Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ode to a Patrick

In 1914 my great-grandfather Patrick (his given name, Pasquale) came to the United States at the age of 13, with a bad case of psoriasis and only a vague idea of how he was going to survive. After a few days in holding at the Ellis Island hospital, the doctors cleared him for entry and he was released, having given the address of a cousin who was living in New York City.

He worked several jobs, including one for an Irishman who called him Patsy, which a judge, evidently in disdain for such a name given to a man, changed to Patrick when he officially became a citizen. Eventually he saved enough to send for his brother, Alex (Alessandro). As the roaring twenties took the country on a wild and prosperous ride, Pat and Alex made their way west working for the Northern Pacific Railway. They saved and saved to send for their younger brother, Tony, and his family. But the depression hit, and then the war, and immigration slowed to a trickle; Tony and family would not set foot on US soil until the mid-1950s. Meanwhile, Pat and Alex struggled through the depression, eventually working for the railway again as the war effort began in earnest. To supplement their income, they built houses on the side, salvaging timber discarded by the railway to help set foundations. My grandmother told stories of helping dig foundations as a child and watching them mix concrete by hand.

But none of this was passed to us, as their own children moved into mostly professional jobs. They were not ashamed of their working-class background so much as eager for their children to prosper in this country for which they had left home. There was promise of a better life here, and damned if their children weren’t going to make manifest that promise. So here, by dumb luck and chance, am I at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I don’t do back-breaking work, I don’t often work more than 40 hours a week, I have a college degree (of questionable value) and live modestly in the most un-modest city in the world. I am no success, by any appreciable measure. I am lazy, often depressed, and can be incredibly obtuse myself even while maintaining a high level of disdain for stupidity and ignorance. And still my life is a dream in comparison to my great-grandfather’s journey, his long separation from his family, his ability to persevere through thick and thin with the kind of grit and determination that I cannot fathom. He prevailed to make the life I’ve had possible; to provide the opportunities, both squandered and realized.

At times I think the Ancient Egyptians had it most right, that our ancestors are also the key to our future, that their journey into the afterlife presages our own, and that their memory and legacy, no matter how big or small, should be prominent in our hearts and minds and monuments. Perhaps it is the weakness of my reason, or the human condition, that makes me believe that they are not gone forever. And so today, I honor him (my namesake), my grandmother, my mother: three lions of my youth, who finally lay down with the Lamb of God.

Réquiem ætérnam dona eis Dómine;
et lux perpétua lúceat eis.
Requiéscant in pace.