Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My Thoughts

My Grandfather left Ireland for America at the age of sixteen.  He was born and raised on a peninsula jutting out into the North Sea.  Under constant barrage of Atlantic gales and Arctic ice storms.  At first glance it's a harsh unforgiving land, where it seems nothing could survive.

   Trees are scarce due to the relentless winds.  Thistle, and Whay with thorns the size of ten penny nails grow in the only fertile soil available.  Heather clings to life in the cracks of rocks that have been there since the beginning of time.  A land where there were no fields, only bed rock.  The people would clear the smaller stones to use as fences, and the larger ones for building, houses, sheds and barns.  

   They would bring seaweed and sand up from the shore to compost and spread out on the bedrock to create their own soil to grow the food they needed.  Every day families would walk to the sea to gather the seaweed and sand, into wicker baskets loaded onto donkey carts and transport it miles away to make the fields.

   This endeavor was the first thing that came to mind when I first heard Republicans in America use the term "We built this".  So I immediately called bull shit on this farce.  Try making dirt from rock, and then I'll listen to what you have to say.

   My Grandfather came from a world where his religion was illegal, his culture, music, songs and art were forbidden and speaking his native tongue was punishable by death.  In fact decades later far from British spies, when he would speak Irish, he did so in hushed tones as if someone might overhear.  So at the age of sixteen with no more than a fifth grade education he decided to leave his home and all that he new for a chance at a better life.  

   He arrived at Ellis Island with two of his brothers, however Pat had contracted influenza and was not permitted into the U.S.  Pat was given the choice to go to Canada.  Being British citizens they were granted access due to the fact that Canada was a subject of the Crown.  Pat could not have made the trip to Canada alone, so John decided to go with him.  After saying their goodbyes my Grandfather entered New York City.  Uneducated, sixteen, and alone.  

   My Grandfather told me that the first words spoken to him by an American as he stepped off the ferry from Ellis Island to New York were "Another talking monkey".  He had arrived in a land where there were signs in every window stating "we don't hire Irish" "we don't rent to Irish" and "Irish go home".  He had left a land that hated him, traveled thousands of miles, weeks at sea to arrive in a land that hated him just as much.

    The Irish have a way of looking out for each other, so he was able to find some work here and there, but nothing steady.  Just when things were at there worst, help came from an unexpected place.  A man he new as a sworn enemy in the old country told him of work in Philadelphia.  My Grandfather new this man, had grown up with him, but the two never spoke a word to each other until now.  There's was a family feud that went so far back no one could remember how it started.

   So these two men, who at one time would have literally killed each other in the name of family honor, made there way to Philadelphia and formed a friendship that would last a life time and eventually join our two families.   When you are alone, with the entire world against you, a life time of hatred can be forgotten very quickly.  

   As you may have noticed, my Grandfather was a larger than life figure to me.  But he was by no means perfect.  The time in which he lived, and the manner in which he was treated by the people in the Countries he called home, had left him a bigoted man.  He may have been able to over come this if it weren't for his limited education, and impressionable age.  I am not making excuses, only pointing out his circumstances.

   His individual beliefs and the rules he set for his house, were not the same as what he showed the public.  Some may call this two faced, but I would disagree.  What happened to him throughout his life only served to strengthen his belief that we all deserve to be treated as equals, and that we all came here to be left alone to live our lives as we see fit.

   In many ways he was a reflection of America it self.  No matter our individual needs and wants we respect the fact that our Government is a higher moral standard, and set our own goals to meet that.  We may not believe in Civil Rights or same sex marriage, but we aspire to accept them, thanks to that standard.

   I have always admired my Grandfather for that.  Let me put it this way.  Is it easier to accept the lifestyles of those different from you, when you are not prejudice or when you are prejudice.  Yes my Grandfather was prejudice, but he strove, sometimes successfully sometimes not, to accept people who were different than him, but he always treated them as equals.  And that, in my opinion is admirable.

   So yes he is a larger than life figure to me.  He is the yard stick by which I measure my own life.  I am proud to say that in many ways I have surpassed my Grandfather, but in some ways I've never measured up.

   I believe for the most part I've overcome prejudice and bigotry, but that is something that can only be measured by others and not oneself.  But I am not as strong as he was.  I never heard him complain.  Not once.   I remember him driving me and my Grandmother home from the Market, and we got a flat tire.  Without some much as disappointed look he simply pulled the car over and changed the tire.

   When he was diagnosed with Colon Cancer, he took it in stride, never uttering a word.  After the brutal and invasive surgery to remove it, I watched him climb the stairs to his bedroom where he stayed for two weeks.  Fifteen minutes it took him to climb twelve stairs.  Not a single grunt, groan, or moan.  Not even a Huff as he stopped to gather his strength for the next step.

    This isn't an excuse for bigotry, rather it's a condemnation of it.  If a man born into the worst form of poverty and raised to know only hatred, can struggle his entire life to rid himself of it, then what excuse do the people who embrace it have?  What justification can intelligent, educated people born into wealth possibly have to welcome prejudice into their hearts?  No, there is no excuse.

   It's very simple.  In order to save our society, we must be tolerant of everything but intolerance.  


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