My grandparents on my mothers side came over in steerage from Russia when they were twelve years old. They married at the age of 15 and 17 respectively.and never lived in anything but walk up tenements until they reached the age of 60.
My grandfather, when he worked, was a presser in the garment trades, making extra income as a bartender and bootegger. He was a strong arm man for his union who fought gangsters from Murder Incorporated in the streets of the Garment district.
Their children slept four of five in a bed and they took in borders to help pay the rent. They often did without toilet paper and rarely went to the doctor. My grandmother had six children three of whom lived and had several abortions on the kitchen table.
My grandfather, when he worked, was a presser in the garment trades, making extra income as a bartender and bootlegger. He was a strong-arm man for his union who fought gangsters from Murder Incorporated in the streets of the Garment District.
He never learned to read English and read Yiddish imperfectly. When I was child, he regaled me with stories of killing rats with a broom when they were cornered and leapt up at him in rage. He was dark enough to pass for "colored" but somehow got defined as "white" when Jews managed to become semi-acceptable Americans after World War II.
My mother was permanently scarred by the experience of growing up amidst this kind of poverty and violence. Educated, brilliant, an incredible teacher, she felt catastrophe lurked around the corner and tried to transmit that fear to me, a child brought up in much more promising conditions.
I say all this to remind us that while my family ultimately benefited from the journey that took them to whiteness and middle class status, they were haunted by what it took to get them there and NEVER secure in where they were. And in that respect, I suspect they were not alone. The scars of poverty, like the scars of racism, NEVER go away. And are sometimes passed from generation to generation.
With A Brooklyn Accent