A Letter to My Grandmother Mim
You died more than seventeen years ago, but I still think of you most every day. You were probably the kindest, gentlest, most humane person I have ever known – and you helped teach me to care for vulnerable people, for individuals who through the random luck of birth and geography hadn’t been given a fair shake in life. Your parents were poor immigrants from the Russian Empire – in modern parlance, they would have been considered asylum seekers; a young man and a young woman who fled desperate poverty, anti-Jewish pogroms, a land long torn by conflicts between the Great Powers of Eastern Europe. They arrived at Ellis Island with nothing but dreams of a better life, and, like their siblings and their cousins, who also arrived penniless in the first years of the twentieth century, who spoke Yiddish and struggled to learn the English of their adopted land, they came into this country and over the decades made good lives for themselves and their descendants.
Your father, Louis, was a peddler. I think, if my memory serves, he sold clothing door to door. Not so very different from the vendors from Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere whom one sees on the streets of most every American city today. Humble folk, just struggling from one day to the next. Your mother, Sophie, stayed at home in the little house in Hartford, Connecticut that they shared with some of her siblings and their families, and she raised you and your brother Saul. Your parents worked hard to survive in the New World, to keep their family housed and fed. As did their siblings. Their children, as they grew up, thrived. They became doctors, businesspeople, artists. You were a modern dancer, light on your feet, your sense of balance as much a state of mind as physical prowess; your husband, my grandfather Bob, a violinist. You moved to Los Angeles before the Second World War, and became a part of a circle of artists and musicians, many of them either the children of immigrants or themselves refugees and exiles from Fascist Europe. When I watch certain movies, I know that I am hearing Bob’s violin as a part of the soundtrack – Dr. Zhivago is the film that most leaps to mind. When I listen to certain Frank Sinatra albums, again I know that Bob is there in the background, as one of the studio musicians.
Your house on the San Fernando side of Laurel Canyon, which I spent months in as a child on visits from London, was full of life, its denizens cosmopolitan, worldly. It was a place of music and of lively conversation. To me, it represented America at its most glorious – a melting pot, a crossroads. And that to me was wholly good: I have always viewed crossroads as being the most interesting of places; less predictable than their surroundings, more adventurous, more cutting edge. Good things tend to happen at crossroads.
Of course, there were dark times in your story, too – such as when some of your cousins bumped up against quotas designed to limit the numbers of Jewish students at universities, quotas implemented in the anti-immigrant dogdays of the 1920s. Or when your friends in Hollywood, during the late 1940s and 1950s, were persecuted for their political beliefs by the demagogic senator Joseph McCarthy. Many of those men and women – whom I only knew decades later, in their old age – had their careers obliterated and their economic security destroyed by McCarthyism.
But you don’t need me to tell you about those days, Mim. You never forgot them. Nor did your friends. And you made sure that your grandchildren understood those days – precisely because you believed that only with knowledge of the past would we, as we grew to adulthood, avoid falling into those same traps, avoid perpetuating the cruelties that men such as McCarthy doled out so bountifully. You believed that knowledge helped generate wisdom, and that wisdom was an essential pre-requisite to kindness, to empathy.
Mim, what you don’t know is that something has gone deeply, terribly wrong these last few years. That wisdom, that kindness, that empathy, is in desperately short supply when it comes to how impoverished migrants looking to America for succor are treated in 2019. McCarthy’s demagogic heir – a man who quite literally honed his technique with the help of the red-baiting senator’s henchman, Roy Cohn — is in charge. I must tell you, Mim, that people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and elsewhere, fleeing violence and poverty, and dreaming, as did your parents, of a better life in the United States, are meeting the most awful of fates. Their children are being torn from their arms and put into prisons – yes, imagine that, prisons for kids. The country is building huge, ugly, brutalist, walls, at a cost of billions of dollars, to lock asylum-seekers out. And the Supreme Court decided just this week that the Administration could essentially deny anyone who came through Mexico into the US status as an asylum seeker and could immediately dump them back across the border.
Mim, my heart breaks as I think of this, as I ponder how to describe to you what is happening. There are refugee camps in the border towns south of California and Arizona, New Mexico and Texas where thousands of men, women and children – people like your parents, who just want a chance at living decent lives – are kept like cattle in an industrial factory farm. There aren’t proper schools for the kids. There are pregnant women sleeping on the ground – in fact there are women who were expelled into Mexico specifically so that they wouldn’t give birth on US soil to children who would automatically become US citizens. There are families sleeping near raw sewage pools.
Mim, these people, so similar to your parents and their siblings, are demonized as invaders and criminals by the President of the United States, by the officials in charge of America’s immigration systems, by men and women with TV shows that reach millions. They are deliberately humiliated and hurt by homeland security agencies. They are compared to pestilence, to rodents, to vermin, by some of the most powerful people in the country.
Mim, you would understand what is happening in this country today – you would understand because you lived through the rise of Fascism abroad, you lived through the years of McCarthyism here in the United States — but you would struggle to comprehend how and why it is occurring today. It would fill your heart with grief. You would not fathom why a land with so much wealth and bounty has turned its back on the poor and needy, the tired, huddled masses whom Emma Lazarus once immortalized.
When you died, I spoke at your funeral about how you had always reminded me of one of the immigrant-filled ships I could see in my mind’s eye bobbing in New York Harbor as an accompaniment to Dvorak’s New World Symphony. You were filled with optimism, with hope for the future, with a belief in human decency. You believed, always, that in the end there was an arc of justice. I have to think you were right, that the cruel detour this land has taken is but a temporary one. For the alternative is simply too grim to contemplate.