My ancestors hail from eight different countries and three separate continents, yet my Irish ties have always held a special fascination. Maybe it’s because my Irish relatives are so colorful and they tell such good stories. Whatever the reason, I’d always imagined that my Irish ancestors were somehow bigger than life. On my first trip to Ireland, I’m hoping to find out if this is true.
Upon arriving in Dublin, the first thing I am aware of is that I am the foreigner here and I’m not comfortable with that. I wanted to feel at home, to be welcomed by the somehow familiar faces of ghosts. Instead, I see retired Americans fulfilling a life-long dream and young parents proudly herding their red-headed offspring through museums and castles. I’m surprised to discover that they have come for much the same reason I have. They are all a little sheepish and apologetic about it. They have no explanation for the strong pull that Ireland has always had on them. Seems my journey is not so unusual after all.
I drive across Ireland alone, something which is viewed as not only strange here, but downright shocking. In the countryside, the dominant colors are the emerald green of the rolling hills and the comforting blue of the Irish sky. My eyes ache from straining to catch sight of every thatch-covered cottage and meandering stone wall. I pass ring forts and round towers, monasteries and castles.
Contrary to all predictions, it does not rain. The whole country has a clean, smoky smell from the peat fires. It reminds me of my Irish grandmother’s house. Am I making this trip for her, I wonder.
I stop to visit the crumbling stone walls of a “famine village.” A man in a tweed coat and cap explains to me that everyone in this village perished during the great famine. Even though the potato famine occurred more than 150 years ago, he makes it sound like a current event.
“Many also died on the coffin ships trying to cross the seas,” he recalls. He pauses, then adds, “We keep their blackened cooking pots, out of respect for those who died.”
I thank him for the information and travel on to the next hotel. The woman behind the desk seems more curious than most. She asks me the usual questions: “Why are you in Ireland…and why are you alone?”
She immediately begins talking about the living relatives I must have somewhere in Ireland. I had not been thinking about the possibility of relatives in the present; all this time, I had only been searching for my past. She asks question after question but I have few answers.
“Don’t you have any old letters? Don’t you know what county your family came from?”
“No,” I admit, mumbling something about some letters that may exist with some distant relatives back east. How can I explain to her that we were the transient ones who moved west and then west again and again, each time leaving behind little trace of ourselves?
“You must find out,” she says. Finally, she pauses and then continues, “I didn’t want to say anything at first, but you are the spitting image of my great-great aunt. You even have the same name. It’s even spelled the same way. And she had three brothers who emigrated to America. We may be cousins!”
We exchange addresses and she promises to send me a photograph of my twin who she claims even had similar interests, mannerisms and gestures. “Your voice sounds just like hers and you even walk the same way,” she says. I have to wonder, Is this the ghost I’ve been looking for: a mirror image of myself?
With my trip nearing its end, I reach the Cliffs of Moher. I stand on the precipice and stare out across the Atlantic. I think of my ancestors leaving the land they loved, saying goodbye to families they would never see again. I think of their dreams and their promises to return one day. In that instant, the reason for my trip becomes clear to me. Along with my Irish hair and Irish eyes, I have also inherited my ancestors’ unfulfilled promises. This is a journey I have made for them.
I return to Dublin and spend one final night. Then on my final taxi ride to the airport, the driver asks me about my trip. I tell him that I drove around Ireland by myself.
“You must be mad! A woman shouldn’t drive around Ireland by herself” He ignores the whizzing lanes of traffic in front of him to turn around and look at me. “You must be mad,” he says again.
When he’s recovered from the shock, he tells me about all the places I missed, places that do not seem to be in any guidebook.
“You’ll just have to come back,” he says and he doesn’t let the matter rest until I have promised to return.
I am a pretty girl.
I carry many burdens.
They are my ballast,
lest one day, I float to the sky.
Traveling is often an unintentional pilgrimage. This was especially true of my trip to Amsterdam several years ago. On the first day, I went through my guidebook and checked off all the tourist sites I planned to visit: the museums, the flower markets and oh yes, the Anne Frank House. I had almost forgotten about that. I made a check by the entry. Then I underlined it and decided to go there first.
As I set off in search of the house, I realized that Anne Frank’s diary was one of the most important books of my childhood. I remembered the photograph of Anne on the front cover. It was Anne’s favorite because she thought it made her look like a glamorous, Hollywood movie star. And I remembered Anne’s bright, optimistic vision for the future.
The tall, narrow houses on Prinsengracht canal all looked the same, but the Anne Frank House was easy to spot. A long line of people waited outside. As I took my place at the end, I realized that most of the people in line were women. None of us spoke the same language, but all of us had read Anne Frank’s diary and all of us were on this unintentional pilgrimage together.
Finally the line moved. We entered the building which housed Otto Frank’s business. He sold pectin for jams and jellies and spices for meats and sausages. We climbed a steep Dutch staircase, stepped through the revolving staircase and we were in the “Secret Annex” where Anne, her family and four others hid for over two years.
Traces of the family remain but there is no longer any furniture in the rooms. The Nazis took it all after the family was arrested and shipped it to Germany. On the day the Dutch police discovered their hiding place, the arresting officer grabbed the bag in which Anne kept her diary and schoolbooks. He dumped the contents on the floor and filled the bag with money and jewelry. After the family was arrested and taken away, Miep Gies, the helper who brought them food from the black market, saved the diary, planning to return it to Anne after the war.
In the living room of the Secret Annex there are some faded marks on the doorframe where Anne’s father measured her height. She grew several inches despite the moldy beans, preserved kale and potatoes, which was often all they had to eat. A map on the wall marks the advancing Allies as reported over their secret radio. The space above Anne’s desk is still decorated with her favorite postcards: Hollywood movie stars and a young Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain. Through a crack in the window we could see the Westertoren clock and a chestnut tree, Anne’s only view of the outside world.
My fellow pilgrims and I huddle around a glass case which contains the original diary bound in red-and-white plaid cloth. The fragile lock is broken open. Many women are tearful. Everyone is moved. No one speaks. We feel grief over the tragedy of Anne’s life. But we are also in awe of the power of a single voice, Anne’s voice to reach countless millions across several generations, and in over one hundred languages with her vision of hope and compassion.
On the wall is a list of “Judentransport,” which names all the people on that last train out of Holland bound for Auschwitz. Halfway down the list we find number 309: Frank, Anneliese. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where her mother and the other occupants of the “Secret Annex” were killed. Anne and her sister were later moved to the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen where Anne died in March, 1945, just a few weeks before the Allies liberated that camp.
My fellow pilgrims and I leave the Anne Frank House trying to comprehend the contrast between the unimaginable horrors of Anne’s final months and her powerful, unshaken faith in humanity when she wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank died sixty-nine years ago this month.
My grandfather didn’t live to witness this Recession. Perhaps it’s just as well. It would have dredged up too many unhappy memories of the Great Depression.
When I was little, I used to twirl around on the red, swivel, architect’s stool in front of his drafting table, listening to him tell stories about his life during the Depression. He sighed heavily and shook his head often. After all those years, it was still hard for him to talk about.
He told us how the Depression moved across the United States slowly, like locusts or a disease. His family listened to the news reports on the radio, hoping that the Depression wouldn’t make it to Colorado but when it did hit, it hit hard.
All construction ground to a halt and since my grandfather was an architect, he no longer had work. His family lost their home and their possessions. They fell out of the middle class and into a poorer class. They left the town they lived in and retreated to a family homestead in the mountains. It was an old log cabin and no one lived there anymore, but there was space for a garden and they could hunt. They cut back. They made do. They went without. They went hungry. It was not romantic. Both my grandfather and grandmother were college educated, but financially, they had been thrown back in time more than seventy years.
When our Recession hit, I lost money and jobs just like everyone else. I cut back. I made do. I went without. I went hungry. I lost my social class and found myself in a poorer one. I was college educated, but financially, I had been thrown back in time more than seventy years. I remembered my grandfather’s stories and sometimes, I wished I had somewhere else to go. I thought about that homestead cabin once in awhile and wondered if anybody lived there.
My grandfather’s stories of the Depression took a hopeful turn when he talked about the WPA. The WPA was a federally funded program which employed millions of men, and some women and youths to do public works projects. For the first time in three years, my grandfather had work. In fact, every male relative I had, who was alive at the time and old enough to work, was employed by the WPA. That federally funded program saved my family. It gave my grandfather hope and diffused his anger over a Depression that happened through no fault of his own.
When the WPA went into effect, my grandfather moved back to town. Architects were only allowed to bid on one job in one county but my grandfather bent the rules a bit and drove his old Chevy truck from county to county bidding on jobs. He worked so many jobs at once that he sometimes got them mixed up. My grandfather said he never worked harder in his whole life than he did during the Depression.
When our Recession hit, I remembered everything my grandfather taught me and I worked several jobs at once. I did anything and everything: cleaning, laundry, ironing, gardening, freelance writing, baking, garage sales, teaching, tutoring. I often worked so hard that cleaning chemicals filled my lungs and gave me headaches and nausea. I was often dizzy and at night I had trouble with my eyes. I thought about my grandfather a lot, knowing that at night when his vision got blurry, he parked by the side of the road and slept on the old, cracked seats of his truck.
Even with all his hard work, my grandfather barely survived. Even with all my hard work, I’ve barely survived.
Programs like the WPA, which saved my grandfather, and the GI bill, which later educated my father, allowed America to grow a flourishing, educated middle class. My father didn’t have student loans to pay off. He began saving money to buy a house right after college. He felt securely and permanently part of the middle class. He always knew he’d belong to the same class.
I always assumed I’d belong to the same class too, the one I had identified with since birth. Now I’m not sure if I’ll ever be middle class again. .
Today’s generation is just as frugal and hardworking as my grandfather’s generation. My grandfather’s generation and my father’s generation worked hard, but they also got a lot of help from federally funded programs. How will our generation pull ourselves back into the Middle Class without help?
What would their lives have looked like without the GI bill and the WPA? Would America even have an educated middle class? And what about my generation’s future? Will we ever have a flourishing middle class again? Our Recession may not be exactly the same as my grandfather’s Depression, but in so many ways, the situation is just as debilitating.
This article was originally published on the first page of the Huffington Post in the blog section.
I graduated from college during the recession of the ’80s. I had the same youthful high hopes that all college graduates have and I assumed I’d find a job. After all, I was a Phi Beta Kappa honors student with work experience. But the only jobs I could find were part-time, low-paying teaching positions. To make ends meet, I cleaned houses, the same job I’d had at 16. I owned almost no furniture. I ate very little. I was always sick but I couldn’t afford a doctor. I felt betrayed. I had studied so hard but there was no reward.
A few years later, I was lucky enough to get a job in Japan. I taught in a community college and wrote for a Japanese newspaper. My profession was well-respected and I was well-paid. My apartment, transportation and health care were all paid for. I saved money. I traveled. I had plenty of time to work on my novels. I never worried. Those years I spent in Japan were the only time in my adult life that I felt successful and securely part of the middle class.
I married and had a wonderful daughter. We lived in a nice apartment in Tokyo and we had a housekeeper who cleaned and cooked twice a week. My greatest joy was all the time I spent with my daughter and husband.
When my daughter was older, we moved to Maui so that she could attend a good private school and grow up happy and healthy. Not long after this, things began to go wrong. My husband discovered he had diabetes. He rapidly went blind and lost his business. He was hospitalized and that’s when we discovered he had cancer. He died a few months later. My daughter and I were on our own. Then the recession hit.
I had two priorities: survival and to give my daughter a good education. So I taught for a private school and worked in a hotel. But even though I worked hard enough to develop heart palpitations, I had trouble making the rent.
Meanwhile my daughter flourished. She was an honors student and I vowed to keep her in the school she loved. I knew that cleaning houses was a good way to survive on Maui, but at first I was too proud to work the same job I’d had in high school. Finally I swallowed my pride and started cleaning houses.
The work was hard. The heat and tropical climate on Maui are wonderful if you are sitting in a deck chair enjoying the view. But they are not so great if you are vacuuming and scrubbing, up to your elbows in hot water. After work, I made dinner for my daughter, often falling asleep at the kitchen table. At night, I lay down saying, “Oh God, please don’t let me die in my sleep.” When I woke up in the morning, I always breathed a sigh of relief. I know three women my age who have suffered fatal heart attacks.
When I first moved to Maui, I was shocked to meet people who couldn’t afford to leave the island. A few hundred dollars for a plane ticket was impossible for them. But now I was one of them.
Piece by piece, I sold off all of the jewelry my husband had given me, plus my family heirlooms, to pay for my daughter’s education. I sold a beautiful strand of pearls to a debutante from Chicago. On the day we agreed to exchange them, I put the pearls around my daughter’s neck and showed them to her in the mirror. I explained how valuable they were.
“As beautiful as these pearls are, you and your wonderful mind are much more beautiful and precious to me. I guess from now on, we’ll call these ‘our pearls of wisdom’ because they are going towards your education,” I told her.
She laughed and hugged me.
Despite everything we never had enough money. I begged and then pleaded for financial assistance to keep my daughter in school. I held garage sales. The families I cleaned for rummaged through their closets and generously donated items. I sold cookies and brownies. I cried on the day I learned how to apply for aid because work as slow. Somehow I managed to work on my novels a few minutes a day, my only solace.
I quickly learned that most of the things we consider middle class essentials are really luxuries. The list is endless, from television and a land line to hair products and household products to vitamins, most medicines, fast food, drinks other than water and all non-essential groceries.
We eat mostly fish and rice with vegetables and fruit from the farmer’s market. I splurge on tea and coffee. Sometimes I cut my food intake in half so there is more for my daughter. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 years. When they get holes in them, I mend them. I gave all of my cute Tokyo clothes to my daughter. When I can afford to buy clothes, it’s usually at the thrift shop and almost always for my daughter.
I began to feel I had slipped so low that I was no longer respected. I lost self confidence. I stopped talking about my writing. Soon nobody knew that I was a writer or that I’d ever gone to college. Nobody knew me. I became invisible.
But hard work and sacrifice does have some rewards. My daughter graduated and she was awarded a full scholarship to a top private university on the West Coast. People still ask me, how did you manage to raise such a wonderful girl and get her through private school all by yourself? I never know what to say because it still seems like a miracle to me. So many times I thought I would fail, but somehow we made it through.
Before my daughter left for college, I told her that true success is not just about money. True success is measured by how happy you are. Always strive for happiness, I told her.
I’m still cleaning houses and eating very little to save money for when my daughter comes home on vacation. I worry that I won’t have enough money to feed her. I try not to think about my own future. Retirement is something other people do. I assume I’ll work until I die.
Each day as I go from one cleaning job to the next, I stop to talk to the working homeless who live on the beach and who own nothing more than some clothes and a cell phone. The next minute, I’m talking to someone who owns several, multimillion dollar beach-front homes and a private jet. I walk a treacherous tight rope between these two worlds, always afraid of falling. Sometimes I wonder, “Am I the face of the new American middle class?” I hope not. I really hope not.
Every morning, I see schoolchildren, our Little America carrying their backpacks and lunches to school and laughing with their friends. Each one of them possesses great originality and hidden talents waiting to be discovered. Little America is full of energy and enthusiasm but also extremely needy. Just as we once were, they are in need of knowledge, inspiration, and a canvas for their imagination.
Who helped us when we were Little America? Think back to a time when someone taught you something that became very important to you, or that amazed you. or that changed your life. What a gift that was! Give that same gift back to the children in your life, to our Little America.
A teacher isn’t always a person who stands in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk in their hand. A teacher can be anyone who cares about Little America.
When my daughter was younger, the neighborhood children used to come over to play and together she and I would teach them to read. We laughed and had great fun. We called it ‘playing school’ but it was really teaching.
We used to throw imagination tea parties for all the neighborhood children. The parties always started with a nature walk and as we walked, I started an imaginative story about the adventure that we were on together, allowing them to finish it any way they wanted. As they became excited about the stories they were creating, they all talked at once and at times I thought I might go deaf. This experience taught me that we don’t just need to educate but also to listen, for only by cultivating independent and original thought, we will arrive at a brilliant future.
Everyone in America can take time to teach a child. It might be a five minute conversation with a neighbor child. It might be an hour long session each evening with one of your own children. If you have ever been taught anything, you can teach it to someone else. If you have ever been listened to when you had something important to say, you can listen to a child.
And to Little America, I only have this to say.
“If someone is trying to teach you something, listen. They are trying to give you a gift.”
This happened many years ago as I was waiting for a bus on a dusty road in Thailand. It was early in the morning and I’d left two hours earlier than I needed to, hoping that the bus wouldn’t be too crowded at this time of day. The bus was late, as usual and a Buddhist monk dressed in orange robes sat down next to me on the bench.
I had two oranges in my bag so I offered him one. I wasn’t sure if he would take it from me but he took it graciously. “One must always say yes to everything,” he said in English.
I smiled and nodded. “Is that really possible?”
“Imperative,” he laughed.
“Saying yes to life, even to adversity, teaches us joy. You are learning joy,” he said.
“How can you tell?”
He didn’t answer my question. Instead he said, “In the future you will learn to stop worrying. You will learn to live in the present moment but when you do this, do not forget to bring the beauty of your future dreams into your present moment. Do not forget to bring happy memories of the past into your present moment. This combination is the true meaning of present moment and of joy.”
I saw my bus coming down the street. “Why are you telling me this?”
He laughed. “To thank you for the orange.”
I boarded the bus but the monk remained seated on the bench. “That’s not my bus,” he explained.
As the bus pulled away, I turned to the driver and asked if there was another bus on this road. “No, the driver said. This is the only bus.”
I looked out the broken window of the bus but the monk had left the bench and was walking down the street in the opposite direction. I never saw him again.