A Trunk and a Dictionary
IN old beige immigrants' trunk stands in the entryway to our house. And in my study, on a small desk surplussed years ago from my children's elementary school, rests a large leather-bound, India-paper Merriam's international dictionary.
Together the trunk and the dictionary represent the kind of confluence that distinguishes America, celebrating Oct. 12 the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery voyage.
We talk about the American "idea" and American values as if they can be separated from the concrete lives of the native and immigrant peoples who have assembled here. And US citizens refer to the United States as if it is America, when in fact the two continents, north and south, are still in the process of becoming a unit. The US population is but a third of the 730 million people in the hemisphere.
The trunk was my father's from his 1915 voyage from Genoa when he was 12. It is wood. The leather straps are broken and frayed. He docked in Boston with his mother and siblings. His heart sank, he said later, when he viewed the land of opportunity from rail sidings as they crossed to the coal mines and corn fields of central Illinois. To come down from an idyllic mountain village and seminary schooling to the flat plains was a jolt. At 19 he moved to Detroit alone, to a boarding house, and established a beachhead for the rest of the family.
The dictionary is from the Ries family, my mother's. The Rieses arrived somewhat earlier, in 1907, from a German settlement in Russia. They owned a mill and a trading company in the town of Rovnoje, on the Volga River, just south of Saratov. They traveled by train to Bremen, then by a Lloyds ship to Baltimore, before joining relatives in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Alexander Peter Ries, my grandfather, was 33 when his wife and five children met him here. He had come two years earlier. He had wanted to be a musician, but his widowed, strong-willed mother had insisted all her sons study practical things like engineering and commerce. He studied in Heidelberg, Berlin, and Paris, it was said. He knew seven languages.
Ries probably thought he was a failure. He abandoned a farm in Glendora, Mich. His oldest son, Emanuel, died in a February blizzard in the Canadian plains. Grandfather recorded in the family Bible the date in April his son was found. Emanuel, in his early 20s, had wanted to join his just-married sister for the livelier life of Detroit. Grandfather delivered sermons when the pastor was away. He wrote verses for occasions and encomiums for right living: "Eltern, denkt an eure Pflicht, Wegen eurer lieben Ki nder" - "Parents, think of your duty to your dear children...." His last writing was an account of the building of the pyramids, from which he drew metaphysical parallels.
His children, drawn by jobs, settled in Detroit in the same few blocks as the Cattanis and hundreds of other immigrant families. At a dance the ethnic and religious lines were crossed by young Primo and Emma. My parents were conscious, unrelenting advocates of diversity. No racial slur, no careless remark about anyone's religion, was allowed in their house. Their own differences were all but unbridgeable - if they had not recourse to simple affection and the momentum of the immigrant experience.
It was always said I looked like the grandfather I did not know. He had left Russia at a time of political upheaval and growing resentment toward the German enclaves that was to take other relatives, who stayed behind, by midnight knocks on the door. Of necessity a farmer, translator, tool-and-die maker, insurance and real estate broker - Ries finished out in the Great Depression with his reference books and a large family whose members never spoke harshly.
I will never know what the tall, gentle man thought of all this. But what does it matter.
America today is 250 million individual compoundings of family experience and shared national direction.
The flow of this experience will increasingly include Canada and Mexico, where natural geographic and demographic affinities already exist. Extending community to the southern hemisphere will take generations. The beachhead for this may have to be the United States.
Across the next 500 years, the November election's impact will be very attenuated indeed. But do the candidates even sense how the flow of history will touch, with sometimes cruel economic and personal necessities, citizens not yet born?