A couple of days ago some visitors dropped by to see the garden. Before we went outside we sat around the dining room table chitchatting. One of the guests pointed to an old-timey portrait on the wall and asked who it was.
The fact is, I didn’t know for sure. I’d been told it was my father’s grandfather, my grandfather’s father, whose name I only guessed at because nothing had ever been told to me about him except that he had died young and left his family destitute. This old-fashioned, hand-tinted photograph turned up after my grandparents died and if I hadn’t claimed it, it might have been tossed out of the shed along with everything else. This side of my family didn’t waste much sentiment on the past, for reasons you know if you’ve read Paradise in Plain Sight, but still there was a little bit of mythology that we granddaughters clung to, as some of us do about historical fictions. First, we’d been told ours was a clan of railroad men, iron tough but weak to the degradations of drink, and that somewhere sometime they’d come from Ireland. That sounded like a romantic beginning to an American fairy tale but my grandfather didn’t have a wisp of interest in spinning it, nipping our questions about the old country by saying “if there had been anything worth remembering, we’d have never left.”
But things being what they are these days, and the question coming across the table at me last Thursday, I thought I would try to verify the simple facts of the mysterious man who has been hanging on my wall for the last 20 years, peering at me through the same liquid blue eyes that have marked the scoundrels in the family for at least a hundred years.
We all have an immigrant story. Some of us were right there in it at the start, clutching a hand, crossing a border, coming ashore; for others, it’s a story covered in dust and thick with make believe. When my daughter was 12, my sister and I took her to New York City and then by ferry to Ellis Island, where we heard a less lyrical history of the place than I would have ever guessed from the words in the national anthem. Here I thought I was a good American student, but I was shocked and sad to realize that immigration has always been as much about keeping people out as letting people in. And so the hollow caverns of the Statue of Liberty National Monument are haunted with the desperation of not just those who survived the cull, but those who didn’t: the ones judged defective or diseased, crippled or criminal, cross-eyed, insane, unemployable or unlucky enough to cough that day, folks who were put back on the boat to sail the other way. I don’t know what you’d have left to say after that kind of cruel passage, which was not just the end of the worst but a hard start to what would prove to be harder still.
So I went looking for a thread to connect those liquid blue eyes from one generation to the next, from father to son, to find the name behind the frame that came to be hanging on the dining room wall. I found it and something else too. I found out how much my family was like every other immigrant and refugee family: they damn sure wanted to be Americans.
The man on the wall is Grover Cleveland Tate, my great-grandfather, who was born in Illinois in 1885 and died in 1919. His wife, my Grandpa’s mom, was Mary A. Cox, born in 1883.
Grover C. Tate’s father was George Washington Tate, who was born in 1850 and died in 1928, father of 10. And although all these many lives were lived in Illinois, the 1900 US Census shows that, sure enough, G.W.’s father had been born in Ireland.
Sixty years later, his blue eyes turned up in my grandpa, George James Tate:
And then again in my dad James Allan Tate:
None of these men amounted to much except what little comes from hard luck, hard life and hard times. Not much to show for all their work and woe other than me and my sisters and all the lives entwined in a galaxy with ours, my daughter and nieces and great-niece and great-nephew-to-be, each and every bloom of fruit on this fertile plain, all the sons and daughters of George Washington and Grover Cleveland, the weak, the strong, my family, my heart, my home, my country, my countrymen and women waiting to cross over and become one of us. I don’t have a political position on immigration; I don’t have the slightest idea. What I have is a life. What is it that you have?
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