Out of a yellow envelope in a box marked “Ann’s office” they fell: four people in funny felt hats, staring at me from an 8 by 10, black-and-white photo. Three young men and one young woman. If they took off those four-cornered caps, the men would fit right in at the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill, with their scruffy goatees and mustaches.
When you move, you don’t just let go of stuff you don’t need, you find stuff you forgot you need. Five years ago, I saw this photo in the archive of a local history museum. Undated, un-located, it was labeled simply “Finnish Immigrants.” I was so taken by it I bought a print. But it languished, forgotten in an envelope, until now.
My husband found a frame. Now it’s on my desk. I’ve taken to calling it “my ancestors.”
They could be: they’re Finnish immigrants, arriving somewhere, some dreary boardwalk of a train station, in the West. Their leggings and belted jackets and jaunty headware mark them: fresh arrivals. Their expressions are not fearful, but expectant: ready for a new life that will start somewhere out beyond where the boardwalk ends. The woman, whose hat is a knit helmet of the type favored by snowboarders, is holding a few paper-wrapped parcels: food for the journey? Letters of introduction?
My own great-grandmother traveled alone across the country with her name and destination—Hanna, Wyoming, where my great-grandfather was waiting to marry her–pinned to her coat.
I’m reminded of her, and of my could-be ancestors in the photo, when I see the African immigrant women in our new neighborhood, crossing the park outside our window with their children, burkas flying behind them as they hurry to the school bus stop. They too are expectant. They know: every day, when their children step on that bus, they are entering new worlds of opportunity.
Until recently, we accepted the notion that all children living in America, regardless of where they or their parents were born, were entitled to a free public education. Now we have states like Alabama and Arizona where that may no longer be a given. And here in Washington, we have lawmakers, desperate to find places to cut the budget, talking about across-the-board cuts in education. Fewer school days is the latest idea.
Last week, four hundred students from Seattle’s Garfield High School marched downtown to protest the cuts. It made my kids proud of their alma mater. Me too.
One of the few things I have that was my great-grandmother’s is a copy book in which, as a little girl, she practiced her penmanship. Page after page of letters and words, all in inscrutable Finnish. Either she chose to bring it with her to America, or someone gave it to my grandmother when she visited Finland. Either way, it was saved. It was valued.
Immigrants have always understood that education is what matters most. And since, with the exception of Native Americans, we are all immigrants, it’s shocking we would forget that. My great-grandmother never mastered English. But her daughter, my grandmother, went to college for a year and taught in a one-room school in Montana. Maybe some of her students were newbies like the foursome in my photo.
Her mother must have been so proud. Eighty years later, I’m so proud.