COMMENTARY: Holiday for immigrants

Recently I received a large, carefully packaged box from my sister. Inside was a framed copy of my grandfather’s baptismal record.

I couldn’t read a single word of it.

Franz Paul Jarkowski was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1883 in the town of Conitz.

Despite its various spellings (now it is Konitz), the town is part of Pomerania and belonged to either Poland or Germany, depending on who won the last war. In 1883 it was German and three years later that same boy left for America from Düsseldorf. The spelling of his last name changed three times before he got to Minnesota and was turned into the unpronounceable jumble of letters that became my maiden name.

And that leads me to my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. Let me explain.

I love Thanksgiving. I always have. It was a day filled with family, games, endless talk and laughter and a house filled with the wonderful smells of food that were unique to that day. Between the turkey and the dressing, I didn’t care if there was pie or not.

But I’m sure your list of favored Thanksgiving foods would be as different from mine as your memories.

The one thing we do all share on Thanksgiving is a history of immigration to this country. We all came from somewhere else. Even native Americans are descended from people who crossed Beringia (an Ice Age land bridge from Asia to North America) some 25,000 years ago. No humans evolved in North America. We all came here.

For some, the knowledge of that immigration is lost in time. While native Americans did indeed come from Asia, their history here is so ancient that they can claim first chair if they wish. Who could argue with them?

For others like myself, the history of our entrance to the land we call America is fresh. We can examine motive and offer a family story that is as much demonstrable fact as possible fiction. Three of my grandparents were immigrants from Europe. Both my grandmothers were from Norway and my paternal grandfather, Franz Paul, from Germany. All came as children and none of them asked to immigrate. They simply took their parents’ hands and followed where they were led.

My grandfather’s family came to escape the constant warfare that gripped 19th century Europe. My grandmothers’ people followed a promise of land, both free and abundant, to the New World. This was a serious enticement since land in Europe was almost universally the property of royalty and

non-royals, even wealthy non-royals, occupied the land as renters.

Even my mother’s father, Grandpa Blaisdell, could trace his ancestors back in direct line to Ralph and Elizabeth Blaisdell, who came here in 1635, part of what the English call the Great Migration.

This period of social unrest in England saw a significant portion of its solid middle class leave (taking their tax money with them) because they could no longer stand the political machination of Charles I.

You will notice that while religious liberty is a common mantra of immigration, practical concerns as well as ecclesiastical seem to dominate the discussion.

When I reflect on these ancestors, I must be honest in pointing out that none of them brought anything significant to the table in terms of “value added” to the American mix.

They were marginally educated, marginally skilled and poor. In the plus column, they were willing and able to work, planned to do so and if they had any bad habits, they were not to the degree that attracts attention.

My ancestors came here for a reason. Your ancestors came here for a reason. Even the Stone Age peoples who crossed Beringia on icesheeted, bitterly cold land of limited food and unlimited misery came here for a reason. What would make you leave this land and go to a place where you knew neither the customs nor the language? What would make you leave with few resources and no certain future? How bad would things have to be to put you on your feet and force you to emigrate?

I am thankful my ancestors made that leap of faith. Thanksgiving is certainly a day to count our blessings, not the least of which is the fact that we are here.

I would suggest that this Thanksgiving we give our personal journeys just a bit of reflection.

Where did we come from? Why did our ancestors make the trip? How did they get here?

Do this to celebrate their journey.

Do it to gain a little humility, a little empathy, a little charity. Do it to be thankful, and to share that thanks in a tangible way with those who have a little less. Do it to keep the faith.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.