We Were Immigrants, We Are American

As much as my father has a talent for upsetting me, one of the parts of our relationship that I enjoy the most is hearing about our family’s past. I know bits and pieces of both sides of my family, but every time I see my dad a new piece of the story is revealed.

What is incredible about my father’s family of 6 – five brothers and one sister, with my father being the oldest, is that the entire family was filled with successful engineers and mathematicians, despite their parents, both from immigrant families, never having finished high school.

My grandfather was a typical hot-headed Italian, the son of a Slavic Catholic woman who spoke broken English, and an Italian man who disappeared after he was born for unknown reasons. He married my Grandmother when she was very young. My Grandmother, whose parents were Jewish Hungarian and Jewish Polish (I think?) grew up in slightly better circumstances — her parents stayed together, and they lived in the Bronx in a nice apartment, until my father was born and they moved to the suburbs of New Jersey to raise the family.

The story goes, they never had a lot of money, but had many children, likely by accident after the first few. My father came first, then three more sons, a daughter, and one final son. My grandfather worked in a factory building pocketbooks, at some point my grandmother worked as as secretary. My grandmother, always my role model as a very level headed, intelligent woman, put up with a lot from my grandfather — his temper was just one of the issues — there were others, some I know about, some I don’t — and one big gambling problem that almost tore the family apart.

Regardless, the kids went on to varying levels of success. My father was valedictorian of his high school, studied physics for undergrad on scholarship. His brothers and sister became computer engineers, computer scientists, and accountants. He isn’t sure how that happened, as his parents, again, both without high school degrees, certainly didn’t push the kids to do well in school in the same way, say, an Asian Tiger Mom would. These kids figured it out for themselves that in order to have a better life, they needed to take charge of their futures. Perhaps part of it was the baby boomer midset, that the American Dream is possible, and at the time it was. At least for the kids of immigrant families.

The stories of each of the siblings didn’t all turn out perfect. Notably one, the risk taker of the bunch, made his millions and lost them through a variety of business decisions that left him divorced and nearly bankrupt. Others have their own struggles, but I don’t know the half of the stories. Most live in nice houses on the east coast throughout the tri-state area, and have been able to put their children through college.

My mother’s family is a different story, but they also grew up in the lower middle class. I’ll write about her family some other time. It’s my father’s family that fascinates me the most, however, because they were a true immigrant family (well, children of the children of immigrants) — a mix of working class backgrounds — Italian-Slavic Catholic meets Eastern European Jew. In other words, our family were true Americans of that time, representative of those in New York and New Jersey building a better life for themselves.

What do you know about your family’s history? Were they working class, middle class or upper class? If you’re American, when did they come over to the states?