By SHEILA ELLIOTT
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.