Saturday, April 28, 2007

Conversation I Wish I Had This Evening

Him: Cough.

Him: Cough, cough. Clear throat.

Him: Cough, cough, cough, cough, ahem.

Me: Excuse me.

Him: Cough.

Me: Okay loser. I spent a lot on these subscriptions, this is my last concert of the year and if you cough one more time, I will take this dart gun from my handbag and blow poison into your jugular. Got it?

Him: Clear throat. Person next to Him: Cough. Four rows away: Clear throat, cough.

Me: Dear God, it's a friggin' tubercular outbreak. I wish you had died quietly at home instead of coming here tonight.

Them: Cough. Ahem. Sneeze. Cough.

Me: That's it. Next person who makes a nonmusical noise gets a plug in the orifice from which it emitted.

Beethoven violin concerto, interruptus. I hate coughers.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Conversation I Wish I Had Today

Constrained by manners no more:

Her: "We had some drama in my house today."

Me: Who gives a shit, lady. I have a life and a job too.

Her: "G. got to the dentist 15 minutes late, and the dentist left!"

Me: Well, Hail Holy Queens. Probably on his way to buy earplugs and a hunting knife.

Her: "So he rescheduled. And the day he rescheduled for is a big school activity!"

Me: This qualifies as drama in your life? Jesus H. Christ, woman have an affair, smoke some dope, something.

Her: "Now he won't be able to pitch that day, and his sister is very disappointed."

Me: Gee, this means his team has an actual chance to win instead of chasing flies over the wall. And your daughter? I'm all for keeping them children and all, but get her brows waxed before Middle School. I'm telling you you'll help her life immensely.

Her: "Have a good night! Remember, if you can't make the pick-up, don't worry. I'll take your daughter back to our house and she can have dinner with us."

Me: Damn. That's nice. But my daughter really can't stand your whining lump of an incipient bully child. She's nice to her because other kids aren't. I'd like to keep her as far away from Miss Most Likely To Pierce Someone Else's Nipple as I can, thanks.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Whereupon I Travel to Ellis Island

Field trips are a helluva lot better now that I'm not a child. My daughter's fourth-grade class took its annual field trip to Ellis Island and a bus full of parents came along. It was nice that they separated us from the children. We had coffee and donuts on the way up, margaritas on the way back, dancers and a band. The kids, on the other bus, had water and "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Okay, maybe not entirely true, but close enough.

All but one of my grandparents were born in this country. Even when they were alive, none liked to talk about themselves or their parents' emigration. I don't believe they were motivated by modesty as much as by a desire to be seen as pure Americans whose loyalty wasn't challenged by Old World ties. Also, a surprising number of them detested some or all of the members of their family. My paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland as a child, so despised his mother that he forbade his children and grandchildren from attending her funeral on pain of excommunication from the family. My maternal grandmother spent at least a few months in an orphanage where her grandmother banished her at birth for the crime of being a girl and therefore useless in the New World. Her mother cried until the old biddy relented. Naturally it was my grandmother who took care of that vicious old bat in her dotage.
This, plus the renaming of several branches of the family different things at Ellis Island (all those intake officers heard the names differently) makes tracing family roots pretty difficult.

Fortunately, we had an easier target for searching. My husband's mother emigrated to this country in the early 20th Century. Though she died several years ago, he did know that she came as a baby and he knew the name she used then: Basche, which she later Anglicized to Beatrice. He wasn't sure of the year, but my daughter and I assumed we could find her. We did. More on that later.

What struck me most about Ellis Island is how attractive it is. Sort of vaguely Eastern European (those turrets remind me of pictures I've seen of Moscow) and graciously proportioned, it sits serenely in the water, with the noble Statue of Liberty in the background. Fleeing pogroms, poverty and hellacious passages in steerage, people arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs might indeed think they'd arrived somewhere better. When you arrive now as a tourist you watch a 28 minute film narrated by Gene Hackman which doesn't stint on the bad stuff (at least too much). Still, you can't help but think how promising it must have looked. Yes, to some extent you were treated like cattle. On the other hand, you were fed, perhaps briefly housed and then sent on your way to a new life.

Of course, the reason immigration became controlled in this way to begin with was essentially to prevent undesireables (read in the late 19th and 20th centuries as "Asians") from coming here in large numbers. So Ellis Island and its ilk are not all about the good. And people were rejected there, though in proportion fewer than 2% of all applicants. Partly this was due to the screening required by the steamer companies. The US required pre-screening of all passengers and those who failed at a U.S immigration point were returned at the expense of the steamship line. Who knows who was rejected and why at Rotterdam, Dublin, or any of the other many points of departure?

For a $5 donation you get 30 minutes on a computer at Ellis Island and the assistance of some historian/IT geek if required. We paid the money and found the dope on Bosche/Beatrice who arrived in August 1904 at the age of 6 months with her 20 year old mother, Riwlke. The town of their origin is reflected as Mariampol, which is currently in Latvia, though at the time of their emigration it was within Russia. (It also spent time in Poland, thereby becoming a true "immigrant town.") Riwilke's husband had paid for their passage. She had $7.50 in her pocket and an address in Brooklyn to go to.

I called my husband to tell him the details. He was thrilled except he claimed the date had to be wrong. No, I said, I was looking at the handwritten manifest and it showed the date as August 30, 1904. Turns out my mother-in-law routinely told people she had been born in 1910. Turns out she was actually older than my father-in-law, and that her story about being a very young child when her mother died in the influenza epidemic a few years later was false. She grew up on the North Fork of Long Island in pretty extreme poverty. After her mother died, her father essentially abandoned the 4 children to work and they raised themselves. In her adult life, as far as my husband was aware, she rarely spoke to or met her siblings. She refused to discuss any more of her background than that until the day she died. You can only find out so much from an old ship's registry.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Whereupon I Discuss Easter

Today is what is known on the Catholic calendar as Good Friday. This is arguably the holiest and certainly most solemn day in the Christian world as we recall the unlawful sentencing, torture and death of a deity at the hands of secular justice, as encouraged by religionists to whom said deity had become a threat.

Though I am but intermittently Catholic, I can't help but treat this day tenderly. I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ and I never will, notwithstanding what I understand to be good production values. Even if it is, as billed, an overstated blood bath, it does fulfill a purpose -- it shows us how a rational and interesting society becomes capable of horrific manipulation at the hands of a minority bent on preserving its privileges. By intimating that Jesus Christ existed for the purpose of obtaining dominion over Roman citizens, the minority successfully got Rome to wipe him out.

That lesson is as obvious as a flogging and a crown of thorns, so I won't belabor it. And despite my natural agnosticism, I wonder about the the more personal lessons of days like this. Are we really improved by suffering? I doubt it. If all lessons learned are best learned through avoidance, than B.F. Skinner is the the most learned man and best Christian of modern times. I prefer to think that this day is about celebrating the mortification of the flesh. Yes, we die. We all die. Mostly unjustly and not as the result of a full and fair process adjudicating our guilt or innocence. Even God dies because he has to -- because it is the essence of humanity. To leave with dignity as Christ reportedly did, despite efforts to label us: cancer victim, heart attack victim, homicide victim, crack addict, treasonous villain; that is what this day teaches. It is finished.