A Tale of Two Immigrants: Welcome, Lent Part 4


Just as a body is one whole made up of many different parts, and all the different parts comprise the one body, so it is with the Anointed One. We were all ceremonially washed through baptism together into one body by one Spirit. No matter our heritage—Jew or Greek, insider or outsider—no matter our status—oppressed or free [Republican or Democrat]—we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Here’s what I mean: the body is not made of one large part but of many different parts. –1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (The Voice version)

As part of my Lenten practice this year, I want to do a few of posts on refugees and immigration. 4 stories. 2 about refugees. 2 about immigration. 2 from a welcomed perspective. 2 from an un-welcomed perspective. The subject is complicated, varied, and divisive. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should ‘throw open our borders to anyone,’ nor do I know anyone who touts that we should close our borders to all. I will not solve any of the issues in my blog; however, I want to share some stories. I hope the stories will help us remember that while we debate and discuss immigration issues, we affect real people’s lives.

My husband and I have some unusual things in common for our generation. We both come from families who didn’t divorce. We both share a strong faith.

And we both come from first-generation immigrants.

In the past several weeks, I’ve explored stories of my life of feeling like a refugee, of friending a refugee family, and of my mother-in-law’s immigration. Now is the time to talk about my father’s immigration. I feel fortunate that my father wrote his memoirs for us. It has helped me understand the soul of the immigrant and anyone who is ‘other.’

My dad grew up in England during WWII, in the Manchester area–which was one of the most bombed areas during WWII. He remembers the air raids–a bomb went off 2 blocks from his house, throwing him from the bed. He suffers from tinnitus as a result. After the war, my grandmother finagled a way for him to go to boarding school because, as she said, ‘If there was any food to be had, they would give it to the children.’

My dad and grandmother (who was widowed) did not have much. Food heavily rationed, my grandmother (Granny) had a hard time putting food on the table. Luxuries like meat, butter, sugar and eggs didn’t see many English tables. I remember Granny telling the story of wanting to bake my dad a cake for his birthday. She went about the neighborhood collecting ration cards so she could acquire enough sugar at the ration office.

Community played a huge part in surviving the war and post-war years.

My dad’s sister married an American she met at a USO dance during WWII, and they moved back to Texas where my Uncle Harry lived. 11 years older than my dad, she and Uncle Harry prepared to sponsor Granny and my dad so they could immigrate to America. In the early 1950s, England still reeling from WWII, Granny told my dad they would leave when their quota number came up.

My dad was not pleased.

As difficult as life in England was, it was home. He had friends. He had activities. He was training for his life-saving certificate. His play-reading group had just elected him to play a main character that they all described as ‘the most typical Englishman.’  

So, grudgingly, my dad came to grips with leaving–vowing that he would return in a year or two.

My grandmother also left life behind. She had family, a boyfriend that my dad believes wanted to marry her, and a culture she understood.

My dad says he’ll never forget the ship on which they had passage. The HMS Mauritania. It had food! Glorious food! (any other Oliver Twist fans out there?) My dad hadn’t seen such feasts–meats, eggs, ice creams. The steward saw how thin my dad looked, and brought him 3 desserts the first night. My father loved it! (Before getting a little ill from all the richness.)

And they saw the famous White Cliffs of Dover. A few days later, the Statue of Liberty.

Then, they realized how much they had to learn.

Exchanging their British money for American currency, the rates had tanked for the British pound. Granny’s already meager savings dropped 40% upon arrival in New York City. Not understanding the coinage or tipping, Granny gave a cab driver a $0.10 tip, for which he berated her. So she continued to give him coins until he seemed satisfied.

Wearing his wool suit in the summer while traveling to Texas proved unbearable for my father; but, they didn’t have any summer clothes from England that would have worked better. They suffered through the humidity and the heat. Definitely a different climate from their home in Manchester.

They had a lot to learn.

But, they had definite advantages:

  • They were white.
  • They came from an Allied country.
  • They had family who took them into their home.

My dad has said that when he saw the segregation in Texas (he went to the ‘white’ high school), he realized that he had it better than any person of color in his town.

Even though he had a lot to learn.

Even though he was an immigrant.

Even though he had few resources. 

My dad talks of the insecurities he felt in the first year. He didn’t know the sports. America didn’t share his love of English sports: rugby, lacrosse, cricket. He determined to learn baseball and football to fit into his new home (basketball came later…). He worked as a soda jerk where learned social skills and a new way of talking. It took him 3 or 4 times to pass his driving test; but he passed. He made a life here, and began to dream other dreams.

And never went back to England.

As he has told my brother and I many times, in the class system of England, he probably would not have gone to university. Here, he seized the opportunity and became a professor. He worked for Boeing, GE, Motorola, and other companies. Because he could.

America embraced him as an acceptable immigrant.

But, he’s still British.

I remember asking him many years ago if he wanted to see Mel Gibson’s movie, The Patriot, about the Revolutionary War with my husband and I. His response, ‘You know, we lost!’ 

I believe many immigrants feel the same tension. Embracing their new home. Believing in the hopes and dreams of a better life than what they have in their homeland. Despite feeling scared at not knowing the culture, and possibly wondering if anyone will befriend them, they come seeking well-being and life.

Sometimes I can still hear his Northern English accent–Arizoner in particular, since that’s where they live.

And now, thanks to cable and modern postal services, he watches cricket matches, Manchester United soccer, gets his beloved Express newspaper once a week, and even watches some of Parliaments’ sessions.

I wonder if it helps him feel a bit closer to his original home.

**Next week, I will sum up my musings. I’d like to address that the two stories of immigration I’ve shared are legal; however they share similar reasons and feelings for those who are undocumented.**

I welcome comments! Please keep them respectful and constructive.

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