A few words this July about Freedom, our theme for Word/Smith this month.
This one’s a shout-out, a lovenote, to my immigrant grandfather, long gone. He left Hamburg, Germany on March 17, 1907, with a small trunk of clothes, probably lying about how much money he had in his pocket and most assuredly knowing no English.
I like to believe he carried the idea of freedom in his heart, and that it fueled his bravery in leaving behind his known world and traveling by steerage, packed into the bottom of the ship the SS Graf Waldersee.
He arrived at Ellis Island in early April, 1907, 27 years old and completely alone.
It’s easy to make up stories when I know so little about his early life in Coburg. He was a Lutheran. Which makes sense as Martin Luther hung out there translating the Bible into German in one of Germany’s grandest castles, Veste Coburg, 350 years before Grandpa was born. He came from a line of sausage makers, and put on his Ellis Island form that he intended to practice his trade in his new land.
He lived a daring and magnificent life, marrying, having a son, becoming a naturalized citizen, homesteading an island in Alaska, living long enough to see his son marry and have children of his own.
He was proud to be an Alaskan, and almost inarticulately proud of being an American. The first 4th of July in his new country, he purchased an American flag with 46 stars.
When he and my grandmother, Marie, and my dad, hacked out of the howling wilderness a log home in Southeast Alaska, Grandpa kept the flag folded in a small tin box. The winds and rain and snow were so ferocious and the flag so precious that he only took it out and flew it over the cabin twice a year: on the 4th of July, and on the anniversary of the day he became an American, the day he first belonged.
I know this because my father inherited the box and the flag, and told me the story, and every so often, reverently and with great care, unfolded the flag from the box and showed it to an awestruck little girl.
The flag is mine, now. It hangs framed on a wall in our home.
The flag, and our dreams of this land, are all of us, and in us all. We each, as Americans, have the right and gift to reimagine our own ‘best America’. And then do the hard work of creating it.
In this time of explosive transition, let us not forget to remember where we came from, and at what cost, and that we are all—however we got here—part of a grand and beautiful experiment called America.