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When My Grandmother Emigrated from Kerry


Writing a family history  isn't unusual for a retiree, sometimes it seems to be a requirement for one's post-working world  job. To one degree or another,  everyone reaching  the end of their  working years begins to wonder about the folks whose  sweat and labor nurtured  their own lives.  Poking through old census  records searching those elusive ancestors, studying  faded old photos,  and  then being stunned by how many strangers have the  same name  exactly as your favorite aunt, your long lost uncle, even  your mom or your dad!  Researching family history can become  addictive, not the least so  because  these are the people who are responsible for  the DNA that became that nifty little package that became you, almost like the commercial says.
I've found that it's an  intellectually stimulating hobby , but one that still leaves room for  lots of emotional connections.  It 's  history, of course, and that means you have to do your best to be accurate and  find  reliable documentation for everything.  Birth certificates, deeds of ownership, ship manifests, weird  legal paper work--it's  all part of  that process.  Gazing  at  those ancient papers, though,  with their gracious hand writing and crumpled-paper feel,  conveys the sense of having  truly accomplished something.   Once it's accomplished, the amateur sleuth becomes like a bloodhound, sniffing everywhere for  the scent of  long-gone lives as they were actually  lived.  
Citizenship records are part of that documentation hunt.  There is a delightful feeling  to  locating that special  line in some old county ledger, for example, and being able to see  the time and place when an  ancestor stepped up and officially became an  American citizen, even if  my more intuitive self  knows that love of their native land never ceased.   It might  seem to be a serious  conflict on the surface,  but the reality, as so many of us understand,  is  that many of our ancestors  loved the country  they left and saw , in turn, that love grow to include a this new land.  The reverse side of finding confirmation of  citizenship, of course, is not being able to locate any  record of that process at all.  That is a frustrating circumstance, one that opens us to questions and uncertainties,  often with few   chances that they'll  ever be answered.
More than once I have found  myself at that juncture,  frustrated because I know  the character of a relative, but I can't  find  that all important citizenship document.  For years, I have tried  to locate my maternal grandmother's citizenship record  now,  and already I've had to consider  the possibility that such a document doesn't exist. The next question to me, then, is, "What does that mean?".

Women have traditionally had a hard time finding a place when it comes to   legal documents, of course and that  history  is well known.  For centuries, women's surnames names disappeared  when they married, their right to property titles  became  inconsistent, their  ability to hold professional  registrations and state licenses  limited,   became nonpersons on  voter lists, and ---the sorry list goes on and on.  It is all part of  a long list of  injustices in American  history  that have slowly, but steadily, been  righted over generations.
But as a family historian, I think the question of  a citizenship record  goes deeper  than  mere documentation.  A citizenship record  is the golden link that connects me directly to my grandmother's  past, and, by extension,  the past of so many of my blood relatives. Declaring citizenship in a new country  touches  the marrow of an  individual, and it brushes up intimately with the inner dialogue of that person,  speaking loudly about  every disappointment and aspiration they had in their life.
Not being able to locate her citizenship record (at least so far)  carries a double whammy because of her gender.  She, like virtually every  woman of her generation, shouldered the considerable  weight and responsibility  of  being a cultural transmitter.  The unifying threads of family life, from  recipes to figures of speech,  from behavior standards to  religion, from  healthy living  to how  holidays were (or were not) celebrated all fell upon the shoulders of my grandmother and, I suspect, most other  women  in her socio-economic group. Each of those things and so many others have, at their root, the character of a woman from where they  were implicitly passed on to newer generations.  If we take  any satisfaction from  those practices at all, it is because somewhere in our pasts, a grandmother  them and then to pass them on to her daughter, and she to hers. It is a continuum that has diminished, but to a great degree,  still goes on today.   Feminism aside (for a second ,only!) one could make a case that the fabric of our lives come from those  ideas, skills, and standards nurtured by our grandmothers. Yet what I, and the other amateur historians in my family can't ascertain is an answer to one question: Did she ever consciously choose to become an American?  An American? Like me?


This is a baffling because there is nothing in her life to suggest that she ever was  ambivalent about her status  or pride in this country.  America was much  more than a  youthful adventure or temporary sojourn  in her life, something to do before growing up and  returning  to her homeland.  It is entirely possible that, like many  other  women of her generation, she became a citizen when she married  my grandfather, an already-naturalized citizen,  though that sounds a bit out of character.
The personal recollections  I have been able to gather suggest   a woman who left little to chance in her life  and seldom took the convenient path toward any goal.  Her love of America and the opportunities it offered to a young woman  who held little in the way of lucrative skills,  was contagious enough to infect two daughters and two sons with bountiful senses of optimism..
All this I believe to be true, but what I lack is that piece of paper, that line on a county clerk's ledger book, testifying to the fact that here, on a particular  date, my maternal grandmother choose to become known as an American.   I haven't been able to locate it and, as far as I know, neither has anyone else  trolling through my family's history.  I'm left to suppose that she was one of the very lucky few who made their way to Chicago from rural Ireland in the first decades of the 20th century,  found work, provided for herself and, then, found love  in a good man.  Already a naturalized citizen himself, my grandfather provided security, a ecurity and  a good  if  unpretentious home. Four children followed . Each became  well educated and  imbued with their  unique characters, each allowed  to let the messages of their parentage coalesce with their own needs,  and, then, pass that sense of  what can be accomplished on  to succeeding generations.
Eventually, she became a grandmother  19 times over. Today, her  DNA is scattered across half of the globe. Like her, I think,  most of her descendents have  taken advantage of whatever decent opportunities came  their way. There are no millionaires, no Noble prize winners, no famous artists, but  there is a long list of  accrued years on jobs, academic degrees, professional affiliations, and the generating force of  young families and, one hopes, faith in the future.

America is not an easy country to get ahead in, something  my maternal grandmother surely came to understand.  It has never been a country of  guarantees you can rely upon,  and our  present day reality is one of  much cruelty, much  greed,  irredeemable injustices, and blatant unfairness.  In America, you must be strong simply to survive, let alone thrive. Yet, it still offers an abundance of chances, choices, opportunities,  a first step  for thousands on an upward climb even if it has gotten tougher.
My grandmother's  story is ordinary, one of just one immigrant woman, yet it brings anyone who understands it to consideration of an important possibility.  If she was  alive today,  would  she  be identified as undocumented, because there appears to be no proof  or documentation that   my maternal grandmother' ever declared American citizenship. It is an omission that once might have been regarded as a curious footnote in our family history, but now must be absorbed in the contemporary world.
Setting historical research aside for a moment, it 's not hard  to imagine the absolute fear and terror my mother, my aunt,  and  my uncles  would have felt if  that status had ever resulted in her being  wrested from their home and thrust onto a boat,  taken away from them, and  deported  to the lovely but remote countryside of  County Kerry. As dearly as she loved her  homeland, its culture, her very Irishness, it is not difficult to understand the sheer terror that possibility could invoke. Again, putting research skills to rest, I have to think, "How does a family deal with something like that?" How does deportation coexist with beautifully assimilated practices of family dinners, well cared for clothes, and carefully child rearing?
This essay is meant as a way of sharing a piece of family history, not to vilify  political powers,  whether I  disagree with them or not.   This essay is a means of putting an unexpected face on the  immensely complicated question of why anyone  leaves their homeland,   adjusts to an entirely  new culture,  sees the value of their  contributions overlooked , and probably ignored forever by  human history.

Here, in America, there are thousands  of   progeny from immigrants from all nations.  Many, if not most, of us have only to look  back one generation or two  to understand  all of the  inner struggles that process involves.  America may have  allowed each of  them to grow  more fully into the person  they could be,  but  the old country  never ceased to tug incessantly at their hearts.  Maybe, for  that reason, my grandmother never took that step to declare herself as an American  citizen. Maybe it  was just too big a step.
Nevertheless, I am going to keep on looking for that elusive document of citizenship. I want to find it, if it exists.  It would make my  records  much more complete. But  months of  searching, weighing its significance, thinking about her life, thinking  about my own, I  now  see that documentation cannot prove anything  I  don't already know.  She became an American by living as an American, by  moving steadily forward in life and on the paths this country offered  her, embracing it s opportunities without  ever turning her back on  her origins.
She has earned  my  respect simply   for  the journey she took  and   decisions  she made, and it would be great to  learn  that, acting  independently, she did what she had to do  to become a citizen of the nation where I was born. As important as it is to me, though,  documentation not  change my opinion of her.  The search  may turn out to  be futile, but the lessons that search  has taught to me  are invaluable.


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February 2018


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