Happy Fourth of July. To mark this Wednesday’s holiday, I share a small moment that happened a year ago in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I was at a wake for an old family friend named Anthony Coppola, a retired security guard who’d been my uncle Johnny’s best friend from childhood. All the old neighborhood people were there from Clinton Avenue and from other streets in Brooklyn, and Anthony’s sisters Tessie and Angie and Gloria invited a priest in to say some prayers. About a hundred of us sat in chairs in a little side chapel in the funeral home.
The priest, a jolly young man with a full face and thick black hair, said he was new in the parish, from South America. He made a humorous, offhand reference to the fact that he was talking to longtime Americans who’d been here for ages. This made the friends and family of Anthony Coppola look at each other and smile. We were Italian, Irish, everything else. Our parents had been the first Americans born here, or our grandparents had. We had all grown up with two things, a burly conviction that we were American and an inner knowledge that we were also something else. I think we experienced this as a plus, a double gift, though I don’t remember anyone saying that. When Anthony’s mother or her friend, my grandmother, talked about Italy or Ireland, they called it “the old country.” Which suggested there was a new one, and that we were new in it.
But this young priest, this new immigrant, he looked at us and thought we were from the Mayflower. As far as he was concerned—as far as he could tell—we were old Yankee stock. We were the establishment. As the pitcher in “Bang the Drum Slowly” says, “This handed me a laugh.”
This is the way it goes in America. You start as the Outsider and wind up the Insider, or at least being viewed as such by the newest Outsiders. We are a nation of still-startling social fluidity. Anyone can become “American,” but they have to want to first.
It has had me thinking a lot about how people become American.
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I don’t know that when my grandfather Patrick Byrne and his sisters, Etta and Mary Jane, who had lived on a hardscrabble little farm in Donegal, on the west coast of Ireland, felt about America when they got here. I don’t know if they were “loyal to America.” I think they were loyal to their decision to come to America. In for a penny, in for a pound. They had made their decision. Now they had to prove to themselves it was the right one. I remember asking Etta what she’d heard about America before she got here. She said, “The streets were paved with gold.” All the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century used that phrase.
When I was in college in the 1970s, I got a semester abroad my junior year, and I took a boat from England to Ireland and made my way back to Donegal. This was approximately 55 years after my grandfather and his sisters had left. There I met an old man who’d been my grandfather’s boyhood friend. He lived by himself in a shack on a hill and was grateful the cousins I’d found had sent me to him. He told me he’d been there the day my grandfather, then a young man, left. He said the lorry came down the lane and stopped for my grandfather, and that his father said goodbye. He said, “Go now, and never come back to hungry Ireland again.”
My grandfather had his struggles here but never again went home. He’d cast his lot. That’s an important point in the immigrant experience, when you cast your lot, when you make your decision. It makes you let go of something. And it makes you hold on to something. The thing you hold on to is the new country. In succeeding generations of your family the holding on becomes a habit and then a patriotism, a love. You realize America is more than the place where the streets were paved with gold. It has history, meaning, tradition. Suddenly that’s what you treasure.
A problem with newer immigrants now is that for some it’s no longer necessary to make The Decision. They don’t always have to cast their lot. There are so many ways not to let go of the old country now, from choosing to believe that America is only about money, to technology that encourages you to stay in constant touch with the land you left, to TV stations that broadcast in the old language. If you’re an immigrant now, you don’t have to let go. Which means you don’t have to fully join, to enmesh. Your psychic investment in America doesn’t have to be full. It can be provisional, temporary. Or underdeveloped, or not developed at all.
And this may have implications down the road, and I suspect people whose families have been here a long time are concerned about it. It’s one of the reasons so many Americans want a pause, a stopping of the flow, a time for the new ones to settle down and settle in. It’s why they oppose the mischief of the Masters of the Universe, as they’re being called, in Washington, who make believe they cannot close our borders while they claim they can competently micromanage all other aspects of immigration.
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It happens that I know how my grandfather’s sister Mary Jane became an American. She left a paper trail. She kept a common-place book, a sort of diary with clippings and mementos. She kept it throughout the 1920s, when she was still new here. I found it after she’d died. It’s a big brown book with cardboard covers and delicate pages. In the front, in the first half, there are newspaper clippings about events in Ireland, and sentimental poems. “I am going back to Glenties . . .”
But about halfway through, the content changes. There is a newspaper clipping about something called “Thanksgiving.” There are newspaper photos of parades down Fifth Avenue. And suddenly, near the end, there are patriotic poems. One had this refrain: “So it’s home again and home again, America for me./ My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be./ In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars/ Where the air is full of sunlight, and the flag is full of stars.”
Years later, when I worked for Ronald Reagan, those words found their way into one of his speeches, a nod from me to someone who’d made her decision, cast her lot, and changed my life.
I think I remember the last time I told that story. I think it was to a young Mexican-American woman who was a speechwriter for Bill Clinton. I think she completely understood.
God bless our beloved country on the 231st anniversary of its birth.