother took me to the library where we both chose a pile of books.

From the time I was a small child, I understood that I was expected to go to university.  It was my obligation to excel in life; to grab opportunities which had not been available to my parents in their youth. I was grateful to have such supportive parents.  Every part of my extra-curricular education was provided with the expectation that I would rise to the top both at school and in any endeavor I attempted.

Mostly, I fulfilled that expectation.  I was at the head of all my classes, and was accepted into a handful of well-respected universities, each of them offering a scholarship.

Nearly two decades of investment into my future was finally paying off.  I was gratified that I could make them proud.

One summer evening,  the month before I was set to go off to college,  I went out to meet some friends.    Down on the corner, there was a fight among some tough kids.  I knew them to be trouble and always gave them a wide berth.  I crossed the street to steer clear and set off in the other direction.  Behind me, the fight escalated and one of them pulled out a gun. Shots were fired and though I was some distance away, I was fatally hit.  I was gone before the ambulance even arrived.

My parents were inconsolable.

I am still trying to understand the point of my end.   Even to me, here, it seems like a tragic waste.  But I accept that this is how it was meant to be. I chose this going in, so there must be reason.  I’m beginning to consider that the lesson was not about achieving success, itself, but my giving myself over to the preparation for it. Or perhaps it was to teach me that no matter how well we prepare, no matter how much we devote ourselves to a goal, ultimately life is never within our control.

 

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If you are enjoying this blog,  please click the link above to subscribe and receive posts via email (new posts every three days).  When you think of others who might enjoy it too,  it’s easy enough to help spread the word! Post your favorite stories to social media.   Email a particularly apt link to a friend.   Even better,  talk about the concepts with others (whether you agree or disagree. )
Also,  I have started a discussion group on Facebook,  for conversations about any of the concepts/issues in the posts.  Honestly, these are things in here which I don’t fully understand myself.  I would love  get your thoughts on this…even if you think this is all a bunch of hooey!

There For Each Other…Again

(Sorry, readers.  this month I accidentally published twice in one day two times!  I messed up the schedule! My bad! I’m republishing this on its correct day  to get things back on track.

I am coming to the end of the original posts (another month or so) and once I do,  I will be taking a hiatus in order to put the entire blog…original and new posts…into book form.

I think this will be a good format for easy reading, and will allow readers to bookmark and  reread the stories that most resonate for them. I think book form is also more intimate, immediate, and personal, which I why I am anxious to translate it into this format.  Even I, who already  knows these stories so well, would enjoy reading a few before bed each night as kind of a meditation. I think about several of these narrators often, and certainly I’ve learned so much from them,  Ipo in particular who has made me understand the human experience with much greater and deeper perspective.

I hope you will all order a copy for yourselves and for anyone you think will find meaning in them.  I expect to have the book ready in time for the holidays, so start thinking about who on your gift list would appreciate their very own copy!

–Adrienne

 

 

Where: Somewhere along the beach in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. When: August 2012. What: Three young men enjoying the sunset together. Camera info: Contax G1, 28mm Biogon, Kodak Portra 400.


 Maj

I was born into a family who lived on the outside.  We were not part of the main culture.  We did not follow their customs or traditions. We did not celebrate their holidays.  What was perfectly normal for us was an oddity to our neighbors.  Our family tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.  We made a special effort to be friendly, polite, law-abiding.  My brother and I were encouraged, cajoled, pressured,  to do well in school.   We did not know too many others like us except for extended family,  and they did not live very close. 

I was the only one like me in my class throughout my lower school years but late into secondary school,  I met a few other boys about my age. Had we met in a place where everyone was like us,  we probably wouldn’t have chosen each other.  Personality-wise,  we were nothing alike,  but by this shared odd circumstance,  being three of a kind in a sea of others, we became bonded.   

These boys remained my dear friends all through my life,  even after we discovered larger communities of our people, and tapped into its business network.  Ever after we didn’t need each other anymore.  Despite our differences,  we remained close. 

We forgave each other sins that would rend other relationships asunder.  We trusted each other with secrets nobody else in the world knew, not even our wives.  We were brothers.  It was understood that if something should happen to one of us, the others would take care of his family.   We were responsible for and to each other.  We shared a storied history.

We didn’t discuss or analyze the nature of our friendship.  We all understood it the same way.  There was nothing to discuss. We knew what had to be done.  We knew what had to be said.  And we knew when to do and say nothing.  

I sometimes I forgot how much they meant to me.  Sometimes,  I took them for  granted.  Sometimes I needed time away from one or the other one  because he exasperated me so.   Sometimes,  there was anger, and it seemed as if the friendship might be over, but none of us felt quite whole without the others, and so somebody would apologize. They would make the effort to reconcile.  They would recognize their own fault in it. They would take responsibility for it.  And in this way,  we grew as men.   

It was only after they were both gone that I truly understood how important they’d been to  my life.  I didn’t survive them by very long.  We were all old men when we died. But that short while of living without them was spent in the contemplation of their friendship, and its importance to all of us.   How blessed I felt to have known these simple men.

Now we are together again and always will be, in some form or another.

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If you are enjoying this blog,  please click the link above to subscribe and receive posts via email (new posts every three days).  Think of others who might enjoy it too,  and help spread the word! Post your favorite stories to social media.   Email a particularly apt link to a friend.   Even better,  talk about the concepts with others (whether you agree or disagree. )
Also,  I have just started a discussion group on Facebook,  for conversations about any of the concepts/issues in the posts.  Honestly, these are things in here which I don’t fully understand myself.  I would love  get your thoughts on this…even if you think this is all a bunch of hooey! 
-Adrienne

 

photo credit: Simon Garnier    http://www.simongarnier.org/three-friends/

 

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